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October 13, 2005

Getting to the fight, part 7.

Another bit from Blake, wherein he keeps a promise and answers his teaser.

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My part of this mission is winding down. Most of our stuff has shipped, and we're cleaning up bits and pieces here and there. It's getting easier to find time to do things like write, hence the following.

True Tales of Horror from the Unit Movements Bidness, Part 2.

Okay, so in the last installment of this collection, I mentioned having once helped airmail a water buffalo to Afghanistan. I’ll own up. I did it. Or at least, I helped…

No, not a live carabao. Not even a dead one. Take it from me, moving large animals by air is a LOT more trouble than its worth, most of the time. Ain’t gonna, can’t make me. Although, come to think of it, the CIA did fly two 747’s full of the very best Tennessee mules out of Fort Campbell back when we were supporting the Afghan mujahideen in their war against the Russians. Given that the typical beast of burden in rural Afghanistan is a scrawny donkey, handing out the mules was supposed to be the equine equivalent of giving a humongous new Ford F350 pickup to a guy making do with a beat-up little Nissan. I never did hear how the project worked out.

No, what I actually helped airmail was one of these, properly known as “Trailer, Tank, Water, 400 gallon, M149A2." Soldiers have been calling these trailers “water buffalos” as long as I’ve been hanging around the Army…

What happened was that a certain unit at Fort Campbell (which shall here remain nameless,) was alerted to deploy to Afghanistan by military airlift on little or no notice. Their Unit Movement Officer, (or UMO) in a hurry to generate his Deployment Equipment List (or DEL) in the transportation computer system so that he could start printing shipping labels, reasoned that the unit had just returned from a rotation to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, LA, and that they had done fine down there, so he created his new DEL by making a copy of the DEL from the Fort Polk deployment, instead of creating his DEL based on his unit’s total equipment baseline. So the UMO prints out his labels based on the new DEL, goes back to the unit and gives the labels to his sergeants, saying unto them: “Here are the shipping labels for what we are deploying. Go, thou, and prepare these items for movement!”

The problem was, the UMO had forgotten that while the unit had been at Fort Polk, they had arranged to draw a number of vehicles from an equipment pool kept there for that purpose, so that it had been unnecessary for the unit to deploy those types of vehicles with it from Fort Campbell, and equally unnecessary to list these items on the DEL. Among the items that the unit had drawn from the Fort Polk training equipment pool was a Trailer, Tank, Water, 400 Gallon, M149A2.

So, we members of the Deployment Support Team move Heaven and Earth to get this unit moved on time (which, in itself, is another tale that needs to be told here,) and we somehow manage to get them there faster than anyone could reasonably have predicted. (Ask me some time about the C-5B we sent off loaded with 108,000 pounds of ammunition, or about the Incredible Growing Pallet…) And eventually the members of the advance party for the unit get off the airplane at Kandahar International Airport, and discover that yea, verily, Afghanistan enjoys what scientists call a “semi-arid-to-arid” climate. In other words, it’s mostly desert broken up with big honking mountains and not-quite-so-high piles of big rocks euphemistically referred to as “hills.” Being as they are in a desert, it occurs to someone that they will probably have a need to transport and store water, and someone asks “OK, what flight is the water buffalo arriving on?” This seems like a good question, but nobody has an answer, since the advance party took off well before we had all of the load plans finalized. So, they break out the ultra-sophisticated, highly-miniaturized satellite communications system and do the “E.T. phone home” thing back to Fort Campbell.

Back at Campbell, we get the telephone call. “What flight is the water buffalo arriving on?” We shuffle through the twenty-five-odd aircraft load plans, and reply “It isn’t coming: we never loaded one.” Incoherent spluttering on the other end of the line eventually resolves into “Whaddaya MEAN we ain’t getting no water buffalo?!? We’re in the middle of the freakin’ desert here! We’re all gonna die without a water buffalo!”

Back at Campbell we all nod sagely at that bit of wisdom. The next phrase out of the telephone is, predictably, “Well, adjust the load plans on one of the later airplanes in the airflow, and add the water buffalo!”

Can’t be done, we reply. The aircraft are all planned to better than 95% of Authorized Cabin Load (ACL – the maximum cargo and passenger load permitted by the mission parameters,) and the only way to get in the water buffalo onto an aircraft at this point is to take something equally combat essential off. This results in more incoherent spluttering, which resolves to “So request another airplane!”

Which also isn’t happening, we explain. The movement plan for the unit has already been validated and locked by both Forces Command for the Army and Transportation Command for DoD, and since EVERYTHING going into Afghanistan is going in by air, airplanes are in high demand. In order to get another airplane at this point, it would require that our division commander go hat-in-hand to the Air Force and beg for another airplane to fly a single trailer to Afghanistan because one of his battalion commanders was too stupid to figure out on his own that he needed to take a water trailer with him to the desert. Hell would freeze over first.

More incoherent spluttering from the ‘Stan, which resolves to something like “We’re doomed, we’re all doomed…”

At which point my boss intervenes, and tells the poor suffering guys in Afghanistan that we will get them their water buffalo somehow: it just may take us a few days. We hang up the phone. The boss looks at us and tells us “There has to be SOME way of getting these guys their water buffalo. Find it.”

So we start looking. First stop is the Air Force, to ask about inserting the water buffalo into the normal sustainment airflow into the ‘Stan. “Yeah,” the zoomies tell us, “we can do that, but the transit time will be 10-14 days, assuming that the water buffalo doesn’t get lost at a transfer point like Ramstein or Diego Garcia.” Obviously that won’t do. One of my geographically-challenged peers suggests that we move it by sea. I point out that that would take too long, and anyway, Afghanistan is a land-locked nation that doesn’t have any seaports. “Are you sure?” asks my co-worker. When I nod, said co-worker toddles off to consult an atlas. Someone remembers that there is a chartered 747 freighter due in soon to ferry helicopter parts to Afghanistan. Maybe we can sneak the water-buffalo onto that. No luck. The bird is already full. Rotor blades take up way too much space. Then someone says “What about Fed Ex?”

We all look at each other. We grin. If this isn’t a case of “when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight,” we haven’t seen one lately. We lunge for the phone. The Fed Ex guy at the other end says “You want us to fly air freight into a war zone? Are you guys on crack or something? We don’t do stuff like that.”

We shrug, hang up, and call UPS. The UPS person says “We don’t do things like that. Who do you think we are, DHL?”

We have no idea who or what DHL is, but the inference is that they will do what UPS and Fed Ex will not. So we call operator assistance, and we eventually get connected to the nearest DHL terminal, which is in Atlanta. The DHL person, when presented with what we want to do, says “Yeah, we can do that. It’s gonna cost you a bunch extra for hazard charges, but we can do it.” We ask how come they can do this sort of thing when Purple and Brown won’t, and we get told that DHL has subcontracting arrangements with a lot of small carriers who will fly anything anywhere if the price is right.

DHL overnights us some blank airbills and a book of instructions. We fill out the paperwork, and lay on a commercial truck to haul the water buffalo to Atlanta. A minor complication pops up: the water buffalo has a water-chilling unit mounted on it which is powered by a small diesel engine. This makes the whole thing HAZMAT for airlift. Fortunately, we Deployment Specialists are required to be HAZMAT certifiers, so we fill out the necessary HAZMAT documentation, insuring that it is entirely machine-printed (‘cause it’s going via commercial airlift,) and send the whole package off to Atlanta.

The next day we get a telephone call from DHL in Atlanta. Everything is wonderful, except that, according to some pedant on the staff of the DHL terminal, we have misspelled “Kandahar” on all of the paperwork. We point out at some length that the written form of Pushto is strictly phonetic, and that there is no single, generally accepted English spelling for the names of most places in the ‘Stan. Doesn’t matter. Said pedant is the custodian of some sort of sacred approval stamp, without which DHL’s own internal rules prohibit moving our shipment. We sigh mightily, ask how Mr. Pedantic wants us to spell “Qand’har,” redo all the paperwork, and overnight it to Atlanta. DHL tells us they will move the shipment.

About three days later we get a jubilant telephone call from the unit, telling us they got their water buffalo. “Yeah, man: some crazy dudes wearing blue jeans brought a beat-up 747 freighter into Kandahar Airport yesterday with a whole bunch of mail and high priority stuff on it for a bunch of people. Our water buffalo was part of the load. You Deployment Support Team dudes rock!”

Which is how I airmailed a water buffalo to Afghanistan.

Mission First, People Always. It's a cliche', but it's right.

Parts 1, 2, and 3, 4, 5 6 can be reached by clicking the respective numbers.