Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why we are here...

There was nothing I wanted to do more than to somehow be involved again in a humanitarian effort here in Afghanistan. I was involved some with TAO Project (http://www.taoproject.org/) and more recently, I was able to participate in a humanitarian program we have locally here in Kabul.

Having been a part of similar programs in past deployments, I was excited to get to do this again, if time allowed. Things have been so hectic throughout this deployment that I began to wonder if I was going to miss my opportunity, but finally a few days ago, I was able to get approval from my commander to travel with a local group and hand out humanitarian goods to a Koocha Camp on the outskirts of Kabul.

A Koocha Camp is an area comprised mainly of refugees, or desert nomads, who have migrated
to the city to find work and earn a living for their family. The many families that comprise a Koocha Camp are former desert dwellers in some cases, shepherds, migrants, and a variety of other backgrounds. They usually converge onto a small, unclaimed, and substandard – even by Afghan standards – area of Kabul to try to make a life for themselves and their families.

This area we traveled to was no different. Set upon the side of a steep hill, they all lived in ceiling-less mud huts, or bombed out shelters that barely protected them from the harsh elements outside. Many of the walls were even constructed of sewn-together burlap sacks to cover the portions of the walls that were lying in rubble on the ground nearby. Raw sewage trickled down in a centrally located stream down a narrow walk-way and eventually ended up on the road down below. It reeked.

As soon as we pulled up we circled the vehicles as best we could in chuck wagon fashion, allowing a protective cover and a quick exit should things get out of hand. But we were here, and the refugee camp was more than ready for us. As soon as the vehicles stopped, a large crowd gathered around, barely allowing us enough room to squeeze out of them. Some quickly tried to draw the crowd toward an open area nearby as our Force Protection team simultaneously took their positions to set up perimeter security. The logistics of the trip were done. Now we were ready.

The first thing I remember was all the kids running up to each and every one of us, as if taking bets on who had the goods. Was it me? Was it Roger?... Charlie?... Gary?... Consequently, Charlie and Roger had never had the privilege of helping on a humanitarian mission such as this before, so the initial shock of 20 or so kids hanging off of them with every step was evident on their face.
As for me, I welcomed it and recalled the previous humanitarian missions I’d been on in past deployments. These kids just wanted some attention and whatever we could give them. Since the humanitarian items were not yet unloaded, I took the crowd of kids I had with me and began to clap hands and play with them. Soon, I began a countdown of 3….2….1….. TAG! And then would take off running. It was a simple exchange that they quickly understood and soon took chase. They loved it. I would run…. They would catch me…. Then we‘d count down again. Pretty soon, they were picking up on the English-spoken countdown, and they‘d repeat after me, "Tr-r-r-ree… toooo…. Waaan!! TAG!!!"… and off I’d go again. It wasn’t too long before the running with 50 lbs of armor, weapon and gear wore heavily on me in the 90+ degree heat, so I began to play another game with them – thumb wrestling. I took refuge in the shade of a nearby mud wall and sat down. The 8-10 year old boys of the tribe loved this game. They’re no different than most boys that age… very competitive and very impatient. I explained in "motions" as best I could how thumb-wrestling was supposed work to those inquiring faces who knew no English. I took and demonstrated to each one "the grasp", then I held each child’s thumb with my other hand to show the 3-2-1 countdown before the wrestling begins. It was funny to watch this as some did not understand the alternating thumbs during the 3-2-1 countdown and immediately wanted to begin wrestling without waiting. Consequently, because of the jump start they got, the kids thought the boy or girl had won and they’d all cheer for them. Most times, I let them win anyway… I’d put up a good struggle… grimace and groan…. Act like I was juuuuuust about to best them, and then with a final grunt, they’d win.

Others in our group were organizing games with the kids. A couple females with our group formed a circle with the kids and played Ring Around The Rosie, London Bridges, and Duck Duck Goose. What a magnificent site to see those kids twirling around in that b
ig circle… the smiles on their faces… and utter joy when they’d catch the person they were chasing.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make mention of a small group from New Knoxville, Ohio. They had
adopted me as their point of contact for sending donations for these kids and had sent me a few hundred beanie babies, knitted items (from their "Busy Needles" group), and other humanitarian supplies. Most of those items were sorted, and packaged into Ziploc bags for distribution to the families on this trip, but I held back a few to hand out personally. I have to send out a huge thank you to Norma (pictured) and her crew from "Operation New Knoxville Cares" for having the faith to trust this tired soldier with their many donations. Your congregation’s tireless effort from the First United Church of Christ did not go unappreciated nor was it wasted. To Norma: I am humbled by your enthusiasm and by your faith. You have strengthened my faith that good people do exist in this world, and you have also touched the lives of hundreds of impoverished Afghan children. Bless you.

At the Koocha Camp, each child was so cute and loving in their own way. Some were quiet and composed, others were boisterous and proud, but every one of them touched my heart in some way. One little girl just
loved the camera and kept coming up to me and the guys and motioning with her hands held close to her face the "picture click" so we could take her picture. (pictured left) Lots of preteen boys would stand arm in arm, looking tough, wanting me to take their "tough guy" photo. Others just seemed to want "me" and whatever I could offer them - love, attention, fun, stuff. There were so many I wished I could’ve taken home with me and adopted. My heart ached for some of them; a 6-year-old girl holding her baby sister in her arms; and others with weathered-beyond-their-years faces and chapped lips – all of which I’m sure had their own heartbreaking story to tell. But through all the dirty, malnourished faces, the tattered clothes, and growling stomachs, they were still just kids, and they wanted someone to play with them like kids do. So I did.

In the end, lives were changed, hearts were touched (theirs AND mine), and the world made sense again. After three tours to the Middle East – being torn away from family, witnessing unspeakable sights, and even becoming jaded occasionally about our presence here – it is always humbling to be a part of something like this - something bigger than yourself - and get that proverbial slap in the face that says, "Wake up! You ARE doing some good here!" It’s days like this that remind us why we are here.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

40 – Reflections

It’s probably not surprising that I have been feeling particularly reflective or melancholic these past couple months, but turning 40 recently certainly has given me cause to reflect. Many of you have asked how I feel now that I’ve reached this milestone and even my kids make a lot of hubbub over it. Well, here goes nothing.

I was born March 5th, 1968 at 5:20am at Home Hospital in Lafayette, Indiana. The life lived since has been an incredible journey filled with marvelous experiences, a few life-threatening incidents, and one heartbreaking event more painful than death itself. But all of them have, for better or for worse, made me who I am.

I think turning 40 puts me at that age when my perspective sharpens quite drastically. At 40 you’re at the peak – you can see the other side and your fate. But you can also see and vividly remember where you’ve come from. There will be no other time in my life quite like this one. This is the convergence of my past, my present, and the people and elements I imagine will play a major part in my future.If you could only imagine how strange and funny and exhilarating it is to be sitting here in Afghanistan again, laughing and reminiscing on my life. I mean think about it…. What would I even consider normal anymore? Everything has changed! I am outside of my comfortable life as I know it back home, I am physically and mentally exhausted most days, and I am weighed down with incredible responsibilities. I also have my recent divorce just to make things interesting. You would think I would have enough reason to look back on my last 40 years and complain.

But I can’t.

I accept responsibility for my past mistakes, and I ask God daily to give me guidance on the way He would have me go. And looking beyond myself, I also wake up every day here witnessing firsthand how poor and destitute the average Afghan citizen lives. I have also seen it in Iraq. For all of them, every day is fraught with fear… fear of the last remnants of the Taliban, or Al Qaida, who still give no value to human life and will easily steal it from them just to make a political point. I have seen the kids of the refugee camps, clinging to their prized possession – a wadded up plastic bag encircled with rubber bands to form a ball they can play with. I have seen the smiles on their faces when I give them a beanie baby, or a soccer ball, or even something as simple as a pencil or pen. I have seen the blown up remnants of old buildings – windowless, dirty, filled with raw sewage, open to the harsh elements – that many Afghans and Iraqis call home. So how can I complain about turning 40? How can I complain about “anything?!” If turning 40 has done anything for me, it has made me realize the blessings I have been afforded in my young life and to stop complaining about trivial things like the pizza that arrived late, or the car that cut me off on the freeway. My experiences have certainly given me ample opportunity to appreciate all those things. Heck, three war-time deployments to the Middle East will give anyone MORE than a healthy dose of perspective. Secretly, I wish that everyone could see what I’ve seen to understand how fortunate they are to be living in the United States.

Last night Bixby, Gary, Charlie and I sat in my room and reminisced about past deployments, recalled harrowing experiences, and laughed until we cried at the funny stories that inevitably come out of deployments like this. I needed that so much, and I am here to tell you, it was therapeutic; I haven’t laughed like that in a long time. Those are the stories that only those who have “been there” can tell - and understand. But I realized what a great friend I have in each one of them, and many others. It’s been said that if you have five friends that you can count on for anything - anything in the world - that you’ve lived a full life. As I look back on my last 40 years I realize I am easily above my quota. Those friends – military and civilian - have always been there, and thankfully, will be a part of my future.

So here I am, standing at the peak, looking forward and back. There's a lot to treasure, to appreciate, to savor, whichever way I look - sure, there's some crud, too, but you don't get to this point without being forged in the fire a few times - and look what that does to steel. I have to wonder, are 50 and 60-year olds reading this and saying to themselves, “What’s the big deal?”… 40’s a piece of cake!

Soon, I will be headed home, and friends old and new, family of birth and of love, are gathering to greet my arrival back home to my - dare I say it? - “normal” life again. I will wake up every morning realizing what a gift these last 40 years have been, living in the greatest nation on the planet. Until you’ve truly awakened in the morning and wondered if that day would be your last, you’ll never fully appreciate it.

And what of the next 40 years?... Well……. I think they’re going to be great!

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Baja 1000 - Part two...

Never take for granted the ease in which you are able to hop in your car and run down to the local WalMart for household items or clothes, or how easily you can access a doctor, or conduct your financial affairs at the local bank, because all of these things –to us – require the proverbial 90-minute convoy to Bagram Air Field. And as predicted, the more convoys I participated in and the longer I spent “outside the wire”, my odds of returning safely without incident were beginning to worsen.

Last week I went on another convoy to Bagram. Again, I was convoy commander in what we lovingly refer to as a “two ship” (a nod to how we reference two aircraft on a CAS* mission), meaning we had two trucks with 5 guys between them both inside. The morning of the convoy I was uneasy, even secretly saying to myself, “Do I really want to go on this one today?... Is there any other way we can get these tasks completed without going to Bagram?”….. Much to my chagrin, I already knew the answers… and they were an obvious “No!” to both, and I had no choice. We had official business there that had to be done locally, I had to see a physician about my broken finger again, we had to take our Chief to a meeting as well, and it would take all day to accomplish all that we had on our plate. That was that. We were going.

When I went to sign out the first vehicle from the garage, they gave me the usual “parade list”, as they call it, which is the 50-some item inspection list of maintenance items to check as “functional” before taking possession of the vehicle. I noticed right away that they had given me a vehicle number that I had just driven around Kabul two days prior, and at that time was leaking antifreeze profusely. Luckily, we had returned safely from that trip after puking most of it on the ground, and as such, reported it on the mandatory second parade list. I didn’t want anyone else getting stranded with this vehicle. So when I received the keys to this vehicle again I was instantly weary of it… but no matter – I would thoroughly check it out as I always do. Pop the hood… Remove the radiator cap… Yep! No antifreeze. Not “low” antifreeze…. “NO” antifreeze! I quickly turned right around, handed the keys back to them, scolded them for ignoring my inspection sheet, and promptly got a set of keys to another vehicle to replace it. Both vehicles checked out ok. Crisis averted.

So I thought…

We were soon underway just as the sun came up that morning, admiring the sunrise over the mountains, laughing over funny stories, surprisingly nonchalant about the threat around us, but not to the point of being complacent. The trip was about as usual as we’d experienced before. We had the usual hiccups throughout the route – an ANA* truck swerved out in front of me, making me swerve over to the left side of the road, almost hitting an Afghan man walking down the road in the middle of the desert. I honestly don’t know how our trucks didn’t sideswipe each other! – heck, maybe we did and I just didn’t notice! Either way, I was NOT going to hit that man at 75mph! The roads were particularly rough from the spring thaw and there were lots of new potholes we were swerving around. Unfortunately, there was one that didn’t get away.

With about 10 miles left on the trip, we hit the Mother of all potholes. WHAM!!!! As the lead vehicle, I hit it first and it sent me airborne. When I came down, the truck was listing to the left…. I thought I had a flat… I talked to the Chief next to me, trying to assess our situation, still not sure what happened to my truck. Then at that same moment, we got a call over the radio from Seth and Alex behind us – “One, this is two, we’ve got a flat tire!”… I look back in my rear view, and sure enough I see them listing to the driver’s side just like I am. Ugh. Before I get too much further into the story, I will quickly explain that we work with the Counter IED* team at ISAF and we know where the “hot spots” for IED’s are, and we were soon approaching it, if not already in the middle of it. Stopping to change a tire is not an option. I called back on the radio and asked them how the truck was handling. They called back and said it was fish-tailing, but otherwise ok. I slowed our speed considerably because while I wasn’t sure what had happened yet to my own vehicle, I knew I was having to man-handle it more than before – and something was banging and rattling very loudly from my left front. We spent the next couple miles talking back and forth on the radio, assessing our situations. It was clear that while we were somewhat crippled, we were still mobile and able to make it on our run-flat’s (Three cheers for run-flats!) until we got to Bagram inside the secure area. Once there we would get out and take a look.

In what seemed like an eternity, we did finally reach Bagram. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, parked the trucks, got out and looked at the damage. Vehicle #2 did indeed have a flat left rear tire. But more than that, something was broken in their left rear suspension. Looking at my own vehicle, my tire was not flat, but something had also broken in my front left suspension as my truck was still listing to the left.

The next couple of hours were spent crawling underneath vehicle #2 in the razor sharp rocks to change the flat tire. We struggled with an inadequate jack that would not lift high enough, an extremely short tire iron that didn't provide enough leverage, and 90+ degree temperatures in the sun. But in short order, the tire was fixed and we went about our business. Later in the day, as we gathered at the rally point to start the trek back to ISAF* here, we checked over each truck and determined that the spare tire was on tight, and the suspensions, while broken, would still make the trip back. So off we went, albeit much slower this time around.

An hour and a half later, while just entering another “hot spot” just on the outskirts of Kabul, it happened. A T-section was coming up, with many cars blocking traffic to a stand-still. The text-book tactical move to avoid a dangerous choke point like that is to go off road to the side and then meet back up on the road we were turning to the right on. It was a dust storm for vehicle #2 behind us, causing all visibility to be lost, and it was one big hole after another, launching us into the air several times through the rough path, but I successfully made the transition back on the road heading right. Just as I looked into my rearview to make sure Seth & Alex were still right behind me, the fateful call came over the radio. “Uhh, one, this is two, I think we have another flat tire!” I was already looking in the mirror and noticed something was noticeably wrong this time. The truck was listing in a 45-degree angle. This was more than a flat tire. “Two, this is one, we’ll keep moving but I’ll slow down and you pull up beside me so we can get a visual of your vehicle.” “Roger… pulling up.” As Alex pulled the truck alongside the passenger side of my truck, the Chief took one look at their truck and was seen exclaiming “Oooohhhhh [expletive]!!!” Alex and Seth still didn’t know what was wrong with their vehicle but it was evident from the Chief’s reaction that things were not good. I called out, “Ok guys… I’m pulling up to a clearing here and we’ll have to stop. I’ll jump out and run back to you. STAY IN THE VEHICLE!”

We parked; I exited the vehicle and ran back to them. And in a classic move that I’ll never forget as long as I live, both Seth and Alex open their doors and lean their heads out and yell out to me, “So is it flat???” I swear if it hadn’t been such dire circumstances, I would’ve laughed so hard I would've peed my pants, but all I could muster back was a helpless, “Flat tire??!!... It isn’t even THERE!!!”

Upon turning that corner, bouncing and jolting about, they had completely lost their left rear tire! They were lucky they hadn’t completely rolled their truck. Our luck that day had already been less than desirable, but now things were clearly worse. We were now stuck in a busy, dusty IED hot spot in heavy traffic with a disabled vehicle and to make matters worse a large crowd was gathering. I ran back to my vehicle. “Roger, get out, take the front, draw your weapon and keep that crowd back. I’ll take the rear!” I ran back to our disabled truck, “Alex, Seth – get this vehicle sanitized, load everything into my truck! Chief’s got the radio. Roger and I will do perimeter security until you’re done. Got it? Good! Now GO!”

The next several minutes were spent leaning down on one knee, drawing a bead on every vehicle that was driving straight at me until they concluded that they were NOT to head my direction. I redirected the bumper to bumper traffic one by one as I kept looking back to see if Seth and Alex were done unloading their vehicle. I prayed silently that the many VBIED’s* that travel this road wouldn't find our wounded bird and drive right into the middle of us. In the meantime, an angry gas station owner was yelling at us, “I own dis place! You go! You go!!! You not leave tr-r-r-uck here!” I witnessed the mob getting face to face with Alex, clearly angry, shouting things to him as he tried desperately to get past them to transfer the things we can’t leave behind. Looking back at Roger, he had his own crowd around him and was looking in every direction, sweeping left and right with his weapon keeping everyone at bay. “When are those guys going to be done?!!”, I thought.

Finally I got the call, “Ok… Clear!!!” I motioned everyone to load into my truck and we got inside and locked the doors. Protocol kicked in and I got the radio back from the Chief and pressed the red button for 8 seconds to establish an emergency and to clear the airwaves of all traffic. Roger, Alex and Seth were now cramped in the back seat, huffing and puffing, exhausted, and clearly anxious. This was easily the scariest thing they had experienced on this tour so far and it was evident on their faces. We now had an angry crowd encircling our vehicle, banging on our windows, shouting at us. At one point, in a not-so-smart move, the Chief – a veteran of almost 30 years – opened his door to shout back at them. Luckily, he was able to get the door shut again. (by the way, in an armored vehicle, the 2-inch thick windows do NOT roll down. *grin*) Finally, a heavenly female British accent return my call for help. “Zero seven two, this is home plate, do you have an emergency?” (callsigns have been changed for OPSEC* reasons) Stunned, in a an awkward but funny moment, we all looked around at each other, smirking at the total ease in her voice and the elegance in which she delivered her call back to us over the air. (We have laugingly mimicked her voice almost daily since this episode, referring to her as ‘The Voice’) That lovely, welcome voice, oddly seemed to calm us. We briefly chuckled at the hilarity of our dire circumstances compared to her initial ignorance of it.

For the next several minutes we traded words over the radio with home plate, describing our situation, giving grid coordinates, and answering all their questions. At one point, as the crowd was getting even larger, and angrier, they asked us, “Can you remain with the vehicle?” “Negative home plate, area is hostile - will proceed to nearest safe zone and await further instructions.” “Roger zero seven two, proceed to safe zone and call in when you’ve arrived.”
Relieved, I smiled to the guys, “That’s it boys! We’re outta here!”

To shorten an already long story, we arrived at a safe zone and called in. As we awaited a recovery team to come get our vehicle, we began to wonder while they hadn’t showed up after a long while. Eventually, we received the instructions to return to ISAF. “Roger home plate, zero seven two is RTB at this time.”

We still had to trek through downtown Kabul, so the uneasiness of our trip was not gone yet, but once we returned to ISAF here, it never felt so good to get through those series of gates. Never! Wondering what happened to the recovery team, we expected them to call us to go back out with the QRF, EOD, and recovery team to help them find the truck, but we heard nothing. In fact, three days had passed and still nothing. Suddenly one morning, the Chief knocked on our door and exclaimed excitedly, “Have you guys seen what they did to your vehicle??!!” Our curiosity getting the best of us, we immediately jumped up and followed the Chief out to where our truck had been dropped off after recovery. We looked at it and were stunned. This was NOT the way we left our truck. Our truck, while sans the left rear tire, was for the most part complete and fully fixable. But what we saw was a mangled hunk of metal, yes - still missing a wheel and resting on the axle, but also with mirrors broken, buckled roof, windows shattered (2-inch thick windows mind you!), dents, scratches…. You name it! It looked like it had been involved in an accident.

What we soon learned was that ISAF* has never experienced an incident like this where a vehicle had to be left behind (that wasn’t blown up by an IED anyway) that could easily be towed back to base. Arguments between the agency that owned the vehicle and contractors tasked with retrieving it ensued. After learning the grid coordinates of this vehicle, recognizing its “hot spot” location, NO ONE wanted to go after it. Because it had been sitting for 3 days now, an EOD team had to first go and do a sweep of the vehicle, ensuring no bomb had been planted on it, then the recovery team was to load it up and bring it home. What they did, instead, was pry through the locked door – not wanting to travel back to get our keys – destroying it and all surrounding windows. They then ran a tow strap through the windows, and used a crane to pick the 8000lb truck up by its roof, and then dropped it in the back of a dump truck!! Making the situation worse, the truck was wider than the bed of the dump truck, so all the paint was scuffed, fenders were dented, and mirrors were sheared off. It was insane what they did to this truck. We stood there in total disbelief.

In the end, while we were upset about the damage to the truck, we were all thankful that we made it back safely. Even the Chief made a point to come back to my office to personally thank me for getting him home safely. "No biggie Chief!", I shrugged. A couple of my guys, in predictable fashion, were experiencing the “aftershock” that hits the next day when realizing how close they were to their first real danger “outside the wire” and I had to sit with them individually and talk to them, doing my best to ease their concerns. But once they realized my point, using the analogy of a scale with a truck on one side, and five precious lives on the other, they soon stopped regretting what happened to the truck and second-guessing themselves. There was no question – that truck meant NOTHING compared to the lives of the five guys that were sitting ducks and needed to get to safety quickly.

My last blog entry about our Baja 1000 adventures, I surmised that if I kept making these trips my luck was going to eventually be stacked against me. Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t concede that my predictions had indeed come true. Things HAD gotten worse this go around. But to me, this little incident was honestly not that bad. I’ve been in much worse situations. I’ll admit, however, that for a brief second, I felt that same anxiety come over me as I recalled an ambush my convoy took in Iraq five years ago where an angry crowd opened our doors, pulled us out of our vehicles, and assaulted us. But experience and training quickly kicked in. The nervous reactions from the other guys in the truck were a larger concern to me, and I did all I could to keep them calm. At one point, I even started singing an old Kenny Rogers song, changing the lyrics, and belted out in my best country twang, “You picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel!”…. *LOL* They all laughed. Mission accomplished for the moment. If I was calm, they were calm -that was half my battle. The other half was getting them home safe, and again thankfully, (*Whew!) mission accomplished.

I am SO ready to come home!

* CAS - Close Air Support
* ANA - Afghan National Army
* IED - Improvised Explosive Device
* VBIED - Vehicular Born Improvised Explosive Device (car bomb)
* RTB - Return To Base
* QRF - Quick Reaction Force
* EOD - Explosive Ordinance Disposal
* ISAF - International Security Assistance Force
* OPSEC - Operational Security

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Dear kids...

Dear Natalie, Matthew, and Nathaniel…

I decided to write you a letter this way because I have been trying many times for several weeks to reach you by phone and email with no luck. I have called every number that I can think of where you might be and can't get anyone. I have also emailed you many times, and you don’t seem to be getting those either. This makes me very sad. So it is my hope, for whatever reason I can’t seem to reach you by phone or email that maybe you or one of your friends will see this and you will know that I haven’t forgotten about you. I also don’t know if you get to listen to the many messages I’ve left on your answering machine, but please know this:

I love you!

I miss you!

I can’t wait to come home and see you again!

I also wanted to bring you up-to-date on several things that have been happening here and back home:

Ellie had to go to the vet last week because she was hurting and couldn’t walk very well. The doctor says that she has arthritis in her hind legs. When the doctor asked how old she was, Dawn told her she was only two years old. Then the doctor asked, “Are you sure she isn’t 5 to 7 years
old?” When she told her that she had just turned two in April, the doctor seemed concerned because Ellie is too young for this to be happening. This is something that normally happens in dogs much older. She is doing fine now, but has to be kept inside for two weeks to limit her movement and give her legs a chance to recover. I just wanted you to know what was happening. Ellie, I know, misses you too and can’t wait to see you again once I get home and can bring you back to the house to see her. Also, since you didn’t seem to get the email I sent with the pictures of of Ellie (and her BFF Izzy), I’m putting them in this blog too for you to see. They sure look like they’re having fun don’t they! *smile*

You may have heard the news recently about the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai and some of the things going on here in Kabul. Please don’t worry because I am safe and God is watching over me and my buddies.

I have been putting together a picture book for you of all the travels of Ellie Mae, my Webkinz you gave me. She and I have traveled all over Afghanistan, Qatar and even Iraq these past few months and I have taken pictures of her at every location. She is quite the world traveler! *smile* You would be so proud of her, she has been very brave traveling to some of the locations I’ve been. I hope to finish the book shortly after I get home this year. I hope you like it!

(Here is Ellie Mae sliding down the banister at Saddam's palace in Iraq)

(Here is Ellie Mae trying to email you because she misses you.)

(I invited a few of Ellie Mae's friends over for a cookout on her birthday in April. I guess she's pretty popular! *smile* Can you find Ellie Mae?)

Matthew, I hear you are wearing glasses now! Can you have someone take a picture of you so I can see? Maybe you can have someone help you email it to me. I can’t wait to see how much older and studious you look now. *grin*

Grammy and Grandad also miss you very much and are very sad that they have not been able to see you while I’ve been away. I know they got to come to school to have lunch with you a few times, but they would like to be able to see you more, and can’t wait to be able to spend some real time with you once I get back. They wanted me to tell you that they love you and miss you very much. Did you get the package of gifts and goodies they mailed to you? Have you gotten any of the emails they’ve sent you? Did you get the package in the mail from my church? Did you get to watch the DVD of music videos I made using our pictures?

And finally, your goofy, but tired 40-year old Daddy is doing fine too. (I know you love to kid me now about my age. *wink*) My finger that I broke is not doing so well however. It is mostly useless and just hangs off to the side of my hand, making it very difficult to type. In my line of work, that is not a good thing, huh?! I don't know if I ever told you for sure, but the first doctors who X-rayed my hand were wrong. It turns out my finger was broken after all - in two spots! - and there were bone fragments floating around and all the tendons on one side of my knuckle were torn off. My finger has not been healing well, it is permanently stuck in a half-bent curve. It won't bend very far, and it also won't straighten all the way out. I've had two different orthopedic surgeons tell me that I will have to have surgery on it to fix it, but can't have it done here. I will have to wait until I get home, and then once the surgery is over, it will take 4 months of rehabilitation and exercise to help it heal correctly. (can you imagine me doing daily "exercises" with my pinky??! *LOL* Doesn't that sound funny?) Other than that, I work very long hours – sometimes 16-20 hour days – 7 days a week, and don’t get near enough sleep, but it is all part of the job we do here. Me and the guys talk about our kids and our families every day to keep our spirits up. We have one spot on the base here that actually has a couple trees and sometimes when we’re all stressed we’ll go sit under the tree and talk about home. Sometime when some of my guys are in a bad mood, I’ll take them for a walk to go get a coffee and we’ll talk. One time, I even took one of my troops for a banana split! Yummy! Sometimes, to get the guys to smile, I'll do something crazy, like when I went shopping off base last week and put on a crazy hat and shield and screamed out loud! *LOL* (see picture) Since we’re all “guys” we like to talk about stuff like “home remodeling” or our “kids’ activities & sports”, or just about what we’ll do for a vacation once we get back home. I hope to be able to take you on a vacation when I get home too. Where would you like to go? I have some ideas but want to talk to you about it and get your input. *smile*

I hope this letter gets to you. I hope you are all happy and well, and excited to see me again when I get home. It breaks my heart to not be able to talk to you, but I’ll never give up trying to call or email you because you are the most important things in the world to me! I love all of you with my life, and I will do whatever it takes to make your life a happy one. Please be good!!

Hugs and Kisses!!!!


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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Baja 1000...

You know it's amazing to me the things we have to do to scrounge by here sometimes and the efforts put forth - even potentially life-threatening - that have to be done in the name of "supporting the mission." Take for instance something as simple as supplies. We are not a large compound here at HQ ISAF, so to get the "beans & bullets" to our troops we sometimes have to conjure up a convoy to Bagram Airfield - an hour north of here - to get what we need. I just got back from one of those trips – probably my 3rd or 4th now – heck I don’t remember. All I know is I’m exhausted. You drive, completely cognizant of the fact that you are driving in IED Central, and looking this way and that for anything suspicious. Intel, for instance, tells us to look out for a Toyota Corolla in black, white, red, blue…. Heck that is about EVERY car out there! They also say to look for particular trucks… SUV’s… and even an Afghan National Army vehicle that was stolen…. Ugh! So you get the picture, you basically can’t trust ANY vehicle out there because they are potential VBIED’s. Then you’ve got to navigate through a city that has no traffic laws, with people crossing the street everywhere, taxis and buses routinely stopping in the middle of the street, and - I kid you not – “donkey carts” in the middle of it all slowing up everyone and creating dangerous choke points. The key word is avoidance, and as such, we have only one rule to driving here in Afghanistan: "Drive it like you stole it”, and TRY not to hurt anyone in the process. Ha! What that entails, however, is utilizing driving maneuvers that seem to make things worse, not better. For instance, we don’t stop at most stop signs… we drive WAY faster than the rest of traffic, weaving in and out of lanes, nearly missing the corner of every vehicle we pass. We slam on the brakes so often it has become common fare to have your knees bruised upon your return from the day’s trip. We honk like we own the road, we have to swerve into oncoming one-way traffic to get around a slow vehicle that could make us vulnerable to attack; we’ve played “chicken” with oncoming cars, trucks, busses, and large jingle trucks more times that I can count. Yes, we’ve been accidents; on the convoy before this one, a car panicked and pulled out right in front of us. Our lead truck slammed into the back of it, pushing the car in front of my truck and we slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting it. Shortly afterward, a bus pulled out and again, our lead truck side-swiped it, ripping the mirror off. We're not exactly winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people here with our highway habits!

Once we make it out of downtown Kabul into the open desert, we drive an average of 80mph on roads not fit for a fully-suspensioned Baja truck to traverse. We often slide and skid, especially in wet weather like today; we come back with dented rims from the gaping pot-holes so large they could swallow our light-armored truck whole; and we frequently go completely airborne through many of the hillcrests and dips in the road. (we have the stiff necks from slamming into the roof to prove it! ) We drive around in an 8000 lb light armored 4X4 Toyota Land Cruiser, retrofitted with 1-inch-thick windows and 1/4 inch inside armor, so it’s already extremely top-heavy. And when you have the additional weight of 2-5 passengers and their cargo, I liken the feel of driving our Land Cruiser to steering a boat on water - that’s really what it feels like. You have to anticipate the tire-roll, the heavy lean to one side with the slightest of turns - “especially” at speed, and the fact that 8000+ lbs of man and metal does not stop on a dime, no matter HOW hard you slam on those brakes. We drive tactically when in a multi-vehicle convoy, and that often means the tail vehicle will provide “block” for the lead vehicles, meaning when we come to a turn, or intersection, he will speed past us to block the oncoming cars. Last trip out, our “block” predicted his move incorrectly and locked up his brakes, skidded right through the intersection, down into a 4-foot drop-off ditch, and then smashed into the side of a mud hut. The lead vehicle is the most vulnerable. He is the lookout, calling back on the radio all the suspicious activities and sites that he observes as we're traveling. You’re a two-man team in that lead vehicle – one driving, as the other calls out cautions in the road, or our intentions – like passing a slow moving truck, then each vehicle behind the lead will, in turn, call out “Clear!” as they pass so that we know we’re all still together. Some may say, “Well, at least you’re not driving a Humvee.” What I would say to them is, “I wish we were!” At least they are wider, don’t practically roll over every time you turn the wheel, they are armored better, have ECM’s (ours don’t), and driving in full body armor in our Land Cruisers certainly doesn’t win you any comfort awards. Because we're wearing full body armor, we can’t sit back all the way. We have a 12-pound bullet-proof plate behind us, and then another up front, along with your ammo belt, all playing interference with your steering wheel. We wear our Kevlar helmets, not particularly for the threat “outside” the vehicle, but because of how often we get banged around “inside” the vehicle.

Today was one of the worst convoy’s I’ve been on. It was rainy, muddy, and to boot, I was in charge as the convoy commander today, so everyone’s safety resided on my shoulders. We had so much cargo loaded in the back, too, that all rear view visibility was gone – not that we had much to begin with. Scotti, Bixby and I had other passengers too - a couple redeploying and going on R&R, and our Chief
first sergeant, the highest ranking enlisted guy in Afghanistan, who had meetings to attend. The fact that these peoples’ lives rested on my ability to put together precise and sufficiently briefed convoy procedures in the event something should “interrupt” our normal course of action, did not rest easy on my mind. This is not my first convoy - heck I've been shot at in past deployments, even ambushed, and this is also not the first time I have had a responsibility like this put on me. But weather conditions made it worse, and this was also the first convoy where we did not accompany another unit, so we were completely on our own today. What if I got everyone lost? What if we hit an IED? What if....???

A couple months ago on our first trek through this desert, I actually thought it was fun. I likened it to competing in the Baja 1000 – except under duress. But it's not so fun anymore. I don't know.... maybe it was turning 40... maybe I'm getting too old for this. Or maybe I've just been through enough situations like this now that I realize all the wonderful things I have to come home to, and am more cautious than before. Either way, these trips now seem more and more like a game of Russian Roulette, and I worry that eventually our odds will be stacked against us.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

The Royal Throne...

Gosh... how long has it been now? The last post was on the 11th???? Sorry for keeping you all in suspense but I've been unable to keep up on the blog here due to various reasons.... travel for one.... internet down for another... and just B-U-S-Y lastly.

The last time I took off on another trip, I ended up heading back to my old stomping grounds - Iraq. Baghdad, specifically. In fact, I was to meet up with another ASOC like us who resides at the old palace that I used to call home in Southwest Baghdad, so returning to the very place that we occupied 5 years ago was quite an experience. For those that don't know, I was with the first units in Baghdad 5 years ago during what they now call the "major combat phase" of the war. We first took over the airport in Baghdad, lived there for a few weeks, then moved into a nearby palace. The building that the Army gave the Air Force as a way of saying "Thanks for the close air support!" was the one that I lived in - we were it's first occupants. There are a thousand stories about that experience that I just can't go into here, but suffice it to say, it was quite a time. When we landed on the tarmack in Baghdad and I stepped off the back ramp of the C-130, I looked across the runway to see Baghdad International Airport. There it was.... glowing, with power... lights.... looking back at me as if it were a living, breathing creature - NOT the once-bombed-out shelter I remember. I am here to tell you, it was emotional. I didn't expect it. It just happened.

Once we arrived at the palace, we pulled out our sleeping bags on the 4th floor and snoozed for a few hours. I awoke the next morning restless, anxious to walk around and see what they had done with the place in 5 years' time, so I got dressed and walked outside. The first thing I had to check was to see if the old outhouse that Scotti and I had built was still there. This outhouse was like none other. It was built using one of Saddam's gold chairs from his palace as the "stool", but retrofitted with a toilet seat and lid. It had stained woodwork fitted in and around the marble steps that led to the gold chair, and it also had more gold trim taken from the frame of a now-destroyed oil painting of Saddam. I could go on about this outhouse but I don't have room. For Scotti and me, it ended up being our legacy. People came from all over to use our outhouse for several months until power and plumbing was finally restored to the bombed out palace compound. Even years later, I've run into folks who talked of that outhouse, not knowing we were the ones who built it. Heck, even my own bathroom in my house was inspired by it and was decorated in an outhouse theme while a picture of Scotti and me standing in front of our outhouse resides on a shelf on the wall! *smile* So as I walked out the back door that was backdropped on the edge of the lake...... there it was. "The Royal Throne", as we referred to it, was still there. It was well worn, however, and showed how hard the last 5 years had been on it - not too different than "me" really. I felt like I had found an old friend as funny - or as sickening - as that may sound to some of you. The door we made was now off and laying on the ground, half burried in the dirt next to it. The inside was covered in a thick layer of dust and cob webs, while the outside that once shimmered a bright white coat of paint was now chipped and peeling away. The once shiny, stained and laqured wood trim inside was now drying, faded, and exposed to the elements. The round mirror, the gold and glass shelf and the toilet paper dispensors were now missing as well. But in all honesty, it still was in really good shape. A really good cleaning and paint job would've restored it to it's former luster.

(Me & Scotti, May 2003, standing in front of our newly completed "Royal Throne")

(Me, March 2008, standing in front of a now well-worn "Royal Throne")

(The inside is still mostly complete, however very dusty and weathered)

Then I remembered, Scott and I had signed the inside framework just above the door after completing the build. "Designed & built by MSgt Ken Mahoy & TSgt Scott Stadler {signatures} May 2003, OIF" Was it still there?.... A quick look inside and up over my head revealed that our signatures penned with my Sharpie marker 5 years ago were still there unbelievably. *smile* Wow... that just brought it all home. The only problem was, Scotti was not here with me to experience it. I fought hard to get him to go on the trip with me - because I really DID need his satellite expertise on my project - but after 3 attempts, the commander would not budge. I brought SSgt Chris Lambert with me instead - and he did a great job, mind you - but for obvious sentimental reasons I really wanted Scotti to come along. I was more upset than I can say that he wasn't allowed to go. Scotti was too. 'Nuff said.

The next few days there in Baghdad were busy but just before I flew out, I borrowed a vehicle from the ASOC and Chris and I went for a drive around the palace compound there, and with each direction I looked, at least a dozen memories popped back into my head. It was fun for me
to be able to take Chris and point to a particular area and tell the story of what happened "right there" 5 years ago, or to walk past another area and remember the fun things that Scotti and I did when it was all so fresh and so new back then. No 10-foot tall concrete barriers blocking the beautiful view of the lake or the other palace buildings... No fences... No sandbags stacked up in front of all the windows.... No trees cut down for security reasons.... It was beautiful! And it was ours for a short spell. Looking back now - exactly 5 years later - and all that has transpired there at the palace....in Iraq.... and even in my "own" life, I can only get nostalgic for a spell, but then have to quickly divert my attention back to the now, and all the things that are going on today, and all that I have to accomplish before I get out of the sandbox here yet again. But for those few short days, it was hard not to remember back to that time 5 years ago that was so breathtaking... so exhilarating... and terrifying, yet somehow fun all at once. Before I left, I decided that I'd bring a momento back for Scotti, so Chris and I removed the brass door handle and I packed it in my backpack and brought it back to Afghanistan here. I sat with Scotti alone a few nights ago and showed him the pictures and video I took of the palace, and then, at the very end, I pulled out the door handle. We shared a good laugh over it and recalled all the great memories. We even kidded about how we could scheme to get the entire outhouse shipped back to our unit in Peoria! *lol* That outhouse has had a life of it's own, and we often joke that our outhouse is "the story the refuses to die" because of how many times it's come back to us with yet another story during it's 5-year tenure there. *grin* But this time around, sadly, I know I'm leaving it behind for good.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jet setter...

Ok, so maybe I'm being a little facetious about the "jet setting" but this past week has pretty busy with one trip after another, most of which I can't talk about unfortunately. But I left on the 4th, the day before my birthday, spent most of the day all around Kabul here, then on the 5th I celebrated my 40th birthday somewhere in the air over Afghanistan in a blackhawk helicopter. The next day was in another location here in Afghanistan, then the next 4-5 days were spent in Qatar. I just got back late last night - very jet-lagged - and now I'm getting ready to fly out again for a spell. Ugh. So let me quickly address a few things.

1. THANK YOU to all of you who sent me Happy Birthday eCards and care packages and emails! I was QUITE overwhelmed when it all happened. On the 4th, I had just enough time to check mail before heading out and I had 11 - YES 11!! - packages mailed to me! When I got back last night I had another 6 waiting on me! Wow I don't know what to say but "thank you" to all of you that thought of me in that way. *smile* My kids sent me cupcakes in the mail with a tub of chocolate icing to put on myself and I shared those with everyone. They were goooooooood! *smile* Thanks kids! The personal letters that were written to me really put a huge smile on my face too! I wanted to give a shout out to "Brooky" for her special letter to me too. *smile* You had me smiling and laughing and I felt very special. Thank you.

(pictured above is those of us sleeping on the long C-17 cargo flight and me writing a letter to my kids in the dark)

2. My last post on the blog here did not leave anyone who read it with a warm fuzzy, so my apologies for leaving you on such a "low" and then leaving the country for a week. I am doing fine - much better now - and I'm sure you understand that we all have "those days" here and that was one such day for me. The amount of encouraging email I got offline, away from the blog site, was simply incredible. I had a couple emails that just flat out made me "lose it" but it gave me the reassurance that I needed to hear in that moment. To all of you who emailed, Thank You!

3. I turned 40 on March 5th! AAAHHH!!!!!! As you can imagine, I have quite a few "opinions" about turning 40 and I'll share those insights in another post (when I get back). Nothing terribly profound, but 40 seems to be a good age for most to look back AND look forward on one's life, and I am no different. Thanks again to all those who sent birthday wishes. Those of you who have already reached that milestone perhaps can bestow some of your wisdom on me because I still seem to want to learn things "the hard way" even at this "mature" age! *grin*

Ok.... gotta fly.... I have NO clean laundry from this past week and I've got to head out here soon. I didn't want to leave you all hanging from my last "glum" post, so now you have something else to read in the meantime.

Outta here....

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