Sunday, June 24, 2007

Our First Taste

The following is an account of events that occurred several weeks ago. It was not the first time that we had been near incoming fire, but it was the first time that we were part of the specific target. The rocket that impacted near us one day as we entered Bagram was simply a “pot shot” taken at that large base. I have omitted only minor details of the attack, and only to avoid giving any operational information that could be at all useful to anyone.

It was about 1020 hours. The Maniac started the coffee and O came down the walk as we sat outside enjoying the quiet and the coffee. O had just topped off his coffee and was refilling mine when the idle chatter was interrupted by a loud “CARROUMP!!”

“That’s not good,” the Maniac opined as his butt lifted about an inch off of his folding camp chair. About five seconds passed and there was a terrible screeching noise… a low buzz with a high pitched shriek overlaid upon it.

BOOM! The glass and doors of the khalat vibrated. Loose dirt and chunks of dried mud shook loose from the khalat wall and sprinkled the gravel and concrete.

“Rockets!” said the Maniac, ducking into the doorway of our concrete room. “Hey man! Get in here!” O was just finishing off topping my coffee cup.

“Hey, almost done with the coffee,” I said. O was walking up the walkway towards his room. He stopped about halfway, turned, and said, “Are those rockets?”

“Yup, sounds like rockets.”

He turned and continued up the walk to his room. By the time I was into the room, the Maniac was already in his ACU pants and was finishing putting his socks on. He was ready for a fight. I started into my ACU’s, and within three minutes we were all suited up, including armor. Several more explosions sounded within the limits of the outer wall of the FOB. The Maniac was out the door, weapon in hand as he prepared to defend what the guys in the other compound referred to as, “The Alamo.” I was about 30 seconds behind him.

As I was on my way out the door there was a loud explosion that felt very close. “Son of a bitch!” yelled the Maniac. “That one was really close! I think it was one of ours… are they supposed to shoot that close? That was right out on the berm!”

As I reached the roof, the Maniac was pointing to where the round had hit. There was still smoke coming from the point of impact, about 250 meters away. “See? It was right over there! I saw it hit, and I’m kicking myself for not ducking. I saw it hit, and I thought, ‘hey, that’s a mortar’ and then it went off. That bastard was really loud! Now I’m kicking myself in the ass for not getting down when I saw it hit.”

The mortar crew was firing the large mortar to the southwest of the FOB. The Maniac, O and I were on the roof of the khalat. We peered over the mud parapet and observed the rounds detonating to the southwest, out on the area that was used days earlier as a machine gun range; out on the ground that we had stood on a few days before, showing the staff guys where some specific sites were. There was a flash and a mass of dust and black smoke. Seconds later, the report… “Crump!” The smallest mortar chimed in, the smaller rounds noticeable in the difference, but still deadly.

The handheld radio had died as O attempted to report to the team leader in the other compound that we were all okay. We were “out of comms” with the other compound.

The three of us watched as the mortars fired. The ANA checkpoint to the west began firing, and some of the heavy crew-served weapons began firing towards the mountain to the south and into the ravine that separated the FOB from the base of the mountain. Some time later we observed several ANA Ford Rangers and two humvees roll out to the southwest towards the finger that was used as the machine gun range. Some explosions were visible near the trail humvee as it rolled along the dirt road. We debated what these explosions were. We would learn later that they were hand grenades that one of the guys was throwing over the low ridgeline to clear that area.

The humvees pulled out to the edge of the finger and we heard the reports of automatic weapons as they fired into the ravine. We could see no other activity. Minutes later the silhouettes of several helicopters were seen and the sounds of “fast movers” overhead could be heard. The humvees and ANA vehicles returned from the finger.

The whole thing had taken about an hour and a half, but it seemed like 20 minutes. We were all happy to have made it through our first incoming with no injuries, and we had all reacted calmly and matter-of-factly to the fire.

We’d had our first taste, and we had weathered it well.
Read full post with comments

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Father’s Day

It’s Father’s Day. This is obviously not an Afghan holiday. It is Sunday, June 17, 2007. The internet has been down on the firebase for several days, and today I got to check my email for the first time in awhile. It moved really slowly, though… I could only answer a couple of them before my time was up. We also got mail for the second time in a month. There was still joy at re-connection… to know that I am still connected with the folks back home means the world to me, and to my compatriots. This will not be posted until tomorrow night at the earliest, but that’s the way it goes.

Today is a day for me to think of my father, who passed away twenty years ago, and to think of my children. I thank God for my children, for taking care of them, and for the people in their lives who care so much about them and take such good care of them. I am grateful, and I am honored to be their father. I miss them so very much. As hot as it is here, as much as we’ve been shot at, the lack of air-conditioning, the various and sundry privations are no match for the single greatest pain of this deployment… how much I miss my kids.

I’ve been so blessed to have gotten to hear news about them, how they are doing… and to be able to picture them in my mind’s eye as they have done their living in my absence. I’ve been able to picture my oldest daughter, my firstborn, placing first in one of her Irish dances at a Feis. This is an achievement she’s been working towards for years. I’m so proud for her. I’ve been able to picture my oldest son playing baseball and making First Honors at school for the first time. He’s getting to be a better student, making use of his wonderful mind. I’ve been able to picture my younger daughter swimming without her flotation device and chiding a boy her age for trying to impress her while he still wore his. She is so perceptive and funny. I’ve been able to picture my youngest son enjoying feeling the ocean waves for the first time, and clinging to a ladder while pushing his older sister back down with his other hand. He’s so hilarious and such a little man.

I’ve been blessed. I have no right to have been so blessed, but I am. My eyes are welling with emotion for them right now… not one emotion, but so many. I feel like my chest is going to explode.

I miss them so much.

A driving force in my sanity is being secure in the knowledge that right this minute, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I am here for a reason, and nothing that can be done, said, written, or screamed can dissuade me from that knowledge. The pain has a purpose, too. Perhaps it is so that I can be more grateful for the blessings that I have. Perhaps it is because freedom isn’t free. A price has to be paid, and that price isn’t always life, limb, or blood. Sometimes it is time spent away, pain felt in the heart, sacrifices made not only by those who are here, but by those who are there. My children miss me, too. They suffer my absence, too. This is a Father’s Day that they will never have with their dad. They are buying freedom, too. They are little heroes, and almost nobody knows it.

I am here as much for them as for any other reason. There are many reasons why I volunteered to do this thing, but certainly they are a big part of it. I want for them to live in a world that doesn’t include watching events like those of 9/11. I want for them to live in freedom and liberty. I want for my sons and daughters to live long and happy lives without having to experience war. My oldest son is a young warrior; I recognize the signs of a young man’s mind with a warrior spirit inside. I was one once. Only a few years from now he will be of military age. I want for the world to have settled down by then. I don’t know about my youngest, because he is still far too young, still a baby, really. I am doing this for them, so that hopefully they won’t have to.

Call me a dreamer. Call me an idealist. I don’t care. All I can do is what I can do, but I will do what I can. I can’t stop the world from spinning, and I can’t single-handedly stop Osama or Al Qaeda. But I can do my little part. Hopefully it will make a little bit of a difference. A lot of little differences add up to a big difference.

There are a lot of thoughts, feelings and emotions that go into what I am doing in Afghanistan. I do have hope for this country and its people. I do feel for the children of Afghanistan… I see my own when I see them… and I do have hope that by freeing the minds of these people and making a difference in their lives that we can make ourselves and our children safer. But today is the day for my thoughts, feelings, and emotions about my children. There are more than I can possibly express, but a few of them are here. They are here primarily so that I can re-experience what I feel right now when I read what I have written years from now, and so that perhaps some of my friends can get a sense of what I think about on such a day in Afghanistan.

The sky at night here is a wondrous thing. The stars are so beautiful, and there are so many of them. The nights here are clear and dark, and the sky is littered with so many stars that it’s incredible. When the moon was full, it was nearly blinding in its brilliance. The moon has not made an appearance for a couple of weeks… it was so strange; one night the moon was nearly full, brightly illuminating the landscape with it’s glow, the next it was gone. The last couple of nights there has been a sliver of moon just sinking towards the western horizon after the sun has gone down.

This is the same sky that hangs above my children at night. I am 7000 miles away from them, but the same sky and the same moon look down on them at night. We are not so very far away, I think. But I cannot see them whenever I want. I cannot hold them in my arms, cannot kiss the soft skin of their faces. It will be months until I do. I can’t wait.

What I can do is rejoice in the knowledge that they are alive and well. I rejoice in the fact that they are well cared-for and they are bathed in love. I rejoice in their young lives. I can respect the sacrifice that they are making, giving their father for their country; a choice that they did not make, but the results of which they bear. Today is Father’s Day, and I’m so very honored to be one.

There are a lot of deployed fathers out there tonight. I wish each and every one of them a Happy Father’s Day and a safe return to their children. I wish each of the children to have their parent home safe and soon.

I’m going to call my children now. Thank God for my kids, and thank God for cell phones.
Read full post with comments

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Bastard Children

We’ve decided that’s what we are: The Bastard Children. There are just the three of us, at a FOB where we are tolerated but not embraced, our own supply lines non-existent. We prepare to conduct our mission, not knowing when.

In the meantime, we do what we can to stay busy. We have constructed a simple training plan for our “clients” and some tracking tools to follow their progress using excel spreadsheets. Too bad I never learned to do Access database development. We can do without it, though.

Life has settled into a routine. We may or may not eat breakfast, but we always make a pot of coffee on our Afghan stove that the Green Mountain Maniac secured for us. We then sit and enjoy a few cups of coffee and talk about business or whatever comes to mind. The sun comes up about 4:15 around here, so by this time the sun is well up in the sky, but it is still relatively cool in the shade. It’s funny what guys will wind up talking about.

“Silly rabbit, trix are for kids,” was brought up in the context of something silly someone else had done. B-Mo O stated that he’d had a skate board when he was a kid that said it on the bottom of the board. That brought up the subject of skateboards, then snowboards, half-pipes and skis.

“Hey, what cereal was that for, anyway?”

“Lucky Charms?”

“Nah, that was the leprechaun.”

“Sugar Pops?”

“That was Sugar Bear.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“It wasn’t Frosted Flakes, that was Tony the Tiger.”

“Captain Crunch… that was that stupid captain.”

“Froot Loops?”

“That was the parrot.”

“Trix! It was Trix!”

“God, we are morons.”

We have taken to running on an uneven dirt road that winds around the inner perimeter but within the outer Hesco walls of the FOB. In some spots there really isn’t a road, just dirt covered with scrubby brush. We measured it with the Garmin GPS, and it came to exactly 800 meters… exactly a half a mile. We’ve been doing four laps… 2 miles a day. At first we were doing it in the evening, but we’ve decided to vary our times so that we don’t set up a predictable routine. For a couple of days we did it before lunch. The temperature has hovered near a hundred degrees while we did that. We’re amazingly well acclimated to the high temperatures now. At 5300 feet, you can feel the difference running. The uneven ground strewn with rocks makes it more difficult. You can’t establish a rhythm, and your stride is by necessity choppy and as uneven as the ground. It sucks, but you feel great when you’re done. Our goal is to work up to 5 miles… ten laps around this course that has all the smoothness of sheet copper that’s been beaten with a ball peen hammer and strewn with rocks.

I am the slowest, finishing several minutes behind the other two. B-Mo O, being eleven years younger, is much faster… even though he smokes. Green Mountain Maniac is a couple of years older than myself, but doesn’t smoke and is actually a physical freak for his age, being in astounding condition. He is addicted to weight lifting, becoming cranky as an old goat when kept from his weights. I smoke… gotta stop that. You can really feel it while running at this altitude. I do it, though… and I’m getting faster and more comfortable all the time.

We have no air conditioning, but that’s not our biggest problem. The concrete floor of our garden apartment draws moisture from the ground, creating a humid tropical feeling that is truly special. I think it has made a very positive difference in our acclimation. We do have a fan, though. The Maniac devised an ingenious plan to makes screens for the top of the windows (about a foot above the sandbags) using empty sandbags cut along the seams and taped to the frame. This has made something of a difference in the climate, and has resulted in only three times the outside ambient humidity within the walls of our sanctuary. He’s really a handy guy, and his hyperactive tendencies mean that he is seldom still, always looking for things to get his hands into. This often results in physical improvements to the AO (Area of Operations.)

He has fixed the dilapidated showers twice now.

We bought a bunch of movies from the vendor who sells movies with a lot of what we think is Chinese all over the covers. They are American movies, but they vary greatly in quality. During one, the silhouette of a man heading for the popcorn stand suddenly appeared, making his way to the aisle. One that I purchased for two dollars (the going rate for these knock-offs) started with Russian dubbing and Chinese subtitles. It took me several minutes to get it set to English with no subtitles… the sound was a quarter of a second off from the video. While screwing around with the Russian menu I managed to get it running with Russian audio and English subtitles that had nothing to do with the actual dialogue. It was hilarious! The subtitles depicted a flirty conversation between a man and a woman while two men were speaking Russian to each other in serious tones about a serious matter and their lips moved in English. Whadya want for two bucks?

There is one computer here for MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) use. There are over 30 guys who use this computer for keeping in touch with the people back home. Time on the computer is hard to come by, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. I’ve taken to writing emails on my laptop and putting them on a thumb drive to cut and paste into the body of the email once addressed. I'm doing the same with the blog now, too.

So... overall, we are good. A couple of exciting times now, but we are all whole and healthy.
Read full post with comments