Seabees Bring More Support to Afghanistan Surge
By Judith Snyderman
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2010 Two additional battalions of U.S. Navy Seabees are being deployed to Afghanistan in support of the 30,000-troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama in December.
Extra engineering expertise is needed to build forward operating bases, pave roads and construct airfields for the increased numbers of U.S. and coalition forces, Navy Rear Adm. Mark A. Handley, commander of the 1st Naval Construction Division, said during a “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable yesterday.
Aside from being critical to the success of the mission in Afghanistan, the admiral said, the infrastructure Seabees provide improves the quality of life for troops. "We are the ones who build them a wood floor under their tent, build them a galley [and] build them a command and control facility," Handley said.
The Seabees were among the first U.S. troops to enter Afghanistan at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 to upgrade and repair airfields. For the past year, they've had two battalions on the ground, mostly assisting the Marines in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The new additions also will be concentrated in the south, and will bring the total number of Seabees to some 3,800.
Handley said the toughest part of the mission is transporting construction equipment and getting raw building materials into position, due to the remote and rugged terrain.
"We're moving all of our equipment with a combination of air and sealift,” he said. “Sealift will go into Karachi [Pakistan] and then over the passes into Afghanistan." It's unusual to deliver the heaviest construction equipment by air, Handley said, but it's sometimes necessary in Afghanistan because some gear doesn't fit through the passes.
Handley added that the Seabees have enjoyed a great deal of success resourcing materials so far, thanks to careful planning.
"We have reached very far into the future [as] to what we believe our requirements are going to be and we've anticipated fairly well," he said. He added that the Seabees are getting support from the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, with procurement for parts coming from the Defense Logistics Agency and the Army.
The two biggest problem areas, he said, have been getting electrical materials and water well completion kits. Those kits contain valves and other technical components needed to finish water wells after they've been drilled and pipes have been installed.
In addition to the mission in Afghanistan, Handley said, Seabees are operating in some 20 countries around the world to support a variety of humanitarian, security and community-building operations. In Haiti, he noted, they have been instrumental in getting materials across the beach for distribution into population centers and they continue to repair port facilities.
For the Afghanistan mission, Handley said, he has received universally strong support from the troops to the notice of additional deployments, which require some schedule adjustments.
Once the buildup is complete, two active Seabee battalions and two reserve battalions will be serving in Afghanistan. Handley noted the reduction in times between the mobilizations of reservists, from five years to 3.5 years, and he recognizes the sacrifice they are making.
"They are true heroes for leaving a civilian job and career," he said.
Handley noted that when Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74’s current deployment to Afghanistan was extended from six months to eight months, some members of the battalion were due to complete their six-month assignments and have new orders executed. But, he said, "every one of them has gone ahead and extended to do the full deployment.”
“There's a great sense of camaraderie, a great understanding of the importance of the mission and the importance that they have," he said.
(Judith Snyderman works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)