Monday, October 29, 2007

Welcome Back to "The Suck"

Time warp. I'm back in Afghanistan, arriving at a little after 0100 local time last night. Ouch. Miserably long flights, a night in lovely Kuwait, and then a typically monumentally uncomfortable C-17 flight back into Bagram. I was secretly hoping my team would be out in The Valley and would have to come and get me in their own good time so that I could sleep forever.

Alas, twas not to be.

Just as well, really. They were all snoozing peacefully in the B-hut when I crept in at about 0230, suddenly unable to sleep. I dutifully notified the Colonel of my presence early this morning, cursing myself as I did so.

Various team members welcomed me back into the fold, regaling me with stories of the many TIC's (Troops In Contact... firefights) they have been in since I left.

There were another four ANP KIA and one of our boys who had become an RPG magnet got wounded in the second spectacular RPG hit on his vehicle in two weeks. The first had blown his machine gun completely in half while he was firing it, leaving him with not so much as a singed eyebrow. Miraculous. The second hit the door of his humvee and blew it open, sending metal fragments into his arm, glass into his face, and filling his ballistic glasses with high speed particles which they thankfully stopped.

He has decided that it's time to go and do tower guard duty at a FOB, and nobody blames him. He's going to be okay, but he's got metal in his arm that's going to take a while to work its way out.

Guilt crept in. Something like survivor's guilt. Probably more like deserter's guilt. I felt as if I had been doing something vaguely wrong whooping it up with my kids.

I wouldn't have traded that time for anything in the world. Still wouldn't. The guilty feeling is just that; a feeling. I feel it and move on. It's like a leg cramp; it will pass.

Anyway, I had started on writing the saga of The Great Valley Operation. It kicked off at the beginning of August, which is now two months past. Being very careful about OPSEC, here is the beginning of the tale:

Day One

The first day of the operation started with deceptive calm. Other than the fact that the firebase was chock full of more people than had ever been there before, the early hours of the morning seemed almost sleepy. The morning itself was a typical Afghan morning, clear and calm and becoming bright very quickly as the sun came up over the mountains to the east.

I was nervous. I wasn’t nervous about leaving the wire; that never makes me nervous. I was nervous because there were holes in the information that I had been given. We had stayed inside the firebase, while the 100 Afghans and the Colonel who I would be advising, or mentoring, during the operation had stayed a few hundred meters away in another compound, an Afghan National Police (ANP) compound. I wasn’t sure exactly where they would be marshalling.

A communications sheet had been distributed, showing the frequencies for various elements and the callsigns of major units. There were a lot of them. We had our own frequency, but it had become very unclear what frequency my little element would be operating on. I was, to a fair extent, “winging it” on an operation that had been carefully planned and backbriefed, then modified at the last minute and fired off like a catapult.

Our ANP were part of a three-element team that would operate together in one of the smaller sub-valleys that ran perpendicular to the main valley. The Afghan National Army was the lead element, we were second, and a “coalition” (American) element from the 82nd Airborne was third. There were several other teams of pretty much identical construction operating in other sub-valleys, the main features of each “sector.”

My crew consisted of myself, Staff Sergeant Ding, Specialists Cookie Monster and T-Dawg (who I often called T-Puppy to get his goat… he’s very young,) and our Terp (interpreter) Combat Terp. We had a single up-armored humvee (UAH) with a .50 caliber machine gun in the turret.

Our 100-man ANP company started out with 10 Ford Ranger pickups and only two belt-fed Russian-made PKM machine guns the Afghans call Pika’s. 10 ANP rode in each truck, making the procession look a bit undisciplined to the American eye. Afghans, of course, see nothing unusual about a horde of humanity in the bed of a small truck.

Cookie Monster and T-Dawg had done a wonderful job of packing up days’ worth of rations, cases of water, two basic loads of ammunition, and our personal gear into and onto the humvee. The rucksacks on the back deck were covered with my extra poncho to help keep the dust out and topped with a bright orange aircraft recognition marker called a VS-17 panel. That was so that we would be very easy to see from the air if we had to call for air support.

Our personal gear weighed in at nearly 70 lbs. The IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) with its massive ballistic plates, 210 rounds of rifle ammunition, three liters of water in a camelbak, my M-4 with attached M-203 grenade launcher, a pistol belt with my 9mm pistol strapped to my right thigh along with an extra magazine and my Gerber tool, my ACH (Advanced Combat Helmet,) and a radio. I also carried a digital camera in a grenade pouch. 40mm grenades in a separate bandoleer added so much to the weight that I learned to carry only what I reasonably needed for the threat level.

We were set to be part of the first element of a massive snake to wind down The Valley into our sector. The lead element were the engineers, clearing the road of any IED’s before the maneuver units moved through. When we reached our valley, we would take a left up the only road that went up our valley and begin our operations under the control of the ANA and ANP. The ANA had a two-man mentor team assigned to it as well.

We rolled out of the firebase in plenty of time to get set with our ANP, only to find that they weren’t completely staged. They didn’t have all of their trucks. We resolved that issue, but the clock was ticking. The radio frequency “cheat sheet” was turning out to be an apparent work of fiction. We couldn’t raise anyone. Finally, a Lieutenant ran up and asked if we were Dogbite 7.

“Yes, Sir. I’m Dogbite 7. “

“Your Deerslayer element has already left! You need to roll, time now!”

“Roger, rolling.”

I turned and signaled to the ANP Colonel whom I would be mentoring in The Valley, indicating for him to follow me. He nodded from behind the windshield of his green Ford Ranger LTV (Light Tactical Vehicle) that he understood. I climbed into my humvee and yelled to the driver to roll as I worked to get the headset on over my helmet.

Cookie Monster rolled out, doing his usual stellar job of driving our six-ton up-armored beast. T-Dawg stood in the turret behind the .50 caliber machine gun swaying to the beat of the terrible Afghan roads like some bizarre masked calypso dancer. The ANP pulled up behind us as we fell in trail behind the line of vehicles headed down the switchbacks from the firebase into The Valley.

We passed a couple of the elements ahead of us as I scanned the frequencies looking for our Deerslayer element. Our ANP dutifully followed our lead as we rolled down the twisting switchbacks. Suddenly we were waved down from behind by American soldiers waving from their turrets. We had found Deerslayer. We slowed and allowed them to take the lead.

I hadn’t found the frequency that they were actually using, but I did find the engineers on the radio and listened to them in rapt attention as they told the story of our journey south in clipped military radioese. I struggled to get our balky computer tracking unit to come on line, but it would only show us where we were on the moving map display, no help at all. I knew where we were.

We pulled into the bazaar of the little town and there was our turn; Deerslayer turned, the ANA turned, and so did we and our ANP. One big happy family. We pulled just out of the bazaar, to an outcropping where the road turned and we had a sweeping view from about 40 feet of elevation above the valley below. The ANA stopped, Deerslayer stopped, and we stopped with our last Rangers just nosing out of the bazaar. This was not the optimum position for my ANP to be in, but there was a seemingly endless stream of vehicles still passing through the bazaar on their way further south, so it wasn’t too bad.

I dismounted from the truck and moved to link up with the leadership, joining Colonel Jhala, the Deerslayer leader, SFC Diesel, and the ANP commander, Captain Ahab. CPT Ahab informed us through our interpreters that there had been a report of twenty or so Taliban just inside Our Valley, but that they were scared and not sure about what they should do. The Psyops team was called forward and a plan was hatched.

It was decided that we would split into three elements; left, right, and center. Each would consist of an ANA platoon, roughly a platoon’s worth of ANP, and a coalition squad, in that order. The senior Afghan commanders would go with the center and far right elements, as the road followed up the left hand side of the mile-wide valley.

As we stood examining our maps, I looked out over what was to be Our Valley. It was apparently flat, green, with fields bordered by trees and/or mud fences trailing up into the distance, and flanked by steep rocky mountain ridges. Our maps were 1:100,000 scale maps, which are fine for most purposes, but we were to find out that the lack of fine terrain detail was going to leave us amazed with some of the ups and downs we would encounter.

Colonel Jhala and I would be on the far right, farthest from the road. SSG Ding would be on the far left. The ANA mentors would be in the center. SFC Diesel would be on the road, a rolling command post along with the Psyops guys who would broadcast surrender messages to encourage the Talibs to give up.

We exchanged frequencies with Deerslayer 15, SFC Diesel. He had chosen a little-used frequency that was normally used by his small unit on independent operations. The assigned frequency had been all jammed up with other traffic that morning. I never would have figured it out on my own. He had looked for us on our “push” but we had already gone hunting for them on the cheat sheet frequencies.

At least that problem was solved.

We were winging it from here, so I briefed my crew and as I gathered up my terp and turned to go I found the Colonel and CPT Ahab with only a small ANP element. The ANA tan-painted Rangers were already beginning to move up the road. Ten green ANP Rangers with skeleton crews stood watch.

“Combat Terp, where are the dismounts?” I asked.

“They have left, sir.”

“Jeezel! We told them we needed a few minutes to brief our vehicle crews! Who told them to go?”

“They had their mission, so they left,” he stated.

Herding cats. This whole mission was to become an exercise in cat herding. I’ve found that in cat herding you need a lot of patience and really tiny spurs.

I got a small team to go with SSG Ding so that he could catch up with the marauding Afghans who were by now a couple of hundred meters to the northeast of our position, gathered up Colonel Jhala and his security detail and headed out to the right side of Our Valley.

We descended into a riverbed, crossed it, and began our month-long journey. We would sleep on cots next to our humvee each night, eat many meals with our Afghan counterparts, and test our endurance, our patience, and our faith.

We would learn a lot about the Afghan people, culture, food, and especially the terrain. What had looked like a flat expanse of farmland turned out to be a labyrinth of walls, riverbeds, and ups and downs that couldn’t be perceived from a distance or from a small scale map.

We learned by GPS that when you traveled a mile on the map, you traveled a mile and a half on the ground. It was like a low-level obstacle course sometimes cranking up to high-level obstacles. A twenty or thirty foot deep riverbed was something that just happened out of nowhere, and there was no easy way in or out. You just climbed.

Twenty or thirty feet of really steep rocky walls doesn’t sound like much until you wear 70 pounds of close-fitting stuff in 115 to 120 degree heat while you do it. Meanwhile, the Wily Afghan Rockhopping Cat bounds nearly effortlessly up and looks down at you with that, “what’s taking you so long” look on his face.

You briefly think of the pistol, but the impulse passes.

I eventually saddled one of the cats with my gear in response to one of them displaying amusement at my sweating visage emerging from one particularly rapid hump back to the patrol base we would establish in Our Valley. The saddled cat gazed with new appreciation from beneath my soaking helmet and pledged in jest to carry it all the next day.

“You couldn’t do it,” I suggested through the terp.

“Bali…” (“Yes”) he began. “Nay!” he finished with a laugh. No, he couldn’t… really he wouldn’t want to.

That demonstration was days away, though. The Afghans on the move are a curious thing. They naturally spread out… just like you would expect a herd of cats to do, and they are very curious. They peer over walls, around corners, into holes and doorways. It’s really like watching a group of cats flitting through the countryside. They are very careless with the direction that their weapons point; frequently at each other.

They move quickly and they never look back. They also make a lot of noise. A lot of noise. They call heedlessly to each other and look at you as if you’d lost your mind when you admonish them to be quiet.

When they pause for a halt, they all find shade and squat or sometimes sit on a convenient rock and engage in conversation, appearing for all the world like they have forgotten what they were doing that day. They drink from the nearest clearest water source. Some will wash their face. Others may wash their feet. If we stop near a khalat, the family will send out pitchers of water for the soldiers.

Many of the ANP didn’t have boots. Some wore sandals. Some wore loafers.

Then suddenly one of these careless cats will point out the lone figure way up the mountain. How do they do that?

As we moved through the heat that early August day, I began to learn all of these things about Afghans. At first it was exasperating. Acceptance and patience is a key.

They will probably never do things exactly the way that we do. Perhaps T.E. Lawrence was right, though. It is sometimes better for them to do things their own way.

We finally linked up with the southernmost group and began to move together through Our Valley. All of this time I had been calling in grid coordinates every twenty minutes or so to 15 (pronounced one-five, this refers to Deerslayer 15; SFC Diesel.)

Before the day was over, we would detain four individuals and capture over a kilo of raw opium and a small cache of ammunition.

More about all of that later. I’ve got to get to bed. Moving back down into The Valley tomorrow. I won't be able to post till I get back to Bagram for a visit. Military networks don't support blogging, but that's okay... it's their stuff. They can do what they want with it. Something about military business or some such tripe.
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Thursday, October 25, 2007

I Wasn't Prepared For...

I had to hurry to get to Atlanta by 1300 today so that I could in-process for a flight that boards at 1815 this evening. Typical. Hurry up and wait. God bless the United States Army.

The wonderful people of the USO provide free wireless internet, which I am now gratefully using to post to the Adventure as I wait for my flight back to the war.

I had prepared for saying goodbye to my children. I set a calm and cheerful example, and being prepared for it kept my emotions more manageable. My kids did pretty well with it, and I'm pretty sure that being calm myself really made a difference for them. I was prepared to say goodbye to my family. It's not easy, but it's something that you know is coming. It's not a surprise, like when you know that you're going to get an innoculation... the pain isn't a surprise.

I was prepared for traveling in uniform... every soldier has been out in the public in uniform and knows that feeling of being something of a curiosity. It's like being a circus clown; people don't see the person inside, they just see a circus clown.

When people see you in uniform in public, they just see a soldier. That's why we have the responsibility to maintain the dignity of our uniform.

I would like to say that I've been nothing but supported when people have seen that soldier and it's me inside. People have said many kind and supportive things. People have shaken my hand and wished me luck. People have told me that they pray for me and all of us (prayers are always welcome!)

But I wasn't prepared for what happened today.

As my flight from Cincinnati to Atlanta was beginning its descent, the flight attendant began her normal spiel about landing and gates, and assistance finding your connecting flights and so on. Then she announced that I was on board and on my way back to Afghanistan after spending two weeks with my family.

The plane erupted into applause. I was stunned.

I nearly burst into tears. My emotions, barely contained under the thin fabric of my ACU uniform, rushed towards the surface and nearly made it out. Somehow, I managed to keep it all together, but it was close.

We arrived in Atlanta with only about a half an hour before my report time to the USO for processing for my flight to Shannon, Ireland and then Kuwait. I had to get a quick nicotine fix and find something to eat. They formed us into a line upstairs at the USO, probably 200 or more of us, and took us downstairs in two long lines. Soldiers and Marines paired two by two in a long line snaked through the airport towards the Army Personnel Command desk to do our formalities. As we wove through the airport, the throngs of travelers began to applaud.

I wasn't prepared for that, either. Again, I struggled not to lose it. It was like cracking the seal on a warm, freshly shaken coke. All the bubbles rush towards the cap, bringing the contents of the bottle along. That's what it felt like. I managed to keep all my fluids contained; but it was another close call.

How could I be so prepared for saying goodbye to my children that I could put a brave and cheerful face on and nearly lose it when perfect strangers applaud?
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Friday, October 19, 2007

Picture and Movie Time

Well, in the post below (also published today,) Blogger could or would not allow me to upload pictures. Gremlins; you know I hate 'em. Anyway, I ranted instead. However, the good people at Blogger are nothing if not astute, so they immediately fixed whatever problems the aforementioned gremlins had caused, enabling me to bring you these fine pictures. Enjoi.

In "Picture Time," I mentioned that it was strange to see these two vehicles parked side by side in the same livery. Here they are. This is just bizarre. Brave new world indeed.

Here are our intrepid EOD techs wiring up a couple of 60mm mortar rounds that magically appeared beside the road near one of our favorite ambush spots. Maniac called them in as IED's, which they weren't (yet.) There is a reason why we call him the Maniac.

Well, we had the C-4, might as well just blow them in place, right? Right. Nice.

This is a room full of poppy stems and bulbs. They were saving them for the seeds to plant next year. "What poppies? Those aren't mine. I don't know where they came from. That is just kindling for the winter fires."

Ummm... yeah. They score the poppy bulbs, which are just below the flowers on the growing plant, with razor tips embedded in wooden handles. Then they scrape off the black, tarry opium resin with a specialized metal cross between a spoon and a dustpan. Viola; opium. You can see opium resin residue on some of the bulbs. Kinda makes you want to lay around all day with a hooka, doesn't it?

Oh, looky what we found! Oddly enough, Mr. Taliban guy had an antitank mine (Italian, plastic, very nasty,) and four RPG rounds (Russian, metallic, very nasty,) buried within feet of the house in which his children lived. "What? Those aren't mine. My neighbor is angry with me and trying to get me in trouble!"

Ummm... yeah.

We took him with us. And the other guy. And the old man who was selling the opium.

Burning the poppy bulbs along with some marijuana we found onsite. We did a dawn raid on this compound to capture a Taliban bad guy and found more than we thought we would.

This is what we did with the mine. Boom. Nice. (Did I say, "Nice?")

Walnut trees in the Valley that Time Forgot. SGT Surferdude and myself were the only Americans to ever go up in there. Truly beautiful. They literally spoke a different language there.

The peaceful, beautiful valley counterpointed by RPG warhead tips. Art.

The bazaar in the little village in the Valley that Time Forgot. A dude in man-jammies, bazaar trash on the ground.

Doorways of Afghanistan. I should publish a coffee table book.


I can, however, show you where the doorways of Afghanistan are made. Fascinating, no?

Some of these kids had never seen an American before. Yes, I have read the book, The Ugly American, and it has nothing to do with my looks.

The Wily Afghan Black-Crested Rockhopper in its natural habitat. Nature photography at its finest. It took patience to capture these secretive creatures on film... errr... electrons.

Really cool house perched among the boulders. The mountain top in the background is over 12,000 feet. Our elevation here was about 7,800. GPS means never having to say , "I don't know my altitude."

The owner of the house invited us to breakfast and served us Nan that was like buckwheat pancakes and a buttery home-made cheese with chai. Delish. Afghans are very hospitable people.

The same 12,000 foot peak framed from outside the mouth of the Valley that Time Forgot. Yes, that means I was waaaaay the hell back there, and now I'm not. It was a big day. Sandcastle in the foreground framed by trees. More art.

At the patrol base we became the Afghan kids' version of Saturday morning cartoons every morning. Please get these kids televisions, as this behavior is really disturbing.

Ahhh, the beauty of Afghanistan.

Can you believe I figured out how to edit movies and put them on here? I'm an infantryman, you know. Wait until I figure out how to put music on the video. I feel like some kind of mad scientist. I know, I know... you all know how to do that.

I'm an infantryman, you know.
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Technology Failure, the Media, and the Osama Virus

Blogger has some kind of glitch that won't allow me to upload the eighteen pictures I had resized to post on the page today, so I'll just ramble for a minute.

Being home is both wonderful and weird. It's absolutely wonderful to see my kids. They are all doing well, and it's almost as if I never left in some ways. It's nice to know that the bond is just never broken. I don't know about them, but I have a newfound appreciation for them. It's a good thing.

Seeing my friends has been great, too; especially my old friends. It's a strange phenomena that most of you have probably felt... almost like time was suspended and you just saw them last week. You just kind of pick up where you left off. Neat. I feel like I owe many of my friends to see them while I'm here. Everyone has been so supportive while I've been in the year 1386 (that's what year it is on the Afghan calendar.)

It's also strange to walk among the people of 2007 and they have no idea of where I've been. There are no signs above my head, and so it's like being in stealth mode. It's strange because practically no one is really conscious of the war, especially the war in Afghanistan. There are no visible signs of the war here; other than on the news, I suppose. That which is reported is, to me, suspect and inaccurate. I will finish the topic of the mild feeling that I actually belong in Afghanistan more than I belong here right now before I get started on the other subject.

You will probably regret that I couldn't post the pictures instead.

My children (the older two, anyway) are acutely conscious of the war in Afghanistan, but most people are not. While the Afghan conflict is much more palatable to the average American, the level of consciousness is low. I do have to say that when people do know, for one reason or another, that I am currently serving over there, they are very supportive.

Yesterday I did a little picture show for the kids at my elder son's school and so I was in uniform. I was on the street later, still in uniform, when I was approached by a young man with a ponytail, a thin beard, and a guitar. He proclaimed himself a hippy and announced that while he did not support the war, he did support troops. He thanked me for my service.

That's a little different from the experience that my brother had returning from Viet Nam. His encounters with hippies involved dog feces and spittle.

So it feels weird to be in the society that I serve. At least for the moment. Not like Afghanistan isn't strange; I feel like I've seen all the characters in the bar scene in Star Wars in that country at one time or another.

Now the other topic... a topic of war just as serious as rockets and machine guns. We call them "non-kinetic" effects. In a manner of speaking, we are shooting ourselves in the heads. Our mainstream media, which is a funhouse mirror reflection of our national consciousness, is the hand holding the non-kinetic gun and blowing our collective brains out of our national skull in slow motion. The little bits and individual cells of gray matter are spinning in bizarre frame by frame motion out of our shattered national cranium, destroying our ability to think.

The media is a funhouse mirror because it consists of people. Any human organization is affected by the personalities and values of those people who influence, or manage, that organization. (Thank you, Mr. Obvious!) Remember who runs the mainstream media. These were the reporters who made their names reporting on My Lai, the Cambodian incursion, and all of the events of the Viet Nam war. To them, their greatest moments were moments that affected the national consciousness to change the course of that war. Beating the tar out of the military and especially a Republican president is actually romantic to them. It's like having their old mistress back.

I know from first-hand experience that the media doesn't report the news. I know from first-hand experience that there was not a single American reporter in The Valley during a very significant event in the history of the Afghan conflict and Afghan history. The media in Afghanistan sits in Kabul and reports reports. They look at the blotter at the headquarters and make up stories as if they know what they are talking about, as if they were there. It is insane.

The people of the United States are being treated like mushrooms... they are being kept in the dark and fed manure. The government bears responsibility for this as much as the media. I have come to the conclusion that we, as a nation, are afraid of the truth.

But the truth shall set us free... if we only accept it and embrace it.

We should always tell the truth. The Army should always tell the truth; good, bad, or ugly. Period. Instead, we occasionally lie. Once caught in one lie, we are always suspect.

Remember Pat Tillman? Why lie about a thing like that? Just tell the truth, accept responsibility for your mistakes, and move on. The loss of credibility has not been worth the few moments of thinking that no one would ever know that we screwed something up.

We had embedded reporters with us in The Valley. One problem; they were military reporters. No mainstream media outlet will publish what they have to say, because it is suspected of being merely propaganda. In short, we could be lying. Why would anyone think we are lying? Ummmm... could it be that we are known to have lied before?

Hmmmmm... could be! (Bugs Bunny moment.)

We should be the champions of truth, and we are not. We have become a nation of spinmeisters, liars par extraordinaire, and we like it! We value our ability to lie. We have come to treasure and reward those who do it well.

My father always told me to be very very careful of those who speak of themselves in the third person. Our media does that. "The United States today...," "In response, the United States said...,"

WE ARE THE UNITED STATES, NIMROD! I want to scream at them at the top of my lungs that pretending that you are an outsider is ridiculous. It is speaking of yourself in the third person collectively, and it has even crept into our speech with each other.

Hell, the very letters tell us the truth... U.S.

We are who we are. Pretending that we are outsiders so that we can pontificate judiciously about ourselves is delusional. Our media does that.

Do you realize that the rest of the world tends to give more credibility to Al Jazeera than to what our own people say? Why do they do that? Because we are delusional and we have been known to lie. We have an inflated sense of our own importance but we have forgotten what is really important. We are de facto leaders of the free world who are so self-absorbed and busy pondering our own navels that we fail to really lead and castigate those in our society who dare to.

The rest of the world takes Al Jazeera with a note of seriousness because at least Al Jazeera has their priorities straight.

Our national persona is that of a drug-addled teenager who is busily ignoring the real world.

Perhaps that is what gives milblogging the impetus that it has. Many do realize that the truth is out here. Just because we are collectively insane does not necessarily make us individually insane.

Don't get me wrong; I don't believe that this war is necessarily one of national survival at this point. Our nation will endure. What may not endure is our way of life. There will be a United States of America, but we may be either a secure country or an embattled society. Having been an operative in an embattled society, I am filled with gratitude that my children live in a secure society. The national fervor for ingratitude is another subject. Everyone should be grateful to be living here. We fill our minds with inconsequential problems of NO import. We have the luxury of having enough time on our hands and idle enough minds that we can actually make a big deal out of such inane things.

We are also quite self-important; so self-important and busy with things that are so ridiculously unimportant that we can do things like leave a year and a half old child in a car seat for the entire day to die of the heat. Why? Donuts for a meeting. How wrapped up in inanity can we be? The individual who performed that feat of fatal child endangerment and neglect is but a symptom of our national fascination with our own self-importance and what we set on a pedestal as important.

Seeing people who struggle mightily for their daily bread and have no bandwidth for such insanity brings me to view such events with different eyes.

They do have their own insanity, mind you. But pointing at the other mentally ill patient in the ward isn't going to help you get well.

The point is that we are engaged in a struggle that will not just go away if we leave. The Vietnamese were perfectly content to busy themselves with their own country after our withdrawal. These guys are not. It is more than a political struggle. It is a religious and economic struggle as well as a political struggle and it is the single greatest threat to our national security that can even be imagined. It is a threat to our way of life, and to our children's future.

These guys will not quit.

We can either fight as a nation, using all of our resources, or we can risk a slow protracted bleeding to death of our way of life and our values. While many of our values are screwed-up, many of them are what allow my children to live so safely and peacefully.

I've seen children who never knew if a firefight was about to break out in their hometown. In one recent ambush, the kids were dropping their bikes and scattering as the RPG's screamed in. I don't want my kids to live like that.

What are our strengths as a nation? Well, we have a very powerful military... we all know that. Our military is so awesome that nutcases here in the states ascribe it such tremendous capability that they wear aluminum foil under their hats to protect their brains from the Pentagon's mind probes.

We also have a powerful economy. We need economic warriors.

Who will go to Afghanistan and destroy their hopelessness with the might of our economic prowess? This war is not just military and political. We can warp Afghanistan from 1386 into the 21st century more quickly with private investment than with twelve divisions of soldiers. Afghanistan has tremendous mineral wealth and high unemployment. Anyone getting the hint?

Alas, we have no warriors in business. Not really. They are like weekend warriors... warriors in name only who pull hammies playing softball while sucking down beers. Where is the great American road warrior? He does not exist. The military tries to fight the economic struggle, but we are warriors, not economists and business leaders. We do the best that we can, but we never made millionaires out of ourselves. Oh, wait; I know of at least one millionaire fighting in Afghanistan. He is fighting the Taliban, not poverty. That's fine, because he is a warrior, too. What about those among you who claim patriotism but abhor weapons? Can you fight for your country economically? Can you employ the weapons that you are adept with? Can you defeat primitive resistance to change with economic opportunity?

Can you help a brother earn a paycheck and show a guy how to mine iron ore for fun and profit?

No? Too comfy behind the wheel of your Lexus to risk your butt in Afghanistan? We risk defeat on that battlefield, then. Oh, and take that American flag off your desk and quit talking like a sidewalk hero.

What's another strength of our country? Our information infrastructure. We are using that strength to strangle ourselves. Our own media uses its perverse bias to abuse our own country on the world stage. We are not just losing the information war, we are fighting for the other side. It's like boxing an opponent while insulting yourself in the third person and constantly slapping yourself in the face with your left hand.

It's pathetic, really.

We, as a nation, will be taught a terrible lesson, just as Osama promised. We are winning the war in Afghanistan, believe it or not. We are winning because the Afghans are actually helping; not all of them, but a committed few. Our nation was built by a committed few. The uncommitted many always benefit from the committed few. Have you ever noticed that we revere Thomas Jefferson, but we never built a monument to Alvin Thomas? Why? Because Alvin Thomas didn't do anything. He sat at home while Thomas Jefferson helped build a new country. Alvin did, however, write a letter to the editor of the local paper complaining about paying a toll to pay for the bridge that the new government built. He was a busy man who waved the flag on the fourth of July every year.

I have no room to speak about Iraq. My knowledge of the situation there is anecdotal at best. What I have had a glimpse into is the mind of the Islamic extremist and the mulch upon which it feeds... hopelessness, ignorance, and malleable minds filled with religious fervor.

Osama and his boys are like a virus. They are tiny and primitive, but highly adaptive and self-replicating. They are the HIV of human society on a planetary scale. Perhaps the bird flu... we seem to take that more seriously now. He's actually more like polio; he will not kill our country, but he may leave us crippled.

As a nation, we have the weapons to defeat such a challenge, but we are a schizophrenic culture who speaks of itself in the third person while enjoying endless delusions behind our welder's goggles.

Where we are winning, we are winning in spite of ourselves.

Wouldn't you rather have looked at pictures?

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Picture Time

Here are a few pictures of some of the recent happenings in The Valley.

The Valley has a lot of farms. They primarily grow wheat (already harvested,) corn (pictured,) potatoes, tomatoes, onions (they LOVE onions,) melons, and cotton.

Sunrise in The Valley. Pictures just don't do the mountains justice.

On patrol with the ANP. This guy's carrying a 120mm Russian mortar round that we captured. We blew it up later. BIG boom. This round can be used to create a powerful IED.

The radio operator during an operational pause in The Valley. We didn't know it then, but he had about a month to live. He was killed by the IED that claimed four of our ANP in September, 2007. He was the guy who was always right there when I turned to talk to the ANP Commander. Good, hardworking kid. This is what an Afghan hero looks like.

7.62 x 54R ammunition captured in The Valley. This type of ammunition is used in Russian-made machine guns and sniper rifles. It's actually a little larger than American 7.62mm ammunition. Very powerful rifle cartridge. This was part of a small ammunition cache.

Afghan blonde hash. To Afghans, marijuana in all of its forms is called hashish. This is the processed end result of the marijuana plants we found all over the valley. The Afghans smoke a lot of hashish.

Raw opium. They grow a lot of opium poppies in The Valley. We found and confiscated all sorts of opium harvesting tools during our searches, and about 4 kilos of raw opium. That's a drop in the bucket as far as the total output of The Valley, but operations didn't begin until the opium harvesting season was well and truly over. Politics. In any case, they use small pieces of wood with razor tips to score the poppy bulbs and then scrape off the black resinous sap that oozes from the cuts. That's raw opium. This was either for personal consumption or was waiting to be sold to a Taliban-controlled buyer to be transported elsewhere for processing into heroin. Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world's heroin, and this is where it starts.

ANA, ANP, and troops of the 82nd Airborne Division working together in The Valley.

ANP, followed by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne emerge from a village following a cordon and search operation in The Valley.

ANP soldier, foreground, and an ANA RPG gunner, background. The ANP and ANA worked very well together in my sector.

Searching a house where the Taliban were having chai within an hour of our arrival. We didn't catch anyone this time, though. This is a fairly typical Afghan compound. Note the steps made of mud, and the general construction.

An Afghan National Army M-113 armored personnel carrier (American made) with a Russian "Dashka" .50 caliber machine gun mounted on it. To an old cold-warrior like me, this is the height of strangeness. Seeing M-113's parked next to BMP-1 Russian armored personnel carriers, all painted in the same livery was just plain weird. It's a brave new world.

Our bedroom one morning in Afghanistan. My crew took turns at night sitting up with the NODS to provide security. There were four of us, a terp, and 100 ANP.

The landscape in The Valley is just plain striking. It is a harsh environment, but the Afghan farmers do a great job of water management on the local level.

Afghanistan can be visually stimulating.

Someday this country may actually have a tourist industry. I've already figured out where the golf course should go in The Valley. It will include a par-3 with a 200 foot vertical drop. Very challenging.

Our convoy coming up on a favorite ambush spot on the road in The Valley. Sometimes they hit you here, sometimes they don't. This kind of behavior is why they don't have a golf course and no tourist industry. There are a couple of prime skiing spots that need to be demined.

This is what it's all about. You can see a lot of the emotions of Afghanistan on their faces. Determination, friendliness, happiness, uncertainty, and trepidation are all there on one face or another. The children of Afghanistan are the future of Afghanistan, and when these children are educated and grown and live in an Islamic democratic society that works, there will be no home in Afghanistan for extremism. That is what will make our country and all the countries of the world safer.

It is not something that will be fixed overnight. And in the meantime there is more work for soldiers and police to do. Either we can do it, or our sons can do it for us. I know that I would prefer that my sons not have to do this.
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Saturday, October 6, 2007


Well, it's finally arrived; my leave. I am scheduled to fly out of Afghanistan tomorrow, and I will be home for just over two weeks. I can't wait to see my children! I really look forward to seeing my family and friends, too.

I have a sense of unreality about the whole thing. It's strange. I spoke with a buddy, a DynCorp contractor here to work with the ANP, who has been on leave a couple of times. He had the same thing. When I first got into Afghanistan, everything felt new and strange. I didn't know what to expect. Bagram didn't make any sense to me when we left the flight line to eat dinner before they flew us down to Kabul International Airport (KIA.) I was straining to see out of the truck when we moved at night from the airport to Camp Phoenix.

A lot of this is reflected in what I wrote around that time. Now Afghanistan is normal. The Valley is normal. Seeing sheep and goats with enormous fatty rumps is normal. Sharing the road with camels is normal. Hearing the raucous braying of donkeys echoing through the countryside is normal. Carrying weapons, having a pistol strapped to my thigh, and riding in a six ton armored truck with a machine gun is normal. Driving with a 40mm high explosive grenade and a white star cluster on the dashboard is normal. Keeping an eye open for someone waiting to kill you is normal. Seeing at least one person in every crowd with unrestrained hatred wishing you dead is normal.

Cincinnati doesn't really exist. It's a distant memory somewhere in the back of my mind, an ideal that hasn't been realized. That's the feeling that I have right now. I'm excited, but there is such a feeling of suspended belief that I'm almost not excited. It's almost like I'm excited about an idea, not an imminent event. I'm looking forward to it on a conscious level, and I'm truly looking forward to it... practically longing for it, yet it just doesn't feel like it's really happening. My subconscious is truly lagging behind on this one.

For the past several weeks I have been really looking forward to seeing my city, to holding my children and kissing their faces. I've been planning to have lunch with friends, spending time with my family, and driving an unarmored vehicle on decent roads. Now it doesn't feel real. Perhaps it seems too good to be true.

Anyway, I'm surprised by the feeling.

On the other hand, I'm set enough on going that I would physically remove any obstacle in my path with whatever level of effort was necessary. No way anyone can keep me off that plane.

So they tell me that tomorrow I'm going to fly out of this place, a five hour flight to Kuwait. In Kuwait we will get a bunch of briefings, spend the night, and have everything searched and do the customs routine. We will schedule our connecting flights. We will then be locked down until we fly out of there, flying all night to either Atlanta or Dallas; then a connecting flight and I'm home.

How strange.

Skyline Chili, the skyline of Cincinnati, and all the familiar sights of my home city. No rocky heights towering above, no camels, no genetically aberrant sheep or goats, no IED's, no AK's, PKM's, RPG's, or Taliban. Paved roads. Traffic lights. Restrooms in every building. No buildings made of dirt. Electricity everywhere. Police who actually have time to give parking tickets and speeding tickets. No outgoing mortars firing. No explosions. Being able to drive anywhere I want without having to put a convoy together.

No body armor. NICE.

And then... the sight of my children... the physical sensation of holding them and feeling them breathe. Seeing the light in their eyes that means that they're alive. Seeing innocence again.

I'm working on my reality.

Perhaps while I'm there I can write a few stories down. There are a few to tell. You can't make this stuff up. Maybe I can post a few pictures. Everyone at home has a life, too, and they will be working and going to school during the day. I'll have a little time and much better bandwidth.
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