Today’s U.S. supply soldiers brave improvised explosive devices, enemy ambushes, treacherous roads and unreliable foreign truckers, all in an effort to deliver needed cargo on time.
“We resupply the war fighter. If they need something, it’s our job to get it down there and we will expedite it by any means,” Maj. Melissa R. Coleman, the 10th Sustainment Brigade distribution chief, said from Afghanistan earlier this year.
“It’s Afghanistan. There are people out there that do not like us, and they watch everything we do,” Coleman said.
Afghanistan’s landlocked and mountainous landscape has forced the U.S. Army to forge a network of perilous ground and air routes, lifelines to about 65,000 soldiers at more than 15 bases and 300 outposts, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Although the 10th Sustainment Brigade has not suffered a casualty since assuming an area of operations in eastern Afghanistan in November, most supply units in the war zone have some dark days. For every 46 resupply convoys in Afghanistan, U.S. forces suffer at least one casualty, Army Secretary John McHugh said last summer.
In a single combat tour, supply battalions can run hundreds of logistics patrols. A battalion that preceded the 10th Sustainment Brigade in 2010-11 executed roughly 400, according to the Army Logistics University.
To keep cargo flowing, the Army dedicated nearly one-third of its total enlisted force in 2011 — about 134,000 soldiers — to logistics operations, which it calls force sustainment. Those soldiers hold specialties in transportation, quartermaster and ordnance, according to the Army’s personnel office.
Supply units distribute battlefield necessities such as ammo, medical supplies and mail by truck, or coordinate drop-offs with Army helicopters or Air Force planes.
“Everything on the battlefield: We move it, we secure it, we push it, we pull it. Wherever it needs to be, we put it there,” Sgt. Timothy Hartung of 125th Brigade Support Battalion said in a news release from Afghanistan in December. “The infantry can’t fight without bullets.”
But there’s no guarantee packages will arrive on time and in full to American positions.
Cargo has fallen prey to inconsistent tracking and pilferage, according to an October report from GAO.
Less than 1 percent of cargo shipped to Afghanistan has been lost or misplaced, according to Army Materiel Command.
A dependence on host-nation trucking companies opens supply lines to pilferage, Col. Michael Peterman, commander of the 101st Sustainment Brigade, said in a 2011 Army release.
Last May, the brigade spearheaded a system to pay Afghan drivers better wages in an effort to reduce costs, potential pilferage and enemy attacks in Regional Command-North, he said.
Companies from Kabul that drove cargo to outposts had been paying truckers a tiny fraction of cash from contracts, “almost one penny on the dollar,” he said.
This January, 163rd Military Intelligence Battalion soldiers teamed up with Afghan forces to clamp down on illegal activity by insurgents and smugglers on routes in Kandahar province.
If improper customs documents or contraband were found, “taxes were levied there on site,” said Maj. Lisa Winegar, the 163rd’s operation officer.
Insurgents are not the only enemy of the supply corps. Jagged terrain and seasonal weather cause avalanches and floods that can isolate soldiers on the ground.
This winter, snowstorms iced over roads and grounded aircraft, grinding the 10th Sustainment Brigade’s supply gears to a halt, Coleman said.
The brigade operates in an area of eastern Afghanistan about the size of Iowa and supports regional commands East, North and Capital. It had distributed 77 million tons of cargo as of the end of March.
Bad weather can shut down air and ground resupply for two to four days, Coleman said.
When weather, unstable roads, enemy aggression or sensitivity of cargo make ground resupply impractical, the brigade looks to the skies. Planes and helicopters land supplies at outposts or drop cargo to soldiers below.
Parachute-rigged pallets can deliver fuel bladders, ammunition or frozen steaks to ground troops.
No matter the setbacks, a lasting impression of supply in Afghanistan may have less to do with cost and more with how support troops — riggers, truck drivers and pilots — have gone to extraordinary lengths over some of the war’s harshest terrain to keep soldiers fighting at the front.
Maj. Elizabeth A. Sweeney, executive officer at the 10th Sustainment Brigade, expressed a support soldier’s sense of duty to combat-arms units in an email to Army Times.
“They are not customers to us. They are teammates, partners, family,” she wrote.