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RED HORSE Airmen bring combat outpost into fight

by Staff Sgt. Stacia Zachary
U.S. Air Forces Central combat camera

9/16/2009 - FORWARD OPERATING BASE DWYER, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Before the arrival of the 809th Expeditionary Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron, the servicemembers here were living in a British compound lined with tents and relying solely on supplies brought in from convoys and air drops.

Now, the vital role of the RED HORSE mission is providing aerial access into this region of Helmand province.

"As U.S. forces produce smaller combat outposts in Helmand province to soldify our position in combating terrorism and rebuilding infrastructure in Afghanistan, (Forward Operating Base) Dwyer provides a hub for United States Forces-Afghanistan to put combat and medevac assets into use," said Capt. Vincent Rea, the 809th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron detachment officer in charge. "Having the capability to bring fixed and rotary aerial assets here is huge asset for servicemembers here."

The ongoing construction is turning FOB Dwyer into a major role player in the current operations in southern Afghanistan. RED HORSE has several projects ranging from small, quality-of-life projects to larger-scale ventures. Current big-scheme projects include digging well systems, building landing strips for fixed and rotary wing aircraft as well as a operating a self-sufficent rock quarry.

"Since we've been here, RED HORSE has run a six-month marathon to get construction underway," the captain said. "The scope of this mission is immense and critical to current military operations."

The first milestone for the Airmen was the completion of a 200-foot by 2,000-foot helipad. The project called for 20 inches of fill material and four inches of aggregate base course. The project was completed in two and a half weeks allowing base operations to accommodate Cobra gunships and Huey medevac helicopters to operate here.

"Seeing how one of our finished projects is helping the people here is one of the bonuses to this job," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Berner of the 819th ERHS.

Another completed project was witnessing the first C-130 Hercules touchdown on the assault landing strip which they not only initiated, but completed, too.

"They completed an assault strip with a semi-prepared surface comprised of existing soil. They took it from the design table, through construction and directly into operational use," Captain Rea said.

The 4,300-foot airstrip opened the door for fixed-wing aircraft. The preparation work that went into the completed runway required RED HORSE to team up with a 12-man team of Marines from the 371st Marine Wing Support Squadron. RED HORSE engineered and leveled the airstrip and then compacted the earth with aggregate base course of locally quarried stone.

"This project is a textbook definition of joint operations," the captain said. "It's one of those opportunities where we just forgot which uniform we were wearing and ignored our service differences and got the job accomplished."

"The completion of the initial C-130 airstrip wouldn't have been possible without the help of RED HORSE Airmen," added Marine Corps. Capt. Alexander Lugo-Velazquez, 371st Marine Wing Support Squadron detachment officer in charge.

With the first phase of a six-phase project complete, the airstrip construction has transferred over to the 371st MWSS, which will lengthen the runway to 6,000 feet as well as add fuel pits, taxiways and parking tarmacs.

The next big project for the horsemen is setting the foundation for a future C-17 Globemaster III concrete airstrip. With the dimensions of 8,600 feet by 120 feet and budgeted at approximately $29 million, the scope of the mission is one of the largest here.

"While this is generally the same concept as the C-130 assault strip, the construction of it needs to be done with extreme precision and meet strict code specifications," said Tech. Sgt. Chad Lepley, a 809th ERHS pavements and construction equipment craftsman. "It needs to be able to stand up to a C-17 with a full payload touching down. If it doesn't, lives and aircraft could be at risk."

The project will require the Airmen to level the area either by taking away earth or filling in the lower areas using a Trimble laser system to accurately level the airstrip. This is where another major RED HORSE enterprise is taking shape. Using a rock crusher, quarried local rock can be produced for aggregate base course and in, in a few months, concrete.

"With this piece machinery, we can quarry our own materials, which not only saves money because we're using the resources we already have available, but also time," said Tech. Sgt. Lloyd Ickes, the 809th ERHS rock quarry operations manager. "The makeup of material we're using here is sandstone, limestone and quartz with veins of silty clay laced throughout."

The airstrip will require an average of 3 feet of fill material to level the area followed by 6 inches of aggregate base course packed in 2-to-4-inch intervals to ensure good compaction topped with 14 inches of concrete. The operation is projected for completion in the winter of 2010.

"It's a massive undertaking, but one which will produce huge dividends when it's finally completed," Captain Rea said.

Besides harnessing local material to build the airstrip, construction projects also need water. Typically an arid region of Afghanistan due to terrain as well as extreme heat, water is a sought after commodity here.

"Before the wells were drilled and a regular shipments of water supply established, water shortages have been almost perilous to the servicemembers here," the captain said.

A 12-man well drilling team was mobilized to drill three wells delving more than 700 feet into the earth. The first well is solely for construction purposes. The two remaining wells are used for base life support operations such as bathing and cleaning. They produce up to 40 gallons per minute and help with water shortages.

"It doesn't matter how much we pack down the earth, if we don't have water to make it into cohesive mud, then we'll never have a solid foundation for the airstrip," Sergeant Lepley said. "Water and clay are what make the quarried rock into suitable base course."

From the construction of airfields to harnessing untapped water sources, RED HORSE Airmen are bringing life- and war-sustaining capabilities to Afghanistan. No job is too big or too small for the Airmen.

"This is a pretty big operation - one which will help with the troops by moving them around, making their lives better and help keep them in business," Sergeant Ickes said. "It's a true RED HORSE project: always something to do, but nothing we can't."

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