Air Force Band of Brothers

A long year has finally come to an end.  We are still spending our last days in Ali Al Salem AB, Kuwait waiting for the “Freedom Bird” to transport us to BWI Airport.  Here we will say our goodbyes and each of us will take a different connecting flight back to our homes and to our families who are anxiously awaiting our arrival.  It will be a bitter sweet moment when this happens.  It has been a long year we’ve shared together.

Helping to rescue Afghan family after a bad car accident at J-Bad Pass in June 2009.

When you live, sleep, and eat with a group of men over a year’s period of time, you develop a bond that is not only professional but personal as well.  These are the same team members you entrust your life to when going on a mission outside the wire.  But the bond my Air Force brothers shared was rather unique and I never experienced this type of closeness on any other deployments in the past.  Prior to this deployment, most of us had never met or knew each other.  We were assembled as a team at Fort Riley, Kansas.  Of the 10 personnel featured in the photograph, 8 of us were on the same team and shared the same open-bay sleeping quarters and trained together as a team.

My ETT Team displaying their Bronze Star Medals.

When you have this type of an arrangement, it’s hard not to learn about the personal lives, ambitions, and goals of your fellow members.  Even though we had a rank structure to include officer and enlisted, we established a strong bond of unity and personal friendship.  Being assigned to the Army had its challenges, but we learned the Army procedures and before long, we were conducting our own missions using Army vehicles and weaponry.  Our journeys took us outside the wire to some very remote villages.  Whether you were a gunner, driver, or truck commander, everyone played an integral role and you learned to trust each person with your life and theirs in return.  Unlike many teams who struggle with the forming and storming stage, our team quickly advanced past the norming stage and moved into the performing phase.  Bottom line:  We were damn good at what we did and efficient at how we did it!

Traveling through the Uzbin valley.

Our primary mission was to mentor the Afghan National Army (ANA) on logistics processes.  First, we had to understand the basic Afghan supply system patterned after the Army’s antiquated supply processes.  Then we were expected to advise our ANA counterparts on the intricacies of this logistics process.  Not only did we succeed, but collectively we excelled at our first camp with our ANA counterparts.  Our ANA Kandak was awarded the Minister of Defense’s Capability Milestone 1, which is the highest rating a unit can receive and the warehouse area was lauded as “best seen to date.”  So this was testament to what our team could achieve.

Jorga (village meeting) in Yakdand Mountains.

Not only did we accompany our ANA counterparts on logistics missions, we went on joint humanitarian missions to some secluded villages nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains.  While on these journeys we saw poppy fields as far as the eyes could see and crude mud brick houses without electricity.  I affectionately called this “driving through the Old Testament area.”  We saw towering mountains and climbed a few along the way too.  It truly was an experience!!  Despite being exposed to the perils of rockets, mortars, RPGs, small arms fire, IED devices, and planned Taliban ambushes, we came out of this deployment unscathed.

Capt Matthew Freeman memorial Camp Blackhorse Aug. 2009

Unfortunately, we attended the memorial services of our camp mates and mourned for those who had their life taken by the insurgents we are at war with.  These men and women are the true heroes and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

In the end, the US Army recognized our accomplishments as well and awarded my entire team Bronze Star Medals for “Exceptionally meritorious service in support of Operation Enduring Freedom … personal courage and commitment to mission accomplishment in a combat zone, under the most extreme of circumstances, greatly contributed to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom.”  What makes this medal so unique (without being self-serving) is that this is an Air Force team who was given an Army mission and performed remarkably in a combat zone.  I don’t know how many Air Force teams can make this same claim because it’s truly a unique accomplishment.  In fact, as the Army migrates to the “partnership concept”, the

We helped treat this little girl during a village medical mission in June 2009; her nose was rotting away from Mucocutaneous Leishmaniasis disease.

Embedded Training Teams (ETT) will disappear.  We were one of the last Air Force ETT teams left in Afghanistan and can proudly mark our place in history.

Tomorrow we fly our final leg of this journey together and then will go our separate ways when we land in Baltimore. It’s not a final goodbye because I have a feeling sometime in the future we will see each other again.  But this will be the last time we serve in this capacity as a team.  To my Air Force Band of Brothers, it was an honor and a privilege to serve with you.  I wish you all the best and to your families who are anxiously awaiting your return.  We can be proud of what we did and let us never forget, freedom is not free.

Leaving Kuwait

C-17 Globemaster cockpit.

It was a rough night trying to sleep in the tent.  Around 3 am, the tent filled up with new tent mates.  They turned on the bright fluorescent lights and made a racket trying to unpack their gear.  It was about 5 am until they finished taking their showers, got a bite to eat and then settled in for some shut-eye.  I tossed and turned and got about 2 hours of sleep.  All I could think about was getting on the next plane and flying out of here.

The next morning I went over to the warehouse to retrieve my IBA vest and helmet.  Previously we turned in these items and they were tagged and assigned a location.  The clerk promptly took me to the location where my vest was stored.  My name was typed on an inventory sheet and attached to a large tri-wall container.  We started pulling out the vests and he could not locate mine.  My vest is an older model and is easily distinguishable from the new pullover ones.  I was escorted to another location and repeated the same process to no avail.  Then the clerk took me to the back of the warehouse and all of the vests with helmets attached were lined up neatly and placed in alphabetical sequence.  Naturally we went to the T section and still could not locate my vest.  Then we tried the R section thinking they might have filed it under my first name.  Still no vest could be found.  Now I was starting to worry.  The clerk assured me we would find my vest.  So I helped him sort through several hundred vests with the hope it was misplaced or misfiled.  Neither of us could locate my vest.

I explained to the clerk that I needed my vest so I could fly out today.  This is when he became accusatory and shifted the blame to me.  He accused me of putting my vest and helmet in the wrong container.  Now my emotions turned from worry to anger.  I followed their precise instructions, labeled my vest and placed it in the right container.  The container number then was annotated on my retrieval form.  The tri-wall had my name typed on the outside package list but my vest was not there.  I was in no mood to argue.  I gave him and the other clerks who gathered around an ultimatum.  I would return in a few hours and either they find my vest or provide me another one.  It was now 2:30 pm and my next roll call was at 4:30 pm.

I returned to my tent to unpack my duffel bag and then repack it.  There was a peculiar smell emitting from my bag and it smelled like mildew.  I removed some of my stored items and discovered some of my uniforms and other items were completely soaked.  So not only was my duffel bag lost for a few days, it must have sat in the rain or snow.  I looked at my watch and precious time was ticking away.  I would have to wash my clothes, dry them and still make the formation.  But first, I would have to walk to the PX and buy some laundry detergent.

According to the timer on the washing machine, it would take 57 minutes to wash my clothes.  It’s now 3:10 pm.  If I timed it right, I could still get my uniforms dry in time for the formation.  At 4:07 pm I put the clothes in the dryer.  At 4:16 pm a voice announced on the loudspeaker to immediately report to formation.  My uniforms were still wet, so I would have to show up in civilian clothes and hope they would accept my rationale.

The Army Sgt providing the briefing recognized me and couldn’t believe I was still here.  He had no problem with my attire.  He gave us the briefing and we had 2 hours before reporting back for the accountability roll call.  I returned to the laundry room, gathered my dry clothing and went back to my tent to change.  My next stop was the warehouse to retrieve my vest and helmet.

It’s a rather long walk to the warehouse, but I was determined to leave there with a vest and a helmet one way or another.  As soon as I stepped through the door, one of the workers exclaimed, “We found your vest and helmet” and they had it up front waiting for me.  I inquired where they found it, but they were unable to give me a straight answer.  I didn’t care, because at least now I had my gear.  I returned to my tent, packed my gear, checked out of billeting and sat at the terminal waiting for the next roll call.

At 6:30 pm, roll call was conducted and in another 3 hours our plane would take off.  At 8:30 pm, we were loaded on a bus and driven to Ali Asaleem terminal.  On the tarmac a C-17 Globemaster was being loaded with cargo.  This was our ride out of here.

The cargo filled the entire aircraft and we would have to sit on the side in the jump seats.  These jump seats are a great improvement over the web strapping of a C-130.  Each seat is somewhat cushioned and folds down.  There is sufficient leg room and you don’t have to worry so much about interfering with the person next to you.

Inside C-17 with cargo.

We had a small 40 minute delay because of how the cargo was palletized.  A sharp young AF SSgt wasn’t satisfied with the configuration, even though the computer generated a printout showing the center balance was sufficient.  If the center balance is off, it could cause the plane to crash or drag on landing and take-off.  You could tell by his demeanor he took pride in his aircraft.  As a result, the pallets were shifted forward several feet and all of our personal baggage that was on a pallet was moved by hand to the center of the aircraft.

Finally, I felt the wheels leave the ground and we were airborne.  It would be 3 ½ -4 hours until we would land in Afghanistan.  I used my night headlamp attachment to continue reading Mortenson’s “Stones into Schools”.

Trying to leave Kuwait

Welcome sign at Kuwait International Airport.

As you can tell by the title, the saga continues.  Yesterday I boarded a shuttle from Camp LSA to the Kuwait International Airport.  First we had to stop at the APOD (another location that nobody seems to know what the acronym stands for).  Here we waited for another shuttle to take us directly to the airport.  We arrived at the airport around 2:30 pm and I decided not to pick up my luggage right away and walk around the airport a little bit.  I was still in civilian clothes and did my best to blend in with the local populace.

Harley Davidson store in Kuwait airport.

This airport had every popular fast-food restaurant you could think of.  But it also had some specialty stores including Rolex and a variety of French specialty stores.  There were designer clothes stores, jewelry and the one that really stuck out was Harley Davidson.  They even had one on display!

I purchased a Café Latte

Vendor selling designer knock-off bags at Camp LSA.

at Starbucks for $6.00.  The exchange rate is terrible here when you exchange good ol’ greenbacks for Kuwaiti Dinars.  Thinking ahead for a contingency and further boredom, I brought along a book to read (Christmas present from my wife).  Greg Mortenson’s new bestseller “Stones into Schools.”  I had about an hour and a half to kill before the next shuttle.  Around 6 pm, I was informed they weren’t going to send a shuttle just to pick me up.  Instead, I would have to wait until the night passengers arrived before leaving the terminal.  This meant I had another 3 ½ hrs to waste sitting in the airport.

Holy water from Mecca.

I went outside to get some fresh air and noticed a dozen carts with identical items being pushed along.  My curiosity got the best of me and I got closer to examine them.  It looked like jugs of water, carefully packaged in plastic.  I was rather intrigued and sat down next to a Muslim from Sira Lanka.  He explained the packages were water from Mecca.  Since not every Muslim can attend the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, they bring back packaged vessels of holy water to distribute to other Muslims.  This holy water is then given to family members and friends as a sign of good prosperity and health for the coming year.

The bag that has caused me so much distress.

I returned to the airport and visited the baggage claim center.  This was the moment of truth and I was breathing a bit rapidly in anticipation until the clerk delivered my Army green duffel bag to me.  Gosh it was a beautiful sight and at the same time, I wanted to kick it out of frustration.  If it wasn’t for this bag being lost, I could have been with my team for Christmas and not have to endure these past few days of sheer boredom and restless nights.

Around 9 pm, the rest of the folks returning from R&R arrived.  We waited about 30 minutes and then departed.  The bus dropped us off at the APOD again and we were informed to get comfortable as it would be a 2 ½ hour wait.  The Subway and Pizza shops were still open for those who were hungry.  The rest of us would wait inside a tent that had a large screen television.  I used this time to read some more of Greg Mortenson’s book.

Reading “Stones into Schools” is just as fascinating as “Three Cups of Tea.”  It doesn’t surprise me that this book is mandatory reading for military officers studying counterinsurgency concepts.  I have also noticed during my travels to various camps, FOBs, etc. that they have copies of “Three Cups of Tea” stocked on their shelves.  It’s really great reading and gives the readers an insight to the complexities of conducting any sort of business or transaction in the villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Mortenson makes a great point about establishing relationships, understanding the culture, and listening to the needs of the people.  If our counterinsurgency plan is going to work in Afghanistan, then I think its imperative we heed Mortenson’s advice and listen to the people and not try to tell them what they need.

I’ve talked about FOO projects in my blog and all of the restrictions placed upon them.  But there is also another pot of money used for larger projects and it is entitled CERP.  Due to lack of sleep, I can’t recall what this acronym stands for.  These funds can be used to build roads, schools, clinics, dig wells, etc.  Anyhow, Congress has taken an interest in the expenditure of these funds and has placed narrow limitations on them as well.  So now it’s much harder to build a road connecting these villages, but it is permissible to build a fire station or buy fire trucks.  Hmmm … first the villages need a source of water like wells first.  Also, many of them don’t even have vehicles or know how to drive and their houses are built of mud-brick which doesn’t catch fire too easily.  I’m not sure where the logic is or perhaps some aspiring junior Congressman or seasoned Senator is hoping for a contract for one of his constituents who builds fire engines.  In my personal opinion, Congress needs to address the multi-million dollar contracts handed out like candy to their constituents and question the amount of money they are soaking the taxpayers for.  Don’t get me wrong, corporations deserve to make a profit, but 200-300 percent is egregious and in my opinion greedy.  I might also point out that US contractors stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and abroad should be well paid for their sacrifice, skills and for the risk they take.  But then to turn around and charge the taxpayers double and triple the amount in the name of maximizing profits is sheer thievery.  Mortenson refers to these as “sweetheart” government contracts.  He is able to build schools for a fraction of what it costs the US or the NGO organizations established in Afghanistan.  Perhaps the US government should hire his “Dirty Dozen” crew to oversee the contracts.  But then this would deprive the corrupt Afghan administrators of their cut of the piece of the pie and would make it extremely difficult for them to retain their standard of living, driving SUVs, wearing expensive suits and ties, and living in wealthy neighborhoods on their maximum government salary of $650 a month.

Anyhow, we finally departed the APOD and arrived back at Camp LSA.  It was around 1 am and the plane I had planned to board already departed.  I guess it’s another night in the tent and maybe tomorrow I will leave this place.

Fast forward – 3 days later still in Kuwait for Christmas

It’s been 3 days now and my luggage still hasn’t arrived.  I bought some extra clothes and necessities at the PX to hold me over.  Last night was Christmas Eve and I entertained myself at the MWR center.  They had a special BINGO game and gave prizes out to the winners.  I still wasn’t having any luck or perhaps I just had terrible BINGO cards.  Despite some meager Christmas decorations and a small ornamented tree, it just didn’t feel like Christmas.  I had really hoped to be back at camp with my team for Christmas.

Today is Christmas and it feels like a ghost town here.  They brought in enough planes to get everyone out with the exception of a few stragglers or people who missed their roll call.  My tent is empty except for me and an Army Captain who is leaving tomorrow.  Maybe tonight I will get some quality sleep.  I never thought waiting and doing nothing could be so exhausting.

Stuck in Kuwait

Camp LSA in the middle of nowhere in Kuwait.

I got on the plane and hugged my wife goodbye.  My R&R leave had come to an end.  Now it was time to return to the combat zone.  It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to Liisa, but we both are looking on the bright side that I only have 4 ½ months to go.  My plane was delayed over an hour before finally boarding and taking off.  I landed in Frankfurt where they also delayed the plane.  The snowstorms in the Eastern part of the US along with the ones in Europe were causing massive delays and cancellations.  My next stop was in Kuwait.

It was a smooth flight and I went to the luggage carousel to pick up my military duffel bag.  I waited and waited and looked closely at every green military duffel bag and couldn’t locate mine.  Then I heard the conveyor belt stop running.  This wasn’t good.  My military uniforms, combat boots, underwear, T-shirts, etc. were inside this bag.  I made a smart decision not to pack my winter coat because the temperatures here were in the low 50’s.

I went to the Lufthansa baggage claim area and reported my missing bag.  They gave me a claim number and felt certain it would be on the next flight tomorrow night.  There is only one daily flight from Frankfurt to Kuwait.  One night wasn’t going to kill me, so I boarded the bus and we were driven back to the Logistic Staging Area (LSA).  Camp LSA is the main hub for everyone going on R&R from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Kuwait.  The place was extremely crowded.  Most of the crowd was hoping for an aircraft to the United States with stops at Dallas-Ft Worth or Atlanta for connection flights.  They had hopes of arriving home before Christmas.

Living quarters at Camp LSA, Kuwait.

I checked into billeting and they gave me a tent to stay in for the night.  The tents have bunk beds in them.  All of the bottom bunks were filled, so I had to climb to the top of the bunk for the night.  It was now 0330 hrs and I really didn’t care that my face was a foot from the top of the tent.  I just needed to get some sleep.  But that wasn’t going to happen.  The lights in the tents stay on 24/7 and people are constantly coming and going.  In addition, any time an important announcement is made, they broadcast it over the loudspeakers.  So getting a quality night of rest is quite futile.

My first Afghan meal

The next morning we hit the ground running and inspected the up-armored vehicles that we would be responsible for.  Our training at Fort Riley familiarized us with them and now we will put our training to use.  The only difference is every time we leave the FOB, we will go “hot” with live ammunition instead of blanks.
After we received a small briefing, we visited our Afghan Kandak.  A Kandak is equivalent to an Army battalion.  I was informed my responsibility for the next year is to mentor the Afghan Sergeant Major.  Before we would meet and greet, we had to get a translator to accompany us.  The interpreters have a good understanding of our English language except for when we use slang or idioms.  They are too proud to tell you they don’t understand, so it’s important to observe nonverbal facial cues and provide clarity.
Initially the Sgt Major wasn’t in so we stopped by to greet the Kandak colonel.  My team chief was already inside his office when we arrived.  We were greeted and offered the traditional cup of chai (tea).  It reminded me of past deployments, especially in Kuwait when I made purchases for the government from local vendors.  Every vendor would insist on a cup of chai before discussing business.  I’m convinced by the end of that tour; I consumed a 55 gallon drum of chai!
Later on I met the Afghan Sgt Major.  He seemed impressed with the few sentences of Dari I was able to mutter.  Using the translator I explained that I was a writer and I wanted the American public to read and hear stories about Afghan life.   I quickly learned he has been a soldier for a long time and witnessed war first-hand.  My interest turned to the Soviet occupation era.  He explained that the Russians forced Afghan soldiers and citizens into their army to fight the Mujahadeen.  Recall the Mujahadeen warriors were being indirectly supported by the United States.  So in essence you had Afghans fighting Afghans.  Based on my short research of Afghanistan, I don’t recall reading about this in any history book.  So I am looking forward to exploring this subject in more detail.  If I were to draw a parallel, this would be similar to our Civil War.
Leaving Phoenix 004My team was invited to join the Afghan leadership in a specially prepared meal.  Immediately I panicked because I forgot to put a spare spoon in my pocket for this occasion.  As we sat down at the table I scanned it carefully and no flatware was to be seen.  Leaving Phoenix 005We would have to eat the meal with our hands.  The cook was stirring some sort of egg mixture in a steel pot on the floor.  It was equivalent to our eggs Ranchero.  On the table, the paper plates were filled with some basil leaves, Italian Parsley, small slides tomatoes and cucumbers and in honor of us they made some sort of French fries.   After watching our hosts eat, I mimicked them and followed suit.  The Nan bread substituted for the missing spoon for scooping up the eggs Ranchero.  We ate our meal, exchanged some pleasantries and then returned to our camp.

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