In addition to training and equipping Afghan soldiers, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have another critical mission: packing up more than 11 years worth of equipment and sending it home. The number of containers to move out is in the six figures, and some question whether everything can be shipped out by the end of 2014.
Forward Operating Base Frontenac sits amid jagged mountains in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar province. It's an area that saw a lot of action during the U.S. troop surge, but more and more of the action now is about sending stuff back to the U.S., a mission the military calls retrograde. The 2-3 Field Artillery arrived here in January, and they now spend half their time on missions and half their time on retrograde. They have to clear out 25 percent of their containers, their excess ammo and nonessential equipment by April, when the fighting season begins.
"What we're doing here is we're working on retrograde of over 50 vehicles from our task force," says Capt. Michael Williams, the logistics officer. "These vehicles aren't being used in any of our missions, so we're working on pushing them out of the country. We've already sent quite a few down to KAF."
That's Kandahar Airfield, the main base and staging area in the province. From there, vehicles and containers are shipped out of the country, some by air, but most overland through Pakistan. That's one thing that makes the exit from Afghanistan so difficult.
When the U.S. military left Iraq, it had what it called a "catcher's mitt" — in other words, U.S. bases in Kuwait. They could store equipment there and move it out at a leisurely pace. But Pakistan isn't about to provide storage services, so everything has to ship out as quickly as possible.
All the vehicles here have to go through an inspection process that's overseen by Staff Sgt. Christopher Risiska.
"Me and my guy, Spc. Ramos, go through bumper to bumper on the vehicle, look for anything missing, anything damaged, any leaks," he says. "Pretty much a full workup of the whole entire vehicle, every operating system."
He says they give each vehicle a code on a scale of whether it's in perfect condition or pure junk. Most of the ones he has inspected can be reused with some minor repairs. He says one did have a ruined engine because the troops driving it were fleeing an area and drove into deep water that flooded the engine.
After the inspection, Williams says, they drive or tow the vehicles out.
"Our role is basically just getting it to the Kandahar Airfield so we can get it turned in and off our books," he says.
Williams says they have come across a few surprises and oddities in their two months of cleaning up the base.
"For example, one of these vehicles we have to either tow it or head it to KAF because it has no seat belts, so it's a safety issue to drive it down there," he says, laughing.
He says his unit never used the vehicle, nor did the prior unit. He says he's not sure how long it's been sitting on the base.
And, considering that for years units came and went with no pressure to clear out surplus equipment, it's now falling in the lap of units like his.
"We have, across most of Afghanistan, over 10 years of building these places up, and so many units have accumulated so much," Williams says.
We walk along the base, and he points out that there are hundreds of containers sitting around.
"When you actually go through these containers and look at them, there's junk in them," he says. "There's torn tents, there's one container full of busted bed frames."
We head over to a couple of containers lined up in the staging area.
"There's nothing of value in them for the most part," Williams says. "This one has some old dunnage — it's just empty ammo containers."
He moves to the next one over. "Let's go in this mystery container," he says. It clanks open and there's nothing but reverberation inside — it's empty.
They will fill it up with broken generators, bullet-riddled glass panels from armored vehicles and any other junk shipped from smaller bases that are closing. Then they will send it down the line to Kandahar. And once they meet their quota for this quarter, they will get new orders on what to clear out next.
Getting these containers and vehicles down to Kandahar is no easy task. It's a two- to four-hour drive, and that's assuming nothing breaks down along the way. Plus, IEDs and insurgent attacks are still a threat.
On a chilly morning, a cavalry troop assembles to deliver two vehicles and a truckload of equipment to Kandahar. But the convoy didn't even make it off the base before one of the vehicles to be turned in broke down.
They set off without it. Once they get to Kandahar, it can take several days to complete the paperwork before they can return to their base and prepare the next load.
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