Communications unit hustles around the clock to wire HQ in Utapao, Thailand
January 14, 2005
UTAPAO, Thailand — Marines of the 7th Communications Battalion had a quiet Christmas holiday weekend: They received four days off, from Christmas Eve through that Monday.
But the first day back to work quickly turned from normal to hectic when they learned they’d be leaving their home base of Camp Hansen, Okinawa, for Thailand. They would be supplying the communications link for the Combined Support Force 536 headquartered here.
The morning of Dec. 28, “we got word that we could be deploying to Thailand for the humanitarian relief mission,” said Chief Warrant Officer Tony D. Apperson, battalion technical control officer. “They decided we would deploy a small mobile detachment who could provide minimum services. In less than 24 hours, we had a (Joint Task Force) enabler package packed up and down to Kadena (Air Base) ready to go.”
Once the order to go was given, Apperson said, no one in the unit got any sleep. The Marines conducted operational checks on every piece of gear before packing up the communications supplies, which included phone and computer equipment. The unit is supplying telephone and Internet communication, including secure lines.
“I had just enough time to pack but not enough time to call home,” said Lance Cpl. Michael D. Bates, a refrigeration mechanic with the unit. He’s been so busy, he said, that he still hasn’t had time to tell his family where he is.
Less than 24 hours after packing up, the initial 30 Marines and their gear arrived here via four C-130s. Once the cargo was unloaded and delivered to the headquarters site, the Marines immediately began pulling their equipment out and setting it up.
“To be out the door that fast is very uncommon,” Apperson said. When the unit deploys for an exercise, he said, it normally is on the ground two weeks before the kickoff date to “work the bugs out of the system.”
This deployment’s challenge, he said, was that when the advance team hit the ground, more than 25 headquarters staff members already were here awaiting them — and needing communication services beyond the capabilities of the minimal initial setup the advance team brought. The initial gear, he said, could provide service to “no more than 20 to 25 users … just something to provide them until we can build the main network.”
“The first couple of days we got very little sleep,” said 1st Lt. Tim J. Kuhn, systems control watch officer. “The Marines were motivated. They were only getting one or two hours of sleep a night but the Marines pushed through.”
Kuhn’s platoon also impressed him, he said. Most of its members were new to the unit, which hadn’t yet become a tight-knit group, he said. He was amazed at how quickly they came together to accomplish the mission.
The speedy results were due to teamwork, said Sgt. Harold H. Crawley Jr., wire supervisor. Troops from “wire” were doing the jobs of “data” Marines and vice versa.
“Everyone was working together,” Crawley said. “No one was crying or complaining that ‘I want to go home.’ We feel like we have a purpose.”
The first night the Marines arrived, Crawley said, he laid about 2 miles of cable. As of Tuesday, he said, approximately 40 miles of communication lines snaked throughout the headquarters compound.
“I knew someone out there was depending on me,” he said. “Even though I’m not out there moving bodies or digging graves, I knew someone was depending on me to make calls. What kept me going was knowing I was helping the people here.”
Meanwhile, refrigeration mechanic Bates said he and his fellow mechanics almost pulled off a miracle. Some of the local generators they were given needed repair, and none had instructions in English. The mechanics, Bates said, figured them out by using their training and “doing a whole lot of guessing.”
Now, about two weeks later, some 277 Marines from the battalion are on the ground here. Conditions are stabilizing. Although an occasional small glitch occurs, Apperson said, the unit is providing service to just more than 400 users; a typical large exercise would have about 250.
And with more equipment having arrived from Okinawa, including satellite technology, the Marines now can provide faster service, according to Apperson. The difference, he said, would be comparable to the difference between the traffic an eight-lane highway can handle compared to a two-lane road: “You can drive a lot faster without complications.”
And with the systems becoming more established, Kuhn said, the Marines now are getting some much-needed rest: They’re working in shifts, 12 hours on and 12 hours off.
Bates said when he finally drew a full day off, he put it to very good use: “I slept the whole day.”