A smarter way of doing things
June 5, 2013
KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan (May 21, 2013) -- When pipes break and faucets leak, you would normally just call a local plumber. But what if you were miles away from everything, on a hilltop in Afghanistan? Well, then you would call the Theater Engineer Brigade, Joint Task Force Triple Nickel.
As the principal engineer command supporting the International Security Assistance Force, JTF Triple Nickel's team of roughly 5,000 Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen provides engineering support to coalition forces throughout Afghanistan. Now, that includes a "smart" new base support program that is working to replace the old ways they have operated.
"Configurable Small Maintenance and Repair Teams (C-SMART), is a way of getting at emergency… urgent problems with the infrastructure on a base of any size that is not covered by (contracted civilian services)," said Lt. Col. Andrew Ring, the JTF Triple Nickel construction officer.
According to Ring, as the coalition draws down to a smaller, more expeditionary force, a lot of those contracts are going away, and leaving areas without a dedicated contract for the maintenance.
So it is increasingly up to the military to bridge those gaps and take care of their own, and it is service members like U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jacob Villavicencio, an electrical systems craftsman and Alpha Team leader for the 577th Expeditionary Prime Beef Squadron, who are at the forefront of the newly structured teams.
The members of the 577th EPBS specialize in repairing… well, everything, according to Villavicencio.
"Our team is made up mostly of plumbers, carpenters, electricians and heating and air technicians to quickly repair any issues," said Villavicencio.
On a recent trip to Combat Outpost, Matun Hill, the camp's only well had quit working. The purpose of the well was to fill the camp's water reserve for showers, latrines and laundry facilities.
"We just received the mission here, and about two days of receiving the mission our water system failed," said Maj. Rich Schildman, executive officer, Security Forces Advisory and Assistance Team 10, "The team came here, assessed the situation and they were able to determine the cause of the problem."
The Soldiers occupying Matun Hill had been dangerously low on water for nearly two weeks.
"We were down to bottled water to conduct personal hygiene with," said Schildman.
After a few hours to assess the conditions of the plumbing and coming up with a plan of action, the C-SMART plumbers went straight to work.
"We found that since there was no water running through the pipes, all the pumps for life support systems had become vapor locked," said U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen Fields, the team's lead plumber, 859th Engineer Company (Vertical), Mississippi Army National Guard. "They're not able to pull water, it's just spinning air. No water is getting in there."
With the minor plumbing issues fully addressed, it was up to the team to repair the major issue, which was the well.
"It is like sucking water through a 370-foot straw with holes all in it," said Fields, a native of Tupelo, Miss. "All the gaskets were rotted, which would allow the water to come out the sides, but not to the top of the well."
Once the gaskets were acquired through the help of some locals that worked on the COP, and several hours of hoisting and fitting the 370 feet of pipes back together, the repair was complete.
"We were able to seal everything back up and turn the water back on," said Fields.
The issues that plagued the small COP were not limited to the plumbing.
"Three of the generators needed to be repaired," said Air Force Senior Airman Jonathan Copeland, a prime power journeyman.
Each generator supplies power for up to 16 Soldiers.
"Part of the problem was they didn't have a big enough generator to keep up the power during the hottest parts of the day," said Copeland.
By repairing two of the three generators, Copeland was able to provide power to the camp's living areas until a new, larger generator arrives.
At the end of a long day and temperatures reaching 100 degrees, the C-SMART team worked to ensure that everything that could be done had been done.
"The team … they are fantastic, it will be the first chance to take a shower in over a week," said Schildman, "I am very grateful for them coming out here and using their technical skills to help us out."
The importance of what the small team of craftsmen and journeymen means in the grand scheme of things is not lost on Villavicencio.
"This COP is here to help the Afghan National Army as well as provide a presence in the near-by village and surrounding areas," said Villavicencio, "So by doing our mission we are providing all the [necessities] so the Soldiers can go out the next day and do their mission."
"This sort of repair is something the Air Force does a lot of," said Ring. The challenge for his joint brigade has been to expand their reach by implementing that same small repair team concept across JTF Triple Nickel's Army and Navy units throughout Afghanistan.
"So we have spent a lot of time on just figuring out what it is… because the majority of our staff is Army, and this is something our Army engineers don't do," said Ring.
Figuring that out was the first step. The next step was to name it.
"We don't have a word for what we (Army repair teams) do, so that is why we took part of the Air Force doctrine, which is 'Small Maintenance and Repair Teams,' and added a C for 'Configurable'...because we are using Army, Air Force and Navy teams," said Ring.
With nine teams strategically placed all over Afghanistan, and the differing skill sets of the teams, it makes sense to have a centrally coordinated system in place to deploy those teams where they are needed most.
Enter Senior Airman Heather Truitt, the JTF Triple Nickel's C-SMART lead coordinator.
"I receive all work orders and identify them by priority, as well as ensure that it fits within the scope of work by the C-SMART definition," Truitt said.
The definition of a C-SMART mission is anything that will impede the mission or be detrimental to life, health and safety, and that it is repair work that can be done within five days… no new construction, said Truitt.
"They get in and get out really quick, they are there to just make quick repairs to ensure a high quality of life is sustained," she added.