Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Odyssey Of The Four Day Pass; Part One

Needless to say (but I will anyway,) R&R time is highly valued by the individual soldier downrange. Separate units may determine the intricacies of how they manage their people’s leave and pass.

Everyone is authorized leave, but I have met those in country who have chosen not to take any leave. Personally, I could not have dealt with that. I missed my kids so much by the time that I finally went on leave that wild horses, Taliban, or recalcitrant officers would not have been able to prevent me from taking my authorized leave.

Everyone is also authorized passes. We are authorized two four day passes. Our command’s policy has been that one of those is an out-of-country pass, the other in-country. That means that, in reality, you have one pass. I’ve had down time, but never have I been authorized to just screw off for four days solid. I don’t anticipate that, either.

My time in Afghanistan is dwindling rapidly. There is no time for just screwing around for four days. There is work to do and arrangements to be made to get back to link up with my original team in preparation for leaving the country. A pass, on the other hand, is serious business.

Leave policy is based on rank and time in theater. The higher the rank, the lower on the list to get the leave dates you requested. The shorter your time in country, the lower on the list you are. Someone somewhere determined some kind of ranking algorithm, but I have no idea how scientific or fair that it is.

It seems to have worked in reverse on the pass scheduling. The ranking officers, who had their leaves at the times that were less attractive to the lower ranks, got their out-of-country passes first.

The FOB that I have moved to is fairly remote. Most resupply, nearly all mail, and most personnel movements happen by air. As my pass date approached, the weather turned bad. I called our Sergeant Major and asked how this would work if I could not make it to Bagram by the appointed day; the day before my pass was scheduled was the “drop dead” date to make it on the flight out of the country.

Sergeant Major Sheriff informed me that it would probably not be a problem; they would most likely just shift me to the next pass date, because this is the last month that they are executing the out-of-country passes anyway.


Well, going back to that separate unit thing; some units authorized no out-of-country passes at all for their soldiers. Apparently it is their right to do so. As a matter of fact, for a time the 218th Brigade (the good people who are currently in charge of Task Force Phoenix) cancelled all out-of-country passes and tried to authorize an extra three days of leave instead. I described that snafu in a previous post; an Air Force member had been gone for 24 days on a four day pass, so the Army cancelled its passes while the Air Force continued theirs.


In any case, my leave fell into the window between the realization that the local Brigade officials could not change Army policy and the realization that out-of-country passes might be reconsidered. For awhile, the “policy” was that you could extend your leave by three days and you would lose your eligibility for a four day pass.

I would happily have traded four days in Qatar for three days at home.

In any case, I was relieved to know that it would work out even if the weather held up air movements for a few days. As it turned out, the weather broke, we moved from the little village to the FOB, and the next day a chopper was scheduled to come and sling-load a piece of equipment to the top of one of the surrounding mountains. They would be capable of taking passengers back with them to J-bad. From there I would catch some sort of flight to Bagram.

Once at Bagram, it was a cinch.

So, two days ago two choppers landed at our little FOB. I was told to go to the first chopper, burdened with a duffle bag and my laptop case as well as the armor and weapons. The crew chief waved me back. I moved off the LZ and waited while the second bird moved forward and picked up the sling load and headed for the rocky heights.

After a pause of several minutes, the crew chief waved me out on the LZ to board the remaining bird. I moved out till I was parallel to the sliding door on the side of the Blackhawk and then headed towards the chopper. I boarded and locked myself into the seat with the four point harness. I was the only passenger on the bird.

While I was in the old province, there was really only one reason to ride in a chopper; you were on your way to be “gift wrapped.” So this was my first chopper ride in Afghanistan. I’ve wondered what Afghanistan would look like from the air.

Pretty much like it does from a mountain, but moving faster.

I enjoyed my flight, taking a few pictures and a bit of video. We stopped at one other FOB on the way, and the other bird picked up a passenger. It took perhaps 15 to 20 minutes in the air to reach J-bad, where we proceeded to the “Pax Terminal,” a B-hut with a sign on it that said, oddly enough, “Pax Terminal.”

For about 20 minutes, it looked like my fellow passenger and I would be leaving on a Chinook bound for Bagram within an hour and a half of our arrival. Sweet!

Alas, ‘twas not to be.

The Chinook didn’t have time to put down and take off again on their transit from elsewhere to elsewhere, so we had to find lodging in the “transient tent” for the night.

During this time I came to know a very interesting man. SSG Tom Mix had been picked up at the brief stop we had made at the other FOB. He had opted not to take leave during his tour, but a Red Cross message was sending him home.

His father had scant days to live.

SSG Mix was a horse trainer by trade. Born and raised in Kentucky, he had moved to Montana and worked so much in Arizona that he belonged to the Arizona Guard. He was on his fourth tour of the war, having spent the other tours in Iraq, two in the Army and one as a contractor for a security firm. He had left Iraq at the completion of his last tour there and proceeded directly to Afghanistan.

No, he is not outwardly of unsound mind.

SSG Mix is 53 years old and had been a member of a maneuver platoon, out hunting Taliban in the mountains, valleys, and draws of Afghanistan; which is a very physical existence. He was pretty much what you would expect from such a man; weathered, capable-looking, carrying the manner of an outdoorsman.

We got along well for the time we spent together. We ate together, watched a movie at the MWR, and basically “hung out” together while our paths were crossed. He’s a really good guy.

When his father made the decision to discontinue treatment for his particular malady, he had known that it would mean that he had roughly a week to ten days to live. SSG Mix’s father indicated that he wanted Tom to come home to be a comfort to his mother, and so the family had initiated the Red Cross procedures and the message had made its way to Afghanistan and the unit that SSG Mix belongs to.

SSG Mix called his father by satellite link from the COP. His father expressed his desire for Tom to come home and take care of his mother, and he also indicated that no American soldier was to risk his life to get him home.

When SSG Mix informed his chain of command of the situation, they offered to send the relief force a couple of days early in bad weather to relieve his unit. SSG Mix, remembering the words of his father, declined the special treatment. No American would take any unusual risk.

This is how I came to meet a unique and fascinating American figure. Chuck Norris has nothing on this guy.

We swapped stories and had a few laughs while we whiled away the time that we were stuck in Jalalabad. Our flight was the first out the next morning. We flew on the small twin turboprop on the twenty minute flight to Bagram where the system took over to speed SSG Mix on his way home to one of the most difficult experiences of any person’s life; the loss of a parent to death. This is where we parted ways with a handshake and good wishes.

Godspeed, SSG Mix.

At Bagram I proceeded to the LNO’s (Liason Officer’s) B-hut and checked in. They gave me a ride down to the R&R center for the 218th Brigade. Once I had checked my weapons and armor, I called my old pal SFC Jacques Pulvier, who was overjoyed to hear my voice.

“Hey, brother! So you finally got somewhere that your phone would work, eh?”

“Yeah. How ya doin, Jacques?”

“I’m doing great! The Colonel’s on leave, and I’m taking care of business for the time being. Where are you?”

“I’m at Bagram. Where are you?”

“I’m at Phoenix.”


“No, I’m coming back this afternoon. Where are you staying? You staying at the R&R tent?”

“Not if I don’t have to.”

“You don’t! We’ve got lots of room. After Rick Dyne locked the Colonel in his room with the door latch, the Colonel moved out and has a quarter of a B-hut up behind the BDOC. We’ve been using his old room for just such occasions,” he explained.

“Rick locked the Colonel in his room?” My curiosity was peaked.

“Yeah! I’ll tell you about it later. Go on down to the hooch and I’ll see you in a few hours… it’ll be great to see you!”

“Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this!”

It was Old Home Week that evening. We got all caught up, told stories, and swapped pictures. We stayed up until after 0200 talking. Jacques Pulvier is one of those guys that I will stay in touch with for as long as I can. He’s just good people.

The story about the Colonel getting locked in his room was hilarious. I almost threw up. I could just picture Rick doing it and the Colonel’s reaction. Funny funny stuff!

My flight leaves tomorrow. I’m waiting for the notoriously finicky wireless internet connection at the Pat Tillman USO Center to begin working again so that I can post this. If not, I will post it from Qatar tomorrow.


  1. Good to know you are getting your deserved R&R. Apparently, the military includes red tape with relaxing. :-)
    Looking forward to the next tale...and photos.

  2. My, what a life full of interesting happenings. I hope you have an opportunity to speak to your children while on leave (especially on Valentine's Day). I know they would love that, and it would brighten you day, too. Have a happy one.

    Godspeed, SSG Mix.

  3. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in a blog post From the Front 02/15/2008 Due to lax posting this week I’m bringing you ALL of the front line posts for the week today in a separate post. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy.


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