How does a FOB wither? It starts with the luxuries.
The contracted caterers left a week ago, so the Army has gone back to feeding itself. (Thursday night is Meals Ready to Eat night). The Post Exchange (PX) where soldiers could shop for non-essential items like candy and deodorant closed up the week before that. The garbage guys are no longer picking up. By the end of this week, Sniper Hill, the Afghanistan-wide FOB internet service provider, will remove its routers, equipment and personnel. Across the base, soldiers can be seen dumping those luxuries that they won’t be carrying home. Everything from rugs to lamps is piling up around the dumpsters. Everything that exits the base goes by helicopter, or by road, and everything that leaves needs to be provided protection.
Early one morning last week I took a ride along with the Quick Reaction Force on hand for convoy support. The QRF group of armored vehicles filled with Third Cavalry infantry leapfrogged ahead of the draw-down convoy at various points to be ready to assist in case the convoy came under attack.
Like all things ‘Army,’ the QRF team liked to get a jump-start on the day, so we set off into the pitch dark at around 2 a.m. in advance of the convoy. Inside the armored vehicles all white lights are off. Conditions are cramped. Every spare space is filled with ammunition, and what remains is stuffed with soldiers. Drawing in the pitch black is not an easy thing for obvious reasons, but I managed these thanks to my red headlight. Sometime in the middle of the night we heard over the radio that five rockets had been fired at the FOB we had just left.
All of the rockets had passed over the base and impacted inside the much larger FOB Thunder. Fortunately none found a target. Eventually the artillery on base reached out and touched the source of the rockets, although likely the perpetrators were long gone.
How do you safely draw down defensive weapons? I stopped by the mortar pits to try and find out. A mortar is an indirect fire weapon. The mortar shell is lobbed upwards in a parabolic arc, directed to its target by a crew using coordinates calculated by radar-equipped computer or human intel. Different types of shells can be used for different situations. And through some witchcraft and wizardry of radar, it is possible for the mortar team to react quickly and return fire at the source of the incoming rockets. With great precision. Potentially stemming the flow.
The 120-millimeter mortar tube sat in its pit waiting to respond either in support of troops in a firefight, or in response to incoming rockets or mortars. Having made my introductions to the team on duty, I sat myself down in the late morning furnace of sand and gravel at the edge of the pit for this sketch. I think I actually got sunburned through my hat.
In a building off to one side of the mortar pit, Sgt. Christopher White sat listening intently to radio traffic in case his mortar is suddenly required in support of troops in contact. It is his third tour in Afghanistan; he is two months in. I asked him about the challenges of withdrawing assets that might suddenly be required.
“I am pretty sure we will be on one of the last birds out,” he said. “We have to provide the support that the base needs even while a lot of our equipment is leaving. We’ll move out in two different shifts, one about a week before the other.”
But it highlights the conundrum of drawing down a weapon that is actively standing-off the enemy by five miles. I asked him about the rocket attack of the previous day.
“I think the enemy here, they know our limits [in range] because they always seem to fire from just outside the limits of what we can shoot,” he said. “I don’t think they were expecting our artillery though.”
The other main part of the FOB’s built-in long-range defense is its artillery pieces. I stopped by the compound where the two massive M-triple seven(777) Howitzers lay like sleeping dragons in the fine talcum powder dust. The crew of seven that it takes to fire the gun can put a shell on target within 30 seconds after receiving data from the fire direction center.
When I arrived, the gun crew was in the middle of a drill in which they were laying out the cables that will allow the gun to be lifted by a Chinook helicopter when it is drawn down in the coming weeks. I offered my usual explanations and received the standard blank stares. “You’re a journalist that draws pictures?”
However, after I showed them the sketch from the mortar pit, their enthusiasm for having a journalist around grew. They all really love their gun. At their suggestion I sat down to draw the second gun, which was in the next pit over, standing ready to fire.
This sketch was a real bugger. When I had pictured drawing an artillery piece, I was figuring it would be just like a mortar except with a couple of wheels, but this was a whole other beast. To make things even more challenging, the sun was high, and I was going to have to work in full sun. I really wrestled with this. More than twice I had to get up, walk around the gun and try and figure out what exactly I was looking at. I really wanted to simplify it down, but to do that I had to know it intimately. I came so close to throwing my sunburned arms in the air and stomping away. I had so many questions.
Luckily, there were folks on hand to keep me straight on everything to do with the weapon and the plan for its withdrawal from theater. I sat down with Sgt. 1st Class Rodel Yadao, a short, stocky, no-bull 19-year veteran of the Army.
“I have never actually shut down a FOB before. But we need to keep fighting capability in at least one gun for as long as possible. The commander is assuming as little risk as possible by keeping us as long as he can, but they do have to get us out eventually,” said Yadao. “Then we will need to switch to mortar assets for protection.”
But moving the guns is a very complex and dangerous operation. The guns, each of which weigh four and a half tons, have to be airlifted out by a Chinook helicopter and taken back to Bagram Air Field. “There will be two of our guys standing on the gun with the cables in their hands, and two more guys holding on to their legs,” he said. The chopper “has to get in real close and real low.”
It is never easy moving guns like this, but because the artillery area is so confined and the helicopter is so large it is made the operation doubly difficult for pilots and gunners at FOB Lightning. “The Chinook can, at times because of its size and downdraft, create its own brown-out. A lot of rocks and dust can kick up,” explained the sergeant. “If we do it at night it would be even more challenging because the helicopters will come in totally blacked out.”
Yadao has all kinds of experience in moving these weapons systems, but he has seen it all go horribly wrong before. “I have seen guns get dragged across the fire point, I have seen guns become lawn darts, I have seen guns cut loose from the helicopter by a nervous crew chief at 20-feet in the air. Most of our guys have never had an opportunity to do this before, and it can be very dangerous if something goes wrong.”
If the complex removal is completely successful, the base will be much more dependent on other more expensive and slower to respond air assets.
I am pretty settled in at this soon-to-be-vacated FOB. There’s the morning routine of stepping outside into the blinding sunlight at six a.m. and shielding my eyes while cursing loudly. Then my morning game of breakfast roulette at the dining facility, aka DFAC. Say what you want about the Army, but nobody does acronyms like they do. Nobody. There is a joke that they even have one for cutlery — KFS — obviously, but that it stands for Kinetic Feeding System. Or maybe I just made that up. I usually skip the lunch and work through till it is close to dark before returning once again to the DFAC for some more inbound nutrients. My day usually ends when I start nodding off while typing the next blog post or replying to readers. Thanks to all who have written by the way. Here is a sketch I did of my bedroom/office in Barracks Hut 603.
But despite these comforts of Lightning home, tomorrow I am heading north to FOB Shank to spend some days with the infantry of the Third Cav, who are attempting to overcome their own rocket problem — by taking them on outside of the wire.
More of my Drawing the Drawdown dispatches from Afghanistan are featured in this special app, which allows you to use your cursor to hover over the sketches and see the detail.
Meanwhile, whether in theater or on the local train, the same rules apply: Get out there and start drawing. Draw what you see — and live — and send it in. I’ll publish it here in the deepest vault of Washington Post blogging. And please stop by when you can, and if you like what you see, pass on the blog link to all and sundry.
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