Sunday, April 29, 2007

Rainbows Over Afghanistan

It rained today for the first time since we've been at Camp Dubs. This was preceded by a fierce dust storm that lasted only long enough to clog the eyes and noses of those who were not quick enough to get to cover. The rain was sorely needed. Afghanistan is in the grip of a drought of several year's duration.

The rain was accompanied by a brilliant lightning show. The lightning shot across the sky and around the mountain top, adding to the imposing presence of the mountain.

Three of us had just come down from a 500 foot foothill of the mountain, which we had climbed for physical training. We were grateful that our timing had been so precise that we had arrived back within the Hesco walls of our tiny fort scant minutes before the pelting dust slammed into the camp.

After the rain I noticed that half of the graveled floor of our enclave looked dry... not a neat division, but spots here and there. That was really strange. Then I gazed up at the angry gray sky that framed the Queen's Palace, and there it was... a rainbow.

It was quite a sight; the war-ravaged Queen's Palace, perched on its hill like a forlorn dowager overlooking her shell-torn city, overcast by the angry rain clouds, with a partial rainbow set above it like a tilted crown. A small promise of hope above the war-pocked Queen of Kabul.

I thought to run for my camera, but knowing the nature of rainbows, and seeing how this one was fading, I opted to enjoy the vision laid before me, to live in the moment. It was good for me.

Speaking of the promise of hope, I had mentioned in a previous posting that Afghanistan has a horrendous infant mortality rate and a stupefying maternal mortality rate in childbirth. Well, another rainbow... the infant mortality rate has dropped by 18%. It is down as of 2006 to 135 per 1000 live births from 165 in 2001. It seems that the Taliban were not so good for babies, either.

The rate of maternal mortality is still second only to Sierra Leone.

It was a partial rainbow. But it was still a rainbow.
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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Our First Missions

We’ve been doing missions for five days now. Five days, five missions. All of them have been around the Kabul area. Some were just convoys to get things done, like picking up or scrounging equipment, getting administrative issues cared for, or making face-to-face coordination. One was an escort mission. We’re getting more comfortable with the procedures that we use to get things done and keep things orderly. Procedures are good. Predictability is bad.

Each of us that go out have gotten experience driving and gunning. Some have gotten experience as the vehicle commander. So far, the more experienced guys from other teams or the headquarters elements have been the convoy commanders, the “guides” as it were.

It is potentially dangerous. There have been plenty of IED’s in Kabul. Not many small arms attacks, but there have been roadside bombs, vehicle-borne bombs, and suicide vest bombers in Kabul. There was an IED about a mile up the road that hit another convoy just last week, a few days before we started doing missions. It’s a lot quieter here than in many parts of the country.

There are Taliban and ACM (Anti Coalition Militia) here, but the population of Kabul are, for the most part, happy that the Taliban is gone. They want to live in peace and just be free to do business and be left alone. They aren’t too sure about us, perhaps… but they don’t like the alternative at all. They will just look at us with dull curiosity, and if you give them a little wave and a nod, they will wave and nod back. The children will all wave and shout and even the smallest will give the “thumbs up.”

Our traditional sign of good, “thumbs up,” is a traditional equivalent of flipping someone off here. I’m not sure of the exact meaning, but it isn’t nice. But the Afghans know that to us it is a good thing. When the kids do it, it’s supposed to mean what we think of it as. I waved at an old man from the turret today and he smiled a big smile and gave me the thumbs up.

I’m not sure what he meant.

This is a strange country, a country of extremes. I have been amused and heartbroken in the same moment. Today I rode in an escort convoy as a passenger in an up-armored humvee. Later I was in the turret, but while I was a passenger I had nothing but time to look and take pictures. I saw people going about their lives in such difficult circumstances, and to them it is just life.

Anyone capable of reading this has very high-class problems compared to these folks. Can you imagine having to use the better part of your day just to get a few things from the store?

I have to admit to something. I have a soft spot for kids. The children here are just as poor as their parents, and that is dirt poor. Today I looked over in a field and saw three little boys not much older than my youngest son squatting in a field of dirt. Their toys were made of dirt. Their world is made of dirt. My heart melted.

I’ve said that Afghanistan is a place of extremes, and it is extremely dirty here. There is dirt everywhere. It seems like everything is dirty, and everyone is dirty. Seeing little kids that are just plain filthy dirty breaks my heart. Then you see kids going to school, carrying bookbags that were likely donated by somebody back home, and my heart leaps a little.

The adults here will often stop and watch as we roll by. We have priority, and there are TV and radio ads telling people that military convoys always have the right-of-way. We basically bull our way through the chaotic Kabul traffic. Afghanistan has no national driver’s license. Kabul has city licenses, but that’s about it. There are no traffic laws, only tendencies. They tend to drive on the right side of the road, they tend to drive in lanes, etc. The road is shared by everything from automobiles to “jingle trucks” (Large trucks blinged-out Afghan style,) to donkey carts, bicycles, and even hand carts. It is not unusual to see a flat-bed cart pushed by one or two men occupying the right lane of the road. The rest of the traffic responds as a flooded stream would respond to an obstruction; it rushes around it by whatever route seems to offer the least resistance.

Traffic patterns here are much like swollen streams. It flows like an angry current, swirling and eddying and rushing and pooling. Pedestrians add to the chaos, rushing out into traffic seemingly without looking. There are police everywhere, but they only seem to really control the traffic circles. At the traffic circles, it’s chaos on the brink of cataclysm.

Most Afghan drivers will yield the right of way to the convoys once they see them. There’s a problem. Another tendency… the closest to a law that they have; Afghan drivers rarely if ever use their mirrors. They don’t see us coming, and we have to honk our dinky little horns to get their attention. Humvee horns are not impressive in the least. They sound like old Volkswagen horns. “Beep Beep,” says the seven ton behemoth with the heavy machine gun turret.

Some of the adults stare expressionless. If you wave to them from the turret, about 9 in 10 of them will wave back. Many will smile, once the trance is broken. One man stared at me from the window of a truck. I watch everyone, everything. I looked back. He stared into my dark sunglass/goggles with the same expressionless look that is most common. Curious, yet reserved. I broke the silent moment with a casual wave. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “No.” I mentioned it over the intercom with amusement as I warily kept an eye on him.

“He does not like you,” Cowboy said. Hmmm. “You really think so, sir?”

You must understand that we don’t want to be bottled up in traffic. There are people here, in Kabul, who would like to turn our trucks into flaming wreckage, former humvees become portable ovens in which to cremate our remains. We, on the other hand, would very much like not to be cremated at this juncture. We prefer to keep moving, at least being a moving target. Some of the guys take traffic tie-ups as a personal challenge to their survival and become very aggressive. If a driver obviously sees us and does not move over when there is an opportunity to, a gunner may throw a water bottle at him to get his attention. This invariably works.

It is not, however, good PR. There are some mullahs preaching in the mosques that we are disrespecting the Afghan people with this behavior. I don’t know how much effect the preaching is having. I have never thrown a bottle at an Afghan driver. That is not to say that I won’t if I feel it necessary. I just haven’t found it necessary yet.

If we feel threatened we can shoot, obviously. No one wants to kill a civilian. The problem with insurgents is that they blend in with the population… we don’t know if the guy in the truck window might shoot us, or if the guys cutting into traffic are trying to detonate a bomb in their car. So we watch everyone with suspicion, and they look back with expressionless curiosity.

We must be quite an enigma to them. The easiest one to see is the gunner. When I’m up in the cupola, I wrap my face in a shemagh (traditional Afghan head wrap) to keep from breathing the dust and wear my WileyX SG1 sunglasses with the gaskets to keep the sand out of my eyes. You can’t see what I look like.

Just as well… they’d probably shoot me on sight if they could see my face, figuring they were doing me a favor!

Anyway, we must be like space aliens to them. But when the stare is broken by a wave, many will smile and wave back. Some nod. Others give us the “thumbs up.”

I always wonder, “Was that an American thumb, or an Afghan thumb?”
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Friday, April 20, 2007

Settling Into Temporary

So, here we sit in Camp Darulaman, in Kabul, waiting for our Afghan counterparts to finish with another project (you’d laugh if I told you what it is) so that we can start getting to know them. We are settled in our “B-huts,” plywood covered wood frame buildings with metal roofs that house about six men apiece. The buildings are lined up “dress right dress” in a graveled yard only about 300 meters by 100 meters, surrounded by high walls made of modular barrier materials. There are towers at each corner, and a motor pool at one end where all the vehicles are parked. Roughly in the center there is a mess hall, which is really very good, and couple of rows of huts from there are the shower/sanitary trailers, which are kept very clean. We also have a fitness center, with treadmills, stationary bikes, and weights. There are plywood “kiosks” of bottled water every time you turn around.

We’ve been here about 5 days now. It’s really much nicer than Camp Phoenix, although there is no PX. There is a bazaar every Sunday, which we haven’t been here for yet. This Sunday will be our first.

Kabul is a sprawling city. There are more than a couple of million people in Kabul, and from higher up the hill you can see the vastness of it. There are a couple of two to three thousand foot mountains right in the middle of the city that flows around them and draws up their sides as if by some sort of human capillary action. Our “terp,” or interpreter explained to us that the higher up the mountainside, the poorer the inhabitant of the abode. He found it amusing that in the US in a city this size, the higher up the mountain, the richer the inhabitant is likely to be.

Our mountainside dwellers wouldn’t have to walk up the mountain to get to their home, and would be more than happy to pay for the spectacular view, the inherent security of being exhausting to reach, and to look down upon their fellows like Snoopy doing his vulture routine. These folks pay for their lack of financial fortune with excellent aerobic fitness and a one mile, two hour walk home uphill all the way. The houses cling to the mountainside almost desperately, looking for all the world like they really shouldn’t stay up there, but they do. Very few look as if they were built recently.

If people anywhere in the world would have sprouted wings out of necessity, it would have been Afghans. “These people are harder than Chinese arithmetic,” as one Colonel put it.

Afghanistan has an enormous infant mortality rate, and a huge child mortality rate as well. The main causes are simple diseases and a horrible accident rate. Afghanistan is simply not very well child-proofed. Children are hit by cars in this country all the time. In addition to the fact that there really are no traffic laws or licensing requirements here, people literally will step off of the curb without looking. Either way, about one in ten children die in infancy, and many more will never see their fifth birthday.

One reason is the water. If we, as Americans, drank the water here we would die. We would die painful, cramping, horrible dignity-stripped deaths. We drink bottled water. The Afghans in many places do not have that luxury. Children contract diseases that are largely unheard of in the US, like cholera, and many of them die from it. Those that don’t develop the most wicked immune systems that you could possibly imagine. American sewage is cleaner than the Kabul River. No wonder these people are harder than woodpecker lips. It’s like the natural selection from hell.

In the US, we say that no parent should ever bury one of their children. These people do it all the time. Not only that, but their death rate from women dying in childbirth is enormous, approaching medieval standards. Death is simply a lot easier to come by here. Throw in 30 plus years of warfare, and you’ve got a pretty deadly place to live. Yet there are people all over the place here. Afghanistan has five million more people than Iraq.

From higher up the hillside, you can see an enormous expanse of city sprawling before you. The Afghans use the Islamic calendar, and it is 1386, I think. Looking at the city, having been on the streets, it truly is 1386. With cars and trucks and buses and motorcycles. There are multi-storied buildings, but most are severely damaged and are being used anyway. When American movies depict a post-apocalyptic world, they depict something like this. Millions of people living with barely any infrastructure… it is simply amazing.

These people are hard. They are born hard, and they live hard. They have to be hard to live. The soft ones die. Fast. We watch Survivor on TV. These people live it every day. Hey, here’s an idea… Survivor: Afghanistan. Put those guys right in the middle of Kabul. I might find a better place out in the countryside when we move out to the east around Jalalabad in a few weeks. Yup… send those money-grubbing nimrods over here… we’ve got something for them. I’d like to see Richard fishing naked in the Pesch River. Then again, maybe not. It would be like a bus wreck, though… you wouldn’t want to look, but you’d have to. Yuck. Taliban aside, this is one of the most challenging places on Earth to live.

Here in Camp Dubs we’ve got clean water, showers, toilets, great chow, and relative safety. Jalalabad is a different story, but that’s weeks away now.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007


OH MY GOD! What an experience... arrival, reception, in-briefs, in-processing, short stays in plywood buildings, loading duffel bags onto trucks, unloading truckloads of duffels, a new country, surrounded by strangers, meeting people you know, meeting people you don't know, NATO partner soldiers... I've spoken with a Mongolian. Romanians are pretty cool people. The French don't say much, but they look a lot. Getting off the plane to, "Welcome to The Suck!" Brain spinning with so much information that you have to choose what to pay attention to.

We arrived in Kabul in the middle of the night, so the drive from KIA (Kabul International Airport) to the main camp wasn't much to speak of. There was almost no movement at all on the streets. It looked poor, but it was dark and you really couldn't see much. Then there were a day and a half there at the main camp before going to another FOB. We took a trip through Kabul in daylight. I can't describe it. More stuff than you can imagine, and it was all going on at once. The poverty is unbelievable, the buildings damaged years ago that are still occupied in whatever condition they were left after the dust of the explosion cleared, the mud everywhere, the filthy Kabul river, the meat hanging in shop windows for who knows how long, the overwhelming poverty.

The boy who appeared to be about my son's age who was standing next to the corrugated tin shack (lean-to) that he lives in. It was the size of four port o' lets and seems to be held together by the same stuff that holds a house of cards together. He just stood there and stared.

Then there was the traffic... utterly unbelievable. The main road was a divided highway in places, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. There were people everwhere, walking, riding bicycles, cars everywhere, buses packed to the gills, trucks, donkey carts, chaos chaos chaos. Then there was the chaos; there are no traffic laws in Afghanistan. You don't need a license to drive, just a car and willingness to brave that insanity. It shows.

The novelty... houses clinging improbably to the mountainside all the way to the top. It makes you wonder how they get up there. The houses and the people. How do they live?

We sat on the bus in our body armor, helmeted-up, weapons loaded, and looked at them. They looked at us curiously. Some were annoyed, as the bus driver blew his dual horns nearly constantly... and they were very loud... so that we could bull our way through the insane traffic, escorted by weapons carriers. We didn't want to get held up long enough to make a target of opportunity for anyone. Most people seemed to simply look... some waved. One, cut off, spit.

I was shocked by the entire trip, and so were the other team members. Our eyes were opened to Kabul. We're told the poverty is much worse where we will be going soon.

In the 1920's the King of Afghanistan had two palaces built; one for him, and one for his queen. They are called, oddly enough, The King's Palace and The Queen's Palace. The Queen's Palace is also called Darulaman Palace, which means "Place of Peace." It has not had an entirely peaceful history. When the communists took over, they killed some family members there and booted the rest out and made it some type of headquarters. It has been the scene of fights involving the Soviets, the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and NATO forces. It has seen better days. There is a plan to refurbish it. Here's to better days for these national treasures.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Like Being Sucked Into A Black Hole

That's what it feels like... no idea what's on the other side, really... couldn't stop it if you wanted to... the closer you get the faster you go... gonna be weird on the other side... the year starts here... wonder how it's going to feel... like when you fall in your dream and see the ground rushing up at you and wonder if it's going to hurt.

I keep remembering the ring-shaped cloud of dust when Wile E. Coyote hits the canyon floor after another hare-brained attempt on the Roadrunner's life.

This blog will either get a lot more exciting very soon or................ not. However, there will probably be pictures. Perhaps video.

Perhaps just a ring-shaped cloud of dust and a muffled thud.

We'll see what's on the other side soon...
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Friday, April 6, 2007

Hurry Up And Wait!

A byword... or phrase... in the Army, it is now in full implementation. We know when we are leaving, and we know where we are going, and our mission is not exactly what we thought it was. So what? We are going somewhere a little more dangerous than what we thought, and we will be doing a little different mentoring than we thought.

So what?

What, really, is different? It is what it was always going to be... we just didn't know it. Our world was simply clarified a little. It will still be different than any of us can imagine right this minute. There is no way that I can adequately describe... even to myself... what my life will be like in two weeks.

Today I went with some of the other guys to the 1st Infantry Division museum. We had the time. While we were there, one of the video displays had a looped video of letters written by soldiers to their friends, family, and spiritual advisors during World War I. One of them really showed that men of whatever time are fundamentally the same. He said in his letter to his friend that the thing he was most afraid of was "getting a yellow streak." Yup. I can empathize.

Who knows exactly what they'll do when they are being shot at? Even if they've been shot at before, who knows how they'll do next time?

That kind of thinking is exactly what happens when you have too much time on your hands... when you have to, "hurry up and wait." Well, we're waiting. At least we know how long we're waiting, though.
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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A Team Refreshed

It's amazing what two weeks of being with family and friends can do for a man. There is a visible difference in each man on the team after having two weeks at home with his loved ones. Everyone is relaxed and at ease with each other. Everyone is ready to get going, to "get the clock started." The clock is the year that we will spend in Afghanistan, and that clock doesn't start until the day that our boots are on the ground there.

My kids were in really great shape. The school-age kids are doing well in school, and the little ones are doing well. It was great to see them and spend time with them. The goodbyes were actually easier this time, because they've already seen me leave and then come back, so they know that they are not being abandoned. I explained to them that this next stretch will be about twice as long as the first one, and they seem to feel that they can do that. It was sad to leave them again, but it wasn't as traumatic as it was in January.

I'm grateful for that. For them more than for me. It's hard to see my kids in pain.

We found out today exactly what day we will be flying to Afghanistan. It's good to know, and to know that we won't be suffering a bunch of "mickey mouse" on the way there. Our travels should be quick and direct. We like quick and direct. We don't like slow and circuitous. Many people have had the slow and circuitous route to Afghanistan, but we won't. We are truly lucky boys.

Most of us are eager to get the clock ticking. There are a lot of other feelings, but hey... the ticket has already been purchased, and there is no getting off of the train. Might as well get on with the ride.
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