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On the road with the 980th Engineer Battalion

By Sgt. Catherine Threat , U.S. Forces - Afghanistan

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KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (April 10, 2012) — Getting from one place to the next in Afghanistan takes more than a map, sometimes it takes an engineer battalion.

The 980th Engineer battalion commander, Lt. Col. Wyatt Lowery, headed out on a two-day mission March 28 to assess the progress of projects in the works in southern Afghanistan. 

The 980th Eng. Bn. “Task Force Lone Star,” an Army Reserve unit out of Austin, Texas, deployed to Kandahar province in December, and discovered quickly that working as a team was the fastest and safest way to operate in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province. The 980th took soldiers from their Vertical Engineer Company, the 668th, and their Horizontal Engineer Company, the 721st, and combined them to form Tactical Infrastructure Construction teams, or TIC teams.

“Before, we had to assign a mission to one engineer company and they would have to task out certain aspects of the job to another engineering company,” said Lowery. “All of our missions really rely on both horizontal and vertical and because of our geographical constraints, we reorganized into eight individual TIC Teams that can complete missions without re-tasking.” 

On day one, Lowery, from Melissa, Texas, along with his operations officer, Maj. Charles Bell, visited to a TIC team working on a road just outside of Combat Outpost Siah Choy in the Panjwai district. The 520th Infantry Battalion, out of Fort Lewis, Wash., assessed the area around Siah Choy as unfriendly and was performing clearance operations.

In coordination with these operations, the TIC team is improving a small dirt road. Bell said “this enables freedom of movement for security forces trying to stabilize and secure the area, and increases the security posture within the village. We know for a fact that Taliban operate out of this area and the road enables us to get to them with speed.

“The road improvement also allows freedom of movement for the villagers and they get a sense that there is a U.S. presence and they don’t have to side with the Taliban. They want peace for their families, sustainability, and a sense of security – we help provide that,” he added. 

A shura, or meeting, was held with the local village elders at Siah Choy to explain the clearing operations and the road improvements. When asked about their reactions to the operations and construction, Bell said, “The good guys like it, the bad guys don’t, it depends on which team you’re on. Our operations help give the villagers a choice.”

The TIC team is improving 1.8 kilometers of road, averaging about 500 meters a day. “The toughest challenge is getting the equipment and supplies, such as gravel, down here where it needs to be” said Bell, “and the constant threat of enemy fire.”

The TIC Teams routinely work in active combat conditions, facing small arms fire as well as IEDs and rocket attacks.

Day two brought unwanted, if not unexpected, delays and detours en route to visit the project sites at COP Shoja and Route Evelyn. Barely an hour into morning convoy, the Personal Security Detail rolled to a stop. 

Afghan National Police had discovered an IED along the side of the road and were blocking off the area. After a short discussion, with the help of the interpreter, the PSD decided to follow the local villagers on a small trail that bypassed that section of the road, and were able to continue on with the day’s mission to check the progress of a construction project at Camp Shoja. The IED was detonated safely by the ANP about an hour later. 

Camp Shoja will soon be home to a Persistent Ground Surveillance System, or PGSS. “Our TIC Team is supplementing the observation tower with a PGSS,” said 668th Eng. Company officer-in-charge, Lt. Francisco Arocho said. “PGSS is a balloon system that allows more fields of observation in the Panjwai district so we can see who comes in and out of this area.” 

Construction on the project was in full swing and expected to be finished soon. 

“Persistent Ground Surveillance System’s allow us to watch the roads without having to put people on the ground,” Lowery said. “You can see guys emplacing IEDs, see things coming that you need to be prepared for.

“They are a great asset and we work hard at getting them installed and operational, and keeping them that way. When the balloons go down, IEDs go in.”

From Shoja, the convoy headed out toward Route Evelyn. Sighting of a possible IED caused a slight delay, and then a mechanical problem with a vehicle caused another adjustment in the mission.

Lowery said the 980th has gotten very good at what they do, their ability to overcome obstacles and their great attention to detail has helped keep the missions, and the soldiers, safe. This attention to detail was the reason for the decision to cut the mission short and head back to KAF. 

“We were going to go down Route Evelyn but that got scratched, we didn’t want to chance it today,” a 980th PSD gunner explained. “We always have our speed bumps, but we did the same thing today that we always do, adapt and overcome, you fall off the horse you get right back on.” One 980th soldier has a saying that sums this up rather well - Cowboy Up. Lowery said that’s just what the 980th engineers do every day in southern Afghanistan, and they will leave a lasting legacy of safety and improved mobility in Kandahar province.