Every now and then, our "ground hog day" here in Kabul gets shaken up a bit and opportunities present themselves for you to step outside the normal routine - should you choose to take advantage of them. Yesterday, one such opportunity appeared in the form of a couple dignitaries visiting the compound here - Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, and British Foreign Secretary, David Milibrand.
Now I'll be the first to say that meet-n-greets are not really my thing, but something intrigued me about Ms. Rice and I thought I would go - if for nothing more than to break the redundant cycle of my days here. Many years ago I used to work for D.I.A. at the Pentagon and seeing high-ranking Generals and government dignitaries were an everyday occurance. Back then, Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Dick Cheney was the Secretary of Defense, ironically. Lunches spent in the center courtyard of the Pentagon regularly turned up familiar TV personalities and the like. Five years ago I spent every waking moment with the likes of other Generals and government officials whom are now portrayed as heroes in non-fiction books that recount the major combat phase in Iraq. And also during that time, shortly after successfully taking Baghdad, Don Rumsfeld was coming to visit us to say congrats and I was one of only 6 chosen to to attend, but I turned it down because I had other work to do. The guy I let replace me came back jumping around, thrilled that he went, and thanked me by turning the viewscreen on his camera around for me to see that he had just had his picture taken side by side with the Secretary of Defense himself! Ugh. Oh well... I'm glad he was happy, but through it all I've come to realize one thing. They're just people. So going to see Condy Rice was more of an, "Ehhhhh, what the heck!" kind of choice.
A few others from my unit and I went to stand in line in front of the gymnasium - the only place big enough to house that many people. After standing in line for about 30 minutes, the announcement came that she would be delayed by an hour. We left. When we came back an hour later, we were let in the door, checked for weapons, passed through security, and led into the gymnasium. I had slowly wandered my way back to the gym after running a few errands, but little did I know that as soon as I had walked in, WHACK!.. they shut the door behind me and wouldn't let anyone else in.
The Sergeant Major on the compound here ran us through several drills of getting lined up in formation, standing at attention, resting "at ease", and bunching up X number of steps into a second formation. I had NO idea that this was going to be such a dog-n-pony show.... I mean sheesh!.. I just wanted to hear her two-minute speech, shake hands if the opportunity presented itself, and then get back to work.
Well, soon one hour turned into two..... and then we got the message that she would be here in 30 minutes..... An hour had passed and still no one. To fight the bordeom, I egged the guys on to run up on the still-empty stage and get our picture taken all together, so we did. And then finally, after another 90 minutes, we were all called to attention and in walked our dignitaries. Finally! After 3 1/2 hours of waiting, they were here.
As expected, they both got up on the make-shift stage - back dropped with the flags from each of the 39 nations represented here and covered with a huge traditional Afghan rug for good measure - and spoke of the work we were doing and the pride they had in us and the many sacrifices we had made. To be perfectly honest, I originally just wanted this part to be over, but when Condoleeza got up on stage, I felt that her words were very sincere and genuine. It was an impromptu speech... nothing prepared.... and she spoke with candor and made good eye contact with all of us as she scanned the entire gymnasium from left to right. She made no mention of her attempts to try to garner more support from other NATO nations..... she just simply said, "Thanks!" I have to say, I for one, was pleasantly impressed with her.
After the short speeches by both, they came down off the stage, Condi going left, and Milibrand going right, to shake the hands of the troops. I was on the right and was awaiting my chance just to see her up close, not expecting to actually get to shake hands with her or anything, but then something happened by the time she got to the middle formation to shake hands. Lieutenant Cox, an EW (Electronic Warfare) guy that works with us pulled a fast one on Ms. Rice and unzipped his flight suit. He then pulled it open to expose his t-shirt underneath that had written on it, "I [heart] Condi Rice!" *LOL* Once he did that, the formation erupted into laughter. The news media, not wanting to be left out, went running over to them to see what had happened and then filmed the entire thing. We were briefed beforehand not to ask for autographs, but Cox didn't care. He asked her if she'd sign his shirt and she happily obliged. *smile* That was the ice-breaker we needed! Once that happened, all formations and semblance of organization were gone. She then began to simply walk through the crowd, shaking hands and taking pictures with everyone that was left - to include "my" formation (which now looked more like a cluster than anything else).
A minute or two had passed, and then BOOM... there she was, standing right in front of me. She reached out her hand and I shook it as I said, "Thank you..." (I don't even know WHAT I was saying thank you about!... It's just the only thing I could think of to say! *lol*) She said, "Heeeeyyy... thanks for your service. Nice to meet you!".... About that time, Wes asked if he could have his picture taken with her, and she turned around in between the two of us and "SNAP!"... a picture was taken for posterity.
The thing I observed about her was that she was very genuine when greeting all the troops here, and would often say to them, "Hey you want to switch cameras now and have your picture taken too?" so that no one was left out. She laughed - not a fake laugh - and engaged in real conversations with many people. She wasn't just putting on a show in my opinion. But based on how the previous day's agenda went with other NATO commanders and Afghan Prime Minister, Hamid Karzi, I'm sure this was probably the highlight of her day.
I wish her and Mr. Millibrand well in their quest to get more support here from other NATO nations because I for one don't want the U.S. to have to pick up the slack AGAIN and be forced to come back for my "fourth" tour.
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