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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