Category - Life In the Army

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The Two Roads to Kabul
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Ow
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Life In Bagram
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The Next Thing

The Two Roads to Kabul

Originally written February 18, 2008

Sorry I have not written in a while. I have been traveling almost non-stop and this is my first chance to sit and write. This is a long one.

On 11 Feb, we took our first trip to Kabul. The first thing we did was assemble for our mission briefing before we left. It was light hearted but professional as we were briefed on the threat situation. Mainly safe with the greatest threat from an accident but the most dangerous being a car bomb. We discussed the actions if something were to happen and then we got ready to go.

It got very real, when we locked and loaded our weapons and started to roll out the gate. The first thing I noticed was that a short distance away we passed the ruined buildings from the Soviet invasion of 1979. The ruins were fenced off and there were mine signs prominently displayed. The Soviets mined lots of places here and never bothered to take them and, unlike our mines, they do not self-detonate after a time. So, there remains a huge demining effort here that will last for a long time.

The road we took was generally OK but there were huge pot-holes that caused us to slow way down and even cross to the other side in order to keep driving. This was normal so we saw everyone doing the same and you just had to be careful not to get into a head-on with anyone as we drove.

The second thing that I noticed was that there appeared to be walled compounds dotting the landscape. It turns out that whenever the Afghans buy property, the first thing is they build a wall to mark their property. They don’t build anything in it until they have enough money so some of these walled areas remain unoccupied for generations. Some appeared very old and most did not have anything in them. Sometimes there was a small mud dwelling but mostly empty.

We drove through the Shamale Valley that once was fertile and even a vacation spot. I could see it because of the very high mountains that surrounded the valley – it reminded me of the Alps in Germany. Sadly three decades of war have destroyed the valley. The Soviets destroyed the irrigation system, mined the area, and forced the Afghan people to go on the run. Now, it appears that very little grow, just bits of grass sticking out through the snow. An Afghan saying is that: Afghanistan is where God comes to cry. And I can see why they say that.

In the valley, the government has started a Pashtu resettlement village. It seems like a strange place to have a resettlement village because there is nothing around it. It was explained to me that this location was good because it was far enough away from the Dari population near Bagram to prevent any tribal fighting that still takes place. There is growing Afghan feelings of nationalism but there is still a strong sense of tribalism that exists as well as the concept of honorable revenge for slights and insults.

Along the road we also passed little piles of rocks with flags stuck into them. These are the martyr graves. It is unclear from which war. It could be the Soviet invasion, the Northern Alliance fight, or something else. The more prominent the martyr the fancier and the better care the grave was maintained. The common colors are: Green for faith or Islam, Red for sacrifice, White for purity, and Black for martyrdom.

Despite the vast expanses, the Afghans are not hesitant to walk or to work. They will walk for miles in freezing weather to try to get jobs. Even working for the coalition or Americans, despite the ongoing threats of death by the insurgents for working with the “infidels.” Like many, they are willing to risk their lives everyday in order to try to make enough to provide for their families. The love for their families drives them – it is inspiring. Almost everyone seems to be in horrible poverty. Many of the children are lucky to be in poor sandals while many are bare footed in the snow. Yet, they still play and give us a smile and a wave as we drive by.

Kabul is a city of contrast. I was told that it has a capacity for 1.4 million but over 4.3 million live there. Lured by the chance for jobs, many of the villagers come to the city. But there are not enough jobs. So you see this wide range from people riding in Toyota trucks and land cruisers (Toyota is by far the most common car here), right next to people pulling handcarts or riding horses or donkeys. People searching in garbage to survive along with guys selling cell phone cards tied together like colored ribbon. Small billboards with western dressed women advertising drinks right next to women in full length blue burkhas (many of the Afghan women wear blue; some criticize them for it because they are not pious enough. But the blue is pretty.).

Then there are the traffic circles. It is a wild ride. People all rushing in to a single convergence point, trying to force their way in, cars, wagons, people, all coming in and just as we are about to crash – someone gives just a little and you get in. Little bumps happen all the time and it is so common that people don’t even stop.

And after our visit, we took the trip back. It seemed faster the way back. I don’t know why – it just always does. That’s when they pointed out the Mosque that a suicide bomber came out and blew himself up 10 minutes after the team passed it a while ago. No one got hurt – except for the bomber.

The second time we went to Kabul we went a different way. Very different this time. We passed a lot more villages. The roads were generally better and the people more prosperous. A lot more buildings and a lot more trade. Signs of an irrigation system and plowed fields. People selling tires, drinks, meat hanging on hooks. There was even guys with little wok-style skillets and propane stoves prepared to cook something up for you. Afghan fast food. They sell this unleavened bread that looks like naan that is pretty good as well as tangerines. And wood and trees. This time as we went through Kabul you could see sections that had specific commodities, here was where you went to buy wood and wood stuff, here was the produce section, here was the meat section (including live chickens).

It kind of all reminded me of the pictures I saw of Korea right after the war. The devastation mixed in with signs of recovery. Hope among despair. Smiles from a dirty face.

From Kabul, we took a C-130J flown by the Italians and we landed in Kandahar, then Farah, before we arrived in Herat. Taking the “local” was not fun with all these stops. The interesting thing was that it was cold everywhere but Farah. There when the ramp dropped down, we felt a blast of heat and it looked like a desert with the guys in short sleeves. Then we took off again and arrived in Herat – where it was cold again. Strange.

Herat is smaller than Kabul but the roads seemed better. There were also a lot more motor cycles and scooters as well as Tuk-tuks (like the ones in Thailand). While I was there, the weather also seemed better. All in all, I think I liked Herat better but I have become fonder of smaller towns as I have grown older.

When we were done, we got a direct flight from Herat to Kabul. No stops this time! Same C-130J with the same crew. What are the odds? Do the Italians only have one C-130? Hmmm.

So now I am back in Bagram. Reflecting on the experience thus far.

In a way, the two roads to Kabul really represent the future of Afghanistan. Neither road is easy.

The first road is the one if we leave the Afghans to their fate. Without our involvement, NATO will most certainly pull out and the Afghan people will be left to fend for themselves. After three decades of war, a population that is young and largely illiterate, desperately poor, and no real means to recover – we would be condemning many of them to a painful death. The Afghan people are tough and I am sure they are willing to walk this long road by themselves but how many will die along the way? How many will die because we, the nations with the means to help, turned our backs on their suffering and walked away. If Afghanistan is the place where God comes to cry, how will God judge us if we turn away?

The second road is the road of what can be. Afghan business, trading of goods, safety from insurgent violence, a means to feed themselves and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. The Afghan people are a proud people that want to fight for their own future. They fought the British, they fought the Soviets and they won. They do not want the US to be here forever but do want our help to get them back on their feet. And we can help them.

It is the best chance that the Afghani people have ever had.  In the end, maybe we can all do a little bit to change Afghanistan from the land where God comes to cry to something else. Something better because we can. We are God’s hands in this world. If are his disciples and we love Him, then we should feed His sheep.

Ow

Originally written on February 9, 2008

Every muscle in my body aches, especially the toddler lifting ones. In general, I make Bip move around life by his own power. He’s just too darn heavy to be lifting and carrying all over the place. Plus, that’s what dad is for. But being on single parent duty has shifted all the Bip carrying responsibilities to my shoulders. Literally.

Not to mention that today I had to do one of my least favorite, most hated activites: driving. Not just driving, but driving on the freeway. In Washington, DC. I had to take Boo and Pumpkin Girl to their Mexican folkdance class w-a-y over in Virginia. (Yeah, so it was only in Arlington, but I’m complaining mode, so work with me here.) Of course, this dance class is at the exact same time that Bip has his nap. And with no one else to do the driving or the staying home, he got to skip his nap and join us.
So there I am, driving along, probably all tensed up around the shoulders, trying to listen to the nice lady in my GPS tell me where to turn, hauling the hefty toddler in and out of the car, sitting on the cold hard floor for an hour and driving back. The long way, over the Wilson Bridge, because I’m too chicken to try to go back the way we came.

And we went to church tonight, where Bip fell asleep in my arms. At the time it seemed like a good idea for him to sleep because he was acting all silly, which I know is very distracting for the entire congregation sitting behind us. Which is everyone, because my children make me sit in the front row. So he fell asleep in my arms, and I held him standing up, and I held him half kneeling, until I got brave enough to lay him down in the pew. He slept through the whole thing.  Me, I can hardly move my arms.

At dinner time, I can barely hold myself upright. Pumpkin Girl asks if this is week 2 of daddy being gone. “No honey”, I tell her. “It’s day 4. ”

Ow.

Life In Bagram

Written February 9, 2008

I am safely in Bagram and everything is fine.

The trip from the US to Qatar and Bagram went very well and all the travel pieces fell into place with guys even picking me up at the airport and taking me where I needed to go!

Not surprising, Qatar is much nicer than Bagram. Bagram is still very basic. The small wooden buildings they put together went up very quickly and the rooms built inside are 2x4s and sheets of plywood. No insulation to speak of and no indoor plumbing. The windows are just holes cut out the side and covered up by another sheet of plywood that can flip-up in good weather. Of course it is wicked cold right now so no one opens up these windows! The good news is that it is dry and they have electricity and lights. I have a room to myself that has a bed and a closet. The plank door does not fully close so there is a gap that you can look into my room but not really a big deal.

Besides the wooden huts, they have metal container-like boxes that they have welded together and put stairs on the outside. These buildings are multi-purpose. Some are living quarters, some are offices and some are the bathrooms. The toilets are downstairs and the showers are upstairs. The water can be hot but it depends on when you go. If you go right after a large group then there is no hot water. Fortunately, I have been going right after I go to they gym and there is plenty of hot water because many of the people are still asleep. I have been using their gym everyday in the morning and it is actually really nice. They have 2 treadmills, 3 elliptical machines, and 2 bikes (although one is broken) in one room and the other room has lots of free weights as well as other exercise machines. I wake up about 0500 and go work out and am back in my room by 0700.

There has not been a lot going on lately so I have had time to pray and read my Bible before getting in my uniform and heading off to breakfast. I mentioned it is cold, especially in the morning and evening. It snowed right before I got here and there is still lots of snow and ice on the ground so everyone has to be very careful when they walk and drive. Slipping around is normal and a few people have fallen and gotten hurt but I have been really lucky and no falls yet! 😎

The dining facility (DFAC) is really nice. You walk in and there are six sinks for you to wash up and then you go in to a cafeteria-like setting run by contractors (Kellog-Brown-Root), so there are no soldiers cooking or cleaning – just eating! You pick up your paper tray and plastic utensils and go to the food line. They always have fast food available (cheeseburgers, etc) and then the main line where the menu changes and then there is a salad bar, fruit, dessert, and lots of drinks. They even have an ice cream bar but I did not bring my Lactaid so I have been skipping that. The main thing is to not to try to eat too much.

It is interesting because Bagram has all services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines), foreign countries, as well as civilians (government and contractors). We also carry our weapons everywhere. The folks with rifles put them in a rack and the folks with pistols keep them in their holsters. It reminds me of the stories of the Old West where everyone carried their guns everywhere. Same here. Fortunately, it is fairly safe here, but folks even carry their weapons when they are in their workout clothes or civilian clothes.

Bagram is pretty big. They have 3 different DFACs, a smaller Post Exchange and then a much larger PX that has local vendors, as well as traditional American shops such as Burger King, Orange Julius, etc. On Fridays, they even have a bazaar just outside the gate where the local merchants will sell their wares. Rugs, metal and wood craft, ornamental tiles, even flintlock rifles! It turns out that you can buy a flintlock rifle, bring it by the JAG to get some paperwork and then mail it home. Yes they have a US Post Office here too. They also have a rappelling tower with hand and toe grips so folks can practice climbing too!

Things are a lot different than when I was at Desert Storm. They have real buildings, bathrooms, and DFACs. TVs are everywhere: in the gym, at the DFAC, at the PX. They even have internet access and phones. Of course, this is an airbase and a headquarters and not the field like I was last time. Still, it is quite a change. And while basic, the quality of life is much better than I would have expected. I am also bumping into people that I did not expect. While I was in Qatar, I bumped into an old neighbor that I knew back in 2000 and one of my old Drill Sgts from back when I was at Ft. Knox.

So, I am doing fine. I don’t need anything and since I am only here temporarily, by the time you mailed anything, I would probably be one the way home. You can just pray for me and my family and that would be enough.

I think it is interesting that at the beginning of Lent, that the Lord sent me back to the beginning of my spiritual journey. A different desert and a different environment to be sure but there are many similarities. Here I am back to the basics again and it has given me a chance to reflect on the relationship that I have with God and examine whether I am living the life that He wants me to live. Certainly this is dramatic but it is an opportunity like Lent itself.

I will be finishing up my work at Bagram in a few days and then heading off to the other sites. I will try to write again when I have a chance.

You can be proud of our troops who are here. I should not be surprised but I always am to see how well soldiers take care of each other when they are deployed. We flew in on a C-130 from Qatar to Bagram with a stop first in Kandahar. While we were in Kandahar we picked up several boxes of blood and some additional soldiers. Some admin guys, some infantry, even two working K-9 dogs. It was amazing to see how these guys were dirty, tired and yet still in good spirits. Joking with each other, sharing what they had. One guy even offered me his pillow when he saw me using my travel pillow. Here I am clean, fresh from civilization – I am a stranger and he offers me his pillow. Wow.

I don’t want to cast our guys in too much of an idealistic light. They are human beings. They have their flaws, we have guys who make mistakes. We have our share of guys who are bad. But all in all, I think it is a slice of our country that really represents the best that we have to offer. You can be proud of them.

The Next Thing

The first few hours of a deployment are oddly the same and predictably different. We close the door behind us, shutting out the rest of the world blissfully living its life. We look at each other, wipe away the tears and blow our noses. We smile and say, “We can do this,” and hope that we speak the truth.

Pumpkin Girl and Bip return to the living room to finish the movie they were watching when Philip’s ride arrived. Boo, my tenderhearted boy, seeks refuge upstairs. I can hear him crying. Actually, he doesn’t cry so much as he howls. No subtlety for that one. A few minutes he emerges, looking much smaller than usual and clutching his three best “warriors” – Bear, Sock Monkey and Donald Duck. I meet him at the bottom of the stairs and give him a hug and he starts howling again.

Boo will bear the brunt of this separation in different way than his siblings. He’s already known way too much loss and sadness for a boy his age and his already soft heart is heavily bruised. Someone once described him as being “sifted like Paul.” So I will do my best to take his burden upon myself.

“Boo,” I say, looking into his eyes, “we CAN do this. It isn’t going to be easy, but we will make it. What we need to do is take it one step at a time. We need to just make it through tonight and it’ll get easier. Do you think you can make it through tonight?”

He starts howling again. “Ok, then let’s do this – let’s just get through the movie. Then after the movie, we’ll work on getting through bedtime. Then we’ll just go to sleep and it’ll be morning and we’ll be through the first night.”

He sighs heavily and takes his warriors to finish the movie.

I stand up and try to figure out what to do next. I know that I, too, just need to get through one moment at a time. I go into the kitchen to try to find something to do. I see Philip’s commuter coffee mug in the dish strainer. I put it away. I find a few other of his things sitting where he left them. I take care of them, too, trying not to get too maudlin over how long it’ll be until he needs them again.

For tonight and the rest of this separation, we will survive by just getting to the next thing. When it gets to be too much, we will just focus on that next thing, each note on the calendar bringing us closer to reunion.

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