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A 45-bed hospital is the centerpiece of new Army construction at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Zafer Construction is building the $16.5 million project, scheduled to be completed in May.
A 45-bed hospital is the centerpiece of new Army construction at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Zafer Construction is building the $16.5 million project, scheduled to be completed in May. (Kent Harris / S&S)

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Soldiers who called this former Soviet facility home shortly after the 2001 invasion might have a hard time recognizing it today. Tents are largely a thing of the past, replaced by B huts and an assortment of other ready-made buildings.

But those stationed at Bagram today might have an even harder time recognizing the place a few years from now.

While the Air Force funds a series of projects to improve the runway and supporting structures, the Army is taking on a new hospital, living quarters and — gasp — sewer and water distribution systems that will make trips to the bathroom a nicer experience.

The centerpiece of the new construction, says Lt. Col. Jeffery Powell, the Combined Joint Task Force-76 staff engineer, is a 45-bed hospital that’s well under way in the north section of the base.

The $16.5 million facility will replace the current hospital that’s composed of wood and canvas.

“We’re hoping it will be done in May,” Powell said, adding that medical equipment would then need to be installed. “We will build around the hospital.”

Powell refers to the hospital as one of the first permanent structures on base. The U.S. and its coalition partners currently use myriad building types made from assorted materials. Almost all are considered temporary, and they’re sprawled everywhere.

“We have used every piece of land that doesn’t have a mine in it,” Powell said.

So in order for new buildings to go up, temporary buildings — and the functions they provide — need to go elsewhere.

It’s basically a large game of dominoes.

“That’s exactly how we describe it,” Powell said.

So a few other buildings had to be moved to make way for another of the new projects — five new barracks. The hope is to have all of them finished by the summer of 2007.

Ground should soon be broken for the first two, designated for special forces troops. Each two-story unit will have a capacity of 160 people, with two servicemembers to a room, though majors and above might get their own rooms if there’s space available. A third barracks unit will be built near the hospital for personnel stationed there. Then two others will go up to the south in an area that might eventually serve as the main housing for all services at Bagram.

“We’re planning to live ‘purple,’ ” Powell said, referring to the color associated with joint service missions.

Funding for more barracks hasn’t been approved yet, and Powell said it’s not the priority at this point. That’s because although the initial barracks will have common toilets inside, they’ll still have to be supported by trucks bringing in water and carrying away sewage. And those living in them will still have to drink bottled water instead of that from the tap.

“We’ve got to start putting some infrastructure in the ground before we build up more,” Powell said.

So the Army will be seeking funding for a variety of infrastructure projects.

The wish list includes a $15 million water treatment, storage and distribution system and a $7 million wastewater treatment facility. Another item being sought is a $25 million bulk fuel storage facility. Those amounts are subject to change, depending on the scope of the projects.

“Hopefully, this time in two years, you’ll flush a toilet [in the new barracks] and it’ll go out to the treatment plant,” Powell said.

Before then, a $6.4 million joint operations center for special operations forces, a $14 million storage facility and a $17.8 million new entrance for trucks will debut. The latter project will free up heavy traffic from the main gate and allow the trucks to bypass the small village of Bagram that’s near the front gate.

Col. Mike Flanagan, the commander of Task Force Sword — the engineer task force in the country — is in charge of groups of engineers from several countries that have also been helping to shape Bagram.

South Korean engineers have helped relocate several units to temporary buildings to make way for the new construction, finishing many of them way ahead of schedule, Flanagan said. Polish engineers have worked on several roads around base. Recently departed Slovak engineers helped keep the runway viable by working with the Air Force to patch trouble spots.

All together, Flanagan said, the task force has completed 33 projects on base, 23 outside the base and is currently involved in 15 more. Another 23 have been planned for future rotations to take on.

First things to go: Land mines

Military engineers don’t have to worry about land mines when they consider a building project in Europe or the United States.

But the deadly devices are the first thing on the minds of those putting up buildings in Afghanistan.

Col. Mike Flanagan, the commander of the Heidelberg, Germany-based 18th Engineer Brigade and Task Force Sword, said crews have cleared about 1.5 million square meters of land on Bagram alone this rotation — about as much as the previous four rotations in country combined.

“We’ve really concentrated on doing it as much as we can, because we can’t build unless the land is clear,” Flanagan said.

For instance, before construction could begin on a pair of new barracks for special forces personnel, eight acres needed to be cleared of land mines and other ordnance, Flanagan said. About 6,600 pounds of materiel were cleared from those eight acres.

A diverse group of coalition troops and contractors are involved in going after the mines. The 391st Engineer Battalion and the Mine Action Center supervise the efforts and take on some of the mines. Those that can’t be detonated and need to be lifted out of the ground are handled by Ronco, a government contractor. Still others are taken out by Polish forces, who often do so with hand-held instruments. They tend to go after the mines that are laid in uneven ground, making them difficult to extract.

Flanagan called the Polish forces “extremely competent. The Polish army sends us its very best.”

Equipment such as heavy machinery and metal detectors is often used in the process, as well as explosive-sniffing dogs. The dogs are used to detect mines as well as check an area to ensure all the mines have been found.

Flanagan said many of the mines were laid by Soviet forces when they controlled the area, but that’s not always the case. In fact, Soviet mine fields “are relatively easy to find and take care of,” he said.

Other mines were laid by the Northern Alliance and Taliban during their struggle for control of the area.

— Kent Harris

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