Retrograde and redeployment, the soldiers' perspective
March 28, 2013
Although the company is stationed at Fort Eustis, Va., with a 90-day notice they trained to deploy to Bagram Airfield where they serve under the 157th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, Task Force Durable.
The company commander, Capt. Neil Stevenson, walks in the 39 degree Fahrenheit drizzling rain to each truck, observing as the Soldiers conduct communications checks, mount their weapons and secure their gear in the miserable weather conditions. He bares the weight of ensuring he brings each soldier back home to their husbands, wives, parents, sons and daughters.
Following a security brief, the commander bows his head with the rest of the CET as the 157th CSSB chaplain offers a prayer for the soldiers of Dark Side. These soldiers, who have had their boots on ground for two months, don their tactical gear weighing up to 75 pounds and climb into their up-armored vehicles.
After spending hours preparing for their mission, they pull up to the gate to exit Bagram Airfield when they get the word from their command: mission cancelled due to bad weather. This is the result known all too well to those responsible for the ground work behind retrograde and redeployment operations in Afghanistan.
The part of retrograde and redeployment least covered by the media is where the Dark Side CET, and thousands of other service members, start the process of moving equipment. It is a long and dangerous task for these Army truck drivers, cargo specialists and watercraft engineers who trained and deployed as gunners and security escorts.
The process for retrograde is recognized as the movement of equipment and materiel, piece by piece, from a forward location to a reset program or to another directed area of operations to replenish unit stocks, or to satisfy stock requirements. For the Dark Side CET, retrograde means providing security for military and Afghan vehicles carrying cargo and ensuring the Soldiers and cargo reach their final destination safely.
Steven Webb, a 16-year veteran serving on his sixth deployment, tells his team to go back to their rooms and rest until the mission is back on. The following day the CET patiently goes through the same tedious process of preparing their gun trucks as well as their minds against the potential threats that loom outside the barbed-wire and concrete barriers of Bagram Air Field. Their vigilance peaks as they set out for the five-hour drive to FOB Fenty.
Most of the soldiers are woken up around 7 a.m. the following morning by the sound of a vehicle borne improvised explosive device, also known as a car bomb, which was detonated in the nearby city of Jalalabad. All but a few of the Dark Side CET go about their day as usual. While his soldiers rest, get haircuts and shop the local bazarr, Steven Webb grabs last-minute snacks for his troops and begins contacting his higher headquarters for updates on the VBIED attack, overall threat level, weather and cargo trucks.
The Dark Side arrives at their trucks at noon and prepare their MaxxPros to hit the road by 2 p.m. The mission is interrupted when several more cargo trucks, referred to as "NAT trucks" (National Afghan Trucks), by the soldiers, are added to the convoy. These trucks have to be fueled, loaded with cargo and fully prepared for the trip from FOB Fenty to Bagram Air Field.
The NAT trucks are owned and driven by Afghan workers who are hired through a local contractor.
The CET now has no estimated departure time and is on standby until the NAT trucks are ready to go. Steven Webb tells his mission commander, Sgt. Diana Webb, to tell the soldiers to try and get some rest for now.
"We never get to stay on the same schedule," said Steven Webb. "Sometimes we'll leave in the morning, sometimes we'll leave in the evening. It's all based on different things like weather and the threat level."
Diana Webb, a mother of one, who is not related to the CET commander, yells out to the CET to get some rest in their trucks. Despite the noise of the firing range a few hundred feet away and the occasional helicopters and airplanes coming and going, the soldiers try to rest in any place they can find some comfort.
The seven-year veteran, who has deployed twice before, arranges for the soldiers to get food and quickly return to the staging area where they will wait for several more hours only to be told the mission is on hold until the next day. The Dark Side takes down their mounted weapons and carries their bags back to the sleeping area. The only part of these missions that seems consistent is the inconsistency.
The next day, the CET arrives at the staging area at 8 a.m. and goes through the same exact process as the day before. This time, the mission is only delayed an hour. Despite all the delays and interruptions, Steven Webb remembers why their job is critical.
"I feel our mission is very important," he said. "We need to have the safe transfer of all this equipment as the drawdown continues. If all the equipment gets back safely, that's money the military is going to save."
Once the convoy is on the road, the soldiers have the grueling task of getting a 30-vehicle convoy through downtown Jalalabad. Gunners remain vigilant and watch the roofs for any suspicious activity, drivers watch the hundreds of vehicles and pedestrians weaving in and out of traffic and the truck commanders set their eyes on everything. Truck commanders are the leaders in the trucks and are responsible for keeping track of the convoy vehicles, watching for VBIEDs, threats from the rooftop and children smaller than the truck tires running into the road. In a sea of civilians and vehicles, the threat of terrorists looming in the crowd is on everyone's minds.
The importance of getting the equipment to its destination safely is a top priority for Steven Webb, however, he said his soldiers' safety trumps everything else.
"Of course I have to make sure my soldiers get there safely," said the Pennsylvania native who joined when he was 18 years old. "I mean, that is my number one priority. Soldiers can't be replaced; equipment can be."
After four blown tires on the NAT trucks and nine hours into the mission, the gunner, Spc. Koffi Assila, a cargo specialist and native of Africa, wipes his eyes. His body runs like a machine. He maintains constant eyesight on the road, the debris and trash, the caves in the mountains and the rooftops of houses. He reaches for a drink at the bottom of his feet but doesn't take his eyes away from the area he is responsible for securing. He barely speaks except to say "I'm fine", when Steven Webb checks on him.
After 10 hours into the mission, vehicle and pedestrian traffic picks up again. The truck driver, Spc. Brendan Geyer, a Virginia native, turns on a siren to help clear up traffic and make the pedestrians aware of the convoy. This is Geyer's first deployment but he hardly lacks experience at this point. In the short time he's been deployed, he has accumulated hundreds of miles on the Afghan roads battling traffic, animals, pedestrians, complacency and at times, sheer exhaustion.
After nearly 11 hours and about 110 miles through winding, mountainous roads, the Bagram Air Field gate comes into site. The Dark Side escorts all of the NAT trucks and cargo into their respective locations and finally returns to the 359th ICTC motor pool where they store their vehicles.
It's just another mission completed for these soldiers who come from different backgrounds and different Army jobs. The CET commander however, knows how important the bigger picture is.
"The best part of this deployment is knowing the faster we pull stuff out, the faster other soldiers get to go home and be back with their families," said Steven Webb. "That's what I told my son when he got upset about me deploying. I just told him we're bringing everybody out so they can be home with their families."