Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Long Year and a Long December

“…and it’s a long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.” – Counting Crows

So how do you define a good year? Is it a span of time marked by moments of happiness, notable achievements, and successes? Do the days punctuated by laughter have to outweigh those stained with tears, or is it a cumulative effect of how we recollect our overall experience of the preceding months as the church bells fade from midnight mass on Christmas Eve?

Sliding into December, it would be easy to look back and say this has been a bad year. By the time the ball drops in Times Square and people are kissing and singing Auld Lang Syne, I will have been apart from my wife for 349 days of 2005. That in itself is enough for 2005 to merit the moniker of “Bad Year” in my book.

During this time, Pam has had to deal with moving for the 5th time in as many years and 2 more moves to look forward to over the next year. She has had to deal with her own personal version of “Pacific Heights” tenants in our house, shady land managers, shoddy contractors, disrespectful and difficult Tri-Care and hospital employees, hospitalizations, and surgeries.

During this same time, aside from the normal trials and tribulations of military duty, I have traveled through 14 countries on 3 continents, trained in the snow, endured the stifling desert heat, experienced thunderstorms of biblical proportions, and witnessed brutal and indiscriminate devastation wrought by both man and nature.

And yet, there have been moments of spontaneous joy along with heartfelt outpourings of love and kindness, the nature of which can only be born out of tribulation. Coinciding with the heart-rending tragedy that continues to permeate this region of the world where so much of my past year has been spent, were extraordinary moments of compassion and kindness; spontaneous and heartfelt demonstrations of caring and generosity and overwhelming occasions of camaraderie and sharing.

How then do we weigh these blessings against the magnitude of heartache, loneliness, and sorrow of being separated from family, or can we? I think now, that even though they all must be taken as pieces that create the whole, one cannot be weighed against the other. They are of different genres and should not even be competing on the same field for my emotions. While we have to accept all the challenges that life brings us, they are only things to be endured, things which add contrast and texture to the moments we cherish in life.

As the end of this year approaches, I find myself separated from my wife and family by half a world. While all the reasons that I find myself desert purgatory are just as valid as they ever were, there are days when I just don’t care, days when I just miss my wife and when I yearn for home. During these times, Pam and I will commiserate with each other through our hardships. We will put aside all the noble and honorable reasons for our tribulations and allow ourselves a short time of self-pity because duty and honor aside, being apart from your loved ones through this time of giving and sharing just plain sucks.

Tomorrow though, the world will seem just a little brighter as we wake up one day closer to being together again. Our contributions and sacrifices will mean just a little bit more as this fledgling bastion of freedom progresses that much further through its infancy and we will see if we can find just a little more strength and perseverance from some untapped reserve to help push us through the final stretch. So while it has been both a long year and a long December, with the end of our mission right around the corner, there is reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last.

Sorry About the Hiatus

Sorry about the sporadic postings recently.  Not only did we find ourselvels in a bit of an operational lull when there just wasn't that much to write about, I managed to procure a 4 day R&R pass to Qatar.  For 96 wonderful hours, Craig and I were able to bask in the sun, take a dip in the Persian Gulf, visit western style malls with American Fast Food franchises and of course imbibe in limited amounts of alcoholic beverages.  The just as quickly as it came, we find ourselves back in Metropolis scraping frost from windshields again.  Funny how the Air Force never cancels return flights from places like this.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A couple of items here about the Christmas season.
First, if you have a problem with me calling it the Christmas season rather than the "Winter Holidays", the "Happy Holiday Season", the "Non-Religiously Affiliated Season of Giving", or some other sort of nonsense, then you're probably reading the wrong website. It's Christmas folks. It's a religous holiday. If you don't believe that, don't celebrate it. Ooooh, by the way, I'm writing this on a government computer. I hope that doesn't violate the separation of church and state. I'd better make sure I get the Chaplain to look at it first. You remember the chaplain right? A soldier of God whose earthly salary is paid by the U.S. Government. Church and state in the same uniform. Hmmm? Well, enough of that. In God We Trust, and Merry Christmas.

Second, I have had more than a few conversations/emails from people asking what they can send in packages for the soldiers. Folks, I can't tell you how much we appreciate the giving and sharing. The small momentos of support go so far in boosting the morale of the troops during this particularly stressful time. The difficulty here is that for the people I'm associated with, our time remaining here on the ground is short and in over the next few weeks we're going to try to reduce the amount of things that we have to carry out of here by shipping it out early.

Since giving is the most important thing during this season and your well-wishes, thoughts and prayers are the most important thing to us right now, here's the best thing that I can think of:
Visit Soldiers' Angels and select from any one of the operations that they have listed there to contribute to. They are all fantastic programs that go directly to helping soldiers and families who need it most. Then just drop us a card with your well wishes, thoughts and prayers and letting us know that you have given in our honor to help our comrades who need it most. cards can be sent to:

Any JLC Soldier
c/o Claude Crisp
APO, AE 09354

Finally, I want to share this poem that somone forwarded to me. I normally shy away from forwards, but this captures very well, the spirit of the CHRISTMAS season from my perspective this year.

The embers glowed softly, and in their dim light,
I gazed round the room and I cherished the sight.
My wife was asleep, her head on my chest,
my daughter beside me, angelic in rest.

Outside the snow fell, a blanket of white,
Transforming the yard to a Winter delight.
The sparkling lights in the tree I believe,
Completed the magic that was Christmas Eve.

My eyelids were heavy, my breathing was deep,
Secure and surrounded by love I would sleep.
In perfect contentment, or so it would seem,
So I slumbered, perhaps I started to dream.

The sound wasn't loud, and it wasn't too near,
But I opened my eyes when it tickled my ear.
Perhaps just a cough, I didn't quite know,
Then the sure sound of footsteps outside in the snow.

My soul gave a tremble, I struggled to hear,
andI crept to the door just to see who was near.
Standing out in the cold and the dark of the night,
A lone figure stood, his face weary and tight.

A soldier, I puzzled, some twenty years old,
Perhaps a Marine, huddled here in the cold.
Alone in the dark, he looked up and smiled,
Standing watch over me, and my wife and my child.

"What are you doing?" I asked without fear,
"Come in this moment, it's freezing out here!
Put down your pack, brush the snow from your sleeve,
You should be at home on a cold Christmas Eve!"

For barely a moment I saw his eyes shift,
Away from the cold and the snow blown in drifts.
To the window that danced with a warm fire's light.
Then he sighed and he said, "Its really all right,
I'm out here by choice. I'm here every night."

"It's my duty to stand at the front of the line,
That separates you from the darkest of times.
No one had to ask or beg or implore me,
I'm proud to stand here like my fathers before me.

My Gramps died at 'Pearl on a day in December,"
Then he sighed, "That's a Christmas 'Gram always remembers.
"My dad stood his watch in the jungles of 'Nam',
And now it is my turn and so, here I am.

I've not seen my own son in more than a while,
But my wife sends me pictures, he's sure got her smile.
Then he bent and he carefully pulled from his bag,
The red, white, and blue... an American flag.

"I can live through the cold and the being alone,
Away from my family, my house and my home.
I can stand at my post through the rain and the sleet,
I can sleep in a foxhole with little to eat.

I can carry the weight of killing another,
Or lay down my life with my sister and brother.
Who stand at the front! against any and all,
To ensure for all time that this flag will not fall."

"So go back inside," he said, "harbor no fright,
Your family is waiting and I'll be all right."
"But isn't there something I can do, at the least,
"Give you money," I asked, "or prepare you a feast?"

It seems all too little for all that you've done,
For being away from your wife and your son."
Then his eye welled a tear that held no regret,
"Just tell us you love us, and never forget.

To fight for our rights back at home while we're gone,
To stand your own watch, no matter how long.
For when we come home, either standing or dead,
To know you remember we fought and we bled.

Is payment enough, and with that we will trust,
That we mattered to you as you mattered to us.

Thank You all for your continued prayers and support. To really make this holiday season better for us though, find a family member whose loved ones are deployed and share your appreciation with them. We've been through a lot here, but we have been through it with each other and we will lan on each other the rest of the way. Our families don't always have this, and for people to share their thoughts and prayers with them is priceless.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving Dinner at Bagram Posted by Picasa
Thanksgiving in Bagram

While it certainly wasn't home, the Army, and KBR pulled out all the stops to make Thanksgiving in the Hinterlands a memorable event.

While I don't think that come this time next year anyone of us are going to be saying "Gee Honey, that was pretty good, but you should have seen what we had in Afghanistan last year", the tremendous effort by everyone who helped with this celebration is truly appreciated.
Heard in Passing

"We've got to be getting close to leaving, we're on our 3rd set of Air Force guys."

-Anonymous- regarding disparity between Army and Air Force rotations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Double Digit Midgets

So as much as you try to tell yourself that you will remain mission-focused throughout the entire rotation, that you will concentrate on the job and the time will take care of itself.  It’s an exercise in futility.  Like an addict who needs the fix to keep going from one day to the next, you find yourself in the evening, marking off another day on the calendar and counting those remaining.


Hello, my name is Brian, and I have a counting problem.  I know, I know, every one tells me that it only makes the time pass more slowly, but I can’t help myself.  It started with a simple tear-off calendar and that was depressing because I could see the thick stack of the days remaining in the year as opposed to the paltry few sheets signifying those that had passed.  One day though, I realized that the torn off stack was larger than the ones remaining on the calendar, and I started to feel the thrill of counting. 


Then came the full size calendars with each “X”d out day adding depth to a strangely comforting geometric design.  Of course, then the more I counted the more I wanted to count.  I became insatiable, but time was only passing so quickly, so I found new ways to mark off the days.  Counting in percentages of the total deployment became the Crack Cocaine of my new found addiction and counting down the days remaining is my Ecstasy, the new designer drug of the time killing habit and today, I found a new high from a number that is increasingly lower.  We have cracked the century mark.  There are less than 100 days remaining for us in this deployment.  We are “Double Digit Midgets” and getting shorter every day.


So, tomorrow I’ll stop counting and get my mission focus back.  I’ll find a 12 step program to get off the calendar “X”tacy, but today we’ll do the countdown limbo and see how low we can go.  Tomorrow, I’ll put the tear-off calendar in a drawer and turn my attention back to the tasks at hand, but not today.  Today we will show each other our calendars and in true vintage Steve Martin vernacular, proceed to “Get Really Small”


Friday, November 18, 2005

For a Day of Thanks

For those of you who have been reading my blog long enough, you know that we have a Thanksgiving tradition, certainly not unique but a cherished ritual none the less, in which all who celebrate with us take turns telling everyone present what they are thankful for on this day.  The miles and hours that separate me from my family’s Thanksgiving celebration this year is not nearly reason enough to forgo this tradition, so here are some of the things that I am thankful for this year.


For the opportunities that have been provided to me over the last year where I could help provide for the future well-being of people less fortunate than us, for the security of those near us here in Afghanistan, and for the lives we were able to save in Pakistan; for what I have seen and the lessons emblazoned upon my heart of how very fortunate we are, I am truly thankful.


I am thankful to be able to provide for the security of the country that has given me so many opportunities and blessings throughout my lifetime.  I am blessed to know of the millions countrymen who will be able to avail them selves of those same opportunities in the future.


I am thankful that I was raised in a home that taught and lived the values that guide me today, lessons anchored upon a faith in God, where what I was able to share was more important than what I thought I was entitled to, and where the thought truly did count more than the gift.


For the company of heroes with whom I will share this celebration as I have shared the past year, the lessons in leadership that I have been able to both learn and share, the examples of selflessness, duty, and patriotism that I have witnessed, and for the Herculean efforts that I have received and been able to put forth for a noble and righteous cause, I am truly blessed.


I am thankful that my family will celebrate this occasion in a warm, safe home filled with love in a place they cherish.  A home where all the sounds and smells that warm my heart and bring a smile to my face just to think about, football games, turkey, card games, pies, and children laughing, will fill the rooms from morning to night.


While I am extremely thankful for the well wishes and prayers of all who wander through this site which I truly believe have kept us safe this far as well as the rest of the way home, for all the heartfelt sentiments, none of which included pity for the hardships of our chosen profession, I can not express enough gratitude. 


I am sure you will understand when I decline to share with you the details of what I am most grateful for, even more so this year than last, in favor of sharing the gratitude for my most cherished possession, the love and support of my wife, only with her.




Happy Thanksgiving.



P.S.  I am also ecstatically thankful for the AFN televised Thanksgiving eve opportunity for the Colorado Avalanche to put the hurt to the Detroit Red Wings, and the Denver Broncos Thanksgiving Day thrashing of the Dallas Cowboys.  Gobble Gobble!!!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Happy Veterans Day

There is a bumper sticker that reads:  "If you can read this, thank a teacher.  If you are reading this in English, thank a veteran."


While I appreciate the sentiment, I'd like to take a minute to expand on that.


To all those who wore the uniform before me who ensured that those sitting next to me while I was learning to read and write were both male and female of all faiths and various ethnicities, and from all walks of life; Thank You


To all those before me whose selfless achievements are now my honored heritage; Thank You


To all who have placed the love of this country and it's underlying tenets above their own welfare; Thank You


To all those who have cast absentee ballots while far from far away places while fighting to secure the right of others to choose their own destiny; Thank You


To all those who have missed birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and holidays, whose marraiges and relationships have endured months and years of separation for the sake of the security of others; Thank You


And thanks especially to all those who have given pieces of their body and soul for just a small hope that the world my children and their children grow up in will not need those who will wear this uniform after me to live for months and years far from home and in harms way.


Back to Bagram Once Again

As promised, I have once again returned to Metropolis.  The hustle and bustle of this fortified American city in the middle of Afghanistan is much the same as I left it with the exception of the weather.  Not long before my Pakistan journey, people around here would have killed or died for a cloud.  Since my return on Tuesday, not only do I think I haven't seen blue sky, I have actually witnessed precipitation.  When the clouds do lift a bit you can see that the snow level is creeping down the mountains and the temperature is dropping right along with it. 


Hard to believe we're only 2 weeks from Thanksgiving.  While many people may find the thought of the Holidays here in the Hinterland a little depressing, Thanksgiving will be significant, because it brings with it, the coveted century mark - 100 days remaining.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Still in Pakistan

Sorry it's been so long since I put a post up here, it's hard to believe that I've been here almost 3 weeks.  During that time I have been to the Embassy several times working out various issues, worked with people from all branches of service, British, Germans, Japanese, and of course Pakistani.  I've flown on British CH47s, Navy MH-53s, Chinooks flown by the Big Windy Commander, and fellow blogger, Glen Siegerist.  I've heard gunfire and fireworks light up the sky at the first glimpse of the new moon, signifying the end of Ramadaan.


Most importantly though, on my last trip out, I noticed a significant difference in the Pakistani population.  It may have been a function of the places we flew to, but there was no swarming of the helicopter when we landed and and we flew over a great many tent complexes on the way in and out.  Aid has been reaching most area, and while there is still a great deal of work to be done before the snows come, it will have to be done by others not coming from Afghanistan.  All but myself and a couple others from Afghanistan have been replaced by counterparts from the U.S. or Europe, and with luck, I will be back in Bagram tomorrow.


While my heart still breaks when I think of all that I have seen here, I am thankful that I was in a position to give what little bit of help I could, and I will be thankful for the rest of my days for the things that I have.





Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Behind the Scenes of the Relief Effort

Well, I haven’t been forward in a few days. Sometimes I wonder how it is that I have found my way into the forefront so many high profile situations when it is the traditional lot of us logisticians to make camp in the rear echelons. For the past few days I have been working at the airfield where all the helicopters performing the relief missions are staged and it is taking on more and more of the flavor of what I imagined the Allied airfields in England to be during WWII.

Somewhere around 4:00 A.M., the chirping of watch alarms begin to echo through the cavernous hanger where all the flight crews, maintainers, and support personnel are housed. The lights are already on in one end of the hanger as the aircraft mechanics who work the night shift are just finishing up their duties. People begin shuffling from one end of the hanger to the other some hoping to get at least a warm shower before the water becomes either frigid or disappears all together. People pull on uniforms and flight suits, and make their way across the darkened flight line either to the briefing room in the headquarters building or to begin prepping their respective aircraft.

By 5:00 A.M., the briefing room is full of aviators grumbling for coffee and waiting to find out what their first mission for the day will be. They listen carefully to the weather and any other information that can be had before heading to the aircraft that crew members have already opened and begun loading with gear.

As the sun turns from crimson to orange over the numerous mosques and smaller white buildings to the east, APUs are fired, piercing the silence of the Islamabad suburb. Flight controls are checked and shortly after, main engines are brought on line but soon drowned out by the whir and thump of spinning rotor blades.

By 6:30 A.M, the first Chinooks lumber aloft followed minutes later by their partners, and then the smaller Blackhawks. Somewhere in the middle, the massive CH-53s have found time to churn their way out, with the tall grass along the runway swaying in the rotor wash leaving the silence to swallow this little airfield once more, broken only by the morning calls to prayer broadcast from the loudspeakers of nearby mosques.

The support personnel rise a bit later and start going about their daily tedium while the maintenance crews prepare for the return of the aircraft, then breakout cards, or settle in to watch movies. There’s usually a football being tossed around somewhere, and inside the headquarters, the progress of the missions are tracked by radio.

The lunchtime MREs are long since finished and the sun has begun to lose it’s brilliance in the western skies by the time the first thumping of rotor are heard returning the pilots and crews to their temporary home.

The aircraft make their ways to designated parking spots and as engines wind down and rotor blades slow to a stop, the maintenance crews day begins in earnest. Crew members tell of any maintenance issues, and pilots make their way in to the operations center for debriefing so priorities can be set for the next day.Now, as darkness settles, flight crews grab their dinner, and try to relax a bit before their unit commanders return from the nightly command briefing and huddle them around to tell them what to expect the next day. Big Windy 6, just finished briefing his folks across from me a few minutes ago, and soon the banks of lights will start clacking off leaving this cavernous hangar in darkness except for the far end where maintenance crews will work through the night making sure everything is ready to do this all again tomorrow.

Neither we, nor the Pakistanis, or the Brits who have just moved into the far side of the hangar know how long this routine will last, but we have all seen the devastation in the mountains and we all know winter is coming.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

On to Islamabad. Posted by Picasa

More injured on the 4th stop of the trip. Posted by Picasa

Some buildings fared better than others. Posted by Picasa

Flight medic tending to the injured enroute to Islamabad. Posted by Picasa

Pakistani military bring the injured to the aircraft. Posted by Picasa

3rd landing of the trip. Posted by Picasa

Family sitting on what remains of their home. Posted by Picasa

Displaced families. Posted by Picasa

Mountain landing zone. Posted by Picasa

Collapsed houses. Posted by Picasa

Piles of debris where houses once stood. Posted by Picasa

Pakistan soldiers loading Big Windy 6's Chinook from Jinga trucks Posted by Picasa

Over Islamabad Posted by Picasa

Leaving for Pakistan Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 23, 2005

On Break From the War

As far as an emotional impact, yesterday has to stand as the most significant of the deployment to date.

Monday night Craig and I received a warning order to be prepared to move to Pakistan. We didn’t know exactly what the mission would be other than logistics support to the Task Force Griffin, the aviation unit flying the helicopter relief missions out of Islamabad. We didn’t know how long we were expected to be there, only that the relief effort would become more urgent as the weather deteriorated. So on Tuesday, we packed our bags and prepared for a Wednesday departure.

Throughout the day, the normal confusion that surrounds air travel in the theater, continued to reign, and Wednesday night, Craig and I found ourselves sitting on the on the back ramp of a Casa 212 as the Blackwater Aviation pilots waited for diplomatic clearance into Pakistan. It never came and we shuffled back to Stalag 17 for the night. During the course of the evening though, it became a higher priority to get KBR contractors on the ground rather than logisticians. It was decided that Craig was more important at Bagram, so I was headed east alone.

Yesterday started at with a 3:30 A.M. wake-up and a 4:30 arrival at the terminal. There was still the normal confusion as to who had precedence and which cargo was flying, and to confuse things even more, we were switching planes from the Casa to a Metroliner which had more seats, but less cargo space. In the end, we got everything to fit and we lifted off the Bagram runway about ½ hour after sunrise. Passing by Tora Bora and cruising leisurely over the Khyber Pass, there seemed to be something surreal about leaving a combat zone to head to a disaster area. It seemed the we were, in effect calling time out from the war to go to an earthquake. A few minutes later, we slipped over the expansive white checkerboard of Islamabad and skidded smoothly onto the runway of Qasim Airfield.

A pick-up truck pulled up to the Airplane as I was stepping out, and I was greeted by MSG Moore, the Aviation Brigade logistician who I had come to know well during our time at Purple Ramp when deploying from Germany. He had been in Pakistan for about 10 days now and gave he gave me a quick rundown on the status of things as he took me to the hanger where all the flight crews and other support personnel were being housed. I dropped my gear there, then headed for the operations center. On the short walk there, I passed Russian made MI-17 and U.S. Made UH-1 helicopters both owned by the Pakistani Air Force, A massive CH-53 brought in by the Germans, a plethora of other helicopters that I couldn’t even identify let alone want to ride in, and of course our work horse CH-47s brought in by Big Windy and Task Force Griffin.

Following introductions and a quick tour, we jumped in the Suburban with the Task Force Commander and headed for Chakala Air Base. After the death defying drive through Islamabad where our embassy driver put every New York cabbie I’ve ever ridden with to shame, we pulled into the airbase. The main road leading in was lined with the ever-present Jinga trucks and when we reached the runway, I stood stunned. I had grown up in Army aviation as an enlisted crew chief on UH-60 Blackhawks but I have never seen more helicopters in one place at the same time than on this day. They lined the runway in all shapes and sizes, from one end to the other and down the taxi-ways. In the triangular grass area formed by the runways and taxi-way, was a mountain of humanitarian aid products waiting to be loaded onto the next available helicopter. On our side of the runway, farther down, massive cargo planes from China, Switzerland, Germany, and Canada were disgorging even more assistance material. The 53s and 47s thundered overhead, while their smaller brethren buzzed around like little gnats.

We walked around the base camp for a few minutes making introductions and talking to people then walked across the runway to hitch a ride up north. All the flight crews were living in Qasim with us, so it didn’t take my counterpart long to find a crewmember that he recognized.

“Do you have room for a couple of passengers Sergeant?”

“As long as you don’t mind working Sir. I just need you to manifest inside the control tent, and we’ll crank as soon as they finish loading.”

After giving the Sergeant in the control tent our information and getting manifested, we walked back to the Chinook while the Pakistani soldiers finished loading. Hundreds of bundles marked “China Aid” filled the center of the aircraft from floor to ceiling. Plastic tarps and tents filled the areas to the front and rear of the Chinese donations, and German donations filled out the area forward to where the crew seats began. By the time the Pakistani soldiers directed the Jinga trucks to clear the area, more than 17,000 pounds of humanitarian assistance supplies were on board. A few minutes later, the Jinga trucks pulled away from our sister Chinook parked in front of us.

Crew members pulled on flight helmets and manned fire extinguishers, a Pakistani pilot manned the jump seat between the two Griffin pilots and the APU cranked followed shortly by the main engines. We wobbled heavily on the runway as the rotor blades built up speed and I listened to the familiar chop as they turned to a blur overhead and the wobbling settled into the normal vibration associated with these beasts. The chop turned to a heavy slap as the pilots pulled in power and pitch and we lumbered skyward with our 8 tons of supplies.

We turned to the north, and Islamabad spread out before us. The stark differences between what I was seeing here and Afghanistan could not have been more vivid. Gone were the mud huts, and compounds swept with dusty winds. Gone were the networks of trails dissecting the country side, replaced with divided highways and paved city streets It was my first real view of the thousands upon thousands of small white houses and buildings spread across this wide valley floor like so many alabaster tiles or ivory dominos. I saw a river snaking through the center of the city, and the unmistakable green strips of golf courses cut through the symmetry of the streets and buildings.To the north of the city a massive mosque with four immense columns dominated the landscape and then we left the city was behind us.

Leaving Islamabad to the North, the terrain rises rapidly. The valleys narrow and grow sharply steeper. Fir, pine, and spruce trees cover the mountain sides and as we climbed high up the valleys it was hard for me not to tell myself that we were flying over my Colorado mountains. Here though, civilization rapidly melted away. The mountain side were covered with houses, many of them beautiful with picturesque views of the valleys below, but the solidified infrastructure was gone. The houses that were wedged into every possible location that would facilitate them were connected by only one lane dirt roads at best, and in many cases only trails. Power lines were non-existent for the most part and I knew there was no way to pump water to these locations, yet here they were, all these houses from the lavish to the ramshackle spread across every mountain and valley that we traversed.

We continued climbing to the northeast and the air blew continually colder through the open windows next to the crew chief and flight engineer and I regretted not bringing new issue black fleece jacket on what was a 75 degree day at the airfield. The mountain ridges we were crossing now glimmered with what looked to be a dusting of snow, but is in fact the beginning of the annual snow pack that will not disappear until late spring. The Himalayas rose into view no longer very distant.

I watched the still ever-present houses slip beneath us, and I wondered if there was any limit to the altitude that they would build in when I began to notice a difference in the structures I was seeing. The tin roofs were set low to the ground with what looked to be only a small support structure beneath them. At first I though that these house were dug into the side of the mountain or possibly they were shelters for animals or grain then I suddenly realized that the houses themselves were no longer there, their roofs had collapsed on top of them. These collapsed house were intermittent at first, but a few minutes later, scarcely a standing structure could be seen. Roofs that were intact had slid down the valley leaving trails of rubble behind them Where the roofs were not intact, only piles of rubble, twisted metal and splintered wood remained. The valley walls were scarred by landslides and now we flew mile after mile without seeing a standing structure.

Our big Chinook finally labored over one last ridge and we slowly descended into the valley beyond, weaving back and forth across the restrictive terrain searching for the best approach into the area that had been designated for our relief mission. The crew chief tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out across the deep valley where I saw sparkles and flashes of light from the mountain sides.

“Mirror flashes Sir, every time they hear a helicopter they signal us trying to get us to land there.”

Too isolated, too sick, or too hurt to get to the central points we were landing only a few miles away, there were far too many needing help in places unreachable even by our mode, that would have to rely on help coming by foot.

We looped around and descended towards a small clearing with a makeshift flag acting as a windsock and suddenly the ground below us was teeming with people. We pulled into a hover a few feet off the ground and I started heaving supplies towards the crew chief who in turn dropped them out the window. Box after box tumbled out, none of them hitting the ground and rolls of plastic and tents were pulled from our hands before they were even clear of the window. After five minutes, I could see over the supplies remaining in the helicopter the hordes of people gathered around the tail ramp while crewmembers in the back did the same thing as us. Then the power and pitch were pulled in again, the rotors slapped at the air and we struggled back over the mountain ridges towards another site.

This time, we set down at the makeshift landing zone. I jumped out the crew door and headed around to the tail ramp barely ahead of the crowd of men and boys streaming down from the tents and makeshift shelters above our landing site. Ee began throwing the bundles of Chinese blankets as far as we could from the rear of the helicopter to keep the majority of the crowds at bay. It was only marginally effective. While the women huddled together higher up on the side of the hill with the girls close beside them, the men and boys charged towards the helicopter, desperately scrambling for the next thing to come off. We struggled to keep the boxes and plastic rolls flowing out of the helicopter faster than waving hands could receive them, but it was like fighting a tidal wave with a stick, and care had to be taken not to bowl over old men who even though weakened by the elements and hunger, were gamely trying to carry their share of the workload.

The 4 tons of supplies that we landed with melted into the crowd almost without a trace and still, desperate faces crowded around the tail ramp hoping for more. As the engines spooled up again, several of the younger men in the crowd were pointing frantically at a box under the seat. It was a box containing packages of cookies that the crewmembers adamantly refused to distribute and while I appreciated the fact that these crewmembers had been doing this job for a lot longer than I had, it didn’t seem characteristic of these kids to hold back the last thing we had that might relieve even a small part of these peoples misery.

We lumbered back up the valley, leaving this makeshift refugee camp with the boys running up the hill behind us and the girls hiding their faces from the rotor wash behind their shawls. We circled to gain altitude, and at first the cool mountain air flowing in the windows was a welcome respite, but soon it chilled us in our sweat-soaked shirts. Soon enough, we slipped over the snowy ridgeline, and quickly descended into the warmer air of the valley to the south and in a few minutes we started to see increasing signs of civilization but the devastation increased along with it.

As we crossed over the edge of Mazaffarabad, I began seeing devastation that my mind struggled to comprehend. Block after block of this city had been reduced to rubble. Streets were impassable, and people flocked towards the soccer field near the center of town where a rudimentary hospital was set up and where we settling to the ground. Our Pakistani pilot disembarked and disappeared into the crowd. Other helicopters of various makes and nationalities joined us and soon people bearing stretchers began carrying patients towards our aircraft. First came the litter patients, each identified with a number and letter on their forehead, mostly the elderly who were laid along the bench seats, and then on the floor. Then, the ambulatory patients came aboard, filling in the vacant spaces, many carrying wide eyed children in their arms. As each of these children passed the crewmember at the tail ramp, they received a package of cookies from the only remaining box on the aircraft. The eyes remained sharp and piercing, but a child’s smile is disarming in any language.

We finally lumbered back into the air for the final stretch, and with the all the seats being occupied, I stood holding onto an overhead bar having a smiling contest with a little girl of maybe a year, who was getting more utility out of her package of cookies as a toy, than as food. Her protective mother held her patiently but obviously wary of this strange American who couldn’t do anything but smile at her daughter.

Behind the mother, a young husband held his wife’s head, and next to them, the flight medic looked up at me from his patient, with that universally understood expression, of “There was nothing I could do”. Next to him, a son squatted next to his father, comforting him oblivious to the medic behind him.

We descended back to the airfield in Islamabad, and minutes after landing, the patients had been hustled into ambulances bearing red crescents and whisked away. Suddenly I found my self sitting in the cavernous empty cargo bay in awe of this crew of young soldiers who began preparing the helicopter for their next trip into the devastation, their fourth of the day. I will stand in silent awe of these soldiers, on break from the war to save as many lives as they can, for years to come. Long before that awe begins to fade, I will find a day to sit and cry for everything that I have seen today.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Off to Pakistan

No sooner than I praise the efforts of those providing relief to Pakistan, than I get selected to be one of those heroes.  I should be headed over the border within a day or two and I don't know what the status of any connectivity, so please be patient if you don't hear from me for a while, and keep checking back.


Snowday at Bagram

In the midst of everything else that has been happening, I failed to point out one significant event.  During my morning two-wheeled commute to the other end of Metropolis on Sunday; I felt an extra chill in the air and a closer inspection revealed snow on the mountains around BAF. 


This is significant for a couple of reasons, one, it tends to drive the cave-dwellers out of the mountains and underground for the next few months.  That's not to say that some enterprising young zealot won't poke his head up from time to time, but for the most part, they will head to warmer climes to regroup, lick their wounds, and ponder the futility of their chose quest.


Secondly, there was snow on the mountains when we arrived in Afghanistan and it's return is just one more sign of the approaching end of our rotation.  It can’t come soon enough.



Monday, October 17, 2005

The Nature of Today's Soldier

They were wearing the woodland camouflage pattern BDU's instead of the desert DCUs, but otherwise, there didn’t seem to be anything overtly different about the troops that arrived at Bagram on Sunday than any other soldieryou might find in Afghanistan.  Like every other soldier before them, they stepped off the C-17, shook off the stiffness of the long flight from Rota, Spain, and tried to familiarize themselves with their new surroundings.  Like all their predecessors, they would face tedious welcoming briefings from the Personnel, Finance, and Base Operations, before being shown to their temporary housing.  The difference is that these 17 soldiers of B Co 2/227 Avn Bn. accompanying a disassembled CH-47 Chinook helicopter are not staying in Bagram, or even Afghanistan.  These troops are the vanguard of what has been dubbed Task Force Quake, an emergency response to the earthquake that has devastated large portions of Pakistan.


Now it's been 9 days since the earthquake struck, and most of you have already seen U.S. helicopters providing humanitarian relief there.  These are all helicopters that were already in Afghanistan and are now stretching their legs a bit.  They are people that you may have read about here before, Task Force Griffin, Sabre, and of course the ever present Big Windy.  I can't tell you what kind of mindset it takes to put the war on hold, fly to another country over hostile terrain, and begin working relief efforts with nothing to look forward to but returning to the war.


Over the next few days, more than 20 flights like the one that arrived Sunday with 20 more Chinooks and more than 80 more personnel, will drop into Bagram and one by one, the helicopters will be reassembled and test flown while their crews are familiarizing themselves with the intricacies of flying in the dusty high altitude conditions that prevail in this region.  Within a week, these crews will have their Chinooks in the air and they will be on their way to Pakistan to begin relieving our guys there.


The most remarkable thing about these people is not that the left their families and homes in Texas with less than 3 days notice, but that they did it for the 3rd time in 4 months.  These people are all fresh off the relief efforts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Now they get the added joy of flying through a combat zone to get to their next humanitarian effort.


I never though that I would get the better deal by going to war.  At least I know when I'm going home.


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Journalism and Patriotism Part II

Probably the most ironic thing that I have seen since I started writing this blog is a journalist asking rhetorically if my 11 OCT post caused journalists to be targeted on the battlefield. Keep in mind, that this is the same post where I describe journalists interviewing Al Queda terrorists, the same terrorists who are responsible for the placing mines in girls schools, assassinating truck drivers, indiscriminately firing rockets into populated areas, and ambushing and killing American soldiers. I remain wholly unconvinced that journalists have ever been targeted, but somehow I don't think that my writing is what sparks or furthers the animosity of service members towards journalists. Somehow I don't think I'm the only one who finds something fundamentally wrong with American journalists interviewing the most wanted man in an Afghani district while Soldiers and Marines are humping the mountains day in and day out in search of bad guys. Somehow, I don't think I'm the one not seeing the forest for the trees.

Just this and then I won't say any more on the subject, hopefully, because I truly do not want this to turn into a political blog. The answer to the question in my 11 October post regarding journalism and patriotism being mutually exclusive, is no, they absolutely are not, but it's unfortunate that some journalists act as if they are.

I have met and talked to a great number of journalists who want nothing more than to report the truth. They would not hesitate to report fraud, or incompetence, yet they hold the utmost respect for public servants, military and civilian, who do out of conviction and character the jobs most people shy from. I have the utmost respect for these people like Sean Naylor whose book "Not a Good Day to Die" demonstrates the ability to be respectful of an institution and ideals while being sharply critical of many individuals and their actions.

In an effort to further explain my position here, my research brought me across this posting on Jay Rosen's blog from the NYU journalism department in which he discusses New York Times reporter Alan Feuer's book "Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad". Now this book has come under a lot of criticism, even from the New York Times, for being "recollected memory, not recorded fact", and yet there is a very telling passage when he describes an argument he had with CNN's Bob Franken where Franken allegedly states:

"How can you be a patriot and a journalist? They're mutually exclusive occupations."

According to Feuer, Franken further declared that America was not his country, he was a citizen of the world and goes on to say that the New York Times would be horrified to hear that Feuer believes he can be both a patriot and a journalist.

When questioned about this quote in Feuer's book, Franken clarified, “What I said and what I meant is you can be a patriot and a journalist. My point was and is that we exhibit our patriotism by being journalists — that is, skeptics… What I said was, ‘When I’m reporting, I am a citizen of the world.’”

In Franken’s view, “Wearing an American flag while on the air leaves the impression that we are believing the U.S. government and not believing those who challenge the U.S. government, and that is a lesson we should have learned a long time ago from Vietnam — that we have to be skeptical about claims no matter who makes them.”

This is a fascinating albeit confusing read and I find it particularly telling when it's coming from NYU's journalism department that it includes the statements:

Franken seems like a good journalist of the old school — a tradition that lives according to certain dogmatic principles...(such as constantly placing oneself in opposition to the government, seeing ones role as journalist as “carrying the mantle of the downtrodden,” etc.) are held to be “non-political” beliefs.

In fact, these beliefs are laden with political implications. As frequent NRO contributor Tim Graham put it when I asked him about this story, “Readers expect a certain amount of American-ness in their reporters. They expect that since the source of these reporters’ liberties is the U.S. Constitution, then perhaps they owe the U.S. a tiny bit of loyalty.”

Jay Rosen goes on to ask some very interesting questions regarding what he describes as the journalist's dogma or religion, but my point is made above. While this certain population of journalists believe that their professions and actions are non-political, they intuitively have to know that they are acting, as though by virtue of a journalism degree and the first amendment, as if they have been appointed as some pseudo 4th branch of the government, the final check and balance.

The problem with maintaining a constant skepticism though is that it prevents an open mind. The world is viewed through the myopic sense that there is always an underlying evil plot; the sense of objectivism, the truth and fairness that people turn to journalists for, is lost.

It is possible to maintain an healthy skepticism of the government, the administration, or the military without harboring a fundamental distrust. It is possible to point out falsehoods and fallacies within the government without maintaining the belief that it is inherently evil. The Newsweeks, CNNs, and New York Times, will learn this when people begin to vote with their subscriptions and viewerships. They will learn that people are beginning to hold them accountable for their actions. They will learn that people will hold them accountable when reading their casual interviews with the same people that ambush, and behead their sons and daughters.

Freedom of speech is one of the very basic tenets that this nation is founded on, and the ability of the press operate freely and un-coerced by the government is paramount to the ideals of our constitution. Voicing a constant disdain and distrust for those who protect the source of that freedom is counter-productive at best.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Alternate Firepower Forward Site

For a few different reasons, I've arranged for all my ramblings to be posted to another site. In the event that you can't get to this site, you can go to http://www.dataprep.com/fpforward/blog.html and see the same thing. Go take a look, see what you think.

Are Journalism and Patriotism Mutually Exclusive

The PX was out of news magazines the other day so I bought a copy of Newsweek where I ran across an article titled "Unholy Allies", the gist of which (strategically dated 26 September, 9 days after the parlimentary elections in Afghanistan) is the increasing violence and effectiveness of the Taliban fighters along with their close links to Al Queda insurgents in Iraq. 


What boggles my mind about this article is that the Newsweek staff can apparently make an appointment to meet with Al Queda leadership in Afghanistan at any given moment.  They have taken to dropping the "Al" and refering to the ultra-extremist terror sponsoring organization as just "Queda".  Kind of a nick name between buddies.  But then why wouldn't these two organizations be on the best of terms?  After all, it was Newsweek that spawned the rioting in Afghanistan which killed 19 people over the stories of Koran desecration at Guantanemo Bay which were exaggerated at best.  (See "Priveliges and Responsibilities")


Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, the authors of this article, give surprising creedence to anything their Taliban contacts tell them while brushing off any explanation or response from the U.S. military.  It seems amazing to me that this article, boasting of a 300% increase in this local Taliban commander's force, and increased liaison with Al Queda (excuse me "Queda") in Iraq had never heard of this letter written by an Al Queda leader which admits defeat in Afghanistan.  But then, "Unholy Allies" goes to great lengths to imply increasing levels of violence when by all credible counts, hostile actions in Afghanistan have decreased more than 50% since the September 17th elections.  Immediately after this little bit of creative writing quotes the Taliban commander's spike in troop strength, it points out that 2005 has been the deadliest year for Americans in Afghanistan since 2001 with 51 killed.  This jump in fatalities is credited largely to "shaped charge IEDs", a technology imported from Iraq.  The reality is that 33 of these 51 fatalities were in helicopter crashes, one due to weather, the other to hostile fire but nowhere near this commanders region, and in no related to shaped charge IEDs.


I remember watching a documentary on reporters in the Vietnam war when I was in college in which a panel of journalists was given the scenario of being allowed to imbed with North Vietnamese troops and sitting in ambush of an American patrol.  The question was asked of each of them "Are you a journalist first, or an American?  Would you let the Americans die or would you try to warn them first."  I remember being sickened when most answered that they were journalists first.  Strange that they would say that as citizens of one of the very few countries that would protect them as such. 


The people that were so willingly interviewed by our friends from Newsweek in September, attacked an American patrol in October.  One of our soldiers lost both of his legs during the attack and subsequently died of his injuries.  That means he bled to death in a dark hostile land half a world from home even after all the help his friends could give him and the best medical treatment we had available.  Perhaps if Newsweek had been a little more American and a little less journalist, things might be different.


It's clear that Newsweek's intent with this article is to sow doubt and malcontent about our progress in Afghanistan.  This is precisely the intent of the Taliban's information campaign.  The only way that they can win this war is if America loses her will and the fastest way for that to happen is through irresponsible yet constitutionally protected journalism like this. 


The Schismatics in Dante's "Inferno", those who sowed discord during their lifetime, were punished throughout eternity in the 7th circle of hell by by being cleaved nearly in two allowed to heal before the process is repeated.  I would like to think that I am not a vindicative person, but someone will have to explain to me why I should not wish this punishment on the likes of Newsweek.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

Mom always told me that you shouldn't leave the house in the morning without a good breakfast.  I've usually tried to adhere to that advice and, like most advice from mothers, it has rarely steered me wrong. 

Now, with my working at the Crystal Palace on end of BAF, and still residing in Stalag 17 at the other end, I find myself face with the commuter's dilemma:  Do I take the time to eat before I leave for work and risk being late, or do I hope to find time to eat something at work?    Well, this morning I flew directly in the face of motherly advice and conventional wisdom and took off for work without eating breakfast first.  There's usually enough food lying around the Crystal Palace to feed a stray regiment so what's the worst that could happen?

As usual though, things didn't go quite to plan and one distraction led to another with the hours clicking away on an empty stomach.  Finally, there was a break in the action and determined to make good on breakfast, I sat down with some Special K and just as I started to eat, the chair started moving under me.  The room seemed to move around me and I felt unsteady even though I was sitting.  I've never had low blood sugar before, and as I tried to steady myself through the vertigo with a hand on my desk, I wracked my brain.  Had I skipped dinner last night as well?  How long HAD it been since i'd eaten?  Am I going to have to have someone drive me to the medics for an IV?

Just then, the Operations NCO stuck his head through the door. "Sir, you can't stay in the building during an earthquake, we need to move outside."

The Crystal Palace is still standing and my blood sugar's fine



Thursday, October 06, 2005

All Good Things to Those Who Wait

Just as it begins to seem that there is no end to the tedium of the passing days, we begin to get subtle and poigniant reminders that the sand continues to fall through the hour glass and time continues its relentless march.

Pam writes that the weather has changed in Colorado, and while that's significant considering that the leaves hadn't even budded when I left for this place, there was an occurence of even greater significance yesterday.

At midnight Dublin Pub Time, after 16 months, the NHL finally dropped the puck for a regular season game. 15 regular season games actually, as all 30 teams were in action for the first night of the 2005-06 hockey season. Now, since there are only about 409 hockey fans remaining, and 398 of those live in Canada, this is important to the rest of us because, in the words of Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, "Six months is nothing, it's a hockey season." In actuality, we have less than 5 months remaining here and we'll be home for the playoffs. Game On.

I hesitate to write about another occurence because I don't want my motivations for this blog to be misunderstood, but the word is out and it is significant. Black Five reported yesterday that Simon and Schuster has agreed to publish a collection from military bloggers sometime in mid to late 2006. They have graciously requested permission to publish several pieces from this blog, and if they meet the editor's intent, you may see them in print next year.

Whether or not anything from this blog is included, this proves to be a milestone event. The power that an anthology like this can have to change the perception of not only the war, but also of those who fight it is astounding. In my opinion, it couldn't come at a better time. These are perceptions that need to be changed and the viewpoints of my blog bretheren should should be disseminated in every manner possible.

I fully intend to read this book from cover to cover...while on a beach in the Virgin Islands sipping a refreshing beverage. All good things to those who wait.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The LTF 191 staff who have made a difficult job even more difficult for me to leave. Posted by Picasa

Off to the Crystal Palace

Well, I've been back on the ground now a little better than a week and it's been, well, like I never left except a little cooler.  That's not exactly true.  While the air is still filled with dust, there is an atmosphere of change. The parliamentary elections were held nearly 2 weeks ago now and the level of violence has dropped markedly While it's too early to say if this is the beginning of a long term trend, reorganization by the cave-dwellers, the beginning of their winter hiatus, or an enemy resigned to the fact that democracy has taken hold in this country and their war is lost, I can't say.


What I can say though is that things are changing for me. While I knew this was coming, I was still holding out a little hope that something would change. I have lost my battle to keep dancing with the girl that brought me to the ball, and starting next week I will leave my position as the Executive Officer of LTF 191 and will ascend that Crystal Palace at the other end of Metropolis known as the Joint Logistics Command. I know all the reasons behind the move and while they make sense in a way that things can only in the Army bureaucracy, and while I know the move will benefit me professionally down the road, it's a difficult blow not being able to finish this thing with the people that I brought here.


People have different concepts on how to build a successful military career, one of the more popular being the “Hitch Your Wagon to a Rising Star” method. This might work for some, but I've always had more success with surrounding myself with good people and giving them the support they need to do their job, then staying the hell out of their way.


If I have achieved any success in this job it is due to the staff that was assigned to me.  If I had planned my whole career for this job, I couldn’t have done any better than this talented group of people who took this task force from the planning sequence in Germany to the dusty wooden huts here in Metropolis.  Through the mind-numbing minutia of the deployment planning, the personnel certification, the shipping of equipment, the training exercises conducted in a deluge at Lampertheim, Convoy Live-Fire in the frozen waste-land of Grafenwoher, deploying, establishing operations, enduring rocket attacks, and relocating the entire operation here, they succeeded in carrying the workloads where larger staffs of far senior people have failed.


The staff truly made this job easy and any good things that may come my way are certainly due to them.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Notes on the Ride Back to the Sandbox

Sometimes I think half of my time on this earth has been spent pondering life while staring out an airplane window.  My two weeks of R&R leave have evaporated and I'm now on the first leg of the long journey back to Bagram.  The sun is setting out the opposite windows and I feel the tinge of the presence of an old companion. The shadowy figures of homesickness and depression, demons from my past who I thought I had long since banished are wafting up and down the aisle, slipping between the seats amongst the hundreds of soldiers on board, now and then finding time to touch me briefly with a heaviness of heart.


Like a certain smell that evokes memories of childhood, the touches of sadness bring to mind with crystalline clarity the waves of depression and homesickness that used to sweep over me like clockwork in the late afternoons twenty years ago as I struggled through the catharsis that is Basic Training.


I know that the sadness will not overwhelm me tonight as those onslaughts did years ago, leaving me to repress sobs while a shower before bed hid my tears; today I gratefully fear that I am much too callous for such emotions.  It serves to remind me though of the youth that surrounds me, and the obligations that I hold.  It reminds me of the pain that Pam must feel without benefit of the years of emotional conditioning.  I know it is incumbent of me to ease the suffering around me and push forward to those better days that are now just around the corner.


Just as clearly as I remember those cruel afternoons of depression, I recall the giddiness of impending success and freedom that followed as I approached graduation from Basic Training, and I know that this happiness will follow just as surely as the sand continues to fall through the hourglass.


A beautifully clear full moon has now appeared through the pink stratus clouds out my window and as I look at it, I can hear the amazement in Max's voice as we peered at it 2 nights ago through the telescope in the back yard.  Scientists have been wrong all this time.  There is a man in the moon after all.  Well, at least a boy.


It's 0430Z and we are continuing our trek across the Atlantic after a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland.  As I gaze at the fluffy white carpet of clouds spread out thousands of feet beneath us, I realize it is 9 A.M. on Sunday the 18th of September in Afghanistan.  I know that beneath those clouds, the ocean, as Melville closed Moby Dick, rolls on as it did 10,000 years before, but the polls are open in Kabul and today the world beneath me is changing.


After a 3 hour layover in Shannon, Ireland, we are called to board.  200 soldiers begin making their way out of the small terminal towards the gate.  Several of the American tourists in the terminal position themselves near the door and shake hands with soldiers or clap them on the back wishing them good luck as the exit.  I remember visiting Dublin last year and having our host go out of her way to show me some anti-Bush posters on lamp posts and billing them as a general indictment by Ireland against the war.  Today though, as I near the terminal exit, I hear the clapping start sporadically then rapidly spread throughout the terminal.  Looking over my shoulder I saw every person in the terminal on their feet applauding.  My eyes misted over as our contingent made our way out of the terminal and back towards harms way, thankful for the hospitality of the Emerald Isle.


An hour layover in Budapest followed by another 4 hour flight brings us to Kuwait City.  The plane hits the runway at midnight local time, 27 hours after I left Pam at the gate in Colorado Springs.  Another hour bus ride to Ali Al Saleem, another briefing and billeting assignments.  I get to a tent at 4:00 A.M.  Not much sense in sleep now.  Roll call at 9:00 A.M. and we are told to be prepared to leave at 1330.  Another roll call followed by another manifest and another bus ride back to Kuwait City.  Flight canceled tonight, get something to eat and get back on the bus.  Another hour back to Saleem with the air conditioner set somewhere between “Meat Locker” and “Cryogenic”.  Another billeting assignment, another 9:00 A.M. roll call. 1230 departure time and we’re back on the bus to KCIA.  This time, the air conditioner is pitifully low on Freon and struggles in vain to counteract the 120 degree outside temperature.  We are all bathed in sweat as we reach the airport.


At 6:00 P.M. we leave the terminal and the dust in the air obscures the setting sun, serving instead to cause the entire western sky to blaze a deep orange as though by some distant inferno as we walk across the ramp to the C-17.  3 ½ hours later as the engines slow, we are directed by the load master to secure our seatbelts.  The cabin is illuminated only by pale green lights.  The plane takes a decidedly nose down attitude, then banks sharply to the left, straightens, banks sharply to the right and straightens again.  Air brakes are applied and we are pulled sideways in our seats towards the front to the cabin.  I hear the hydraulics whine as flaps extend fully then the nose levels.  Only now do landing lights appear through the cabin window and we bang heavily onto the runway.  The engines reverse, we are pulled sideways in our seats again and the two 5-ton trucks in the center of the cabin strain at their tie-down chains as this mammoth airplane tries desperately to rid itself of the momentum it carried onto the ground.


R&R is over.


Monday, September 12, 2005

Nessie Lives

It's a little known fact that the Loch Ness Monster makes an annual migration from her home in Scotland to a mountain lake in Colorado.

I suppose it's a bit of a coincidence that the lake happens to be in Estes Park and the appearances always coincide with the annual Scottish-Irish Highlands Festival where increasingly inebriated clansmen spend the weekend lobbing bowling balls at her from an old trench mortar and trebuchets. Fortunately, the consumption of scotch and stout ale remains constant and the aim continues to get worse so by Sunday afternoon, Nessie has usually survived to migrate another year.

This past Thursday, Pam and I, along with Max and Mollie made the drive from Colorado Springs to Estes Park for the start of the annual gala. This 4 day festival at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park is a ritual that Pam and I always try to attend and it has never disappointed us. If you make reservations early enough you can get accommodations at the Stanley Hotel where Stephen King penned "The Shining" and the TV miniseries was filmed.

Then it's 4 days of pipe and drum bands, highland games, single malt scotch, Guinness beer, scotch eggs, haggis, deep fried mars bars, single malt scotch, Guinness beer, shooting at Nesssie, jousting, Irish dancing, single malt scotch, Guinness beer, tattoos (the military review kind), Celtic bands, shopping, rugby, single malt scotch, and Guinness beer.

Sunday morning found me in a kilt with sunburned legs and a wee bit of a hangover, but thoroughly satisfied and looking forward to the drive home since a slight detour would take us by the original Bucksnort Saloon.

So not only does Nessie live, but I can report that the Bucksnort Saloon is still standing and still serving some of the best green chili smothered burritos west of the Cherry Cricket (but that's a story for another day.

Friday, September 09, 2005

God Bless the State of Texas

Ok, this is a little difficult for me. You have to remember that I am a Colorado native, raised in the heart of the Rocky Mountains that hunters from Texas invaded like clockwork every fall with bottles of Jack Daniels and high powered rifles; a place where the elementary schools used to teach "Reading, Riting, 'Rithmetic, and Texas Sucks". Now I have to retract every evil and mean-spirited thing I've said or though about the Lone Star state.

The trip home for my 2 week R&R leave started with an early morning flight out of Bagram to Kuwait. Stepping off the C-17 in Ali Al-Saleem (sp?), the sun hadn't yet risen and it was a comfortable 75 or 80 degrees. I should have relished it while I had the chance. By the time the buses got us to the Personnel Holding Area, the sun had cleared the horizon and the temperature was rising exponentially. We were herded from building to building where the customs and safety briefers strained to make themselves heard over the air conditioners which were fighting an increasingly futile battle to keep the indoor environments habitable. By 2 P.M., I fully expected to see signs above the doors leading outside saying "Abandon hope all Ye who enter here...". The temperature was pushing 125 and if there was a breeze, it only served to make things hotter, like putting a fan in front of an open oven.

By 5:30 P.M., the 265 troops from Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan who would be making their homeward bound connections through Dallas had finished the briefings, cleared customs, and were in the "Sterile Area" waiting for the buses to Kuwait City. By 10:00 P.M., the temperature had finally started to drop, but it didn't matter as we were herded aboard a fleet of air conditioned buses and whisked across the Kuwaiti desert behind our MP escorts. A little after 1:00 A.M., the DC-10's landing gears tucked up into the belly and we rolled onto a heading which would take us to Ireland.

I drifted off for a couple of hours, and when I opened my eyes and looked out the window to the east, a pale band of white light stretched from north to south across the horizonand perfect spectrums of color rose above it into the black sky where stars still shone above us. As if on cue, the plane rolled further to the west and while not quite fast enough to outrace the light, we held the cusp of the new day on the horizon. Only when the engines slowed, and we began to descend, did the sun finally begin its ascent, illuminating the lush green fields of Ireland.

As we stretched our legs and prepared to disembark for an hour layover, I felt genuine pity for the Captain who had been given the assignment of troop commander who had to announce over the intercom that there would be no consumption of alcohol. What kind of twisted mindset takes 265 troops out of the desert where they have been sober for 6-8 months, drops them into the land of whiskey and Guiness and tells them not to drink?

6 hours later, after the third in-flight movie, I opened my window shade and saw fields of crops stretched across the American Heartland, crossed with the perpendicular farm raods and dotted with small towns. Wispy white clouds stretched across the horizon and my eyes moistened as I felt like I was 8 years old on Christmas morning.

After a descent and approach into Dallas that seemed to last for hours, the plane thumped onto American soil, and as we turned onto the taxi way, the captain came over the intercom telling us that if we looked out our windows we would see that we were being welcomed by the city of Dallas. The airport firetrucks had positioned themselves on both sides of the taxiway and streams of water arced over our plane as we passed between them.

Finally the doors opened, and we collected our belongings and made our way thourough customs. Aiport attendants asked each of us our final destinations and directed us towards our respective terminals and as I rounded the corner, to leave the terminal, I was greeted by a throng of cheering supporters. There was easily more than 100 people cheering and waving flags, reaching out to shake our hands and welcome us home. By the time I reached the terminal doors, I had bags of brownies, posters from the Dallas Mavericks Cheerleaders, bottles of cold water, and tears in my eyes.

American Airlines opened their Ambassador Lounge to us as we waited for connecting flights, allowing us to take showers, sit in the lounge, and feel like normal people again. I will neither confirm or deny that I imbibed in alcohol before I reached my final destination, but I will say that for all the well-wishers in that lounge I couldn't have bought a drink if I wanted to.

I was graciously upgraded to first-class for the short flight to Colorado Springs and the next thing I truly remember is sitting on the floor in the middle of the Colorado Springs airport holding my wife for the first time in 8 months with tears rolling down both of our faces.

Now there have been days of roller hockey with Max, celebrating his 6th birthday with a new bicycle, Brats on the backyard grill, a Sunday afternoon Rockies game at Coors field followed with a night at the Brown Palace in downtown Denver. And now, we are sitting at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park waiting for the opening of the 29th annual Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival.

As good as the last week has been, as the next 3 days promise to be, or as I hope the next week will be, I will never forget the reception that 265 weary warriors received from the wonderful state of Texas.