Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan — When Nick Grob and Lucas Kramer first arrived in this war-torn country, the rubble from the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center was still being cleared back home.
They were part of a small group of electricians, plumbers and carpenters from the Wisconsin National Guard's 829th Engineer Co. that quietly deployed in the fall of 2001.
Most of the group, who were among the first of more than 10,000 Wisconsin guardsmen to mobilize overseas for the war on terror, brought their own equipment. Kramer packed his tool belt and a Gerber multi-tool he bought at Cabela's in Prairie du Chien. Their job was to build the infrastructure for the war effort — construct the housing, lay the pipes.
Now they're back in Afghanistan, with a much different mission — breaking down tents, deconstructing hangars, boxing up parts.
Thirteen years after the United States entered Afghanistan to clear out the Taliban, the last combat troops are pulling out. The future of Afghanistan is uncertain; recent events in Iraq have shown what can happen after such a withdrawal.
But for now, the focus of the 829th is on shutting down America's longest war.
It's quite a different task for the Chippewa Falls-based engineering company, which is split among four locations in Afghanistan. The soldiers are more accustomed to building structures, not tearing them down.
But the expertise from putting up buildings makes it easier to take them apart, because the Wisconsin engineers know how they're wired, where the load-bearing walls are located, and the quickest and safest ways to dismantle them. That's not to say this is how engineers usually demolish structures.
"Most buildings come down with either explosives or heavy equipment," said Sgt. Brett Lazich, 26, of Fond du Lac. "We're taking these down with sledge hammers and privates."
There aren't many privates in the 829th in Afghanistan, so it's actually specialists and privates first class doing the hard work. Spc. Casey Groehler, a 2008 Spooner High School graduate whose father served in Desert Storm, acknowledged "it does feel weird to take things down instead of building them up."
Still, said Groehler, a prison guard in Baldwin: "Everybody has a job in the war. This is ours."
'It was all new'
Kramer, now 32 and a sergeant first class, had just started his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Stout when someone in his dorm told him about the terror attacks. Most classes were canceled that day and he watched the horror unfold on TV.
At drill weekend in October, Kramer and other members of the 829th were tipped off that a few of them might be mobilized to Afghanistan. Grob was a mechanic at Precision Auto in Richland Center and a volunteer firefighter at the time.
The next month the unit was told some soldiers were definitely going, but no names were mentioned. Then, shortly after November's drill weekend, Grob was working on a car when his boss told him he had a phone call: He was going.
"I was really ecstatic. I was calling all my friends," Grob said. "It was all new. Like, what's going to happen?"
Kramer, of Wauzeka, cleared out his college dorm room.
The small team of four plumbers, four electricians, one carpenter, two operations sergeants and a commander trained for a couple of weeks at Fort Bragg. The lessons included weapons and biological-chemical hazard classes because no one knew if the Taliban had chemical weapons.
They boarded a plane in mid-December and found out they weren't actually going to Afghanistan but to Uzbekistan to build housing for U.S. Special Forces troops.
Because of the secret nature of their deployment, when they arrived in Uzbekistan "all we got was one phone call (home). All we could do is say we're here, we're safe," said Grob, now a chief in the National Guard and a mechanic at Sleepy Hollow Auto Group in Viroqua.
In February 2002, the Dirty Dozen — as the group called itself — was sent to Kandahar to help build what is now a sprawling base in southern Afghanistan.
By the time they arrived, U.S. and coalition forces had taken over the airfield. The base was built by the Soviets in the 1970s, and Grob was shocked at the shoddy workmanship.
"I grew up in the Cold War era and my first thought was: 'We were actually afraid of the Soviet Union?'" he said.
The Wisconsin engineers helped build a combat support hospital and cafeteria, wired the airport for 110 volts, put in sewer and water lines, and installed a large septic field, said Kramer, who teaches industrial arts and pre-engineering classes at Winnebago, Ill., High School.
The team returned to Wisconsin in mid-June 2002.
No one imagined that some of the soldiers would be back now, providing a bookend to American combat involvement. No one would have predicted that Kramer would be here today, still using the Gerber multi-tool he bought for his first trip to Afghanistan.
Hot, filthy work
Staff Sgt. Tom Hinman stands inside the skeleton as it casts long, thin shadows under the blazing sun at Camp Marmal near Mazar-i-Sharif in north-central Afghanistan.
"This used to be an aviation maintenance building, so there were Blackhawks, Chinooks and Apaches in here," said Hinman, a former major and company commander for the Wisconsin National Guard.
Around Hinman, soldiers clad in camouflage uniforms and hard hats are hard at work. They are using trucks and forklifts, and putting sweat and muscle behind drills, hammers and screwdrivers. The task is not easy; expanding pins and screws had been buffeted by winds, sand and grit for years, and baked in the Afghan heat.
"Two weeks ago this place was bustling. We've got it down to 31/2 days to pull one of these down. When we started it took a week," said Hinman, 51, of Hazel Green.
It's filthy, energy-sapping work. Wisconsin soldiers have toiled in triple-digit heat for months now, typically starting early in the morning and finishing in midafternoon. Because of the extreme conditions, they usually work 30 minutes and rest 30 minutes.
Each soldier guzzles 12 to 20 half-liter bottles of water and sports drinks each work shift. They wear gloves because metal tools and equipment left out in the sun quickly scorch skin. Power tools overheat, so the unit has resorted to keeping batteries in coolers.
Because of the threat of "blue on green" attacks — a two-star general was killed this month by a gunman in an Afghan soldier's uniform — squad members take turns pulling "guardian angel" duty each hour to watch over the squad's weapons and keep an eye on the work site's perimeter.
Recycling and reclaiming
The troops are also part of an unprecedented effort to save as much as possible, to recycle and reclaim billions of dollars worth of material.
At the close of the world wars, Korea and Vietnam, the American military left behind its trucks, helicopters, tents and all manner of equipment. World War II landing craft continues to rust on Pacific islands. Huey helicopters tipped off aircraft carriers at the end of the Vietnam War remain at the bottom of the ocean off Saigon.
Now, the goal is to save as many U.S. taxpayer dollars spent on this conflict as possible — and return the Afghan countryside to what it looked like before American and coalition forces arrived.
"Right-sizing and right-fitting are the two buzzwords," said Capt. Kyle Gruber, commander of the 829th Engineers.
As U.S. troop strength drops from 30,000 to less than 10,000 at year's end, hundreds of military installations are shutting down, leaving a handful of bases in key areas like Kandahar, Jalalabad, Bagram and Mazar-i-Sharif open for Afghan forces and a much smaller U.S. and coalition component. But even the large bases in those spots are reducing their footprint.
"Buildings, walls, everything you see has to come down. Everything gets recycled including wood and nails," said Gruber, 30, of Eau Claire.
Some equipment will be given to Afghan security forces; building materials like plywood will be offered to Afghan civilians. Items that have outlived their usefulness or are so degraded they're worthless — like some fabric skins covering the hangar being taken down by Hinman's squad — will be destroyed. And a lot of equipment will return to the United States, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, combat trucks to be given to law enforcement agencies in the United States. It took years to build the American presence in Afghanistan; it will take months to break it down. While ammunition, weapons and sensitive equipment like radios will be taken back by air, most of the equipment destined for the U.S. is returning via ship. The Defense Department is spending an estimated $7 billion to ship nearly 750,000 pieces of equipment worth $36 billion.
"It's like moving into a house, staying 12 years and then moving out. And you've got all this stuff," said 1st Sgt. Russel Nyberg.
"Some things you keep," Gruber added. "Some you sell at a garage sale. Some you give to Goodwill."
Tearing down a city
University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering professor Teresa Adams is part of the effort to figure out how and where it will flow back into the U.S.
Adams is executive director of the UW-based National Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education. She has analyzed numerous deep-water ports for ships carrying Afghan War equipment.
She determined that Gulfport, Miss., would be an ideal place to move the equipment coming home from Afghanistan because of its large port, good rail and intermodal lines, and a large military base, Camp Shelby, less than an hour away.
"It's interesting to see how much is going to come back, how they'll load it, how they'll repurpose it and figure out what to do with it," Adams said.
All of which makes the work of the 829th Engineers critical to the effort to end the war, said Col. Paul S. Sarat Jr., commander of U.S. forces at Camp Marmal, where American troops will drop from around 1,000 to at most a couple of hundred by New Year's Eve.
"What the 829th has done within the last few months is remarkable," said Sarat, a Pennsylvania native who has trained at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.
At Camp Marmal, once bustling areas that buzzed with all manner of aircraft, rows and rows of tents, dining facilities and tactical operations centers now look like ghost towns, some literally with tumbleweed and dust blowing through.
In a few weeks the post office will close and soldiers serving here will be able to send and receive mail only once a week. Later the dining facilities, gym, USO and other amenities will shut down, and finally most of the American soldiers will leave.
"They're tearing down basically a small city, and that's incredibly hard," Sarat said. "If they can recover 50% of the equipment, it pays for itself to get that back. But because of the cleverness of the unit, they're saving 80%, which is great during hard fiscal times."
'That didn't work out'
In the first two months they were in Afghanistan, approximately 150 members of the 829th worked a total of almost 48,000 hours, breaking down hundreds of tents and dozens of large maintenance structures, moving 53 large concrete "T" walls and removing 1,700 linear feet of plumbing.
"I remember when I was here in '01-'02, it was so hard to get building materials. And now everything is just laying around," said Grob, of Richland Center. "The other day I opened a (shipping container) and it was filled with plumbing materials. I thought 'Oh, I really could have used these 12 years ago.'"
Thousands and thousands of sand bags — which most Army privates and specialists have spent innumerable hours filling at some point in their career — are being returned to the terrain where they originated. Working like a bucket brigade, soldiers line up to place no-longer-needed sand bags into large holes where the biodegradable bags will eventually break down. Electricians are pulling miles of wires from buildings.
"We are literally turning the lights off on this war," Gruber said.
Grob, now 41, is still surprised he's back more than a dozen years after he left.
"The way it was projected to us, the war was going to last eight years. We'd be here eight years," he said. "But that didn't work out."