Soldier?s Report: A day in the life of the 829th Engineer Company
Editor’s note: The Star Journal will be publishing periodic articles from Sgt. Rick Peterson of Rhinelander during his deployment to Afghanistan.
In my last report, I opened with commentary about beginning our mission here in Afghanistan and indicated that in future articles I would make an effort to go into more detail on what we are accomplishing. With this article, I hope to provide you with a picture of our efforts and what an ordinary day looks like for a soldier assigned to the large-scale retrograde effort here.
We are assigned to the CentCom Material Recovery Element (CMRE). CMRE is the overarching effort to redistribute, dispose of and reduce excess material in Afghanistan. As a small part of that enormous undertaking, the 829th Engineer Company is tasked with an ever-changing variety of missions that includes taking down large tents used for soldier living quarters, tearing down buildings, putting tents up in different locations from where we took them down, removing equipment and more.
The 829 soldiers are parsed out to an assortment of locations throughout Afghanistan, in platoon-sized elements. Each platoon has specific missions, and each mission is different from the others in one way, shape or form. In one case, a platoon has been assisting to reduce the overall size of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) that they are staying at. In order to do so, rows and rows of tents must be disassembled and packed into containers. Some are then moved farther inward on the FOB and reassembled.
Before I go further, perhaps I can better describe for you the tents that I am referencing. These are not your average tents designed for a weekend of camping. They are approximately 20 feet wide by 32 feet long, and stand roughly 10 feet high. Generally, a wooden or aluminum deck is constructed for the tent to be built on. The tent skeleton is comprised of square aluminum tubing and is covered by heavy-duty fabric from end to end, top and bottom. A large rectangular frame is assembled as the base and the floor is laid out and then stretched to fit the frame. Arches are then assembled and attached to the base as the main support system. Each tent has a hard door enclosure on the front and a soft door on the rear. A separate covering that includes each doorway must be stretched over the arch at each end and secured tightly before the large tent cover can be installed. Ropes threaded along the edges of the tent fabric secure the tent to the aluminum frame at the bottom and sandbags are placed all around the outside of the base, two, three, or sometimes up to five or six layers high. The sandbag’s primary purpose is to hold the tent firmly in place, but may also add a layer of protection from a variety of hazards. Large tent stakes are driven into the ground at intervals along each side to anchor the tent to the ground with ropes.
Once the outer structure is assembled, the inside of the tent can be completed. An inner layer of insulation is strung under the skeleton and held in place with hook and pile fastening strips. A large vinyl tube is hung from the uppermost support and serves as the heating and cooling vent for the tent. At one end, it attaches to a circular opening in the tent fabric and through that to an environmental control unit (ECU) on the outside. ECUs are generally operated by large generators that supply power to a series of tents. Finally, a circuit-breaker box and electrical wiring are installed in the tent for lighting and electrical outlets. The “wiring” is essentially a long extension cord along each wall or along the center of the tent, with light fixtures set at regular intervals and another extension cord with outlets, also set at similar intervals along the sides of the tent. (Those who have access to the Internet and would like a general idea of how one of these is put together may see it on YouTube by searching “Assembling Alaska Structures” on their preferred search engine.)
“Tent cities” are found on nearly every base, camp or outpost in Afghanistan. Rows and rows of tents house any number of soldiers and are spread throughout these compounds. Just as they were built to house soldiers and perform as shelters for other operations during Operation Enduring Freedom, so must they come down as OEF draws to a close.
Recently, while walking through a now uninhabited portion of our assigned compound, I had the feeling I was traversing a post-apocalyptic wasteland. In the quiet heat of the day, piles of abandoned rugs, blankets, tables, chairs, plastic totes, mattresses and clothing lay strewn along graveled avenues. Each avenue was flanked by rows of vacant cement slabs encircled with haphazardly strewn stacks of dust-covered green and brown sandbags. A random tent stood alone here and there, adding to the sense that the place had been struck by a supernatural force that had indiscriminately demolished the expanse, leaving it uninhabitable. The entire area is littered with abandoned equipment and property left by soldiers who seem to have evaporated into thin air.
In reality, soldiers in exodus from the compound simply left behind accumulated trappings that could not be shuttled home in their duffle bags. Neither could those things be passed on to incoming soldiers, as no one would be there to replace them in those billets. With the area scheduled for retrograde and with clean-up in the early stages, accrued accoutrements that would normally have been gifted or sold to replacement troops were left to be sorted through and perhaps become the found treasures of soldiers like us who are part of the deconstruction crew, or of local nationals contracted to perform site clean-up.
There is much more to tell, but I promised to present a picture of what an ordinary day is like, and I will close with that. Six days each week, we are awake soon after dawn. After we perform our daily hygiene rituals and don our uniforms and boots, we walk the half-mile or so to the DFAC for morning chow. Soon after, with our bellies full of breakfast, we make the return trek to our tents, grab our gear and then load onto trucks to roll out to our respective job sites and begin the workday. Depending on the pace and rigor of the work, we may take breaks every 40 minutes or so in order to cool ourselves in some shade and to rehydrate. The oppressive heat generally calls for hourly breaks, and most certainly calls for the consumption of large quantities of water throughout the day (on days that reach 110?F, or higher, it is not uncommon for a soldier to drink 15-20 16-oz. bottles of water, or more). Around mid-day, we break for lunch and spend an hour or so re-energizing ourselves for the remainder of the work ahead. Late in the afternoon, we wrap up in time to eat supper and return to our tents to escape the heat and climb out of our sweaty, dust-covered uniforms. Evenings are reserved for preparing our gear for the next day, going to the gym to maintain fitness, connecting with family back at home, or maybe going to the USO for rest and relaxation. Then, a nightly meeting to go over the plan for the next day and it’s off to the shower trailer to clean up. Finally, it’s time to hit the rack so we can get some rest and do it all over again tomorrow.