It’s easy for us living here in the States to forget just how good we have it. For the most part, America is an industrious nation, with safe streets, good schools and bountiful food supplies. Our biggest gripes of recent times typically revolve around unemployment (though there are many more people employed than not) and politics. But for those stationed in the Middle East, life apparently is rarely, if ever, taken for granted. Simple things, such as phone calls to loved ones or even just surviving the day, make each day that much better.
At the Port Hueneme military base, thousands of Seabees — men and women dedicated to building and maintaining bases, structures and vehicles during war time — are deployed overseas for months at a time. Many are stationed in Afghanistan, where the day-to-day conditions would be considered surreal by many Americans, dodging random gunfire and doing body counts. Unlike most Americans, however, these brave men and women can’t get into their cars and go home at the end of the day. They can’t make phone calls throughout the day to their loved ones about their experiences. No, these men and women must get through each day the best they can. For some Seabees, the best way is to write.
This week’s feature comprises candid journal entries by several Seabees deployed to Afghanistan. Their logs reveal harsh working conditions, unforeseen violence, profound sadness and true camaraderie.
Please note: These journal entries came straight from the Seabees and the information provided by these men and women came sporadically, as communicating from Afghanistan was difficult at best. Some have details about their homes, ranks and comrades, while others submitted only the entries themselves without too many personal details.
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3,
Detachment 4 Bagram, Afghanistan
“An average day in Afghanistan”
A year ago, I didn’t think I would find myself in Afghanistan, holding an M-16 and doing construction. When work begins, you tend to forget that you’re in a war zone and focus on getting the job done. Out here, we are working alongside Afghan nationals who are building a barracks while we build our Super B-Hut, both for the CJSOTF (Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force) soldiers to comfortably sleep.
All of our meals are prepared by two local villagers, and eating real Afghan food has made me appreciate the diversity in different types of cultures. While working, we must also be in the combat mindset, seeing as at any second a fire fight or mortar attack can happen.
Out here, we are secluded from established bases, so many supplies needed are air-dropped. The first drop I ever saw was today when a C-130 dropped 16 boxes of supplies that were parachuted from the plane. Then the Army soldiers go out in a convoy, set up security and pick them up.
For now, the living conditions aren’t anything luxurious — sleeping on cots and washing in shower tents — but we are also building a shower facility as a side project for the soldiers. Knowing that we are all here to better Afghanistan is great motivation to work hard every day, to stay safe, get the job done and get everyone back home to their families.
Traveling a bit last few days. Well, two days, 27 and 28 Sep. Went to Terra Nova and Jelawar. Good to see what NMCB (Naval Mobile Construction Battalion) 18 is doing or not doing there. We, Senior Chief Thomas, Chief Marshall and I, took a CH-47 (military helicopter) to Terra Nova on the 27. We got there before lunch, walked around a bit and ate an MRE (meal ready to eat). First one of either war I’ve been in. We saw their ANA (Afghan National Army) partners as well. No shame in how they eat or go to the bathroom. Odd bunch. Slaughter the sheep and just hack them up – let the flies hang out. Don’t lock the porta-john doors. I opened it up on an Afghan squatting over the hole.
Like how they are used to, weird. We watched the end of the Bears and Packers game “Monday” night – or what is actually our Tuesday morning. What a disappointment. We headed over to Jelawar on a convoy. Not very exciting or long. We only saw a few projects at Jelawar — not much to see really. Bad concrete pads. Poor Afghan-quality stuff.
Took the route back. Blackhawks. Rocket attacks at night: 3 each.
Last day of September. Time is flying by. And flying tomorrow I will be – to Wilson. I will be replacing the R-3 there to keep abreast of 2-101 requirements/desires during Hamkari ops for at least the next week or so. It will be tough to get a handle on all that he is doing out there but it will be good to work with Maj. Moyer and Capt. Krub. Busy day planning for TFK Dozer support. Probably need more info but R00 may never be happy with it. Politics are definitely involved here.
First day of October, yippee, one of my favorite months of the year. And fall. I am writing from FOB (forward operating base) Wilson. This FOB isn’t bad. I’m staying in a Seabee TOC. It’s for NMCB 18/40. The great 58. It was a Seabee battalion in Vietnam. Anyway, this assignment will be a nice break from KAF (Kandahar Airfield). I should sleep well. Long day. I finished my book. Last Survivor. Great book. Amazing that he lived to talk about it.
Interesting or not, BUB (battle update brief) with ANA this evening. They have a long, long way to go.
Wow. What a day. God watched over us today on our assessment of route Langley. We traveled to Hem to meet with the S3 of 2-502 to coordinate work on Langley and the off-road options. Next we went to Lakokiehl to see the expansion and assess the route. We conducted a walking patrol north along the road to inspect culverts. We were on the second culvert of the day when I got to taking pictures and got closer to the hole to take another picture. I saw a yellow jug of HM@ with a red cap and wire coming out. So I got Strike 7 to check it out and confirm it was an IED (improvised explosive device). We called EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) and got them out to get rid of it. We caused quite a traffic backup out on the road. EOD sent in the little robot and set charges to get rid of it. It blew the entire culvert to pieces. Not a good day if it had gone off with us on top of it when we were on it to measure and take pictures. We did the rest of our survey and continued back to FOB Wilson, ate, did our assessment, went to the BUB.
Then I called my wife. End of the day.
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion
Three Seabee Camp Krutke within
Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan
Today, I woke up at 10 till 6 and practically fell off of my not-so-sturdy top bunk. I thought to myself as I regained my balance, “If this is how my morning started, I can’t wait to see how the rest of my day goes.” I got dressed in all of my layers [we were issued cold-weather gear in Port Hueneme that consisted of heavy undergarments] so I wouldn’t be completely frozen in the Afghanistan winter [the mornings have been around 28-35 degrees Fahrenheit], and went to breakfast with BU3 Jensen.
When I arrived at work, I was just hoping the day would fly by so I could sleep in and enjoy my Christmas Day off. I’m not much of a morning person, and just thinking of the day ahead was enough to irritate me. The truss crew went immediately to work so we could try to bust out as many trusses as we could. We built four 50-foot trusses before lunch and four more after lunch, surpassing our quota of six a day. We took a few breaks here and there to enjoy a slushy and some snacks [near the prefabrication yard, there is the Camp Krutke Morale Welfare and Recreation tent that sells some junk food/snack food and has a slushy machine] but mostly kept moving along. The crew and I were pretty impressed with ourselves. We decided that our back pain and sore arms from the nail gun paid off.
For the evening, I enjoyed the company of friends and went over to the chapel for care packages and pizza. The package I received had the usual things to boost your spirit: candy, a card, books, lotions and snacks. I was very appreciative of the people who took the time to put them together.
I then went back to my pod [small trailer that is used as berthing, has a heating/AC unit and accommodates four folks with two bunk beds], showered, and watched movies with friends. When I finally went to bed, I was dreaming of spending my Christmas back in Pennsylvania surrounded by friends, family and five feet of snow.
Equipment Operator First Class
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 18
“Aug. 3, 2010”
Up at 3:45 a.m. . . . Couldn’t sleep, was awake about every half hour. I felt that something was going to happen today. I walked out to the bunker closest to the road. Mike Causito was there with his gear, ready to move north to a FOB. Mike and I have become really good friends during our four-month stay at Gulfport (the battalion’s mobilization site in Mississippi). He is from Guam. I went to breakfast with our disbanded CSE (Combat Security Element) team.
We sat and ate . . . talked about what lies ahead of us doing convoys to all the different FOBs. The rocket siren blared and we hastily dove to the ground, covering our ears. This was 6:30 a.m. We lay there for about a minute, laughed and finished our meal. We walked out of the chow tent and saw that everyone was hunkered in the bunkers. . ..
. . . There is a voice that follows some of the blasts, which no one could understand. I did make out “ground attack.”
We were in full battle rattle (body armor and Kevlar helmet) w/weapons ready. I looked at “Al Jazzera” website later this evening. We had a complex attack at one of our ECPs (entry control point). Small arms and suicide bombers. All six were killed or blew themselves up. One of our guys from 18 received shrapnel wounds from a rocket. I think reality has set in for many of us. This is going to be a busy deployment. A lot of the guys are looking to me for strength. I have to stay strong no matter how scared I may be. . ..
“Aug. 20, 2010”
. . . We left KAF at 1930 hours (7:30 p.m.) arrived here at 2330 (11:30 p.m.), four hours to travel 35 miles. Three Jingle trucks (slang name for heavily decorated, privately owned Afghan freight trucks) in our convoy were breaking down in Kandahar City. It was hard to see the surrounding area of downtown. We are amidst Ramadan, so the streets of KC were full of kids and men. No women in sight. I saw many areas where the men have congregated for prayer.
The tallest building I saw was the five stories — looked to be apartments. Mostly small shops selling fruits and vegetables lined the streets. I saw a few shops selling rugs and pottery. One area where we had to stop was a group of boys probably aged 8 to 12 years old. They danced next to our truck; one fell down and laughed. They all waved and saluted us. Weird to see that because I had been told they all throw rocks at us.
Once out of KC, we encountered a checkpoint where about 50 to 60 trucks hauling tires, cattle, wool, junk, etc., had all jammed together in the bottleneck. Our convoy scout and gun truck 2 made it through the mess. I had to back out and let a bunch of trucks through. It made me a little nervous to split from the gun truck. I eventually made it through and continued on to Wilson (a forward operating base). Still difficult to see the countryside. [Vehicle] 1 encountered a gun truck convoy responding to a UXO (unexploded ordinance). I saw mud-building villages surrounded by mud walls about 10 feet tall. We are just sitting here in a huge lot surrounded by HESCO barriers (collapsible cage box lined w/burlap to hold dirt and form barrier walls). Waiting to continue on to Jelawur. Just saw a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). Down for a quick nap. I am vehicle 3 in this convoy. (Jason was driving an MTVR — medium tactical vehicle replacement — hauling lumber and a few large boxes of mail.) Goodnight for now. I Love you Jhenn, Dev, Wes, Cade and Cole.
“Sept. 16, 2010”
. . . Today we finally pushed past the first wadi (wadis are dry creek beds that carry runoff water in rainy times). I got my chance on the dozer around 1:30 p.m. I went to the first tree line to the right, got stuck in the mud and pulled out, and no IED mines. Into my work and we came under fire. I didn’t notice but Lt. j.g. Mangan had been chasing me to try and get cover. I knocked down what trees I could (trees were on a gully bank) then proceeded to grade out the small road leading to the second wadi. We came under heavy fire three more times. I knocked down all the trees on the second wadi, took down a small mud wall that ran the length between the two wadis (approximately 200 meters), and proceeded to take out the trees that I couldn’t reach before. The fire we were taking was small arms, mortars and 82 mm recoilless rifle (small canon). I thought we were finished for the day, but then EO1 (Petty Officer) Kreamalayer asked if I could go back and take out two more trees, one at each wadi. The tree at the first wadi went down easy. Kream and I moved up to the second wadi. This is where B Company 502nd/526th 101st Airborne Division were holed up. I was to take out a tree partially blocking the bridge. Kream was on foot and directed me to push the tree over carefully so as not to jeopardize the integrity of the bridge. We immediately came under heavy fire again, all coming from Makaun, about 100 meters away from where I was. I looked over to where Kream was, to my direct right, taking cover behind a tree. One last push moved the tree out of the way and I then yelled at Kream to get in the dozer with me. We moved back 200 meters to the first wadi and pulled out a dozer that had been stuck all day. At the same time, the A-10s (Thunderbolt jet), 155 mm howitzers, Apaches (attack helicopters) and the Lynx (Britis-made attack helicopter) started a heavy air assault (and artillery barrage). What a sight to see so much air support so close. Is it weird I feel very comfortable doing this? Tomorrow we push to Makaun via alternate route to clear it.
“Sept. 18, 2010 — at Makuan”
I believe I have a guardian angel. . .. I ran over a land mine today and it didn’t blow up, it only smoldered. God, I love Russian ingenuity. I don’t know if it was antipersonnel or antitank. Today I was working the first wadi (dry creek bed) at Rte. Michelle. I plowed a small canal across the field to the second wadi so the water would drain to the second wadi, which is the front line. I then cut into the wall of the first wadi so the water would flow to the second.
Our bridge keeps washing away. Team 1 (a bulldozer team) went back to Wilson today and I went with team 2 to expedite our mission. I came back to the staging area and saw that team 1 was just leaving for the convoy back, and they told me I was staying. They left only my backpack. I had to chase Fowler (a fellow petty officer from NMCB 18) down to get the rest of my gear out of the truck. My night vision (night vision goggles) is still in the cab. We went back down to the first wadi, and Kream went in the water to unclog the pipes. The field where I cut the canal was flooded. I proceeded to the first tree line to push all of the trees I knocked down two days ago into a pile. Artillery shells began to pound the area just past the second wadi. It rattled my dozer (and me). I stopped — couldn’t see because all the dust in the cab was now floating about. The dozer blade was now atop the tree I was pushing. I began to reverse the dozer, looked back and saw three distinct small plumes of smoke coming out of the ground. I didn’t think anything of it, turned back forward and pushed the tree to the pile I had made. I backed to the same area and saw smoke still smoldering from the small hole in the ground. I’m thinking, “This isn’t right!” I took the dozer back near the bridge, parked it and looked for any damage. None. . . . I told Parker and Soto (Army attached to us), and the three of us followed my tracks to the smoke. It had a weird smell . . . so I told Parker and Soto that we needed to leave the area right away. I then told EOCS Potts (Senior Chief Shane Potts, the officer in charge) what happened.
He didn’t think much of it at the time but came to me later this evening and said I probably did hit a mine but it was a “dud” and didn’t explode. He had mentioned what I saw to the Army captain, and the captain told him that “dud” mines smolder like that. I’m still alive. . ..
We moved into a small area surrounded by mud wall. We had to mount the 240 machine gun because the army that is still here has taken heavy casualties and there are not enough men here to man all four corners. We are covering the alley way behind us. We have also been warned that a possible VBIED (vehicle-born improvised explosive device or car bomb) may attempt to attack us tonight.
Kream, Potts and I had a meeting tonight. We discussed the younger guys with us, hooting and hollering, playing loud music and acting like a bunch of buffoons. We also discussed our next plan of attack on the bridge problem. We talked to the guys here and told them to keep a low profile and be respectful of the Army. They have lost a lot of buddies in the last few days.
I spoke with an army platoon sergeant at the first wadi tonight. They had 25 casualties last night. I discussed this in my notes yesterday. I didn’t know there had been so many….
“Oct. 25, 2010”
Day 2 into breach mission. It has been two long days in the MRAP (mine resistant ambush-protected personnel carrier). We have only moved about two clicks (kilometers). This route is heavily laden with IEDs and mines. We hit one yesterday around 10 a.m. EOCS (Potts) had me following directly behind the dozer driven by Smith. The Grizzlies (mine clearance vehicle) in front of us were not firing MCLCS (pronounced mik-lik, an explosive round to detonate IEDs) nor did they have their plow down. We had only moved about 100 meters out of the super wadi. Smith rolled it up with his blade directly in front of me. We stopped and backed up. EOD (explosive ordinance disposal team) was called back — they missed this one with their GPR (ground penetrating radar) to blow in place. While waiting, we saw an explosion at the compound about 60 meters ahead. Army patrol hit a booby trap (antipersonnel mine). First 9 line (so called for the nine lines of information and compass and grid coordinates) medevac called in with injured soldiers — burns to face and eyes. Then they called in the KIA (killed in action). Found him on the roof of compound. We moved only another 100 meters past that for the rest of day. We were stopped at a compound where we could not pass. It was a compound blocking the narrow road. We had to wait for ANA to clear the compound of any personnel (local nationals). ANA and Army finally arrived and began clearing . . . another explosion — U.S. casualty: puncture wounds to both thighs, both hands, scrotum and penis. Their medic called in another — KIA this time — one of the bomb detecting dogs. This all happened on the 24th. LOA (limit of advance) called at this point no further movement toward objective. . ..
“Oct. 28, 2010”
Today, we finish pushing back to “Terminator” (COP). We (our convoy) hit two IEDs yesterday. A striker (gun truck) and an MRAP were disabled completely, no one killed. Last night we set up camp at the location of the MRAP that was hit so we could recover it in the morning. The front end was completely blown off.
Two Taliban seen yesterday planting an IED on our route back (Iron City). The predator (drone aircraft) spotted them and engaged. They were both killed.
We will be demolishing two to three compounds today in the area of the IED hit. Our first day out on this mission — that was where the mine dog was KIA.
Today I am observing the area of our camp. I see the Red Desert just the other side of the Arghandab River. I see four large trees perfectly spaced about 50 meters apart and located up the bank of the river and in the Red Desert. It looks as if they were planted for a reason. Along the river are hundreds of large canvas tents and camels . . ..
. . . I saw a man who was trying to give his young daughter to us (she was probably only four to five years old). They were all begging for food. We threw out what we had, only dried blueberries and water.
Some of the children here are painted up with makeup (almost ancient Egyptian style) and their hair is colored with red-brown dye. It must be a traditional Pashtun tribal meaning. Women are scarcely seen here.
“Nov. 8, 2010”
. . . Should be headed back to KAF in a few days for cortisone shots in both elbows (severe tendonitis). Will also have physical therapy. I’m looking forward to getting back for some rest.
“Drudgery. Routine. The daily grind.”
Whatever you want to call it, the time we spend awake makes up 70 percent of our lives. How this time is spent will ultimately define us. Some are painters. Some are doctors. Some sell used cars. And although our areas of expertise may differ from one individual to the next, our goals are one and the same.
We all seek fulfillment.
So, where do I fit into this vast technological ecosystem that we, as people, call day-to-day life? I am a construction mechanic in the United States Navy Seabees. My bread and butter lies in having the knowledge and know-how to diagnose, correct and, wherever possible, prevent Civil Engineer Support Equipment, which is a fancy way of saying automotive and construction equipment, from malfunctioning. At times, the job is tough, but most things worth doing will rarely come easy.
My clock reads 3:45 a.m. on another chilly morning in Afghanistan. The repetitive beeping has all but driven me to seize the day, but as Ben Franklin and, later, my dad would say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” It’s still a work in progress, so I drag my feet to the gym.
An hour and a half passes before I am back in time to freshen up for breakfast and make my way into work. It is here that the day really begins. Vehicles need to be dispatched. Repair parts have to be ordered. Deadlines are creeping up, and time waits for no man. When a free moment arises, I find solace in knowing that thousands of miles away from all of this, my wife and baby boy are sleeping soundly under a roof I have provided for them.
For this, I am eternally grateful, and so I return to work.
The clock now reads 2:30 p.m. Our workload is steady yet manageable, and the once-chilly morning is now a sunny afternoon. The rumbling motors of dozers and dump trucks moving in and out of the maintenance shop come and go as the vehicles are carefully inspected for an upcoming convoy. Each hour of operation is being monitored. Each gallon of fuel is being noted, but at the end of the day these seemingly meaningless details serve a higher purpose.
Soon enough, the convoy will be out in harm’s way and we, as mechanics, will have done everything in our power to ensure the safe arrival of our friends inside. Nothing is guaranteed in this lifetime, but our best efforts never hurt.
Often overlooked are the workings behind the big operations. Whether it be the painter, the doctor, the used car salesman or a mechanic in Afghanistan, we are all critical pieces of the puzzle. So, the next time you wake up after a long restful night’s sleep, make sure that whatever it is you choose to do that day is worth the wait.