How MARS Came to Afghanistan

By Captain Jeff Hammer, N9NIC

It all began in the spring of 2004 when the 76th Infantry Brigade of the Indiana National Guard was notified that we would be going to Afghanistan.

As a 13-year Amateur Radio Operator and National Guardsman I wanted to make use of my skills and do something unique. I decided to establish a MARS station for my Command in Afghanistan. The first step was applying for a MARS license, and it came through before we deployed. C-130 transports flew us to Kabul in July. We began to occupy Camp Phoenix while the unit that had been here for eight months was preparing to move out.

In my case there was a particular motivation to get MARS up and running. Although a few contacts had been made in the past with Special Forces in Afghanistan, no one had successfully established a fixed MARS station here accessible to the troops generally.

I would soon find out why.

Speedway, IN, near Indianapolis, is where I grew up and where my father, grandfather, and great grandfather all called home. Around the 5th grade I started to take a big interest in electronics. My father and grandfather had grown up using CB radios. I got one and joined the Circle City (Indianapolis) Radio Emergency Assistance Communications Team (R.E.A.C.T.) In 1990 I went off to Purdue University hoping to become an electrical engineer. During the first year I joined the Indiana National Guard. At the same time I was going through the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps program. After graduation I took on a military intelligence assignment assisting law enforcement in Northwest Indiana I had never planned on joining the military, but Operation Desert Storm sparked something inside me. My father served as an Intelligence Officer and a Military Police Officer and retired after 26 years in the Army and National Guard. My grandfather and great-grandfather both served in the World Wars. There was a lot of family history and pride that continues to drive me to this day.

Basic Training started in the summer of ’91 and it was then, at Red Stone Arsenal, AL, that I decided to get my Amateur Radio license. I studied every night for two months. One November day I walked six miles into Huntsville (after spending a long time convincing my drill sergeant that it was a good idea), took the test, passed, and enjoyed the six mile walk back thinking of all the new radio equipment I wanted to buy.

Back home in Indiana, the fact that I had a full-time job as a military intelligence officer supporting law enforcement and a part-time job as a police and fire dispatcher at the Speedway Police Department didn’t leave a lot of time for play. However, I earned my General Class license in 2001 and got heavily involved in the new world of HF. In Kabul there were all sorts of regular military priorities involved in getting a military post functioning as opposed to just setting up a field site.

Task Force Phoenix, which is made up primarily of the 76th Infantry Brigade, arrived in Afghanistan in mid July. It took about two months to get the MARS station operational at Camp Phoenix. Our SGC SG-2000 PowerTalk HF transceiver, PowerCube amplifier and SG-104 antenna were going to have to wait because there was no place to put them until the previous unit moved out.

So I patiently (not really) waited for the day to come when we completed taking over Camp Phoenix. That day came and went and still no luck finding the time or place to install the station. There was no place to put the radio in the command post yet, so I started coming up with a way to rig it up in our living tent.

Now the problem was where to put this 90 foot antenna. I climbed up a lighting tower behind the command center and installed the antenna in an inverted-V configuration. It didn’t work too well because of the nearby antennas for all the traditional military communications. I had to find a new location.

I moved into my permanent living quarters (a very nice plywood hut that I share with 7 other officers). I worked with the Signal Officer to get approval for a location that would not interfere with the existing military communications equipment and provide me with a suitable location for the MARS station. Next I got with the engineers to build two temporary masts with the only material we had—two-by-fours (see the picture titled The MARS Antenna). We cut two holes in the top of each two-by-four and ran the cord guy lines through them. The base of the masts is held down by sandbags. The antenna only sits about 25 feet high right now, but when I went back into my hut and fired up the SGC 2000 and started spinning the dial, I heard the call sign UA4FER on the 20 meter amateur band. On my first transmission I made contact with UA4FER loud and clear and in Russia! Not bad for a 150 watt radio some 2,250 miles away.

The next night after some coordination with the MARS European Gateway in Germany, I made contact on the first try with AEM1USA near Heidelberg, Germany.

Unfortunately that was the last time I heard of AEM1USA. The Army had decided to shut the gateway station down to save money. This caused communications problems for many stations throughout Europe and Asia. For those of us in faraway and remote locations it was especially devastating – like being able to hear one day and becoming deaf the next.

I turned to Amateur Radio to continue testing the system by making as many contacts as possible to get feedback on signal strength and quality. So far I have made contacts in Russia, Germany, Croatia, Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Iraq, and the Faroe Islands. Each has reported great signal quality. I look forward to the day when I can make contact directly with the United States.

The fall of 2004 was the season of the antenna moves. Our 90 foot folded dipole required a lot of real estate and as construction projects moved around the camp, my antenna had to keep moving with them, or rather, away from them– eight times in all. I had 200 feet of a special version of super low-loss RG-213 coax manufactured by The Wireman and needed every bit of it.

The antenna currently sits about 25 feet high with half of it hanging over a road inside the camp. One day as I was getting ready to do my first linkup on digital a truck filled way too high with something caught the antenna and snapped it. I managed to get it fixed and restrung in about half an hour and made that contact. After a long winter of almost no activity on the HF bands due to poor propagation and weather conditions, the approach of spring brought new hope. I started hearing faint voice traffic during the nightly net. Voice still doesn’t work as of March, but AEM6AA and I decided to experiment with digital. (That’s Mike Woolverton WB0ZPW, a U.S. Air Force retiree living in Athens, Greece,) PSK31 was the first try and it went pretty well. We had reliable enough digital communications to pass two MARSgrams back to the states.

It wasn’t long before a lot of interference appeared on the frequency. PSK31 wasn’t cutting it. AEM6AA and I decided to try some other modes. The one we have settled on as of March is MFSK16. It is much more reliable and breaks through the interference where PSK31 wouldn’t.

MFSK16 was the mode I received my first MARSGRAM, a reply back from AAV5MK. That’s Mal Lunsford W9MAL, the Indiana MARS traffic manager. He was letting us know the first message had been delivered. It had been addressed to Maj. Gen. Martin Umbarger, the Indiana state Adjutant General, announcing that our station was operational. We have found that a military frequency near the 40-meter Ham band was the only one that worked for MARS contacts. I use the SGC PowerCube linear most of the time because it is practically impossible to make contact without at least 200 watts. MARS is an extra volunteer duty for me so I conduct it primarily in the evening after I am off shift, between 1500Z and 1800Z. There is still a lot of testing. Conditions are anything but perfect when your site is in between mountains and 3,000 miles away from the nearest station. There are plans to add PACTOR capability and raise the antenna higher in an effort to improve signal quality. My ultimate goal is to establish phone patches. For the Command, I feel that establishing a MARS station that is ready to support the troops is a major milestone. For me personally, I am proud to be part of a network of volunteer communicators that support the troops and the military’s mission. Doing it in a combat theater is just that much more satisfying.

For many if not most of America’s troops overseas, e-mail and cell phones provide a quick link with family and friends back home. But not all service personnel are deployed within reach of these services. Here’s the story of a Ham determined to carry on Amateur Radio’s tradition of handling “morale and welfare” messages via the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS).

Captain Hammer is assigned to the Coalition Task Force Phoenix III as senior intelligence officer responsible for managing Human Intelligence and Counterintelligence Operations. His duties include fielding a team of more than 400 local interpreters. “Of course,” he says, “I have quality Non-Commissioned Officers who do most of the real work.”