Per­son­nel short­ages dog Afghan war

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY DAVID AXE

BA­GRAM, Afghanistan | As the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion de­bates the need for ad­di­tional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, com­man­ders at Ba­gram Air Base say their fa­cil­i­ties al­ready are over­whelmed by ex­ist­ing de­mand.

Ex­tra U.S. forces will re­quire sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment to en­sure ad­e­quate flow of sup­plies and timely med­i­cal re­sponse to bat­tle­field in­juries.

More than 3,000 wounded U.S. sol­diers each month al­ready have forced the trauma hospi­tal at the base — the only one of its kind in all of Afghanistan — to ex­pand into a clus­ter of air-con­di­tioned tents erected be­side the main build­ing.

A re­cent sup­ply drop, launched from Ba­gram to Marines in south­ern Afghanistan, il­lus­trated the im­por­tance of this lo­gis­ti­cal and med­i­cal hub out­side Kabul.

The four-en­gine C-130 Her­cules air­lift dove into a val­ley; the cargo planes’ rear ramp opened; and eight pal­lets of food and wa­ter, weigh­ing 5 tons com­bined, slid out and de­scended un­der stiff plas­tic para­chutes. The sup­plies were picked up by a wait­ing Marine Corps in­fantry bat­tal­ion fight­ing around the clock to blunt Tal­iban ad­vances.

Steer­ing his C-130 back to­ward Ba­gram, pi­lot Lt. Col. Bill Tony mused on the de­mand­ing task of sup­port­ing tens of thou­sands of front-line com­bat troops in an es­ca­lat­ing war. “It’s not an easy thing to do,” he said of his air­drop.

With about 20,000 Amer­i­can troops plus thou­sands of coali­tion sol­diers and civil­ian con­trac­tors, Ba­gram is the largest mil­i­tary base in Afghanistan.

Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent than at Ba­gram’s sprawl­ing cargo yard, where Lt. Col. Dan Krall and 120 air­men from the 455th Ex­pe­di­tionary Aerial Port Squadron re­ceive 200 pal­lets of sup­plies from as many as 50 in­com­ing cargo planes ev­ery day. The unit also han­dles mil­i­tary per­son­nel and con­trac­tors arriving from the United States — up to 1,600 per day.

That num­ber could in­crease, de­pend­ing on Wash­ing­ton’s re­sponse to a re­quest by its com­man­der in Afghanistan, Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal. The re­port is said to con­tain mul­ti­ple op­tions, with a re­quest for 40,000 ad­di­tional troops most of­ten cited.

Ba­gram’s round-the-clock op- er­a­tion al­ready has pushed Col. Krall’s troops to the limit. Many of them are vet­er­ans of the Iraq war lo­gis­ti­cal ef­fort.

Col. Krall said his troops strug­gle with a mount­ing back­log of sup­plies bound for com­bat units

all over Afghanistan. Pen­tagon plan­ners tend to “think in terms of mass vol­ume without con­sid­er­ing the phys­i­cal re­al­i­ties on the ground,” he said.

Such con­cerns have reached Wash­ing­ton. Last month, De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates re­port­edly or­dered the de­ploy­ment of 3,000 ad­di­tional sup­port troops to Afghanistan.

At present, aerial port work­ers can­not dis­trib­ute pal­lets, via air­planes and he­li­copters, as fast they re­ceive them. De­liv­er­ies to ac­tive com­bat zones of­ten re­quire the ser­vices of an Air Force C-130 like Col. Tony’s. In­com­ing ship­ments, in con­trast, of­ten ar­rive on con­tracted civil­ian air­craft.

Col. Krall said the Air Force is build­ing a new, larger cargo yard to ac­com­mo­date the grow­ing back­log. How­ever, that won’t solve the short­age of C-130s for on­ward de­liv­er­ies.

Col. Krall said he wants the mil­i­tary to es­tab­lish a new or­ga­ni­za­tion — a so-called the­ater dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter — to smooth out the flow of sup­plies from the U.S.

Ba­gram’s trauma hospi­tal is also pur­su­ing pal­lia­tive mea­sures. To house an es­ti­mated 3,500 pa­tients per month and climb­ing, the hospi­tal in July added a Con­tin­gency Aeromed­i­cal Stag­ing Fa­cil­ity. The fa­cil­ity, housed in a se­ries of large tents, con­tains 25 beds for pa­tients await­ing med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion to U.S. and Euro­pean hos­pi­tals aboard Air Force cargo planes.

The stag­ing fa­cil­ity also has served as a tem­po­rary over­flow ward for the main hospi­tal. Re­cent bat­tles have seen scores of in­jured troops and Afghan civil­ians flood the hospi­tal’s emer­gency room.

The stag­ing fa­cil­ity’s tents are de­ceiv­ing. In­side, they’re as comfortable as any per­ma­nent fa­cil­ity, thanks to a re­cent visit by the USO, the vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion that ar­ranges for recre­ation in war zones.

Within hours of a re­cent visit by USO of­fi­cials, the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan send­ing the stag­ing fa­cil­ity thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of couches, tele­vi­sions, DVD play­ers and lap­top com­put­ers for con­va­lesc­ing troops, ac­cord­ing to Air Force Maj. Louis Gallo, the fa­cil­ity com­man­der.

For now, the lav­ish tents ap­par­ently are the backup plan for fur­ther hospi­tal ex­pan­sions. Maj. Gallo said ad­di­tional tents can be added to the ex­ist­ing four.

All over Ba­gram, construction crews work day and night to ex­pand the base, adding new dor­mi­to­ries, new hangars and tar­macs for air­craft and other fa­cil­i­ties. If Wash­ing­ton ap­proves ad­di­tional re­in­force­ments, Ba­gram will have to grow even more — and faster.

DAVID AXE/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Lt. Col. Dan Krall stands at the Ba­gram Air Base cargo yard in Afghanistan. The cargo yard re­ceives 200 pal­lets of sup­plies from as many as 50 cargo planes ev­ery day.

DAVID AXE/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Lt. Col. Bill Tony pi­lots his C-130 dur­ing an aerial re­sup­ply mis­sion over south­ern Afghanistan on Oct. 8.

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