War on Terrorism

Friday, February 13, 2015

Engineers among last units to leave Afghanistan

by David Bedard
JBER Public Affairs


2/13/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- December 1950. The Korean War. Following the breakout of the Chosin Reservoir, Marines and Soldiers of the X Corps had avoided destruction by Chinese Communist forces and maneuvered south to the port of Hungnam. If they couldn't evacuate to United Nations lines, the battered unit would risk being encircled a second time.

It was up to the X Corps' 2d Engineer Special Brigade to run the port and supervise the loading of personnel and equipment aboard ship - an operation that would quickly be dubbed an "amphibious landing in reverse."

All told, 105,000 troops, 98,100 Korean refugees, 18,000 vehicles and 350,000 tons of bulk cargo were saved from falling into the hands of the communists, largely due to the efforts of the engineers.

Nearly 65 years later, service members of the 2d Engineer Brigade accomplished a similar feat during their seven-month deployment to Afghanistan where the brigade headquarters commanded engineer units across the country, partnered with Afghan engineer units, and undertook a massive retrograde of equipment and infrastructure to the states.

Brigade and U.S. Army Alaska leaders took the opportunity to share the accomplishments of the 2d Engineer Brigade during a Feb. 5 redeployment ceremony at the Alaska Army National Guard Armory on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

During his remarks, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Shields, USARAK commanding general, said approximately 250 Soldiers from the 2d Engineer Brigade Headquarters, the 23rd Engineer Company and the 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion deployed to Afghanistan last spring.

Once the brigade headquarters arrived, they assumed responsibility as the Theater Brigade Engineer Headquarters, commanding an engineer task force of more than a thousand Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen.

Shields said the deployment was especially challenging due to the rapid drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

"The Trailblazers' mission required them to reduce the U.S. and allied footprint in Afghanistan, even as hostilities continued," the general said. "It is a very atypical challenge and not one we can routinely train for. It required flexibility and adaptive leadership. Our Arctic Trailblazers delivered just that under austere conditions."

Shields said the brigade deconstructed and retrograded 108 tension-fabric structures, synchronized the closure or transfer of 48 bases, demolished 662 wood structures, hauled away more than 120,000 cubic yards of debris from project sites, and returned more than $51 million worth of equipment to the Army's supply inventory.

The brigade also managed the technical oversight of clearing explosives from more than 104 training ranges across the country, disposing of more than 10,000 high-explosive munitions.

"This effort was critical, as it demonstrated our commitment to reducing the military presence in a responsible manner," Shields said. "Every range the Trailblazers cleared of potentially dangerous ordnance, leaves one less concern for the people of Afghanistan as they face the future."

During his remarks, Army Col. Peter Andrysiak, 2nd Engineer Brigade Commander, spoke about how the Trailblazers partnered with the Afghan National Engineer Brigade to prepare them to fully take over engineer duties.

The brigade commander said the Soldiers couldn't have accomplished their mission of transitioning the country to Afghan Forces alone, relying on the home-front support of their families.

"I know too well that the sacrifices they have made, we can't give [that time] back," Andrysiak said. "There were far too many missed anniversaries, births and graduations."

Though most of the focus was justifiably placed on what the Theater Engineer Brigade accomplished, much work was required at the small-unit level to support the larger effort.

Army 1st Sgt. William Shoaf, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2d Engineer Brigade first sergeant and a native of North Augusta, South Carolina, said preparing headquarters Soldiers for the deployment proved to be a challenge.

"Half of our formation had never deployed before, and that was a little nerve wracking with them not knowing that they didn't understand what it's like to deploy," Shoaf explained. "But they performed extremely well. We were surprised at what we could do with so few people."

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