'Awesome adventure' DAFB member reports from Afghanistan

Senior Master Sgt. Darren James holds a refugee child’s hand at Dar ol Aman refugee camp near Kabul, Afghanistan. Sergeant James and his unit delivered 1,000 pounds of food, clothing, school and medical supplies to the camp two to three times per month. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Willian W. Cole)

Senior Master Sgt. Darren James holds a refugee child’s hand at Dar ol Aman refugee camp near Kabul, Afghanistan. Sergeant James and his unit delivered 1,000 pounds of food, clothing, school and medical supplies to the camp two to three times per month. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Willian W. Cole)

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del -- I will never forget March 8, 2006. On that day, my commander notified me of my selection for promotion to the rank of senior master sergeant. My family and I were very excited. On the evening of that same day, my commander notified me of my selection for a 365-day deployment to Afghanistan. These two events coinciding triggered a roller coaster of emotions in my life.

Within two weeks, I mentally prepared myself for this assignment, prepared my family for my absence and was off to Camp Shelby, Miss., for 54 days of Combat Skills Training.

Upon my arrival in Afghanistan, I was assigned duties as personnel mentor to a lieutenant colonel in the Afghanistan National Army working at the Central Maintenance Depot. I was also charged with overseeing the depot's weapons maintenance division.

My current career field is communication planning so I was very apprehensive of my assigned duties. The country of Afghanistan is trying to build its communications infrastructure and I wanted to be a part of this monumental task. I immediately reminded myself of the Air Force core value of service before self. I knew this assignment would be a challenge, but I was not prepared for the course of events.

On my first day of duty, I was presented with my first obstacle. I had to get 365 civilian workers at the depot paid their salaries. These workers had not been paid in four months and were not hesitant in letting me know they wanted to receive their salaries.

After two months of meetings with Afghanistan Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Finance, we were able to get the workers their back-pay. We received the check from the Ministry of Finance, cashed the check at the local bank and escorted the $3.5 million Afghan dollars to the depot and paid the workers. This was a big win for our team and was instrumental in nurturing a relationship that we are steadily building upon.

Our 13-member team, assigned to the Central Maintenance Depot within the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan Defense Reform Directorate, works side by side with the ANA in developing and sustaining key logistics processes. These processes include the repair of AK-47s, crew-served weapons, anti-aircraft artillery, tactical vehicles and tank engines.

Our immediate goal was to get these assets back into the hands of the ANA warfighters and training centers so they can conduct military operations alongside Coalition partners throughout Afghanistan. Our long-term goal is a complete turn over of these operations to the ANA, with the complete confidence in their ability to sustain them.

The Central Maintenance Depot is still in its infancy with more than 500 civilians and more than 100 NCOs and officers assigned. By December 2008, the depot expects to have about 1,200 full-time ANA civilians and military employees, and become a full-fledged National Maintenance Depot. We currently have 15 building renovations and electrical projects. Until these renovations are complete, our team steadily works alongside the ANA in structures that are about 140 years old.

The Central Maintenance Depot is battered from more than 27 years of war. Many of the buildings have dirt or cobblestone floors, no running water and few have electricity. At first glance it looks like an old-movie set from early industrial America.

Force protection is a key concern. My team members provide instruction on vehicle search techniques, which have led to the ANA implementing vehicle entry control point procedures and installing concrete jersey barriers.

The renovation project also includes the installation of elevated guard towers along the perimeter of the depot. The on-site dining facility is slowly coming to life and the recent addition of windows, plumbing, wood burning cooking pits and a waste drainage system are reducing unsanitary conditions. We plan to have all facility upgrades completed prior to our departure from the facility in June.

This deployment has been an awesome adventure. Having such a diverse team of experts allows us to provide a broad range of experience and mentorship throughout the depot. In addition, about 100 other members from various Air Force specialties are assigned to the Depot. These Airmen work within the Defense Reform Directorate assigned to the Food Depot, Fuels Depot, Supply Depot, Transportation Agency, Communications Division, Medical Division, Air Corps Division, Training and Education Division and the Police Reform Directorate, with many of them working outside of their primary career fields.

Whenever I get frustrated, I remind myself of the Air Force core value service before self and take pride in being a member of a high-caliber warfighting force that consistently finds ways to get the job done regardless of the circumstances. I assure you, we are contributing to the fight everyday.