Dust Wars

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Army Major Casey Holler served as a company commander in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2005-2006, and spent 2009-2010 in Afghanistan as a logistics planner at Forward Operating Base Salerno in southeastern Afghanistan.

Logistics – git thar fustest with the mostest, in the apocryphal words of Confederate Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest – is the great underbelly of any military campaign. If supply routes are down, an army grinds to a halt. Holler spoke of his Afghan tour in this recently-posted April interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Highlights:

We had to build up a forward area refueling point (FARP) at FOB Kushamond, and I needed to know exactly what they needed, because we had to contract for it. It wound up being four or five million dollars for contracted stuff, and I didn’t want to just order it willy-nilly. They kept telling me the dust was bad, and when I got there and looked around there was dust everywhere, but nothing hit home until the bird that was picking me up started to land and I thought I was going to die because I couldn’t breathe. It was the worst dust I’ve ever seen in my life. That right there, I was like, “Okay, got it. You guys need some form of dust control.

Q: What is dust control? How do you control that kind of dust?

You pave, you throw gravel, or stuff called Rhino Snot.

Q: Is that the technical term? [Laughs]

It is the technical term. [Laughs] I’ve also heard Gorilla Snot, probably a different brand name…it’s like glue you spray on the ground and it forms a little crust layer to keep the dust down for a little while. It’s relatively low-cost, but the problem for us was that getting down to Kushamond was a horribly bad road.

Not drivability, but safety wise. Contractors, no matter how much money we were throwing at them, they did not want to drive gravel down there because they knew their guys would be killed. Getting gravel down there was horrible. Every time we drove down there, we had a Soldier that was either seriously wounded or killed.

That was the problem. Even more to the south down that same road was where the current FARP was, and the only way we could resupply that with fuel was via air, which was insane.

We had limited resupply helicopters, and we were sending one down to FOB Wazi Kwah every day. That bird was taken out every day to resupply that FARP. If we moved it to Kushamond, we could get some ground fuel there.

Q: But then you couldn’t get anybody to drive that route. I’m hearing a lot of frustration in your voice about Afghanistan.

It was just rough. We always laugh as logisticians, that logistics in Afghanistan is tough.

Q: It’s almost impossible.

It’s not impossible; it’s just tough unless you have an unlimited supply of assets and resources. If we had a whole bunch of helicopters, no problem…

For Afghanistan the worst problem there is logistics. You can’t move mountains, and you can’t make all the roads safe. Honestly, one of the biggest problems that we had in Afghanistan was the reliance on Afghan contractors for fuel.

When we would contract fuel, they were given 45 days to get the fuel to us, and they would take almost all of that every time, even when they were only going a couple hundred miles. I don’t know why they did it that day, but when I had a brigade commander yelling at me for having our major base black [low] on fuel, I’d say, “It’s on the road, I know that. I can’t tell you when it’s coming here, sir, but it’s on the road.”…

Q: It doesn’t sound like the issues facing Afghanistan are especially fixable.

No. The whole purpose of what we’re doing there, you have to go down to the lowest level, and there are villages in the middle of nowhere. I was surprised when I’d be flying around in the mountains, and I’d look down and in the middle of nowhere I’d see a little village. I’d think, “How did they get there,” let alone how do we get guys there and get a presence in that village? You don’t. That right there, unless that can be solved, and I don’t know if anybody had that answer without sending millions of troops there, which nobody is going to do…

The one thing that I was surprised by on all my deployments is the overall resiliency and flexibility of the U.S. Army Soldier. For my guys doing fixed site security when they had zero days of training on that, and they did it with smiles on their faces, to trying to find a way to get fuel to the middle of nowhere on a death run in Afghanistan.