- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 19, 2012

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — It was nearly 2 a.m. when Army Pfc. Zach Randle jumped out of his bulky armored vehicle in southern Afghanistan for what he hoped would be the last time.

“I don’t want to see it again. It’s been through a lot,” Pfc. Randle said of the 19-ton vehicle that was his ride — and sometimes his bed — during a six-month deployment to volatile Kandahar province.

“It protected us, but I’m just in a hurry to turn it in to be closer to going home,” said Pfc. Randle, who now has left Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s drawdown of 33,000 U.S. troops by Sept. 30.

The pullout — 10,000 last year and 23,000 more this year — will be finished within days. That will leave 68,000 American troops in this country to fight militants and help prepare Afghan forces to take over security nationwide.

While some service members go home, others are busy preparing thousands of vehicles and other equipment for shipment.

It’s a laborious task that’s more difficult than it was in Iraq because of landlocked Afghanistan’s tough mountainous terrain, lack of roads and mountain passes that will soon be covered with snow.

Between now and the end of 2014, when most U.S. troops will have left, the Americans will move an estimated 50,000 vehicles, including tens of thousands of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles like the one Pfc. Randle drove into the equipment yard.

They also will ship an estimated 100,000 metal containers — each about 20 feet long. End-to-end, the containers would stretch nearly 400 miles.

Shipping has picked up in recent months, as base closure teams have spread out across Afghanistan to help soldiers sort, pack and load up their gear.

As of the beginning of September, 208 U.S. and NATO coalition bases have been closed, 310 have been transferred to the Afghan government and 323 remain open, according to the coalition.

The packing up is going on as the war still rages. Just since Friday, insurgents attacked a base in neighboring Helmand province, killing two U.S. Marines and destroying six Harrier fighter jets. Afghan police gunned down four more U.S. service members, and a NATO airstrike mistakenly killed eight Afghan women looking for firewood.

As American forces keep fighting, thousands of civilian and military personnel will continue prepping vehicles for flight, taking tedious inventory of bullets, night scopes, radios and even recreational baseball bats. They also will clean and crate tons of other gear, anything from bags of nails to generators.

Brig. Gen. Kristin French, commanding officer of the Joint Sustainment Command in Afghanistan, likens the teams to “wedding planners” helping to organize the move.

“We are trying to take the burden off the war fighter and give it to our folks who have the mission to do it,” Gen. French said at her office at Kandahar Air Field. “If we’re busy trying to clean up our backyards, we’re not doing what our focus is and that is to continue to transition security to the Afghan security forces and partner with them.”

Vehicles are being gathered in Kandahar, Bagram Air Field near Kabul and Camp Barmal in northern Afghanistan. Containers are being staged for shipment at nine locations around the country, she said.

Some equipment is taken by truck, train, ships or planes to military depots in the United States. MRAPS are rolled onto airplanes. Some Humvees sit in shipping containers for a test trip on a railroad leaving Afghanistan via Uzbekistan to the north.

Other equipment also will go north through Central Asia or else be trucked into Pakistan — some of it down to the port of Karachi, where it will sail back to the United States or other destinations.

Various items will stay in Afghanistan to be used by the Americans troops not going home — yet. Still other materiel will be transferred to the Afghan government, tossed out, taken to a scrap heap or shipped to other countries for use by U.S. forces.

For now, Pfc. Randle and several dozen other Army soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., are happy to get rid of their vehicles and all the equipment.

The late-night arrival of their convoy late last month stirred up dust in the equipment yard at Kandahar Air Field. The heavily armed personnel carriers and utility trucks slowed to a halt, then sat idling noisily as the soldiers gathered their gear inside and began climbing out and into formation in the yard.

“They are part of the 23,000 soldier off-ramp,” said Lt. Col. Stanley J. Sliwinski, Jr., who assumed command of 401st Army Field Support Brigade in Kandahar in July and was waiting for the convoy when it arrived. “Most of these soldiers will turn in their equipment tonight and they will fly home within the next three days.”