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MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — As dusk fell on a recent Ramadan evening in northern Afghanistan, the call to prayer rang out over the city, people emerged from their houses to break the long day of fasting and a convoy of American military vehicles idled by the gate of Camp Pratt, waiting for permission to roll out.

This Oklahoma National Guard unit, the 1245th Transportation Company, 1034th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, has become largely nocturnal. They load, drive and protect supply trucks, and occasionally accompany Afghan truck drivers, hopping from base to base. Their day usually starts at 2 p.m., and, if they’re lucky, ends around 4 a.m.

Other soldiers in the 101st Sustainment Brigade talk about this unit with affection and admiration, especially for how close this family of night owls has become. And if good-natured ribbing is any indicator, they’re practically like siblings.

“Hey Decker,” says gunner Spc. Cody Siegmann — aka Sieg, aka Katy for reasons he declines to share — over his headset to his driver. “Tonight, are we going to pick things up and put things down?”

“Yeah, we are,” Spc. Dustin Decker replies, deadpan.

This night, the convoy rumbled through the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan’s largest city, just as shops opened, some festooned with lights. Civilians wandered across the road in front of the convoy under a bright half moon. Over the radio, drivers alerted each other of children playing near the road. The drivers use call signs like Redbull Scout and Redbull Trail.

'The force will never go unsustained'

The 101st Sustainment Brigade is responsible for getting everything from MRAPs to toilet paper to bases across eastern and northern Afghanistan. Their mandate covers the needs of 30,000 troops.

Even as America’s presence in Afghanistan dwindles, brigade commander Col. Charles Hamilton said, 101st Sustainment’s mission remains the same.

“The force will never go unsustained,” he pledged. “We’re the United States.”

They are also responsible for the retrograde process, bringing anything the troops don’t need back to hubs in places like Bagram, where personnel can sort the trash from the treasure and start shipping the latter out of theater.

To minimize the amount of time platoons like this spend on the road, and their exposure to danger, they deliver supplies on the outward trip and retrogradeable items on the return. For this short trip, they carried empty flat racks that soldiers at Camp Spann could load with retrograde items on 1245th’s next trip.

Most of the 1245th consider themselves fortunate. Staff Sgt. Cygen Weatherby said the unit was originally set to deploy in Helmand province, which is miserably hot and far more dangerous. Instead, it was sent to the much quieter north.

“I got lucky,” he said.

The unit has lost no one during its seven months in theater, despite exposure to improvised explosive devices and small arms fire.

In a briefing before the unit deployed, 1st Sgt. Clint Caraway reminded them, “Short route or long route, we’re still in Afghanistan outside the wire. If it was safe, we wouldn’t be on the big trucks ... It’s not a matter of ‘if.’ It’s ‘when.’”

Public Affairs Officer Staff Sgt. Peter Sinclair said the unit seems lucky in another way: They share a closeness that often results only from mutual loss, but without losing anyone.

The night begins

The unit pulls into Camp Spann around 8:30 p.m., and the heavy lifting starts. Massive hooks slide flat racks off trucks, then grab conex containers and load them. Using flashlight and headlight beams, they strap down generators for the trip back home.

Once their cargo is safely secured, the platoon huddles around Weatherby to talk about the next leg of the mission back to Pratt. Suddenly, a line of bright lights attached to the Hesco barriers flickers on, sparking laughs.

“I didn’t even know they had lights,” Weatherby says.

On the way back, the streets are almost empty of traffic. The shops have closed. Only a few people linger by the side of the road, including a few kids on a playground.

“Nothing good happens on a playground after midnight,” Lt. Aaron Knot observes.

“It’s not after midnight,” Sieg points out. It’s only 11:06 p.m.

Minutes later, several kids manage to climb onto some of the MRAPs, unstrap their tool boxes and dash off with their loot. The convoy doesn’t stop.

The convoy pulls into Pratt just after the witching hour. But their workday isn’t over. After some of the soldiers hit the mess hall’s “midnight chow” open hours, they meet for an after-action huddle, then head back to unload and prepare for the next night’s mission.

standifer.cid@stripes.com

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