I did arrive safely home from Afghanistan some time ago, and I’ve got some stories to tell. For several reasons, I found it difficult to tell them while I was in-country.
Transition is always a challenge, and this one is as well. The return from each tour brings its own challenges and has its own flavor. Each one is different. You can never tell what exactly you will be faced with upon return. Usually, those challenges take time to manifest themselves.
My children are healthy and doing well in school, so that’s a plus. For the most part, my extended family is doing well, although we do have one family member, a niece, who is facing an enormous health challenge. Personally, I’ve faced some significant blows that leave me struggling, but life goes on.
It is what it is.
I’ve always said, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Bravado. But, really, some of it just doesn’t kill you outright. It drains the life from you slowly over time. From the inside.
Those blows have taken some of the wind from my sails in keeping up with posting about my experiences, although I have been doing some other writing in the meantime. Hopefully there will be more news to tell about that in the not too distant future.
I’m trying to find ways to use what I’ve learned over my several tours to continue to make a contribution to the ongoing struggle to leave Afghanistan as a viable nation. I believe this is possible, but by no means a foregone conclusion. Sequestration and the lack of a budget have made this more challenging than it would have been in past years. I accepted a job as a subject matter expert helping to prepare Soldiers, Marines and civilians of the State Department and USAID prepare to serve in Afghanistan. But, so far, work has been scarce.
Again, it is what it is.
For those of you who still visit, thank you. I just wanted to catch everyone up on the fact that I am safe, my immediate family is doing well, and the challenge of reintegration is livable. I promise a good story soon.
The Germans won’t allow your interpreters, or “Language Assistants,” sometimes referred to as “LA’s” for short, stay on the base you live on. There are several methods for meeting up with and transporting them to the Headquarters each day so that you can get productive work done. This means that greetings are exchanged after dismounting the vehicles at the the ABP headquarters. Traditionally, there are handshakes and hugs. Over time, you have gotten to know each of them and have worked with them all, but for the sake of continuity you are typically matched up with the same linguist each time you work. Daweed, an intelligent young Hazara who studies journalism, is the LA you usually work with.
Once greetings are exchanged, you head off towards the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) compound to begin the work of the day. You’ve reviewed your notes and the progress you’ve made. Today the Afghans are going to conduct their first-ever Kandak (battalion… a collection of companies) training meeting. The Afghan officers have expressed discontent with the training level and skills of some of their soldiers. But you noticed that there are soldiers within the QRF who have each of the skills that the officers have bemoaned the lack of. The QRF has the raw materials to address these training needs, and now they need a methodology to use those resources to “spread the wealth” across the Kandak. This may seem an obvious solution to many people, but it’s a foreign concept for them.
Approaching the gate to the self-contained compound, your boots carry you across uneven, dusty ground solidified into the shape it took as it dried after the last rain. There is a guard in the tower. You recognize him, but don’t remember his name. A wave and a “good morning” called out in Dari is met with a friendly wave and a returned greeting. You ask him, again in Dari, how he is, how his job is going. He answers that all is good, and he is healthy.
As you pass through the gate, you see a group of soldiers near the weapons storage conex. They have a blanket spread out on the ground and assorted weapons are in various states of disassembly. You recognize many of the soldiers and stop to chat for a few minutes, making sure not to miss anyone during the handshakes. Many are very friendly, and those who haven’t spent much time around you eye you with obvious curiosity. You wonder what’s going on in their minds, what they see when they see you; what they wonder about you. Normal greetings exchanged, you ask how the work is going, and what they think of the condition of the weapons. They are cleaning and doing maintenance on AKM (commonly and mistakenly lumped under the “AK-47″ name), PKM machine guns, and “Dishka” .50 caliber Russian machine guns.
Two of the soldiers, clearly near exasperation, are struggling to assemble a US-made Mossberg shotgun. The extractors have to be put in a certain way, and it can be tricky. The Afghans look to you plaintively, holding the American-made shotgun out to you, bidding your assistance in putting it back into operation. You are an American, and this is an American weapon; of course you know how to put it back together.
This is a challenge. There is no explaining to them that you haven’t been trained to reassemble this weapon. You are the advisor, of course you know how to assemble this American weapon. Your reputation among the Afghans as a soldier, your credibility as a combat advisor is at stake. You have mere moments to figure this out. They beckon to you, indicating an open spot on the blanket to sit and work.
The wool blanket has seen better days, which is why it’s being used as a ground cover and work surface. It’s better than sitting directly in the dust. Settling in cross-legged, the shotgun is presented to you along with fingers pointing to place where the troublesome parts are. Daweed is engaging in conversation with one of the soldiers, but no matter. Some things don’t require precise interpretation, and making the effort with limited Dari to understand is often appreciated on their part. Sometimes the soldiers teach you new words or phrases. They took the weapon apart and are now confused about getting it back together. Looking into the receiver, and with the parts presented, you see where the two offending pieces fit. Fiddling with it as the Afghan soldiers watch intently, a false start gets a few mumbles going. Some of them are beginning to doubt that it’s going to work again. More pressure to solve the puzzle. After a couple of attempts, the sequence of assembly becomes clear, and the pieces practically assemble themselves. The weapon functions properly.
Smiles all around. The doubters are mocked good-naturedly by their brethren who had faith in you. The shotgun is disassembled again, for demonstration purposes, and put together explaining each step to the soldiers who had been struggling with it. One slow demonstration and the two of them have it down pat. After a few words of appreciation on both sides, it’s time to head for the office. The day has barely begun.
The defacto commander is actually slotted as the Executive Officer. Colonel Bashir has over thirty years of experience in uniform, and was trained in several schools in the Russian tradition. He is a sound, committed officer with a lot of savvy. He understands in detail all that he sees going on around him. Over time, you have grown to understand the subtleties of his expressions. He has grown to feel safe in speaking with you openly about the challenges of the political situations that exist in the Afghan Border Police and its officers. He is respected by his men, and shows a very paternal attitude towards his troops… in an Afghan way.
This relationship has opened the door to close relationships with much of the leadership. Each of the company, or Tolai, commanders and the staff officers have good relationships with you. Your relationship with the Kandak Training Officer is among the closest. He is a competent, intelligent and committed officer. The young captain has great potential to be an agent of change in the Kandak.
First order is always greetings. There is a ritual, and it is followed. Hugs demonstrate the degree of familiarity. Chai is served, and pleasantries are exchanged. Then, some current events and observations. The Colonel explains a speech that President Karzai has just made over the radio, and asks your opinion of what the American drawdown is going to mean to Afghanistan, the ABP and his Kandak. You gain insight into how Afghans view this process. Diplomacy is key here; you don’t have the authority to speak for the entire US government, but you are not in a position to keep your mouth shut entirely.
Those waters negotiated without upset, you sit back and unwrap an Afghan candy similar to taffy. Strawberry. The steaming hot chai helps dissolve the chewy candy.
The Training Officer arrives. This will be his meeting, and you spend some time coaching him on how a training meeting would run smoothly. He nods and seems a little nervous. Staff officers begin to trickle in, and further greetings are exchanged. First, they present themselves to the Colonel, then turn to you and greet you, most very warmly. Two of the Tolai commanders appear within a few seconds of each other. The third Tolai will be represented by a senior Lieutenant, as the commander is on leave.
The meeting begins with a blessing and a few words from the Colonel. The next hour and a half are a stop-and-go version of a training meeting, with notes taken on a dry erase board. At first, it is like pulling teeth from a chicken. A question is followed by silence and hesitance. After a while and a few suggestions, a robust discussion begins, with a few ideas of merit emerging. In the end, it’s a start. Nothing earth-shattering has emerged, but each of the Tolai commanders and the training officer believe that with a little preparation, the next meeting will be more productive. The progress was incremental, but that is, in itself, progress.
The next meeting will indeed begin to bear fruit… but you don’t know that yet.
It is nearly lunch time, and all of the Afghan officers seem very interested in making sure that you eat. Today, there is time for a meal in the ABP chow hall. The Colonel gathers up his things, you grab your radio and the two of you make your way across the compound to the dining facility. The food at the headquarters is always good.
After lunch, you will accompany the Colonel back to his office. There will be a limited amount of time available to discuss the happenings of the morning and make sure that the commitment to continue with this change is solid. Reassured, you and Daweed make your way back to the vehicles to gear up for the ride home, basically a backtrack of the morning’s move.
The earth did not move. The war was not won or lost. Today, nobody you know was injured or killed. In fact, the RC North was quiet in general. But today, incremental movement was made towards the Quick Reaction Force Kandak identifying the skills they need to train on to improve their effectiveness in the field. The Afghans are beginning to look at the soldiers in their unit and identify soldiers who do possess the skills they want for the rest to have. You have taken them one small step closer to a self-sustained capacity to continue a program that can bear fruit for them long after you have left.
You’ve got to do the best you can for them. For all you know, no one will be coming to reinforce and continue what you’ve done.
The life of an advisor can hardly be called “normal.” However, as anyone in Afghanistan can attest, there is a sameness that settles in, a point at which there is a sense of “Groundhog Day.” It’s the repetition of the actions, the same trip made over and over again, that cause this impression. So, what’s a daily mission with the SFAT like?
I’ll spare you the personal rituals of the morning. Wake-up, showers and the like. Everyone does that, and having to walk a hundred meters for a shower is not that serious that it requires examination.
Today I’m going to try to put you in the Multi-Cam uniform, in the turret behind the machine gun as you roll through the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif on your way to work as an advisor for the Afghan Border Police. In a later post I will try to put you in the uniform again as you go through advising Afghans for a day. I don’t usually write in this style, but I’m hoping to share the experience. Please forgive me if I don’t bring you fully into it.
Suiting up… most people don’t do this. Many here at Marmal do not do it, either. For us, it happens numerous times a week. The uniform is self-explanatory; pants, boots, t-shirt, blouse (yes, it is called a blouse). Then comes the body armor, weapons… M-4 carbine and M-9 pistol… gathering up the helmet, gloves and “go bag.” Your body armor carries the ammunition, and there is a magazine in each of the weapons. Today, you are on the trip ticket, or “flapsheet” as RC North calls it, to gun an M-240 in the turret of an MATV (an all-terrain MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protective vehicle. This means that you will have to mount the machine gun, check the ammunition, put a can in the rack attached to the swivel mount the gun will rest in, test the electric drive on the turret, and make sure that all your equipment is secure in the turret as well.
It’s early; many people at home don’t even get up this early to face their commute. But it’s already bright outside, beginning to get warmer after a low in the mid 80′s last night. The sky is blue and clear save for the light haze of dust. You are grateful for the breeze and hopeful that it remains breezy through the day.
Feet crunching on gravel, you lug your gear to the vehicle, open the back door… a “suicide door” type door… and place your weapon and pack on the rear seat. Then you crunch to the SECFOR (Security Force… they drive the vehicles and usually man the guns) tent and grab the machine gun. Back at the vehicle, you climb inside the back, the floor of which is at chest level when you are standing on the ground, and make your way up into the turret in the center of the vehicle. Standing on the platform above and between the seats to the rear of the radios, you place the gun in the mount, secure it with the pins and lever the ammo can into place next to it. One hundred rounds of linked 7.62mm ready to be loaded. You place your carbine and helmet in the turret and then squat to secure your pack to the back wall between the back seats with a bungee cord so that it doesn’t become a free-ranging object if the vehicle gets knocked over. That complete, it’s time for the convoy brief.
Everyone who is going out today is gathered around in a clear area of the lot in the tent area you live in. Soldiers are finishing breakfast brought to them in styrofoam containers by one of their buddies. Others drink coffee from mugs. Some drink meal-replacement shakes. Some drink energy drinks in place of coffee. Some are smoking. A few minutes later, the SECFOR Platoon Sergeant, the patrol leader today, lifts his clipboard and calls off the march order by vehicle number and the names of the crew and occupants. Each individual answers, as do you when your name is called. You’re the gunner in the lead truck. The patrol leader goes over the mission, the routes that will be taken, any new information about things the enemy may be doing out there or significant events since yesterday, special instructions, location of the medic and satellite phone that is used in case of all other systems failing. He sums it up with, “TC’s inspect your people for proper equipment and uniform. Be ready to stage in order in ten minutes. ”
You make one more quick stop in the green plastic box to make sure that your bladder is empty before the trip. There is a fine balance between staying hydrated and needing to relieve yourself at an inconvenient or dangerous moment. Making your way back to the vehicle, you put on and snap together the harness that all gunners wear which keeps them from being ejected from the vehicle in the event of an explosion underneath or a rollover. You climb up through the back, up into the center of the vehicle, lock your harness into the retractor on the floor and begin the ritual of getting set. One iPod earphone in an ear, helmet on, headset on over that. Gloves. Eye protection. Turn on the iPod, keeping it low enough to hear everything over the intercom or radio. You plug into the intercom and ask if the rest of the crew has “got you.”
“Gotcha,” comes the reply. You’re set.
The vehicles roll to the gate and in a minute the patrol leader calls for a REDCON (Readyness Condition) in march-order sequence. Each vehicle, or “vic,” calls out “Vic 1 (2, 3, etc in sequence) is REDCON 1 (ready to go).”
“Okay, 1, let’s push,” comes the call.
The music cheers you as you keep an eye out for the traffic that moves on Marmal 24 hours a day. Trucks, “Gators,” conex-moving pickers, semi-trucks, armored vehicles, bikes and pedestrians; you are the only one who can see much of what is going on around you. You clear each intersection and tell the driver what is going on outside of his field of view. Finally you pass through the gate to “outside the wire.” At a certain point the gun is loaded and each vehicle in sequence calls out that they are loaded and combat locked (the doors cannot be opened from the outside). The convoy passes civilian trucks bringing construction materials to the base, local nationals on their way to work for the day, and other vehicles as it snakes its way to the Afghan Border Police Headquarters where the real work of the day will be done.
The move takes you over a combination of dirt and paved roads. The dirt roads require that you keep yourself from slamming into the hard metal of the turret, machine gun and turret ring as the vehicle pitches and rolls. Each vehicle churns up dust and the light breeze is blowing across the road; it keeps most of the dust from any oncoming traffic from blowing in your face today. On other days, you’re not so lucky. Today it’s good.
Trucks and motorcycles come towards you, picking their way carefully through the potholes and bumps of the dirt road. Flocks of sheep and goats, tended by men or children, graze a couple of hundred meters away. You watch the sides of the road, the half-built houses and compounds springing up all around, the shepherds, the other vehicles and pedestrians near and far for any sign of unusual behavior or intent. Finally, you reach the paved road and begin to head into a more built-up area.
You get your M-4 out and position it next to the machine gun. In town, you can’t be spraying fire willy-nilly; you must be precise if you have to respond. Pedestrians become more common; people going about their lives. If one makes eye contact, you nod or wave, then judge the response as either friendly, hostile or neutral. You watch rooftops, alleyways, windows and side streets for any indication that something has gone wrong. Almost anything can happen on any given day in Afghanistan; it just usually doesn’t in this area. But it can. So you watch. You don’t point your weapon at people, but you know that if you see someone kneeling with an RPG pointed at you, you can raise the weapon and be ready to fire in less than 2 seconds.
Radio traffic is minimal, with only turns being announced by the lead and trail trucks to ensure that everyone knows where the others are. Inside the truck, the driver and TC are chatting about something funny that one of the other soldiers did yesterday, a movie one of them watched, how many Afghans are sitting on the roof of a moving vehicle… and the car approaching the intersection that the driver cannot see. It’s a mixture of business and informal chatter.
Today, most people seem friendly. Children wave or give a thumbs-up. Men respond with a casual wave or a nod of the head. Some only continue to look. It’s a normal day.
You have other passengers to pick up at another base just a few miles from the headquarters, and you are making your way to pick them up. You pass shops open for business with people taking advantage of the fact that it is not yet 100 degrees out while they shop. Children are on their way to school. Men are on their way to work. Traffic moves in a slow-motion chaos that verges on incredible, and yet civility reigns as cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, taxis, three-wheeled Zarang carts and motorcycles weave through the streets and pedestrians like a rug. Horns let others know that you are passing. Your convoy takes up a lot of space and is given deference at the many traffic circles.
Arriving at the other base, the convoy makes its way inside and picks up other personnel with business to conduct at the headquarters. They have coordinated with the team for movement and are conducting business that will help the ABP and the team to reach their goals. For a few moments, you can relax. Here there is no threat to speak of. A few minutes later, each seat in each vehicle is filled. You glance down at the backseaters to the left and right of your feet. They are all buckled in. The ritual of REDCON is performed and you make your way back outside the wire again, repeating part of your journey on your way to work.
Back past all the shops, through the traffic circles, past more children on their way to school, more men on their way to work or at work driving trucks full of materials or goods; you head to the headquarters and the work of the day with your Afghan counterparts.
Finally, you arrive at work. Entering the compound, the trucks park in a line and advisors and SECFOR alike begin to dismount; one always listening to the radio and staying alert. Body armor off, helmet and carbine in the truck, you grab a bottle of water to replace the sweat that now fills your blouse and body armor. Handheld radios are distributed so that you can stay in touch as you move about the large compound. A quick huddle; the time to report back to the trucks is put out.
When the work is done, the caravan of the morning will be repeated in reverse. But it will be hotter; well over100 degrees. It’s just what you have to do.
You match up with your interpreter and head towards your counterpart’s office. This is the real work, what you’ve gone through all the trouble to get here for.
The average day of the 5th Zone ABP Mentor Team (the SFAT, or Security Force Assistance Team) is comprised of making our way to the 5th Zone Headquarters, near Mazar-e Sharif (MeS), and working to make slow, incremental changes to the way that the staff there works. But sometimes we get to do some pretty cool missions that take us far afield. My post on the unsuccessful mission to Badakhshan was an example of what we call a “non-standard” mission. Non-standard missions are the most interesting, and the most fun. We don’t plan them because they are fun, though. They serve a purpose… but they just happen to be fun and interesting as well.
The mission to Khwahan, Badakhshan, had been planned for weeks and the purpose was two-fold. First, we were attempting to have a KLE (Key Leader Engagement) with the leadership of the 5th Zone ABP’s 6th Kandak (battalion). The second purpose, and most pressing to the men of the 6th Kandak, was to drop much-needed supplies to them. They had been out of rations for weeks. Khwahan is only accessible by road for a few months a year. Once snow begins falling on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, the village becomes practically cut-off from the outside world. Numerous attempts had been made to reach Khwahan by air; most had fizzled on the launch pad. One, the mission referenced above, made it almost all the way there. That mission died at the refueling stop at Faizabad, the capitol of Badakhshan Province. On March 21st, 2012, we attempted the mission again.
Marmal, the largest Coalition base in the RC North, sits a little southeast of MeS, and has a civilian air terminal as well as all the military fixed- and rotary-wing military air units that occupy the airfield. The 1st ACB (Air Cavalry Brigade) was headquartered at Marmal at the time and provided the rotary-wing lift capability for units in the RC North. Several times, air assets had been diverted to other missions, causing our mission to Khwahan to be rescheduled. These do not even count as attempts. By late March, the weather had started to change from the bitter cold, rain and snow in Balkh Province. But the elevation in Balkh is not nearly as high as in Badakhshan; this makes a real difference in the weather. Badakhshan was still in the throes of late winter, while Balkh, our launching point, was emerging into early spring. Simply, the weather where we left was not necessarily the weather at our destination.
Once again, tons of palleted supplies would be loaded on two Chinook helicopters and one Blackhawk in preparation for the long trip to Badakhshan in hopes of being deposited for use by the men of the 6th Kandak. Once again, members of the 5th Zone ABP SFAT would load up to secure the LZ and hopefully conduct a Key Leader Engagement with the leadership of the 5th Zone’s 6th Kandak. The morning air was still chilly as we drove around the end of the airfield and offloaded our gear, positioning near the aircraft. Each man wanted to be hydrated, but not too hydrated, as there are no “facilities” on a Chinook, and we had a long flight ahead of us. Gear was checked and re-checked. We joked in a relaxed state of anticipation, half-expecting the mission to be called off… again… at any moment. Finally, the call came; the mission was still a go.
Pessimistic jokes were made as we strapped on body armor, helmets and rucksacks to load up on the helicopters whose blades were beginning to turn already. The loud roar as we approached the aircraft became an incredibly loud, high-pitched whine as we neared the yawning tail ramp. We loaded in behind the pallets of supplies and took our seats near the ramp, spread on each side of the fuselage facing in. I shoved the earphones of my iPod into my ear canals and powered up the music as the aircraft vibrated under me. Alice in Chains filled my ears… heavy metal music just seems appropriate for a chopper ride to a destination high in the Hindu Kush that I’ve never been to before. The helicopter taxied forward, turned and rolled towards the taxiway near the main runway and lifted off the ground.
Chinooks always seem to hover forever before a mission actually launches. Lots of systems are checked by the aircrew as the bird hovers in position fifteen to twenty feet off the ground. We could look out the bubble-shaped windows and see the other Chinook hovering nearby, the same ritual being followed within. Finally, a push was felt and the scenery outside began to turn and fall away. We were climbing and turning. Another helicopter slid through our view out the back of the big helicopter as the ground receded and the sound of the rotor blades indicated they were chopping and grabbing big chunks of air.
We climbed to altitude as the temperature dropped. Each man made himself comfortable with whatever gear he had brought along for the purpose. I prefer the local desmah, often called a shemagh. I wrapped my head and face and settled in as Alice in Chains beat away at my ears, the whines and roar of the helicopter’s engines, blades and hydraulics muted in the background behind the music. The views are limited when you are facing inwards along the sides of an aircraft, and the tail ramp was raised for part of the mission. Still, what views we could steal from the aircraft of the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush were beautiful.
Trying to avoid too much fluids, each of us munched on such things as granola bars, power bars and beef sticks. The idea was not to fill up, but to make sure that the energy was there in case things got active. Having never actually seen our destination, we had no idea what to expect of the local security situation.
Again, we landed at Faizabad for refueling. Again there was the wait while the AWT (Air Weapons Team) performed route reconnaissance to determine if the weather would allow us safe passage. This time the word was, “Go.” We loaded up quickly and flew towards Khwahan. This leg was much shorter, and soon the Chinook began to descend and bank… a hint that we were nearing our objective. My specific job on this mission was to take a machine gun crew and secure a portion of the LZ (Landing Zone) while the choppers were on the ground. I scanned out the bubble windows and the now-open tail to orient myself to the LZ as we swooped around the village. The first bird went straight in, but our bird orbited for a few minutes before making the approach.
The Chinook flared, the view out the back ramp limited to the rotor wash-beaten ground. The aircraft began to level as the rear landing gear made contact, the nose pivoting gently down until the aircraft settled and sat on its gear. The tail ramp lowered until it made contact with the ground and out we went. Oriented, I led the machine gun crew with the M-240B machine gun towards my chosen spot. ABP soldiers of the 6th Kandak were already forming a perimeter, and after finding the gun crew a spot with good visibility and slight cover, I touched base with the ABP in Dari. Their smiles at hearing me speak to them in their own language brightened the businesslike mood of the moment. The roar of the choppers was not nearly so loud from there.
The valley was stunningly beautiful. Snow-clad mountains ringed our view, the river that ran through the valley the actual border with Tajikistan. The fields looked manicured, the teeth of sheep and goats trimming the vegetation, no doubt. The village lay nestled at the foot of a mountain, a mud parapet aside the LZ still carried an ancient ZPU-23 anti-aircraft gun next the hulk of a BTR-60; testaments to an earlier conflict, a reminder that history has neither stopped nor forgotten Khwahan.
While maintaining observation I glanced back to where the pallets of supplies were being offloaded. The helicopters raised their noses off the ground and rolled a few yards forward as the pallets slid out the back and flopped onto the ground. Efficient. We remained in place for only ten or fifteen minutes before the call came over the radio to pick up the gun and make our way back to the Chinooks. We loaded up as villagers gathered at the end of the LZ for the biggest circus they had seen all year, watching as the two big Chinooks and the Blackhawk lifted off and we made our way homeward.
For the flight home we had more people on our chopper. The Blackhawk was going to land at Kunduz to that COL Mollosser and the SGM (Sergeant Major) could stay overnight there and link up with our mobile team. They would return the next day to Marmal. The flight back to Marmal seemed to go quickly. We landed to the view of the setting sun and taxied to where the big Chinooks would once again rest silent. We gathered our gear, filed off and set about returning to our camp to break down our loads, clean our weapons and equipment and prepare for another, much more mundane, day of normal operations.
Each deployment is a marathon, and this is my third in five years. I recognize the cycle. We were even briefed on it. Each deployment has its phases, and there is a phase of irritability, restlessness and discontent. That has been the past month or so. It makes it hard to write, because although there are stories of missions to tell, it’s hard to tell them in a voice that does not drip of that same restlessness and discontent. Especially when changes to our force protection posture means that we can get even less done. I can’t talk specifics about that at this time because of OPSEC (Operational Security), but our capabilities have changed, and not to make our work easier.
One thing I noticed during our abysmal train-up at Camp Shelby was that a briefing had been added that described these phases. I recognized them, and the cycle that they are a part of. Of course, it was just another briefing, and for those who had not done this before, it was in one ear and pretty much out the other. It didn’t ring a bell in their consciousness. There were no recognizable features. I can remind others that they had such a briefing, but they don’t remember it without prompting and the information was not retained. Perhaps the briefing is useful; perhaps it is not. It describes something that only those who have gone through it can comprehend.
The months of April and part of May were part of that cycle.
We still conducted missions. We still did our best to do what we need to with the Afghans. But we did it under that cloud of restlessness, irritability and discontentment. I have found it difficult to write, and have at times chosen not to write because I did not want the darkness of this time to fill the pages of my blog, to taint the experience of those who would wish to feel along with it through reading. And, sometimes, the motivation was just not there; “writer’s block” is real. When you aren’t sure what to say, it’s hard. When you know that what you have to say is dark and unhelpful, it’s hard. When you’re trying to fight through a weight on you and your team, it’s hard. Each of my previous deployments have had that time. I know that having leave helps. We did not have leave on this deployment. We will not. So there is no break for each individual to hit the reset button, to reconnect with their personal world in a physical sense.
Email, Facebook and Twitter are not the same.
Keeping the darkness from reaching back to the ones you care about is a concern. Soldiers have put a happy face on their experiences… not all have, but many do… for centuries. We don’t want to whine. We don’t want to cause undue worry; because there isn’t anything that anyone back there can do to break that part of the cycle.
The great thing about cycles is that they change, and the phases end. Given time, they will come around again. A very long deployment, like my second one (15 months), can bring that cycle around again. People get “crispy.” A little over-cooked. But it does evolve. Sometimes it’s an event. Sometimes it just fades into something else. It’s like any phase in anyone’s life… and we all have them… but this is a consistent thing in my experience, and it’s not just certain individuals. It’s practically a team experience, and it damages the dynamics of the team in the short term and changes them in the long term.
There are symptoms; I’ve already described the restlessness, irritability and discontent. There are other symptoms. Many military leaders call it, “complacency,” but I have learned that it is a loss of focus. This is a dangerous time, because little things that never slipped through the cracks begin to slip through. The leadership will express frustration, sometimes even threaten to “tighten things up,” or whatever. Those things are not cures. In fact, they only heighten the crispiness and further strain the soldiers. Yet senior leaders know that it is their responsibility to refocus the team and they do what they know; but it is often counter-productive.
Most leaders cannot break or alleviate the cycle; but they can prolong it. We’ve seen some of that.
This is one of the times during the lifecycle of a deployment when the senior leadership puts a particular emphasis on personal protective gear. Body armor. Gloves. Ballistic eye protection. The groin protector (pee pee flap) on the body armor that is often ditched early on as being a waste of uncomfortable time. (It is not there to protect the genitals as much as the inferior vena cava and organs of the lower abdomen, is useless for protecting against anything that blows upwards from underneath… and it won’t stop a bullet, only fragmentation) Risk-aversion reaches new heights and our chain, spurred by the loss of three soldiers, determined never to lose another… although each of the dead was meticulously protected by their body armor from all threats… except death. Mission comes after such concerns as force protection… something that David Galula described as a sure way to fail in counterinsurgency. Audacity of action is quelled and even punished.
We have come to fear our counterparts. ”We” means the Coalition. The larger group. My little team does not fear the Afghan Border Police and feels handcuffed by the fear of the higher echelon. But the rules that come down from on high make it ever more difficult to demonstrate trust and a spirit of respect and cooperation. A man is not allowed to take reasonable risks, to balance his own safety with the ability to get real work accomplished based on his evaluation of the situation at hand and the needs of his mission. If he does he will be squashed like a bug by those who cannot stomach answering for why a man died or was injured in the name of that mission. Protecting ourselves has become the mission in the minds of those who can restrict us or punish us. These are the symptoms of the mid-tour doldrums, the darkness that creeps in to kill initiative, focus, teamwork and the sense of purpose that is all too important and that our unit (brigade) has in such short supply.
Every tour has a point, or points, at which morale takes a dip. There is a natural cycle, as natural as the stages of grief, that takes place over the duration of a deployment. They normally pass naturally as well. But these cycles can be stimulated by and exacerbated by the emphasis that senior leaders place on certain things. Confusion as to the purpose of our being separated from our families is one of those things, and being told that your job is simply to stay alive and unhurt is not a purpose.
These are things that affect the minds and spirits of those deployed. The marathon of a deployment… though this one is the shortest of my three… has its cycles and this one certainly has.]]>
This is Jon Stiles‘ fourth Memorial Day. I’ve already told how I feel about Jon’s passing… being taken from us on November 13, 2008. Many of us know someone who has offered their all and have paid that price in the name of our Republic and what it stands for. Jon is, to me, the embodiment of that level of sacrifice. Many use Memorial Day to honor all those who serve and served, but it is not my day, nor is it likely to be. Even when I shuffle off this mortal coil, this will not be my day. I survived. Jon wagered his life in the service of our country, and his price was accepted, taken, the accounts adjusted to add one more to the roll of those to whom this day belongs. His life and all the days he may have lived otherwise were added to the price tag of our nation.
How much is just one of your days on this earth worth? How many did he lose? We shall never know, but if just one day is worth any effort to you, I can say with some certainty that had his life not been torn from him, Jon had many more in store. He was a vibrant man, full of life. He did not go as a lamb to slaughter but as a man who faced into the hurricane and stood firm against its force knowing full well what he could face, the power of it, and that he could have chosen to sit by idly. He was just one in a sea of such lives, of days given over to a purpose greater than one’s self. There have been hundreds of thousands of others in our nation’s history. But when I think of such sacrifice, I think of Jon.
He was my friend. He was the most awesome husband to his wife that I have ever met. He was not just a good guy; he was a model. He lived principles. He had built, with his own hands, much to live for. He wasn’t full of potential, he was full of achievement, courage, virtue and love. He was a hell of a man.
It has been said that the loss of one life is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. Jon is my anti-statistic. He is the shock, the sadness, the tragedy, and the elevation of what the rest of us do through the price paid for it. The days he will not live, and has not lived, add responsibility to the rest of us… to me… to do something just a little better, to care about what I’m doing here a little more. What I am doing here is not cheap, though I will not have that price torn from me. No, I will go home and see my kids. I will go home and live on. Jon went home to rest in our soil and left his price on the table here. There have been many others who have lost their lives here. The 37th Brigade has added three more to that total. Our FOBs and camps are named for a few of those who served and gave here. There are many others who have paid the ultimate price who shall not be honored with the naming of a FOB or camp or any such accommodation.
Memorial Day is about so much more than the dead of this war. It is about the legion of Americans who have gone before, who now rest in cemeteries in the United States… not all are in Arlington… in Europe, in the Pacific, in Korea and Vietnam. It is not for the veterans passed, but for those who gave the last full measure in combat, whose lives were not given but taken by enemies of the United States. They stood between those enemies and their children, their mothers and fathers, their grandparents, their neighbors and friends and all who could not or would not go to stand as a human shield in the path of the flood of history. They changed the path of that flood, and for those whose conflicts are resolved, they changed that path for the better.
J0n also stood in the path of this flood and was swept into history with it. What remains to be seen is if we have the courage to see through what his blood has purchased; that we do not sell his life cheaply. He paid the price, but ultimately we determine the value of that purchase.]]>
It had been a brutal winter in Badakhshan. One of the hardest winters in years had descended upon northern Afghanistan, and the farthest northeastern province had taken the worst of it. Rugged and mountainous, the snowfall had lain heavy upon the slopes and closed off the passes. Some valleys, accessible only by foot or by donkey, had run dangerously on supplies; especially the Afghan Border Police. Several outposts were in dire need of airlifted supplies. With Afghan airlift capacity, their wait would be long indeed. COL Mollosser agreed with the 5th Zone commander, a brigadier general, to try to provide some needed sustenance to one of the hardest hit outposts. He got buy-in from the American general who controls air assets in the RC North. Thus began a saga that would span weeks.
Four previous attempts had been shut down by bad weather. Members of the team, interpreters and a few Afghan officers had gathered at the helicopter ramp on four separate occasions, cargo loaded on the Chinook helicopters, only to be told that the capricious March weather over Badakhshan was too bad to reach the target. In the meantime, avalanches occurred which only heightened the need for the supplies. The fifth time, we hoped, would be the charm.
It was bright and sunny at Marmal, but Badakhshan is far from Balkh Province. The weather here hadn’t stopped most missions; it was the visibility in Badakhshan. The weather at Marmal was so nice that energy was high as, tons of cargo loaded and our personal equipment positioned near the aircraft, we waited for word.
Finally, word came; it was a go. We quickly loaded on the Chinooks and Blackhawk. The auxiliary power unit (APU) on the Chinook I boarded, a small gas turbine, filled the aircraft with a constant high frequency drone that forced us all to don earplugs. The aircrew ran through their checks and finally the starter motors for the main engines began to spool up the turbines. A high-pitched whine climbed higher and higher until it peaked and settled into a constant loud whistling roar. The gearboxes were engaged and the two massive rotors began to turn. The aircraft wobbled gently at first as the centrifugal force of the slowly turning blades pulled on it, finally turning fast enough to balance the forces.
My earplugs were the ear canal-fitting earbuds of my iPod earphones. ”Don’t Tread on Me” by Alice in Chains filled my ears as the pilot pulled pitch, the engine noise and “whop whop whop” of the rotors grabbing air faintly noticeable in the background. It was the perfect music for the event.
Lifting off, the Chinook hovered out of its parking spot and turned towards the main runway. Our best view of the world around us was out the back of the massive chopper, over the ramp that was positioned level with the floor of the bird. Buildings and parked aircraft slid across our view as we “taxied” out to the launch position. We hovered twenty feet off the ground as another helicopter slid into view behind us, also holding a hover. It was the Blackhawk, floating behind us as if suspended by a thread, bobbing slightly a few feet up and down as we did the same.
After what seemed an eternity of hovering, we moved forward and began to climb. The runway and finally the whole airfield appeared in our view out the back of the aircraft as we climbed away and to the east. We were finally on our way. It was over an hour to our first refueling stop.
I had a machine gun crew with me. For this mission, my job was securing part of the LZ. We would move out and away from the aircraft and assume a position to defend the Landing Zone against anyone who took it upon themselves to threaten the aircraft or the operation. We were not expecting any problems, but we can’t just go out and lollygag around without being prepared for whatever may occur. SFC Brewster also had a small team on board, responsible for a different part of the “clock.” We divide responsibility for 360 degree security into a clock. I was to position my team at about 7 o’clock… 12 being the direction the nose of the aircraft were pointed… and Brewster had 5.
The others on the aircraft busied themselves with a number of things. No one went to sleep. Several of the guys pulled breakfast bars out of their kit and began munching. A couple of energy drinks came out and were quickly downed by the soldiers. Most didn’t want to drink too much because of the lack of “facilities” aboard the chopper. A full bladder on a long helicopter flight can be a challenge that only a Gatorade bottle and a bold spirit can resolve.
Long helicopter flights are boring. Once the excitement of departure wears off, there is really nothing to do but sit. Many people fall asleep. There is not always anything to look at, since the ramp door is not always open. It is always windy, loud and the ship vibrates. The sound changes, and when the helicopter hits turbulence, as sometimes happens especially at mountain ridgelines and passes, the ship pitches and rolls and the “whop” sound of the blades becomes pronounced. Sleepers will stir when this happens, and those who do not like to fly become agitated and visibly nervous.
Time becomes distorted, and other than quick glances out the bubble windows located behind some of the center-facing seats, there may be little awareness of the world around the helicopter. The music helped, and I bounced in my seat to the rhythm, happy to be airborne. I love to fly. The flight crew noticed my upbeat attitude and the door gunner looked back curiously for a moment to watch me enjoy the flight. I didn’t care.
The aircraft began to descend and maneuver, and it was clear that we were approaching somewhere that we intended to land. The landscape was fairly flat, with mountain ridges to the south and east. Kunduz. We circled and finally landed to refuel. Everyone must get off the chopper when it refuels. We all took our weapons, leaving our packs on the bird, and filed out the rear of the helicopter as the massive blades swung rapidly overhead. Everyone’s first need was to relieve their bladders, and once that was done we watched and waited as the fuel lines fed fuel to the heavily laden choppers. The whole process took perhaps ten minutes, and then we loaded back up and the bird moved to a pad to wait while one of the other birds finished refueling. The process completed, we took off again, a rotating view of Kunduz spilling into the rear of the open fuselage. We climbed towards the east.
Open plain gave way to steep ridges of bare rock. Some of the formations were truly impressive, massive folds of stone shoved into the sky by tter force of colliding tectonic plates. The Hindu Kush is still growing, still young as mountain ranges go. Snow had swept across the mountain faces, clinging where it gained purchase and throwing the nuances of the rock into sharp relief.
The crewman in the back of the Chinook would periodically lower the ramp until it was level with the floor if the aircraft, providing a better view if the changing landscape. He would often sit with his legs dangling above the tableau being reeled under the aircraft by the massive rotors spinning in counter-rotation above us.
The choppers beat across the sky, chasing the spaces that were absent of rock, winding through riverine passes while the sharp stone walls wound past. Villages could be seen wedged between the river and the steep slopes of the narrow valleys. Living communities, tucked away in the nooks of the living rock.
Popping ears and changes in perspective gave signs of an impending landing. The helicopter began to make a series of turns, banking so the landscape trailing away behind the bird slides and tilts in the aperture at rear of the fuselage. A large town… a small city… began to wind out behind the aircraft, tilting and sliding as we maneuvered towards the German Provincial Reconstruction Team.
The massive Chinook reared, nose high, rotor blades clawing and slapping the air. Our view out the back contained no sky, only the ground, and it drew closer. The big bird slowed, began to level, and settled towards earth. With a slight bump, the Chinook mushed into its landing gear and the straining against the gravity ceased. The aircraft seemed to sigh.
We filed off the lowered ramp, making our way to a small Hesco enclosure that contains a porta-john. We stayed clustered near this enclosure as German fuel trucks roll up to fuel the birds. This was Faizabad, capitol of Badakhshan.
After fueling we reboarded the aircraft which lifted and hovered to an area away from the fueling pads, settling to earth outside the walls of the PRT compound. The engines shut down. We needed going to wait while a pair of Apaches flew to our objective and checked visibility.
A German vehicle a small Mercedes SUV, stopped near the nose of the bird where COL Mollosser sat on the lowered ramp at the rear of the aircraft. Two Germans dismounted, looking around for someone to talk to.
“Colonel,” I called, “someone’s here to see you.”
“I’m a Colonel,” he called back, “I’m used to people coming to me, not the other way around.”
The German Major stepped to the rear if the Chinook where Colonel Mollosser greeted him much more warmly than his previous statement would have led one to believe. After what appeared to be a pleasant chat, the Germans departed, only to reappear a few minutes later.
Several pans were placed on the hood of the vehicle and we were treated to cannelloni and a type of German meat balls.
Finally, word came back; let’s go.
Again the ritual of takeoff was performed and we climbed away into the mountain passes. This was to be a short flight compared to the flights to this point. Mountains framed our aircraft more tightly than before. Dramatic stone faces slid past, striations showing the tremendous forces rearranging the planet’s surface in super slow motion.
The crew chief sat on the pallet covered in bags of flour. He spoke into his microphone then leaned in towards SFC Brewster, shouting to be heard over the constant roar. Brewster shook his head. Turning towards me he shouted to be heard over the same howling noise.
“We’re turning around! We’re going back!”
“No way!” This must be a joke. We were nearly there.
“Yep, that’s what he said!”
The helicopters began to bank, turning around in a narrow valley. The Apaches, flying ahead, didn’t like the visibility. We were indeed turning back.
You could feel the team deflate like the tire in an old cartoon.
The trip now went into reverse. Back to Faizabad, refuel and then head westward. Again the rolling tableau wound out behind like a broad roll of painted paper. The other choppers hung in the sky, swinging left and right, in and out if the aperture view through the rear of the Chinook.
We didn’t stop at Kunduz. The trip back was quicker, but the noisy isolation of the Chinook overcame the waning enthusiasm in each soul and drove every soldier into his own thoughts. Some slept, most sat quietly in the windy noise, alone in the midst of the group.
Landing at Marmal was completely anticlimactic. Accomplishing this mission would have to wait for another day. The next day, we were back at work out at the Zone HQ.
This is the post that I’ve been dreading, but I knew it would come. For the first time since WW-II, Ohio’s 37th (then a division, now a Brigade Combat Team that includes many soldiers from Michigan) has lost lives in combat. The day before yesterday, out in Maimana, an insurgent wearing a suicide vest approached a group of Afghan Police and their mentors and detonated his vest. The indiscriminate violence of that act took many lives. Among the dead were two Americans; SFC Hannon and SFC Rieck. A third, CPT Rozanski, died of his wounds within hours. Five other soldiers were wounded, most of them severely. Two are still fighting for their lives.
All three of our honored dead leave families behind. Children, wives, parents and siblings. Each of our wounded has a life. All have a story. Every single one of them was born into loving arms and was, in that moment, the most loved being in the world. Each was born into hopes and dreams, and none of those hopes and dreams involved being blown up by a madman with explosives strapped to his body. Each one is or was a volunteer; they raised their hands. Some had to compete to get on this particular mission. Each took those hopes and dreams and the love of many hearts with him every day he left the wire. These men did not willingly give their lives, but willingly risked them. They placed their health and their lives as a wager on the altar of freedom not as lambs to slaughter but as the sheepdogs who defend the lambs from the wolves. Theirs was no unwitting nor willing sacrifice. Not given, but offered with a challenge; come and take this if you can.
The insurgent commander who sent the madman to do this deed did not strap himself with explosives but sent instead a minion who was not likely in possession of a strong mind. Instead of standing in open combat, he stole those wagered lives in a way that protected himself at the expense of another… or so he thinks. We will kill him for it, for this will not stand without repayment. Like a pit bull who has finally bitten someone, there is no reconciliation. For him there is no more opportunity to lay down his arms and rejoin the society he seeks to seize control of. No. He has earned his fate. He will not likely die in open combat, but terrified by a sudden rush of sound and fury in the night. There is no saving him.
As the old Irish curse says, “May he die screaming.”
The news stories about the event are disturbing. Some stories reported that they were acting like a bunch of battlefield tourists, strolling in the park and taking pictures. Some depicted the soldiers as having opened fire indiscriminately in the aftermath of the attack, killing children in the process. One such story appeared in Stars and Stripes, of all places, who apparently cut and pasted their story directly from al Jazeera. None of them are true. Not one American fired a shot following the blast. They were performing a mission, not wandering around like a bunch of carefree war tourists.
Newspapers in the US and the UK published photos of the grim aftermath, violating the dignity of the dead and dying. For that, I am eternally angry. The editors of any publication that did so had best never meet me and be identified as being responsible for the publication of such war porn. It would not go well for them. Just because they could didn’t mean that they should.
The team that was hit was an SFAT (Security Force Assistance Team) like the one I am a part of. It’s actually part of the group of small teams that I belong to. This team worked with the Provincial headquarters, mentoring the Provincial Police Chief and his staff. The Afghan Public Affairs Officer, or “PAO” as they are known in military parlance, was doing a mission that included a visit to a radio station and then distributing radios to college students. Some local residents were interviewed as well. The PAO from the 1-148 Infantry, the unit supporting the SFAT in the area, was there to work with the Afghan PAO. The Afghan Police element was detailed to provide security for the operation.
Some PAO’s sit the war out almost exclusively within the walls of a compound, but CPT Rozanski didn’t. Not this day. He went out to support the Afghans and partner with them.
Some reports say that the locals had warned them about “wandering around the town.” They did not.
These men were doing a mission. They were supporting the Afghan Police in their mission, and that means going with your Afghans and doing what they do. That means that sometimes, insurgents will try to kill you. They want to frighten the Coalition into staying on the FOB. These men knew that lives can be changed or ended instantly here. They were out there, doing their jobs, and the worst happened.
In Afghanistan, almost anything can happen on any given day; it just usually doesn’t. Sometimes, however, it does. This is an example.
Before the smoke cleared, men with cameras… perhaps covering the events for local media, perhaps documenting the strike for the insurgents… descended upon the dead, dying and wounded and began snapping pictures. One of the wounded recalls wanting the shoot the vultures, but being unable to. The resulting pictures of dead and wounded Americans are all over the internet. Many newspapers published them and earned my undying emnity. If you haven’t seen them, do yourself a favor and don’t.
There is no dignity at the moment of death. There is no dignity in agony. The dignity comes from the purpose in their hearts, the reason that they subjected themselves to the risk of such incredibly lethal, destructive violence. Those pictures do not show that dignity. Without the context of the honor of their hearts, which cannot be captured in a photograph, the only thing captured is the inhuman lack of dignity in that moment. A photograph may appear to be coldly objective, but it lacks this greatest of contexts and is therefore highly subjective. To view these men in that vacuum is to fail to grasp the reality of that captured moment, and to view only the absence of dignity; which is to objectify the dead.
Objectifying human beings, especially their deaths, is not good for the human soul. It is the natural state of the sociopath, and bringing even a bit of that into your own soul depletes you. Now, some will not be able to help themselves, but I’m telling you that it never feels good after having seen the result of extreme violence in that moment where the context of the man is missing, where the viewing of a human being as an object is unavoidable. Those men do not deserve to be gazed at in their agony. They do not deserve to be gawked at where they were tossed by the horrific violence of that last moment. When the dignity of their spirit cannot be conveyed, when they become horrific objects to the human eye. I can’t stop you, but I can ask; please don’t. For you, for them, please.
When men have had their lives taken, there are honors to be rendered by those who have the sure and certain knowledge that these men did possess that dignity. It doesn’t make the horror go away, it doesn’t make it all better. It is grim, but it is demonstrating the utmost of respect. It is the external echo of our internal loss and our true belief in the dignity of the sacrifice made, the purpose in their souls. It is grief, respectfully shown. It is the time when strong men and women shed tears of loss.
The first is the “ramp ceremony.” The streets of Marmal were lined with members from every nation represented on this base, and there are quite a few. Led by the Germans, every one of our partner nations lined up to show respect, to symbolically defend the remains of now defenseless men on their final journey. To salute as they passed. Any ill to be spoken of any of these nations was, in that moment, moot. They were our brothers and sisters, and it breaks my heart with its power.
Our partners created a wall here at Marmal where plaques are affixed, each bearing the name and date of every soldier lost in the RC North from every nationality since the beginning of the war. At a ceremony yesterday, three men had their names enshrined, plaques unveiled to show their names in a way that keeps their names alive here, so that we can remember and that those who follow may say their names if only in their own minds as they read them. “Lest we forget.”
The German hospital at Marmal, for the second time, strove heroically to save the lives of 37th Brigade soldiers. None have died after reaching the care of the Germans. I cannot express my thanks enough for their professionalism and caring. They have been magnificent.
I would also like to laud Soldiers’ Angels for the loving care and respect they give our wounded as soon as they arrive in Germany. They provide an informal connection, reaching back to us and forward to the families with non-medical communication. They never violate ethics. They will actually hold the hands of our wounded while the medical staff is working hard to save lives. Soldiers’ Angels care for the heart, freeing the busy doctors and nurses to care for the body in the sure knowledge that no soldier will go unloved. And nobody does it better. They are wonderful, awesome people who do things as volunteers that I could not keep my sanity through. They spend time with people who are having the worst, scariest days of their lives and bring a smile, a blanket, news from home, a message from their brothers, or a warm hand to hold.
This is likely not the last of the casualties for our brigade. This is just the beginning of the fighting season. Not all days are grim. Most aren’t, in fact. The exposure level varies due to the jobs that people are assigned to do, as it has always been. Some have jobs that take them out, some have jobs that keep them inside the wire. Some have choices and exercise them as their hearts and minds lead them. Some strive to go out and are not permitted due to their assignments. Some are nearly always exposed.
Most are willing to place their wager on that table and dare anyone to try and take it from them. Some will have their wager taken, because that is the nature of war.
On any given day in Afghanistan…
*****UPDATE AS OF 22:50 LOCAL TIME*****
Seven insurgents who were affiliated with the suicide attack in Maimana have been killed and two others arrested in the past 24 hours. The release of that information was cleared through our S-2.]]>
As mentors, we go where our counterparts go and we do their missions with them. Sometimes we are teaching, sometimes we are recommending, and sometimes we are being supportive. We are also sharing their experiences and taking in their world. You can’t really advise and mentor very well when you don’t understand the world of the man whom you are trying to help develop as a professional. The mission to the checkpoint was one of those missions. I took along others on that mission, partly for communications, partly for security, and partly because if I didn’t, the mission would have been stopped.
Another such mission was our mission recently to the Aquina Border Crossing Point (BCP). Aquina is out west in Faryab Province, on the border with Uzbekistan. It’s about 160 miles from Marmal. The ABP Zone Commander, a General and the mentee of COL Mollosser, needed to go to Aquina for a cross-border meeting. He planned on making the journey by wheel, and it was decided to support that mission. This was decided, in part, because the Colonel goes where the General goes and does what he does. Another reason was to keep the General safer with our armor and firepower. Faryab has a significant Taliban presence which has increased over the past few years.
There is a Taliban commander in that area who has a Dishka, a 12.7mm (.50 caliber) Russian-made machine gun that is quite capable of penetrating the MRAP. It’s a big honkin’ gun that shoots big honkin’ bullets a half inch thick. Khoob neys (not good).
The mission planning was very detailed, as could be expected for a 320 mile round trip to be done using MRAPs in one day. A stop by the Zone’s 2nd Kandak was built into the plan, since we would be right around the corner from them at the BCP. We needed to take as many trucks as possible, and since we would be so far from support, all kinds of contingency plans had to be made. Communications, MEDEVAC and recovery of a stuck or broken down vehicle had to be planned for, with each part of the mission having a different plan based on the availability and distance of resources. And in those contingencies, we would perhaps have to depend on others. For instance, the day we got the MRAP stuck in that precarious near-rollover position, it took five hours for the maintenance crew to arrive on site from about 15km away. What if we needed recovery assets over 50 miles away? What if we needed recovery assets from 0ver 100 miles away?
Never mind what happens if they arrive at an average speed of 3km/hr.
We SP’d (Start Point… this is when you begin a mission) from Marmal at 0330, picked up a few additional personnel, often called, “pax,” at Spann and headed west on the Ring Road. At first, very few people were out, and we had to be vigilant for darkly-clad bicyclists in the dark. In a world where a bike is a common form of transportation, there were those who were making their way to or from work in the wee small hours of the morning. As time passed, more pedestrians, bicycles, animals and finally cars and buses began to share the road.
As we moved into open country, donkeys loaded with brush would appear in the darkness, headed into town and accompanied by fathers accompanied by sons who looked as young as perhaps 8 to 10 years old. Their shapes would loom out of the darkness, where the gunner or myself would note them verbally, in the case the driver, PFC Rogers again, could not or did not see them. Occasionally a pedestrian, cyclist, donkey cart or tricycle cart would materialize in front of us, headed in the same direction as ourselves. The prospect of sudden disaster hung over this phase of the mission.
The sun began to rise behind us, and the landscape looked much like northern Ohio; nearly flat, rolling farmland with dwellings and villages scattered across it. We drove westward for hours and passed through the city of Sherberghan, where there were many friendly waves from what appeared to be a largely Uzbek or Hazara population. We drove further west, and the land to the south of the ring road began to look like desert. This was noted by the gunner.
“Hey, that looks kinda like desert.”
The wind had picked up, and windblown sand began to dance on the road in rhythmic sets of waves in the same manner as light snow will dance on the roads in Ohio in the winter. Another observation came from the gunner.
“The sand on the road looks like snakes.”
“Two things,” I told him over the intercom, “and the first one is to stop eating the mushrooms.”
I never got to the second thing because of the laughter.
As we neared the the city of Ankhoy, the wind was picking up and visibility was beginning to get limited. We headed north towards the BCP and after what seemed an eternity arrived at Aquina. A sandstorm was holding spirited sway over the BCP, and a fine coating of dust was starting to accumulate over everything in the vehicle. I put on a pair of my WileyX glasses with the foam seals around the frames, wrapped my head in a shemagh (or desmaah), the colorful scarf that it ubiquitous in Afghanistan, and stepped out.
I was immediately pelted by fine sand. I have been in a number of sandstorms from Helmand to the Mojave, and each has its own quality. While the sandstorm in the Mojave was like getting sandblasted, this one was like high pressure hosed with moon dust. It permeated, and did so quickly. My covering did a fair job of keeping the sand out of my mouth and nose, but I could still smell the rock dust that it was. I could feel the grit in my teeth, and the seals around the Wileys, which have never failed my, permitted tiny amounts of the finely ground stone into the space around my eyes.
An Afghan approached as I stood talking to SFC Louong, a Cambodian-American NCO who I had the privilege of working with on my first tour. He had taught himself Dari so well that he actually passed the linguist test. Someday, perhaps, I will tell his story. The hard part will be figuring out who will play him in the movie they should make about him. The Afghan approached and asked me a question which Louong interpreted. They had apparently brought up working dogs only a couple of days before.
(Via Luoung) “Will the sand hurt the dogs?” he asked.
“Not as long as they have some cover,” I told him, “where are they?”
“In that building.”
“They will be fine. How often do you have these storms?”
“I have only been here for three days, so… always,” the Afghan concluded.
SFC Luong went about his business, and after answering the call of nature (not the most comfortable thing to do in a sandstorm), I found no reason to remain outside and got back into the TC seat. On the tiny ledge of the screen of the commander’s display, a quarter inch of moon dust had accumulated like a tiny snow drift. Everything was coated in a layer of tan moon dust. The dust was literally getting in through the door seals and, of course, through the open turret. Still, it was amazing how much of the stuff was getting into every single space on the vehicle. Eyes and nose were full of fine dust. Nothing was untouched.
Outside, it had gotten worse. Visibility was terrible, and vehicles only a few meters away were viewed as through a heavy snow. The pictures look like fog, but that is in fact flying sand. It’s actually more like flying sand dust.
The foreign contingent came and went inside. We waited. I dismounted and remounted several times, each time dealing with a painful process of clearing the sand from my eyes. I started to get questions.
“Are they staying for lunch?”
“I don’t know. I would assume so,” I offered.
“Crap. I’m already tired of this sandstorm. It’s not fun anymore. Let’s go!”
There was nothing I could do but sit there in the relentless wind tunnel of dust; just like them. It gave the world a sense of unreality. The world became very small, dimly lit and uncomfortable. I was in and out of the vehicle a number of times, usually for a good period of time, after which I would have to spend painful minutes getting the incredibly fine sand that had made it past the desmah (shemagh, the ubiquitous bandana-like piece of cloth worn by nearly all male Afghans) and the seals of my normally very trusty WileyX’s out of my eyes.
One NCO who had nothing more protective than his wraparound sunglasses had so much sand in his eyes by the end of the day that it actually hurt to look at his eyes.
When lunch was served, an Afghan soldier came out to our vehicle with a platter of food literally wrapped in a small blanket, which kept the sand out quite well. There was rice, nan, beef , chicken and riverfish*. We ate a little and let everyone know that there was Afghan food available. Normally, our soldiers will flock to eat Afghan food, but on this occasion, most of the food remained uneaten.
The Afghans warned us that the Taliban with the Dishka were talking about us. I assume they were monitoring ICOM chatter. They told us that the eager ones wanted desperately to fight, but the leadership was less enthused due to the storm.
Time marched on through the relentless penetrating sand. After what seemed like six hours, it was finally time to move. We moved at a snail’s pace for miles through sand that at times totally obscured the vehicle just in front of us. Several times, we lost sight of the lead truck completely. We guided on the road by being able to see the ditch just beside the vehicle. It took over two hours to go just a few miles, and every moment of it was interesting.
The blanket of sand wrapped us in a shroud that kept us from the view of the Taliban and their powerful Dishka. The young ones, the ones with no combat and a desire to see the elephant, were disappointed. Having seen what the words, “torn asunder,” actually mean, I can say that these young’ins could live the rest of their lives without seeing that elephant, and the only thing that will be the worse for it is their pride. I told them that someone in that convoy has a purpose in this world that it wasn’t time to end that day, and that’s why we were wrapped in a blanket and literally smuggled right past the angry Taliban.
As we neared Ankhoy, visibility picked up a bit and it just looked really foggy. The choking dust was still flying, but it was not nearly as dense. We proceeded to the headquarters of the ABP’s 2nd Kandak and dismounted to again be made miserable by the merciless dust. Imagine having the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag blown directly into your face through a fire extinguisher, and that’s close. Finally, it was time for the long return trip. We retraced our steps through the rest of the afternoon and into the approaching night.
By this time, my camera, which has been with me for 2.125 tours, had been destroyed by the sand. When the camera is powered on, the lens deploys and two shutters open exposing the lens. Not anymore. I have disassembled the camera and cleaned it as best I could. It will never work again. I’ve taken thousands of pictures and dozens of videos with that camera, but it is no longer and I shall miss it. For what it was, it did yeoman’s work.
I switched to using my Motorola Photon, which I have equipped with an Afghan SIM card, and used that to take pictures.
On the way to Aquina, there had been chatter inside the vehicle. Now there was little. The sandstorm had beaten us up pretty nicely, and combined with fatigue, it was much quieter in the vehicle. The stress of driving in the blinding sand was now replaced by the stress of driving fatigued in the darkness while sharing the roads with ever-creative Afghan drivers. Even the welcome sight of the outskirts of Mazaar-e Sharif did not buoy the spirits much. Everyone just wanted a shower and bed.
The Taliban were indeed frustrated about their failure to engage us. The next day apparently the weather broke a bit, and some men of the 2nd Kandak went on a water run to get drinking water from a nearby source. They were ambushed and one of them was killed. Many of us feel that they took out their frustration on the ABP.
The Aquina mission still stands as the marathon mission.
Mentoring can be a hoot. The incidents of the past few weeks, little helpful things done by my fellow Soldiers, have made life a bit more… interesting. I mean that in the Confucian sense. That being said, my mentee is a Hajji, having returned from the obligatory pilgrimage only a few months ago. He is a literate, committed Muslim. His viewpoint on the Quran burning was summed up with, “We have illiterate people in our society, too.” He assumed that such ignorance of Afghan values could only come from illiteracy. I didn’t burst his bubble.
Part of mentoring is going where your mentee goes. COL Shiripir* and I were having a conversation about going about his normal business while I am with him. I was beginning to feel like he felt that he had to treat me as a special guest and that this perception was keeping him from doing what he would like to do. I told him that my job is to go wherever he goes when I am able to be with him. The Colonel tested this statement immediately.
“Good. I am going on Saturday to check on the Tulai (company) I have out at the checkpoint as part of the operation,” he stated, observing me for my reaction.
“That sounds great. I’d love to go with you.”
I arranged for a medic, PV2 Hernandez**, and a JFO (Joint Fires Observer), SPC Simon***, to come with us, and offered my boss the opportunity to get out and about as well. I let the Colonel know about the force protection requirements that I had to meet in order to make the trip with him. He agreed to provide the requisite four trucks (Rangers). The medic is self-explanatory. The JFO was taken as much for his communications ability as for his specialty of calling for things that go boom. The medic can treat wounds, but we were going to be outside of radio range and he can use other means to get a bird in the air if we needed a MEDEVAC for any reason.
On Saturday we were told to hang tight in the parking lot and that the Rangers would be pulling up soon and would stage near us. I went over the procedures in case of emergency with those who were going out (turned out to be four Americans). Backbriefs (tell me what I just said) successfully done, we were ready to mount up when the ABP brought the trucks up.
LTC Grass and I hopped in COL Shiripir’s truck with our linguist, Walid****, while the two younger soldiers rode in the vehicle directly behind us. With little fanfare, we were on our way. Walid, the Afghan-born American interpreter, rode between the LTC and myself in the back seat of the Ranger, and it was a tight fit with the weapons and the unforgiving body armor. Quickly, we were on the main road (the Ring Road), headed towards the checkpoint.
We got a few surprised looks when someone noticed us in the Rangers, but to a great extent we were nearly invisible due to the fact that few people pay attention to such a common occurrence as an ABP truck rolling by. Being back at street level gave a different perspective.
Sometimes a new perspective can be a good thing.
We rolled out of the city and into open farm land. The farmers in Balkh Province do something I’ve not seen elsewhere, tenting rows with neat plastic mini-greenhouses to get an early start on some crops. I don’t know yet what’s under the tentage, but if I find out, I’ll let you know.
As we worked our way west into the next district, we got off of the main road and passed through villages on our way to the checkpoint. The Rangers easily handled the rutted dirt roads. We passed through brief moments of normal village life, getting the briefest of glimpses of people, places and interactions. We passed through a Hazara village, a Pashtun village and a village populated by what the locals call, “Arabs,” in succession. Seeing the subtle differences in dress was interesting.
As we neared our destination, the Colonel transmitted on the radio and one of the green ABP Rangers rushed forward, disappearing around a bend. He told us that he had sent a truck ahead to establish security. We nodded, thinking this was a good idea. Several minutes later, he told us that he had sent the truck with our two junior soldiers forward, apologizing for any inconvenience and saying that he hoped that this was not a problem.
It turned out well, but the two younger soldiers got a little concerned when they lost sight of us. They told us this later when we pulled up to the Khalat, formerly owned by a now-deceased Taliban commander, that the ABP was using as a patrol base.
As two of the trucks set up outside, our two trucks pulled into the gate of the compound and we dismounted. A small contingent of the Tulai (company) assembled into a formation and the contingent was presented to the Colonel by the Tulai commander with a salute and a formal greeting. The Colonel then spoke to the assembly and introduced me as his mentor and asked if I had anything to say.
I spoke briefly about how good it was see them, and how good it was to see that they all seemed to be in good form even in the spartan conditions. I then shook each of their hands. The formation was dismissed and we were ushered into the commander’s quarters for chai. The floors were covered in rugs, and there were traditional sleeping mats arranged around the perimeter of the small room. We were each bid to sit, and we dropped our body armor and weapons and sat down.
There were some introductions to be made, and we enjoyed some pleasant conversation for a while while we waited for the chai, which was extremely hot when it arrived. We were informed that we would be staying for lunch. The Lieutenant who commands the Tulai briefed us on his patrol plan and show
ed us the limited but effective graphics of the operation.
It took very little time to grasp the concept of what they were doing. These men were organized and conducting daily operations, not just squatting in a khalat. I captured their graphics with my camera so that we would be able to share them with the rest of the team back at Marmal.
After discussing the joint operations that were being conducted with other branches of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces), the Police and Army, it was time for lunch. A soldier came in with a pitcher of water and a large stainless steel bowl. I explained to my compatriots what was occurring, that it was time to wash our hands. Starting with Colonel Shiripir, the bowl was held under his hands and water was poured so that he could wash his hands. Each of us then washed our hands in similar fashion and we were treated to one of the best Afghan meals that I’ve ever had.
Afghans are extremely hospitable hosts, and will try their best to over-feed you. Being hospitable, once you start refusing more food they ask if it didn’t taste good. I told the commander that the food was so good that he must give his cook my compliments. He summoned the cook and had me thank him myself. I think that made his day. After a lunch of pillau, beef, the obligatory nan, tangerines and chai, there was more conversation and pictures.
Lunch completed, it was time for a walkabout to see the ABP and what they were doing. More pictures. We saw where the ANA who were part of the operation were staying. Finally, it was time to leave.
The drive back to Marmal was long, but we drove right through the center of Mazar-e Sharif and within sight of the famous Blue Mosque. The ABP drove us right to the gate of Marmal and dropped us off, where we parted with handshakes and hugs under the amazed gazes of the Germans and the Armenian gate guards. We strolled in, our mission complete, and enjoyed a feeling of satisfaction after a day spent with our Afghan counterparts. Overall, it was a bonding experience for us, and showed the Afghans that we trusted them and were not afraid to go where they go in the same conditions they travel in. We also gained insight into their operations and found that this particular Kandak is capable of conducting ongoing operations at the Tulai level and provide their own logistical support.
It was a good day.
* Not his real name.
** Also not his real name.
*** You know the drill.
**** Now I feel like I’m insulting your intelligence, but I gotta say it; not his real name. Sorry.]]>