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NEWS | June 14, 2011

Communications Soldiers keep Red Bulls talking

By Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson , Task Force Red Bulls

LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan (June 6, 2011) — Communications Soldiers at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam don’t have to go looking for work.

“If it has electricity running through it, people will bring it in to commo to fix,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Kyle Statema, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the communications section for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd infantry Regiment, Task Force Ironman, a part of the Iowa National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls, at FOB Mehtar Lam.

Statema, a native of Pella, Iowa, said the communications section or “commo guys,” as they are known by their fellow Soldiers, are “jacks of all trades.” Though their job is to maintain Army communications equipment, Statema said the commo section often ends up working on anything and everything with a plug and a cord.

“We don’t ever tell them no,” Statema said. “If we can fix it, we will.”

“I like this job because I get to use my brain,” said U.S. Army Spc. Josh Klinzman, a signal support systems specialist from Iowa City, Iowa, with HHC.

His boss, Statema, was quick to agree.

“This job will get you thinking,” he said.

Statema, a 10-year veteran of the National Guard with three deployments, said the old Army saying is true: You can’t shoot or move without communications.

Statema and his Soldiers maintain all Army radio, intercom, navigation and other computer equipment. Statema said there are nine different types of radio systems his Soldiers are responsible for maintaining or repairing.

U.S. Army Sgt. Samantha Kauffman, a signal support systems specialist also with HHC said a large part of the section’s day is troubleshooting equipment.

“We have vehicles that come in and we’ll work on their communications equipment,” Kauffman said. “But in between this, we’ll have parts in the truck that we’ll troubleshoot also. For example, we’ll have parts of the blue force tracker that we think may be bad and we’ll put them on our test bench and check it out and see for sure whether or not it is that piece of equipment that is bad rather than something else in the system.”

“The cool thing with communications is that you’re always going to find stuff that you may not know the answer to immediately, but you’ll find the answer out. It keeps changing – you’re going to keep finding new problems so you have to keep working at it.”

The Soldiers said they use tools such as multimeters, radio frequency testing devices and signal testers to troubleshoot equipment. They are trained in the basics of troubleshooting at the United States Army Signal School at Fort Gordon, Ga.

“They taught us how to narrow things down to where a problem exists,” Statema said, “but most of our knowledge comes from experience.”

The Soldiers said one of the challenges of the job is when they troubleshoot a piece of equipment and still can’t find the answer to the problem.

“That’s the absolute worst,” Kauffman said. “It’s a terrible feeling to feel defeated by something man-made.”

“You feel like you’ve checked every possible component,” Statema said. “And that’s when it’s nice to have several experienced Soldiers who can take a look at it with a fresh set of eyes, and often figure it out.”

Statema said it is rare for a piece of equipment to be broken and no one in the shop can fix it. More often than not, he said the problems can be fixed easily, such as by just changing a setting on a radio.

Besides troubleshooting and occasionally repairing radio or other equipment, Kauffman said the commo section also makes sure the radios are updated so that Soldiers have secure communications, they ensure radios are always stocked with fresh batteries and they also train Soldiers on how to do simple troubleshooting so they can fix common problems in the field when they occur. 

The Soldiers said they also do a little bit of field modification, too. For example, they had a radio antenna which they modified. The inside of the antenna was pulled out of its case, because the cases often snap off and are lost in the field. Instead, the commo section lengthened and modified the antenna so that Soldiers can run it through their body armor or elsewhere.

“It’s just stuff we make to help the guys out,” Kauffman said. “They said it’s more tactical.”

Another team maintains and repairs Army computers and the secure Army Internet systems. Problem solving and troubleshooting are a big part of the automation section, as well. 

“We’ll deal with problems as small as resetting passwords, to somebody bringing in a smoking computer,” said U.S. Army Pfc. Michael Shackleton, an information technology specialist from Waterloo, Iowa, also with HHC.

In the section’s office, U.S. Army Sgt. Gregg Gott, the automations section noncommissioned officer-in-charge from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with HHC, has a stack of different kinds of Rubik’s cubes on the edge of his desk. The cubes, which Gott can solve completely in less than three minutes each, are games for someone with the type of problem-solving mindset a person must have to be a good automations Soldier he said. 

Shackleton said their job is divided into two main duties.

Shackleton explained. “First there is the automations piece, which deals with computers and software, and then you have network operations which deals more with routers and switches and getting the actual services working.”

Above everything else though, just as Soldiers need to be able to talk through radios, the automations section ensures that Soldiers can talk through Army e-mail systems, Shackleton said.

“Our primary focus is making sure that things like the (secure networks) are working because that’s how we get the tactical data (from the field),” Shackleton said. “If somebody’s in contact we use … secure channels to get the troops support.”