Afghans help build mosque, hospital in border region
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan — The only sound more frequent than the echo of helicopter blades across this forward operating base is the banging of hammers.
As choppers come and go, ferrying wounded troops and combat boots across southeastern Afghanistan, scores of indigenous laborers sweat under the relentless sun converting this once-spartan base into an enduring compound for coalition forces and, some day, the Afghan National Army.
The most significant project under way is construction of a new hospital to replace the makeshift tent complex now home to the 396th Combat Support Hospital. U.S. contracting company KBR is overseeing a crew of several dozen Afghans working to finish the $1.4 million, 23,000-square-foot hospital by December.
The hospital’s commander said the new complex will provide a safer and more sterile environment, boosting both security and hygiene for physicians and patients.
“We still get rockets and mortars occasionally, and it’s much better to have concrete and mortar over your head,” said 396th commander Lt. Col. Richard Phillips. “This building will replace the tents, partly so we don’t have to evacuate when we get rocketed and partly for a cleaner environment.”
Located approximately 10 miles from the Pakistan border in a region teetering between volatility and relative calm, FOB Salerno is in a spot where militants can fire rockets and mortar rounds toward the base, and then flee into the often-lawless border region.
Lately, the hospital has been busier than in the recent past, tending to 300 percent more patients than at this time last summer. While the military and the media focus on the “surge” in Iraq, insurgents in this country have boosted their attacks, increasingly with more potent Iraq-style tactics such as car bombs, suicide vests and roadside explosions.
Last week, the 396th Combat Support Hospital cared for a cadre of children caught in two vicious suicide attacks in Khost province, including one that killed three U.S. troops working on a reconstruction project. If the trend continues, the hospital under construction will be well received.
Phillips, 45, of Sioux Falls, S.D., said the hospital will be divided into two parts: a trauma wing for emergency care; and a primary care section to deal with traditional aches, pains, illnesses and ailments.
Like its nylon predecessor, the hospital also will play host to the occasional Afghan health clinic, providing surgeries and treatments unavailable in the rest of the poverty-stricken Khost province.
KBR has a handful of engineers on hand to supervise, but the majority of labor is conducted by Afghans. They earn roughly $8 to $11 per day for work that includes plastering, framing and roofing.
KBR supervisor Randy Gustafson, 49, of Bellingham, Wash., said the Afghans are eager to work and quick to learn.
“A lot of them show up with very little skill in construction, but we’re teaching them along the way, showing them how to do things,” Gustafson said.
Afghans also are developing skills to build a new mosque in the heart of the base.
On Thursday, Sgt. Dane Seydler, 26, an Army reservist from Amarillo, Texas, was supervising a team of locals sanding the mosque before its next coat of paint.
“Before this, they just did their own thing, but now they come over here at lunch to eat and pray,” Seydler said.
Phillips said the hospital, as well as other smaller projects on FOB Salerno like the mosque, are vital to the image that America is here to help, but not here to stay.
“All the stuff we do is with the attitude that the Afghans will one day take it over,” he said.
“It’s not just a slogan anymore, Afghans are doing the work, Afghans are learning the work. We want to send a clear message that we are not here forever. This is your base, and you have to decide how to run it.”