Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Welcome to Methar Lam!

Finally. Mobilization began on Jan 3rd this year. I flew from Arizona to Ft. Bragg, NC. Then three weeks of training in Texas. Then a month BACK at Ft. Bragg. Then four days in Washington D.C. Then we departed Ft. Bragg for Maine, flew to Turkey, to Krzygstan, to Bahgram Afghanistan, then finally Methar Lam. Afghanistan is almost exactly halfway around the world from Arizona. The time difference is 12 and a half hours. So if I want to call someone back home I usually need to try at about 4-5AM because my work day starts at 6. But I digress.

After unloading the helicopter we formed up on a volleyball court. At least some people have fun, I thought. I scanned the area as our Captain droned on about the showers and types of shacks we would be living in. Immediately around the area was large HESCO barrier walls. The walls were made of square containers that were filled with dirt and stacked on top of each other. Printed on the side of each container in big blue letters was the word HESCO. Hence the name "HESCO barriers." The ground consisted entirely of dirt and gravel. I didn't see a single paved road. Immediately to my right was several rows of dark green tents. These were affectionately known as the "transient tents." Images of homeless bums leaped to mind as I was referred to as a "transient" for the first time in my life. I looked further and saw gently rolling green hills past the walls. Small tan huts and buildings broke up the hillsides as I took in the villages around me. Past those a mountain range rose sharply into the sky. The peaks were frosted with snow even though it was over 90 degrees where I stood. I quickly saw that we were completely surrounded by mountains. It was no surprise we chose to fly out by helicopter.

Over the next few days I familiarized myself with the FOB. There was the chow hall. A small building filled with locals cooking furiously under the direction of Army and Air Force cooks. The gym, I learned, was more than adequate as we had heard back in the states. I visited the Aid Station, where I learned I would be working, and found out we were moving into a new building. There was also the Rec Center with a room for phones and Internet. I am sitting there now, posting this blog. There is also a shower tent, toilet trailers, and a service where the locals do your laundry for you. I still haven't mentioned the most awesome feature of the FOB. One day we were outside the motor pool chatting when I looked past the group and noticed something odd. Inside a large metal storage container I saw two soldiers sitting. One had his shirt off and the other was leaning all over him. Then I saw a row of inks and a mirror. Someone was running a fucking tattoo parlor inside of a shipping container. It was awesome. What appeared to be gay soldier fraternization turned out to be an innocent tattoo.

Outside of our area on the other half of the FOB was the ANA base. ANA stands for Afghanistan National Army. We work with them sometimes but mostly stay on our side of the FOB. We did learn that a week earlier the ANA was attacked at the gate with a car bomb. Several Afghans were killed, including children. It was a very real reminder of what we had trained for. The Taliban are a terrible group who have no problem killing innocent children to spread terror and instability. I had a chance to speak with a medic who had treated the victims of the blast. He showed me the pictures of the dead and wounded. I had seen enough pictures of blood and guts to not be bothered by the images of mangled bodies of those who had perished only a week earlier. I felt a small pang of guilt for not empathizing with the dead I saw and for a lack of feeling disturbed by graphic images. In this line of work you really can't. Any day another suicide bomber could mangle more locals or fellow soldiers. If one came through the door of the Aid Station there would be no room for disgust or empathy. A medic has to be 100% focused on doing the right treatment at the right time.

My life is definitely much different here on Methar Lam compared to home. It's extremely hectic, busy, and at times, dangerous. But at the end of the day, the temperature cools to about 70 degrees. An extremely gentle breeze drifts across the FOB. I sit outside with a chair and watch a reverse sunset of sorts. Instead of watching the sun set, I face east and watch as the shadows get longer and longer until they slowly drift up the mountainside. The aid station is across from the chow hall and soldiers walking by gradually gather around to joke and talk until we have a small crowd. Eventually the twilight gives way to dark and everyone disperses.

As nice as home is, there is definitely some things I love about this place.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Holy crap this things gonna crash.

"So when are we leaving Bagram?" I asked.

"We are taking a helo out tomorrow," my sergeant replied.

"Oh ok cool... wait what? We're taking a helicopter there?"

"Yep, Chinooks."

Now I had never been on a helicopter in my life. Let alone a gigantic twin rotor military chopper. Needless to say I was rather excited. We woke early the next morning to prepare for the flight. We had our rucksack and our duffel packed and ready to go by 7AM. We were then told our flight was at... 1PM. Goddamn hurry-up-and-wait Army! It is common, no more than common, it is LAW in the Army that you will spend several hours a day most days sitting doing nothing. You must stay where you are doing nothing just in case somebody needs you at a moment’s notice to, I don't know, move boxes or something. Patience is a truly a virtue. We were then informed that we had a class to break up the monotony of the morning. After moving out bags a second time we sat in a small room and were joined by a full-bird Colonel. Now in the Army Colonel is right below General; pretty important dudes. As he entered the room we all snapped as rigid as boards, awaiting instruction. He was short and wiry with glasses. His hair was gray turning to white in places. He wore a small smirk on his face as he addressed the room of medics.

“You know what was the hardest part about being a medic back in my day?” he asked.

“What’s that sir?”

“Being able to chisel the stone tablet fast enough to keep up!”

We laughed and relaxed immediately. We were instructed on the style and effects of humanitarian aid missions in Afghanistan. I was absolutely looking forward to the missions and working with the local people. Unfortunately it’s not all peaches and cream and helping babies. Men in this society regard themselves as superior to women and children. I recall a Navy doctor telling me that they had set up a treatment center at a local village. The building being used was surrounded by a brick wall with one opening. As the locals began showing up the doctor noticed it was only the village’s men coming for treatment. She instantly halted the line and told her “terp” (interpreter) tell them,

“If we don’t start seeing some women and children we aren’t treating anybody.”

They caved and allowed the women and children to come. But there was another problem. The village men refused to allow the women to enter through their entrance to the compound so they tore the wall down on the opposite side rather than let them use the same one. That’s a taste of how men view women in this country. Class ended and we headed to the airfield where we were faced with about four more hours of waiting. How very thrilling.

At last it was time to fly! We marched out to the airfield and unloaded all of our bags for a third time.

Sanders' gay bag is ruining an otherwise hardcore picture.

I had seen pictures of the Chinook before but I never realized how huge this helicopter was until I saw it in person. We took our seats on the small metal frame benches with nylon seats and the pilot fired up the engines. The noise was similar to screaming babies and metal grinding and was deafening. I jammed my earplugs in and prepped my camera. I was sitting along the wall of the chopper near the back. The back of the Chinook has a drawbridge type door that was left open during flight. A crewmember was manning a machine gun mounted on the back gate. I had a clear view past him and out the back. I felt the chopper shift as we lifted off of the ground. Now I tried to completely trust a pilot who flies these every day but when we were taking off the chopper slipped slightly in all directions and I pictured it tipping sideways and smashing into the ground. Fortunately this was not the case and suddenly we were several hundred feet off of the ground.

“This is it. I’m really doing this,” I thought, “this is the shit in the commercials; this is why I love the Army!”

I am a complete junkie for new experiences and at that moment I was drunk with satisfaction. The noise was deafening and the wind blasted past my face. The view was absolutely breathtaking. I have been through the Rocky Mountains several times and let me tell you, they have nothing on Afghanistan. The terrain is absolutely brutal. We left the valley and the chopper tilted as we gently cruised around a mountain peak. The ground which was several hundred feet below suddenly rose as we crossed the jagged landscape. The thin, dirt roads twisted violently to negotiate the terrain. The tops of peaks shot near vertically down hundreds of feet to the base of chasms, which had been cut by a river over thousands of years. In the small areas where the land was smoother I could see little herds of animals and tiny villages dotting the landscape. Farm fields were carved into rectangle tiers like giant staircases leading up the mountainsides. I was snapping pictures faster than the paparazzi.

It looks like a recruitment poster.

We reached Methar Lam and once again as the chopper was hovering it felt like it was about to tip over. Once again, it didn’t. We jumped off the back gate and unloaded the chopper as fast as possible. We fell into a formation outside the landing zone and were greeted by our captain. As soon as the roar of the rotor blades faded into the distance he spoke,

“Welcome to Methar Lam!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

"Are you nervous?"

"So are you nervous?"

I thought carefully. I didn't want to rush to answer this question even though I had now been asked it about 25 times. I didn't want to play everything off like I was hard, like all the wannabe super-soldiers I had met who couldn't wait to, and I quote,

"Kill a fucking hadji."

I'm not Rambo, nor do I wish to be. I feel mildly sick every time I hear someone talk like the soldiers described above. It should also be noted that the younger they are, the bigger they talk. They have a real wake-up call coming.

"Whoa! Are you nervous?"

That question again! The night I left the United States I called just about everyone in my cellphone. Family, friends, teachers and bosses, even some people I hadn't spoken to in over a year. It was such a great experience. You can't even recall the times you have had with people until you talk to them one on one again. I remembered an awesome song lyric...

And I've got some friends some that I hardly know

We've had some times I wouldn't trade for the world
We chase these days down with talks of the places that we will go

Swing Life Away
Rise Against

After ten or so phone calls filled with memories I began to choke up at the slightest happy thought. I knew full well that in Afghanistan I would have internet access and still be able to easily keep in touch with all of these people. I had already been gone for three months so it wasn't new to anyone that I wasn't around. But still, something about actually flying halfway around the world kind of finalized all the thoughts and feelings of separation. I drove on, destroying my cell battery and blazing a trail of voice mails as I sped through my phone book. Finally I finished my last conversation. We boarded the first flight to Maine from North Carolina. Two hours later, we are allowed off of the plane into the Maine airport for an hour break. I used a phone to call the most important person on my list. Shelly Torkelson. Shelly is my best friend and I can discuss more topics with her than anyone on the planet, and I often do. We talk on the phone often and were well aware that I wouldn't be able to call her for quite awhile. Like the other calls that night, it was full of happy memories and soon I was fighting the manly battle to choke down tears. Shelly was teary and said,

"I'm mad and I don't know why..."

I'll miss ya.

"Dude, are you nervous man?"

Am I nervous? I probably should be but after 3 months of BS at Ft. Bragg North Carolina we were more than ready to get into a combat zone. I have spent 9 months out of the last 16 training for this. Hours of medical classes, combat lanes doused with fake blood and screaming actors, shooting ranges, mortar drills, language training, hundreds of miles ran, thousands of push ups. If anything I am ready. In fact, I was starting to get disgusted by preparation. But the day finally came to deploy. After we left Maine we flew to Turkey. After a short stay in Turkey we flew again to Kyrgyzstan. Here we had to wait a few days for, you guessed it, ANOTHER plane. We were at Manas Air Force Base. It's great to work with the Air Force because they have all the money and the best amenities. I was talking to my friend Scott about two days into deployment. He asked

"So where are you now?"
"I'm in Kryzgstan, in an internet cafe enjoying a Latte," I replied.
"Sounds rough."

So maybe getting deployed isn't all bad. After another day of ping pong, gourmet coffee, and Soviet era memorabilia shops, we had to fly to Bagram, Afghanistan. This time we were flying on a huge freaking Air Force plane. This thing was so loud we were required to wear earplugs during the flight. They had bolted old gray airline seats to the floor. All of our bags were sealed up in giant pallets in the back of the plane. I remember about two seconds of that flight and it was two seconds too long. Staying up all night has its advantages.
click on picture for full size

After arriving we had to perform the "duffel bag drag" and move all of our gear into a gigantic clamshell tent. This tent houses at least 200 soldiers on cots. Sometimes I wake up and feel like a hurricane refugee when see the piles of bags and cots and people everywhere.

"I gotta get out of this tent," I thought and began to explore the base. Let me add that Bagram was the beginning of a combat zone so we now have a loaded rifle and 9mm pistol with me at all times. I'm beginning to worry more about getting shot accidentally rather than shot by a terrorist.
Holly and Nikki, my special girls.

On all sides of the valley Bagram sits in rose huge peaks capped in snow. It is strange to see snow when it's 70 degrees where you stand. I started shopping around the Bazaar and was looking at various swords and flintlock pistols. I realized how much money America was bringing into these countries and hope it was improving the country somehow and not just funneling into already rich Afghan's hands. I realized that even if I bought something my bags were stuffed to the brim so I wouldn't be able to take it to Methar lam. As I walked around i saw all over the base entire pallets of bottled water. The water there is so unhealthy that I suppose it is cheapest to just buy a ton of bottle for the soldiers.

The next day we were scheduled for DBPP. This is a popular military acronym for "Death by PowerPoint." We had 14 briefings in one day. I was feeling pretty good about deployment and by the end of the day I had learned,

  1. Afghanistan has more land mines than any country in the world, over 10 million.
  2. Methar lam is in the highest category of risk for malaria in the world.
  3. The Taliban start their offensives in spring, aka now.
  4. Suicide bombings in Afghanistan have risen dramatically.
  5. We are along the Pakistan border, the Taliban hide in Pakistan.
SWEET! Something to really look forward to.

"Oh my god Alex, are you nervous?"

Nah, I'm here for a year and it's going to be great. Stay tuned.