Michael's Dispatches


in the
Desert of Death

Some troops in Afghanistan go months without a shower.  Major Ryan O’Conner, XO of the 1-17th Infantry, now in Kandahar Province, said that during a previous tour his Soldiers fought half a year without so much as a dip in a creek.  Shortages of drinking water affected combat operations.

Karez in Kandahar Province, on the northern edge of the Dasht-i-Margo: the Desert of Death.

For centuries, Afghans have dug underground irrigation tunnels called karez.  The lines of craters in the photo above are shafts into a karez system.  The shafts, which can be hundreds of feet deep, are used to lift out soil and stone while digging a karez.  Karez can take years to build and are sometimes miles long.  They are described as intricate constructions, often built by teams for hire, using father-to-son knowledge passed down through the centuries.

Karez in Kandahar Province.

Thousands of handmade underground irrigation systems range from China, through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, down to Africa, up to Europe and around to the Americas.

In Afghanistan, during many wars, such as with Alexander the Great, the British, the Soviets, and today, karez have been used to hide villagers, fighters and weapons, or to move without detection.

Karez remain important in Afghanistan.

More Karez.

Village on the northern edge of Dasht-i-Margo.

Soon this will be green.

(Red Horse Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineers)

FOB Frontenac, Kandahar Province.

Water logistics is a high hurdle for Afghans, invaders, liberators and social shapers. Even upon my flimsy, unvarnished plywood desk are three bottles of water with three different labels:

Bottle #1 is labeled “Kinley Clean & Clear Drinking Water: A Quality Product of The Coca-Cola Company.”

Bottle #2, “Cristal Quality Mineral Water” from “Afghanistan Beverage Industries Ltd. Kabul, Afghanistan.”

Bottle #3, “Masafi Pure natural mineral water from the foothills of the Masafi Mountains,” bottled in the U.A.E. and with a website, www.masafi.com.

The showers have signs that say things like:

Combat Showers Only
Limit, three minutes
How to take a combat shower
1) Turn on water
2)    Wet body
3)    Turn off shower
4)    Soap and scrub
5)    Turn on water
6)    Rinse off Soap
7)    Done

FOB Frontenac happens to be nearby the Dala reservoir, created by the Dala Dam, which was created by Americans a couple generations ago.  Unfortunately, most of the larger bases aren’t blessed with reservoirs.  At Frontenac, a local Afghan contractor is paid to take water from the lake reservoir—now gushing from snowmelt—and recharges the holding reservoir on base for the toilets and showers.

Drilling at Frontenac.

FOB Frontenac is a short helicopter leap from the international airport at Kandahar Airfield, where even 747s land.  Today, in just about the middle of Frontenac, a tall water-drilling rig with an American flag flapping in the noonday breeze signaled that someone was drilling for liquid for freedom.  Freedom from the incredible logistics nightmare.  (Or at least a little freedom.)

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 11 years ago
    Great Story! We all take running water for granted. The amount of work it takes to have it in Afghanistan is eye opening.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Simon · 11 years ago
    Wonderful story Michael! I hadn't considered that there would be military drill rigs there! I worked on rigs just like that for four years as a geologist, and I must say I'd give anything to be out there with them now helping their data collection. Just a little bit of geological knowledge can make a HUGE difference to the amount of water you find. I suppose they have USGS staff geologists out there doing it.

    They are not really drilling deep enough for oil but stranger things have happened. There is almost certainly oil in Afghanistan, but most of it will probably be found deeper than these guys are drilling.

    And make sure you tell these guys that if they leave the military and times are tough on the US rigs, there will be jobs for them out in Australia if they want them! We'd be glad to take them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JF Sucher, MD · 11 years ago
    Fantastic photography. Thank you for these images. I've noticed these holes in the ground flying around RC-East. You can even easily see them on satellite images.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Teng Yuan Yeh · 11 years ago
    It bring my memory back to the boot camp..... four naked guys sharing one shower head which cold water sometimes running out before you can even wet your body. The most common incident is someone coming out of mass shower room naked, with full head of bubbles.....

    The device you post is like this one.
    b7 7/ 782440/14 552271_l.jpg" target="_blank">http://7.share.photo.xuite.net/gary.leynos/17 b7 7/ 782440/14 552271_l.jpg b7 7/ 782440/14 552271_l.jpg" class="jcm-img-preview" />
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alaska Paul · 11 years ago
    In your photos with text you have educated us all very well about the water situation there in Afghanistan. I have read about the karez, but your pictures show them so well, as well as seeing hundreds of years of history. People do take good water for granted. It is a great gift. I remember that the well serving the park at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico is 500 feet deep. Here in Western Alaska we have put wells through 100 feet of permafrost to get at the water below. You earn your water, especially in Afghanistan.

    I would be curious to know how much arsenic they have found in the waters with mineralization present, such as copper. Also curious as to the amounts of iron and manganese present.

    Tell the Red Horse guys that they run a first class drilling operation, and they represent the best of Americans.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 11 years ago
    Having been in the AF ('75 to '81) and in a field deployed combat unit, 2nd Combat Communications Grp. I can categorically say that the Red Horse troops are some the greatest bunch of people I have ever had the privilege with which to work. I had helped out with one of their teams on deployment and the guys that were humping the most, I found later, was their commander a Major and the XO a Captain, here I was calling them by first name and joking around with them like one of the regular troops:-)

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Voodoo 6 · 11 years ago
    Having been in RC-East and having had to rely on trucked in shipments of water, or local water trucks bringing in water (and getting subsequently shot up and the drivers killed). We would have killed for a Redhorse team. Great coverage, Michael. Thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brad · 11 years ago
    Those guys look like roughnecks on any oil drilling rig anywhere, instead of a military water rig crew. You ought to do a "beefcake" photo calendar like firemen do, to raise money, for familiy relief back home, or for minimal comfort over there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nancy DEpiro · 11 years ago
    Michael, thank you so much for sharing this great story. Seeing what are heroes are doing to survive makes me love our troops all the more.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    J Richardson · 11 years ago
    Great story which illustrates the many facets of a military career. Well driller probably is one of the rarer MOS's.

    I love the fact that some of the drillers are wearing non-uniform Carharts bib overalls. Maybe Carhart could make a donation of bib overalls for the entire team.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    USAF Veteran · 11 years ago
    Wondeful, simply wonderful. Awesome work and dedication from the Red Horse team. Thanks for your service. We are proud of you. God Bless and be Safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter Warner · 11 years ago
    Yon wrote: 'This well in Zabul Province (2008) is low-tech but it works. The line used to haul up the bucket is often a fan-belt from a truck.'

    Can that be explained further please? A long fan belt might stretch out to several feet, for sure less than two meters. If the well is over several meters deep, why wouldn't a rope be used? Why use a fan belt?

    Best regards, Peter Warner.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Donnette Davis · 11 years ago
    Wow Mike, RED HORSE in the Desert of Death
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Claude Hopper · 11 years ago
    I grew up in a rural place where hand pumps were common. There was usually a bucket of water and a dipper nearby that was used to prime the pump. If the water level was below the pump plunger (summer), you had to dump water down the well to help seal the plunger so it could produce a vacuum to lift the water to the plunger chamber. You filled the bucket when you were done.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    tim · 11 years ago
    My step-son recently completed his tour in CE. Seems the AF water workers are the only AFSC authorized, and issued, Carharts.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      3E271 · 10 years ago
      first no such thing as af water workers and lots of different CE AFSC's wear carharts most snow bases issue them
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bill · 11 years ago
    Great stuff. Fantastic pics

    Can we get hold of those Red Horse hats..? All the old oil field hands would like to collect these. Do you know where they get them....?

    Thanks, Bill
    • This commment is unpublished.
      3E271 · 10 years ago
      you gotta earn one they dont give them away
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bill · 11 years ago
    Sorry, I meant to say we would like a Red Horse Shirt....dont need a hard hat...already have one of those.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MikeC · 11 years ago
    Hey Mike,

    Thanks for the awesome reporting from Afghan and thanks to the ladies and gents of the Red Horse for there continued support for the war-fighters. However, lets not forget about the group that one Air Force general referred to as the premiere force multiplier, the United States Navy Seabees.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    staghounds · 11 years ago
    You bring up a couple of really good points. One is that we shouldn't neglect the little domestic things.
    The Americans got my well working" builds friendships and loyalty. It also weakens our enemies, who have to give the locals hell and wreck the wells to enforce discipline. So the people have a clear sight of who are the the well builders and well wreckers.

    I know many a person with serious hard core conservative views who vote for far left politicians because "FDR (a Democrat just like Barney Frank or John Conyers) gave my father a job/brough electricity etc."

    Second, the failure of the pumps due to missing parts. It's amazing how little it takes to foul up a machine, isn't it?

    Our nation building efforts suffer from not having a bunch of mobile home depots rolling all over the country. Pump connector rods, nails, rope, wire, nuts and bolts, tarpaulins. Roll into the village, ask people what they need, get it out of the truck.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RJC · 11 years ago
    Thanks Michael for your excellent photo journalism. I suspect much of the public thinks "pilots" when they hear "Air Force", and while the pilots are the reason we have an Air Force, there are thousands of people filling important jobs that keep the pilots flying. Civil Engineers, particularly the RED HORSE troops that provide us with shelter, utilities, runways, and everything we need to fly and fight at a deployed location are unsung heroes. Thanks for telling their story.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    James L. Owens · 11 years ago
    Once again great job. Even in 'Nam clean water was a big thing and believe me the locals appreciate it. In particular in a desert.

    The check is in the mail.

    Jom Owens
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chuck near Houston, · 11 years ago
    Michael, I've been following, and occasionally donating to you, from the very beginning. As an amatuer photog myself I have to say that you're getting quite good at this. Understatement there.
    And I don't mean to imply your earlier work wasn't great, it was, you have a natural gift for framing and firing the shutter. But technically you have come quite a ways. Art AND Science.
    This is world class photo journalism. You're a treasure for us at home and for the guys (and gals) in the field like these here in Red Horse. I'm hitting the tip jar again. God Bless.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jan D · 11 years ago
    What a totally incredible story Michael!! Your dispatches never cease to amaze me. And this one is absolutely fascinating to me. The entire story, from the "back-to-the-stone-ages" hand-digging of irrigation tunnels with open shafts for drawing up dirt and stones, in stark contrast to the U.S.A.F. Red Horse expert crews with their high-tech drilling equipment, centuries apart yet co-existing side-by-side. Incredible to say the least!

    To all our Air Force men and women, and yes, not to forget our U.S. Navy Seabees, out there doing such magnificent things, we are forever grateful for your hard work, long hours and selfless dedication. Thank you all so much. May God be with you and keep you safe. We will continue to keep you in our prayers.

    And, hey, yeah, Micheal, I'm 99.999% certain a job offer will be coming my way tomorrow so will be able to 'finally' send some money your way in the not too distant future. I've been riddled with guilt enjoying my 'free ride' since starting to follow you last October. But what a wonderful ride it has been. :-) Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dori · 11 years ago
    Thanks Michael. Your photos get better and better...or maybe I'm just more interested! I don't know. But I sure appreciate your reports and photos because they put a face on our military. I wish the world situation was different and our military could be home working on this soil, maybe someday they can.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Diana · 11 years ago
    ...for noting that sometimes its the most basic things that have the biggest impact, and for the "shout out" to Red Horse. I agree with RJC that most folks don't think of this kind of talent when they think of the Air Force. I worked with them as an interpreter when I was on active duty. They are one hard-working, rough bunch of professionals, and amazingly innovative thinkers. They were a blast.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dad · 11 years ago
    First off its great to see you. You make me proud!
    The team deserves beers on me when you all return. (there, its in writing)
    Be safe and see you soon.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Christine Brewer · 11 years ago
    As the proud wife of SrA Steven Brewer, I am very grateful that you have posted this, Michael. These pictures are incredible! I can't explain how it makes me feel to read this and see these photos. Proud. Extremely proud of these guys. They sacrifice so much time to complete a courageous duty. Nate, thank you for watching over my Steven, I am looking forward to seeing ya, bud! Steven, I love you and miss you. And I am so very proud of you. We are one day closer to being together!

    Love, Christine
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mary & John Loiselle · 11 years ago
    We've tried to imagine what it was like for you guys but these incredible pictures and story have described hard work and dedication beyond our comprehension. We are so proud of you, and grateful for all you've done and all you continue to do. Can't wait to see you ... until next time!
    Mom & Dad
  • This commment is unpublished.
    paul conway · 11 years ago
    Mr Yon;
    Another good story. As you mention the "karez" system of underground water canals was common throughout the Middle East. 40 years ago I saw these in operation in Iran where they are called "Qanats". This is far from stone age technology. Moving water underground from water sources to villages is very efficient with almost no water lost to evaporation. Surface canals lose up to 25% of water to evaporation and loose up to half their water if not concrete or stone. The downside to Karez is that they are very labor intensive and need alot of maintenance. But I'm sure there is plenty of labor available in rural Afghanistan. The Iranians used to dig wells by hand too which, while slow, does work.
    Drilling deep wells for irrigation in dry areas is a bad practice. A few wells here and there for FOBs probably won't hurt but large scale deep well drill will dry out the aquifer.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    William Scott · 11 years ago
    The Afghans will remember these wells and who provided them long after our military efforts are forgotten. This is the way to fight the Taliban on a permanent basis. Of course the military is necessary to provide the security for these guys as they are drilling.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jet Mech · 11 years ago
    The description of combat showers is the same as navy showers. That is when you can even get one. In the case of combat showers it is if they are even available. For navy showers it is if water is even available. Thanks again Michael for another great story and pictorial. I know Ernie Pyle is looking down and smiling. Stay safe over there.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nana & Pop PoP · 11 years ago
    Again thank you for the vivid photo's with explanations, is there a security reason for the red lighting?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert J. Schrader · 11 years ago
    The article is simply wonderful. The aerial photos help explain the dire search for water in a desolate area. But like many attempts, if the people do not maintain the working well when we leave, it is all for not.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    The Brewers: Dad, S · 11 years ago

    Steven, We were so excited to receive Christine's email with the link to this site, and to actually see you makes us miss you more! Through this article, we can better appreciate your dedication, especially in light of your current working environment. We hope you know how very proud we are of you, and of course, cannot wait to see you again. In case you didn't already know it, your wife is awesome; you are fortunate you are to have her by your side! Hello to Nate from Ray and Liz - hope to see you soon as well. To Michael Yon -- Many thanks for the amazing story you tell through your photographs; you are extremely talented.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Big Time · 11 years ago
    The Red Horse guys work hard, but play even harder. Biggest bunch of hellraisers around when I was at Osan (early nineties). And I mean that in a good way. Cheers.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wendy Brewer · 11 years ago
    Beautiful Work Mr. Yon, thank you so much for this article...Sister to SrA Steven Brewer I am so touched and proud to be your sister. We miss you so much and cant wait for your arrival back to the states... Its a tug at the heartstrings to read about what you are doing, and i cant be more proud. I love you very much and cant wait to see you again!! Victoria cant wait to spend time with you, she asks about you and wants you to teach her how to snow board.!! ;-) xoxooxx Wendy and Victoria
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Adam Chelli · 11 years ago
    I am so proud of you and, I miss you buddy....I hope you come home safely and quickly...WE have to do something when you do!! Adam, P.s. gain some weight would ya, youre making me look like a WHALE!!! haha.- We are very grateful for the article and photos Michael, Thank you!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sonya Preston · 11 years ago
    Steven you truely are my hero.So good to see your face. Nate thanks for taking care of him and I hope you are all keeping well. Steven Aunt Gracie loves and misses you. Anna says hey. I love you CUZ!!
    Keep on rockin' RED HORSE!
    Love you cuz,
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim Johnson · 11 years ago
    Given the total lack of political leadership I don't want another American to die for Karzai and his band of thieves. Obama is a loser and I don't want to spend lives to prop up his ego. I fought in Nam for 17 months. Don't do this again.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jerry Few · 11 years ago
    For me I really enjoy your post Michael, news that we can get nowhere else.
    Surprising to see the guys wearing Carhart's in stan, The tracked bobcat again a nice surprise also, probably the best utility tractor ever made.
    For you complaining SOB's, go get a life, go to Dallas and camp in GWB's backyard, Vote anyway that you want just give this NEWS site a break......Please
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eli W. · 11 years ago
    Drilling wells is hard work and involves myriad complications that are dictated by the terrain and the logistical chain. As a Wat/San in Peace Corps, we designed gravity-fed systems that drew their conduction down from sources in watersheds high above any populated areas or livestock ranges. Of course that was in the mountains of Central America, where there's lots of water in the ground. Much harder to have to dig for it and then pump it up to the waiting population. You make do with what you get. These guys are my heroes.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Z. Williamso · 11 years ago
    If you contact the unit and ask about hats and T shirts, they can likely print some up. Any excess revenue will go to support the unit fund for recreation supplies.

    RED HORSE and Prime BEEF units can outbuild anyone on the planet. Runways, wells, defensive positions, tent cities or hard barracks. During Desert Fox we bedded down 2000 troops in a week, with hot water, electricity, hardbacked tents and AC.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gary Kelley · 11 years ago
    "Can Do, Will Do" the Red Horse Motto. Excellent story and photography about some of the hardest working people in the Air Force. They are continuing a long tradition. (Red Horse Vet, 554th, 1972-197 )
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Walter J Slack · 11 years ago
    I am headed to Kandahar later this month to work with this group (geologist)....Thanks for the heads up on the operations and great crew !!
    Great coverage !!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Clarence L Hall · 11 years ago
    I'm a veteran who served with the 554th CESHR (REDHORSE) at Osan AB Korea in 82-8 . I was assigned to the vehicle mainteance section. I am proud to know that the tradition of hard work and pride is still alive in the Horse squadrons. From Vietnam to Afghanistan the Horse has supported USAF missions of all types . Keep up the good work and God Bless America. Hat's off to the Horse. Great Article
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve · 10 years ago
    The military, at least the USAF, will issue Carharts to those that need them for their jobs, like Red Horse and flight line maintainers working in the winter.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bcis · 9 years ago
    First I would like to thank you for your support and recognition of these men. I had the distinct honor of working with Laidlaw, Pena, and Blount in Afghanistan in 2008 as a DAWD Electrician.

    These men do a great deal to bring a life source to a deadly environment. What you dont see are the things these men go through in-between sights. Many time they are part of road clearing teams, convoying with their rigs from sight to sight, & sometimes pulling security in dangerous places. These men do more than just drill. They consistantly put themselves out there just at the chance to hit water, and they all-to-often do it with little reward.

    I can say without a doudt that my time with these men and what we went through made me a better person. It is definitely the proudest deployment of my military career. God Speed to the men and women of the HORSE and to all my deployed military and civilian brothers and sisters!!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    better than all that · 8 years ago
    the usaf is small patatoes in the world of real construction.

    on one power plant i worked on we poured concreted for 0 hours non stop . 10 000 cubic meters of mud.

    non stop transit trucks ligned up for ever.

    you cant this touch this hourse fly boy !

    thats real work not red poney over stated games.

    no one is going to hire you for a real serious job.
    you guys are good for handy many ..
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Anitra · 5 years ago
    Aw, this was a very nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to create a really good article� but what can I say� I procrastinate a lot and
    never manage to get nearly anything done.

    My page: http://passion.edu/blog/index.php?userid=118277; Eusebia: http://passion.edu/blog/index.php?userid=118277,

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