Extreme IT: Battling dust, heat and bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq

How IT pros keep communications running in the desert and under fire

Lots of people like to describe their jobs as "being on the front lines," but there are IT professionals whose jobs really do put them on the front lines of a combat zone. You think your work life's stressful? Try getting a network restored after it's been brought down by a mortar attack — in 110-degree heat.

That's life in Iraq and Afghanistan for the members of the U.S. military in charge of communications, networks and other IT systems. The desert environment presents its own challenges; throw in a war, and you've got a situation that taxes both the equipment and the men and women who maintain it.

For this edition of Extreme IT, we spoke with officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan about their jobs. Participants included Air Force Lt. Col. Don Fielden, currently deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq, and Army Lt. Col. Patrick Dedham, just back from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Also on the phone were Army Lt. Col. David Wills and Air Force Col. Harold Bullock, both of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and both of whom have spent a good deal of time in the current war zones.

Let's start with your location; can you describe the environment?

Dedham: Up until a couple of days ago, I was in Bagram, the largest base in Afghanistan. It's just north of the capital, Kabul, in a high-plains desert at 5,000 feet. The temperatures range from 0 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the winter to 110 degrees in the summer.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Patrick Dedham
Army Lt. Colonel Pat Dedham. Click to view image gallery.

We have networks and IT systems running throughout the country in some pretty extreme places. For example, there's a small combat outpost on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan at about 12,000 feet, called Shkin. And they have complete network connectivity.

Fielden: I'm at Balad Air Base, the largest air base in Iraq. It's pretty flat and near sea level. Temperatures here range from 35 degrees in the winter to 140 degrees in the summer. It's very dusty and often windy. You know how stateside, you have a wind chill when the wind is blowing, it makes it feel cooler? Here in Balad, when the wind's blowing, it feels a lot hotter.

How long have you been there, and what is your role?

Dedham: I was in Afghanistan for 15 months. As the director of comms [communications] and IT for the Joint Task Force, I had oversight of all IT and communications for U.S. forces.

Fielden: I've been in Iraq eight months so far, and I'll be out here for four more. I'm the commanding officer of the communications squadron here, which is the home of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. Our wing also comprises other units that are scattered throughout Iraq, and I play a role in ensuring command-and-control connectivity to our other Air Force locations.

Wills: Comms includes everything from computer networking through telecom, telephones, VoIP, fax, radios. Basically anything other than mailing a letter — and in Balad, they even do that.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Donald Fielden
Air Force Lt. Colonel Don Fielden. Click to view image gallery.

How many users do you support?

Fielden: We've got an Air Force population of well over 6,000 people at Balad. If you throw in the Air Force personnel at the other bases we support, it adds up to over 8,500 folks.

Dedham: From a Joint Task Force perspective, it's about 35,000 customers that we provide support to.

What's the equipment you're working with?

Fielden: It's the standard stuff — we have a typical network control center that houses our file servers, routers, and Internet switches, and another control center that handles circuit routing. And we have our satellite communications equipment and associated vans established on-site as well.

We have Dell servers, Sun servers — the popular brands. Really, it's a typical Air Force communications squadron, but operating in a forward location.

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