HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- In a country covered with vast deserts, lined with harsh mountain ranges and crawling with Taliban, moving by land is not always a viable option.
That’s why two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), swooped into helicopter landing zone Barton, Aug. 16, to deliver a 17-man security detachment and six geologists in support of Operation Centrum.
The operation was aimed at leading the Afghan government to a long-term revenue opportunity. Although the team was searching for valuable minerals buried deep in the ground, the site was ironically reachable only by air.
Capt. Brian O’Shea, the officer in charge of 1st Marine Division (Fwd)’s Personal Security Detachment, who escorted the geologists, recounted: "Wheeled and tracked vehicles would have only gotten us so far with the amount of gear and equipment the geologists needed; it would have been almost impossible. Without wing support, this mission wouldn’t have happened. It was a great example of how the elements of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force complement each other."
HMH-361 was able to place the team within about half of a mile of their target area — hitting a zone nestled between two steep slopes of volcanic rock. However, the area created difficulties even with the helicopter insertion. The mixed crew of military and civilians crept slowly down a steep embankment and picked their way carefully across the broken ground of a winding ravine to their target area. Once there, the PSD established a wide perimeter while the ‘combat geologists’ chipped apart rocks, often stopping to scrutinize the pieces.
The trip back down the terrain was slow and arduous, with each participant’s pack taking on the weight of rock samples as geologists pounded eagerly against the face of the mountain.
"Had we moved here on foot, we would have been much more selective with the samples that we removed from the area," said Alex Chaihorsky, an exploration geologist with the group. "We took samples we may have left because we only have to move back to the landing zone."
3rd MAW (Fwd)’s participation allowed the team unique access to the remote area, and the larger amount of samples will help improve their chances of validating claims made by Russian geologists in the 1970s that the area contains rare earth elements, according to Chaihorsky. These elements are used for polishing glass, building high-end electronics and constructing light-weight metals that can withstand high temperatures.
The Afghanistan Ministry for Mines could open the land to investors, which would create a long-term source of revenue for the Afghan government and create thousands of jobs for the Afghan people.
About 12 hours after they started, the group emerged from the ravine sweat-soaked and tired, but satisfied with their samples. Attack helicopters from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, 3rd MAW (Fwd), were overhead within minutes to provide security for the group as they waited at the HLZ. At the request of the PSD, the UH-1Y Huey crew landed to deliver extra water to the group as the AH-1W Cobra continued to prowl the area, hunting for potential threats. About 20 minutes later, HMH-361 arrived to collect the group and its samples and returned them safely to the Camp Bastion flight line.