By Air Force 2nd Lt. Mark Lazane, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet Public Affairs
May 18, 2010 - PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan (NNS) -- There are 13 U.S. provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) operating within Afghanistan's borders as of May 15.
The mission of these PRTs is to assist the government of Afghanistan in providing security, governance and development for its citizens.
A PRT is not a typical combat zone unit because it doesn't own a physical battle space. PRTs have to constantly communicate with other units to alert them to projects and travel plans each time they go outside the secure confines of the base.
In a high-tempo environment, it can be difficult to successfully articulate the PRT motives to higher headquarters. In addition, due to the distance from key logistical centers, keeping a fluid supply chain to the outlying provinces can also prove challenging.
For these reasons, the Paktika PRT, a team of civilians, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen located on the Eastern Afghanistan border with Pakistan, rely heavily on unit liaison officers (LNOs) to be their "eyes and ears" when they can't make it to the table.
Culinary Specialist 1st Class Wilson Santiago, of Irvington, N.J., who is stationed at Bagram Air Field (BAF), and Army Sgt. Anthony Eplee, from Greenville, S.C., who serves at the brigade headquarters in Khost Province, Afghanistan, are two particular LNOs for the Paktika Province.
"An LNO has to be a jack-of-all-trades," said Eplee, deployed from the 1/178 Field Artillery, B Battery, South Carolina National Guard, where he is a chemical, biological and nuclear technician.
"On a given day, I can be writing reports, building storyboards or ensuring accurate transfer of intelligence down to the lowest-level Soldier so they have the information they need to conduct a mission safely. The brigade commander may have a map, but not always a clear picture, so my job is to paint the picture for him," said Eplee.
"It's a lot of responsibility, that's for sure," said Santiago, a 10-year Navy veteran deployed from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).
"If I wasn't here, there would be a lot of manpower used and a lot of time wasted because my unit would have to run back and forth from Forward Operating Base Sharana to BAF to get things accomplished. I'm here to make sure operations continue as smoothly as possible," said Santiago.
For Santiago and Eplee, the success of the team depends on how efficiently they can get information and equipment to the battlefield.
While their unit is busy operating in Paktika, Santiago, an active-duty sailor, and Eplee, a former Sailor turned National Guard Soldier, are isolated from their team, and from each other, in order to help their unit be successful.
Santiago's main job is to deal primarily with the movement of supplies, equipment and personnel to and from BAF.
Eplee, while handling many logistic issues, mainly deals with information dissemination both to and from PRT Paktika and higher headquarters. He provides the brigade commander with information regarding the PRT's motives, missions and travels.
The responsibility of information dissemination is a job Eplee takes quite seriously.
"I'm very careful in my work here because I'm real close with the guys from my unit down in Paktika, so I know when I go home from here I have to see them face-to-face, and I want to be able to tell them and their families that I did my best to support them on their mission," said Eplee.
"The thought of me not giving 100 percent and consequently someone getting hurt is something I take very seriously. I don't want to see anyone get hurt so if there's anyway I can get them information to keep them safe, I'm going to do it," continued Eplee.
Like any job, being an LNO has its good and bad days.
"I enjoy helping people and getting things accomplished for people," said Eplee. "But the most challenging part of this job is that I'm expected to know every aspect of my team's mission. The brigade commander and I read the same briefs. Yet he requires me to know all the information so I can pass it on to the downrange units so the members of those units know exactly why my team is in their area of operation to ensure there is no conflict in our missions."
Santiago sums up where the motivation to serve as LNO comes from for both Eplee and himself.
"The types of relationships I built during my training were important, because they help remind me why I can't ever just stop working," said Santiago. "If I choose to just not work one day, no one may know or ever find out, but my team wouldn't get the resources they need. Something bad could happen if I decide I want to be lazy. I refuse to have that happen. The relationships I have built with my teammates keep me working harder each day. I work for the personnel downrange."