Minnesota-based engineer brigade oversees diverse mission

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Written by U.S. Army Sgt. Spencer Case, 304th Public Affairs Detachment Tuesday, 27 July 2010 21:11

PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Troops of the 372nd Engineer Brigade stand in formation in front of the brigade headquarters building for the official patch ceremony on at FOB Sharana Dec. 17, 2009. The patch awarded on this day is one the Soldiers wear on their right arm, indicating affiliation during deployment. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Janet Jones, 372nd Engineer Brigade Public Affairs)PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan– Since arriving in Afghanistan last November, reservists of the Fort Snelling, Minn.,-based 372nd Engineer Brigade have overseen a multi-faceted and evolving mission over a large swath of rugged territory.

The stateside headquarters component includes about 130 people from across 42 states, with the majority from Minnesota, Wisconsin or Iowa. In Afghanistan, they oversee engineering operations such as construction, road repair, counter-IED patrols and training Afghan civilians and military members in engineering skills.
At the time of their arrival to Forward Operating Base Sharana, Paktika province, the unit had about 2,500 troops, including two subordinate battalions. Over the next several months, the number of troops under 372nd command swelled to more than 4,000, as three additional Army battalions, one naval mobile construction battalion, and two Air Force expeditionary squadrons joined the 372nd family. As a part of this expansion, the number of platoon-sized anti-IED route clearance packages beneath 372nd command grew from 15 to more than 30 and continues to grow.

“Literally, we’re spread over 40 different [combat outposts and forward operating bases] across the country, which makes it extremely difficult to manage,” said U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Robert L. Stanek, the command sergeant major for the brigade, who hails from Lino Lakes, Minn.

As their mission expanded, the command structure had to adapt. Initially, the 372nd was subordinate to Regional Command-East, then run by the 82nd Airborne Division. As the 372nd became responsible for assets in RC-North, the brigade came directly under the command of the Afghanistan-wide International Security Assistance Force.

The command has adapted to the situation in part by traveling. The brigade’s commander, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Charles D. Martin, is one of the few American generals in Afghanistan not stationed at one of the three largest bases in the country: Bagram, Kandahar and Kabul. Martin, who hails from Little Rock, Ark., regularly flies to remote areas to visit his far-flung troops to present medals and decorations. So far, 80 Purple Hearts have been distributed to Soldiers under the 372nd command this deployment.

Stanek tries to divide his time evenly between staying at FOB Sharana and traveling, but said his command responsibilities keep him anchored in FOB Sharana more often than he would like.

“If I get too far away, I come back and there’s a stack of this kind of paper-work waiting for me,” Stanek said, holding his thumb and his index finger about three inches apart for demonstration.

The mission of the brigade is broad and difficult to summarize, but two areas of work under the auspices of the 372nd illustrate the scope of their work: the expansion of FOB Sharana and the partnership with Afghan civilians.  

The 1,500-acre expansion of FOB Sharana will make way for an additional 4,000 Coalition troops as part of the “Afghan surge.” The area will include a post exchange, a dining facility and other buildings. The responsibility for bringing this about has fallen on the shoulders of the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4, a unit based out of Port Hueneme, Calif., currently under 372nd command.

At times, they have worked 24-hour operations for weeks on end, said U.S. Army Maj. LaTonia M. Mahnke, the brigade intelligence officer who hails from Sun Prairie, Wis.

“The Seabees have been a godsend to us in Sharana and up north, too. They really put them to work,” Mahnke said.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dennis O. Conner, a construction engineering technician for the 372nd who hails from Littleton, Colo., added, “We’ve been extremely busy with the western expansion.”

Another main area of focus of the 372nd, the partnership with Afghans, comprises a number of projects. One of the largest of these is an engineer skills course taught by Soldiers of the 1092nd Engineer Battalion, based out of Parkersburg, W. Va., at FOB Sharana.

“We are focused on developing skilled laborers as well as promoting [the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], and we do this by sponsoring engineer skills workshops,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ben Sloot, the brigade civil military operations officer from Minneapolis.

The three-month long classes teach Afghan civilians skills like carpentry, roadwork and plumbing. After the first two weeks of class work, the students work on various public work projects approved by the provincial governments. After the students graduate, a job fair is held to help them find long-term employment. Since the 372nd arrived, five classes of about 170 Afghan participants each have completed the course.

 “Since I’ve been here, it’s gone from being a provincial-level education program [to a point where] it’s now going toward being a program on the national level,” Sloot said. “We’re creating an exportable package so that other regional command teams can build their own skilled labor programs.”

In total, the brigade has helped evaluate and approve approximately 3,000 public works and development projects each worth at least $100,000, Conner said. These provide Afghan contractors with jobs and help beef up infrastructure.

The current deployment is now winding down, and the troops of the 372nd will leave theater around mid-September.

Looking back since their arrival, Stanek is proud of what has been accomplished.

“I’m amazed at the progress we’ve made in-country, to the people of Afghanistan,” Stanek said.