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News > Feature - Dirt Boyz: Red Horse Airmen build base up amid desert conditions
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Airmen assigned to the 809th Expeditionary Red Horse Squadron, 1st Expeditionary Red Horse Group, fill a concrete pad Sept. 9, Foward Operating Base Dwyer, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller)
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Dirt Boyz: Red Horse Airmen build base up amid desert conditions

Posted 9/16/2009   Updated 9/22/2009 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Stacia Zachary
USAFCENT Combat Camera Team

9/16/2009 - FORWARD OPERATING BASE DWYER, Afghanistan  -- A lone figure emerges from a cloud of white dust carrying a surveying post slung across his shoulders. From head to toe he is caked in layers of sweat, dirt, grime and sand. His once blue tiger-striped uniform is now mottled in shades of white and brown - reminiscent of surrounding Afghan terra firma he works amid. His only true identifier is the sun-bleached and sweat stained hat he wears. He is a Dirt Boy.

Dump trucks and bulldozers moving crushed rock skirt around him as other horsemen from the 809th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron move in an orchestrated symphony of construction to build a burgeoning combat outpost in the Afghan desert.

The term Dirt Boyz is a slang term used among those in RED HORSE similar to a term of endearment - one that is said with respect, admiration and distinction throughout the civil engineer career field.

"It's a term we picked up from all the beddown of bases," said Tech. Sgt. Kendall Long, 809th ERHS pavements and construction equipment craftsman. "Being a Dirt Boy requires some form of dirt work to make a base usable."

Known throughout the civil engineer community as "Dirt Boyz," the horsemen are a unique band of people who share a love of construction and a "can-do" attitude.

"Out here, we make do with nothing," said Tech. Sgt. Lloyd Ickes, 809th ERHS pavements and construction equipment craftsman. "Give us the biggest job with the least amount of supplies and we'll get the job finished."

Conditions in southern Afghanistan are cruel and unforgiving with its intense heat, winds that reach above 35 kilometers per hour and ferocious sandstorms that whip sand in every direction and cripple machinery, the horsemen seem undaunted by these conditions and rise to the challenges they present.

"It's been about six months since I've been completely clean," Sergeant Long said. "But everyday I get to wake up and play in dirt, drive trucks through two feet of moon dust and build stuff - it's a pretty good job to have."

"It's like playing in a giant sandbox except we're driving real heavy equipment instead of a plastic Tonka truck," added Staff Sgt. Daniel Berner, a fellow Dirt Boy for eight years.

There's plenty of construction work being done in Afghanistan - a country devoid of a network of solid infrastructure. As U.S. and coalition forces focus on combating terrorist activity and rebuilding the country, combat outposts are cropping up in record numbers. The terrain presents a logistics challenge when considering how to move supplies throughout the country. The solution is airlift but the foundations for aircraft to land need to be laid first. That's where RED HORSE comes in.

"The thing about Afghanistan is how little infrastructure there actually is," Sergeant Ickes said. "In Iraq, there's a lot of runway repair or extensions but here, there aren't a lot of established airstrips and convoys can take days or weeks to move things around. That's why places like Dwyer are so important."

Developing strategically placed and critically relevant assault landing strips for C-130s and other heavy aircraft as well as helipads for combat and medevac operations are a top priority for RED HORSE units throughout Afghanistan.

Long hours and hard work saw the recent completion of a 200 feet by 2,000 feet helipad - a feat completed in just two and a half weeks. In addition to that accomplishment, the Dirt Boyz moved in the fill and laid the base course of the new C-130 assault airstrip. These two assets will open operations in the Helmund province exponentially.

"Now, with the addition of the C-130 strip and the medevac helipads, more lives can be saved and more people and supplies can be moved around," Sergeant Berner said. "That project had the RED HORSE stamp on it. Seeing how one of our finished projects are helping the people here is one of the bonuses to this job."

Being a Dirt Boy means when deployments come around, chances are high you're going to get dirty and push yourself past the normal limits of physical labor. Some don't quite believe all the hype about how intense the work schedule can be during deployments.

"They told us in tech school we'd do outrageous jobs when we deployed and I didn't believe them," Senior Airman Joe Vanberkum, a Dirt Boy deployed from the 819th RED HORSE Squadron, Malmstrom AFB, Mont. "But now, out here at Dwyer, I believe it. RED HORSE means big projects and it hasn't disappointed me."

For Dirt Boyz, the mark of a physically taxing and mentally fulfilling deployments is a well-worn and sun-stained red hat. In many ways, the hat is a promise that a job will be done to perfection regardless of the obstacles.

"There's a pride in wearing this hat," Airman Vanderkum said. "People leave you alone and let you do the job without question when they see us. The red hat means we'll get the job done right and people trust that."

New to the RED HORSE community or a seasoned Dirt Boy - it's a job that leaves a lasting impression on anyone who's worn the red hat. There are certain jobs that a person will associate himself with long after he's held the position. For members of RED HORSE, it's the same.

"Wearing the red hat is a symbol of pride for me," Sergeant Ickes said. "Once a Dirt Boy, always a Dirt Boy."

9/19/2009 5:42:57 PM ET
What great photos SSgt Weismiller is a truly talented photographer Looking forward to seeing more of his work
Bridget , Tampa FL
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