By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Garas
Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 15, pour concrete as they work to complete a runway expansion project. NMCB 15 is currently mobilized in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and is an expeditionary element of U.S. Naval Forces that support various units worldwide through national force readiness, civil engineering, humanitarian assistance, and building and maintaining infrastructure. (U.S. Navy photos by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Garas)
Their mission is to place over 2,000 cubic yards of concrete to extend an existing runway critical to Regional Command (RC) East. Upon completion of this high priority engineering project, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will see significant improvement in its ability to protect friendly forces operating in the area.
“We are expanding the runway 900 feet on one side and 600 feet on the other in order to enhance the variety of aircraft that’s allowed to operate on the runway,” said Steelworker 2nd Class Keith Manning. “ISAF is providing security for us while we build.”
“With the consolidation of adjacent bases in the area, we are here to build this base up so they can shrink the footprint of everything else around us,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Stocker, NMCB 15’s project leader in RC East.
“This is one of the largest construction projects in Afghanistan, and the largest for the Seabees of NMCB 15,” said Stocker. “Each member was specifically selected for this task.”
The project was completed in several stages. First, force protection of the crew was enhanced by adding sand-filled HESCO barriers and guard towers. Then, Seabees began by grading the earth around the ends of the runway to ensure the land was level. They then built wooden forms that the concrete would be poured into. Finally, they cut and tied rebar to place inside the forms, which would strengthen the concrete. After these tasks were completed the forms were ready to receive the concrete.
The construction was fraught with challenges. RC East is currently one of the most dangerous provinces in the Afghan theater of operations.
“We get indirect fire attacks but once it’s all clear, we keep right on going,” said Manning.
In addition to the enemy factor, the challenges of the build were compounded by environmental hazards. The site sits nearly 7,300 feet above sea level where breathing and labor is made difficult. The altitude and thin air necessitates the need for the heavier helicopters that the Polish military operates to roll along the runway before taking off, which underscores the final and greatest challenge; NMCB 15 is expanding on an active runway.
“Sometimes when we would lay down our matting a helicopter would fly over and blow it away, so that’s a challenge,” said Builder 2nd Class Jarrod Powell. “We’ve had a few ‘bumps in the road,’ but nothing we can’t handle.”
Powell also added that debris kicked up by the rotor wash sometimes lands in the concrete as it is setting, making it necessary to clean it.
Despite all of the challenges they have faced in the two months since they began, Seabees are already ahead of schedule.
The Seabees attribute their success and speed to a variety of factors.
“We’re very diverse,” said Steelworker 2nd Class Zachary Styer. “We can go anywhere, any climate, any altitude, and build just about anything,”
Styer also said that the Seabees’ expeditionary project management and organizational skills were a major factor in helping them get ahead of schedule.
Powell had a simpler explanation: drive.
“The first day we got here we got off of the trucks and started making forms and we just kept pushing,” said Powell. “It’s what we do.”
“We’re keeping up our legacy like we did from the old days,” Powell said referring to the Seabees’ storied past of completing airfields in record time during World War II and the Korean War. “We want to live up to that legacy.”
“Seabees are famous for building runways,” said Manning. “They know we can do the job and do it fast. This is what we are known for.”
Aside from history, Manning explained that Seabees learned finishing the runway had the potential to save lives by fully exploiting the assets of air power and mobility. By keeping people airborne and off the roads, unnecessary casualties to troops and innocent civilians could be avoided.
Stocker openly mentioned the pride for the hard work ethic of his Sailors, saying they truly lived up to the Seabee motto, “Can-Do.”
“These guys know exactly what we they’re doing this mission for. I haven’t had any complaints, even when they have been out there until 8 o’clock at night.”
For the Seabees of NMCB 15, living up to a Seabee tradition is in itself a reward.
“Just to know that this is one of the biggest projects in theatre, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of it,” said Manning.