Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pintagro
Task Force Spartan PAO NCOIC
FORWARD OPERATING BASE GARDEZ, Afghanistan – Gov. Arsala Jamal of Khost Province and sub-governors representing districts in the Khost-Gardez Pass region, key U.S. Army leaders and Soldiers, members of Afghan National Security Forces and local shura members braved an incoming storm system Dec. 2 to celebrate establishment of a new allied firebase in southeastern Paktya Province.
Col. John Nicholson, Task Force Spartan commander, headed an American delegation including Lt. Col. David Bushey, 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment commander; Navy Cmdr. John F. Wade, Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team commander; and Maj. Richard Mullins, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion operations officer.
“Firebase Wilderness,” which tenants plan to rename in honor of a platoon sergeant from 1st Brigade, 203rd Afghan National Army Corps killed in the vicinity of the facility by an improvised explosive device last fall, opened amid discussions, speeches, a gun salute and the raising of the Afghan national flag.
A shura of regional political officials, security personnel, key military leaders and local elders preceded the opening of the firebase, which establishes an enduring allied presence along the vital thoroughfare traversing the K-G Pass.
A series of Afghan speakers addressed about 75 participants before the flag-raising. Speeches focused on regional security and the way ahead for the region and its people. Artillerymen from the 4-25 FA heralded establishment of the firebase with a gun salute. A traditional Afghan lunch followed the ceremony.
The ceremony highlighted the Afghan role in regional security.
First Sgt. Thom Carmo of Assault and Obstacle Platoon, A Company, 3rd BSTB, whose combat engineers spearheaded the firebase construction effort, described the event as “completely Afghan run.”
“The ceremony followed an Afghan shura,” Carmo observed. “The centerpiece of the ceremony was raising the Afghan flag, not the U.S. involvement. It was about establishing security and an Afghan presence in the area. They are the force that’s manning the base with their flag flying and ANA soldiers and policemen manning the place.”
The new firebase houses a variety of allied forces, including soldiers from 1st Brigade, 203rd ANA Corps, regional policemen and a rotating American security element from A Company, 3rd BSTB. The facility includes a tactical operations center, aid station, field kitchen, parking lot, helicopter landing zone and fuel point. A tent city accommodates allied Soldiers.
While outpost officials already envision improved latrine, laundry and dining facilities, force protection dominated the early stages of the construction process, according to Staff Sgt. Roman Espinoza, platoon sergeant of A & O Platoon. Engineers emplaced bunkers, barriers, concertina wire, checkpoints and observation posts as well as indirect fire assets to maximize the safety and combat-effectiveness of allied Soldiers.
Fifteen A & O Platoon engineers, ANA troops, policemen and local contractors constructed the outpost in 16 days.
“The base was built from scratch – literally,” said 1st Lt. Tyler Sweatt, A & O Platoon leader.
“We started planning in late summer,” he added. “In order to build a base of this size and accommodate everything necessary, we needed plans, supplies, materials, equipment, transportation, logistics – everything.”
“It takes time to build a base from scratch,” Espinoza said. “The beauty of an A & O platoon is that you have such a diversity of skills.” Experts in light and heavy equipment operation as well as landscaping, building and structure-creation techniques fill the A Company ranks.
Espinoza said Soldiers spent 21 of 22 consecutive days at the fledgling firebase during late November and early December, enjoying a makeshift Thanksgiving meal at the construction site.
Engineers employed the most primitive and the most advanced construction techniques. Inclement weather forced Soldiers to perform tasks manually the first five days. Troops filled sandbags with entrenching tools and moved heavy equipment by hand. Subsequently, combat engineers employed such heavy machinery as a bulldozer, a bucket loader, excavators and small emplacement excavators in the project.
Base building efforts provided an opportunity for mentorship as well as construction. A & O Platoon engineers taught ANA counterparts the latest in heavy equipment operations, techniques and preventive maintenance checks and services.
“We had our heavy engineers get with the ANA heavy engineers and teach them how to operate and PMCS,” Espinoza said. “They used the basic teach, coach, mentor approach.”
The firebase, Espinoza noted, provides “a constant presence of American and ANA forces in the pass,” a presence with vast implications for regional counterinsurgency operations, security and economic development.
“Wilderness is in a very good spot to support operations throughout the K-G Pass region,” Carmo said. “It’s important for conducting operations in the towns of southeastern Paktya.
“It’s a long way from Gardez to Salerno,” he added. “The base is strategically located toward the middle of the route. Guys can (stay) overnight at the base instead of driving all the way back to the FOBs. If we need to conduct (operations) in the area, we can base them out of the firebase rather than having guys drive all the way from Salerno or Gardez.”
“Soldiers traveling through the K-G Pass now have a place inside the wire where they can stop and stay the night or get something to eat,” Sweatt noted. “It also provides better command and control in a historically difficult area.”
Mullins pointed out that the firebase poses a serious obstacle to future network activity.
“Both governors and security officials are very pleased,” he observed. “The firebase will support multifunctional government facilities, communications, an ANP station and ANA / coalition operations right on the front porch of Haqqani and his network.”
“We know the area is a strong point for the Haqqani network,” Carmo added, noting militants frequently direct IED, small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attacks against allied and civilian traffic moving through the pass.
“We’re definitely changing the environment this winter,” Mullins said. “It’ll have a big impact when the fighters return in the spring. The base will help us drive a wedge between the people of the area and the Haqqani network.”
Mullins also views the new firebase as a significant spur to regional economic growth.
“You can see the difference,” he said. “Before the base was in place you saw virtually no movement at night. Now you can see 50 to 100 ‘jingle’ trucks driving through the road at night. The greater security has already made a big impact on commerce. The locals are very happy.
“The base will improve security as the K-G pass road project goes forward,” Mullins added. “This will bolster the regional economy by reducing transit time between Kabul, Khost, Gardez and all the major regional cities. Improved transportation and security will significantly stimulate growth.”