Making something out of (almost) nothing: airborne support troops pump up Ghazni forces
July 23, 2012
FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARRIOR, Afghanistan (July 21, 2012) -- U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Narowski can say how many thousands of miles the sustainment paratroopers of 307th Brigade Support Battalion have logged since April, the gallons of fuel and containers of ammo they have hauled, the number of vehicles his mechanics have fixed and the combat-wounded his medics have patched up.
But that misses the point, he says. They've done what needed to be done, and that is to build a combat sustainment apparatus where before there was little to none, with scant notification of the mission beforehand. It's what paratroopers do, he says.
The 307th's parent organization, 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, deployed to Afghanistan in March to conduct the last major clearing operation of the war. Their target was a province in eastern Afghanistan generally unknown to the American public, Ghazni, an arid, mostly rural province of dirt farmers described by the brigade commander as "densely sparsely populated."
Ghazni lies between the bustling cities of Kabul and Kandahar and is transversed by the country's most-traveled road, Highway 1. It is a dangerous route, with a history of massive improvised explosive devices, catastrophic civilian casualties and a persistent insurgent presence.
The Taliban had enjoyed nearly unrestricted movement in much of the province for years, so when 1-82 hit the ground, the paratroopers were expecting a fight, and they got one.
Food, fuel and ammo
"We are the people behind the scenes," said Narowski. "It's always good when the infantry knocks out an enemy mortar crew, but who got them the bullets? Who put fuel in their trucks? Who repaired the howitzers and supplied the precision-guided munitions?"
Every sustainment convoy is a no-fail mission, according to Narowski, who pioneered low-cost, aerial, supply-delivery techniques during an earlier deployment to Afghanistan. The trucks are too few and the road too dangerous to haul trivial items, he said.
Narowski never understood why rank has is privileges, but as a battalion commander responsible for the lives of hundreds of truck drivers, mechanics and medics, he finally gets it.
"There are decisions that are made by the command team that weigh on you pretty heavily," he says.
While the 307th has yet to lose a soldier, they've had several wounded.
On Afghanistan's most dangerous highway
The first time U.S. Army Capt. Jonathan Fernandez rolled out of Forward Operating Base Arian on a resupply mission with his company's distribution platoon, his vehicle was struck by a large IED just a few miles from the gate. It was April 5. The company commander's vehicle was the first in the brigade to be "blown up."
Fortunately, all equipment was strapped down inside, nobody panicked and nobody was seriously injured.
Over the next four months, Company A's truck drivers would log over 1,200 miles and haul a quarter of a million gallons of fuel and many tons of ammunition to feed the fighting capabilitiues of the light infantry brigade that was conducting operations across southern Ghazni.
Today's war machine incorporates a significant contracted civilian component, and it is not uncommon for the distro platoon to escort 20 or more trucks owned and operated by local nationals.
U.S. Army Capt. Robyn Boehringer, an assistant brigade logistics officer with 1-82 when she first arrived in country, says that maintaining good relationships with the local truckers is as necessary to logisticians as meeting with village elders is to the infantry.
"They know that road is dangerous," says Boehringer, who was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for her work in the brigade's pre-deployment train-up. "They don't want to go to certain spots at certain times of the day or week or year without a military escort."
Sometimes that means flying to meet them and promising a military escort, she said, or reassuring them that their cargo will be downloaded quickly so they can get back on the road and back to work.
Never to bed, early to rise
Much of what 1-82 logistics troops do happens at night when the roads are empty and the enemy is asleep.
U.S. Army Sgt. Kenneth Jones, a truck driver with a forward support company that supplies one of 1-82's infantry battalions, rises at 4:30 a.m. every morning to go to the gym, unless of course, he's been up all night on a resupply mission.
From Sanford, Fla., the wiry 45-year-old former carpenter joined the Army mainly for the health care benefits for his wife's severe medical condition. Though he's not a big man, Jones is more fit and stronger than many of the young paratroopers that he works with.
After breakfast, the workday ususally begins at 9 a.m. with mission briefs and follows with prepping loads and vehicles. Convoys can last up to eight hours or more depending on the destination. Some convoys are run in daylight, but many are after dark.
Of late, the pace has quickened, says Jones. Capt. Boehringer, recently released from brigade staff to command Company F, has been encouraging Jones and the others to seek ways in which they can contribute more to the fight.
"Instead of saying, 'Why do we have to do it', they are saying now, 'We can do it,'" says Boehringer. That might include hauling equipment outside their area of operation, such as back to the turn-in point at FOB Sharana or driving clear to Ghazni City for construction supplies for a district center buildup just up the road.
Boehringer is very proud of her troops, she says.
"When they've got everything going right, it's almost like watching a symphony," she says. "There is a pride, there is a bond, there is a brotherhood just like you would see in the infantry platoons, especially when they see the smiles on people's faces when they get mail, when they get fuel so they can take showers. My soldiers know they're important."
Who needs what
Keeping track of who needs what and when is the job of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Arnaldo Guzman. As head of the brigade Sustainment Automation Systems Management Office, he is its primary bean counter. His newest tool for tracking and reporting on food, fuel and ammunition is a software system called Battle Command Sustainment Support System, or BCS3. While it is the system of record for Forces Command, its adoption by many units has been slow.
Among brigade combat teams, 1-82 has been leading the way in adopting BCS3 for sustainment management. The brigade adopted the system just under a year ago. With much hard work and some hand-holding from a field service representative, they put it to the test at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., and deployed it almost without issue upon arrival in Afghanistan.
Whereas sustainment folks have traditionally relied on static spreadsheets to track commodities and combat power, BCS3 gives them real-time data that can be refreshed with the click of a mouse.
At JRTC, use of BCS3 put 1-82 logisticians ahead of their trainer-mentors. In Afghanistan, their higher, 10th Sustainment Brigade, had to expedite their own adoption of the system to catch up to the paratroopers.
"According to their FSR, they really like the system too," says Guzman.
"Everyone on the brigade staff will tell you that BCS3 has exceeded our expectations, especially since we haven't been using it that long," he says.
The central nervous system of the brigade's logistics effort is in U.S. Army Maj. Michael LaBrecque's office on FOB Warrior. A red-headed, Ranger-tabbed, former infantry officer, LaBrecque brings a grunt's pragmatism to work every morning to deal with the buildup, keep up, tear down, pack up, float and fly home activities that his office is juggling.
Each day begins with a battle update brief for the brigade commander. As the senior brigade staff logistician, LaBrecque reports on key equipment such as vehicle recovery assets and the overall combat strength of units in terms of personnel and equipment.
Next is a daily conference call with staff based at Bagram Airfield, the logistics hub for eastern Afghanistan.
The rest of the day is a dizzying conflagration of planning what logisticians call a "retrograde," or leaving the battlespace and returning home, advising future operations and the daily task of what LaBrecque calls "reacting to contact." Contact comes from many directions.
Much of the equipment used by the thousands of paratroopers in southern Ghazni must be reallocated prior to their departure. Some will be laterally transferred. Others will be turned in at Sharana or Bagram. Some FOBs will be closed or transferred to Afghan forces. Services must be turned off, some contracts cancelled and others renewed.
The unit replacing 1-82 is smaller, and LaBrecque's goal is to hand them as much of a turnkey solution as he can in the days before his brigade's departure later this fall.
There are also acquisitions to be completed -- new equipment that will arrive too late for 1-82 to use but that will benefit the incoming unit.
What makes managing the workload possible for LaBrecque's small staff of eight is the division of duties and responsibilities, and the drive and initiative of his assistants, he says.
"Our situation is unique because of my two assistants, one is an engineer and the other a medical service officer. They have no logistics experience, but they have done a phenomenal job," he says.
LaBrecque himself has been tapped to become the brigade's next executive officer upon redeployment. His team was not ordered to make the incoming unit's landing in Ghazni as soft as possible. It's just the way he's used to doing business.
"The mark of 1st Brigade and all the good units that I've been in is that there's no sense of complacency," says LaBrecque. "There is drive and initiative to leave the foxhole better than when we got here."