FORWARD OPERATING BASE WOLVERINE, Afghanistan — Capt. Joshua Kelly pointed to the whiteboard filled with a handwritten timeline of the impending troop withdrawals and facility closures scheduled for Forward Operating Base Wolverine.
“This is really rough, and it’s done with very little knowledge of how long it will actually take to shut things down,” he said.
Kelly and his fellow officers with the headquarters company of Combined Task Force Viper had prepared the timeline hurriedly the night before, and were now explaining it to a small group of Air Force civil engineers who had flown in from Kandahar Air Field last month to help the Army units close the base.
Across Afghanistan, military engineers are at the center of the effort to reduce the American presence and to turn remaining facilities over to the Afghan security forces in time for the end of the international combat mission in 2014.
Like many coalition bases before it — and like many more to come — FOB Wolverine is scheduled to disappear, slated to close at the end of August. The base hosts AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters, among others at a bustling heliport.
Closing the base down is no small task. Like many officers in charge of other bases, Task Force Viper’s commanders are looking for help.
Shutting things down
Even as its officers have been ordered to start shutting things down, new units were scheduled to rotate into Wolverine. To allow their mission to continue in the interim, Air Force civil engineers — in this case from the 777th Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force Squadron — are being dispatched to help plan the complex logistics required to shutter a developed base like Wolverine.
The 777th focuses not only on designing facilities, surveying, construction, inspections and repairs, but also on master planning.
“The biggest thing that hurts these guys closing is people still being sent to fly missions,” said Capt. Jon Hall, who led the small team of engineers on this trip to Wolverine.
In this case, he praised the detailed timeline but noted that waiting to start dismantling major base facilities until the various units left wouldn’t leave enough time for the job to be completed properly. Among his initial recommendations were to consider shutting down the large mess hall and squeezing more people into prefabricated rooms or moving them into shared tents.
First Sgt. Bernard Brooks, a member of Task Force Viper, who is working with Kelly to prepare the closure, said their biggest concern is closing the base safely. They are looking to the civil engineers to give them ideas for how to achieve that.
“We are really looking for their experience and guidance,” he said. “We see them as the subject matter experts.”
Air Force engineers had been corresponding with Task Force Viper for weeks, and made the fact-finding trip to tour the base and to talk with its leaders.
After their visits to various Forward Operating Bases, the team prepares a series of recommendations, detailed timelines and maps in a package that can be used as guidance by local commanders.
“We come in and give them a range of options, and they can take what they find useful,” Hall said. “We want to help them know how to handle stuff, how to protect themselves, and the physically best way to move things out. But there’s several ways to skin a cat, so they can change things as they need.”
Brooks said they already had a good idea of what needed to be done to close the base, but were worried about carrying it out smoothly while continuing to conduct missions.
“It’s going to get done, but we just want to make sure it is done the best way possible,” he said. “But at the end of the day, until we get word from higher up, our focus will be on flying missions.”
Turning things over
Engineers with the 777th note that there are challenges not just in shutting down bases, but also when turning facilities over to the Afghans.
“It’s important that we leave the Afghans with things they can actually use,” said 777th commander Lt. Col. J.J. Loschinskey in an interview at Kandahar Air Field. “We’ve backed away from complex buildings in favor of ones that can be maintained by the Afghans.”
In January, for example, a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found a $7.3 million, purpose-built camp for Afghan police practically deserted.
“It can be frustrating to watch,” said 777th Master Sgt. Tim Bayes, who described a micro-hydroelectric plant provided by coalition forces in Laghman Province that was “completely destroyed” within a couple of months as its parts were stripped away. “Someone valued selling off the parts more than the plant.”
To minimize such incidents, Loschinskey said, during recent years, engineers have shifted to a more local style of building. Still, he said, challenges remain.
“It can be tough,” Loschinskey said. “It is a different culture, so they don’t view some things as important.”