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No job's routine when you're in harm's way

  • Published
  • By Maj. Shawn H. O'Day
  • Air Force Materiel Command Communications Directorate
A recent deployment to Afghanistan provided me with an up close - sometimes too close -- and personal view on how Coalition communications were delivered in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

As part of Air Expeditionary Force "bucket" 9/10, I traveled to this Southern Asia country where I served as the chief, Future Operations for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, Joint Communications Division. I was a communications planner, which included the facilitation of transitioning communications functionality from the United States to the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

I worked closely with ISAF personnel. Their primary role is to support the government of Afghanistan in providing and maintaining a secure environment in order to facilitate the rebuilding of Afghanistan. In turn, this provides an environment conducive to establishing democratic structures, facilitating the reconstruction of the country, and helping to expand the influence of the central government.

As part of a small team from ISAF's communications planning section, I worked closely with Lt. Col. Andre' Gathers, also an Air Force communicator. The third person on our team was Chief Warrant Office Five Ralph Prickett, who worked for me and is an Army Signals radio expert.

Our task was to upgrade the entire Air Command and Control Network used by ISAF and Coalition Forces. By upgrading this network, the Combined Joint Operation Center at Headquarters ISAF could communicate with all fixed-wing aircraft flying in the Afghanistan area of responsibility. This capability would lesson possible fratricide, enhance a pilot's situational awareness and provide complete theater ground-to-air radio coverage.

We began by visiting potential radio sites that had little or no ISAF communications. Some of these sites were bare and situated in valleys completely surrounded by mountains, while others were located in the middle of small towns. The plan was to come up with the best location for the communication package -- UHF/VHF transceivers, generators, and satellite communications equipment; discuss support with the local installation commander; and get the local communications support people to buy off on operating and maintaining the communication package. 

DANGER AT 13,000 FEET

For one eventful trip, our team needed to visit a remote site almost hidden in the mountains of the most northern region of Afghanistan. Colonel Gathers's connections obtained room for us on a Dutch C-130 that was transporting a group of ISAF Special Forces. We had a four-hour trip ahead of us that included two stops before we reached our destination. Flying on a C-130 for four hours in a jump seat is not the most comfortable way to travel.

As we started our approach for our first stop, I heard what seemed to be a huge explosion and immediately felt a burst of air. Small particles of something like snow swirled around the inside of the aircraft, although I knew it wasn't snow since it was April. Across from me, a once sleeping Chief Warrant Office Prickett now was awake and his mouth was wide open in awe.

Time seemed to stand still. As we started to descend rapidly from about 13,000 feet, I glanced over at the loadmaster who also seemed to have a glazed look on his face. Colonel Gathers, who was sitting to my right, signaled me to put my helmet on. We didn't know what was going on. I looked over my left shoulder and the left emergency door of the aircraft was gone!

One of the crew ran out from the cockpit and picked up a huge hunk of metal from the back of the plane. As he carried it forward, I recognized it as the door of the plane. The loadmaster helped and they secured the door with straps as best they could right beside where I was sitting. About 20 minutes later we landed at what seemed to be a huge abandoned airfield. The Coalition Special Forces on board quickly posted two soldiers at the front and rear of the plane in case there were any snipers or unwanted visitors. We spent about two hours on the ground while the crew worked on repairing the door. They eventually pulled out duct tape and used it as a seal to place the door on the hinges.

Eventually we arrived at the site and an armored convoy met us at the airfield. A German captain was the only communications officer on the base. ISAF calls these small bases Provincial Reconstruction Teams. This one happened to be under German control.

We conducted the site survey and spoke with the Provincial Reconstruction Team commander to ensure he was aware of what we required from his personnel. The next morning I awoke to what sounded like firecrackers. At breakfast I inquired about the crackling sound and asked if anyone else heard it. Our German counterpart chuckled, said it was enemy gunfire, and that it occurs daily. I now can say I've heard my first enemy gunfire.

That afternoon we departed en route to Kabul, Afghanistan. The remaining site surveys we conducted went off without a hitch. That's not to say there weren't other anxious moments. Downtown riots occurred one block from where I was staying. We were locked and loaded, expecting the worst.

A part of me is still there. I now pay more attention to the nightly news when Afghanistan is mentioned. I hope co-workers and friends are as blessed as I was and return to their loved ones soon.