Weather, terrain no contest for Red Horse Airmen in Afghanistan
By Staff Sgt. Stacia Zachary , U.S. Air Forces combat camera
/ Published October 05, 2009
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DWYER, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Dump trucks and bulldozers move in an orchestrated symphony of construction, spitting up gravel and creating a large cloud of white dust. A lone figure emerges, caked in layers of sweat, grime and sand, a surveying post slung across his shoulders.
The terrain is unforgiving. A 35-kilometer per hour wind whips sand into his face, made worse by the intense afternoon sun that bakes his skin and has sweat pouring from every inch of his body.
He doesn't mind. He lives for this stuff.
His red hat says why.
He is a Horseman, a member of the 809th Expeditionary Red Horse Squadron, and he's used to working under less than desireable conditions. Today, his team is building a burgeoning combat outpost in the middle of the harsh Afghan desert.
Among his peers, he's known as a "Dirt Boy," a slang name used among those in Red Horse squadrons as a term of endearment. With this name comes respect, admiration and distinction throughout the civil engineer career field.
"It's a term we picked up from all the beddown of bases," said Tech. Sgt. Kendall Long, 809th ERHS pavements and construction equipment craftsman. "Being a Dirt Boy requires some form of dirt work to make a base usable."
It also means making something out of next to nothing.
"Out here, we make do with nothing," said Tech. Sgt. Lloyd Ickes, 809th ERHS pavements and construction equipment craftsman. "Give us the biggest job with the least amount of supplies and we'll get the job finished."
Heat, dust, dirt -- it doesn't matter. Being hot, sweaty and in the elements comes with the territory, and these "Dirt Boyz" wouldn't think of trading in their hard hats for a cushy desk job.
"It's been about six months since I've been completely clean," Sergeant Long said. "But every day I get to wake up and play in dirt, drive trucks through two feet of moon dust and build stuff. It's a good job to have."
"It's like playing in a giant sandbox except we're driving real heavy equipment instead of a plastic Tonka truck," added Staff Sgt. Daniel Berner, a fellow Dirt Boy.
Their work is in high demand, too. There's plenty of construction work being done in Afghanistan, a country devoid of a network of solid infrastructure. As U.S. and coalition forces focus on combating terrorist activity and rebuilding the country, combat outposts are cropping up in record numbers.
"The thing about Afghanistan is how little infrastructure there actually is," Sergeant Ickes said. "In Iraq, there's a lot of runway repair or extensions but here, there aren't a lot of established airstrips and convoys can take days or weeks to move things around. That's why places like Dwyer are so important."
Red Horse teams in Afghanistan are responsible for developing strategically placed and critically relevant assault landing strips for C-130 Hercules and other heavy aircraft, such as the C-17 Globemaster III. Building helipads for combat and medical evacuation operations are also a top priority.
Many times, these projects are completed in hostile regions and even harsher terrains.
"They told us in technical school we'd do outrageous jobs when we deployed and I didn't believe them," said Senior Airman Joe Vanberkum, a Dirt Boy deployed from the 819th RED HORSE Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. "But now, out here at Dwyer, I believe it. Red Horse means big projects and it hasn't disappointed me."
For Dirt Boyz, the mark of a physically taxing and mentally fulfilling deployment is a well-worn, sun-stained red hat. In many ways, the dirtier the hat, the better the job.
"There's pride in wearing this hat," Airman Vanderkum said. "People leave you alone and let you do the job. The red hat means we'll get the job done right and people trust that."
Within the Red Horse community, the red hat is also more than a piece of headgear. It's a symbol of excellence and a commitment to the job and each other.
"Once a Dirt Boy, always a Dirt Boy," Sergeant Ickes said.