CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan -- Hugging the fence line along the perimeter of Camp Bastion, dusty artillery firing positions are dug into the rocky earth. Three M777 Howitzers nicknamed “Death Wish,” “Steve Bolton” and “Zeus,” peer across the desert horizon, ready for a fire mission at a moment’s notice.
The howitzers safeguard the remaining U.S. and coalition forces serving aboard Camps Bastion and Leatherneck. Military advisors continue to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces aboard neighboring Afghan Camp Shorabak, while U.S. and coalition forces carry out a massive retrograde and redeployment operation. By the year’s end, the remaining International Security Assistance Force’s bases in RC(SW) will be transferred to the ANSF as they prepare to assume the lead for security in the region.
Brigadier Gen. Daniel Yoo, who is dual-hatted as the commander of both RC(SW) and Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan, deployed Tango Battery, 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, to provide extra firepower during the Helmand drawdown. “As we start getting smaller and smaller, I want to have that flexibility so I can use them up to the very last moment and retrograde it in an orderly and timely fashion,” said Yoo.
Sweltering temperatures and blinding sandstorms cover the arid Helmand River Valley. The environment poses maintenance challenges for Tango Battery’s howitzers. One Marine takes the maintenance mission very seriously. U.S. Marine Cpl. Shane Byram, a towed artillery system technician and native of Sacramento, Calif., is responsible for servicing and maintaining the heavy guns for 24-hour-a-day employment. The deployment is Byram’s first to a combat zone.
Born in Stockton, California, Byram moved to Sacramento as a child. During 2009, he graduated Center High School in Antelope, California, a Sacramento suburb. Immediately after graduating he entered the work force. Byram said after a couple of years he wanted to get out of his comfort zone. While he entertained option of attending college, his interest was piqued by becoming a U.S. Marine. He turned toward family and friends who served in the U.S. armed forces for advice, including a cousin who served in the Marines during the 1990s. Byram said that personally, he was also looking for an opportunity to develop himself. “I wanted to establish a good work ethic and leadership experience,” said Byram.
Before the Marine Corps called, Byram also found love. At a Sacramento church youth group he met his now-wife, Ashleah. The couple was 16 and 15 years of age, respectively. Byram said before they met, he had stopped going to church altogether. “A friend encouraged me to come back,” said Byram. Shortly after, he and Ashleah began dating. Their families and friends questioned the teenage romance. Byram said Ashleah’s family was reluctant to accept him. “It’s typical, I guess, of every teenage couple,” said Byram. “They weren’t too supportive at first. But I was persistent and stuck around, and eventually they happened to like me.”
The couple dated steadily throughout high school. During January 2011, the couple tied the knot during a ceremony in Sacramento. The wedding was just the start of a busy year for the newlyweds. Five short months later, Byram embarked on his journey to become a Marine. He said from the start, Ashleah was supportive of his decision to join. “She stuck by my side,” said Byram.
Like many Marine hopefuls, his sights were not always set on being an artillery mechanic. He wanted to join the infantry. At the time, however, there were no available openings. Eager to move forward, Byram left for recruit training May 22, 2011, aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. For the next 13 weeks, his mental and physical limits would be tested more than ever before.
After graduating MCRD, Byram attended Marine Combat Training aboard Camp Pendleton, California, and then a two-month military occupational training school in Fort Lee, Virginia. There he learned how to maintain and service some of the Department of Defense’s most expensive weapons of war. He said the school was a one-stop shop for military armorers, ammunition technicians and maintenance specialties alike.
“My job is unlike any other,” and he is proud of that. “My job is to repair M777 Howitzers, which to civilians, are very large cannons,” said Byram. “I contribute by making sure they are able to fire and support the infantry units.” At the conclusion of the school, Byram said he was ready to test his new skills in the Fleet Marine Forces. Byram headed west from Virginia to his first duty station with 1st Maintenance Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group, aboard Camp Pendleton, California.
Within a year he was slated for his first deployment. During June of 2012, Byram transferred to 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit that would deploy to Japan for a six-month rotation with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, a force that trains with foreign military forces and responds to crises across the region. Byram floated with the 31st MEU across Southeast Asia including stops in Guam, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Philippines. He said he gained a great deal of experience training with Armed Forces of the Philippines during military-to-military exercises. “I really enjoyed being out in the Philippines. We had the opportunity to shoot with 105mm artillery systems with the Filipino Army; they showed us a lot of how they operate.” Byram said he was also exposed to some of their jungle warfare and survival techniques. After the float, Byram returned to Camp Pendleton and reunited with his wife.
Since then Byram has worked aboard Camp Pendleton until the call came to deploy to Afghanistan. He said it was both sudden and unexpected. During a field training exercise he and another Marine were approached about two opportunities to deploy. “It’s actually a funny story,” said Byram. “At the time, my friend and I were told we would get to deploy.
One of us would go to Afghanistan and the other would go on another MEU,” said Byram. The two Marines decided to grapple over the deployments; the winner would get to go to Afghanistan. Whomever won the trip to Helmand, it would likely be their last opportunity, as deployments to the region have slowed as forces prepare to leave for good.
Byram won the bout and earned the deployment to Helmand. He said it was difficult at first to break the news to his wife. “She wasn’t very excited I was coming out here,” said Byram. He also said she wasn’t too enthralled he grappled for the spot.
Prior to deploying, Tango Battery conducted a series of field exercises to prepare them for the tour. Personally, some of the training would test Byram’s technical expertise. “Before we came out here we did a field exercise where we had to shoot the Excalibur,” said Byram. The Excalibur is a 155 mm extended range guided artillery shell that can accurately hit targets approximately 37.5 kilometers away. On that field operation he said he earned his stripes. “We had a bunch of issues and nobody could figure out what was going on,” said Byram. “I tried calling everyone that I could. I figured out putting a specific part on the gun was frying the equipment and we learned from that. That was good training for me.” Byram said.
Byram said artillery units spend a lot of time in the field. In San Diego, units train at the massive Marine Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. “It is a necessary evil to spend time in the field,” said Byram. The announcement of the deployment also put the unit on a quick timeline. “Our biggest challenge was the embark process, which required us to transport all of our gear to Afghanistan under short notice,” said Byram.
Excited for the opportunity to deploy, Tango Battery deployed to Helmand during February 2014. Their mission would be to support the Marines and coalition forces serving aboard the base. Since arriving, the battery has carried out numerous missions including illumination of the battlefield at night for ground and air units, terrain denial, and fire missions.
Byram said he has enjoyed the challenges, although the pace has not been as busy as he imagined. The artillery camp sits atop a hill overlooking the Helmand desert, flanked by the bustling airfield and sizeable security towers that peer outside the wire.
“We are ready to go on a moment’s notice,” said Byram. “My favorite part of my job is when an issue arises I am able to fix it right on the spot and get the gun back in the fight,” said Byram.
Currently, Byram is one of three Marines serving in Afghanistan that are trained to repair the weapon systems. He is on call 24 hours a day to support tasked missions. “I am the go-to guy for the guns,” said Byram. “I am in charge of all of the parts and tools required to maintain them,” said Byram. Specifically on “Zeus,” Byram said he is responsible “for dropping the tray, loading the rounds, getting the gun to the correct quadrant, and pulling the lanyard to fire. There is not much room for error.”
Byram said the Marines have worked closely with artillerymen from the United Kingdom during the deployment. “I really like training with other military forces,” said Byram. “It’s hard to adjust to at first. But you become family with them.” The Marines and U.K. forces have conducted numerous cross-training opportunities to share practices. Byram is proud to support the coalition during the drawdown of forces. “I am surprised how fast the base has conducted the retrograde and redeployment plan,” said Byram.
Approaching the conclusion of his first enlistment, Byram said he is looking forward to his return. He said he is proud of his accomplishments during his time in the Marines. “I can take a situation and control and lead it,” said Byram. “I’ve become more mature and responsible.” He is also proud of the relationships and friendships he has built during his time. “You make a lot of great friends in the military that will carry on when you get out,” said Byram.
Byram said this deployment will likely be his last. Interested in pursuing opportunities outside of the military, he and Ashleah are planning to move home to Sacramento during 2015. “It would nice to be around family,” said Byram.
Ashleah is currently attending a year-long cosmetology school in San Diego. Byram said he is interested in following a lifelong dream to become a helicopter pilot and fulltime firefighter with CALFIRE. “I’ve always wanted to fly helicopters and become a firefighter,” said Byram. “So mixing the two sounds like a perfect plan and Ashleah has always wanted me to pursue the firefighting option.”
Byram’s military awards include the Good Conduct Medal and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. He enjoys hiking, fishing and riding his motorcycle. He is also an avid San Francisco Giants fan and misses watching the team and his favorite player, Buster Posey play. While away at sea during his first deployment with the 31st MEU, he watched the Giants win the World Series. “I think I was somewhere between Guam and Malaysia,” said Byram. “It was pretty exciting, despite the static on the television.” If the season is still going he would like to go to a game.
Back-to-back deployments during the past two years have kept Ashleah and Byram away from one another. While the couple has set their sights on new career pathways and raising a family, for now they are looking forward to spending time together. “I am definitely ready to see my wife,” said Byram. “Just to be able to hug her again will be nice.”