KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — For most of the war in Afghanistan, soldiers have been asked to build up the coalition presence, moving tons of equipment to smaller outposts while constructing new infrastructure.
But with the war winding down, Fort Bragg soldiers are now leading efforts to reverse that earlier work.
More than 100 soldiers with the 82nd Sustainment Brigade form the core of the U.S. Central Command Material Recovery Element, a conglomerate of units that is made up of about 3,500 soldiers. Their mission is to help process the equipment that has built up in Afghanistan while also helping to shrink or close military bases.
82nd Sustainment soldiers are spread across about 30 bases in Afghanistan, officials said, but their efforts are mostly focused at three retrosort yards — one each at Bagram Airfield in the east, Kandahar Airfield in the south and Camp Pratt in the north.
The largest retrosort yard is in Kandahar, near the 82nd Sustainment and CMRE headquarters.
There, soldiers, defense civilians and contractors sort through a steady stream of equipment.
From dusty telephones to boots and shovels, each item is sorted before computer programs help officials decide whether the equipment should be destroyed, transferred to the Afghan government or sent back to military posts in the United States.
Col. Mark Collins, commander of the 82nd Sustainment Brigade, said it was a massive effort — and a team effort with partners from other defense agencies and Reserve and National Guard units from across the country.
"We've been given a lot of really good equipment," he said of the more than a decade of war. "We have not wanted for supplies."
He described the process by which much of that equipment is being recycled — either to be reused in theater, turned over to the Afghans or actually recycled at scrap yards around Afghanistan.
"We understand budgets are important," Collins said. "We're protecting the investments that were made. Everything that leaves this theater is touched by a member of the CMRE."
Based in part on lessons learned from Iraq, Collins said the Command Material Recovery Element was a unique mission, complicated by terrain and the continuing needs of battle space commanders, but driven by a mission to be good stewards of American tax dollars.
To date, more than $1 billion in equipment has been returned to the military inventory in the U.S.
Another $5 billion has been recovered from coalition bases in Afghanistan. And $711,000 worth of unneeded medical supplies was donated to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health.
At the Kandahar retrosort yard, officials make sure each and every piece of equipment is accounted for and ends up in the right place.
That means protecting or identifying sensitive equipment that can sometimes be no bigger than a toaster yet costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, said 1st Lt. Petar Mostarac, a soldier with the New York National Guard's 133rd Quartermaster Company who serves as officer in charge of the Kandahar retrosort yard.
It's a 24-hour operation, Mostarac said, with equipment arriving in anything from a 20-foot container to a pickup before it is sorted.
Standing among the "misfit toys" section of the yard, Mostarac said it makes sense to scrap much of the equipment because of the cost of shipping.
"It doesn't make sense to ship back a shovel or scrap metal," he said.
At the same time, some equipment — such as parts from armored vehicles — are carefully cleaned and inspected by customs officials before they are sent back to the U.S.
Mostarac said the goal is not to leave piles of junked equipment, but to process it and get it to where it's needed.
"We want to leave the space behind better than we left it," he said.
It's a similar philosophy across Kandahar Airfield, where another unit within the Command Material Recovery Element has spent weeks deconstructing the former Soldier Recovery Center near the base hospital.
The 276th Engineer Company — part of the Missouri National Guard — has worked to strip the buildings of their wires and plumbing before taking them apart.
"Anything that can be reused and recovered is," said Staff Sgt. Cesar Martinez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the efforts.
The "right-sizing" efforts were just one of many going on across the theater.
Capt. Michele Smith, the brigade engineer, said crews with the CMRE had helped transfer 19 bases to Afghan forces and were working on about 30 others.
"It's a different mind-set for engineers," she said. "When I was here last time, about three years ago, we were still building up."
Collins said much of the work — whether it's deconstruction or retrosorting — is being done by small teams of soldiers who are pushed out to smaller bases.
That reduces the risk to thousands of soldiers, he said, because it prevents unnecessary convoys to carry equipment to larger bases.
Collins first deployed to Afghanistan in the early days of the war. In 2002, he served with the 528th Sustainment Brigade.
He also served in Afghanistan as late as last year, when he was support operations officer for the 1st Theater Sustainment Command.
Collins left Afghanistan in January and said he recalled talking about the Command Material Recovery Element mission with another officer on his way back to Fort Bragg.
"I don't know if I'd wish that on anyone," he told the officer.
Collins took command of the 82nd Sustainment Brigade in March and, two months later, learned he would return to Afghanistan later in the year to help lead the CMRE.
"It's interesting how things play out," he said. "But you couldn't ask for a better result at this point."