Mideast edition, Saturday, July 7, 2007

GHAZNI, Afghanistan — Pumping fuel into helicopters may not be the Army’s most glamorous job, but the guardsmen of “FARP Texaco” say that without them, nobody’s bird would ever get off the ground.

“Without us, they can’t fly,” said Capt. Marie Graham, of the Marana, Ariz.-based 1-285th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion.

The Army National Guard unit operates several forward area refueling points, or FARPs, in eastern Afghanistan, supplying fuel and ammunition to a caravan of Apache, Black Hawk, Chinook and Huey helicopters.

The group includes a mix of fuelers, mechanics, pump repairers, and ammunition and supply specialists who rotate between the FARPs every 30 days.

The toughest part of the job is hooking up fuel lines to aircraft when all the landing pads are full and a handful of hovering aircraft is whipping up a cyclone of wind as each waits its turn to land.

“Yesterday I hooked up to an Apache,” said Sgt. Jerrell Campbell, 28, of Tuscon, Ariz. “I had to squeeze between the Hellfire missile rack and the aircraft, and there’s not a lot of room there to begin with. A Black Hawk flew in and it started rocking the Apache back and forth. When that happens, you just hold on and hope the pilot knows what he’s doing.”

There are other dangers, too.

Pfc. Corissa Burnside, 28, of Gilbert, Ariz., was clobbered recently by a chunk of wood that had been blown out from under a boulder by rotor wash.

Burnside, who works as a corrections officer in the civilian world, said she was fueling a Black Hawk when a pair of Apaches swooped into the landing zone from an approach seldom used by other pilots.

The windstorm that the Apaches’ rotors whipped up freed a piece of plywood tucked under a boulder by the Hesco sand barrier. The plywood blew into the rotor blades of the helicopter that Burnside was fueling, bursting into many pieces and destroying one of the Black Hawk’s blades.

“It hit the rotor and exploded,” Burnside said of the plywood. “We didn’t know what happened at the time, we just heard this noise and people started shouting ‘Run! Run! Run!’ And we ran into a bunker. It was kind of scary.”

Once in the bunker, Burnside said she realized that her right shoulder was throbbing. “I didn’t realize at the time that I was hit. But then it started to hurt and my shoulder started to swell.”

For those fuelers who work the day shift, work usually begins with the arrival of two “jingle” fuel trucks, a term soldiers use to describe Afghan commercial tractor-trailers, which are often ornately painted and decorated more heavily than Christmas trees. In some cases, hanging chains or pendants jingle when the trucks are rolling.

Of course, the fuel trucks don’t always make it.

Traveling from Bagram, the trucks are sometimes attacked by insurgents. Or, enterprising drivers black-market the fuel.

At roughly $2.30 a gallon for diesel fuel, a 5,000-gallon truck load can sell for more than $10,000. In a country where $5 a day is considered to be a good wage, a fuel truck represents the fortune of a lifetime.

“We lost three trucks last week,” said Staff Sgt. Edward Matchette, 47, of Surprise, Ariz. The Gulf War veteran and civilian mechanic said that the Afghan drivers had forged one of the FARP soldier’s signatures on the fuel receipt and skipped off with the fuel.

More often than not, though, the trucks do show up, along with a few problems of their own.

Many trucks are decades old and shot through with rust. The fuel trucks sometimes contain dead animals, rope, clothing and other items other than fuel. For this reason, the JP-8 diesel fuel is filtered at least three times before it’s pumped into a helicopter.

Recently, Campbell opened the valve on one only to have the handle break off in his hand. When fuel started gushing from the broken valve, the fuelers scrambled to siphon the tank and catch the spilling fuel.

“These trucks remind me of the kind of trucks you see coming up from Mexico,” Matchette said.

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