Friday, February 22, 2008

Reunions And Getting Short

I'm at Bagram now, and there have been a number of remarkable reunions since I've gotten back from Qatar. Sam, the combat terp, he of The Valley Operation back in August, was the first.

When you get to know an Afghan, it all starts with a handshake. The single handed handshake of American business associates is the standard, although many Afghans don't have a lot of grip to it. However, to Afghans, handshakes are mandatory. To not offer a hand; or to not accept a proffered hand, is practically hostile.

Stage two of a developing friendship is signified by the two-handed handshake, or the handshake with the forearm clasp. Stage three is the handshake with chest bump type hug over the clasped hands. Stage four is the full hug... either a handshake going into a two-armed hug or just straight to the hug.

Stage five is the full hug with touching cheeks. Stage six is the full hug, touching cheeks, and a kissing noise. Stages five and six are very uncomfortable for Americans. It requires conscious acceptance.

Stage seven is holding hands.

An Afghan may skip stages and go straight to stage seven. Stage seven is the most challenging of all for an American. It is just plain uncomfortable to hold hands with another man; but it doesn't mean the same thing here as it does in the United States, obviously. It is the highest compliment that an Afghan can pay you. It is an act of friendship and trust that surpasses all others.

Then there is the full on bear hug. It is universal, transcending all languages. It says, like nothing else, "man, it's really good to see you!"

The terps know that Americans aren't really comfortable with some of the customs, and so most of them won't hold your hand. Some will. Right before I went on pass, I said my final goodbyes to another terp who had gotten a new job. He held my hand as I talked with him about his future and about some of our adventures together. He was with me in The Valley That Time Forgot. He is one of the hopes of Afghanistan.

Sam is one, too. The terps are some of the most amazing young men that you could ever meet. I will write more about them another time, but for now it will suffice to say that they are living symbols of hope for Afghanistan; patriots, heroes. Nearly every one I've talked to has a vision of what Afghanistan can be, what they are willing to put their lives on the line for it to be.

When I saw Sam the other morning as the sun rose, he gave me a full on back-cracking bear hug.

"I have missed you, sir."

"I've missed you too, Sam."

I've met some real characters in Afghanistan, and I've met some of the finest men I've ever met in my life. The bonds of shared dangers and privations are powerful. (Boy, doesn't that sound dramatic?) I really like these guys, anyway.

Later that morning, I was reunited with Rick Dyne, the DynCorp contractor who I worked with for months in the province. He's a great guy who is doing his part to win this war by making the ANP the best that they can be. His sense of humor is one of the things that made working with him a real pleasure.

Another bear hug. I hadn't expected him to come back because I thought that he was just plain sick and tired of The Game.

Here at Bagram, I've run into a number of people that I haven't seen in some time. Some for a couple of months, some for nearly a year. Many are simply acquaintances, but after a time in theater, seeing another person unharmed and nearing the end of their tour is a small joy.

As people near the end of their tours, they become "short" (short-timers.)

"How short are you?" It's a common question.

I'm so short I can't see over my shoe laces. I'm also ready to go home. I'm tired of The Game, too. It's not Afghanistan, it's not the Afghans. It's not the prospect of getting shot at or blown up; it's The Game.

But more than that, it's needing to see my kids. It's more than a want, it's a need. And they need me, too. They never asked to make this sacrifice, and the time of their giving up their dad for their country is nearly over. Sixteen months without their dad is long enough.

The light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter and brighter. The idea of holding my children again is becoming so real. It gets harder as it gets closer... the constant dull ache punctuated by sharp stabs of pain gets more intense.

I really miss my kids. I miss what I've missed with my kids. The missed birthdays, the events, the holidays, the moments of hilarity, the moments of wonder, the moments of growth.

They told us before we came here that it's a marathon and not a sprint. The hardest part of a long run is the end, when you can see the finish line. This has that same feeling, except it's not physical. It's mental and emotional.

Sometimes it's hard to believe that we are so close to be heading back to the States. I could not imagine the things that this whole experience would bring, and to look back and realize that I am almost there; almost done... it's actually startling.
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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Odyssey Of The Four Day Pass: This Is Getting Ridiculous

We had planned to go on a dhow* cruise on day three, but later in the evening of day two it was canceled due to lack of participation. The day before, we had wanted to do the cruise, but it was booked, so we did the picnic. Now nobody wants to go on a cruise?


Day three was a down day, then. It was nice not to have to show up early, run around while being herded by a Sri Lankan or Nepalese, and just have a relaxing day.

Day four was a repeat of the Doha tour. We had another hoot. This time I took advantage of one of the small attractions of the enormous City Center Mall; a two-story ice slide on inner tubes. That was hilarious! Watching Major Harley McDavidson, a bodybuilder type and excellent tour companion, smash into the mattress-lined wall at warp speed forcing a profanity out of him on impact was so funny I almost wet my pants.

He was unharmed. Major McDavidson is a very durable guy.

On the evening of the fourth day here, it is your responsibility to check the board at 2100 hrs to see when you leave this land of magical warehouses. Our compatriots from Iraq were scheduled to fly out in the wee small hours of the night back to Kuwait to be redistributed all over Mesopotamia.

We, on the other hand, were not only stranded here for an extra day, but we were split into two groups alphabetically and some were stranded for two extra days. I was in the latter group, while Captain Koppenkopf and Major McDavidson were to fly the next evening.

The four day pass program, and the R&R program that they run here in Qatar, are a good thing. Our command in Afghanistan is stopping the program soon, however. The reason is just this very type of foul up happening continuously. I have now been gone from my FOB for twelve days for a four day pass and I still have no idea when I will make it back to the wilds of Afghanistan.

This is an experience that I'm glad that I've had... another country upon which my feet have trod... another experience had... but there is a corner of guilt in my mind for all of those who will not have this experience.

Much of this delay has been due to the Air Force, who does not place a strong emphasis on transporting soldiers to and from this place. Unfortunately, many who do make it here are the fobbits, not the Privates and Specialists out in the tiny FOB's, firebases, and combat outposts in the hinterlands of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's a difficult program to administer. It complicates life in the units, creates more work for the S-1 (Personnel section) and creates absences and headaches. So many units simply don't mess with it; but it is good for soldiers.

Of course, these decisions are paygrades above me; but especially with the Army going to fifteen month deployments, it is vitally important that someone learn how to make this work. We are already fighting a very distant war on the cheap. Especially in Afghanistan, the forgotten front.

We are undermanned, underfunded, under equipped, and often operating in very remote locations. Iraq gets priority for everything; it is the bone of contention. It is the place in the news. Our struggles in Afghanistan go mostly unnoticed by those at home. I have actually been asked, "Are we still in Afghanistan?"

Trust me, we are there.

Units cannot bear the strain of having soldiers missing for three weeks for a four day pass. It's not fair to the other soldiers, and someone will get left out.

Will someone please figure this out? This is getting ridiculous.

*Dhow-a traditional Arab boat that looks vaguely like a Chinese junk. It is made of wood and in the past was used for fishing and trade. In Qatar, they are often used as recreational boats.
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Monday, February 18, 2008

The Odyssey Of The Four Day Pass: Inland Sea

On "day two," which was actually our third day here, I and some friends that I had made while on pass signed up for the "Inland Sea Picnic." Not knowing much more than the title of the event, we showed up at the appointed hour, which was early again. Roll call was called by last four of the SSN, and we were split into SUV-sized loads and awaited our chariots.

The SUV's arrived a little late, and as we began to load my one and only pair of jeans that I had brought with me went into failure mode.

No, they were not too tight, and they were Lee jeans, so you wouldn't think that they would be so cheap.

The result was a little extra air conditioning in the groin area. Not a pornographic event, since I had not chosen to go commando, but still a bit disconcerting. We were not quite ready to leave, so I excused myself, walked into the building, and went to the "men's closet," where they have loaner clothes. I selected the first pair of trousers that would most likely fit and walked back out the vehicles, whole trousers in hand.

An auspicious start to the day.

Our drivers convoyed across the open countryside towards our destination at nearly the 120KPH speed limit (which is strictly enforced) and as we neared the inland sea, ATV rental joints popped up next to the road at intervals, becoming nearly a constant line of them as we entered the dunes area.

CPT Koppenkopf asked, "Will we be able to ride an ATV?"

"Huh?" responded the driver.

"The four-wheelers. Will we be able to ride one today?"

"Yes." The air of the reply left the impression that he did not really understand the question and was replying in the affirmative because the answer did not matter to him. It was either that or he was just trying to shut the captain up.

"I'm not sure if he really understood what I asked him," the Captain said to me.

"I think that if I asked him if I could marry a camel in Qatar, he would say 'yes,'" I said.

We laughed about this. I still think that it was true.

It was amazing; there were literally hundreds of ATV's for rent in this small area. Being a Thursday, it was the first day of the Qatari three day weekend. All of the ATV rental shops were banking on one thing; Qatari's love to four-wheel, and not all of them own ATV's.

We pulled off of the road and stopped near a couple of Bedouins with camels. One of the guys on the tour paid 5 Qatari Riyals to mount the camel and have his picture taken in the camel racing saddle. The beast rose, posed, and descended. It was done.

Any thoughts of performing this feat were banished by the knowledge that my apparel had demonstrated an inability to maintain integrity. I had a small but fragile tear that was threatening to turn my Lee's into a cheap imitation of riding chaps.

I've ridden camels before, anyway. It is an ungainly thing.

The real reason for the stop was so that the drivers could let the air out of the tires in preparation for the next leg of the journey, which was cross-country in the dunes area. We had no idea what we were in for.

Our driver turned out to be a frustrated fighter pilot consigned to driving a four wheel drive Toyota in his best imitation of a multi-million dollar high performance aircraft. Once loosed on the sand he caromed about like his hair was on fire, on several occasions banking his Japanese imitation F-16 high up on the sides of dunes at speeds of 70 mph as we looked down on another of the SUV's thirty or forty feet below. We canted at angles which would mean a guaranteed rollover in the up-armored humvees to which we are accustomed.

It was a hoot. As we came to one place where the sandy track proceeded around the end of a dune, he rolled up to the other vehicles, looked at one of the other drivers, made a loop, and ran straight up the side of the dune, cutting a couple of hundred meters off the distance to be covered. We loved his antics.

We stopped short of our objective and dismounted, walking around for a few minutes and enjoying the desert view. As we began to wonder what exactly we were doing, we were told to mount up again and rolled for only another five minutes or so to the tiny seaside compound which was our destination.

We unloaded and found that there were indeed sanitary facilities, which most of us had need of by then. I used this opportunity to exchange my newly ventilated jeans for the khaki's I had found in the men's closet.

My friends and I settled ourselves into a series of beach chairs under a grass thatched-roof shelter on the edge of the beach and began to talk amongst ourselves. We were soon joined by an independent reporter who was researching for a syndicated weekend radio news program. She was a delightful change of pace who had plenty of stories of her own, though she was very self-effacing about it.

Her Army-issued escort, on the other hand was an insufferable blowhard who told brazen lies of his exploits. What a contrast. She was a genuine, interesting human being who wouldn't blow her own horn, and he was a strident, attention-seeking wannabe who was attempting to smother her. He was performing his official function exceedingly poorly, while performing acts that were not his job with ferocious persistence.

Some of his "war stories" were so patently unbelievable as to be laughable. The reporter, on the other hand, had actually been kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents... a fact that we did not learn from her, but by looking to see what types of things she had written and finding that she had in fact been written about.

Our group laughed and told stories, each in their turn telling of their personal experience with various types of interactions with people. We all laughed a lot. The appearance of a hookah at our table brought further comedy, and soon there were three of the enormous water pipes with various flavored tobaccos sitting on the coffee table under the thatched roof by the beach.

We discussed tobacco in its many forms, and the discussion turned to cigars. SPC Creechster, a 45 year old from South Carolina with a warm temperament who works as a carpenter back home and is not known for being especially erudite suddenly offered, "I judge a cigar by the way that it reflects off of a good cup of coffee."

I stared at him, mouth agape. I laughed and said, "That is the last thing in the world I would expect to come from you! The way that a cigar 'reflects' off of a beverage would be something that you would hear at a wine tasting, not over a hookah on a beach from a carpenter. What happens to you when you smoke a hookah? It's like someone flipped a switch and 'poof!' you're a freakin connoisseur."

We all laughed for a few minutes. It has become a running joke with us to enjoy how a cigarette 'reflects' off of the beverage of the moment, whatever it is.

Our reporter friend, temporarily freed of the overbearing pest hovering over her, moved off to seek other research subjects and we continued with our hookahs and levity. We had a lot of fun photographing each other smoking the bong-like contraptions and waiting for the much-needed sustenance of the picnic.

I rolled my pants legs up and walked out into the chilly waters of the Persian Gulf. I spied a small crab in the sand under the water and moved towards it. The crab spun about, aware of my feet under the water. We eyed each other warily for a moment. I had thoughts of catching it and displaying it to my companions. The crab had the opposite in mind.

Another wave came in, and I moved slightly forward. As the crest of a small wave passed over the it, the crab buried itself so quickly in the sand that it seemed to simply vanish. I was enthralled.

I stared at the spot in the sand where I knew that the crab lay in hiding and decided to call off the chase. The rolled bottoms of my trousers were being wet by the cold waves, and discretion was the better part of valor. I retreated back to our thatched shelter and told of my crab-spying exploits, joking that I had thought we could all have a little crab treat before lunch.

It was incredibly relaxing sitting next to the beach, pulling on a hookah and regaling each other with tales of our experiences. Lunch was soon ready, and we were all famished. Lunch was a mixture of hummus, grilled lamb, grilled chicken, and vegetables. They also served hot dogs, which they referred to as, "chicken."

Tubular chicken on a beach in Qatar. We got a kick out of that.

As soon as we were done eating, it was time to leave. We moved back to the SUV's and the drivers did a reverse of the drive out. Our frustrated fighter pilot took a long slashing path up the side of a high dune and we wound up looking down on the other three vehicles as they trailed along next to the dune. We turned right and had to wait for them as they made their way around the end of the dune.

We stopped at the resort to reinflate the tires and I was amazed at the sheer number of Qatari's with trailers and four-wheelers. This is obviously a big sport in Qatar. There was every kind of ATV imaginable, from the all terrain golf cart to high performance Raptors. Gazing out over the dunes, you couldn't scan more than a few degrees without seeing an ATV and rider rocketing along the sand.

The drive home was uneventful and noisy with the windows open. The opposing traffic was all headed to the dunes, loaded with ATV's and intent.

The evening was enjoyable. We went to the Chili's restaurant and it felt just like being in a suburban restaurant back in the States. Our reporter friend was there, and her Frank Burns-like escort showed up a bit later. We had looked for him where he was supposed to meet her, but had not found him.

He could sense our lack of interest in anything that he had to say. None of us appreciate being told fairy tales, and the things he said throughout the day were either blatantly fabricated or just strange things to say in the presence of people who know what it's like to be outside the wire.

It's not that there was a plan to uninclude the young man; but we just couldn't find it within ourselves to like him. We were not unkind, but we really didn't want to hear him any more, and so each of us kind of tuned him out.

The next morning he had the reporter arrested and then told us a bunch of stuff that none of us believe about her having photographs of things that she had agreed not to photograph and sound bites of forbidden subjects; war stories.

"Oh," CPT Koppenkopf interjected, "like your (outrageous) story about killing that Iraqi man in front of his family with your AK?" (a weapon that he would not have access to.)

"That's different! That was off the record! She can't quote me; I'm a PAO." (Public Affairs Officer. He's not an officer, he's a Specialist.)

"And you have special protection under the First Amendment?"

"Yes. I do," he claimed.

"Uh-huh. Keep on believing that, sonny."

The young man's story didn't make sense compared to the eyewitness account of one of our little band of acquaintances, who actually saw her arrested in a different place and time than what the young PA guy described.

We are truly, truly ugly Americans. This young man performed very poorly during his escort duty, and when things didn't go his way, he had the reporter arrested to demonstrate his power. I'm trying to gather the information about the facts of the matter, and if I find out that this young man did in fact do this, I am considering publishing his name.

I think it's shameful. She was leaving that day anyway, so his impotent little gesture was pretty much right along the lines of what we had observed of his behavior to that point; but it was still an abuse.
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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Odyssey Of The Four Day Pass: Doha

After a full day in Kuwait we finally made it to Qatar, were briefed in, and given our room assignments. The E-7’s and above were boarded in a large warehouse-like building with numerous sub-structures inside, some of which were for various officer ranks, some for E-7’s and E-8’s, and some for females of various ranks. Why they put them in the same building with us is unknown; perhaps they feel that they can trust E-7’s and above to behave themselves with more decorum.

It seems to work.

The people who run this site have numerous things that people can do for entertainment and adventure. The main structure, another large warehouse structure, unremarkable from the outside, contains several bar-type establishments for those on pass here to secure their three alcoholic beverage allotment per day. There is a bowling alley, a stage, numerous tables, a computer lab with internet access, a wireless network of dubious quality, a coffee shop, and the numerous support offices for those who administer the programs here. Elsewhere there are a couple of gyms, another coffee shop, and even a Chili’s restaurant.

If you arrive after 2200, your next day is “Day Zero.” It does not count against your pass time here. We arrived at about 2230 and received this benefit. The next day was spent sleeping late, exploring our immediate surroundings, and signing up for excursions the next day. Each day there is an opportunity to sign up for one of the various excursions that are available. There are some which are very popular, and some which are not necessarily popular.

I signed up for the Doha City Tour, which took us to downtown Doha and the surrounding area. It is a bus tour with numerous stops.

Upon leaving the American base, we traveled down roads which, other than the international-style signs, could be in any city in the United States. The Qatari’s are very fond of traffic roundabouts. Our tour guide, a Sri Lankan, sat in the front of the bus with a microphone and gave us little tidbits of information about various locations of interest.

Doha is competing for the honor of hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics. They are building numerous venues for the games and have even constructed the world’s highest Olympic flame, an enormous structure which will burn tons of the natural gas which Qatar finds itself the proud owner-exporter of.

We drive across the flat desert towards a city that rises in the distance; Doha. The desert is dotted with small bushy plants and not much else. The vehicles are mostly SUV’s. The Qatari’s obviously have money. As we go, some of my compatriots tell me about what the leadership structure is in Qatar, and the bus driver shows pictures of the Emir, his son who will become the next Emir, and the Emir’s wife, mother of the future Emir.

It turns out that you cannot do much of anything in Qatar without the sponsorship of one of the royal family. It’s a social structure that seems to work quite well for them. There is new construction everywhere, and many of the new houses are, by American standards, quite large. The Arab influence is obvious in their architecture, but there seem to be many home furnishing shops that claim to be American.

Qatari streets are lined with the same store front type shops that line the streets in Afghanistan, but they are obviously wealthier, and I have yet to see a bullet hole in anything here. The streets here have an air of normalcy. People are just going about their daily lives. An impression began to grow.

This is what Afghanistan could be like with some stability and time to grow. It’s not America; it is a modern Arab country. Afghans are not Arabs, but they are more similar to Arabs than they will ever be to Americans. The same types of structures are visible here; walled family compounds surround the houses, storefronts filled with small shops abound.

Most of the workers in Qatar are expatriates. There are a great number of Filipinos here, doing the jobs that Qatari’s do not want to do. Qatari’s walk the streets in immaculate white robes, their heads covered in Arab fashion.

Our first stop is a camel market. I’ve seen plenty of camels in Afghanistan, so I am not amazed; but there are some interesting things about the culture of camels in Qatar. Camel racing is a big sport here. I also learned some interesting things about camels and Arabian horses.

One thing that I learned is that camels have a pretty long life span; they can live to be 60 years old, from what the tour guide told us. Impressive for animals that live such difficult lives. We saw a baby camel that was still suckling. That was cute. Then the sound of a screaming camel split the air. Someone had bought a camel and was trying to load it into the back of a small pickup truck.

The caterwauling juvenile camel is bellowing, mouth wide open, as the handlers try to maneuver it into the pickup. A second juvenile becomes agitated and bolts through the open gate, galloping down the street with a Qatari in pursuit. Small comedy.

The shrieking camel is finally wrestled into the bed of the truck, kneeling. Up the road comes the other camel, bellowing in protest as he is shoved by the Qatari handler, who is steering the camel with its tail. He finally shoves the camel back into the pen and the job is done.

It is also time for us to leave.

Our second stop is a traditional market, built in traditional style and appearing almost like an old Arabian fort. The ceilings show the slender timbers overlaid with woven palm fronds, very similar to the ceiling or roof construction in Afghan structures. There are a myriad of shops, selling everything from cloth to watches to falcons.

The falconry is of particular interest to us. It is apparently a huge sport here. We should export our pigeons to Qatar. I’m sure that they would enjoy them. The strange thing is that pigeons are very popular pets in Afghanistan. Perhaps a trading relationship could develop.

The falcons sit on low stool-like furniture with Astroturf tops, their heads covered with leather hoods. One small falcon sits on his low perch, tethered but not hooded, and eyes us with obvious interest.

All of the accoutrements of falconry surround us on the walls. A manikin, dressed in traditional garb, stands with a stuffed falcon perched on a leather glove. One of the other touring Americans and I walk to the other side of the store and are confronted with various bird parts drying; a taxidermist’s work in progress.

“Are those falcons?” he asks.

“Those are the game birds,” I reply, “Falcons hunt other birds.” He is surprised.

We leave the shop and I look up and down the street. There are a lot of foreign tourists here. Some are obviously European. Two women pass, speaking German. A British family with small children walks by with a stroller. Qatari men stroll towards a café, long white robes proclaiming their heritage. Qatari women in the traditional black burqa-like covering go about their business.

The most obvious difference between the Afghan burqa and the coverings found here is that the Afghan burqa is normally a robin’s egg blue garment with a mesh screen covering the eyes. Here the face is covered with a thin black veil held in place by a narrow strip of cloth that suspends it from the headpiece and runs directly between the eyes, framing the mascara-rimmed eyes of the woman underneath behind the veil. Most of the eyes that are caught by my fleeting glance (it is more than impolite to stare) are absolutely beautiful and mysterious.

The dozens of shops each contain items of interest, but to enter one is often to invite a very focused sales approach. I need AA batteries, for the ones in my camera have decided to expire at this point. Many Qatari’s speak English, and I am directed into a small restaurant. They sell me a four-pack of batteries for $2.00 and I quickly replace the batteries in my camera to discover that the new batteries won’t work, either.

I finally discover a camera shop that has good batteries and another $2.00 secures me a single set of functional batteries, and I set about taking pictures of the marketplace, careful not to directly focus on a particular individual. They are funny about photography here.

A shopkeeper draws me into his shop and shows me various items made of cloth. I had determined not to buy anything today, but I do make a purchase. I am running short on time, so I head back to where the buses are parked and take pictures of the architecture in the area, including a very old fort that is being restored.

We load back up on the bus and head for our next destination, which is the jewelry market. It wasn’t the first thing that I had thought about when I signed up for the tour, but I cautiously enter the first shop, trying to be invisible.

“You want to look at gold?” Busted. I have failed in my efforts at invisibility and am now a sales target. Crap.

I survive the assault unscathed.

The jewelry prices in Qatar are amazing, though.

We have lots of time in the jewelry market, and then finally move on to one of the highlights of the tour; lunch in a Qatari restaurant. It is very good; different, but good.

Following the meal we load back on the bus and head downtown. The thing that strikes me about being downtown was that I have never seen more 45-story buildings under construction at the same time in my life. Usually, there may be one at a time. There must be at least 10 that are under active construction.

An interesting factoid: Qatar and Dubai currently possess 80% of the world’s large construction cranes.

Okay, so it wasn’t that interesting, but it is an illustration of what I was talking about… the fact that there is so much construction going on in Qatar. Of course, the number of tall buildings being built in downtown Doha is amazing, but so are their designs. It seems that all of the world’s fugitive architects have found work in Doha. There are very few simple designs here. Dramatic curves, fins, a giant golden ball wedged between two golden towers thirty stories off the ground… the Arabs obviously prefer bold statements in their architecture.

Our destination is the City Center Mall. I’ve never been to the Mall of America, but this place is the largest mall that I’ve ever been to. Now granted, I’m not a mall guy, but this place is fascinating for several reasons. First, I’ve never seen a slanted people mover before. This is a contraption similar to the people movers seen in American airports, but they went from one floor to another. The man in front of me has a shopping cart.

There are several atriums, and other than the men and women dressed in traditional Arab garb, you could have dropped this mall into any suburban American venue and the local residents would be thrilled.

I sit in a coffee shop and sipped an excellent cup of coffee served by a Romanian waitress as I listen to Chaplain Chopper explain his decision to stop flying helicopters for the Marines and become a chaplain. It could have been the coffee shop in any Barnes & Nobles, but we are surrounded by men in dresses reading papers in Arabic.

Many of the signs in Qatar are in English; not a mixture of Arabic and English like their traffic signs, but just English.

We gather at the predetermined time back at the buses and head back to As Sayliyah.

Qatar is certainly an example of an affluent Islamic society with a degree of tolerance for outsiders and other religions. The law is definitely based on Sharia, Koranic law, but other than some specific quirks (don’t spit,) one doesn’t feel particularly constrained. Other than the spitting thing, and a little touchiness about photography (don’t photograph anyone without their permission and don’t photograph the flag,) there doesn’t seem to be anything prohibited that a normal person would really want to do; except wear shorts.

After an uneventful but informative trip back to the base, we all arrive in time to go to the excellent chow hall for a good meal. It was a pretty good time for $30.00.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Odyssey Of The Four Day Pass, Part Two

Even though the last post was posted yesterday, it was written days ago.

Since that time, I showed up for a 0300 roll call only to find that there were no seats for those of us who were already manifested. Since I had been selected as the "chalk leader" due to being either the only E-7 or the only one to raise my hand when they asked who was an E-7, I inquired at the desk in the Pax Terminal as to what had occurred.

"We only had two seats on the plane, Sergeant."

"Really? But we had been manifested already."

"We only had two seats on the plane and they were taken by two people on emergency leave."

Well, if someone had to have the seats, emergency leave people would be my favorite candidates, but why had they manifested us? It was a C-17, for Pete's sake... a big plane.

We will never know what happened. We were told to show up again at 1900 that night. One of the young soldiers came to me and told me that his wife, currently in Iraq, was slated to arrive the same day that he was so that they could share their four days together.

I couldn't help him. My heart broke for him, but there was nothing that I could do.

It was bitterly cold outside. I went over to the USO, only to discover that the wireless internet there was down, going on the third day of malfunction. I was not a happy camper. I had sat in the USO for hours watching movies and awaiting the 0300 roll call. I was exhausted, I was chilled, and I was out of communication. I could not even post of my frustrations.

The staff at the Tillman Center did not seem in the least bit concerned over the loss of communications. The immortal words of Bill the Cat came to mind.


I tried to sleep on one of the couches, but remembered that the USO is closed from 0900 to 1100 for cleaning. I had to go. I loaded up my day pack and laptop case and headed out into the shocking chill. I had left most of my cold weather gear behind... it would be unnecessary in Qatar.

The shuttle bus took waaaay too long to arrive, but it took me the mile or so down the road to the old B-hut and a borrowed bunk. Jacques Pulvier and the boys were out in The Valley overseeing some construction work going on and wouldn't be there. I needed sleep.

I found my sleep in my sleeping bag in a borrowed bunk and awoke around 1300. I thought that Jacques would be surprised to see me and that he would probably be there soon. I read a hot rod magazine (something I do as rarely as listen to rap music) and waited.

The sun went down, and Jacques Pulvier was no where to be found. I knew that they had not made contact in The Valley... he must have gone to take care of business elsewhere on Bagram. He wasn't answering his phone, but that wasn't so unusual; he frequently forgets it.

I finally saw the famous humvee outside and found Jacques with MAJ Stone Cold at the DFAC (dining facility.) The Maniac was there as well. We sat and chatted, the four of us. Conversations with this group are always easy, always humorous. It's like being at home.

Finally, it was time to go again. SFC Pulvier gave me a ride to the Pax Terminal and dropped me off yet again.

"Good luck getting out," he said.

"Thanks! I'll call you if they put us off again."

"You never know."

"I'll email you when I make it to Qatar."

"And I'll see you when you get back to Bagram! See ya!"

"See ya, buddy."

The 1900 roll call went smoothly, except I found that instead of a speedy C-17, we would be flying in a blender; the venerable C-130. A four-engined turboprop, the C-130 is hundreds of miles an hour slower than a C-17. It is also cramped, noisy, and the climate control isn't exactly precise.


A three and a half hour trip had just been extended to five and a half hours.


Okay... so now we wait. And wait. Finally, it was time to board. They loaded 54 people on a 44 passenger bus for the short drive down the flight line to the plane. We filed off the bus, up the ramp, and into the web seats on the ancient bird. It was noisy, and it was cold. We settled in and, you guessed it; we waited.

They loaded the pallet with our larger baggage into the plane and locked the pallet into the floor while we sat in the noise and cold. The smell of jet exhaust filled the interior of the plane. I busied myself with looking at all of the interesting things that you can find in the hold of the C-130 while I started my iPod and turned the volume all the way up. Alice in Chains slammed into my ears, nearly inaudible over the giant vacuum cleaner overlaid with industrial lawnmower sound of the C-130.

After what seemed an hour, the hydraulic whine that signaled the raising of the rear ramp assaulted our ears. Some people had already gone to sleep, ear plugs firmly embedded in their auditory canals, the vibration of the aircraft lulling them while the lawnmower lullaby hummed right through them.

I was too cold, leaning forward on the webbed seat at the front of the cargo hold in the center aisle, facing outboard. "Man," I thought to myself, "this is gonna suck."

The engine roar increased, the sound of the mighty four-bladed canoe paddle props grabbing air was unmistakable. The rumbling, vibrating, whining plane lurched forward, passengers tilting momentarily towards the rear of the plane, then forward again as they countered the thrust. Eyes opened, then closed as the surprise of shifting was accounted for.

I was right; it did suck. It turned out to be a six hour flight. I slept on the cold floor near my seat for a good part of the journey. It was a nice counterpoint to the convection oven heat being blown down on me by the heating system of the plane.

A young Staff Sergeant nudged me. I turned my head and looked at him resentfully.

"We're getting ready to land."

"Okay." I shook it loose and raised myself back into my seat with my arms.

I was in for a surprise.

We weren't in Qatar. We had landed in Kuwait.

What the f:-)%!"

Apparently, Qatar was having some weather. I never knew that Qatar actually had weather. I thought it was one of those places that just is... no weather, no disturbances of any kind. Qatar had taken on mythical proportions somehow. My bubble had been burst.

Qatar has weather.

We spent a day in lovely Kuwait, causing me once again wonder why we hadn't just let Saddam have the place as a curse. Oh, yeah... the black oozy stuff under all that sand. Now I remember.
That evening, it was back on another plane. You guessed it; another C-130.


Well, we arrived in Qatar after a mercifully short hour and a half flight. We got the speech about not having any porn before we went through customs. Something about a Turkish prison. We went through customs. We didn't have any porn. No one was arrested. We never found out about the Turkish prison in Qatar.

So far, it looks like Kuwait. It was dark when we got here, and all I can see is the American base. Tomorrow I am going on a tour of Doha. More Middle Eastern culture. I am looking forward to it. I just hope that I can wake up in time.

So far, R&R is really taking it out of me.

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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.

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Smokey Jackalacker And The Hyena Of Doom

There is an old saying that the only difference between an Army story and a fairy tale is that a fairy tale starts with "Once upon a time," and an Army story starts with "No shit, this really happened…"

So here's an Army story… no shit, this really happened…

It was a dark and stormy night in the little village in Afghanistan. There was no moon, and the overcast prevented the stars from peeking through. We sat in the very dark on the roof of the district center where we were encamped, watching.

When we sit in the very dark and watch, we stay quiet. The sounds of the Afghan night; dogs, the occasional vehicle, dogs, the low hum of the generator, dogs, and the occasional plaintive call of the ANP night guards are the only sounds. Usually, that is.

On this night, the unmistakable voice of SSG Smokey Jackalacker, our new SECFOR section sergeant, rang out.

"Oh, my God, it's HUGE!! What IS that?! Is that a dog or a HYENA?!! Can I SHOOT it?!!"

I knew at once what had happened, and I walked calmly across the metal roof to where the good Staff Sergeant was still going on about the monstrosity with which he was confronted. He called out to one of his men.

"Skippy! What IS that thing?! God, it's HUGE!! I think I should shoot it!" he called loudly across the roof to CPL Mynah.

"Sergeant Jackalacker," I interjected.

"Yes, sergeant?"

"You've just seen your first jackal."

"But it was HUGE! It had a square head with like this really pointy face. It looked like a really big dog!" (Jackals are about the size of a healthy fox.)

"Sergeant Jackalacker, unless it's a Taliban, I don't want you shouting about it."

"But it was inside the compound! I thought it might be a danger to humans."

"Sergeant Jackalacker…"

"Okay. If it's not a Taliban. Isn't there ANYTHING else that you should know about?"

"A bear."


"A Taliban or a bear. Nothing else. If it's not a Taliban or a bear, don't yell about it. If it's a Taliban or a bear, you can yell your head off and you can shoot at it, too."

"A Taliban or a bear. Roger, sergeant."

"Good. Now, let's keep it quiet, shall we? The rest of us are listening for Taliban or bears."

"Roger, sergeant. Won't happen again."

I laughed quietly to myself all the way back to my corner of the roof.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New Faces

We received our new SECFOR team a several weeks ago, and they have been accompanying us on our little trips down to the village. We never got to know the previous SECFOR team here very well... they left shortly after the previous team did. They were South Carolinians, and friends and acquaintances of my old SECFOR from The Valley.

I really miss those guys. I really hope that they're all doing well. They are great guys. I also realize how very blessed and lucky we were to have them.

Our new team is from New York. Upstate New York, to be precise. They are led by SSG Smokey Jackalacker and include CPL Skippy Mynah and SPC Aress. They are very different from our South Carolinians. Good kids, I'm sure, but different.

I'm trying to help them through that early phase of adjustment to Afghanistan. SSG Jackalacker in particular is having a rough time with the adjustment. He's one of those guys with a bizarre idealized image of some kind of GI Joe combat thing. That's just not what we're dealing with here.

The thing is that I remember what it felt like to arrive in Afghanistan and that wide-eyed feeling about everything. I'm trying to give them a sense of reality before I leave. I don't have to; they will find it on their own. I've also come to realize that sometimes you just can't teach them.

SSG Jackalacker hates the message so much and is so resistant that I've actually begun to worry about him. I am responsible for what happens, so I cannot have someone who doesn't "get it" running around. But, I should probably relax and just let him adjust. It's just that sometimes it seems like he is just not living in the real world.

The look of horror on his face when I explained counterinsurgency to him was amazing. He was truly mortified. And he is totally bored with that whole subject. He keeps talking about things like "crossing the objective."

I've never seen anyone here cross an objective.

Perhaps I'm just trying too hard to make it easier for them and one thing is for sure; he's not taking it well. He actually went into some kind of funk after learning that much of the time over here will be spent just watching people and places. I told him not to worry; he will get shot at.

Just not at a time and place of his choosing. It's his job to run around doing his job, and then someone will shoot at him when it seems really inconvenient. Then, after that, he won't have any special desire to be shot at again.

I think that he thought that he was going to be hunting Taliban every day. Snooping around the rocks, tossing grenades into every suspect cave opening and generally scaring the living hell out of everything; walking like some kind of KISS band member through quivering Afghan villages who will toss their Talibs out in the street just so that this otherworldly killing machine will be satisfied and leave them alone.

He even dresses like a cartoon character. Most of us wear our armor, but not the overly bulky DAPs (Deltoid armor that goes around your upper arms and will only stop a pistol round, but they are huge.) We all wear our DAPs in the turret if we have them, but he wears them all the time and so do the other two. He also seems to have attached everything he owns to his body armor, and the knee pads. Then he keeps wearing this neoprene face mask. He looks like some kind of fugitive from Dragonball Z or something.

I told him I don't like the face mask. It makes him look inhuman. We already look like space creatures to these people. Plus, when we dress up so wrapped in armor, we definitely look afraid to them.

That was explained to me by an Afghan once. He asked why a team of people who came into the area we were working in were all staying in all of their armor, hiding in their vehicles and turrets. I asked him what he thought.

"I think they don't like us. I think they are afraid of us. Afraid someone will hurt them."

He claims it keeps his face warm. Uh huh. It wasn't COLD today and he wore it. I think that he WANTS to look unreal. I think he thinks it's cool. I know that it's not. I know that the people need to see him as a human being.

I hope he catches on. I'm trying to keep in mind that it's still very early on for them. They are doing a lot of good things, but then there's the cartoonish thinking, and I just walk away shaking my head.

So I really miss my naturally outgoing South Carolinians with their common sense approach to uniform issues and no special love for Japanese cartoon characters. They just took care of business without giving so much thought to actually looking menacing. They knew that what kept them safe was that anyone who looked at them knew that they were paying attention.
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Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Wuliswahl And The Principals

I've posted twice today... things I wrote while I was downrange and brought back on my thumb drive.

We brought a few bags of HA (Humanitarian Assistance.) The bags contain small book bags with school supplies, which we have given to the ANP to distribute to the local schools. I have an enormous soft spot in my heart for Afghan children, one that is not wholly shared by the young MP's who accompany us to train the ANP.

My soft spot is functional; educated Afghan children are good for national security. I have seen lots of positive change in Afghanistan during my tenure, but the real change will come as the literacy rate rises and these children with expanded minds begin to take charge in Afghanistan. Every literate Afghan child lessens the chance of one of my sons dying on distant soil.

I'm kind of selfish that way. I am here doing what small things that I can do so that, perhaps, my sons will not have to do this. I am a cowardly parent, and cannot bear the thought of my sons' deaths, especially not here. Not like this. The very thought brings tears to my eyes.

The local Subgovernor, or Wuliswahl, is just back from the Hajj. In Islamic dogma, he is like a newborn baby, having been reborn by virtue of his pilgrimage. He has asked for me to appear in his office. I enter, and greet him in Pashtu. There are about seven other men in his office, and I greet them as well, shaking hands, exchanging greetings in Pashtu and Dari, hand over my heart in Afghan fashion after each handshake. He beckons me to sit next to him.

I present him with a portable radio, able to receive AM, FM, and even shortwave radio broadcasts and powered by either solar power or a hand-cranked dynamo. We feel that it's important for community leaders to be able to hear the news. He thanks me.

"Chai mikhori?" ("Will you drink some chai?")

"Bali, tashakur. Manana." (Yes, thank you. Thank you.") In Dari and Pashtu.

It becomes apparent that I need a terp. I call for one, and one of the men opens the door and echoes my call, "Tajimon!"

Sammy comes in and sits on the couch to my left, the Wuliswahl to my right. The Wuliswahl tells me that several of the men are school principals. I congratulate them, telling them how important that we feel education is. They smile, appreciating the praise.

"It is our duty."

The Wuliswahl goes on to tell me that we have made a mistake in our handling of the HA school supplies.

"We know our community. We know who is needy and who is not. You should let us decide where the supplies go. These principals know who needs supplies. We will make sure that the supplies go where they are needed."

I see his point. I am also aware of school supplies being sold in the bazaar after being donated to the school principles in some districts. We will trust them first and see how they handle it.

"I understand, and I agree," I tell him. "You know best where these supplies are needed. I just want to make sure that the Police are involved in distributing the supplies. It will be good for the people to see the Police bringing needed items."

The Wuliswhal agrees, and we sip chai and talk for a few minutes. Then my audience is over and we part with traditional Pashtu farewells.

We will try this in the coming week and see how well they deal with the school supplies. If they deal with it responsibly, then they will be a great conduit to get supplies out into the schools, improving the ability of the children of Afghanistan to keep my sons at home.
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We are doing some intensive training with one of the districts, providing both soldier training and "systems training" to the leadership. When we first arrived at the district, being new to the area, we met the CoP (Chief of Police,) who seemed to be a pretty stand-up guy. We told him about our intentions, and he was all "on board" with it.

A week later, when we came to the district to do some final coordination, that CoP was gone… no trace. In his place was another Lieutenant Colonel who was the new CoP. He seemed like a decent guy, talking about community policing and getting out to meet the village elders in the area. This all sounded good to us.

When we arrived to do the training, he was like a changed man. Not to myself and the Captain, of course… at first. He first showed his colors to SSG Prince, squad leader of the MP's who work to train the ANP in this area (which is a very different arrangement from the other province, where we rarely saw and never worked with any MP's.) He made it obvious to SSG Prince that he was not going to be cooperative. SSG Prince voiced this, but the Captain and I took a wait-and-see position.

Over the course of the past couple of weeks, he has shown his colors to all of us, and has demonstrated some behaviors that we all feel are pretty strange. We have major concerns about this guy. The general impression is that he's "dirty," but we don't know how; we don't know what he's doing that he's trying to conceal from us… but it sure does feel like he is trying to conceal something.

He told us that he came from a province where I know the Police Mentors, so I called and found that they had never heard of him. Hmmmm. He wouldn't cooperate to do his background interview; a biographical sketch of his professional history that would help us to understand his training and experience. Hmmmm. He became very agitated when we wanted to inventory his weapons. Hmmmm. When we did inventory his weapons, the numbers didn't match up. Hmmmm. He won't let his supply officer sign for equipment or order all of what the district needs. Hmmmm.

Things are not looking good. We aren't worried that he will try to kill us at this point, because we are convinced that he feels that he is handling us and that we aren't suspicious.

We are.
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Friday, February 1, 2008

Nighttime In Shades Of Green

I stand on the metal roof of a district center in a small town in eastern Afghanistan. The sun has just gone down, and the chill in the January air is cutting. I am warm, though. The Army-issue cold weather system components that I am wearing are doing their job. I'm glad that I changed my socks just prior to climbing the 2x4 homemade ladder to the exposed metal roof.

The sky has darkened, but there is a faint residual glow in the southwest where the sun has only recently fled behind the mountains, bound for my favorite side of the world. The moon has not risen yet. The fields are dark. The dim lights of the gas station across the road barely light the area around the single pump.

Shadowy figures move about the bazaar; men in man-jammies and thin wool blankets that provide the traditional "coat" perform their final evening checks and securing of personal property and store fronts by flashlight. A dog barks. Another down the street answers.

I reach up and pull the AN/PVS-14 monocular night vision device, or NOD (Night Observation Device) into place. It is mounted to a plate screwed into the front of my helmet on a metal device that allows it to be lowered into position directly in front of my eye. I rotate the switch and my right eye is instantly bathed in green light. Suddenly the shadowy figures are distinct as men, clearly visible as they make their evening rounds. The ANP guard on the road in front of the ANP khalat headquarters walks slowly around in a circle to keep warm. The primitive gas station is bathed in light.

A dog canters up the street, meets its neighbor, and they are joined by a third.

The dogs of Afghanistan live short, brutal lives. They are often mistreated by Afghans, who do not appear to treat any animals with affection. During daylight, they skulk about and appear skittish; but at night they come into their own. Suddenly the sprightly step that we are accustomed to seeing from dogs is in evidence. They now own the town, and their changed attitude displays their comfort.

A few men are making their way home, walking along the newly paved main road towards their homes down the road. Two men drive a pair of cows along in the traditional way; with a long switch with which they transmit their intent to the tethered beast. The cows, resigned, plod along unconcernedly.

My NODs detect a faint glow in the distance. I know that a vehicle is coming long before any light is visible or any sound is heard. I can see the headlights playing across the mountainside as the vehicle twists along the road a couple of miles away. My left eye, naked to the darkness, detects none of this, but the enhanced right eye is fully aware.

As it approaches, the car illuminates the two men and their cattle briefly, then passes them and pulls into the tiny gas station, honking its Toyota horn for the old man who runs the station. He comes out the door, and I hear Pashtu as the man asks for fuel. The station owner agrees and bends to start the gasoline engine that powers the lone pump. I direct my attention back to the two men with their cattle. In the distance, I see two dark shapes apparently stationary about 600 meters down the road across the fields. I reach for my M-4/M-203 and turn the power on the PEQ-2 laser sight. I double-tap the button and the laser flood light with the bright aiming dot in the center lights the field in front of me. I train it on the two dark shapes and see the two cows. I wonder what's going on. Where are the two men?

Moments later the cows begin moving again, and the men are again in evidence. One was probably answering the call of nature, unaware that his cows were spotlit in the glow of an invisible laser and observed by a curious American hundreds of meters away in the darkness.

I note that the driver of the car and the gas station owner have concluded their business. The station owner has shut down the generator and locked his pump. The driver is paying him, probably in rupees, and getting back into his car to continue up the valley. I scan the fields and the distant khalats.

Two of the khalats in this part of my sector of responsibility have some sort of power, possibly solar arrays like the district center, storing the electricity generated in what appear to be a series of car batteries. I note that one of them is not showing lights tonight, then notice that the tree in the center is lit from beneath. Ahhh… so they are home.

I can see several hundred meters at this point, but I glance at the mountains to the west and note that the mountaintops are lit. Not noticeable to the naked eye, the moon is beginning to rise, and it lights the mountaintops first. Just the reflected light from the distant mountains makes the fields in front of me easier to see. The NODs sparkle in the dim starlight, an indication that there is not enough light for a crystal clear image. I can still see very well.

The three dogs bark a challenge from the road in front of the gas station. I look to see the orientation of the dogs, then follow that line to the object of their attention; a single dog is intently sniffing something out in the fields, two hundred and fifty meters from the dogs on the road. I begin to have an appreciation for the night vision of dogs. I cannot see the lone dog in the field with my naked eye. I note that the wind probably did not carry the scent in that direction. They have seen the lone dog, not smelled it.

The dogs trot up into the fields, giving short barks of challenge. The lone interloper breaks for home, and the chase is on. The three dogs from the road are in full pursuit. It appears that one may catch him, but the chase is called off, and the victorious three trot back in obvious triumph, tails erect and bobbing slightly to and fro, heads held high; the light trot of the victor.

The gas station owner comes from the front door and calls quietly to one of the dogs. The other two, obviously interested, keep their distance. The man is feeding the darker colored collie-like dog that nearly caught the interloper moments before. Ahh… his dog. This dog is his early warning device. The man shoos the other two from his dog's food and goes inside. As soon as the door shuts, the two emerge from the darkness to feed alongside their friend.

Movement in the foreground; between the district center and the road there is a mosque. In the yard around the mosque a man is moving slowly, as if picking a spot. He is. Once he has chosen, he assumes a squat, head bowed. I know the posture instantly; he is urinating. Afghan men assume a squat when they perform this task, opening the enormous top of their man-jammie trousers, which have no fly. The long tails of the tops provide a certain level of privacy. As long as they have their back to the world, they are unobserved.

The two dogs that do not belong to the gas station owner are frolicking while the owned dog eats. It is a mating dance. I scan to the right and note that the moonlight is making its way down to the base of the mountains to the west, the reflected moon glare from the mountains lighting the fields more and more. Movement; the eye is drawn… a golden jackal is beginning its nightly foray. The dogs, distracted by other instincts, do not notice. The jackal moves about the fields unmolested, working his way northwest.

My hands are cold. I place them into my body armor at the arm holes, thrusting my hands in behind the twenty pound ceramic ballistic front plate; an excellent insulator, as I discovered in the Afghan summer. It still works just as well, but the effect is now appreciated.

More vehicle traffic; a couple of trucks. Their headlights cause a halo in my NODs, but I can see into the beds before they are clear. The ANP at the checkpoint on the road stops them and gives a cursory check. The trucks move on. Badly tuned Russian diesels clatter through the bazaar, heading north. Quiet settles in again.

"Whoa! Oh whoa batcha!" the ANP calls out into the darkness.

"Whoa!" comes the response, fainter, from up the road.

"Whoa!" a third, further up the road.

Satisfied, the ANP resumes his small patrol around the few shops in his sector. He will repeat this call at irregular intervals throughout his time on guard, as will the man who succeeds him. It is their communications check.

The moonlit area is edging towards the district center across the fields. The mountains to the west, miles away, are lit in brilliant green relief. The folds and contours of the mountains appear almost animated in the green glow of the NODs. Drawn in shades of green, the texture altered subtly by the black and white contrast effect of the image intensifier, the mountains appear more distinct. The snow on the angular surfaces increases this effect. The overall impression is one of stark majesty, as if the mountain were newly thrust skyward, cutting like a shark's tooth through the earth's crust; all viewed through an emerald lens.

As the moon clears the mountain, it seems to accelerate. I can actually see the motion of the moon progressing over the mountain. In the NODs it is as bright as a car headlight, creating an aura around it in the image intensifier. I glance back at the fields, now aglow.

The clarity of the image is fantastic. I can see for hundreds of meters in the distance, and motion is especially obvious. Any dim light is magnified hundreds of times, so that the glow of a flashlight is evident far off in the distance. Someone is moving in the ANP checkpoint, half a mile distant. Car headlights up a small sub valley a few miles away carom off of the mountainsides, giving advance notice of its approach.

Glancing further right, I see another glow; a flare, followed by a pinpoint of light. Someone has taken a drag off of a cigarette, bathing the area around him in infrared light, which I can see.

I quickly scan the entire area again and turn my gaze upwards. The Milky Way is unbelievable when viewed through a PVS-14. There are easily a hundred times more stars visible, densely packed into the sky like salt spilled on a backlit green tablecloth. While the NODs destroy depth perception, I can still see the incredible depth of the universe. I consciously remind myself that I am seeing stars that I have never seen before, looking so deeply into space that I have never been able to perceive before.

The enormity of creation is mind boggling. Here I sit in the Afghan night, watching on the off chance that some lunatic might try to carry harm our way, pondering the imponderable. I am so small, in this little valley in the backcountry of Afghanistan, somewhere in Asia on this planet whizzing through space as part of a solar system that is so impossibly tiny in comparison to this galaxy; which is one among God knows how many thousands or millions more. I stand amazed in the darkness, allowing myself to feel the awesome power of creation; a luxury in the crisp night air. I bring myself back into the near reality.

The dogs have consummated their dance, and are lolling in the frigid dust a hundred and fifty meters away while the collie-like alarm dog stands and stares at them. The jackal is five hundred meters west, detectable only because of its motion. It disappears behind a khalat wall. Dogs in the distance, becoming aware of the jackal, bark in the nighttime chorus of Afghanistan.
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