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FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZEEBRUGGE, Afghanistan — Up on this cliffside base, Marines protect the landmark Kajaki Dam while surrounded by the remnants of another bloody war in Afghanistan.
Abandoned Soviet anti-aircraft guns dot the jagged ridgelines. A tank, its main gun bent like an elbow, sits on a rocky hill. Soviet-laid minefields hide nearby, lying in wait for anyone who dares to wander off marked paths and trails.
"MINES!" reads a two-foot-wide rock above FOB Zeebrugge. "KEEP TO TRACK."
It is this environment that Marine artillerymen took over from British commandos in 2010, manning a base set alongside the blue-green water of the Helmand River and a 320-foot-high, 887-foot-wide dam that provides power in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Four artillery batteries with about 100 Marines each have deployed in succession to Zeebrugge, including Golf Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, which arrived in November from Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The mission at the dam has been difficult from the start. Like their predecessors, Golf Battery's Marines served as provisional infantrymen in addition to manning M777 howitzers that provide artillery fire across northern Helmand. They pushed out on foot patrols, manned observation posts and tangled with the Taliban frequently at close range. Firefights were common, especially early in the deployment.
"Over the past six months, they've done it all," said Capt. Joshua Kling, the battery commander. "They've patrolled, they've shot artillery and they've convoyed. I think for a lot of young Marines, it's just another day with a different task."
More recently, elements of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., have arrived, allowing Golf Battery to focus on its primary mission. Sacrifices already have been made, however. At least 10 Marines and two military working dogs have been killed in the immediate area since summer 2010, when India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines, became the first artillery unit to man Zeebrugge. Many of those deaths occurred in surrounding villages such as Shomali Ghulbah and Chinah, which are deserted but were used to stage attacks against Marines.
To reach most of their area of operations, the Marines at Zeebrugge make their way across a wooden bridge so dilapidated they use Humvees instead of heavier mine-resistant vehicles. On the other side of the Helmand River, they patrol a network of battered shops known as the Tangye Bazaar, which was abandoned by most villagers years ago while insurgents there fought British forces. Marines and soldiers with the Afghan National Army provide overwatch security from a series of small hilltop observation posts nearby.
Above it all sits the base and the dam, built between picturesque cliffs.
Marines say the sights rival a whitewater rafting getaway, perhaps along the Colorado River.
"Every time you see something like this, it makes you realize this place used to be nice," said Staff Sgt. Gregory Sanders, a platoon sergeant with Golf Battery, standing on one of the cliffs overlooking the dam's spillway.
"Once you look around, you say 'Wow, this place has a lot of history to it.'"
A complicated history
The dam was built in 1953 after the Afghanistan government partnered with the U.S. to develop its countryside. The effort eventually led to the formation of the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority, and a multimillion-dollar project to build dams and canals designed to irrigate much of the province.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the request of the Kabul-based government at the time, leading to bloody skirmishes across the country for nearly a decade. Afghan villagers have told the Marines that the Soviets used the buildings near Kajaki as a recreation base, and built a paved airstrip in a field below. The electric turbines at a hydroelectric plant built in 1975 alongside the Kajaki Dam fell into disrepair.
The Soviet army began pulling out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s, leaving behind equipment across the countryside. The Tangye Bazaar sprouted up alongside the old airstrip, Afghans say, putting storefront shops on one of the only paved roads in the region. Discarded airplane parts and engines can still be found, half-hidden in weeds.
Local folklore also holds that Soviet troops were trapped and killed by mujahedeen fighters in one of Zeebrugge's buildings. Marine Corps Times could not verify the story but observed that the building's hallways are pockmarked with bullet holes. The facility, now known as "Militia House," currently houses Afghan soldiers partnered with Marines.
British forces arrived in Helmand in 2006, naming Zeebrugge after a famous World War I battle in Belgium that led to eight British troops receiving the Victoria Cross, the highest British combat valor award. In 2008, they delivered a third turbine for the dam in a daring convoy operation from neighboring Kandahar province.
The new turbine was never installed, however, due in large part to violence in the surrounding area. The U.S. is chipping away at work that needs to be done, but progress has been slow. Last summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a team of soldiers to evaluate the dam and its valves, Army officials said in a news release. A heavy gate needs to be added to ensure the Helmand River Valley does not flood if the valves fail, the team determined.
It's unclear when Marine forces will withdraw from the region, but they continue to partner and train Afghan forces. A police adviser team with 1/8 works with Afghan Uniformed Police patrolling the bazaar, and ANA soldiers have received mostly positive reviews recently from Marines fighting alongside them.