Assignment Afghanistan: Bring Them Home Safely

By Judith Platt

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Afghanistan logo stands out on the bright red polo that Steven Mosbey is wearing for the interview, and a smile crosses his face when he catches me eyeing it. He looks very comfortable as he sits on his front porch in West Cove and pets one of his dogs, but at this time last year, his life was anything but comfortable. He explains that just a few months ago, he could not have talked about his time in the Middle East. The experiences were still too raw.

Steven returned home to Eastman on January 6, 2015 after a six-month deployment in one of the poorest, strife-ridden countries in the world. Sent to Afghanistan in July 2014—“to get the boys (and girls) home safely” by the end of December—he describes the mission with more passion than one would expect of someone sent to a war-torn region.

Steven is deployed to Bagram Air Force, a base that was once home to 40,000 American servicemen and servicewomen, after spending a week on a base in Texas undergoing training for civilian contractors. He is prepped for survival in blistering, dehydrating heat and heavily mined terrain. He is acutely aware that the sole mission of his trainers is to keep him and his team of engineers alive, but it is the survival of others that Steven’s team cares about. Before leaving Texas, he mentally prepares himself for a step back from modernity—maybe back to life the way it was here in 1953—but when he steps off the helicopter for his first day in Afghanistan, he steps into conditions more reminiscent of three centuries ago.

Afghanistan, with little foreign investment and plenty of government corruption, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Not to mention the havoc that the Taliban insurgency plays with any efforts to bring modern conveniences to the area. There is no central water, no sewage system, and no electrical grid in this country the size of Texas. Each town or village has its own grid run by a generator, if they are lucky, and it is Steven’s team’s responsibility to bring some of the existing systems together, but they are met with resistance from the locals.

Working 10-hour days, seven days a week, with Friday afternoons off to do laundry or shopping, Steven has little time to himself. These are not ordinary workdays. At least, not the kind that he is used to at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CCREL) in Hanover where he has worked for the past five years as an electrical engineer.

Most of his work is on the base, but when he leaves for a job outside the base, he is always accompanied by four bodyguards. Steven is one of three electrical engineers who work together from remote locations—he in Bagram, one in Kandahar, and another elsewhere in the provinces—to make sure that the infrastructure that the U.S. and coalition forces needs is functional and brought up to modern standards. Although the Bagram base is modern and well equipped, little else is, so Steven and his team work in area hospitals, police stations, a school, and military bases.

He cannot tell his loved ones back home everything that he is seeing and experiencing, as he signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of his security clearance before setting foot on foreign soil. He can talk about trudging through the daily dust storms and taking cover at the sound of rocket attack alarms. He can tell about being caught between bunkers when locals shoot a rocket into the compound. How he is on his way to the dining hall with a group of coworkers when the familiar wailing fills the air, and how he hits the dirt as he has been trained to do if more than 20 yards away from a bunker. The relief that no one in his group is injured is short-lived when they learn that the dining hall has been hit and two people inside it killed.

There is no shortage of challenges and inconveniences, but Steven is doing what he signed on to do. He always has the end game in mind, plus he has a very personal mission. His goal is to get one particular serviceman home for Christmas with his children and wife. His son, Charles, is a member of the Tennessee National Guard stationed in Kandahar and on his third deployment to the Middle East. Steven and his team get the job done, and Charles returns home to Tennessee a week before Christmas. Steven, however, celebrates the holiday on videoconference with his wife, Barbara, in Eastman and at a lunch served by base officers.

The drawdown of troops in Afghanistan does not go as initially scheduled, but combat officially ceases on December 28, 2014. There are fewer than 6,000 troops on the base when Steven winds up his mission—a significant decrease from the 10,000 there when he arrived. He finally leaves Afghanistan on January 6, 2015. He comes home with the Commander’s Award of Recognition after having set a record for quality control in electrical projects in the country and with the satisfaction of having successfully impacted 39 contracts.

But his personal work is not done. He had signed an agreement during his debriefing that he would listen to his spouse and children before saying anything about his experiences. They, too, have endured a long six months without him at home. Barbara, who works in the pathology department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, admits that she needed his daily phone calls and their weekly Skype sessions to reassure her that Steven was well.

American troops are still in Afghanistan, and there is still a job to do there. That is why Steven has signed up to go back—the next time for a full year. While he waits to hear if he will or not, he sits on his porch with his canine friends, secure in the knowledge that his service has made a difference in the quality of lives of the troops in Afghanistan.

Judith Platt is a retired business executive. A witness to the destruction in New York City that took the lives of 300 of her colleagues on 9/11, she has great admiration for the men and women in the armed services and empathy for those who suffer from PTSD.

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