Saturday, December 18, 2010

Victory Dance

The letter of release has been received.  I made the flight manifest.  I have cleared customs, checked my bags, and am currently sitting in the lock down terminal waiting for our plane to be made ready.  I think it's time for a little victory dance, Will Smith style.

Heather and I at the Camp Eggers Smoke Pit on my last night in Afghanistan.
Ok, so I'm cheating on the picture a bit.  Photography isn't allowed in the lock down area, probably so people can't study the area to figure out where to throw things over the fence and avoid customs.  So I'm using an older picture from my last day at Eggers.  You get the idea.  My Victory Dance was kindly provided by one LTC "Smiley".  (That really is his nickname, and it definitely fits.  The guy smiles even when he's angry.)  And it was delicious.  I have another primed for Ft. Benning, after which I will probably have to forgo this tradition lest my wife, and probably my mother, murder me.
As I write this I'm sitting in the "Freedom Area", aka temporary holding cell.  The compound is fairly large with multiple tents, the world's smallest Pizza Hut (about the size of a phone booth), a coffee shop, and wi-fi.  In typical military fashion our show time was 0600 this morning to drop off our bags, while our flight doesn't take off until 2035 this evening.  That's more than 14 hours for the mathematically challenged, most of which will be spent sitting doing nothing.  "Hurry up and wait" is more than a mantra.  When we finally do leave the ground, I expect to be in the air or on layover in either Germany or Ireland for around 16 hours.  However, because I am a fairly heavy sleeper and don't have a very loud alarm with me, I chose to stay up all night rather than chance missing the show time.  Thus, by the time the flight takes off, I should be all set to sleep at least half the way.  That's the plan at least.  If you've traveled on an airplane before, you know plans to rest usually don't survive very long.  We shall see.

I have very little to say about the past few days, largely because I have been doing very little, but I'll see what I can come up with.  
My officemates and colonel were fantastic in getting my letter of release completed in record time.  I still have a hard time believing such a large piece of information was completely unknown to the Camp Eggers personnel office.  When I first told my office that I needed the letter, all of them thought the lady was off base and tried to find a way around it.  I can now say that she was definitely correct.  Multiple people asked to see my letter of release during my check-in for the flight, and it was also required to drop off my equipment at the warehouse here in Kuwait so I could avoid dragging it all the way back to Ft. Benning.  It is evident that somewhere between here and Afghanistan is a massive rift in communication.  Being that this is the military, and how little attention are paid to civilians in general, I guess I really shouldn't be surprised.  This is just a lot larger issue than what normally (in my experience) falls through the cracks.

The USO is an amazing organization.  Both Kuwait (Ali Al Salem Air Base, to be specific) and Bagram Air Force Base had a USO building to provide folks a place to relax and hang out.  I wasn't at Bagram long enough to enjoy that one, but I used the heck out of the one in Kuwait.  At the USO, deployed personnel have access to  comfortable couches, TVs, a movie room, free wi-fi, phone lines to the states without having to dial an operator, PlayStation 3 kiosks, a guitar, and even hot brownies one day.  My last few days were spent nearly entirely inside this building, watching movies, playing games on my laptop, or Skyping with the family.  It was also a great place to get to talk to all sorts of people that served at little bases all over Iraq and Afghanistan.  Waiting three days for a space on an airplane wasn't very much fun, but the USO made it a lot easier to stomach.

Did I mention I watched a lot of movies?  I watched a LOT of movies.  Let me summarize and make recommendations (and I apologize if the links show up with German movie titles, I can't do anything about that, unfortunately):

Repo Men - Sci-fi action flick about repossessing artificial organs when their still-breathing owners can't afford to make the payments any more.  Very bloody, mostly predictable up until the very end.  The ending sold it for me, though I can see a lot of people hating it.  Avoid unless you're really into sci-fi or blood spatter.

Baby Mama - Comedy about surrogacy (carrying someone else's kid).  Avoid like the plague.  I think I laughed twice.  I only finished it because I was in Kuwait and had nothing better to do.

Date Night - Pretty funny, if a little raunchy at times.  Steve Farrell and Tina Fey work extremely well together.  Unique in that it's a romantic comedy that focuses on a married couple.  Who knew married couples could have romance?  If you're easily offended by sexual jokes or cursing for comedic effect (i.e., completely unnecessary) then avoid, otherwise it's worth your time.

The A-Team - I'm old enough to remember watching the show, but young enough to not remember a thing about it.  Maybe fans of the show would enjoy this, but I really did not.  Generally bad acting, thin plot, and unbelievable action sequences.  I will say the villain's part was played rather well.  If you like completely brain dead action movies or are a huge A-Team fan then go for it, otherwise stay away.

Jonah Hex - Western-with-a-twist based off a comic book.  Mildly entertaining, but I actually paused the movie for an hour and a half to watch Remember the Titans on TV, so that should give you some reference.  Worst role I've ever seen John Malkovich play, which was pretty disappointing.  I wouldn't bother.

Terminator Salvation - The first of the second Terminator trilogy.  (Did you follow that?)  Totally worth it if you're a Terminator fan, otherwise probably not so much, as the plot revolves heavily around plot points from the original Terminator movie.  For the fans though, this is good stuff.

Salt - Probably the best movie I watched of the bunch.  Good plot, decent acting for an action film, familiar faces on the screen, twists keep you interested until the end.  Worth watching if you don't object to military-type violence.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief - The Greek gods are real and are still having kids with mortals, a la Hercules and Achilles.  Those kids play the staring role when the lightning bolt of Zeus is stolen.  The movie is pretty simplistic, but it's designed for fans of the young adult novel on which the movie is based, so it gets a pass.  Nearly every adult role is played by some recognizable actor, which was entertaining by itself as I tried to guess who was going to show up next.  Highly disappointed they couldn't land Ozzie Osbourne to play Hades.  Ok overall, especially if you're watching with kids, or by yourself in a giant, foreign sand box.

I think I've rambled on about nothing for long enough.  In entertaining myself, I risk boring everyone else, so I'm cutting myself off.  Still six and a half hours to go before our bus to the airport.  Ugh.  I think I'll go watch Salt again, or something.  On a happier note, the next time I post a blog it will be from the good ol' US of A.  /cheer

See you soon.  Out here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gone, baby, gone

Afghanistan is in the rear view mirror.  So is Qatar.  Current residence is Kuwait.  And now I'm stuck here.

When leaving Camp Eggers, most people are required to secure a letter of release from the command, certifying that you have reached the end of your orders, your replacement has arrived, and you have had adequate change-over time to teach your replacement your job.  However, when I asked about getting a letter of release for myself, I was told that civilians were not required to do this.  I was rather happy, as they are kind of a pain in the butt to get completed, and could have delayed me getting home.  So I left Camp Eggers, letter-less, hoping for a quick journey home, but prepared to slog it out one stop at a time.

The MRAP ride to Bagram Air Force Base left bright and early at 0600.  My office mates came out to see me off and help me carry my bags to the meeting point.  We had one last Monty Python joke, hugs goodbye, and then I was off.  Two hours later, I was in Bagram, prepping to navigate my way through the endless adventure that is space available travel.

Space available, or Space-A, is exactly what it sounds like.  If the plane has seats available, then they take passengers.  If they don't, then they don't.  Most of the planes leaving theatre are not taking passengers specifically, but cargo from one base to another.  How much cargo they will carry and how much room that cargo will take up isn't known until shortly before the flight leaves.  As such, how many seats are available is not known until shortly before the plane takes off.  These seats are given out on a first come, first serve basis, leading to a long list of sign ups to get to where you need to go.  I signed up for a flight to Kuwait more than a week ago, and I was 62 out of 250 on the list.  The first flights leaving for Kuwait were the next day, so I figured that I'd have to spend at least one night in Bagram, and depending on the amount of space, possibly more than one.  But the officer in charge of getting people home from Camp Eggers had another suggestion.

Qatar is a small nation south of Kuwait occupying a peninsula bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south and the Persian Gulf elsewhere.  It's also a portal into the Southwest Asia theatre (Iraq, Afghanistan), and a little known exit route.  While few people choose to go through Qatar to leave Afghanistan, it's a pretty efficient method.  The planes going to Qatar usually don't carry much cargo, meaning there are a lot of seats available, and there are several flights from Qatar to Kuwait each day taking people back and forth on 4 day pass.  As it happened, there was a flight to Qatar leaving at 1515 the day I arrived in Bagram, and upon switching my sign up I was number 19 on the list.  Sure enough, when roll call came around, I had a seat.

After manifest, loading bags, waiting out a small dust storm and a three and a half hour flight on a C-17, I arrived in Qatar around 2100.  Annoyingly, I was made to go through immigration, even though I would only be there a couple of hours.  Then through a brief customs check, before going to check on a flight to Kuwait.  There were two leaving in the next 6 hours, and I was number 9 on the manifest.  Yup, this was definitely a better idea.

Another perk about going through Qatar was the improved quality of the terminal waiting area.  Bagram's terminal was a temporary terminal with a concrete floor, non-insulated walls, and not nearly enough space for all the people coming in and out.  Qatar was an actual building, tiled floors, bright lighting, and the best bathroom I've seen since I left home.  They also had free wi-fi (that actually worked for a change) and was about 12 times faster than the wired connection I had been using in Kabul.  I was able to Skype with my wife and actually have video rather than a slide show.  I took thorough advantage of this perk until the 0130 roll call for the flight.

After another round of waiting, we loaded the airplane around 0330 and rolled out around 0400.  Given the time change, at this point I'd been traveling for 24 hours and was pretty exhausted.  Sleeping on a C-17 isn't easy, given the way the seats are set up.  The seats are along the sides of the cargo bay, with no arm rests, no head rest, and no way to recline, so you are forced to sleep sitting up.  But as tired as I was, those issues were only minor.

Now at 0600, I had arrived in Kuwait.  Here was the first known quantity about my travel.  I had scheduled myself for a flight back to Ft. Benning, Georgia more than a week ago, was confirmed to have a space on the aircraft, and knew it left on Saturday.  I was hoping to find an R&R flight leaving sooner, but knew that worst-case I would be leaving on the 18th.  My biggest worry of the travel was getting to Kuwait before the check-in time for the flight on Friday, as I thought I was going to get stuck behind all the people heading home for leave.  Now that I was here, I expected smooth sailing.

Not so fast.  Just one more little wrinkle.

You remember that release letter?  The one that I didn't have?  Apparently it's required to have one to board the flight out of Kuwait.  This is a new regulation as of a couple months ago, one that the personnel office at Camp Eggers apparently had no idea existed.  It's also a regulation that the contractor running the flights home failed to tell me about until I showed up at the counter.  I tried to find some way to leave the country without needing a release letter to no avail.  Bottom-line: I'm not going anywhere until a letter of release is signed.

Being that I'm no longer at Camp Eggers, I'm relying on my colonel and NCOs to get things worked out for me.  Usually the hold up with release letters is verifying when your replacement is going to show up and enforcing the mandatory 10 day turn over.  By hold up, I mean that letters of release need to be started about 30 days before you head home.  I've got three and a half days before my flight leaves.  Ugh.  Since my replacement is already working, and our turn over already complete, and I'm already gone, I'm hoping that things can be moved along quickly, but I really have no idea.  

I trust the folks I'm counting on to get me out of here, but its not easy sitting in a different country, hands tied, with getting home in time for Christmas on the line.  But if that's what I have to do to climb the last hurdle between me and home, then that's what I'll do.  I just hope I don't go crazy.

Sitting, waiting, wishing.  See you soon?

Out here.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Saying goodbye sucks.  Goodbye to my family at the airport was terrible at the start of my tour.  I did not expect saying goodbye at the end of my tour would be an event.  But as it happens, I really hated telling my friends goodbye.

My predecessor did not have a very close office group.  Each person did their own thing in the office and in their personal time, for the most part, and interacted with each other minimally.  Our office is (I guess "was" is appropriate now, since I'm leaving) the polar opposite.  We've done everything together, and had a darn good time doing it.  I have made friends here that I will keep for my lifetime, even though we may not get to see each other for five years at a stretch.  And after six months of seven day work weeks, long hours, hilarious shenanigans, and even some thrilling heroics, it's hard to imagine going through a day without these guys being around.

My farewell day started with lots of errands.  There's always loose ends to tie up when moving from one place to another, whether it's switching jobs or moving houses.  Re-deploying is no exception, and has the added layer of paperwork.  Checking out of my room, turning in my cell phone and laundry bag, and suspending my e-mail accounts were all required.  I also had to finish packing all of my acquired stuff into my limited bag space for the trip home.  I mailed 59 lbs of stuff yesterday, and I still had more to carry.  I was only here 6 months, how did I acquire so much crap?

After the mundane came the more fun sections.  MG Beare, the two star Canadian general for whom I have done most of my work, dropped by our office to say thank you to myself and to Heather, who is also leaving in a few days.  He gave us a nice send off, formally recognizing our efforts in front of our boss and our peers.  I learned that some of the work I had done in the past was being used to motivate the Afghan Minister of the Interior to affect change in a particularly troubled segment of the police, and it's working.  Noticeable changes have been seen since the information I produced was delivered to Afghan leadership.  Having this kind of effect on things is the largest part of what makes (made...sigh, I'll get used to it soon, bear with me) this job so great.  Impactful changes can be brought about on a timeline that allows me to see them.  Having MG Beare illustrate to me just how much change I've been able to affect on Afghanistan was extremely satisfying.

After this was the formal CJ7 Hail and Farewell send off.  My replacement was being welcomed as one of the new hails, and Heather and I were being farewelled (that is now a word).  Since I'm leaving, this was the last opportunity to share with the organization about my exploits.  And what fun would it be if all we talked about was work?  Here is what my buddies came up with to be read aloud by my boss to the 60 or so people in attendance, in no particular order, with a little explanation about each one:

- Apache knife fighter
Ok, so I ended up being pretty decent at racking up kills with a knife in some of the video games we played extensively.  I earned the nickname one night when we brought the PS3 to the conference room and played on the 60" plasma.  I think I knifed Steve 7 times in a row on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, bringing much amusement to the crowd of on-lookers.

- Five Star Foxhole blogger
This one should be self explanatory for this audience.

- Resident hippie/20-something
I spent most of my deployment wearing my hair long, with my customary goatee.  Decidedly un-military like, and definitely noticeable amongst the workforce.  I had people in other offices convinced I was a surfer, and had several people not recognize me after I cut it all off a couple weeks ago.  I was also the youngest member of the office, and helped bring the old farts I worked with into the 21st century by teaching them about Facebook and texting.

- Would have made it home 4 months ago if he'd found the trail of Reese's Pieces leading there.
So, I really like Reese's Pieces.  Like, a lot.  And they were the perfect snack for Afghanistan.  Small handfuls of sweetness and peanut butter that survive shipping well.  I had my wife send around 10 lbs of them during my tour.  I shared with the office, but I ate more than my fair share.

- Haiku Artist
Every week we were required to turn in "3 liners", detailing each project worked that week in three lines or less.  These are compiled and delivered to several people interested in what the ORSAs are doing.  Well, one week, I submitted mine in haiku just for fun.  The colonel posted my e-mail on his door, has them memorized, and frequently has a good chuckle over them even three months later.

And last, famous quotes, attributed to me:
"Hey, can I hold your gun?" - I was the only one in the office without a weapon and I was trying to learn.  Apparently it was funny.

"You are evil...take those truffles away from me!" - Yeah...someone shipped us Lindor truffles.  Bad news, man, bad news.

"Where is Steve?  Is he playing Black Ops without me?!" - One of the video games we play.  I was jealous of my controller time.

"There comes a point in each day when you know you're not going to get anything else done.  Well, I hit that point in my deployment about five days ago.  Thankfully, I can teach the new guy to do stuff for me."

Needless to say, much laughter was had.

After the ceremony and the medal presenting, we ate pizza in the one restaurant on camp, smoked a final cigar, watched Christmas Vacation, and made the rounds to say goodbye to people outside the office.  It felt like just another night of fun.  Unfortunately, it will be my last one with these guys.  And that just really, really sucks.  I'm very excited to go home, and I can't wait to see my family.  I just wish there was some way to transport my entire office back to Ft. Leavenworth so I could keep my friends.  Work won't be as fun without them.

We're already discussing annual road trips to meet up with one another.  Steve suggested coming up to Ft. Lewis where he's currently stationed to go salmon fishing.  John, Heather and the Anonymous One both live on the East Coast, meaning we could easily find something to do out there.  I live in the middle of the country, where the travel would be equal for everyone.  But we also all have children, and jobs, and budgets, and we know that it could be nearly impossible to coordinate something between all of us.  I really hope we are able to get it figured out.  I'd hate to think that the last time we'll all see each other is today.

I've got to be up in 4 hours to head to my MRAP convoy.  My friends are waking up two hours earlier than normal to see me off.  My journey home is about to begin.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Out here.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

End Of Days

The end is near.  After six months deployed to the world's largest dustbowl, my time is nearly up.  I can't begin to describe my glee.
I have enjoyed the work.  I have made great friends and connections.  But I have hated the place.  Part of that is just being 7,000 miles away from home and family, but most of it is earned honestly.  This camp is dirty, dusty, smelly, cramped and crowded, silly, frustrating, and often infuriating.  Putting Afghanistan in my rear view mirror is high on the list of things that will make K.C. happy.  I am so looking forward to being at home and having some semblance of normalcy.
My replacement arrived on 1 Dec, wrung out after 70 hours of travel from Kansas City to Dallas, Maine, Germany, Kuwait, Bagram and, finally, Eggers.  That was on top of flying back home for Thanksgiving with his family between CRC and deployment, dragging all his newly issued gear with him.  Once he arrived at Camp Eggers, it was time for me to go through in-processing again, this time from the other side.  Being the expert, knowing all the paths around Camp and all the people we were passing in the street, and trying to impart some of that knowledge to someone else was very surreal.  I remember very clearly how timid and small I felt when I arrived, looking down the barrel of six months of long hours, intense workload, and painful family separation.  Seeing some of those emotions in my replacement made clear to me just how much of a newbie I was when I started.  Now wisened, grizzled, and more than a bit jaded, it was hard to grasp that the only thing between me and a ticket home was 10 days of transition time. 
Transition time is critical to continued operations at CSTC-A.  I have 10 days to teach my backfill everything he needs to know TO GET STARTED.  There's no way I can teach him everything I know, let alone everything he needs to know, in 10 days, but it's what we've got to work with, and it's good enough to push him in the right direction.  Speaking from experience, as the one doing the replacing it feels very much like the right direction is off a very high cliff with razor sharp rocks below.  Now that I'm the one being replaced, I can say it's more of a small ledge with a thin mattress at the bottom.  The learning process will be bruising, but it won't kill you.  I tried to tell my replacement this, but he doesn't believe me.  I don't blame him.  Six months ago, I didn't believe my predecessor either.
So far, the best lesson I have managed to pass to my replacement is just how frustrating this place can be.  The general chaos of a deployed position combined with messy data and infuriating technical issues make "normal" very different from our home station, and it takes some getting used to.  Case in point: today he was working on making a Power Point slide, using data with known flaws, with a 15 minute deadline, for a briefing to a general that we didn't know was happening, for people that probably when his computer locked up and all progress was lost.  That was quite the proper "welcome to Afghanistan" moment, I do believe. 
When getting ready to deploy, EVERYONE told me how quickly six months would go by.  I knew they were right, having been there and experienced it themselves, but it's very difficult to impress that upon the brain when you've just started.  Now on the back end, I can say that, yes, 6 months does pass very quickly.  The days are very long, but the months are mostly short.  Until of course, your replacement arrives.  And now time seems to be standing still.  Relativity needs to die a slow and painful death.
As much as I'm looking forward to going home, I am dreading the travel.  Because I am "re-deploying", i.e. going home for good, the military has no incentive to get me out of country quick.  lt does them no good.  As such, anyone going home on R&R gets priority for travel space over me.  This is because it behooves the military to get them out of country as fast as possible so they can get back as fast as possible and continue doing their job.  While the amount of people allowed to go on R&R at any given time is capped at 10% of the force, you can imagine that Christmas time is going to have a higher volume of people moving than other times of the year.  That means I'm likely to be waiting several days at each stop for a plane ride, making the possibility I'm not going to get home before Christmas much more likely. 
And while I'm playing roulette with airplane seats, getting bumped from one after another, it will be cold, I will be living in a tent, again, I will be alone, and have very little to do besides wait anxiously for the next flight manifest to see if I got a seat.  Manifest calls can come at any hour of the night, meaning I will be getting very little sleep.  I will be hauling two duffle bags plus a back pack with me everywhere I go, and assuming that they will be stolen if left unattended.  I will have loads of time to sit and think about the next flight will be mine and if I'll get home in time for Christmas.  (Aside: my girls told me that if the Air Force wasn't fast enough to get me home, Santa Claus could pick me up Christmas Eve on his way through Afghanistan and deliver me under the tree the next morning.  Fearing crushing disappointment, I told them that Santa stayed away from Air Force bases because he didn't want to get shot down.)  Movies and music can only entertain for so long before they either start to drive me insane or I run out of them.  

But, dreadful as it may be, it must be done for me to get home, so I will gladly do it.  I'd ride a camel home if it would get me back before Christmas.  I'll have a couple more posts before I blow town, but after that I won't have a reliable internet connection, so updates may be a little spotty.  I'll do my best.

All for this evening.  Out here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Range Day

This weapon is illegal in three different ways in Missouri.  All kinds of awesome.

There are certain perks to being deployed to Afghanistan.  You get paid a lot.  Movies are cheap.  And no one questions when a civilian wants to shoot automatic weapons.
Back home it took multiple months of planning and permission granting to get a group of civilians from my home office to a range.  Body armor had to be issued.  Ammo had to be ordered.  Every round had to be fired, and every shell picked up to be counted, lest an investigation into the fate of unfired ammo be initiated.  It was a massive pain in the butt for 45 minutes of play time on the range.  

Afghanistan ranges are so much easier.

As with many things in life, it's not what you know, it's who you know.  One of our buddies works with a guy who was roommates with the guy that runs the range when they served in Ranger battalion together.  A quick phone call between roommates was all that was needed to get a group of seven of us a reservation.  We brought the weapons (well, most of them, more on that in a bit), they brought the targets and the ammo, and we were cleared until we ran out of time or bullets, whichever came first.  (Unfortunately, it was time.  Running out of bullets would have been a lot more fun.)

After a long and arduous SUV ride, detoured by protesting Kabulites and lazy traffic police, we arrived at Darul Aman, on the south side of the city.  The area was pretty interesting.  On one section of the base were ruins of a palace built by Genghis Khan.  Nearby were the King and Queen's Palaces, built in the 1920s to house, presumably, the king and queen of whatever monarchy ruled Afghanistan during that era.  And near the entrance to the base was a new construction site where an Afghan Government building is being built.  Four separate buildings home to three different ruling parties from three different centuries.  The one time in my life I wished I was a history major.  

The King's Palace on the right, flanked by the new Government building on the left, 
with the city of Kabul in the background.

The Queen's Palace with spy blimp on overwatch.

Up the mountain from these buildings and the surrounding camp was the range.  Upon a arrival we were introduced to the crew in charge, a British corporal, an Australian naval officer, and an American Marine gunnery sergeant.  The gave an abbreviated safety brief, crushing our hopes of shooting without having to wear body armor in the process.  As they set up new targets for us and broke out the ammo, we loaded magazines and prepped the weapons.  And one in particular attracted more interest than the others.

Everyone (minus myself) brought a Beretta M9 pistol, the basic weapon for senior enlisted and officers assigned at Camp Eggers.  We'd also secured three M4 assault rifles.  One of these was special (I'm holding it the picture at the beginning of this post), as it was equipped with a shortened barrel, a holographic red dot sight, and a detachable suppressor, aka silencer.  It had been issued to one of our resident officers by a Special Forces team at his home base.  I have no idea why they issued such a weapon to someone that was going to be working a desk job.  I also don't care.  I'm just so happy that it happened to someone that was willing to lend it to us to put through it's paces.

Seeing the suppressed rifle, the range crew felt compelled to make a trade.  If we would let them shoot the suppressed rifle, they would let us shoot their fully automatic rifles.  Needless to say, that wasn't a difficult decision.  So to our pool of available armaments was added the British L85A2 Carbine, a shortened version of the full rifle made for vehicle crews to carry in tight quarters, and the Australian's Steyr Aug.  (They also intended for us to be able to shoot an AK-47, but the guy that was supposed to be bringing the ammo for that gun flaked out and never showed up.)

 The British L85A2 Carbine.  A short little weapon with great sights 
and little recoil, but LOUD.  You knew when someone was shooting this.

The Steyr Aug.  Fun to shoot, but much trickier than the other weapons.
I can see quite a bit of training being needed to use this weapon effectively.

Commence the entertainment.

Besides the silencer, each of the three M4s had a different optical sight attached.  One had an ACOG, and the others had two different types of red dot sights.  These weapons were stationed at one end of the range and were free for whoever wanted to fire them to do so.  The Brit and the Aussie each ran a station for their weapon, helping the user understand the proper way to compensate for each rifle's quirks.  The Carbine was the most odd.  Besides pulling the trigger, everything was done with the left hand.  This even required reaching over the top of the stock to the right side of the weapon to draw back the bolt and chamber a round.  Lefties would HATE it.  It felt a little odd to me, as I was only using my left hand to hold the weapon when I was shooting the M4, but I was getting used to it by the time I ran out of ammo.  The Aug's special quirk was it's method of selecting how many rounds to fire.  You could either fire on semi automatic, or one round at a time, or on fully automatic, or rounds fire until you stop holding the trigger.  Most weapons have a switch on the side that lets you choose one or the other.  The Aug had a two-stop trigger.  Pull back to the first stop, and you fire one round.  Pull back to the second stop, and you fire many rounds.  This was very strange to adjust to, and I don't think I ever hit the target more than once when I was firing on automatic.  For one the kick was much greater on this gun than the others, but I was also consciously thinking about how far I depressed the trigger, wondering if I was going to get one shot or several.  This would be a hard weapon to get used to.

From near to far, A2 Carbine, M4 rifle, and M9 pistol.

In stark contrast was the silenced M4.  Lightweight, low recoil, large, bright, clear sights, and quiet.  It sounded like a nail gun instead of a rifle.  It wasn't quiet enough to be completely stealthy in a quiet environment, but outside from more than 50 meters, or in a large building from more than a few rooms away, I don't think the gun would be audible.  This thing was an absolute blast to shoot.  Dealing with the ammo magazine, on the other hand, was irritating.  We had a couple of cheaper plastic magazines that kept trying to give the rifle more than one bullet at a time when firing on three round burst mode.  I quickly learned how to clear the breach on my own, but after getting rounds jammed on three straight trigger pulls, I switched back to single shot mode and didn't have any more problems. 

After we were done shooting we policed the range for our brass.  I had to laugh at the difference between this range and the one I had been on back home.  At home we had one person shooting at a time with everyone else far behind the line, to the point we couldn't even see the target being shot at.  Here we had multiple people shooting, swapping weapons, shooting again, only pausing to let some soldiers at the far end that were adjusting their sights walk down and check their targets.  Back home we knew exactly how much ammo we had, we fired every round, we picked up every spent shell, and the empty cartridges were weighed.  The scale was sensitive enough to detect a difference of 100 rounds out of pallet load of spent ammunition.  Here we weren't even sure how much ammo we started with, had no idea how many rounds had been fired, picked up the brass we could find but didn't fret over every single one, and certainly didn't worry about counting them afterwards.  The fact that we were in a combat zone and that weapons training was an expected part of that freed the range officers from many of the annoying restrictions we put up with in the States.  This experience was a lot more enjoyable.

The palace and it's outbuildings have all fallen into extreme dis-repair.
Being occupied by the Russians didn't help anything, as evidenced by all the bullet holes.

Before heading home, we decided to drive up to the Queen's Palace and have a look around.  Like any good castle, it was built in a defensible position at the top of a decently sized hill, with no other major terrain features for a mile in any direction.  This arrangement offered a spectacular view of the city and surrounding mountains.  

The beginnings of the Afghan countryside on the outskirts of Southern Kabul.

The end of the Queen's Palace, and currently the only  
entrance not sealed off by concertina (razor) wire.

Inside the palace was quite amazing.  The damage done to the structure was significant enough that you really had to imagine what it looked like in it's hey day, but the potential for greatness was readily apparent.  The most striking architectural feature were the large columns running the entire height of the three-story structure, and tiled in green marble.  

Marble columns in the Queen's Palace, Darul Aman, Afghanistan.

As I walked through, I thought to myself that if this palace and it's larger companion across the way were ever to be refurbished, that would be a day when we would no longer be needed in this country.  When the Afghans can put together the planning, technical expertise, and funding to pull off a restoration project of this magnitude, it will be long after the conflict currently underway.  If I ever come back to Afghanistan in the future, I hope that this will be the case.  

As I write this I am less than two weeks from the end of my tour and departing Afghanistan.  There's not going to be a lot I miss about this place.  But experiences like these are going to be one of them.

All for tonight.  Out here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Turkey Day

 Part of the Thanksgiving feast at Camp Eggers.  Yum.

Today is a day for remembering what you have and not taking those things for granted.  It's about family and fellowship and, of course, turkey.  I had fellowship with my friends.  My family is 7,000 miles away.  I actually skipped the turkey in favor of rather delicious ham.  The last check mark is giving thanks, so...

I am thankful for:
- 22 hours off work.  The duty day ended at 1500 on Thursday, and our customary morning off on Friday is still in effect.  That means I get ALMOST one whole day off.  What a luxury.
- My thoroughly awesome office mates.  We've been with each other 14 hours a day for almost 5 months and we still haven't killed each other.  We all share a similar sense of juvenile humor, which makes the day go by much easier and much faster.  I really don't think I could have picked a better group to spend my deployment with.
- Good security.  The only times I've had to wear my body armor were either voluntary or for a practice drill.  There have been very few incidents in Kabul during my time here, and none of them serious. 
- Friends that push me to work out.  Hitting the gym isn't something that do for fun in my spare time, and I don't have the discipline to stick with a routine that causes me pain on a regular basis.  Having buddies to push me to do better has been key to me getting in better shape.
- The forethought to load Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" on my iPod.  It just isn't Thanksgiving until I listen to that song.
- Freedom from Christmas songs.  I can't STAND to listen to Christmas music anytime before Thanksgiving or after New Year's.  My family, on the other hand, would listen to them all year long if allowed.  They are taking full advantage of my absence in this respect.  They even put up the tree last weekend.  Don't get used to it guys.  
- Quality Thanksgiving entertainment.  Namely, the Today Show on NBC broadcasting live from Camp Eggers.  It was pretty cool to walk past the cameras, the crowd of people trying to get on TV, the reporter, etc, then watch the scene on TV while eating dinner.  

Today Show correspondent Lester Holt prepping for a report from Camp Eggers.
- PS3s and 50" TVs.  Combined with people who have never played video games, hilarity ensues.  
- Only 17 days until my convoy leaves Camp Eggers!  Then begins the waiting game on flights to get home.  I have hope that I'll get home before Christmas, but trying not to get those hopes too high, as there is still a pretty good chance that I'll be in Kuwait instead.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.  Stay safe on the roads, stay sane on the shopping trips.

Out here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Meager Gestures

 Sorrow wears a sweater.

America is rich.  Even our poor people have enough access to food to become fat.  In the midst of financial crisis and high unemployment, it's easy to forget how blessed we are to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  But when confronted with poverty of great severity, the disparity between ourselves and others becomes all too apparent.

Consider this.  The average yearly salary for a worker in Afghanistan is around $400.  Yearly.  Salary.  Consider also that a house (like you and I think of) in Kabul costs hundreds of thousands of dollars because of international agencies and Coalition contract money driving up the price.  The high cost of living combined with the low earning potential makes Kabul ripe for class disparity.  The rich are very rich, by Afghan standards, and the poor are very poor, by any standard.  We are fortunate to be in a position to help.

The Volunteer Community Relations (VCR) program at Camp Eggers takes donations of clothes, school supplies, toys, and toiletries and arranges opportunities to distribute these items to the neediest of the needy in Kabul.  Every week, volunteers come together to sort the items by age group, size or category, and parcel out the items into equal portions.  About once a month, the organizers put together a convoy to visit a local refuge camp or an orphanage or other area where these items are needed.  To be eligible to go out on one of these missions, you must have participated in at least one VCR sort, and those that haven't been on a mission previously get preference over those that have for filling the spaces.  It's a good way to get out of the office, get off camp, and assist in doing the local folk some good.

 An Air Force officer showing the kids pictures of themselves on his digital camera.
Minds = blown.

The mission that ran most recently was entitled Operation Get-Ur-Done.  No, I'm not kidding.  It was actually rather appropriate.  This mission had been canceled four times due to planning snafus.  The chaplains office has primary responsibility for the VCR program, augmented by other volunteers.  Everyone involved has their "real" job to do, making finding time to organize VCR stuff difficult.  The people in charge of planning these missions also have very little mission planning experience, making it take longer than it really should.  An infantry officer would be able to do this stuff in his sleep, but a chaplain, not so much.  A site must be found, surveyed for security purposes, traveling routes planned, security escorts coordinated, vehicles reserved, passenger information gathered, mission briefing planned, mission briefing given, cats herded, all before a single item can be given away.  All of this must be done on top of the sorting and the packaging of the actual goods.  It's a lot of work, and it's a testament to the dedication of the volunteers that it gets done at all.

This mission was to be fairly large with five fully loaded SUVs and a box truck to carry the goodies.  We were visiting a refuge camp that houses people from the southern region of Afghanistan, people that had lost their homes or their livelihood in some fashion or another.  The booty was 90 trash bags full of stuff.  This wasn't enough to give one bag to each family living in the camp, so the group running the camp held a lottery, drawing names of 90 families to receive aid.  It's unfortunate we weren't able to supply something for everyone, but we only do what we can do, and hope we have an opportunity to visit again in the future.  An added wrinkle to this mission was that instead of having an American infantry platoon provide security for us, we would be meeting up with an Afghan National Army (ANA) unit.  And not only were they going to provide security, they were bringing other items to give away to the refuges.  I was quite interested to see how this was going to turn out.

 An ANA soldier stands guard from the bed of his pick-up truck while 
children watch from the window.

The drive to the camp took about 20 minutes through the heart of Kabul.  On the way to the camp, we passed by the Iranian Embassy, which was an interesting experience.  Seeing the guards standing guard outside the gate and knowing that they could be guarding any number of things designed to disrupt Coalition efforts in Afghanistan made my skin crawl a little.  I was lucky enough to be seated next to a local resident that served as an interpreter for Camp Eggers.  He was able to point out several things in the city that we would have missed otherwise, and answer questions we had about the things we did see.  As it turned out, he only lived about three blocks from the refuge camp, and he apologized profusely for not being prepared to have us come and visit his home.  For all the things the Afghans aren't, one thing they are is hospitable.  These people will give until they bleed and ask if you'd like seconds.

On arriving at the camp, I was rendered speechless.  The dwellings where these people were living were clay brick huts, clearly hand-built, with a tarp for the roof.  While this by itself wasn't really that surprising, the juxtaposition of these mud huts next to a ten-story apartment building was striking.  The camp appeared to have been built on an empty field in the middle of a city of 2.5 million people.  Coming from America where zoning laws and building codes and public health regulations and any number of other things would render this little shanty town illegal, it was hard to screw my mind into the reality staring me in the face.

 The road leading away from the refuge camp into the nice part of town.
Unfortunately, I was too gobsmacked to take pictures of the camp itself on the drive in, 
and we weren't in a position to see the camp during the distribution.

 The ANA set up their perimeter and brought in the supplies they had to distribute while we got the box truck in the right spot and got the bags ready to hand out.  Someone produced a rope and stretched it across one end of the road for the people to line up behind.  There were kids crawling all over the place to see what we had brought for them.  I'd dealt with kids in two different spots in Afghanistan before this trip: the German school, and the street outside ISAF.  The school kids are clean, well kept and well mannered.  The street kids are dirty, persistent, and prone to picking pockets if they think they can get away with it.  The kids at the refuge camp were filthy beyond belief, very polite, and genuinely glad to see us.  Not in the "Yay!  I can make money off you today!" way of the street kids, but in the ecstatic, bubbly, hyper-curious way children act on Christmas morning.  Most of them were dressed in clothes from America, obviously handed out to them by some organization once upon a time.  I was glad we were here to help them further, but the supplies seemed so meager for a need so great.  I wished we could do more.

If sandals are all you have, you wear them.  Even when it's muddy.

Once the distribution started it was bedlam.  The people getting supplies were orderly, waiting their turn to have their hand marked with a sharpie before being allowed to cross the rope to the truck.  Everyone else was going nuts.  There was a small trench near the road where people were walking back and forth, climbing the low dirt wall to see if they could convince someone to give them something, even though they weren't one of the ones in line.  There were kids just curious to see what was going on, underfoot like an annoyingly adorable kitten.  There were herds of goats being ushered through our midst.  But through all the madness, the ANA were amazing.  They took charge of the distribution, not only of the stuff they brought, but of the stuff we brought as well.  The Camp Eggers crew was quickly but politely brushed aside to let the Afghans pass out the aid to their countrymen.  Which ended up being perfectly fine with me, as I got to snap away on the camera and take in the scene.

 An Afghan girl collecting supplies for her family.

To only be able to help 90 families was hard.  Judging by the size of the camp, there were at least several hundred families living here, I wanted to be able to help them all.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The supplies disappeared quickly, and were soon gone, spirited away on the backs of children, women and old men (very, very few working age men came to pick up supplies, interestingly) into the mouths of clay huts.  As we loaded back into our cars, some of the kids gathered around the vehicles asking for pens or candy.  One old man made it very clear through pseudo-sign language and charades that he was hungry and wanted us to give him food.  But we pulled away, aid tapped for the time being.

Stinky, smelly goats being herded through the distribution.  I had to laugh.

 And the goat herder.  His flock of twenty or so animals was completely under control.

The experience was rewarding, and definitely something I needed to see.  I understand now why they give mission preference to people that have only been to one VCR sort over the people that have been twenty times.  Seeing poverty and sorrow and strife on TV or in a magazine doesn't punch you in the gut like it does when you see it first hand.  True recognition of our privileged existence requires staring into the face of a child who doesn't know where his next meal will come from.  Going on one mission is all you need to want to help out in anyway you can.  

A few days after the mission, my Little One had a birthday.  She turned four.  I was able to "attend" the party through Skype and watch her and her friends make crafts, eat cake and ice cream, and, of course, open presents.  As I watched her rip open her packages, dwelling on each box only long enough to absorb what she had received before moving on to the next one, I was overwhelmed by how lucky my little girl was.  She had a warm home that wasn't made out of mud, a full belly, the beginnings of an education, and not a care in the world, beyond whether or not the present she wanted was in the box with the blue paper or the purple paper.

I tried to imagine what the toys and money being lavished on my daughter would mean to the little girls huddled together for warmth in the refuge camp.  How many meals would that money buy them?  How many nights would they be kept warm and dry by the clothes being unwrapped?

I wondered if their wildest dreams even approached my little girl's reality.

Somehow, I doubted it.


If you have any items you wish to donate to the VCR program, box it up and send it to:

VCR Program (Pool House)
Chaplain's Office NTM-A/CSTC-A
APO AE 09356

Donations accepted include clothing, toys, school supplies, toiletries and other hygiene items, diapers, etc., etc.  Think about what you'd donate to a homeless shelter.  Those items will be welcome.  Try not to send anything with pigs or a religious message, as these will not (and actually cannot) be distributed.   And DON'T put the word "Afghanistan" ANYWHERE on the box.  If you do, the box will get kicked into the Afghan mail system instead of the military mail system and will never be heard from again. 

In addition to the Afghan outreach, VCR also sends boxes to soldiers on remote operating posts around the country.  Magazines, microwave popcorn, old DVD movies, and anything else you think a soldier in the mud would relish are welcome as well.  Many of the places around the country don't have a store to shop at, so they depend on home for resupply of all the good things in life, like Gold Bond and clean socks.  Trust me, you'll make some grunt's day.

That's all for tonight.  Out here.