by Cpl. Colby Brown 1st MarDiv
GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan — Home is where the heart is. In Afghanistan the heart of a Marine is usually a patrol base, an expeditionary camp made to house a no more than a squad-sized element of Marines.
“By doctrine … you go out for 24-hours and set up a patrol base, and you don’t stay there longer than 24-hours, then you patrol to the next position and set up another patrol base,” said 1st Lt. Brandon Salter, Combined Anti Armor Team 1 platoon commander, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. “So our patrol bases, here, are more permanent of positions.”
No two PBs are ever the same. One could be an abandoned mansion while another could be a tent surrounded by four sand berms topped with concertina wire. Despite their differences, the bases all include things like living quarters, guard posts, command centers and gyms. They serve the purpose of home base for Marines while deployed to Afghanistan.
Pictured: U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Gino Sorrisso holds a sickle, a tool used to find improvised explosive devices, before a security patrol here, Oct. 19. Sorrisso, a native of Chicago, Ill., is a rifleman with Combined Anti Armor Team 1, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Life at a patrol base is austere at best. Instead of flushing toilets or port-a-potties, the restroom is contained in a Wag Bag, or a portable waste system. Clothes are washed by hand. Sleep is in a bag. Food comes wrapped in brown plastic and marked with letters “MRE”, or meal ready-to-eat.
The weather determines how hot or cold a Marine may be. If he’s lucky his patrol base has a generator that requires only daily maintenance. Family and friends can be contacted by computer or phone, located at larger positions a patrol away.
For many Marines and sailors in the battalion, it’s home sweet home for seven months.
“Not every Marine gets to live at a PB,” said Lance Cpl. Gino Sorrisso, a rifleman with CAAT 1. “It is a unique experience. At a bigger base it almost feels like a small city, it feels like your back in garrison. But at a patrol base when you walk outside the walls of the base you are outside of the wire.”
Although it may sound depressing, for the Marines who live at a patrol base, it becomes their castle. Constant improvements keep residents of a patrol base busy between an endless cycle of patrols and standing post. The small amenities sent from home are stashed like treasure, saved for when the Marines need them most.
“Seven months of anything is going to wear you out, but you just got to have that five minute temper tantrum and then just get back to work,” said Sorrisso, a native of Chicago, Ill.
Relationships evolve into brotherly love. For seven months the same squad lives and operates together. They don’t have a choice who they see everyday, it’s always the same squad, in the same place. Tempers flare but at a patrol base you have to suck it up, Marines need to work together to be successful everyday. They have no one to rely on except each other.
“You can get stressed out or frustrated because you see the same people everyday,” said Franco, a native of Tucson, Ariz. “But you just have to get over yourself, you have to be able to work with the same people everyday.”
Each Marine has a job to do. No matter the rank, every Marine’s job is important. Junior Marines stand post, patrol and join the constant working parties of improving their position. Non-commissioned officers lead their squads on patrol and ensure the base doesn’t turn into a pig-sty.
Staff non-commissioned officers ensure all logistical needs are met. When there is no SNCO present, then the NCOs pick up the slack. Officers, who are located at platoon positions, plan and coordinate operations with the input of their SNCOs.
If one link in the chain breaks, everything has the potential to fail.
Farther away from the flagpole than any other position, Marines at a patrol base experience more of the Afghan culture than Marines at larger bases. They have daily interaction with the local community and are immersed in the Afghan way of life. The presence of company and battalion leaders is periodic at best. This puts the responsibility leadership into the hands of the highest-ranking Marine, which is usually a NCO.
“Platoon commanders love to see their Marines step up and do great things,” said Salter, a native of Kennesaw, Ga. “It has been phenomenal to see corporals and sergeants and lance corporals away from their platoon commanders, away form the platoon sergeants for seven months stepping up and accomplishing the mission.”
Isolated but for the constant presence of squad members. Cycling through the same schedule everyday but prepared for anything new. Living a Spartan life but making the best of things. This is the patrol base hustle.
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghanistan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.