Panjshir PRT unites airmen, soldiers

By Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson: AFCENT Combat Camera Team

FORWARD OPERATING BASE LION, Afghanistan — A team of nearly 80 individuals, including 25 airmen and 12 soldiers, come together to perform a critical mission in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Province.

All of the servicemembers come from different walks of life, but now come together to help the impoverished province. One year ago, Staff Sgt. David Nielsen was repairing military vehicles at Cannon Air Force Base; U.S. Army Sgt. Daniel Kelley was an Army Reserve Soldier serving with the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion in Upland, Calif.; and Lt. Col. Mark Stratton was serving with Joint Headquarters at the Pentagon.

They are members of the Panjshir Provisional Reconstruction Team who work with the local government officials, U.S. State and Agriculture Department civilians, U.S. Agency for International Development representatives and a 25-member mujahedeen security detail to assist the people to rebuild the province.

“This has been an amazing experience,” said Stratton, Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team commander and a RC-135 Cobra Ball navigator. “Not knowing what to expect every day, I have to work face-to-face with a lot of people. Flying over an area (at altitude) can make you feel a little detached. Being down here on the ground is very rewarding and I am proud to be working with the other professionals here.”

The PRT is made up of a blend of airmen and soldiers. The servicemembers trained for three months at a combat skills training site at Fort Bragg, N.C., while preparing for their 270-day deployment. They learned the skills they would need, not only to operate in a wartime environment, but also work together as a team. They are solely responsible for their own convoy operations while traveling through Afghanistan.

“This PRT’s convoy operations are performed as proficiently as my combat engineer platoon in Iraq,” said U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Jason Fritz, who serves as the organization’s senior enlisted leader.

According to team members, the PRT is unique from the teams in Afghanistan’s 33 other provinces.They are the only inhabitants of their base — Forward Operating Base Lion — and are responsible for the upkeep and day-to-day operations of the base that often takes the unit’s airmen and soldiers out of their military specialties.

On one three-hour hike along one of the Panjshir Valley’s rivers and through snow-covered mountains, a contingent of the team’s members accompanied Air Force engineer Capt. Patrick Kolesiak. The mission: to survey a potential roadway that will connect the inhabitants in the Darah district with the rest of the province. Some members, like Nielsen, took a direct role in the tasking, plotting Global Positioning System points based on inputs from Kolesiak.

“I’m a vehicle mechanic at my home unit at Cannon” Nielson said. “While I’m here, I do a lot of different things beyond just working on the vehicles like driving on convoys, helping other people with their missions and repairing the FOB’s generators.”

Even for the PRT members whose duties require them to perform exclusively on FOB Lion, they play a significant role in the overall mission, Stratton said.

Senior Airman Lucas Tate, a food service specialist deployed from Little Rock AFB, Ark., is the sole military member in charge of the dining facility and supervises a staff of 12 workers to provide food to the other members of the team.

“It’s a challenge, but we all work together,” he said. “I really enjoy making this a better place for the people who live here.”

Other missions outside of FOB Lion within the Panjshir Valley could include anything from working side-by-side with local officials, developing roadways, constructing clinics and schools. Or, mentoring civil service workers, delivering humanitarian aid and helping the impoverished province expand its agricultural capabilities.

“Agriculture is a priority of what we do here,” said Kelley, who serves with Civil Affairs section working in humanitarian aid requisition, distribution and storage. “It is very fulfilling to me to help people in their time of need and during emergencies.”