By Fred Tucker
533rd Engineer Detachment
When people think of special operations units, they imagine highly trained shadow warriors who execute exotic missions no one ever hears about. But there are many kinds of special units, and the 533rd Engineer Detachment, Forward Engineer Support Team-Main (FEST-M) are not the least bit shy about telling what they accomplished in Afghanistan.
The 533rd FEST-M returned to Fort Knox, Ky., April 3 after completing more than 230 engineer designs, assessments, surveys and quality assurance/quality control projects throughout Afghanistan during its year-long deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The 533rd is one of two FEST-M teams in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Their performance during this deployment solidified the need for these trained, self-sustaining, expeditionary units to provide specialized technical skills and advanced technology normally not found in a combat engineer unit.
The technical engineering support provided by the 533rd Engineer Detachment is designed to respond to contingency operations both overseas and in the U.S. This could also include support to other federal agencies if requested through USACE.
Maj. Gen. Kendall Cox, commander of Transatlantic Division, praised 533rd FEST-M members during his March visit to Afghanistan. "You guys are phenomenal; completing 220 projects is huge!" (The count was 220 projects at that time.)
Commanded by Col. Culen Robinson, the 533rd deployed a diverse group of 32 Soldiers and civilians including a wide range of engineer specialists ranging from civil to mechanical engineers, and special staff members.
The team traveled by bus to Fort Campbell, Ky., on April 4, 2011. They first flew to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, and onward to Kandahar Airfield (KAF) in southern Afghanistan after more than three days of travel. They began transition activities immediately with the unit they replaced, and assumed their mission April 10.
"We had planned and trained for this opportunity," Robinson said. "We were equipped and we were prepared to provide the best engineering solutions in the Army, and I was blessed to have a highly-skilled, highly-motivated team, eager to contribute to the war effort."
The unit's mission paralleled its core competencies of providing engineer designs, assessments, surveys, and construction quality assurance and quality control to battle space owners and sustainment area commanders. They provided technical engineering support to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and Regional Command-South (RC-S) commanded first by the 10th Mountain Division, and later the 82nd Airborne Division.
In addition, the unit supported the commander of Kandahar Airfield and the Mayor's Cells commanded first by the 643rd Regional Support Group, and later by the 645th RSG. The 533rd FEST-M also worked closely with the 25th Naval Construction Regiment (25 NCR), Task Force Overlord, and later 30 NCR-Task Force Forager.
The USACE engineers went to work immediately and word spread quickly about this unit willing and able to take on challenges that had previously delayed execution of critical projects. Members of the 533rd Engineer Detachment (FEST-M) also actively advertised the unit's capabilities to commanders throughout Afghanistan.
Robinson, Command Sgt. Maj. Tyrone Cooper, and Chuck Oliver, chief engineer, passed the word at their numerous meetings, and other members of the team visited units to ensure units that needed support were aware of the capabilities of the 533rd.
"With good performance and adequate communication, the 533rd Engineer Detachment (FEST-M) quickly became the 'Go to' source for rapid design of battle space projects throughout Afghanistan," Oliver said. "This was the most personally rewarding deployment of the three deployments I've made. It just does not get any better than working with this team of highly-skilled, motivated professionals whose efforts contribute directly to the safety and success of our young war fighters."
Projects ranged from vertical construction, route upgrades and flood mitigation at forward operating bases and combat outposts throughout Afghanistan, to morale, welfare and recreational facilities at numerous locations; to a "blow-in-place" training facility at KAF.
The SPC Jeremy J. Loveless Blow-In-Place (BIP) Engineer Training Facility at KAF was designed to teach war fighters better ways to detect improvised explosive devices, how to safely check them with robots, and how to detonate them in place when that is preferred to removing them.
"Lessons learned at the Blow-In-Place Training Facility can help save lives, limbs and traumatic brain injuries," said Cooper, a 24-year Army veteran who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
From August until redeployment, the 533rd Engineer Detachment (FEST-M) assigned engineers in support of Regional Command West at Shindand Airbase, and later in support of the Joint Engineer Staff at Mazar e Sharif in Regional Command North. The unit also provided contracting specialists to support Afghanistan Engineer District South.
The 533rd FEST-M had responsibility for the design and oversight for numerous projects ranging from improving combat routes and runways to electrical assessments and environmental remediation.
"The 533rd Engineer Detachment (FEST-M) had a significant impact upon combat operations because its engineer support allowed the commanders and military units to perform their missions more efficiently, effectively and safely," said Lt. Col. William Reding, deputy commander and executive officer.
The main body of the 533rd departed Kandahar Airfield March 29 and arrived at Fort Knox, Ky., on April 3. During their year in Afghanistan, the unit successfully completed more than 230 projects, improving the safety, security, and quality of life for servicemen and women and civilians.
"That's the reason that we, and all other supporting units, were and are in Operation Enduring Freedom, to support the young war fighters out there in harm's way," Robinson said.
"I'm extremely proud of this team and its accomplishments in Afghanistan. We went to do a job, we did more than anyone expected, and I will be eternally grateful that we brought everyone safely home."