How to Dismantle an Occupation: U.S. Soldiers Tear Down Afghan Bases, Take Home Memories

Closing smaller bases is the first step in what the military calls retrograde–the arduous and complex process of bringing home all of the U.S.'s equipment in Afghanistan.

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A soldier from Bull Battery, 4-319th Airborne Field Artillery Battalion loads concrete blocks on a truck in preparation for leaving Forward Operating Base Altimur, Logar Province, Afghanistan.

The journey home begins as the first stabs of sunlight crest the mountains east of Forward Operating Base Altimur, a hunk of land on the slope above a wide desert valley, deep in Logar Province. A sergeant from Bull Battery, one of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s field artillery units, rouses Afghan drivers from their slumber in the cabs of their flat bed trucks. They park beside the base each night and sleep in the trucks to keep them running. They often fill their radiators with water to keep their engines from freezing.

Throughout the day, the troops and a few civilian contractors load truck after truck with T-Walls–eight-foot tall slabs of thick concrete that surrounded most buildings when the base was full. A driver can fit about four walls on the flat bed of his truck, or two twenty-foot metal containers, or four heaping pallets of ten-foot long lumber. Load by load, the 300-man base grows smaller, and soon it will be about a quarter of its original size. Closing smaller bases is the first step in what the military calls retrograde–the arduous and complex process of bringing home all of the U.S.’s equipment in Afghanistan.

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The paratroopers from Bull Battery tackle the Altimur base closure with alacrity; they’ve done this mission before, and although this time the task is much larger, it many ways it’s an easier assignment. “Here it’s been unique for us because, to put it simply, we don’t have a lot of people shooting at us,” says Lieut. Colonel Kelly Webster, commander of 4-319 Airborne Field Artillery Battalion, Bull Battery’s parent unit.

In October, Bull Battery’s troops closed Combat Outpost Garda, a smaller, horseshoe-shaped base in a hotly contested area of neighboring Wardak Province. The first step was to determine what to leave to the Afghan tolai (company) who would take over a smaller version of the base. Here, 173rd officers say, they learned lessons from previous base closures, where Americans handed over outposts to the Afghans that were either too big for them to sustain or where the Americans basically bulldozed everything and left. “As we look at retrograde we have to make sure it makes sense,” says Major Adam Lackey, executive officer of the 173rd who oversees much of the brigade’s retrograde process. “We can’t leave a mess here for the Afghans.”

When it came time to move out American equipment, the mission was, in many ways, a fighting withdrawal, which every young combat leader learns is one of the most difficult battlefield maneuvers. During the first few convoys out of COP Garda, rocket propelled grenades came flying, forcing the troops to mix up departure times and fly some equipment out in the dark of night. For more than a month, Bull Battery’s soldiers patrolled and fought by day, then packed up and moved equipment by night, until the American equipment had been hauled off to a larger base

A couple of months later, Bull Battery got the call to do it again. Only this time at FOB Altimur, the hardest part of their fight was getting enough trucks. In the first twenty days closing the base, the troops loaded up more than 200 truckloads. By the time the base closes, they will have moved the equivalent of 600 twenty-foot-long containers of equipment, including 700 T-Walls. A few will be left in place to surround the small buildings used by the Afghan Army.

For Bull Battery’s soldiers, closing FOB Altimur was the last mission they had to endure. “Guys seem to be motivated to close this place down,” says Capt. Thomas Feeney, Bull Battery’s commander. “They know the faster they shut down Altimur, the faster they can go home.”

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For Sgt. Mario Diaz, a communications specialist who oversaw much of the Garda mission, going home means seeing his newborn son for the first time and an end of the war to which he has committed three years of his life. During his three combat tours, Diaz, 32, lost three close friends, but none hit him harder than the death of First Lieut. Chase Prasnicki. A quarterback on the West Point football team, Prasnicki was a platoon leader in Bull Battery, a gregarious and thoughtful officer who the troops say took a genuine interest in each and every one of them. In late June, Prasnicki volunteered to go on an early patrol just after the unit arrived in the area. On the road from a larger base out to COP Garda, he was killed when his vehicle was blown up by an IED.

Months after his death, some of Prasnicki’s soldiers still wear his name-tapes Velcroed to their combat gear, and as they pack up equipment at FOB Altimur, many wear black bracelets inscribed with his name. “We didn’t have a choice but to move forward, and we did,” Diaz says. “At the same time, nobody forgets. We’re going to feel that forever.”

One afternoon a few weeks before Altimur closed, Diaz looked out over the inner perimeter, which had been the limits of the base when he first fought there two years ago. He pointed out where they had built a ten-foot tall snowman; they used rocks for eyes, carved the mouth right into the facade, and for a nose, they borrowed a carrot from the cook. To top off the creation, the troopers had to use a forklift to haul the head into place.

Then there was the massive snowball fight on Christmas Day, 2007, where Diaz’s First Sergeant led a collection troops on tactically proficient assaults and snowball barrages. In the end, more than 45 soldiers took part. But in spite of a few warm memories from his best days at Altimur, Diaz has seen too much bloodshed to feel much nostalgia for the place. “It’s nice to finally close this thing down and realize nobody else has to come here again,” he says. “I did what I came here to do and it’s time to go home.”

Bull Battery is filled with hardened non-commissioned officers who have served tour after tour in Afghanistan and Iraq. Staff Sgt. Christopher Daly served three tours in Iraq before coming to Afghanistan. In March 2003, he and two of his brothers fought in three of the units that spearheaded the Iraq invasion. When the dust settled, one brother was in Baghdad, one in Tikrit and Daly was out west in Fallujah. “My mom lost it,” Daly says. “Now they’re both out of the Army, and I’m still in.”

His most important task on his fourth tour was watching over young soldiers like Privates First Class Kyle Womack, 19, Yuanyun Fang, 19, and Tyler Luscan, 20. When Daly was fighting his way north to Baghdad, the three were in the fourth grade. They grew up during a decade of war, and none of them thought it would still be going on when they were old enough to join the Army. And yet, within two weeks of graduating from high school they signed up in their respective hometowns, met in training and spent nine months in combat together. “I signed up for this shit,” Fang says. “The experience was a bit intense, but I would go for it again. What the hell?”

For Sgt. Scott Hazlinsky, the time may have come to hang up his jump boots after a tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. At the beginning of 2013, he hadn’t spent twelve consecutive months in one place since 2008. “There are some things I’m going to miss,” he says. “The endless horizons of stars at night, the lack of light pollution. Some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I’ve seen were in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Though he may soon be ready to move beyond the Army, Hazlinsky is proud that he took part in the conflict that landed on his generation. One of the tattoos covering his body is a quote from Thomas Paine: “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace,” reads the ink. “Although I don’t have any children yet, I’d much rather go and fight today then have them go and fight twenty years from now,” Hazlinsky says.

He is not alone in that sentiment. Few soldiers know the war as well as Adam Lackey. After 9/11, he led a Ranger platoon in Afghanistan, then commanded an infantry company in Iraq and a Ranger company in both theaters. On a frigid afternoon, as the sun slipped behind a blanket of clouds, Lackey stood on a hill overlooking Forward Operating Base Shank, the third largest American base in Afghanistan. After nearly an hour discussing the specifics of the retrograde, in which he is a key player, the conversation turned to the war overall.

“I would stay here forever if it meant my children wouldn’t have to come back and fight in Afghanistan,” he said. And though he has seen the challenges and setbacks over many years and many deployments, Lackey is hopeful for the future of the place where he has fought for much of his adult life. “There’s lots of reasons to be optimistic,” he said. “There’s a lot to offer here, and the Afghan leaders we have now are remarkable compared to where we were when we started. This country is going to be challenged for the rest of my lifetime. But I think it’s time.”

For Lackey, the end of the war will mean more time with his wife and two children whose father has been away fighting the war for several years. Before leaving the hill, he looked out over the camp, scanning the array of containers and tents and vehicles, most of which will be on their way home in the coming months. The movement of equipment means the end is coming soon. “The end of our military involvement is a positive one,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

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