By Eric Brandner

There’s a lot of brown in Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan. Brown dirt, scattered brown buildings and some darker brown mountains in the background.

And that’s about it.

Twelve years into the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, some things haven’t changed for troops on the blurry frontlines. It’s true that larger forward operating bases with reliable Internet, decent food and comfortable places to take a nap dot the country. But when Army 1st Sgt. Michael Carlan arrived in Maidan Shahr in the spring of 2012, the small outpost – called Operation Coordination Center-Provincial Wardak – didn’t even have a shower.

The aftermath of a 2012 Thanksgiving night bombing of a U.S. combat outpost in Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan. | Photo credit DOD

Carlan – on his third deployment downrange – had a plan. He had information about USO2GO, a program that delivers customized packages featuring the USO’s most popular offerings to some of the most remote places on Earth. Once set up on OCC-P Wardak, Carlan emailed the USO and – within a month – saw the first USO2GO boxes roll in on a flatbed truck.

“[The USO] sent a lot of personal hygiene stuff,” Carlan said. “We have a [National Guard] force that rotates out and lots of times those guys … don’t have all their stuff when they come out here.”

The food was nearly as big of a hit as the toiletries on the 100-foot-by-45-foot base.

“The instant mac and cheese and Slim Jims, the guys love that stuff,” said Army Capt. Brandon Allison, who is one of 20 troops who inhabit the base, all assigned to coordinate with Afghan police and military on operations. “It’s nice to be able to have a little bit of a snack that’s not Army issue.”

With a video game system and television left by the base’s last occupants in the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) room, the soldiers felt like they were in pretty good shape, considering the circumstances.

Then, in the wee hours after Thanksgiving, a Taliban suicide bomber drove up to the base and blew his truck up.

According to news reports, three Afghan civilians were killed and nearly 90 others – including U.S. and Afghan troops – were injured in the attack. All U.S. troops survived (“walking on their own two legs,” as Carlan described it), but the blast destroyed a significant part of the base, including the MWR room and a lot of personal gear.

A few hours after the haze cleared, Carlan was already working on the logistics of restocking OCC-P Wardak.

With the help of the USO, we not only found ourselves well supported, but in better shape than before.

“It took us about three weeks to come out here and rebuild,” Carlan said. “I emailed [USO2GO Program Manager] Cristin Perry and I told her I’m trying to run down a TV because there were no TVs. … And within eight hours or so she sent an email back saying ‘I’m sending you two TVs on Monday.’ And then she sent everything else, too.

“It was like Christmas.”

Carlan said the post-blast USO2GO shipment allowed the troops to build a more robust, better-supplied MWR room than they had before the attack.

“Everybody was excited about opening packages,” Allison said. “When the new Xbox® came, there was much dancing and rejoicing. And when they opened up the box that had the PlayStation® 3 in it as well, there was even more dancing and rejoicing.”

The current rotation of troops at OCC-P Wardak is slated to come home in February. The troops who take over for them may be surprised what’s inside the base that dots the giant brown landscape.

“With the help of the USO, we not only found ourselves well supported, but in better shape than before,” Allison said.