Sunday, September 23, 2007

How Can I Explain This?

This blog can only be updated on commercial systems. Military systems will let you get to your web-based email, but they will not let you get to the blogging sites. They are blocked as "personal and networking" sites. So, when they say that they do not block blog sites, they are not lying. They do not block them as blog sites.

They are also not really telling the truth.

Be that as it may, I can't update the blog while I am out in The Valley. So I must update it when I get to Bagram for a day or more. The last time I was at Bagram, it was for two meals and one night. I didn't have time to update the blog.

The very next day after the last blog entry, we returned to The Valley, but there was a change to how we were task organized for the mission. I can't describe why due to "keeping our cards close to our vest," but we changed the way that we were operating. It's more of an evolution of the operation than anything else. Operations are maturing. They still have not reached the state that they need to in the end. The change was at least a little bit welcome, as it offered the ability to sleep at night without having to wake up and strap on the night observation device (NODS,) to take a shower, and to have porcelain (or plastic... who cares) under my butt again.

We take a lot of things for granted as Americans.

We operated from the firebase, meeting up with our Afghan counterparts for the missions that we did with them. We did missions daily with them, many of them now vehicle-borne. On some, we dismounted and patrolled areas as a presence, to gather any intelligence that might be available, or fight whoever wanted to fight.

One patrol took us down to the main town that The Valley is named after. It has the dirtiest bazaar I've ever seen, and until recently the bazaar itself and basically the whole town was under undisputed Taliban control. Major Stone Cold bought a goat, and the guy who sold him the goat also came back to the district Police station and slaughtered it for us. It was really something else. We ate the goat that night. It was a special treat for the Afghans.

Every day, we patrolled the areas that had just a few weeks earlier been under such strong Taliban control that only the Special Forces went into the valley.

About a week later, we came back to Bagram for one night.

I did not post during that trip back, partially due to the finicky internet at Bagram. How irritating.

We returned to our firebase the next day and settled back into our new field routine. It was almost strange to have so many guys from the team in one place again. It had been over a month since I had seen O and the Maniac on a daily basis, and all the SECFOR guys were clearly ecstatic to see each other again. They were like a bunch of puppies.

The next day I was doing something in my tent... I can't even remember what it was... and someone came in and asked me if I was the mentor of a particular Afghan officer. I said yes, and he said, "Five of those guys got blown up by an IED down in the valley." The SF medics have one of them. I ran out, heart in my throat as I made my way over to their compound.

As I was on my way over, a medevac bird was taking off from the firebase with the fifth occupant of the truck. He would survive.

The SF were very understanding and very kind. They told me what they had tried to treat the man for, and then allowed me to see his body. He had bled to death on the way to the camp. He may not have survived even with immediate attention. He had some significant head injuries. I had a hard time recognizing him.

I had returned from the SF compound to our little compound when the others arrived. Three bodies in the back of a Ford Ranger just like the one that they had been in when it was shredded by the IED.

They were covered and wrapped in blankets covered in dirt and dead grass. I didn't want to look, didn't want to do this; but I had to. These guys looked to us for leadership and to know what to do when they didn't. Now here they were with the bodies of our comrades, looking for something from us. It was my job to provide some leadership and some guidance.

My American comrades knew that I was bereft, and they began to help with some of the aspects of what had to be done. The bodies had to be identified, sorted out, each put in a more suitable container, and some order made of what was going on. One of the officers said he knew where some body bags were in the medical storage conex. O began to organize the body bags. One of the medics, Surferdude, went to get rubber gloves. We would need them.

O knew exactly what I needed; someone to be the hard guy who was unaffected by the carnage that lay before us in the bed of that truck. Those guys who had been full of life were converted into things that you wouldn't want anyone you care about to see.

I set about trying to see who the casualties were. They were a mess. I will try to avoid being too descriptive, but there was a lot of unpleasant work to do. One of the dead had his ID card, a combination ID card and copy of his training certificate, in his shirt pocket. I looked at his face and had a hard time picturing him alive. When I saw the card, my heart sank.

He was a young man, just beginning to grow a beard, really. He had obviously been killed instantly. As Surferdude put it, he had sustained "injuries incompatible with life." They all had.

I had eaten with these guys, had had discussions about ethics and the future of Afghanistan with them, had trained them for the operation as best I could in the time available, had led them on missions nearly every day for over a month in the field. These were, in a sense, my men... I was responsible for them, and they had looked to me for guidance.

One of the others had also been very young. I recognized him immediately. His more horrible injuries hadn't affected his face as much. My heart sank again.

"Awwww, no!"

We carefully placed the remains of four Afghan heroes in the vinyl bags, tagged them in English and Dari, and the ANA loaned us their ambulance to carry the dead to the Police headquarters.

Some of the guys asked why the Afghans had brought the bodies to us. They seemed almost resentful. I explained to them that the Afghans looked to us for all kinds of help. When they weren't sure what to do, they looked to us. This was one of those times.

The next day the order came out that the Afghans were not to be given body bags anymore.

Initially, the remains of the truck were taken to the Police headquarters, but it was too upsetting to the Afghans to have it there, and the rats were picking through it for the pieces of the soldiers that hadbeen trapped in the wreckage. The truck was moved to our firebase, where it still sat beside two conex's burned by the Taliban; a daily reminder to me of the soldiers from my group who were so brutally killed.

The front half of the truck was gone. The engine was nowhere to be found. Everything forward of the backs of the rear seats was just gone. All that remained was the bed of the truck and the wheels. Scraps of sheet metal, most of the hood, the doors, and a portion of the roof lay in a heap next to the bed on two wheels.

I'm astounded that the bodies were as complete as they were.

I don't think I'll ever get the images of my Afghan friends' mutilated bodies out of my head completely. I know that I have no desire to watch horror movies for awhile.

It was a rough couple of days after that. The ANA lost a couple of soldiers during the same period, and while that was terrible to hear about, the deaths of my four guys was a huge blow to me. They had been on the return trip of the chow run. Each meal was prepared at the Police headquarters and then the group sent a truck to pick up the chow and then take the pots and platters back up for the next meal. Every time you move in The Valley, something could happen. It usually doesn't... but there are four lives that prove that it could.

I am a believer in what I am doing over here. I have a personal philosophy and a rudimentary understanding of counterinsurgency and the nature of trying to mentor underdeveloped governmental military/paramilitary organizations to do basic things. I believe that the world will be a safer place when Afghanistan is a peaceful country under the rule of a freely elected government and free of armed gangs who run the villages and countryside. I believe that the Police need to be the first line of contact that people have with the government in their neighborhoods, and that life with the police roaming armed in the streets must be better than life under the Taliban. All of that is on a higher level.

On a base level, I was/am pissed. I am hurt, and I am angry, and I want to solve this problem with my weapons. I want to find the cell that is responsible and I don't want for them to survive the encounter. I don't want a trial. I don't want any chance for corruption to set them free. I want to even the score.

Aggressive, ugly feelings.

Operations are continuing, but we are also getting back to the business of mentoring the Police at the Province and District levels in day-to-day operations. It's a two-sided sword. We split our time between The Valley and the Province headquarters and the more peaceful districts.

And then there are the occasional trips to Bagram.

In a few weeks, I will get to go on leave. I will get to fly home to the U.S. and see my kids and be in a place where everything is "normal." It will be a stark contrast to the mud buildings and dirt/rock roads. This is a beautiful country, but I miss seeing familiar sights. I miss my family and my friends. I really miss my kids.

I'll try to post some pictures soon.
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