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Preparing for the Big Chill

A haze of dark, coarse dust hung thickly in the air in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, coating the workers as they labored in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun. They had been digging dirt to fill sandbags since dawn, even though they had only arrived at the isolated base late the night before after a grinding, 15-hour trip. “Just 300 more sandbags,” someone called out. It was already almost dusk, and the real work for the week had not even started.

Paktika’s harsh winter was on the way, and it was not stopping for anyone. The paratroopers of the “Market Garden” combat logistics patrol (CLP), 782d Brigade Support Battalion (BSB), 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82d Airborne Division, had arrived to stock the 173d Airborne Brigade “Sky Soldiers,” based at the remote Bandar Command Observation Post (COP), with enough food, fuel, and supplies to make it through the next few months. Once snow came, Paktika would be closed off except by air.

They had been told that the mission to winterize the Bandar COP was going to be difficult, but the team had heard that before. It was Wednesday, 10 October 2007, and the list of tasks was daunting. They had to build and fill a 50,000-gallon fuel farm, install a trailer-sized refrigeration unit, and, using excavation vehicles, extend the outpost’s helicopter landing zone. They also had to stock the COP’s supply of food and water for the next few months using one of the largest air supply drops in the history of Operation Enduring Freedom. All of this had to be completed in just 6 to 8 days.

“We’re going to get it done in 3,” Staff Sergeant Gerald Mickelson, the CLP platoon sergeant, said confidently. As the dust finally began to settle and the first day’s laborious sandbag filling came to a close, it was easy to see how.

“These guys are breaking their backs doing this,” said Army Master Sergeant Stephen Widener, the 782d BSB’s force protection noncommissioned officer-in-charge, as he helped shovel the dirt that was beginning to shape the sides of the rectangular pit of the fuel farm. They would be able to lay down a liner and start getting the giant fuel bag in place the following day.

A team had already left to survey the drop zone for the next day’s airdrop in the valley below. “It’s going to be quite a show,” said Air Force Captain Brian Beisheim, a C–130 pilot who was acting as the air mobility liaison officer for the drop. He hoped everything would go smoothly. “This is an exceptionally big drop,” Captain Beisheim explained. “I’ve never actually heard of anything like this.”

The first vehicles rolled down the steep road into the valley at 0600 on Thursday. It was brisk at first, but as the sun cast long shadows across the nearby ruins, the valley warmed up and the CLP’s larger vehicles made their way into a waiting formation.

Hours later, two C–17 Globemasters could be heard high overhead making their first pass over the landing zone. On their third pass, a thick trail of combat delivery system bundles came pouring out of the aircraft’s open cargo doors. The emerald green parachutes furled open—a sharp contrast against the clear blue sky—bringing all but one of bundles safely to the ground. The trucks on the ground immediately roared to life and drove into the mess of tangled risers and billowing chutes, where the 782d paratroopers laboriously spent the next 4 hours collecting parachutes and recovering boxes. Sling-loaders used cranes to hoist the bundles up off the ground onto the backs of their heavy trucks. Helicopters came from a nearby base to airlift them back up to the COP, nestled high up on the plateau.

After the bundles were all cleared from the drop zone, the team moved the collected parachutes into the helicopters for transport back to Forward Operating Base Salerno.

The team had collectively muscled more than 15 tons of water, food, parachutes, and packing materials. “Everything we do involves manual labor,” Sergeant Mickelson commented, his face caked with powdered sand from the many helicopter passes. “It always does—every time. It’s just part of our day’s work, and when we go out to a mission, we expect to work our backs off.”

When the CLP vehicles returned to Bandar COP, the recovery team was amazed to find that the fuel farm was mostly constructed by the team members who were left behind. With the help of the paratroopers of the 173d, they also had unloaded the supply bundles brought by the helicopters and stored the packages of meals, ready-to-eat; bottled water; fruit; and other food and drink items. The sizeable refrigeration unit had already been lifted over the walls of the post by a crane they had escorted there.

It was again well after dark by the time everyone was able to call it quits for the day, eat dinner, shower, and go to bed. Many went right to sleep.

The next day started with another early morning. Part of the team finished setting up the fuel farm, stabilized it with the hundreds of sandbags, and started filling it with fuel. Others used their small excavation vehicles to move earth to expand the landing zone for helicopters bearing supplies and personnel to land. By midday, all tasks were completed.

Looking at the Bandar COP’s dining facility packed with food and water, the 50,000 gallons of fuel, and a freshly up-sized helicopter landing zone, the 782d paratroopers were very proud of themselves. They had supplied the COP for the whole winter, so the Soldiers would have what they needed to keep fighting the enemy.

Army Logistician thanks Specialist Micah E. Clare, a public affairs specialist with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82d Airborne Division, for the photos and story.