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
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.
Hammer, a bachelor, 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.”
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).