PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan, - There are 13 American provincial reconstruction teams operating within Afghanistan's borders.
The mission of the PRT's is to assist the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan provide security, governance and development for its citizens.
A PRT is not a typical combat zone unit because it doesn't own a physical battlespace.
Because of this, PRT's have to constantly communicate with other units to alert them to projects and travel plans every time they go outside the secure confines of the base.
In a high-tempo environment, it can be difficult to successfully articulate the PRT motives to higher headquarters. Also, due to the distance from key logistical centers, keeping a fluid supply chain to the outlying provinces can prove challenging.
For these reasons and many more, the Paktika PRT, a team of civilians, soldiers, sailors and airmen located on the Eastern Afghanistan border with Pakistan, rely heavily on unit liaison officers to be their "eyes and ears" when they can't make it to the table.
The two LNOs for Paktika province are U.S. Navy Petty Office 1st Class Wilson Santiago, who is stationed at Bagram Air Field, and U.S. Army Sergeant Anthony Eplee, who serves at the brigade headquarters in Khost province.
"An LNO has to be a jack-of-all-trades," said Eplee, who is deployed from the 1/178 Field Artillery of the South Carolina National Guard where he is a chemical, biological and nuclear technician. "On a given day, I can be doing anything from writing reports, to building storyboards, to ensuring accurate transfer of intelligence down to the lowest-level soldier so they have the information they need to conduct a mission safely. The brigade commander may have a map but not always a clear picture, so my job is to paint the picture for him."
"It's a lot of responsibility, that's for sure," said Santiago, a 10-year Navy veteran deployed from the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. "If I wasn't here, there would be a lot of manpower used and a lot of time wasted because my unit would have to run back and forth from Forward Operating Base Sharana to BAF to get things accomplished. For example, we had some weapons systems come in recently.
"If I hadn't been around to receive them, they would've been stuck on the flightline for a couple of days until someone could fly in and sign for them. It's not like you can just drive down the street and pick up what you need. It's a multi-day process. I'm here to make sure operations continue as smoothly as possible."
For Santiago and Eplee, the success of the team depends on how efficiently the liaisons can get information and equipment to the battlefield.
While their unit is busy operating in Paktika, Santiago, an active-duty sailor, and Eplee, a former sailor turned National Guard soldier, are isolated from their team and from each other to help their unit be successful.
Santiago's main job is to deal primarily with the movement of supplies, equipment and personnel to and from BAF.
Eplee, while dealing with logistical issues as they arise, mainly deals with information dissemination both to and from PRT Paktika and higher headquarters. He provides the brigade commander with information regarding the PRT's motives, missions and travels.
The responsibility of information dissemination is a job Eplee takes quite seriously.
"I'm very careful in my work here because I'm real close with the guys from my unit down in Paktika, so I know when I go home from here I have to see them face to face and I want to be able to tell them and their families that I did my best to support them on their mission," he said. "The thought of me not giving 100 percent and consequently someone getting hurt heavily weighs on me. I don't want to see anyone get hurt so if there's any way I can actually get them information to keep them safe, I'm going to do it."
Like any job, being an LNO has its good and bad aspects.
"I enjoy helping people and getting things accomplished for people," said Eplee. "But, the most terrifying part is I'm expected to know every aspect of my team's mission. The brigade commander reads the same briefs as I do, but he requires me to know all the information so I can pass it on to other units so they know exactly why my team is in their area of operations to ensure they don't have a conflicting mission."
Santiago sums up where the motivation to serve as a liaison comes from for both Eplee and himself.
"The types of relationships I built during my training were important, because they help remind me why I can't ever just stop working," he said. "If I choose to just not work one day, no one may know or ever find out, but my team wouldn't get the resources they need.
"Something bad could happen if I decide I want to be lazy. I refuse to have that happen. The relationships I have built with my teammates keep me working harder each day. I work for the personnel downrange."