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101st Airborne's Lifeliners charged with bringing military gear home

Apr. 29, 2013 - 05:57PM   |  
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By the numbers

$36 billion: Value of recoverable equipment remaining in Afghanistan.
$5.7-$6 billion: Cost of recovery/shipping.
268,000 tons: Weight of recoverable materials
95,000: Number of large shipping containers in-country.
750,000: Number of pieces of military hardware (aircraft, trucks, armored vehicles, boats, weapons).
35,000: Number of large vehicles (MRAPs, Strykers, tractor-trailers, fuel tankers, etc.).
$19,000-$153,000: Cost for shipping a single vehicle (depending on type, mode of transport).
85 percent: Percentage of equipment belonging to U.S. Army.
Source for estimates: Department of Defense, Face the Facts USA (George Washington University)

FORT CAMPBELL, KY. — There is no surer sign that the nearly 12-year-old war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close than the job handed to the “Lifeliners” of the 101st Sustainment Brigade at Fort Campbell.

They’ve been assigned to handle “moving day” for the bulk of the U.S. Army’s equipment — many billions of dollars worth — still sitting in hundreds of locations all over Afghanistan.

While they’re at it, the Lifeliners will continue to supply soldiers in the field.

Each is a big job. But with the terrain and weather in landlocked Afghanistan, a primitive road system, inadequate rail, difficulties in transporting equipment through Pakistan to the only nearby seaport, an active enemy and scattered improvised explosive devices, the missions present a logistical nightmare that dwarfs the pullout from Iraq.

In 2011, leaving Iraq was accomplished on a modern road system, on mostly flat terrain and without the complication of an active insurgency.

As the U.S. pulls most of its forces out of Afghanistan by the end-of-2014 deadline, it will do so with none of those advantages.

Veteran Chaz Allen, a 101st Airborne Division wounded warrior who served in both theaters, once described Afghanistan as “Iraq, a thousand years ago,” illustrating the differences.

101st Sustainment Brigade commander Col. Charles R. Hamilton, hearing that description, laughed and said, “That’s good. I agree with that.”

Time is money

While the environment in Afghanistan for this pullout of equipment is unpredictable, Hamilton knows that he and his troops cannot be.

This is partly because of the expense of the primary method they’ll use to get most loads back to the U.S. — strategic air, mostly Air Force C-17s.

“We don’t want to waste money or time,” Hamilton said of coordinating the shipments. “You don’t want C-17s sitting on the ground for two days, costing thousands of dollars.

“The stuff has to be there when the planes get there. They have to drop off and come get some more.”

Ground transport out of the country isn’t the best option.

Despite that the northern rail route to Hairaton Gate on the Uzbekistan border has been improved, Hamilton said they can’t get the kind of velocity they need through there. The same problem exists with the route through Torkham Gate in the east, going to the Pakistan port of Karachi.

So, for this mission, the primary way out will be Bagram Airfield.

'A lot of piles'

Getting the stuff to Bagram on time will require primarily truck convoys utilizing one of the world’s worst road systems, according to the World Bank.

“Most of it we’ll have to get with trucks,” Hamilton said matter-of-factly. “We’ll be able to slingload some (moving gear by helicopters) — small quantities — but we’ll be using our air primarily to push stuff out to our troops — mail, food, fuel.

“So we’ll use trucks. It’ll be coordinated. We got it. We know what it is we’re picking up. The hardest part is, there are a lot of piles. What’s the priority?”

In all, there are about 750,000 pieces of military hardware. That includes 35,000 large vehicles, such as MRAPs (Mine-Resistsant, Ambush-Protected vehicles), fuel tankers and tractor-trailers.

In all, the 101st Sustainment Brigade will have to bring home a big chunk of 268,000 tons of material.

The end-state goal is resetting the Army, post-Afghanistan.

Most of what returns is going back to various Army posts, Hamilton said. Some items will be part of foreign military sales. Other items may be left for the use of Afghan army and police forces.

Lessons learned

Hamilton, a former enlisted soldier and artilleryman, is one of the Army’s premier logisticians with a reputation that earned him key assignments such as the one he holds today.

At the beginning of the Afghanistan surge, after President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point in December 2009, Hamilton was tapped for the tough assignment of coordinating logistics, maintenance and sustainment support for forward operating base expansion in Regional Command-South. In that role, he had to put together a team of 300 people — contractors, lawyers, logisticians, engineers, language experts and more — from scratch.

In the 14 months of that assignment — “going from dirt to the Taj Mahal,” as he describes it — he worked in an area Russians called “the heart of darkness” — Kandahar Province, the home of the Taliban.

The assignment gave Hamilton a healthy respect for Afghanistan’s unforgiving environment.

The memories of that time — together with his experience as an enlisted combat arms soldier and having the words “stay alert, stay alive” drilled into his head — make him both a demanding overseer of training for the upcoming mission and an understanding leader for soldiers running the gauntlet.

'Pucker factor'

At home station, together with his right hand, Command Sgt. Maj. Eugene Thomas, Hamilton aggressively wages war on issues such as soldier suicide and PTSD.

Prior to the mission, he is sending the message to his subordinate leaders that the same aggressive approach will continue in-theater.

“Leaders have to be engaged,” he said. “And sometimes you have to pull a soldier off the line, tell them to take a week off.

“You can look in their eyes and know they need to decompress. No harm, no foul.”

Hamilton knows the stress level on soldiers doing convoy duty in Afghanistan is enormous, particularly now.

“The ‘pucker factor’ (soldier-speak for the kind of stress that causes everything to clench up) — we’re going right in the middle of fighting season, and it’s going to be up,” Hamilton said knowingly. “They’re already taking a lot of IEDs and kinetic activity over there.”

The what-ifs

Hamilton has to be assured that his units will know how to react when things go wrong, in a place where lots of things go wrong.

“I’ve got to know, in fact,” Hamilton said, “that a unit is ready to get on the road and deal with the elements, with IEDs, kinetic attacks, potential escalation-of-force issues, other things that come up.

“When our convoys are on the road, they break down. It happens. Tires go flat, engines overheat. So what happens when they break down and civilians want to go by? Do these soldiers have the training to deal with that?

“You’re constantly thinking about a hundred things to make that one mission happen.”

In the task of bringing home hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment, that one mission will be repeated hundreds of times.

However, while getting stuff out is an important and high-profile mission, Hamilton’s main priority remains supporting the U.S. troops still in the field.

“Our No. 1 mission is to sustain the force,” he said. “We’ll make sure our troops have everything they need. That will always be first priority.”

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