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At Marine outpost in Afghanistan, conditions grow more austere by the day

Jan. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
As commandant of Camp Dwyer in Helmand province, Maj. Christopher Murphy began the process of dismantling the once bustling Marine hub in southwestern Afghanistan.
As commandant of Camp Dwyer in Helmand province, Maj. Christopher Murphy began the process of dismantling the once bustling Marine hub in southwestern Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Maj. Christopher Murphy)
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In the south of Afghanistan, Marines are working around the clock to turn a once-teeming base into a ghost town.

Camp Dwyer, in the Garmsir district of Helmand province, is a shadow of the military hub it once was, its geographical footprint shrinking as its military population evaporates. The second-largest Marine base in Afghanistan and the only one still in use in the southern part of the country, Dwyer is now home to about 700 personnel from an array of military and civilian organizations; a former camp commandant estimates U.S service members compose only about 65 percent of that number. By the end of this year, the base will be empty and most of the infrastructure will be gone: given away, destroyed or shipped home. The gates of the outpost will be left unlocked, and what remains standing will be handed over to the Afghan government for its use.

Meanwhile, the Marines who remain behind to tear down and close up are living under increasingly austere conditions as chow halls are replaced by field messes and walled buildings give way to sleeping tents.

In addition to the logistical challenges of deconstructing the remainder of the decade-old base before the year is out, finding ways to do the same work with a shrinking pool of equipment was a constant effort, said Maj. Christopher Murphy, who served as camp commandant for the base from August to October 2013, until a personal emergency required his return home. During his short tenure, the base shrank from more than 2,000 personnel to about 1,200.

“The base perimeter was brought in and consolidated to support the lesser units who were there,” said Murphy, adding that Dwyer collapsed from 2,400 acres to 1,400 as he supervised the deconstruction of buildings and the redistribution of gear. “When units moved out, we started breaking down their buildings.”

For many of these jobs, Murphy and other base officials would send a “priority engineer project list” to Camp Leatherneck, the larger Marine base in Afghanistan, where staff would determine what auxiliary units could assist with the project. Elements of Marine combat logistics regiments and combat engineer battalions and Navy Seabees were all enlisted to break down structures and dismantle Quonset huts.

“Basically, we were leveling the land,” he said.

Marines are also dismantling the few creature comforts that Camp Dwyer once offered. The contracted dining facility, which provided troops with three hot meals a day, was closed during Murphy’s tenure, and troops transitioned to a field mess, with two hot meals a day and a packaged Meal, Ready to Eat, for lunch. The contractors on the base, who also ate at the DFAC, began to join the Marines for lunch.

Realizing the importance of troop morale amid the exodus, Murphy said he fought to keep a few conveniences in place, such as the gym facility, a small PX, and the last Green Beans coffee location. He worked out a way to provide hot lunches at the DFAC through October, after most operations there had ceased.

“Little rays of sunshine, I like to call it,” Murphy said. “Those little things, like going to get a cup of coffee, can make all the difference in the world.”

External operations continue at Camp Dwyer. While Murphy was there, flights continued out of the airfield and elements of Marine infantry and communication units carried on base ops — but inevitably, Marines took on some of the day-to-day internal work of keeping the base running as contractors left and systems were dismantled.

This included some mundane tasks, such as maintenance of the port-a-johns, as well as more challenging assignments, such as water distribution for the base after the high-tech Expeditionary Water Processing System was torn down.

“We just had to make sure that when the civilians left we had a green gear solution in place,” Murphy said.

Amid the chaos, Murphy said the heart of his job involved careful communication with representatives of the 30 organizations that then called the base home to ensure they drew down facilities and operations in a practical and efficient way.

“It was just a day-to-day thing,” he said. “Letting everybody know this is what the road ahead looks like, and keeping them informed. It was critical at those meetings to develop those good working relationships so we’ll all make it out at the end.”

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