- The Washington Times
Monday, July 8, 2013

With the Afghanistan War in its 12th year, U.S. troops find that the Pentagon’s enormous logistics system has not mastered the job of getting things like soap, toothpaste and protective gear to all on the battlefield.

A congressman and a private support group say that the ongoing withdrawal of troops and closing of supply depots promise to make the shortfalls worse.

Aaron Negherbon, who founded the nonprofit TroopsDirect, said his organization has shipped more than 180,000 pounds of essentials to troops since 2010, giving a new meaning to the idea of a CARE package.

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These are not cookies and candy being shipped from his Northern California headquarters. The items are as fundamental as the powdered chalk used to highlight a buried improvised explosive device (IED) so troops can avoid it.

“These are Americans, and they’re out doing God’s work,” Mr. Negherbon said. “We believe that if [a bomb disposal] unit needs a kit that can render an IED safe, when they don’t have it, well they should have it immediately. That’s what TroopsDirect is all about.”

Where the hugely bureaucratic military logistics system must follow a strict step-by-step process to get goggles and body armor to Afghanistan, Mr. Negherbon simply orders, boxes and ships it via the U.S. Postal Service. It arrives at the gates of grateful war-fighters in a week or so.

“There’s no chains of command,” he said. “There’s no bureaucracies. There’s no red tape.”

Now, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer, has written to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking for action.

Mr. Hunter fears that, with most troops moving out of the country by the end of next year, there will be a lower priority on getting basic equipment to the war theater.

“Significant time and energy is spent by the department moving gear and equipment to the other side of the world to support our troops, yet, somehow, there remain breakdowns in responding to the urgent needs of service members on the front lines,” he told Mr. Hagel in a letter delivered Friday. “As we begin to draw down forces in Afghanistan, it’s important that we continue to support the remaining troops, ensuring that they receive the resources and equipment they need.”

Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said: “The secretary of defense will of course provide a timely and considered response to the congressman.”

Mr. Negherbon said the drawdown is resulting in fewer supply depots providing for what is still a large troop presence of 66,000.

Asked to respond, Navy Cmdr. Williams Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, said: “I’m not sure how a nonprofit spokesman can speak with authority on our logistics, but I can assure you that as our footprint gets smaller in Afghanistan, our forces continue to get all they need to accomplish the mission.”

Mr. Negherbon said he quit his job in the mortgage industry and founded TroopsDirect in 2010, drawing a “very small salary” as its only full-time employee.

He was inspired after mailing a 40-pound package to a Marine officer friend in Afghanistan. He said the company commander emailed “thanks.” The officer said he was giving the stuff to his men who needed creature comforts — foot powder, protein bars, sports drinks — more than he did.

Mr. Negherbon learned that troops were missing more than toothpaste.

Officers told him they had trouble obtaining the chalk, which is used to designate a found IED, the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, so they can step around it until explosive disposal units can disarm it.

Other hard-to-obtain items: stretchers, generators, plumbing parts, body armor components, ballistic eye protectors and bomb disposal kits.

“The most common comments that are made by those who are requesting stuff is ‘budget issues’ and ‘drawdown issues,’” Mr. Negherbon said. “With drawdown issues, they are saying that where one supply depot was supplying five units, it is now supplying 25 units.”

TroopsDirect’s funding comes from suppliers who provide items free of charge and from donations large and small.

Mr. Negherbon said he recently spoke with a Pentagon representative who praised TroopsDirect but asked him to ensure that the gear goes to troops, not impostors.

“We try and stay very respectful and nonaccusatory,” he said.

He said he ships only to official armed forces post office boxes. He also talks with the unit requesting gear and confirms it is deploying or has been deployed.

Mr. Negherbon offered an example: Members of a Utah Army National Guard artillery brigade are training at Camp Shelby, Miss., and are deploying to Afghanistan in August to train the national army.

They have requested certain items that the camp will not provide, and forwarded a shopping list to TroopsDirect. It includes medical equipment such as tourniquets, blood pressure cuffs and gauze, gun holsters, communication headsets and ballistic helmet pads.

Mr. Hunter wrote to Mr. Hagel: “[For] some time, units fighting overseas, including Afghanistan and locations in Africa, have not been provided with the basic resources they need to carry out their missions. There are numerous instances where these items are not supplied by a logistics system that is cumbersome and which can be non-responsive to the warfighter.”

The Washington Times asked the Pentagon to assess the work of TroopsDirect.

“The Department of Defense works diligently to ensure that service members have the necessary equipment to complete their missions in all environments, but we also recognize that throughout U.S. military history, our deployed service members have often supplemented their issued gear with non-issued items,” said Mr. Wright, the Pentagon spokesman. “When organizations send supplies directly to the battlefield that are not tested or sanctioned, DoD cannot vouch for their effectiveness.

“The department is always appreciative of the support that nonprofit organizations and individuals continue to render our deployed forces,” he said in an email.

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