By Paul Giblin
Afghanistan Engineer District-North
KABUL, Afghanistan – Col. Alfred A. Pantano Jr. took command of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in northern Afghanistan in a ceremony steeped with military tradition at the unit’s headquarters at the Qalaa House compound July 8, 2012.
Pantano, of Jacksonville, Fla., became the 11th commander of Afghanistan Engineer District-North, which was established in 2004. He succeeded Col. Christopher W. Martin, of Argyle, Texas, who had served as commander since July 10, 2011, a period the positioned the district to finish the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan as U.S. and coalition combat forces prepare to withdraw from the country.
Pantano told about 350th Corps of Engineers employees and U.S. and Afghan guests that he felt blessed to step into an operation that already was running so well. “I look forward to each and every day and to serving with each and every one of you,” he said.
He credited Martin for assembling an incredible team of civilian and military personnel and for introducing him to the district’s program during the past several months. However, he said, Martin hasn’t heard the last from him. “I have a good sense for what to do, but I don’t know it all. I’ll be calling you on the phone probably every other day to figure it out,” Pantano joked.
The district is comprised of approximately 500 military personnel and civilians stationed in Kabul and across northern and eastern Afghanistan. The unit’s primary operation is directing construction of hundreds of projects designed to bolster Afghanistan’s infrastructure after three decades of war. The scope of work includes military bases, police stations, prisons, roads, government buildings, hydropower plants, electrical transmission lines and more. Many projects are constructed in hostile regions of the country.
Maj. Gen. Michael R. Eyre, the presiding officer of the event, awarded Martin the Bronze Star Medal for exceptional meritorious achievement while serving as commander of the district. Eyre is the commander of the Transatlantic Division, which is the umbrella organization over Afghanistan Engineer District-North and two other districts.
Eyre called Martin an exemplary commander who will be remembered for his spirit of service, patriotism and dedication to the United States.
“Col. Martin did a superb job leading a team of professionals in executing a $4 billion construction program in support of the transition strategy for Afghanistan,” Eyre said. “With Chris’ guidance and keen insights, the district has been able to build an even greater, more robust quality Corps of Engineers contingency organization, one that is better able to meet the overall mission requirements.”
Eyre said Martin logged an impressive list of accomplishments, such as the completion 116 construction projects and development of 167 on-going projects across the northern portion of the country. In addition, Martin oversaw an initiative to teach construction and management skills to Afghan workers, which will be vital to Afghanistan’s stability in the future.
“Col. Martin’s dynamic leadership and ‘Acts, not words’ mantra brought the team even greater success in building a robust capacity development program that mentors Afghan engineers in how to build, maintain and sustain both the Army facilities and police stations long after the United States and coalition forces leave Afghanistan,” Eyre said.
Eyre said Martin was equally ardent about guaranteeing that construction contracts were awarded to Afghan firms through the district’s Afghan First program. “Last year alone, almost 65 percent of the contract hours were obligated to Afghan firms. That’s over $1.1 billion reinvested into Afghanistan,” Eyre said.
Martin, in turn, credited the civilian and military members of the district for the accomplishments during his tenure. The employees’ dedication, professionalism and camaraderie during challenging times were admirable.
“It has been an incredible ride during the course of the last year. I’ve truly been honored and humbled to be your commander. And I’ll always think very fondly of the last year I’ve spent here with you,” Martin said before pausing to collect his emotions.
“I thought this was going to be easy,” he said.
He noted that the district’s employees came together as they endured warzone hardships and turmoil, including an attack in September on the U.S. embassy compound just outside of the Qalaa House compound, a coordinated attack in April 2012 on several locations in the Green Zone, the extremes of Afghanistan’s harsh weather and an extensive workload.
Martin paused again when he recalled the loss of Corps of Engineers employee James W. “Will” Coker, of Mount Pleasant, N.C., who was kidnapped and killed by insurgents at Camp Blackhorse near Kabul Sept. 5.
“We form some incredible relationships in a combat environment. We’ve accomplished so many things. During the next few months, the district will finish a significant number of projects. Everything we do is important. If the Afghans are going to make it as a country, they’ll have us to thank,” Martin said.
The colonel used his farewell address to thank personnel within the Corps of Engineers, other U.S. agencies, Afghan ministries and contracting companies who had served either alongside him or under him during his command. He thanked many by name, including personnel whose tours in Afghanistan had ended weeks or months earlier, and those whose tours in country extend weeks or months beyond his own.
Martin also thanked his wife Carolyn, who watched via a live video feed. “She has the hardest job in the military, that of an Army wife. I don’t feel whole when we’re apart. I miss her so much. She is my best friend,” he said.
While much was done during his tenure, more work remains, he said. “You have a great commander coming in who will lead you through this challenging period, Col. Al Pantano,” he said.
Under sunny skies outside the namesake Qalaa House building, Martin and Pantano followed longstanding Army tradition as they passed the unit’s red-and-white flag to represent the transfer of authority from one commander to the other.
First, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Bob Rucinski, the senior enlisted service member in the unit, passed the flag to Martin, symbolizing his last act of allegiance to the outgoing commander. Then Martin passed the flag that bears the Corps of Engineers’ castle logo to Eyre, signifying that the unit is never without senior leadership.
Next, Eyre passed it to Pantano, symbolizing the transfer of responsibility for the unit and its members to the incoming commander. Finally, Pantano completed the rite by passing the flag back Rucinski, showing his confidence in the senior enlisted service member, and allowing Rucinski to demonstrate his first act of allegiance to him.
Capt. Terry Harrington served as the narrator for the ceremony and Qalaa House religious lay leader Robert E. Medlock II gave the invocation. The list of distinguished visitors included Brig. Gens. David Weeks and Bryan Watson, SESs Stacey Hirata and Howard Stickley, and Afghanistan Builders Association vice president Mowdood Popal, among others.
Pantano previously served as commander of the Jacksonville District. He also has served in Missouri, New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky, plus Germany and Iraq, among other posts. He is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., Murray State University in Murray, Ky., and the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
Following the ceremony, district employees and guests greeted him in the dining facility and he pledged to visit all the area offices across northern Afghanistan in coming weeks.
Employees also lined up on the Qalaa House porch to say goodbye to Martin, who left immediately afterward. He will retire from the Army, concluding a 29-year career. Before arriving in Afghanistan, he served in Georgia, Texas, Kentucky, California and Virginia, plus Germany, Bosnia, Italy and Iraq, among other locations. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill.
He said he plans to return to Texas to his wife and son Ryan, but his thoughts and prayers will remain in Afghanistan, particularly because his other son Nolan is serving as an infantry platoon leader in Kandahar province, which is one of the most dangerous areas of the country.