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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Spellchecker35 said...

I can't begin to imagine what you felt when you returned to safety! I was out of breath just reading this entry and I was reading it in my head! We are so thankful that you are well and are counting the days until we hope you can come home. We hope to hear soon that you are starting to relay the necessary info to the next group coming in, so that we know you're on your way home soon after...

Anonymous said...

The true safety zone is when you can return home, not that you won't have any flat tires, or won't be singing any Kenny Rogers songs, not that you won't be hitting any pot holes or swerving in traffic, but hopefully it will be in a safer area and you will be able to join your family again. Be very careful until then.


Brandy said...

Yikes! Just read the blog. My goodness! I hope you got good care for your finger after all of that! Excellent leadership, Ken! Kudos to you!

Joel said...

It's good to hear from you again. I'm glad you're safe. I look forward to you getting home too. See ya, friend.

Natalie said...

Found Her

mahoy78spyder said...

*smile* Good job, Natalie! You found the latest picture of Ellie Mae hidden among the blogosphere! *grin*

Love you baby!


Anonymous said...

sounds like its ruff over there. Stay safe. When you get back we'll thrash some bikes :). We all miss you.
Your Cousin
Alex V.

Spellchecker 35 said...

Can't wait to read a post entitled: "Bag Drag -- Back Home Again!!"