By Capt. Spencer Garrison (FORSCOM)September 4, 2013
The Soldiers of 555th Engineer Brigade Headquarters, Joint Task Force Triple Nickel, may be only a month away from concluding their deployment, but there are no signs of slowing down in the unit that since February has overseen U.S. military engineer operations throughout Afghanistan.
From training Afghan engineers, protecting key roadways, overseeing hundreds of engineering projects, and staying fit and sharp on essential Soldier skills, the Triple Nickel mission continues at a fever pitch.
"A deployment is like a good golf swing -- you have to follow through," said Lt. Col. Alexander Bullock, brigade operations officer from Snoqualmie, Wash. "It's been a strong run. I'm surprised, truly, at the pace we've kept."
As the operations officer, Bullock leads the largest staff section within the brigade headquarters and is responsible for planning and supervising the many U.S. engineer missions throughout the country, missions carried out by a half dozen battalion-sized subordinate task forces including Army, Navy, and Air Force units from Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard.
"We picked up this aggressive battle rhythm, the kind you can keep for the first 90 days of the deployment, and then we just didn't stop," said Bullock.
Indeed, the Triple Nickel team never had a chance to just settle in.
By May, three months into the 555th's deployment, Afghanistan's "fighting season" was heating up. The fight was on against the insurgent and terrorist networks and their weapon of choice -- the improvised explosive device, or IED -- and JTF Triple Nickel's route clearance units have remained on the frontline of the effort to find and eliminate the deadly bombs which threaten Coalition forces and Afghan civilians alike.
To date, Triple Nickel patrols have led to the discovery and removal of about 300 IEDs across Afghanistan.
At the same time, the Theater Engineer Brigade has been the Coalition's go-to unit for tactical construction, deconstruction, and maintenance in support of the ongoing consolidation and drawdown of forces. As with the combat mission, the pace has never slowed. In seven months, over 200 engineering projects were planned and managed by JTF Triple Nickel.
Many engineering projects have been aimed at maintenance and upkeep for existing bases, as small engineer teams are sent to outlying areas to make critical repairs to plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and other systems essential to life, health, and safety. This is especially important because as contracted services are reduced across theater, Triple Nickel Engineers are there to fill the gap, maintain essential facilities, and take care of their fellow service members.
Finally, even as the route clearance fight and traditional engineering efforts continue at full speed, the 555th has taken on a still higher priority: development of the Afghan National Army engineer force.
Through 2013, many ANA engineer units were established and benefited from the training, partnership, and support of Triple Nickel's U.S. military engineers. This included about 30 Afghan engineer companies, as well as four new construction battalions known as Corps Engineer Kandaks.
The Triple Nickel is also drawing up plans for establishing and training Afghanistan's first-ever National Engineer Brigade, similar in purpose to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The NEB is scheduled to form this winter.
The 555th's role is just one part -- one phase -- of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force's long-term Afghan engineer development campaign plan, which was begun in 2011, Bullock explained. The plan aims to ensure that Afghan forces can build, protect, and sustain their own facilities and infrastructure, especially after the drawdown of coalition forces.
"We have this one window of time to affect Afghanistan, before we all go home and become observers, and we really pushed it forward on our watch," Bullock said. "(Our replacing unit) will have one of the last tours and I think we've left them in a very strong position to build the Afghan Corps of Engineers."
Theater-wide missions aside, more locally, the 555th Eng. Bde. Headquarters Company is staying busy in its own right. Soldiers continue rigorous workout regimens such as regular 8-mile runs around Bagram Airfield and exercising in the Brigade's newly built Able Gym -- a name drawn from the Brigade motto, "Willing and Able."
Another new project by the Brigade headquarters is nearing completion: Castle CrossFit, a new Triple Nickel gym tailored to the CrossFit enthusiasts in the Brigade. They may hardly have time left to use it themselves before leaving theater, but as Bullock notes, "For an engineer, there's always a desire to leave a place better than we found it," so simply having it ready for the next unit will be worth the effort.
It's being built by volunteer hands, in Soldiers' limited free time. For Sgt. 1st Class Edward Petilo, assigned to the Triple Nickel construction section, helping construct the gym is a way to set an example for the unit.
"I want to show the leaders the hands-on way of doing construction and how it's done to standard," said Petilo, a native of Salem, Ore.
In addition to the theater-wide mission, staying fit, and improving their facilities, intense training exercises are keeping Triple Nickel Soldiers sharp and combat-ready even as the deployment nears its end.
A recent nighttime mass-casualty exercise tested -- and strengthened -- the mettle of the headquarters company's medics and combat life-savers. Screams, fake blood, and disorienting darkness filled their hallways and offices, Aug. 16, as first responders such as Sgt. Joshua Adams, outnumbered by casualties, worked to find, treat, and evacuate the wounded all within the 60-minute 'golden hour.' All casualties were found and evacuated in half that time.
"You had the confusion of the lights being turned off, people running through the building … We had to basically feel our way through and bring them out as quickly as we can and treat them on the spot," said Adams, a Triple Nickel medic from Louisville, Ky.
High-paced training and operations continue both within the headquarters company and across the Theater Engineer Brigade.
"We've reached that point of muscle memory where we're so well synched we can sustain our pace," said Capt. Matthew Pride, headquarters company commander, from Staten Island, N.Y. "Also, we want to hand off a good system to our replacements to make sure they're able to keep up the pace we've established and perfected."
To be sure, the 555th looks forward to the arrival of its replacement. In October, the Hawaii-based 130th Eng. Bde., Joint Task Force Sapper, will assume command of the 4,000-strong Theater Engineer Brigade, and the Triple Nickel will return home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.
Only then will the Soldiers of Triple Nickel finally slow their pace and shift their energies from deployed operations to their greatly missed loved ones back home.