HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (Aug. 18, 2014) -- With U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan for more than 12 years -- from a few thousand in 2001, to a peak of about 100,000 troops in 2011 -- a number of ranges were established across the country for training on everything from small arms to artillery.

Cleaning up those ranges and returning the land to the Afghan people in a usable condition has become the mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville. More than 175,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance and 1,300 landmines have already been discovered and destroyed through the center's range clearance program, expected to run at least through December 2015.

"Every piece of ordnance that's recovered from a range and destroyed is one less for a Soldier or civilian to find down the road. Afghanistan is a good place to be, and it's a good mission to have," said Chase Hamley, a project manager in the International Operations Division, known as IO, of Huntsville Center's Ordnance and Explosives Directorate, or OE.

Huntsville Center, the program executing agency for U.S. Forces -- Afghanistan, awarded a contract to Sterling Global Operations Inc., headquartered in Lenoir City, Tennessee, in December 2013 with the first task order to identify the U.S. ranges scattered across Afghanistan, to include the type of munitions used on the range and the range boundaries. Many ranges will be closed and cleared in accordance with Afghanistan Mine Action Standards.

As of Aug. 12, 55 ranges have been identified for clearance, and another nine sites are being investigated. Huntsville Center still receives new range clearance requests as the military continues its drawdown in Afghanistan.

The second phase is the surface clearance -- munitions sitting on the ground or slightly buried -- and data logging to detect and map metallic anomalies below the surface that could indicate buried munitions.

"In live-fire ranges, the biggest thing you are worried about is unexploded ordnance. We reduce the risk a great deal just by completing the surface clearance on the identified ranges," said Bob Britton, a program manager in the OE International Operations Division. "What we are doing is so important, but with more than 60 ranges it's also a big challenge -- there's a lot of acreage associated with this mission -- and a lot of ordnance; in a matter of months the contractor removed some 30,000 grenades from just a couple of ranges."

The good news is that, since these are fairly contemporary ranges, there is a lot of information about the ranges and how they were used, and the number of types of munitions employed is limited, which helps with clearance and disposal efforts, according to Kevin Oates, who works in the Military Munitions Division of Huntsville Center's Environmental Munitions Center of Expertise, or EM CX.

As the surface clearance is completed, the IO team determines the appropriate process for phase three, subsurface clearance, based on the weapons used at the range, topography and soil type, Oates said. In addition, they take into consideration how the Afghans intend to use the land in the future -- will it be farmland, will it be developed for housing, or will it likely be left unused.

The IO team draws on the vast expertise of not only the OE directorate staff, but also various experts across the Center who can enhance their mission.

"Everyone knows what we're doing and what's on the horizon and it makes it easy to talk through our options and chart out the best courses of action," Hamley said. "Having receptive management helps, too -- they know that surrounding themselves with the right people and listening to all the recommendations ensures our continued success.

Oates and Nick Stolte, a Huntsville Center EM CX employee deployed as an environmental chief for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, are working with Jason Burcham, from the Center's Environmental and Utilities Branch, to develop a consistent decision logic for determining where a subsurface clearance may be required based on their extensive experiences surveying and clearing active U.S. ranges and performing cleanup and remediation at U.S. Superfund hazardous waste sites.

"We are combining the firsthand knowledge we have gained by performing in-house surveys on over 100 ranges here in the states in support of the Range Modernization Program with the knowledge we have gained since the late 1980s, on the Formerly Used Defense Site program," said Plyler McManus, IO division chief.

"Basically, we are providing another perspective and helping identify what steps and information need to go into the decision-making process for the sub-surface range clearance in Afghanistan," Oates said, adding that clearance activities are coordinated very closely with and follow the guidelines of the Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan, referred to as MACCA, which will also inspect the ranges and provide certification that clearance was satisfactorily completed according to MACCA standards. "I'm very excited about the work because I think we will rapidly be seeing some very tangible results."

Keeping people safe -- both those supporting the range clearance activities and the local civilian population -- is the top priority.

"Security is always the No. 1 challenge when operating in Afghanistan," said Hamley, who is in Afghanistan on his seventh deployment supporting the center's range clearance and munitions disposal missions. The lead program manager in country, Keith Angles, is a retired lieutenant colonel on his 10th deployment. Extensive coordination and planning go into every range mission.

"This is a machine with a lot of moving parts -- coordination at all levels is critical," Hamley added. "We want our contractor and the military unit supporting them to be set up for success; we don't want them targeted or exposed to enemy action.

"The No. 2 concern is scrappers around the country," Hamley said. "One of the best money-making opportunities in Afghanistan is scrapping, and it's not uncommon to see 5-year-old kids walking around picking up scrap metal on our ranges, as well as after one of our [munitions disposal] shots. We and our contractor team are committed to ensuring the mission is complete and what we dispose of goes away -- in its entirety."

Involved in worldwide demining and munitions clearance activities, the contractor places considerable emphasis on reducing civilian casualties.

"That is the main reason most of us choose to work in these difficult and dangerous environments," said Chris Oudshoorn, Sterling Demining Afghanistan, known as SDA, project manager.

Britton added that SDA personnel have done a great job making local connections and establishing mutually beneficial relationships with the Afghans.

"When a range is identified, they visit the nearby towns and talk to the people about the work they are doing and the supplies and labor they might need from the local community," Britton said.

Partnering provides open and honest communication and builds trust, which has immensely assisted with problem solving -- whether issues are real or perceived, Oudshoorn said.

"We often hire personnel and solicit services from areas in the direct vicinity of worksites to assist in trust building and to stimulate the local economies," Oudshoorn said. SDA's external mobile teams are mainly composed of local national employees, to include members of their operations and procurement cells, security staff, demining site leaders and deminers, drivers, doctors and medical staff, surveyors, cooks, housekeepers and other general laborers.

SDA teams also independently prepared for and received MACCA mine risk education accreditation as an outreach measure. Sterling has also enlisted the services of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which is at the forefront of mine risk education, to assist in further strengthening U.S. demining and range clearance efforts with brochures in multiple languages catering to different age groups.