Military and Energy: The Warfighters

This
week Marketplace airs a special series on the U.S. military and energy, and the
quest
to "unleash us from the tether of fuel."

When Pentagon energy leaders declare their aspirations to shrink the  military's footprint, they tend to mention India Company Third Battalion 5th Marines. AKA India 3/5. AKA the Solar Guys.

Based in Camp Pendleton, southern California, India Company was chosen (they prefer the verb "volun-told") last fall to try out various solar alternatives to gas generators. Where? In the valley. That'd be Helmand Valley, Afghanistan, in combat terrain tricky for resupply convoys to reach in a hurry.

These Marines were sold on at least one of the gizmos, because it lightened the load and helped them complete their mission. And it juiced their iPods. As for the the eco-benefits? Yeah, whatever.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for india company 1.JPG

Some excerpts from my visit with them, jargon and all.

The star performer: SPACES portable solar battery charger. (looks like a blanket, see photo above / listen to excerpt)
Lance Corporal Joseph Hooper: That's what the moneymaker out there was. Cuz we can't have a generator out on overnight patrol. So you bring the SPACES system out, unfold it, and it's just a small solar panel that you leave out. And it has charges for pretty much anything:  152s, 153s, 117s, anything you can charge.

What are those?  They're radios, our comm equipment...

How big is the case? A foot by a foot.

Lance Cpl. Jonathan Jacobson: The size of a clipboard, for the battery and everything. There's a few wires that go with it. You can put it in a small backpack. And you'll still be fine, and it doesn't weigh at all, anything.

The benefit: fewer batteries to lug (by 2012, the average warfighter will carry nearly 18 pounds of batteries / listen to excerpt)
Lance Cpl. Hooper on typical patrol: You're carrying 30 extra pounds for batteries. That could be for ammo, food, water, anything to keep your squad going longer ...  with the solar system, we wouldn't have to carry extra batteries. We'd have a set amount. So we'd have those and our packs would be a lot lighter.

Initial skepticism to the gizmo (listen to excerpt):
India Company Commander Lt. Col. Jason Morris: We were all fairly skeptical upfront, because it's just another thing that somebody's throwing on us to test. And here we are going into a combat zone. Honestly I wasn't all that interested in testing equipment. But very quickly the Marines learned how to use it. And we would go in and set up a patrol base. And instead of having to wait for a generator to show up -- because Marines don't typically carry those around on their backs, and many of the places we went to were not supported by roads.... the amazing thing is, literally within hours of Marines getting into a new position these things were rolled out and they were already recharging batteries.
    
About those ipods and laptops charged via solar (listen to an excerpt):
Lance Cpl. Jacobson: By far at the end of the day when you get to listen to some favorite song from back home
that's probably already old by now, it just brings your morale up. And it takes away some of the
stress. Watching TV shows that your family sent you episodes of that just came out, it helps you out out there. The littlest things that people think wouldn't matter -- like watching TV, drinking sodas -- that actually means a lot to us out there. So being able to watch a movie when you get back from 6-hour or 8-hour patrol, it feels good to be able to sit back and relax and take your mind away from that hellhole.

Why music actually matters in war (listen to excerpt):
Lance Cpl. Taylor Wright: Before we went on patrol, we used to  listen to things from cedar to Linkin Park, anything that had kind of like a rock, just really get you just hyped up to get ready to go on patrol. We'd get an iHome speaker and blare it inside our hab and get ready for patrol. You'd throw on some rock music everybody getting
their gear ready, getting all pumped up, hyped and excited and focused for what
we had to do. Which is what we did. You'd throw on some rock music, just listen to it, getting all pumped up, and hyped and excited and focused on what we had to do.

Lance Cpl. Sidney Rittenhouse: Those moments he was talking about, the ones where we were dancing and getting all pumped up before the patrols, those are some of the last moments we got to spend with some of our guys. Some of the guys .... they became casualties in the patrol and didn't make it.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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