FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan — Army Lt. Col. Dave Preston and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Holder are the command team for the 801st Brigade Support Battalion, a unit that provides food, fuel, ammunition and more for soldiers assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team here.
“The challenges here in Paktika are the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my career, but our soldiers make it easy,” Preston said. “They care, and they bust their tails on a daily basis.”
Preston said he keeps his soldiers “outside the wire” much of the time, making sure the brigade’s outlying troop locations have all the supplies that they need, in keeping with the battalion’s motto: “No Mission Will Fail Due to Logistics.”
“Here at Sharana we’re living pretty good,” Preston said. “But probably five out of seven days of the week, there’s a member of this battalion out on an outlying [forward operating base or combat outpost] helping out.”
Preston said he and Holder identified their two-word mission focus as soon as they arrived in Afghanistan: support forward.
Preston said he and members of his staff visit the brigade’s 20-plus installations positioned throughout Paktika province regularly, spending two days each week walking the bases where soldiers live and identifying ways to improve living conditions.
“I ask the chain of command when I leave, ‘What are your top three needs?’ ” Preston said. “A lot of times, there’s a helicopter there the next day with what they want.” Preston said his battalion has provided the smaller posts with showers and cold-storage containers for food„ as well as ensuring regular mail and fuel delivery to even the most-remote locations.
Medical teams also regularly visit the small troop locations, Preston said, noting, “That keeps your combat power forward [and] it builds trust. Everybody knows our providers, and they love our providers.”
“We had to gain credibility by coming through,” he said. “Support soldiers kind of get a bad rap in an infantry brigade … we have to get out there and do everything we can for them, which is what we’ve done.”
Preston credits his four companies of troops with a long list of accomplishments: delivering 6 million pounds of cargo by helicopter, providing force protection for supply convoys to areas accessible by road, managing 9,400 categories of supply items, rebuilding an entire fleet of forklifts, running the medical clinic, and supplying fuel for vehicles and generators.
“They’ve never let us down when we’ve set a standard for them,” Preston said.
The lieutenant colonel said his battalion’s companies have worked hard with their Afghan counterparts.
The medical company set up and conducted a version of the Army’s Expert Field Medical Badge competition with their Afghan partners, Preston said.
The Afghan competition consisted of 15 tasks including treating a patient under fire, litter carry, evacuating a patient by helicopter, and a road march, Preston said.
“They did that for the whole day,” he said. “They’ve never done anything like that before — incredible training that the soldiers [have] had.”
Similar competitions are planned for the battalion’s other two companies, Preston said. One of the companies will run a truck rodeo with driving tasks, he said, and the other will conduct a mechanics’ rodeo.
“The Afghans love competition,” he said. “So we set that up, and for a month prior our guys are training them on all these tasks. So they get excellent training and it’s fun for them.”
Preston said he and his staff put a priority on maintaining high morale in the battalion.
“We’re here 365 days, working 18 hours-a -day, seven-days-a-week,” he said. “So we do things like monthly barbecues … we’re in combat here and we don’t lose sight of that, but we try to keep an environment where it’s not serious 24 hours-a-day.”
Holder agreed that maintaining morale for the troops has been a high priority during the deployment. Making sure the soldiers have internet access, so they can stay in touch with their families, “has been a huge morale boost,” he said.
“Something as small as allowing them to wear [physical training uniforms of shorts and T-shirts] on Sundays, when they’re not turning wrenches or working on a forklift,” gives soldiers a needed break, Holder said.
It’s also important to provide the troops with enough rest time, Holder said.
“We’ve seen what happens when you just try to work someone for 365 days,” he said. “Somewhere in the middle, they just fall on their face. So we try our best to give them one day-a-week where they can relax a little.”
Preston said he and Holder have been planning the battalion’s transition to its replacement unit for six months, streamlining contracts and clearing broken down equipment from troop locations to make the incoming unit’s job easier.
“It’s about being a professional organization,” he said. “Everybody complains about the way they get things handed to them — well, we’re not going to give [our replacements] anything to complain about.”
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