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St. Pete soldier handles organized chaos of Afghanistan

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Published:   |   Updated: May 28, 2013 at 09:03 AM

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan In a busy office in a busy shack at the headquarters of Special Operations Task Force South, a staff sergeant from St. Petersburg is the man to see if you want to get from Point A to Point B.

"It seems too easy to move personnel and cargo," says the Sergeant, a graduate of Boca Ciega High School and Florida State University. "But not with all the variables that come into play."

As the guy who runs the air operations support office for a region the size of West Virginia, the Sergeant – names of Special Operations people in the field are kept secret by the military – contends with crazy weather, unreliable infrastructure, communications glitches, and, oh yeah, a war.

"You never know when aircraft may be grounded,?" the Sergeant says. "You never know when a firefight might pop up that will hold up village stability resupply flights."

Because roads are limited in Afghanistan and often mined with improvised explosive devices, the military relies on aircraft to move around people and supplies. All travel by commandos is done in helicopters, the Sergeant says, most run by private contractors.

The helicopters hopscotch the country in a delicately choreographed aerial ballet. One grounded or redirected aircraft can upend the dance, setting off what the Sergeant calls a snowball effect.

Sometimes it's just one helicopter. Other times, it?s the whole system.

Last week, a communications shut down lasted several hours. No Internet. No cell phones. No landlines. Not on the "green" unclassified lines or the "red" classified lines. No way to find out which aircraft was where.

"That made it extremely difficult to operate," the Sergeant says. "?But the Special Operations world is used to organized chaos."

In between bites of Afghan foot bread, a traditional doughy delicacy, the Sergeant says a sour economy and family history led him to this war-torn nation.

"My stepfather is retired Special Forces," he says, sitting on a soft leather couch in the chapel of Special Operations Task Force South during a respite from the ceaseless calls for choppers. "My brother was in the Army at the time. With my economics degree, at the peak of the economic downturn – joining the Army was always in the back of my mind."

After graduating from Florida State in fall 2009, the Sergeant wanted to do something different from a standard post-college job.

So he joined the Army, following the path of his older brother.

"Any concerns my parents had, they took out on him," the Sergeant says, laughing.

So far, the Army has worked out well for both siblings.

"My older brother will be a detachment commander in Special Forces," he says.

His first tour to Afghanistan was in 2010. A member of the conventional Army, he was assigned to Special Operations Task Force South to run its aerial resupply logistics.

He returned to Afghanistan for his second tour in April.

If he forgot in meantime how tough travel is here, he got a quick refresher.

The first week of May, just as his Florida-based 7th Special Forces Group team moved to replace another team, a storm of hailstones slammed into a number of the aircraft. It was so bad that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno was prompted to ask for money from Rep. C.W. ?Bill? Young, the Indian Rocks Beach Republican and chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee?s Defense Subcommittee.

"It was extremely crippling," the Sergeant says. "But we lucked out. One of the primary contractors had one of his birds go unscathed. We relied on one helicopter."

In Afghanistan, hurry up and wait could be the national motto.

"One of the things that you have to know is that when it comes to Afghanistan, there are a lot of variables in place," says the Sergeant, who stands out from many of the Special Forces team members because he has closely cropped hair and no beard.

"You can only control so much. But even though people try to understand, it is a stressful job and stressful for everyone flying because of the unpredictability of the schedule."

Deployed to landlocked Afghanistan, and stationed in scorching Kandahar Province where the horizon is often shrouded in a thick brown haze, the Sergeant says the thing he misses most is the water.

"I really love the beach," he says. "I grew up hanging out at Fort DeSoto and St. Pete Beach."

He also loves how much St. Petersburg has changed since he left.

"There are so many events and concerts downtown," he says. "It used to be that you would drive from St. Pete to Tampa. Now it?s the opposite direction."

One thing he doesn?t love, however, is the proposed new "Lens" design to replace the iconic inverted pyramid known as The Pier, which is closing to the public for good this Friday.

"I am not a fan of the Lens," the Sergeant says. "It looks too modern. I prefer a more classic look to the pier."

Enough talk of home for now, though.

The Sergeant swings back into action again when he learns several Army Green Beret commandos and their support personnel have places to go.

"The team," he says, "has to get back to the forward operating base."


haltman@tampatrib.com

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