Afghanistan — Soldiers Describe Life in Paktika Province

FORWARD OPERATING BASE TILLMAN, Afghanistan, May 23, 2011 — Where and how you live as a sol­dier deployed to Afghanistan depends on the mis­sion of the unit to which you’re assigned.
Large bases hous­ing strate­gic-lev­el head­quar­ters offer wire­less Inter­net, post, cof­fee and sou­venir shops, bar­ber shops and beau­ty salons.

Forward Operating Base Tillman in Afghanistan's Paktika province
Sol­diers at For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Till­man in Afghanistan’s Pak­ti­ka province sort through mail, their main means of receiv­ing per­son­al items.
DOD pho­to by Karen Par­rish
Click to enlarge

But here and on Com­bat Out­post Munoz, where most of the sol­diers live who are assigned to the 101st Air­borne Division’s 4th “Cur­ra­hee” Brigade Com­bat Team, ‘Dog” Com­pa­ny, 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 506th Infantry Reg­i­ment, there’s not a shop to be found.

Army Sgt. Justin Payne, a team leader for 1st Pla­toon, said sol­diers receive many of their needs through the mail, sent from fam­i­ly and friends at home. “Tobac­co is a big thing,” he said. “Snacks, can­dy, … stuff like that. Mag­a­zines.”

Most sol­diers at Till­man have per­son­al com­put­ers they use to watch movies, Payne said, while sev­en pub­lic com­put­ers with Inter­net con­nec­tions and two phones are avail­able for the troops to keep in touch with their fam­i­lies and friends.

Bar­racks space is divid­ed into small ply­wood cubi­cles, Payne said, so the sol­diers who live at Till­man have some per­son­al sleep­ing space. “The liv­ing con­di­tions here are pret­ty good,” he said. “Much bet­ter than I’ve had on pre­vi­ous deploy­ments. You get a room and a show­er and a chow hall, and that’s all you real­ly need — and the abil­i­ty to call home now and then. It’s nice here.”

Army Staff Sgt. Harold B. Smith, Head­quar­ters Pla­toon sergeant and may­or of Till­man, coor­di­nates con­tract­ed ser­vices includ­ing trash removal and elec­tri­cal, plumb­ing and car­pen­try sup­port for the rough­ly 150 sol­diers based here.

Life sup­port at Till­man takes a com­bi­na­tion of big con­tract­ing com­pa­nies and local-nation­al con­tracts, Smith said. “We have one of the very few waste-water treat­ment plants here in Afghanistan,” he said. “That is a huge plus, because it allows us to have hot and cold run­ning water, which many of the [for­ward oper­at­ing bases] don’t.”

Con­tracts with Afghan com­pa­nies pro­vide heavy equip­ment to fill large bar­ri­ers with rocks and dirt and to move sup­plies and equip­ment to and from the base’s heli­copter land­ing zone, Smith said. Local work­ers also pro­vide kitchen sup­port, clean­ing and trash removal ser­vices for Till­man, he added.

About 40 life-sup­port con­trac­tors work at Till­man, with an addi­tion­al 80 force-pro­tec­tion work­ers who man the entry con­trol point, guard tow­ers and one of the obser­va­tion points in the hills over­look­ing the base, Smith said. Four new guard tow­ers have improved secu­ri­ty with­in and around the base, he added.

Sol­diers at Till­man agree the base is in much bet­ter con­di­tion than it was when they arrived, but it’s the Munoz out­post, about five miles to the north­west, where Dog Com­pa­ny has cre­at­ed the most dra­mat­ic improve­ments.

Army Capt. Edwin Churchill, com­pa­ny com­man­der, said Munoz was the unit’s base of oper­a­tions for the first three months of their deploy­ment, when the head­quar­ters ele­ment moved to Till­man.

The pre­vi­ous unit at Munoz had only about 30 sol­diers liv­ing there, Churchill said, and the force pro­tec­tion con­di­tions were not good. Munoz sits in a bowl sur­round­ed by hills, and the base reg­u­lar­ly is attacked from those peaks by ene­my rock­ets and machine-gun and small-arms fire.

Churchill manned the post with 75 to 90 sol­diers at a time after his com­pa­ny moved in, and they set to work fill­ing bar­ri­ers and sand­bags to pro­tect against ene­my fire. Sol­diers also added for­ti­fied fir­ing posi­tions and mor­tar points to defend the out­post.

The labor was very phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing, with all of Munoz involved, Churchill said, not­ing that when the unit arrived, it had no heavy equip­ment to help with the work. Churchill and his troops have added sev­er­al large bar­ri­ers through­out the Munoz com­pound to pro­vide cov­er dur­ing attacks, and have built up the base defens­es. “We added extra indi­rect sys­tems. … The ene­my can’t sup­press all of them at once,” he said.

Churchill said through prac­tice, the sol­diers at Munoz have learned how to defend the out­post quick­ly and effec­tive­ly. “The nice thing about [the ene­my] is they’re absolute­ly pre­dictable; they use the same posi­tions every time,” he said. “So we have a lot of the [tar­get­ing] infor­ma­tion dialed in on them.”

Dog Com­pa­ny has suf­fered no seri­ous injuries or deaths at Munoz, the com­man­der said, though they’ve been attacked as many as four times in one week. Churchill said the com­pa­ny has also worked to make the base more com­fort­able for sol­diers.

“When we got here, … two sol­diers lived in each 60-square-foot room. It was ridicu­lous­ly tight — very poor liv­ing con­di­tions,” he said.

Dog Com­pa­ny added ply­wood build­ings for stor­age, and built small cubi­cles inside brick-and-mor­tar struc­tures to pro­vide more pri­va­cy in sol­dier liv­ing space, Churchill said. Dog Com­pa­ny is clos­ing Munoz, as their year in Afghanistan comes to an end. Churchill said the out­post essen­tial­ly is in a cul-de-sac in Pak­ti­ka province’s Gayan dis­trict, and sol­diers can be more effec­tive in the coun­terin­sur­gency fight clos­er to more traf­ficked and pop­u­lat­ed areas.

Army Spc. Jonathan Loun­ds, a team leader for Dog Company’s 2nd Pla­toon, has lived at Munoz for eight months.

“You get used to it, and it becomes like home,” Loun­ds said. “We put up a show­er the oth­er day; that was nice.”

Munoz has no run­ning water, so sol­diers use bot­tled water for every­thing, Loun­ds said. Bath­room facil­i­ties con­sist of uri­nal tubes set into the ground, with small plas­tic “wag bags” pro­vid­ed for sol­id waste, which is burned.

Army Sgt. Bran­don Eng­land is the sig­nal sup­port sys­tems spe­cial­ist for Dog Com­pa­ny, and has spent most of the deploy­ment at Munoz. He said the company’s sol­diers worked hard to make the out­post safer and more defen­si­ble.

“The guys, from sunup to sun­down, just bust­ed their butts,” Eng­land said. “The [com­pa­ny com­man­der] put us to work.”

Dog Com­pa­ny added enough walls and bar­ri­ers to make Munoz feel secure, Eng­land said.

“We’ve built it up quite a bit,” he said. “It’s not bad now – I actu­al­ly like it more here [than at Till­man]. Something’s always going on, and it’s small, so you don’t have to go search­ing for peo­ple.

“We’ve had some pret­ty good fights out here,” said he added. “It made time go by fast.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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