By Laura Walker
Fifteen hours is a tremendous barrier. It is the obstacle preventing one village from attaining the assistance of another and surviving a drought. It is the reason a trip to the hospital, or receiving an education, aren’t realistic options. Fifteen hours is what stands in the way of commerce between two provinces. It prevents communication between neighbors only 80 kilometers apart. Fifteen hours is the reason for isolation. Before Task Force Pacemaker began work, the drive between Kandahar and Tarin-Kowt took fifteen hours. Upon completion of the road it will take only three. The end of geographical isolation will be a new beginning for hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan.
An international effort, the road connecting Tarin-kowt and Kandahar, or theTK road, is a project involving the support of the United Nations, Indian contractors, and United States Army troop labor. Construction of the road has spanned fourteen months, 117 kilometers, two adjustments to election dates, and two different Army Engineer rotations. Road construction began during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) 5 with the 528th Engineer Battalion, out of Louisiana. They competed 46.5 kilometers of road between July of 2004 and February of 2005. When TF Pacemaker took over construction during OEF 6, they were told that the estimated completion date for the TK road was early spring of 2006. Since assuming the mission in April of 2005, Task Force Pacemaker has demonstrated a need for speed and focus on the objective.
Road construction in theater involves route planning, surveying, jobsite security, sustaining the flow of material and water, and continual maintenance of heavy engineer equipment. It is best described as an endurance sport; not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted. Traditionally progress is made a few hundred meters at a time, using the same methods and techniques every day. Efficient use of equipment crew rotations, establishing and working from Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), using material along the route, and relying on soldiers to adopt roles outside of their military occupational specialties are some of the techniques which TF Pacemaker has used to streamline the process. The soldiers don’t view this road as just another project, and perhaps that’s why they’ve been able to sustain such a furious pace. TF Commander, LTC Paul Paolozzi explains that the attitude of his troops stems from partially from their understanding of the mission’s importance. “It’s inspiring to be a part of the long-term success of this nation… I can’t think of a more permanent and significant impact than making a road to connect people.” No matter the source of their motivation, by mid-September, TF Pacemaker will have completed a remarkable 70 kilometers of road work directly through some of the toughest terrain Afghanistan has to offer.
To finalize the exact path, surveyors and a security team are sent ahead of construction to determine which parts of the terrain best accommodate the road. The climate and terrain of Afghanistan (thick dust, deep waddis, and harsh weather) have presented many challenges. Often, designs which looked good on paper, involve moving mountains on the ground. It is critical to establish the projected route prior to entering any towns. Soldiers must be able to articulate their intentions to the surrounding locals, in particular the village elder, before barging through. There are often different factions within a town and the path of the road has been adjusted by mere feet to accommodate the wishes of local farmers. 1LT Brian Meister, the earth moving platoon leader of C/864th lists civilians on the jobsite as the single biggest security challenge in the south. “They are everywhere and impossible to keep entirely off. The enemy is not easily identified, so anyone driving a pickup through the jobsite could pose a potential risk.” 1LT Patrick Sullivan, the earth moving platoon leader in A/864th has experienced the same type of concerns on the northern effort.
While we were standing on the hill, looking down at the proposed route, an audience began to form. The children came out first, and then the men of the village... as the crowd grew larger… I began to get just a little nervous. I told the captain who has been in the country for about a year; he quickly turned around and began shaking hands with the crowd, so I followed… It was an event that I will never forget. There are some bad people in the area, but for the most part, the population is tired of the last twenty years of war and corruption. They were just happy to see the guys who were building them a road.
Road work is divided into three basic teams of heavy equipment operators. The first team clears and grubs the area with dozers, taking off the top layers of soil and pushing through hills or small plants. The dozers are followed by a grader, which levels off the area. The next team raises the sub-base with material harvested from the borrow pit, an area determined to have the best material for use on the road. Dump trucks and scrapers are used to put between 8 and 12 inches of material on top of the cleared path. Graders then go over the path again to even out the road and start putting on the crown, a slope off the center of the road for drainage. Finally comes the finishing team. A water truck is used to wet the soil so that the rollers can compact the material in a series of lifts. Once complete, the soil dries and hardens into a road. In order to reach their deadlines each day, all of these teams must work together at a steady rate. As A/864th commander, CPT Chad Suitonu puts it, “It’s not a question of if we will meet our goals; it’s a matter of how.”
It is a continuous challenge to keep up the flow of water and material for compaction. TF Pacemaker has relied on what they could harvest along the way, setting up borrow pits as they move down the route and asking local towns to share their wells. The standard for road construction is twelve inches of the best available fill material on the existing grade of the road. Attaining 95% compaction of that material is what makes a road a road. Finding the right material is so critical to achieving compaction that earthmovers have hauled over five kilometers in order to continue use of particularly good fill. Earthmoving platoon leaders are primarily responsible for scouting out these potential dig sites. 1LT Sullivan compares finding the best material to digging for gold. It is either buried somewhere, or covered with something, and you can never be sure what you’ll find until you dig. The soldiers do their best to identify areas with shale along the hillside. After they’ve identified a potential site, they send a dig team to check it out. “The stuff we’ve found so far that has worked best is a red shale, it’s also been black…it’s a good material, “said 1LT Sullivan, of the material being used in the north,” It compacts very well, breaks up nicely; there’s not big chucks after you roll it. It gives you a real nice, compacted, firm sub-base.”
1LT Brian Meister, the earthmoving platoon leader in C/864th faces the same challenge from the south. “Finding good material involves identifying what soils provide optimal properties for constructing a road that is both durable and smooth, “he says. Once the crews find a material they think they can use, they send it out to be tested, which takes about three days. Testing is done by Lewis Berger Group, an Indian contracting company that has become one of TF Pacemaker’s greatest allies. “Working with LBG has been great,” says CPT Stan Wiechnik, the commander of C/926th,”They have built roads in third world countries with similar geography and technical restrictions. They have been a great asset to me to determine the best method of construction and the best materials to use.” LBG weighs the mass of material and compares it to material compacted to 100%. Once they gain approval, the earth movers can scrape off the topsoil in that location and open up a new pit; ideally close to the construction site. Finding resources along the route just ahead of where the road crews are currently working takes both luck and timing. TF Pacemaker’s ability to consistently plan ahead and find that balance contributes to their steady speed towards completion.
The leadership at Pacemaker is all about efficiency. With a few key pieces of equipment driving the construction effort, maintenance is critical; conducting regular checks and services on the vehicles are an essential part of the work cycle. The Animals have supplemented their earthmoving platoon with soldiers from headquarters and the vertical platoons in order to have enough manpower to support two crew rotations. The first team shows up at 0015 Zulu to begin preventative maintenance checks and services (PMCS) of the equipment. They receive a safety brief at 0040z and roll out the gate by 0100z to begin work on the road. They operate for five and a half hours, from 0130z to 0700z. From 0700z-0715z the operators of both teams conduct a fifteen minute shift change; discussing any problems with the equipment and what remains to be completed that day. When the first team returns, they eat lunch and do another half hour of maintenance. Team two’s work day starts at 0500z, when they pull maintenance on any downed equipment. They receive their safety brief at 0630z, eat lunch, and head to the jobsite to conduct a shift change with team one. Team two works until 1430z. This rotation schedule allows the Animals to get thirteen hours of work on the road each day, and pull the necessary maintenance, without driving the equipment operators into the ground. As CPT Suitonu tells me, “A soldier can’t sit on a dozer twelve hours a day; seven hours is okay though.”
TF Pacemaker began work on both ends of the road with A/864th and C/926th in the North, C/864th in the south, and the support of HSC/864th in both areas. It soon became apparent that to maximize time spent working on the road, they would have to minimize travel time to the jobsite. The Task Force would need to work from another start point; FOB Pacemaker. 1LT Sara Cullen, executive officer of the Animals, explains that,” The mission here is to provide a forward operating base between FOB Tiger and FOB Ripley so that we can work from the middle towards completion of the road… right now each location is commuting over an hour…” Prior to occupation of Pacemaker, soldiers were spending 90 minutes each way just getting to the jobsite, leaving precious few hours of actual work on the road. Since the unit’s jump to the FOB, their production rate has nearly doubled. The same increase in efficiency is soon expected from the engineers at FOB Kodiak, a new forward operating base to be occupied by C/864th.
The Alpha Company Animals built FOB Pacemaker from the moon dust up. A big part of their mission included accounting for force protection in an area new to US Military forces. The First Sergeant of A/864, 1SG Martin Pullman, describes their first few days saying, “We didn’t know if there was enemy in the area, so we had to assume that there was. We had to balance between setting up force protection and pulling security … using over watch positions allowed us to put the maximum amount of effort on building the FOB itself.” In less than two weeks, they were fully operational. Recently, FOB Pacemaker has served another function; supporting combat arms operations in the area. A small but steady flow of Special Forces and Infantrymen have benefited from Pacemaker hospitality, enjoying a meal, shower, or place to rest between missions. Though they don’t have much, Animal soldiers don’t mind sharing and generally agree that it’s nice to have our comrades in arms in the area.
In addition to security on the FOBs, soldiers must maintain security on the jobsite. This is challenging for a road project because construction requires troops to go directly against many of the fundamentals of defense. They work in the same spot, headed in the same direction, using the same equipment rotations day after day. There is nothing covert about the Scraper, a 33,000 lb piece of equipment. Since they can be seen from kilometers away, the Pacemakers adopt a fierce posture. Engineer soldiers man the vehicle mounted crew served weapons at both ends of the construction site. They halt vehicle traffic and search the personnel before allowing passage around the construction site. A roving security vehicle is used to patrol the surrounding areas, and observe the area from different positions. An interpreter and a female soldier are always included in the security detail, available to assist with communication or searching local national females. These measures have resulted in 100% success rate; not a single Pacemaker soldier has been attacked while working on the road.
Continued development is essential to peace building in Afghanistan. The road between Tarin-Kowt and Kandahar will provide developmental access to rural areas which never existed before. As 1LT Sullivan puts it, “This road is not just an engineering feat; it is a show of political force.” The five month reduction in project duration by Task Force Pacemaker becomes five months gained by the new government towards progress. The fifteen hours of travel cut down to three are hours gained by Afghan citizens towards opportunity. Every cut of the TK road is another blow to the primary weapons of the Taliban, isolation and hardship. When Pacemaker soldiers watch the ribbon cutting on September 15th, every soldier can exhale with relief, joy, and pride in a job well done.
About The Author
1LT Laura Walker was an Army Engineer officer currently serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan. She graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in May of 2003, with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. In February of 2004, 1LT Walker deployed to Iraq with the 555th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. In March of 2005, she deployed to Afghanistan with B/864th Combat Engineer Battalion (Heavy), where she completed her fifteen months as a platoon leader.
September 2005 Updated Information:
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Laura Walker, Task Force Pacemaker, was killed in action on 18 August 2005 in Delak, Aghanistan. She proudly wore the 4th Infantry Division combat patch on her right shoulder, a distinction she shared with both of her grandfathers from their service with the Division in both World War II and Vietnam. Her awards and decorations include: the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal (1OLC), Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Combat Action Badge, and Air Assault Badge
Please visit: http://www.west-point.org/users/usma2003/60262/ for a Memorial site that honors Laura M. Walker.