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Tobin's Pass: bridging a river, bonding the people

(From left) U.S. Army Lt. Pete Burnham, a platoon leader from Campton; U.S. Army Sgt. 2st Class Todd Gagnon, a platoon sergeant from Alexandria; U.S. Army Spc. Tobin Hartshorn, a mortarman from Littleton; an Afghan National Policeman; Jafary Ziaulrahan, an interpreter; U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Lincoln Barbieri, a mortar platoon sergeant; U.S. Army Spc. Brian Lucas, a food service specialist from Sugar Hill; U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeremy Horn, a Joint Tactical Air Controller; and soldiers from the 2nd and Mortar platoons of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment, stand atop a bridge they built for the residents of Ghorband District. The soldiers built the bridge as a gesture of goodwill to the people of the Ghorband District of Parwan Province, and finished the project Nov. 10 as their last official mission before transferring authority of their area of responsibility in Ghorband. (Whitney Hughes — Courtesy) (click for larger version)
November 23, 2010
PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – From pursuing insurgents over the daunting mountain peaks of Afghanistan to rescuing a local villager's car over a 130-foot bank, the soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment have proven their dedication to the people of Afghanistan and fortified a steadfast bond with the people of Parwan Province.

Nowhere is this bond more evident than in the Ghorband District Center, where laughter and song poured out of the small concrete buildings as they spent evenings sitting side-by-side cross-legged on pillows with their Afghan National Police counterparts.

This figurative bond is exactly why the soldiers were determined not to leave Afghanistan without building a literal one for the people of Ghorband, who desperately needed a bridge to cross a swift river that parted two villages from the local bazaar and medical clinic.

On Nov. 10, after just seven days of construction and planning, the soldiers finished Tobin's Pass, a 150-foot bridge named for U.S. Army Spc. Tobin Hartshorn, the foreman of the project.

The bridge allows more than 2,000 families, according to Jafary Ziaulrahman (an interpreter with the platoon), to safely cross the river that was once only passable atop rickety planks nailed to rough-cut logs.

"That is why we did it, right there," said Hartshorn, a mortarman with Troop A, pointing at two young Afghan women in burkas as they walked across the newly finished bridge, "to make it safe for the women [who had to lift their burkas or be helped to cross the old bridge], old people and young kids to cross.

"I could die tomorrow and I'd be happy because I did this," he said, slapping his hand down on a plank of the bridge.

The project first came to the platoon's attention about three weeks prior, when an elderly man crossing the river slipped and he and his wheelbarrow full of rice and nuts went into the river.

The soldiers helped the man out of the river, and on the way back from their mission, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Pete Burnham, the platoon leader from Campton, sent a text message to his platoon sergeant, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Todd Gagnon from Alexandria, that simply said, "What do you think about building them a bridge?"

"This is what [counterinsurgency] is all about; collaborating with the Afghan National Security forces to make life better for the locals. Small projects like these don't take much time, have a huge impact on the community, and it's an example of the relationship we can have," said Burnham.

From that one message, the idea took off.

Gagnon, who owns an excavating company in New Hampshire, rounded up Hartshorn who owns a contracting business in his hometown of Littleton, and U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Lincoln Barbieri, a mortar platoon sergeant who worked in construction with his father back in St. Albans, Vt., and the pieces began to fall together.

The soldiers gathered the materials, and Barbieri and Hartshorn began constructing the pieces of the bridge in their off time between their regular patrols.

"We understood the concept and what had to be done, but building houses is not like building bridges," said Barbieri, who said the bridge was the most complicated project he had ever undertaken.

Once the pieces were complete, the soldiers loaded their trucks and returned to Ghorband District Center to begin construction.

The first phase of the project involved the soldiers trudging into the icy water to place security barriers in as supports. But the soldiers also had extra manpower, provided by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeremy Horn, a Joint Tactical Air Controller from Seattle, and U.S. Army Spc. Brian Lucas, a food service specialist from Bethlehem, who eagerly jumped in to help.

They also had plenty of help from their ANP counterparts and the local villagers, who crammed onto the sandy riverbanks to assist the soldiers.

In addition to helping put up the supports, a variety of villagers, from grown men to small children, swung hammers, shoveled dirt, sawed and hauled lumber to help the soldiers wherever they could lend a hand.

By the final days of construction, "burra" (the Dari word for "go") and "hobus" (Dari for "good") were all the soldiers needed to instruct the Afghans, who responded with beaming smiles at the soldiers' approval of their work.

"It really made it seem like a team effort. I am hoping they also picked up the [construction] techniques from us. I wish I had more time to teach them; they learn fast," said Hartshorn.

At the end of the fifth day of construction, Hartshorn declared, "That's it, that's the last bolt!" and the 151-foot bridge was finally complete. The soldiers shook hands and exchanged slaps on the back, and the exhaustion on their faces was quickly replaced by proud smiles as they posed for photos with the Afghan and U.S. flags with their ANP counterparts in the afternoon sun.

"That was the highlight of my tour. I can say I built a bridge in Afghanistan, and there it is; not many people can say that," said Barbieri, who said he will frame the pictures of the team on the finished bridge in his home to show his family what he accomplished in Afghanistan.

Burnham was pleased his soldiers' last mission before they hand responsibility over to their replacements not only left them with a sense of accomplishment, but will also remain as a pillar of their cooperation and dedication to the people of Ghorband.

"It gives them a sense of accomplishment and something tangible they can point to as proof of their effort here. It also serves as an example of how small projects like these can help the immediate community and benefit the coalition and ANSF effort as a whole," said Burnham.

Editor's note: The Record-Enterprise thanks Todd Gagnon's wife, Robin, for sharing this remarkable story with our readers.

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