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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