STENNIS, Miss. -- When the Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit were called to the Gulf Coast Region to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina at a moments notice, the Marines of Communications Platoon (S6) knew they had some long work days ahead of them.
The urgent nature of the mission prevented the development of a complete communication plan for the humanitarian assistance mission. A plan that would allow them to map out the exercise, war-game it, and ask all the "What if?" questions prior to leaving the base.
Not having enough advanced information didn't deter the Marines of S6, instead it presented a worthy challenge.
Maj. George G. Malkasian, S6 officer, said his Marines are trained to be resourceful and are able to adapt and overcome any obstacles in any environment, under any conditions. Marines who work with Cpl. John C. Van, switchboard operator, describe him as that type of Marine.
Van zips around, over and through the temporary command element headquarters building installing switchboard telephone wires, monitoring connectivity and doing whatever it takes to keep communications up. Recently, Van installed more than 16 switchboard lines that are crucial to giving the 11th MEU Commanding Officer Col. John W. Bullard, the ability to communicate with his Marines.
Another resourceful Marine is Cpl. Mathew D. Herring, network administrator, whose mission is to install and configure computer networks that provide secure and non-secure email communication for the command element.
According to Herring, part of the data section's responsibility is to handle trouble calls and to ensure the timely and accurate transfer of critical data between the commander, higher headquarters and subordinate units. On most days, Herring can be seen roaming the work area troubleshooting computer and network problems on the spot. According to Malkasian, there are few network problems Herring can't handle.
For this operation, 11th MEU was augmented by a detachment from the 8th Communications Battalion, Camp Lejeune, N.C. These Marines have also showed exceptional ingenuity and dedication. Lance Cpl. Edward A. Kuiper, motor transport mechanic, has maintained 18 of their communications vehicles with limited resources. He has replaced alternators, and performed the routine maintenance required to keep them running, said Capt. Marco D. Serna, officer-in-charge.
Sgt. Michael T. Fitzgerald, multi-channel radio operator, has been instrumental in keeping communications going as well. Fitzgerald has been installing several microwave transmission links. As the duty expert in his field, he has been instrumental in installing several microwave radios, all while teaching the junior Marines around him, said Serna.
Malkasian said he expected and has encountered problems and challenges in keeping the network up and running. Given the constantly changing nature of the humanitarian relief mission, Malkasian said he expects more in the future.
Not a problem, said Cpl. Mark D. Nichols, radio operator, communications platoon. "Being thrown in the fire is the best way to learn," said Nichols, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and member of the 11th MEU for two years.
According to Nichols, operating in an unknown environment will benefit less experienced Marines a great deal. "Here, Marines don't have a chance to take baby steps. It's sink or swim," said Nichols.
Given the ingenuity and quality of the Marines in the S6 and the augments from 8th Communications Battalion, Malkasian is confident the communications Marines of the 11th MEU will succeed.