Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gentleman: Welcome to Afghanistan

Originally posted 07/14/2005

Gentleman: Welcome to Afghanistan.

That disembodied voice came over the intercom as we rolled to a full stop at KIA, Kabul International Airfield whose weathered facade still showed the bullet holes and pot marks from the ravages of twenty years of war. As the ramp on the C-130 lowered we got our first taste of our new home for the next year. I do mean taste, for the air is so hot and impregnated with the dust and earthen particles kicked up by a savage wind that you can actually taste it. {We later decided it tastes like dry oatmeal, red tide, with carpenters chalk and a dash of peat moss thrown in}

My eyes kept tearing up so badly in the first few minutes I couldn't see around me enough to keep myself in line to the terminal. We walked from the plane to a dark front room with one cooler full of bottled water and a dusty clock that stood still at six fifty-three. As we waited for our ride to Camp Phoenix we watched dozens of different aircraft take off and land from an airfield that looked as deserted as the rocky landscape that surrounded us.

We had come from a world wind 60 hour flight that took us to some incredibly memorable places. We started off with a Bluebird bus ride from Camp Shelby to Kessler Air Force base in Gulfport Miss. Here at the Trent Lott Air National Guard base we were counted and recounted for the manifest before we were able to board the flight. The first leg was a little over three and a half hours to Stephen King's homeland, Bangor Maine. Although we arrived at 03:30 in the morning we were surprised to find the "Maine troop greeters." This group of about fifteen men and women lined up in a gauntlet down the concourse to shake hands and welcome all the troops that come though the airport from Iraq and Afghanistan and all points in between. They were mostly older WWII and Korean War veterans that were making sure that we knew that they knew of our collective sacrifices for our country. They looked like our Mothers and Fathers, our Aunts and Uncles and those distant kin folk you see once a year at Christmas or holidays. Yet, here they were with the sun barely cresting the horizon holding hands and speaking in hushed tones to these strangers as though they knew us from long ago. They served us coffee and homemade cookies, listened to our talk of family and friends and graciously allowed us space to start to accept the entirety of the task that lie ahead. I will never forget them or the humility they shared with us one extraordinary morning in July.

We reboarded the plane for a long eight hour flight over the Atlantic. We skirted the edges of Canada and Greenland until banking right to make the jump over water. Our next refueling point would be Shannon Ireland. Home to green rolling hills, ageless castles and Guinness Stout beer. Imagine my unbridled joy! To be in the home of the most coveted dark beer brewed for centuries in the same fashion for King and surf alike. We nearly ran up the gangway and much to my delight found "Joe Sheridan’s old Irish Pub" complete with wooden floors and hot and cold running adult beverages. We bellied up to the bar five deep and began an ordering frenzy that would put Wall Street to shame.

Nothing like a comely Irish lass speaking in her native tongue to wet the appetite for shameless imbibing debauchery. Alas, all good things must come to an end and once again we were called back to continue our journey. Another eight hour leg done in darkness over the European continent watching the endless progression of nameless cities gliding under wing. We stopped again for fuel in Adama Turkey where they refused to let us off the plane for three hours until we finished trading pilots and fuel. So much for Turkish hospitality.

After take-off I watched as we ascended from the darkness to the edge of the coming dawn. The clear unadulterated hues at this frozen altitude spread before me like Gods pallet with enough color to paint all the worlds below. In hindsight, at that moment, I guess I had a sort of epiphany. From this precipice of indescribable beauty to the trash strewn dusty streets of Kabul where the children beg from the side of the road for anything to fill their empty bellies.

We crossed North of Israel and Iran, crossed over the Caspian Sea and through one of the most inhospitable areas on earth: the Kara desert in Uzbekistan. Thousands and thousands of miles of desolate empty barren terrain. After flying over that area for forty five minutes the only sign of habitation was on the banks of the Amadar JA River where those people had scratched out a few acres of plants near the rivers edge. Finally to Manus Air force base in Kyrgyzstan where we off loaded our bags and waited for movement into Afghanistan. Twelve hours later we caught a hop into country. As we drove out to the flight line I saw our aircraft: a C-130 Hercules transport. I caught myself smiling broadly. My Uncle, Major [ret] John .J. Pietenpol had flown tens of thousands of hours in this ugly plane but loved it like an old mutt. Ungainly and ungraceful but reliable and strong. So there, high above the Hindu Kush Mountains, on the way to another war, the irony was too much to bear and a single tear slid down my cheek for the man I loved so dearly and never felt closer too than that moment.

We were picked up from KIA by a convoy from the 151st Infantry, Indiana National Guard. These are the men we would be replacing. They rode up with gun trucks front and rear security for the Haji buses rented to take us to Phoenix for processing in country. Different sized armored vehicles from France, Germany, Romania, were parked all over the airfield. All units with the ISAF, International Stability Assistance Force. Each lending a hand with operations all over A-stan. The ten minute ride down Jalalabad road to the camp was an eye opener. Bombed out buildings, open air market stands, trucks and cars of all shapes and sizes in all stages of disrepair and dilapidation.

To drive in this country you only have to pay the price and figure out which hole to put the key in. This leaves the roadway looking like a mad incantation of the Indy 500 and Mad max wrapped up in a demolition derby. Like our own highways there are crosses here along the roadway to mark the deaths by car. Only difference here is if you die in an accident they bury you under that cross on the side of the road. There's no 911 or hospitals or ambulances to take you away from the scene, if your relatives aren't there to pick up the body you get interned on the side of the road.
Our first night here we were hit by three rockets fired from the mountains to the West. They struck downtown Kabul near the U.S. embassy and fortunately no one was injured. Two days later as another group of our company was landing two mortar rounds hit the airfield, again no one injured. We had received our new up-armored Humvees and the Chief wanted everyone to get rated to drive them so we set about giving a sort of outside the wire drivers test. Our company area inside the compound is considered a safe area so you only need to carry your individual weapon and at least one magazine for protection. However, once you leave the front gate your in a hostile fire zone. That means full battle rattle and all the weapons for security during any movement.

We drew up the manifest for our road march, body armor, commo, M4’s, water and had a pre movement brief on actions on enemy contact then, on to the motor pool where every footfall raises dust like small atom bombs in a Childs miniature dirt war.
Seven vehicles outside the wire took a left down J-bad road passed the Afghan Army camp and took to the hills to get a feel for the new heavier vehicles. When I say hills I mean two and three thousand foot mountains that surround the city on three sides. They rise up into the dusty sky like so many jagged rotten teeth. I never knew there could be so many different shades of brown. Up on the trails winding around the ANA training area we rode keeping our interval between vehicles and tested the maneuverability of the new Hummers.

We rode passed an old Soviet motor pool now gone bone yard. Hundreds and hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft guns strewn about like a careless child’s playground. Rusting and wasting away they mark the sad passing of a dying communist dream that cost the Afghani's millions of lives. On to a set of caves dug by the Russians to house their armor and passed the village of Pole-I-Charki where a refugee camp has risen. It only takes a second and the kids come running out from everywhere to give us the thumbs up and beg for anything. We have nothing for them and cannot stay idle so we move out swiftly. Avoiding them is an ever present danger because they have no adult supervision and run in and out of traffic hoping for a handout.

"Ish Allah" means "Gods will” the Afghans say it so everything they do and anything that happens is according to the will of God. A seven year old girl was struck and killed yesterday by one of our trucks coming back from Kandahar. I wrote my Mother and told her it will take a while to harden my heart to the realities of this new life.

A restless wind blows
Howling in catacombs
Whispers an ancient
and anxious melody
A child's breathe on glass
Collage of love
Finger painting
Bumps and bruises
quickly forgotten
with a Mother's kiss
The tears of Angels
have fallen

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