Leaving Afghanistan, Parting pictures

Inside the C-17 aircraft.

As I write this entry, we are on board an Air Force C-17 aircraft flying to Al Udeid AB, Qatar.  Originally, we were supposed to fly into Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan.  But ever since the uprising it has affected our travel plans.  One day they are accepting inbound and outbound flights.  The next day all flights are suspended.  Nobody on my team projected a regime overthrow in Kyrgyzstan; therefore our departure mission has been see-sawing back and forth.

Throwing concrete at the wall.

Yesterday I made my final trip to ANA land.  At one of the entrance gates, some Afghan local employees were working on a new building.  It was a bit comical to see how they were applying the concrete mixture to the exterior wall.  They would use their trowels and scoop up a gob of concrete and then throw it at the wall.  Only half of it would stick, but they were persistent with this process.  Then another employee would come along and smooth out the concrete.  I guess this additional layer of concrete is to strengthen the integrity of the concrete block wall.

Smoothing out the concrete wall.

I met up with Omid and had hoped to see the ANA Sergeant Major one last time.  We went to his office and found out he was still out on mission.  So I will never know what kind of a cook the SGM is.  I still appreciate his gesture of kindness and wish him and his family the best.

Our next stop was the Kandak Assistant Religious Officer’s office.  He wasn’t there, but the ANA Mullah was present.  He invited us in for some tea.  He seemed to be upset about something.  I learned his superior was trying to take away the cell phone I had presented to him.  Somehow, this person was under the impression I gave the phone to the Mullah to present to him.  This officer is also a former Mujahedeen commander, but I never had the opportunity to interview him.  Based on my research, he was one of the financial managers for Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance.  He also had a dislike for Americans.  I rectified the cell phone issue and the Mullah was happy.  We drank our tea (my last cup of chai in Afghanistan) and said our goodbyes.

The rest of the day I spent packing my gear, uniforms, books, etc.  I was quickly running out of bag storage space due to my last minute impulsive shopping trip to our small bazaar outside the camp.  These merchants will be sad to see me go…lol.  But Mrs. T should be happy with my purchases, especially these igneous and metamorphic rocks that I bought at bargain basement prices.  Some people refer to them as gem stones and are very appealing, especially the corundum.  The time quickly flew by and before long it was night time.

Fastening tarp on LMTV holding all of our luggage.

In the morning I packed my final belongings and we loaded them on an armored LTMV for transport.  This would be our last mission and this time, we would all be passengers in the back of the MRAPs.  Our 173rd Army brothers would be our chauffeurs.  It was time to pass the torch because now they will be responsible for running their own

AF TSgt assists Army SFC with .50 cal machine gun.

missions.  We had a small hiccup with the radios not communicating with each other and took some time to resolve.  My Air Force team made a habit of checking the vehicles and communication equipment the day before the mission to prevent delays the day of the mission.  But this is no longer our worry and hopefully this Army team will come together as a team and figure it out the same way we had to.

As we drove through the capital city one last time, I took notice of my surroundings.  Being a passenger allowed me to look further back into the side streets and focus on the people longer than I normally would if I was driving.  It was only fitting we had to dodge around hundreds of people gathered in the market area and swerve around a horse cart.  I don’t recall seeing too many horse carts in Florida, although near my home in Pennsylvania, the Amish still travel around in them.

Horse cart in the middle of traffic.

We arrived at the Kabul International Airport (KAIA) military terminal and off-loaded the truck with our bags.  As luck may have it, after several hours of waiting, we were able to

Military terminal at Kabul International Airport.

leave there the same day.  Our first stop was Al Udeid AB, Qatar.  This is the temporary processing center until the situation in Manas gets resolved.  It was obvious they were still struggling to accommodate the large influx of passengers and clearing customs there can be a royal pain in the butt.  Unlike most other Air Force personnel processing through, my

Waiting for our plane.

team was rather unique.  We still needed to turn in our Army weapons and gear.  The Army is a real stickler for accountability and we are personally accountable for thousands of dollars worth of gear.  No inventory, except for the weapons was performed.  Instead, we filled out name tags and attached them to our bags of gear.  Some of it has to be shipped to Manas AB, once they start allowing flights, while the majority of the gear and weapons will be returned to Fort Riley, Kansas.  Either way, it was a relief to return these items.

Our team before leaving.

Lady Luck was still smiling on us and we caught another flight to Ali Asaleem AB, Kuwait.  This place is great and I am nicknaming it “Air Force Club Med”.  To be cont’d…..

Nowruz Mission – Part 2

It didn’t take us long to figure out that the bazaar, restaurants and Px were relocated.  So we turned around and drove to the other side of the flight line where the military terminal was.  We parked our MRAPs and went inside trying to ascertain the arrival time of our guests.  The clerk informed my teammate, that the VIP guests would arrive by commercial

Ariana, Afghan commercial airplane.

plane and it would be on the other side of the base.  Once again we loaded the team back into the MRAPs and then drove to the other side of the base, the same place we had just left.

We were still early, so being late wasn’t a concern and took our time driving around the other side of the flight line back to a desolated parking lot.  Two of my teammates talked to some foreign soldiers who agreed to pick up the VIPs in an SUV and then transport them to our awaiting MRAPs.  After an hour of waiting we saw what appeared to be a commercial airplane land and were certain this was our party.  We waited and waited and I as I looked around the tarmac, the place seemed to be deserted except for an Ariana Afghan Airlines aircraft that was parked next to the building.  I recall Ariana is the money losing airlines (subsidized by the Afghan government) that makes 3 stops daily to Dubai.  Coincidentally this is the same country the Karzais and his powerful Afghan leaders have million dollar homes but are registered in the name of the Kabul Bank manager.  Karzai’s brother is also the largest Kabul Bank shareholder.  Hmmmmm…..

The SUV returned and dropped off our teammates.  We were informed this wasn’t the proper pick-up place.  My team was given some directions, but after being misdirected and driving to another desolate area on the base, it was time to call back to our camp and get an update and better directions to avoid driving around in circles.  Within minutes, we had a new destination.  It was several miles down the road and we would have to find the commercial airport for Kabul.  Nobody on the team was familiar with this place and we relied on our interpreter to point the way.  I’m sure this has happened to other State Department visitors, so today would no different …lol.

Entrance to Kabul commercial airport.

As we approached the airport, I noticed a large Soviet aircraft mounted on a pedestal.  I’m not an expert on aircraft, but it appears to be Soviet construction.  An ANP promptly greeted us and gestured for us not to enter and for us to do a U-turn.  The turning radius of the MRAPs is not that great and U-turns become 3 point turns.  Notice the sign in

Dressed up for Nowruz.

the picture prohibiting automatic weapons.  I presume this is a deterrent and a reminder for those who forget about their AK-47s in the back seat not to enter the airport area with them.  Our VIP guests were patiently waiting and be loaded them into the MRAPs and begin our journey back to camp.

It was now around 4 pm and

Afghan children giving us the thumbs up.

the traffic started to multiply on the roads.  The pedestrian traffic was also increasing and the citizens were preparing to celebrate their Nowruz or New Year.  The children

Another child giving us a thumbs up.

were adorned in bright color clothing and the adults seemed to be wearing their best apparel too.  Several of the kids gave us the thumbs up gesture as drove past them.

Afghan females in high heel shoes.

We cruised back through the city and were approximately 3 miles from our camp when the traffic came to a complete stop.  It was gridlocked and nobody was moving.  Out of nowhere an Army colonel jumped out of his armored SUV and told us to turn around because he spent an hour weaving and inching through this traffic jam.  Once again, we looked at our maps and relied on our interpreter to find us a new route.  This new route would take us on roads we have never traveled.  Oh, remember this is Nowruz, one of the most celebrated holidays in Afghanistan.  It didn’t matter which

Waiting on a ride in downtown Kabul.

street we turned down, traffic was heavily congested and barely moving.  This alternative route would steer us through village markets and rough roads for the next 2 hours.  We tried to be gentle with the low hanging wires and banners, but the MRAPs sit up too high and our antennas tore holes through the middle of the low hanging banners.  Most of the people just looked at us as we passed by.  One vegetable merchant didn’t appreciate our intrusion and threw onions at some of our vehicles.  By the time we arrived back at camp, it was 7:30 pm and the chow hall was closed for serving hot meals.  We would have to settle for soup and sandwiches.  A long day finally came to a close. 

Note to Self:  When in Afghanistan don’t travel by vehicle on Nowruz.

Rainy Days and Armyisms

Rainy day.

Lately it has been rather dreary due to the sporadic cold rain showers we are receiving.  Today is the third day in a row we have received intermittent rain.  The farmers are not complaining as this has been an extremely mild winter and Afghanistan is still experiencing another drought season.  For the city dwellers it’s a double-edged sword.  The rainfall helps quell the choking dust, but at the same time due to poor drainage, large puddles form and the layers of dust form a muddy paste where it flows.  I also find it interesting that even when it rains, not many Afghans use umbrellas to stay dry.

AF TSgt tightening fuel cap.

For us, a little bit of rain doesn’t deter the mission.  Our timing coincided between light showers and allowed us to inspect our up-armored vehicles and fill them with fuel.  We were preparing them for our next mission for which I would be convoy commander again.  We planned to visit Kabul International Airport (KAIA) first and then travel to Camp Phoenix next.  The roads were still muddy from all of the rain and the locals were gathered at the side of the road waiting on buses and taxis.  My Captain

Muddy day in Kabul.

was practicing good COIN by not splashing the citizens as we drove by.  I couldn’t say the same for the local traffic as they weaved in and out of traffic trying to get that one or two car length advantage.  Often you feel like you are participating in a race as cars dodge in and out for the lead.  Driving huge MRAPs, we have the biggest advantage of being the largest vehicle and armed with mounted machine guns is also very persuasive.  It’s quite a deterrent and vehicles pull off and get out of our way.  We also swerve in and out, but it’s usually due to large potholes, traffic stopped in the middle of the road, broken down vehicles, donkey and horse carts, or bicycles and pedestrians who don’t think twice about running in front of our convoys.

We dropped off our teammate at KAIA and he was smiling because he was flying back to his home in Colorado to start his 2 weeks of R&R leave.  We didn’t stay long there and quickly departed.  We were only a ½ mile out of the gate when one of the up-armored Humvees radioed me that they were having mechanical problems.  Something came loose on the vehicle and was almost dragging on the ground.  That something turned out to be a drive shaft.  As a result, this slowed our convoy speed down to 15 mph.  Fortunately we didn’t have to travel very far because Camp Phoenix was only a few miles away.  So we putted along the highway until we reached Camp Phoenix and turned it into vehicle maintenance.  Once again I have to give kudos to the vehicle maintainers there.  They were able to fix our vehicle the same day.  We also learned our mechanics were at fault for using the wrong size washers on the bolts allowing the drive shaft to rock free or something to that effect.  I don’t proclaim to be a mechanic or understand all the inner workings of these components.

It’s been several weeks since I had an opportunity to mail anything out.  I kept missing the specified camp day when they accept items here (once every two weeks).  Tomorrow is the wife’s birthday and I wanted to send something special to her.  Well actually her birthday is every 4 years since she is a Leap Year baby.  So when I am old and gray, she will still be celebrating her teenager birthdays …. lol.  Anyhow, one of my teammates was mailing out some personal effects too.  The post office personnel inspect the boxes and contents before they are mailed.  He was trying to mail out some

Rubber magazine holder.

rubber attachments and they were disallowed.  These rubber holders attach to a weapon magazine.  But according to Camp Phoenix policy, you are not allowed to mail out weapon associated items.  I have to put this one into the category of “Armyism.”   Recall this is the phrase I coined for processes unique to the Army that make me scratch my head and fail to understand the logic in it.   I fail to see the harm of mailing out rubber made items associated with a weapon.

It was still morning and my teammates would experience two more “Armyisms” before the day was over….to be cont’d …….

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