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Back to A-Stan

Legion writer, OEF veteran returns to the war zone, where the sands have shifted since his U.S. Army tour.

Three high-pitched pings rouse me from semiconsciousness. I’m in the back of a MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle, having just pulled into a patrol base on the outskirts of Nani, a village about 15 kilometers south of Forward Operating Base Ghazni.

“What the hell was that?”

Nineteen-year-old Spc. Brandyn Lachance-Guyette of Vermont calmly replies to my startled question, craning his head to look through the window of the MRAP. “Sounded like machine-gun fire striking the rear of the vehicle.”
Spc. Thomas McIntire, a 20-year-old Californian, nods in agreement. His squadmates assess the situation through the window and try to determine the machine gun’s position. A cacophony of automatic-weapons fire erupts from the Afghan National Army (ANA) unit traveling with us. The enemy remains unseen. I want to dismount and survey the scene myself.

The register of fire lowers, and I think about certain sounds that can move people to tears. Operas and symphonies do this for some. Others will tell you that the first cry of their newborn child means most to them. In my life, no sound will ever be so beautiful as that conducted by 22-year-old Spc. Jazz Nixon of Trenton, N.J., who on that warm morning in Afghanistan unleashed 15 rounds from his Mark 19 40-mm belt-fed automatic grenade launcher in the general direction of our adversaries. When he finished, there was silence.

How I Got Here. Two months earlier, I was lamenting the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl loss via email with a fellow Massachusetts native, Maj. Jim Bono of the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC). The Norwich-educated major and I have similar interests: Patriots football, history, military blogging and the U.S. Army. After the Super Bowl, he simply made a suggestion: “Hey man, you should consider coming to Afghanistan with us.” And so, in early April, I found myself standing in formation at Fort Knox, Ky., preparing to head “down range” to Kandahar, Afghanistan, with the 3rd ESC.

It was important for me to go back to Afghanistan, if only to confirm or debunk stories I had read in the media. I served there in 2004 and 2005, in several areas of Ghazni, Wardak and Parwan provinces. I knew from others in my unit who had been back that the security situation there had deteriorated, but they claimed the media had it wrong – that the Afghans had made amazing progress. According to one friend, “The only thing holding them back isn’t training or bravery; it’s just that their supply chain is horrible.”

Logistics is a whole new species of military service for me. I spent 12 years in the infantry, but I studied enough military science in college to understand the necessity of an adequate supply chain. While in uniform, I have to admit, I never truly considered where the bullets and beans came from; I merely grumbled when they were late or not in sufficient quantity. U.S. military logistics is rooted in Prussian theory, most clearly enunciated by the much-studied Carl von Clausewitz, who inherited his notion of warfare from Frederick the Great, famously credited with determining that “without supplies no army is brave.”

The mission of the 3rd ESC is simple: logistics and distribution management anywhere, at any time, in any environment, against any adversary.  Bullets, beans, large storage containers – all of them move on the back of the ESC. With the two main supply routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan shut down (the Khyber and Balochistan passes were closed last November), most of the goods needed by the front-line troops arrive by air at the main bases of Bagram and Kandahar.
Once a truck, convoy, fuel bladder or pallet of water enters Afghanistan, it becomes the ESC’s responsibility. Through its subordinate units, the command ensures that all the beans, bullets and bandages that support the war-fighters (“door-kickers”) are delivered. No matter how remote the location, the 3rd ESC ensures that the supplies get where they need to go. Over the past year, the previous ESC unit conducted more than 5,600 air-drop missions and directed more than 100,000 trucks to their destinations across the country.

The command’s other primary mission is “retrograde operations,” or getting our stuff back to the United States. This is a massive undertaking that calls for returning 1,200 pieces of what the Army refers to as “rolling stock,” or vehicles, to the States each month. Logistics in a landlocked country can be daunting, but as with everything else in Afghanistan, it’s possible through exhaustive effort.

Welcome to the War. Upon arriving in theater, the 3rd ESC’s first priority is training. All incoming troops must complete classes on countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs), surviving heavy-vehicle rollovers (always a threat in mountainous, rugged terrain), and understanding the Afghan culture. When they aren’t training, they’re trying to adjust to the time and climate change or hunkering down in concrete bunkers during rocket attacks, which occur almost daily. The men and women of the 3rd ESC quickly find their battle rhythm and establish daily routines. They work with the 4th ESC, from whom they will take charge of theater logistics.

They are busy. So the best time to talk with them, at least for me, is lunch. I typically take mine with Maj. Bono, along with the inspector general, the judge advocate general, the intelligence officer, a surgeon, a deputy communications chief and the comptroller.

Maj. Jack Pippo is largely responsible for all the financial management and accounting of these large-scale logistical support operations – a mind-boggling task even if it wasn’t in a combat zone. An affable and intelligent officer, he tells me about the successes and challenges of working with ANA allies.

“We’ve done a great job of training the front-line combat units,” he says. “But on the logistics side, we are a bit behind where we need to be in terms of training them in order to leave them in a position to continue the effort after we are gone.”

I was somewhat surprised to learn that Pippo’s assessment was not apostasy against a military talking point but exactly what others had said openly. In an interview with Army Times last year, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, head of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), disputed the notion that the Afghan supply chain was “broken.” He went even further, noting that “it’s hard to break something that’s not built.”  

To combat this challenge, the 13th ESC out of Fort Hood, Texas, was deployed to create an “Afghan Logistics University.” Efforts to fix the supply chain are ongoing, but with a literacy rate of only 14 percent among Afghan army enlistees, bringing them up to full speed may take longer than the United States has chosen to remain in the theater.

“One of the lessons we learned from Iraq was that we probably started too late,” says Col. John Ferrari, NTM-A deputy commander for programs. “They had a lot less time than they thought to develop the logistics system. They started late, thought they would have a lot more time, and then the drawdown came.”

Among the Black Knights. Through a friend, I arranged to embed with another unit in Afghanistan, Able Company of the 3-66 Armor Battalion,  the “Black Knights” who are attached to Task Force 1-2 of the 172nd Infantry Brigade.
Able Company is a composite unit: two platoons of armor, one of infantry and one of engineers. Because of the troop drawdown, its full complement of 143 soldiers has been reduced to 83. Even before I make it out to Forward Operating Base Andar, a noncommissioned officer tells me how lucky I am to embed with that particular unit. 

“Awesome unit, awesome leadership,” he says. “They love the (commanding officer), but they worship the first sergeant. Dude is a stud.” 

I ask another NCO if this assessment is accurate. He smiles and says, “Well, that’s half right ... we pretty much worship the CO, too.”

Something about these two leaders reminds me of the Bartles & Jaymes guys from the old advertisements. First Sgt. Philip Jarvis, 38, of Atlanta, is an amiable man who could turn a simple question into a discourse on anything from his favorite TV show to how much he dislikes the monochromatic Afghan landscape. He is almost always congenial, but his voice has a harsh edge when he discusses the lengths to which he will go for his men. 

“If I am going to retire as a first sergeant, so be it,” Jarvis says. “But I’m going to make sure my men are prepared for life in and out of the military when I leave. I owe them all I can give them.”

Able Company Commander Michael Stewart feels the same way, just not in so many words. In fact, he is a man of few words at all. Originally from Savannah, Tenn., the 33-year-old captain left Tennessee Tech to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Northern Alabama because “they had much better hunting and fishing down there.” Quick with a joke at the other’s expense, Stewart and Jarvis are quite close, and together they lead combat efforts out of FOB Andar, on the border of Ghazni and Paktika provinces. Stewart’s primary focus is simple: provide security to the local community, train the ANA to provide security when Able Company won’t be there to do so, and bring his men home safely.

“If you treat the locals respectfully by keeping the vehicles out of their farmlands, not staying too long in their qalats (walled compounds) and respecting their culture, they tend not to shoot at you as much,” he says.

Stewart and Able Company have had remarkable success. Last year, the Andar region had 136 significant acts of violence (IEDs, indirect and small-arms fire). This year, they experienced eight in the same time frame.

A typical day for the men of Able Company includes mounted or dismounted patrols of the local villages. Because of the terrain, even small mounted movements can take a long time to reach their objectives, so most of the men prefer to walk where they are going. On one such patrol, I went out with the men of “Red Platoon,” led by Lt. Nick Hebblethwaite and Platoon Sgt. Sean Spoors of Jacksonville, Fla. We visited the nearby village of Sar Faraz Kala, with 17 ANA men in tow. The ANA would do the bulk of the searches.

Hebblethwaite and Spoors looked for a qalat that would provide sufficient fields of fire and visibility for the village. They moved their men into it, positioning many of them on rooftops. The lieutenant, platoon sergeant and interpreter – often accompanied by civil affairs personnel – then sat down with homeowners to talk over chai tea and “naan,” the flatbread that is a staple of the Afghan diet. The concerns of the locals follow a consistent pattern: damage done to crops by the heavy vehicles, schools closed by order of the Taliban, and fear that the ANA cannot maintain the peace without American support.

“I just want my children to be able to go to school,” one man tells the lieutenant through our interpreter, who goes by “Cletus.” “The Taliban have threatened all the schoolmasters, and now my children cannot learn.” 

As we break fast and speak with this man, Staff Sgt. Bojared Horsey – the second squad leader – calls down from the roof to let us know that that the ANA is continuing its sweep through the village. Newly promoted Spc. David Sosa, later honored as the best fire-support officer in the brigade, hands out bags of candy to local children. He amuses them by trying to speak their language. 

We move to two more qalats to provide security. The homeowners there confess the same fears and concerns about Afghanistan’s future.

The monotony is finally broken when Spc. Steve Mentzer of Michigan serenades the company executive officer, Capt. Alain Alexandre, with an on-the-spot ode with harmonica to the XO’s fine work this day. The men all chuckle, including Alexandre, a good-natured Bostonian. For a moment, fears expressed by the Afghans begin to fade.

Stewart is more sanguine about the prospects for peace. He is clearly proud of the advances the ANA has made, and he has an obvious affinity for its commanders and men. His ANA counterpart is known as “Captain Z.”

The ANA’s actions in response to the Taliban machine-gun attack that shook me to consciousness a few days earlier in Nani is a great illustration of the Afghans’ strides. Even as the first rounds struck my vehicle that morning, the ANA took cover and began pouring fire into the suspected enemy position. Two up-armored Humvees of the ANA, each with a 12.7-mm DShK heavy machine gun affixed atop, moved forward to provide suppressive fire. The dismounted ANA infantry immediately moved to clear all the nearby qalats, and ensure protection of their mounted elements and local civilians, who often get caught in the crossfire. When the infantry secured the flank, the Humvees moved forward, firing their weapons, and proceeded to the previous Taliban location. The enemies had already jumped on their motorcycles and fled, unlikely to try to take down large elements like this again.

In the aftermath of the firefight, I sat down with Stewart and talked with him about an article published a few days earlier in Stars and Stripes that claimed that reports of ANA-led patrols had been greatly exaggerated. I asked the commander how much control he exerted over the ANA at the firefight in Nani. He laughed. “None,” he said. “Hell, I was still trying to figure out where it was coming from and who was on the ground when they were already done moving on them. I didn’t even have (communications) with them, so even if I wanted to, I couldn’t have said anything … the react-to-contact battle drill was fabulous. No OC (observer/controller, who grades unit performance) could have found fault with them.”

The ANA in Andar now works largely autonomously from the U.S. units with whom they patrol. Usually, the Americans provide oversight as the ANA maneuvers around the villages, looking for caches of weapons or munitions. If things do go south, as they did that day in Nani, the ANA knows that the Americans can help beat back the enemy. 

“They love us for our helicopters,” says Staff Sgt. Samuel Tenney, Able Company fire support officer. “They seem much more confident when we have air assets on station.”

One of the biggest problems for the ANA is getting equipment and supplies on a timely basis. “That’s a concern,” Stewart confesses. “Sometimes it takes them up to three months to get a replacement part for their vehicles. Sometimes we request the part in unison – Captain Z through his people, and me through my supply chain. I always get it first.”

The ANA does have a few other deficiencies that make U.S. troops nervous from time to time. On one mission to a local mountain, Able Company was setting up a range for use in zeroing the larger weapons on their vehicles, like the Mk 19 and the .50-caliber machine gun. As Spoors, Hebblethwaite and the interpreter walked around to make sure the firing practice wouldn’t hit any camels or Kuchis (Afghan nomads), an ANA vehicle test-fired a heavy machine gun in their direction. The Afghans did not see the Americans in their camouflage. Platoon medic Staff Sgt. James Brooks approached the ANA and, using hand signals and broken English, got them to stop shooting. During the discussion, another ANA element approached, trailed by one soldier who was juggling a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) round. And another Afghan was attempting to clear a round from the DShK with a long rod and striking it repeatedly with a rock.

Another time, when an MP vehicle became stuck in mud, an ANA unit appeared and did an admirable job of clearing out locals who had come to see the commotion. One vehicle that drove up was a Toyota pickup with a soldier standing in the rear behind a machine gun on the roof. In a somewhat questionable display of logic, the driver of the vehicle decided to maneuver over rough terrain around some of the other vehicles, and the soldier in the back was forced to decide between holding on to the gun and holding on to the sides of the truck. He chose the latter, which inevitably led to the machine gun swinging around on its axis. He gamely clung to the vehicle while simultaneously ducking the swinging weapon. Safety is not yet a hallmark of the Afghan military.

Passing the Torch. The 3rd ESC continues to provide logistics to troops in the field, all while preparing to get all the equipment out of the theater in time for the agreed-upon end date for U.S. missions in Afghanistan. The men of Able Company have now returned to Germany, where the unit is preparing to disband. Jarvis is bound for Fort Benning, Ga., to serve as a drill sergeant. Stewart is waiting to see if he’ll be selected as an instructor at the Army’s Ranger School jungle training program in Florida. The men are all heading in different directions, but they stay in touch through email and Facebook. Their bond is permanent and won’t be broken by geographical distance.

Captain Z and his ANA soldiers continue to fight so that future generations of Afghan children can go to school, grow their crops in peace, and live lives that have been denied them for years. 

“The Afghan people and army have a real chance of success if they operate as we’ve trained them,” says Spc. Igor Mosquera, a mortarman with Able Company. “Our only job now is to provide them with a little guidance. They have everything they need to succeed without us.”

Mark Seavey is the editor of The American Legion’s Burn Pit blog site and an Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom. See photos and blog postings from his return to the war zone at on the Burn Pit.

 

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