November 16, 2004
Virginia's 229th Engineers arrive with a bang in Afghanistan
By Staff Sgt. Mark Turney
GHANZI, AFGHANISTAN With the sound of pounding nails and large explosions, members of the 229th Engineers from Fredricksburg, Va. announced their presence in Afghanistan.
“We kind of hit the ground running,” said Second Lt. Edward C. Siebels, platoon leader for the detachment of 229th Engineers in the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ghanzi, “Within 30 minutes of the helicopter touching down, we had most of the unit putting on tool belts and swinging hammers.”
While their new home needed a lot of help from the engineers, there were many other missions to participate in and a lot of thinking about home and the journey to support the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry in Afghanistan.
The tale began in early June 2004 with a notice that these wildly disparate men would be attending a Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) drill in preparation for mobilization to Afghanistan. The two day SRP consists of vetting each soldier’s personnel and pay files, medical screening and shots, and Last Will and Testament and Power-of-Attorney preparation.
In mid-September of the same year, these same men would meet again for only the second time to begin their deployment training at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“I’d say only 30 percent of these guys have ever worked together in the past,” said Sgt. Travis Brooks, a 36 year-old former Marine from Springfield, Va. on his second deployment with the Virginia Army National Guard, “but we were at Bragg for a long time so we had a chance to build real unit cohesion.”
It was very frustrating, at times, at Bragg, said both Siebels and Brooks. They were really Iraq-centric in their training. “There was little information about what to expect or how to deal with the locals.” said Siebels, “It seems as though Afghanistan is the forgotten war.”
Like good leadership Army wide, the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps developed training opportunities to fill the gaps.
“The rigidness of the training at Bragg didn’t make adjustments for the varying missions so we stepped forward,” said Brooks. Senior leadership within the unit approached the Fort Bragg based Active Army 82nd Airborne, who had just returned from Afghanistan, for help and the 82nd responded in spades.
The 82nd Airborne responded with learning opportunities from soldiers at most enlisted levels. E-4’s and below had question and answer periods with their peers, as did E-5’s and E-6’s. There were Power Point presentations that the instructors provided that were Afghanistan centric. “This was all voluntary on their part,” said Seibels, “We tried to be proactive in going out and getting the best training that we could before we came out here and this proved to be invaluable.”
The time for training came to an end on 11 October as the 28 men boarded a bus that would take them to Baltimore Washington International Airport and ultimately to Afghanistan.
“It’s really weird, but I was more anxious than nervous,” said Seibels, “My nerves were overcome with a feeling of not getting this thing started until we got over there.”
They arrived in Bagram, Afghanistan 5 days later.
“This wasn’t at all what I expected,” said Spec. Jim DeCorte, a 29 year-old National Guard recruiter from Fairfax, Va., “I expected a lot of middle fingers and go homes and there has been none of that. The people here are happy to see us.”
After 2 days in Bagram, undergoing briefings and acclimatizing to the 6,000 foot elevation the unit headed off for their new home in Ghazni province in south-eastern Afghanistan.
FOB Ghanzi sits at nearly 8,000 and is the spoke from which military missions radiate outward. “Most of our missions here are what are called presence missions,” said Lt. Col. Blake Ortner, Commander of the 3-116th Infantry at FOB Ghazni, “We want the people here to see that we are operating as a presence here in the region.”
Life at the FOB is not all that easy. Most of the 360+ people live in unheated tents, sleep in sleeping bags on army cots and get to take two lukewarm to cold showers a week, but it’s the pace of the work that keeps them going.
“I am personally excited about being here,” said Brooks, “We are always busy and the time is flying by.”
Busy they are. In the first 6 days in the FOB, the unit has participated, all while continuing camp construction projects, in one raid on a suspected Taliban leader’s compound, one long-range, 10-day presence patrol in Wardak Province and three ammunition cache cleanups.
“When the Russians left here, they left all this crap just lying around,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Sullivan, an Explosives and Ordinance Device (EOD) expert and leader of the cache demolitions, “Our jobs here are to render all of this useless to the enemy by destroying it.”
On one day the unit blew up over 10,000 pounds of mortars, rockets and artillery shells in the cache named Nassau which is located only about 7 miles from the FOB. “We haven’t even scratched the surface yet of this one,” said Sullivan. About Sullivan, Decorte said, “EOD is awesome. They know what they are talking about and are more than willing to share the knowledge.”
The trip for the 229th to the other site in what has been called the White Mountains was a bit more challenging. The White Mountains lie deep within a treacherous range of mountains which remains a stronghold for the few Taliban that are in the area and most of the caches lie in caves on the side of mountains at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet. Each stick of C-4 explosive had to be brought up the mountain by hand on a two or three hour trek up and the cache was blown in place.
“At times the EOD had to rappel down into the holes where the ammo was,” said DeCorte, “It was really freaky there because the interpreter kept telling us this was still Taliban country and we had to get out by sundown. None of us were really nervous about that, just real cautious.”
There is a lot of work yet to be done in the area of operations of FOB Ghazni over the next year.
“If we get hot water for the showers and heat for the tents, this place will be real nice,” said DeCorte.
Regardless of the amenities at the FOB, the soldiers still think of their real homes some 9000 miles away.
“It’s hard to imagine all that we’ve accomplished in just our first week here,” said Seibels, “and home is still a year away.”