KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - It was nearly 2 a.m. when U.S. Army Pfc. Zach Randle jumped out of his bulky armored vehicle in southern Afghanistan for what he hoped would be the last time.
"I don't want to see it again. It's been through a lot," Randle said of the 19-ton (17-metric ton) vehicle that was his ride - and sometimes his bed - during a six-month deployment to volatile Kandahar province.
"It protected us, but I'm just in a hurry to turn it in to be closer to going home," said Randle, who has now left Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama's drawdown of 33,000 U.S. troops by Sept. 30. The pullout - 10,000 last year and 23,000 more this year - will be finished within days. That will leave 68,000 American troops in this country to fight militants and help prepare Afghan forces to take over security nationwide.
While some service members go home, others are busy preparing thousands of vehicles and other equipment for shipment. It's a laborious task that's more difficult than it was in Iraq because of landlocked Afghanistan's tough mountainous terrain, lack of roads and its mountain passes that will soon be covered with snow.
Between now and the end of 2014, when most U.S. troops will have left, the Americans will move an estimated 50,000 vehicles, including tens of thousands of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles like the one Randle drove into the equipment yard. They'll also ship an estimated 100,000 metal containers - each about 20 feet long. End-to-end, the containers would stretch nearly 400 miles (600 kilometers).
Shipping has picked up in recent months, as base closure teams have spread out across Afghanistan to help soldiers sort, pack and load up their gear. As of the beginning of September, 208 U.S. and NATO coalition bases have been closed, 310 have been transferred to the Afghan government and 323 remain open, according to the coalition.
The packing up is going on as the war still rages. Just since Friday, insurgents attacked a base in neighboring Helmand province, killing two U.S. Marines and destroying six Harrier fighter jets. Afghan police gunned down four more American service members, and a NATO airstrike mistakenly killed eight Afghan women looking for firewood.
As American forces keep fighting, thousands of civilian and military personnel will continue prepping vehicles for flight, taking tedious inventory of bullets, night scopes, radios and even recreational baseball bats. They'll also clean and crate tons of other gear, anything from bags of nails to generators.
Brig. Gen. Kristin French, commanding general of the Joint Sustainment Command in Afghanistan, likens the teams to "wedding planners" helping to organize the move.
"We are trying to take the burden off the war fighter and give it to our folks who have the mission to do it," French said at her office at Kandahar Air Field. "If we're busy trying to clean up our backyards, we're not doing what our focus is and that is to continue to transition security to the Afghan security forces and partner with them."
Vehicles are being gathered in Kandahar, Bagram Air Field near Kabul and Camp Barmal in northern Afghanistan. Containers are being staged for shipment at nine locations around the country, she said.
Some equipment is taken by truck, train, ships or planes to military depots in the United States. MRAPS are rolled onto airplanes. Some Humvees sit in shipping containers for a test trip on a railroad leaving Afghanistan via Uzbekistan to the north. Other equipment will also go north through Central Asia or else be trucked into Pakistan - some of it down to the port of Karachi, where it will sail back to the United States or other destinations.
Various items will stay in Afghanistan to be used by the Americans troops not going home - yet. Still other materiel will be transferred to the Afghan government, tossed out, taken to a scrap heap or shipped to other countries for use by U.S. forces.
For now, Randle and several dozen other U.S. Army soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are happy to get rid of their vehicles and all the equipment.
The late-night arrival of their convoy late last month stirred up dust in the equipment yard at Kandahar Air Field. The heavily armed personnel carriers and utility trucks slowed to a halt, then sat idling noisily as the soldiers gathered their gear inside and began climbing out and into formation in the yard.
"They are part of the 23,000 soldier off-ramp," said Lt. Col. Stanley J. Sliwinski, Jr., who assumed command of 401st Army Field Support Brigade in Kandahar in July and was waiting for the convoy when it arrived. "Most of these soldiers will turn in their equipment tonight and they will fly home within the next three days."
Home, that is, after about three weeks at Fort Bragg.
When Randle, 20, returns to Clarksville, Tennessee, he will climb behind the wheel of a black sports sedan he's buying from the family of an American service member who was killed in Afghanistan. "It was his car, a Mazda 6, black," Randle said, standing under a three-quarters moon.
One of Randle's fellow soldiers at the equipment yard, Army Capt. Matthew Cahill, said they would offload about $18 million worth of equipment.
"I'm glad to get rid of it. It's a lot of stuff - a lot of stuff to keep accountable for. It's nice to finally start making the process back home," Cahill said.
The troops spent hours turning in their equipment and chatting about going home.
Cahill, 31, has a daughter turning 1 this month back home in Newburyport, Massachusetts. "I was at home when she was born," he said. "Now, she's standing up on her own so I got to get back."
Pvt. Kevin Patterson, 21, of Carson City, Nevada, was craving his grandmother's "famous tacos."
He was also happy to be alive.
"Every night when you go to bed and you're in one piece, you think 'Thank God, I'm still here,"' Patterson said. "And when you finish and when you're on your way home like this, you think 'It's amazing. I made it through."'
It was after midnight when the troops finished unpacking their gear in the gravel yard.
After that, four of the vehicles were driven to another yard overseen by Capt. Nicholas Tommaso, 27, of New York state.
His job involves sorting through a myriad of electronic vehicle identification codes, transportation control movement documents, green stickers and bumper numbers. When he figures out where a vehicle is going, it is weighed and measured so others will know if it will fit on the plane ordered to fly it out. Then it is moved across the street to another yard to be washed and inspected by customs workers.
"We've been moving everything by air now," Tommaso said. "We moved out about 200 pieces in August alone."
The stuff that's not on wheels ends up at still another yard.
There, inside a giant white tent, soldiers unload boxes filled with everything from rubber O-rings and speedometers for military vehicles to paper plates and bags of grommets.
"It's like you opened your garage and you hadn't cleaned it out in a couple years," said Lt. Col. Michelle Letcher, commander of the 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. "We are busy now. We came in July and now we are really ready for people to start pushing the stuff through."
Every item needs to be checked for dirt, bugs, mold and anything else that would prevent it from passing customs inspections in the U.S. or other nations where it's headed. Each has an identification number that's jotted on a pad, then entered into a computer that tells the military what it is and where it's needed. A printer spits out a shipping label, and the item is readied for its journey back to the U.S. or elsewhere.
A few days earlier, the soldiers at the tent opened a box arriving from the battlefield and found Louisville Slugger baseball bats.
They decided to keep one, and when they need a break from their tedious work, they go outside the tent and bat stones into the yard.