The Army Corps of Engineers — which works with the Afghan government on building military and police facilities, medical clinics, schools, dams and other reconstruction projects — examines building sites before the work begins for unexploded ordnance.
"It's all over the country," said Jerry Cummings, the Corps' safety manager for the northern half of Afghanistan. "We're concerned any time we go to break ground."
Whittington worked in explosives and ordnance disposal with the Army in the 1990s and as a private contractor in Iraq in the 2000s. He joined the Corps of Engineers in 2010, learned of its work in Afghanistan and volunteered for the yearlong deployment in Kabul.
He has overseen the contractors who do much of the actual examination and disposal work on Corps sites. But when the request came to examine the old Soviet vehicles so they could be removed safely, "it was much more economically feasible for me just to go out there, spend a few days and do it myself," he said.
As a contractor, Whittington has helped to search the Chesapeake Bay for unexploded ordnance. With the Corps of Engineers, he has performed similar work at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia.
At Pul-e-Charki, under the watchful eyes of private security guards, he spent a week in May climbing through the Cold War-era equipment, which included T-72 tanks, personnel carriers, cargo trucks, anti-aircraft guns and Scud missile launchers.
Through the years, the makeshift motor pool had been overgrown by thorny bushes. The collection also includes a few damaged U.S. and coalition vehicles.
Some burned-out Soviet vehicles, which still dot the Afghan countryside, have been rigged by insurgents to explode when explored. Whittington said booby traps were only "a small concern" at Pul-e-Charki, because the vehicles had been on the military base for years.
With no plans or manuals from which to work, he had to familiarize himself with the compartments and containers of each model.
"It's a huge responsibility to make sure that nobody was going to get hurt," he said. Working in triple-digit temperatures, he crawled through each tank "to make sure there wasn't anything that would harm anybody."
The equipment had been scavenged for "anything that they might have thought valuable," Whittington said. "Explosives not being one of them."
Inside the tanks, he found several unexploded fuses for projectiles. Each contained a booster charge that, if mishandled, would be capable of maiming.
Whittington gave the fuses to nearby U.S. forces who blew them up. The vehicles have been removed without incident.
Whittington returned to the United States this month after completing his deployment. Before leaving Afghanistan, he said he thought the country was doing "better than when I got here."
"The Afghans are slowly learning how to be somewhat self-sufficient as far as providing their own security, their own protection from outside forces, and that's what we have helped provide to them," he said.
"I do feel I have helped make Afghanistan a safer place for the people as far as removing ordnance, mines, explosives," he said. "Getting rid of that will eventually lower those casualties."