Pending Afghanistan withdrawal creating logistical challenges

Tacoma News TribuneOctober 22, 2012 

The U.S. military has sent tens of billions of dollars of equipment and vehicles to support the war in Afghanistan, which entered its 12th year this month.

Jeff Brewster, the City of Lakewood’s communication director, spent 10 months overseas — from October 2011 until August — working out how to bring most of it back.

Brewster, 46, said the deployment confirmed for him a major lesson about conflict: “Wars are a lot easier to get into than disengage from.”

The call-up of Brewster, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who lives outside Olympia with his wife, Monica, and seven children, came as the decade-plus-long conflict enters a crossroads.

The U.S. military is scheduled to end its combat role there next year as it plans to withdraw all its troops in 2014. While service members, including thousands of soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, continue to fight, others like Brewster are planning for their departure. That includes the stateside return of thousands of vehicles, weapons and other equipment.

“There is a natural tension between those two efforts that makes each very difficult to execute,” said Brewster, who returned to his city job in September.

In his civilian work, Brewster is responsible for all Lakewood’s communications, including responding to media and citizen inquiries, preparing the newsletter mailed to Lakewood residents, reaching out to neighborhood associations and maintaining relations with leaders in surrounding communities and state lawmakers in Olympia.

He said his time overseas showed him that the U.S. is on “a steep glide path toward disengaging in Afghanistan.”

Brewster has spent 28 years in the Army with stints in the active-duty, Reserve and National Guard. His last six-month deployment was ahead of and during Desert Storm in 1990-91. He worked to establish relay points for troops and equipment going into Iraq to support what turned out to be the shortest war in U.S. history.

More than a decade later, his work reversed direction to help bring to a close the nation’s longest war. This mission proved far more challenging, he said.

Brewster, who is assigned to the 104th Division (Leader Training) based at Lewis-McChord, worked for Army’s higher headquarters in Kuwait and spent six weeks in Afghanistan.

Less than two months after Brewster’s arrival, Pakistan closed a key highway the U.S. uses to supply its troops. During the six-month closure, Brewster said, he and other planners had to figure out how to transport the equipment by air, which is more expensive and difficult to arrange. Planners were working to meet the U.S. military’s goal of shipping back 1,200 vehicles and 1,000 containers of equipment each month. The estimated value of all the vehicles and aircraft in Afghanistan is $42 billion, Brewster said.

The moving plans are carried out by 2,200 soldiers and more than 1,000 contractors. They get support from other units in the field.

Not all equipment will be sent home. Some will be destroyed and some sold to other countries, Brewster said. The U.S. military has been closing bases in Afghanistan during the drawdown, and planners determined there was more equipment at some locations than initially accounted for.

Another challenge for planners was that customs officials would turn away equipment caked with grime.

“We can’t ship dirty equipment to the United States,” he said. “The cleaning of equipment was a major issue.”

The most difficult equipment to ship out was the heavily shielded Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, due to their weight and girth, he said. The MRAPs are used to protect Lewis-McChord Stryker troops and other soldiers from roadside bombs.

After 10 years of war, Brewster said, it often was difficult to distinguish active-duty from reserve-service members — proof of the latter’s value to the nation during ongoing deployments.

“That is the way it should be,” he said.

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