It’s been 12 years since I stepped on the yellow footprints aboard the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. In the years since, the one thing I took for granted most was how much growing up on a ranch prepared me for the Marines and life in general.
Beyond the physical conditioning and endurance I gained from hiking fence posts and barbed-wire up and down butte rocks, I learned that I often times have to make do with what I have. If I needed it and don’t have it, I have to borrow it from a neighbor. If all else fails, I have to improvise with the materials I have on hand. The Marine Corps was no different.
One example of how ranching gave me a leg up was when I deployed to East Africa in 2008. I was one of four Marine radio operators in a joint communications shop run by the Navy. The shop used Marine Corps radios which none of the Navy guys had ever touched before. As a lowly Lance Corporal, I suddenly became the subject matter expert in the shop, responsible for training and solving complex technical problems.
Toward the end of the deployment we were given a tricky mission: find a way to talk via shortwave radio from Djibouti -- a tiny country in “the horn” of the continent -- to Nigeria, clear out on Africa’s west coast. The Nigerians didn’t have access to our satellites, so we had to rely on the High Frequency bandwidth utilized by HAM radio operators. However, when we measured it out, the shot was almost twice the distance of the United States from coast-to-coast. I instantly identified a problem: we’d have to get a more powerful transmitter and do some math and figure out how to make it work.
Boosting our power output would be a little tricky. The radio itself could only push out 20 watts of power, and the only amplifiers we on had pushed out 150 watts at-best. But before I could do anything about that, we’d have to track down a generator to power up my radios from a remote location.
Earlier in the deployment I’d made friends with the Navy SeaBees whose compound was right down the road from my shop. The SeaBees were the carpenters and engineers responsible for building the wooden huts and hooches that dotted our little desert base in Djibouti. They had a number of small generators laying around for power tools and the like.
I’ve learned that no matter how busy I get, I’ve always tried to pay it forward. Stopping to help out a neighbor has proven to come in handy when I’ve need help. It was around my first week in country, when a Chief Petty Officer for the SeaBees stopped in at the comm shop and asked if I could come over and fix their hand-held radios. After trouble shooting for a bit, I figured out a way to boost the output so that they could talk further. It improved the SeaBees’ quality of life and helped them get their mission accomplished.
When I walked in a few months later, the Chief remembered me and was more than happy to loan me a generator. I suppose that wasn’t much different from being back home and borrowing a trailer or a loading chute from a neighbor when it came time to work cows.
The next step in my mission was tracking down an amplifier. We’d done research and to purchase a beefier 400 watt amp from the radio manufacturer would have cost us about $200,000. I knew that was out of the question, and that the process of requisitioning one would take longer than I had left in country. So, I set out into the hot sun to beat feet around to the other units on the camp to see if anyone had gear lying around that they weren’t using.
Down toward the air strip I found a tent for a Navy aviation squadron. After visiting with their warrant officer, we learned they had a radio amp that’d fit our need. However, they were reluctant to pony it up to a couple of jarheads, and given the reputation of some Marines, I don’t really blame them.
I asked if there was anything we could trade out and learned they were having trouble with a satellite radio the used to talk to their planes. I went back to the shop to grab a spare high-gain satellite antenna and returned to set it up for them. Running the cabling for the antenna into their shop was a bit of a task, as I had to crawl through the sand under floorboards in 100-plus degree heat. It was a hot, miserable, dirty job, but after making the connection I got them up and talking, eliminating a major headache for their staff. The warrant officer was absolutely over the moon with the job we’d done.
“If you weren’t a man, I’d kiss you right now,” he’d said.
And with a handshake, he agreed to sign over the amplifier we needed.
Having tracked down my power source and an amplifier I knew I almost had it in the bag. The only task left to make the project work was to build an antenna that would talk far enough.
In radio school we had a corporal who taught us how to make field-expedient antennas from telephone wire and the plastic MRE spoons. The spoons acted as insulators for the antenna wires and kept the radio waves from going back into the ground. When I think about how bootleg my methods were, it wasn’t too far of a stretch from the duct tape and bailing wire I was accustomed to using when fixing a tractor or a pickup truck.
After running some calculations and figuring out what frequencies I needed, I measured out the length of wire. I then used a compass to shoot an azimuth and point me in the direction of my Nigerian counterparts. We erected two 25-foot aluminum flag poles about 100 feet apart and attached our plastic spoon insulators before stringing the wires up between them. We then connected our amplifier and got the radio system grounded (400 watts is a lot of power, and we didn’t necessarily feel comfortable getting shocked by it).
We fired up our generator, punched in our frequencies, and connected the handset to the radio. I crossed my fingers as I keyed out and let the radio couple itself to the antenna. My heart was pounding as I spoke into the handset with the call-sign of the Nigerians we were trying to raise.
Seconds went by and I began to feel a swell of disappointment well up in my stomach. It didn’t work.
But then – a break in the static; a thickly accented voice came through the handset, responding to my call-sign. I’d set out to do something and made it work with what I had. With all of the technology and equipment the U.S. military spends its money on, all it took was a bit of telephone wire, some plastic spoons, and a Nebraska ranch kid borrowing from his neighbors.