Saturday, July 30, 2005

Salerno Moon Posted by Picasa

5 Moons and Counting

Since our move to Metropolis I haven't been as cognizant of this as in Salerno, but we have now been in Afghanistan long enough to witness the waning and waxing of 5 full moons. Here in BAF all the nocturnal celestial bodies are fairly well neutralized by the plethora of lights. Having not had to use a flashlight for 2 full months now, It takes a conscious effort to remember how much of this country lives and dies, sometimes literally, around the phases of the moon.


Having flown almost directly from the modernization of Germany to Salerno back in February the sudden absence of illumination at night was only minimized by the fact that majority of the moon was still visible. Within a little better than a week however, the illuminated portion decreased to a sliver then quickly vanished and the dark seemed to swallow us. I had never been in a place so spartan and devoid of light that I could actually gauge how much our visibility decreased when the stars were obscured by clouds.


By the second week in March as the illuminated portion of the moon expanded to it's full circumference you could have sworn that it was bright enough to play baseball in the middle of the night. It was a mixed blessing though because along with the illumination came the heightened probability of rocket attacks. Given the options of stumbling through the dark or sitting in moonlit bunkers we much preferred a moonless night with it's breathtaking display of stars.


That said, I still keep an eye on the moon at night, praying for the safety of those in greater places of danger than here when it is full, and wishing I was someplace darker when it waning so I could witness the full majesty of the stars. All the time, though,  I welcome each little change because I know that less than 7 more of these lunar cycles will be witnessed from this place that both resembles and revolves around the moon.


Thursday, July 28, 2005

The coveted Good Dude Tab Posted by Picasa

The Coveted Patch

Well, I feel as though I have achieved the apex of my career and have been tangibly recognized for all my long hours, hard work, dedication, and devotion to duty.  In a moving ceremony rich in heritage and tradition, myself and 5 others were officially presented with the coveted “Good Dude” tab by LT Tucker Mahoney and all the Good Dudes of his Operations Section. Other “Good Dude” tab recipients included Major Short, Lieutenant Giera, SFC Ramerth, SFC Wilson, and Specialist Rashawnda Stogner.


The Good Dude Certificate


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Still Can't See This Blog

Once again folks, due to filters that are in place here at Bagram, I can still post to this blog, but I can’t see it.  If you have comments or feedback that you would like me to see, please visit the sister site at


Thanks for your continued readership and support.


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

What the Hell Was I Thinking?

It’s well known and heralded fact that the Evil Flight Planning Voo-Doo Witchdoctor has a long-running blood-feud with Short the Great.  You know this, the world at large knows this, and I, of all people, know this only too well.  Why then would I ever consider trying to get on the same airplane with him lest I become collateral damage to the Dark One’s powers.  This is how it happens.  Firepower 6 says “I need 2 people to go to K2.”  And of course Short the Great and myself are the only 2 people in the room when he says it so the assignment process becomes pretty simple.


Beginning on Sunday, Craig gamely tried to play by the Air Force rules showing up at the terminal in the early evening hours to submit our paperwork and see what the Secret Squirrel Flight Decoder System had to offer for Uzbekistan.  He returned with an itinerary of 0730 Dublin Pub Time for Monday but if I listened through the dust-laden wind I could almost hear the Evil One’s demonic laughter from Stalag 17.  Be that as it may, we were at the terminal at our appointed time only to find “K2” nowhere in the Secret Squirrel’s vocabulary.  No explanation, just “Check again this evening.”  Short the Great and myself, half of the field grade representation of the Logistics Task Force had been dismissively brushed away like annoying little gnats.  It wasn’t even worth the effort to toy with us a bit.  It didn’t bode well, but later last evening, the Secret Squirrel chattered out 3 flights for K2 scheduled for today starting with the one that required us to eat an early and hurried breakfast and walk to the terminal because the main road was closed for PT.  But, there we were promptly at “0 Dark 30”  right in time to see the first flight get canceled.


After heading back to the headquarters to get done what could be done in a couple of hours, we headed back down to the terminal and now our persistence was beginning to irritate his Unholiness; it was game time.  The second flight was canceled but Secret Squirrel showed another only two and a half hours later.  We stood fast watching bad movies, eating stale popcorn, and drinking warm bottled water.  We were stalwart and resilient, determined to overcome the adversity.  2 Hours to go and we submitted orders and ID cards. 30 minutes to go and we were herded across the flight line and shepherded aboard an aircraft that was eerily quiet but the portion of the crew that was present directed us to seats and ensured that we understood how to get off in a hurry and then we just sat.  We sat inside this metal cocoon on the flightline with the outside temperature in the mid 90s and there wasn’t a breath of air to be had because the engines weren’t running.  The engines weren’t running, because the auxiliary power unit had been started, which made sense because there were no pilots on board to start them.  In fact, the pilots weren’t even on the flight line for another 20 minutes and they timed their arrival perfectly.  As soon as the APU was started so the air conditioner could be turned on, the crew chief promptly announced that the flight had been canceled and passenger services was on their way to shepherd us back to the terminal.


What the hell was I thinking?  I am trying to travel with a person who publicly challenged the ancestral lineage of the Dark One himself.  This is a person who sat on the tarmac in Kuwait for 3 hours without air conditioning on his way back from his R&R leave.  Any Air Force person who were to let Short the Great travel without a minimum of a 3 day wait would probably be stripped of their Air Force rank and held up for ridicule among all their blue-clad brethren.  The detainees who escaped the detention facility and caused a 3 day post-wide lock-down, probably had an easier time getting off Bagram than Short the Great ever will, and yet here I am gamely trying to accompany him on the next thing smoking.


No more!  I’ve had enough.  I disassociate myself with Short the Great as a traveling partner and will complete my mission with the telephone, email, smoke signals, and carrier pigeons if I have to, but I will not board anything owned by the Air Force with him until his penance is paid and his Unholiness has granted him clemency.


Craig’s going back to talk to the Secret Squirrel in a few minutes, and like a rat deserting a sinking ship, I’ll be headed for Stalag 17.


Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Long Ride Home

A couple of weeks ago, just after my last entry, I found myself sitting in one of the canvas seats that lined the side of the C-17.  Thirteen other people sat to my left and right and thirteen others sat in the seats on the other side facing us.  Uncharacteristic of a flight headed out of a combat theater, there was no laughing or joking.  All the normal yelling and good natured taunts were replaced with a stoic silence as we gazed at the two rows of caskets between us, each meticulously covered with an American flag.  The plane leveled out, and some began to shift in their seats to get comfortable for the long ride.  One of the two Slovakian soldiers on the other side stared at the casket nearest him with an expression that was not irreverent but seemed to indicate that he couldn’t comprehend something.  Straight across from me, a young Sergeant wearing a Special Forces patch on his right sleeve sat ramrod straight gazing at the casket nearest him.  We would accompany these warriors for the next seven and a half hours, the first leg of their final journey.  We would each come to terms with it in our own way and wonder what it was that put us on this aircraft at this time.


Somewhere around Thursday, June 23rd I was assigned a mission of an administrative nature that not only promised to be tedious, distasteful, and time consuming it would carry the added benefit of being my primary mission until completed.  I waded in, and by the weekend I was so thoroughly immersed in this newly assigned duty that I barely took notice of the LTF commander’s absence as he circulated the area of operations to see our soldiers in remote locations.  I should have seen the omen.  It seems that each time LTC Langowski departs, catastrophes emerge and crises erupt.  The first time he left Salerno back in March, rockets rained down in the worst attack in over a year and while the details escape me, the tradition has faithfully continued upon each of his departures.  This time would be no different.


On Tuesday, as the commander was making his way to FOB Ripley in the south, and I was deluged with paperwork, LT Mahoney put his head in my office and asked “Sir, are you aware of the Chinook that’s down?”


What had been my primary duty seemingly evaporated.


“Precautionary landing?” I asked hoping that a prudent aviator had sensed something amiss with the aircraft and chose to land, a fairly frequent and not very serious occurrence.


“No Sir, it was shot down near Asadabad, they’re not sure how many are on board but we think there are at least 2 survivors.”


My mind was whirling with questions, ‘How do we know it was shot down?’, ‘Where exactly was it?’ ‘Can MEDEVAC land there?’ but the first one out of my mouth as we walked back into our operations center was “Do we have anyone flying today?”


LT Mahoney was answering me, but I wasn’t paying attention, the question had been unnecessary.  The screen was showing that it was an MH-47 that had been lost, a Special Ops version of the Chinook and it was logically being reported by CJSOTF, the Combined Joint Special Operation Task Force.  We wouldn’t have had anyone on this aircraft.  The initial sense of relief quickly dissipated though.  There were still troops on the ground out there possibly badly injured and still in harm’s way. 


I read through the reports.  Not much was known and I chose not to frustrate myself by staring at an immobile screen.


“Make sure that all our people are accounted for just in case,” I told LT Mahoney as I began to leave “and make sure that Mortuary Affairs is aware.”


The Mortuary Affairs detachment which has the sad and gruesome task of attending to the bodies of those lost here, recently was realigned to fall under the control of our task force.  I sincerely hoped that they would be they only unit in the task force that never had to do their job.


As the day wore on, I repeatedly made my way back into the TOC to see any updates, but little changed.  It was quickly verified that it was a Special Ops flight and that all our people were indeed accounted for, but the number of people on board ranged from 14 to 22 and the number of survivors was unknown.  It normally takes a bit of time piece all the details together from an incident like this but the information was painstakingly slow this time. 


By nightfall, what we did know was that a formation of Apaches, Blackhawks, and Chinooks were traveling up a mountain valley north of Asadabad near the Pakistan border.  As they approached their landing zone, the smaller Blackhawks slowed to allow the Chinooks to move ahead.  A Blackhawk Crew Chief looking from his side window as the ill fated Chinook moved ahead saw the smoke trail of an RPG from the trees below then the explosion as the round hit the rear of the Chinook.  Reports varied on whether the Chinook hit the trees wheels first or inverted, but it was very clear that it had then rolled to the bottom of the ravine.  There were secondary explosions and there was fire.  What we also knew by the time we went to bed that night was that there was no way to land an aircraft at the crash site, and we obviously knew that there were bad guys in the area.  The terrain was brutal and inaccessible by vehicle.  Help would have to come by foot from Asadabad.  It would be a long time coming, and the question was how to protect the crash site until that help arrived without endangering more aircraft.  These were special ops guys on the ground and they would have their own unique solutions to these problems, but all of them would take time.


What followed was waiting, no answers, and more waiting.  By morning nothing new had developed.  Predators had flown over the area all night and Apaches had over watched from the ridgelines above, but news was maddeningly scarce and hope dimmed with each passing hour.  The day crept by, and as it passed, the only thing we really became sure of was that there had been 16 people, SEALs and Task Force 160th Aviators, on board the Chinook.


By Thursday, word finally came from forces that had reached the aircraft that there were no survivors.  The LTF Commander had also returned from his trek by this time, and I informed him that it was becoming increasingly clear that the mission I had been assigned was going to require me to return to Germany for a few days.


On Friday, the Mortuary Affairs unit was unfortunately employed and I was at the air terminal trying to figure out the best way to get to Germany.  I had finally produced all the required paperwork and signed up for what I though was the most expeditious route to Germany through Kuwait, when an announcement was made that a flight directly to Ramstein with seats available had just been scheduled.  The delight over my good fortune of a flight directly to my destination was quickly tempered when I heard the PA announcement that the fallen comrade ramp ceremony was scheduled a half-hour before my flight was due to leave.  It was going to be a somber ride.


At 9:00 P.M., for the fourth time since our return to Bagram, I found myself standing on the flightline as part of a long solemn line rendering respect as Humvees carrying our fallen comrades slowly rolled towards the mammoth aircraft.  For three of these four times, it had been the CJSOTF colors that marched alongside our national colors leading these men who had made the ultimate sacrifice towards the beginning of their final journey.  Only bits and pieces of the bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace caught my ear over the wind before the rear doors of the C-17 clanged shut and the color guard made their way back into the darkness of the flightline. 


A half-hour later, I was being led across the flightline with a group of 20 or so others towards the same C-17.  As our group rounded the rear of the aircraft, enroute to the side passenger door, we saw that there were still a large contingent of CJSOTF personnel milling about.  Our Air Force escort asked us to stand fast and she disappeared into the aircraft.


From time to time CJSOTF people would disembark the aircraft alone, or in pairs, after having said their final farewells to their comrades, and walk somberly back to the group of people huddled in the dark.  Feeling like a plumber or mailman who had arrived at a house during a wake, decorum seemed to dictate that I divert my attention from the scene but it was impossible not to be drawn back to it.


Two people standing alone but very near me watched the procession, unmoving and in silence for the nearly 20 minutes I stood on that ramp.  Instinctively, I knew that it was the CJSOTF commander and his Sergeant Major and when our escort thankfully turned us around to return to the terminal for a few minutes, this instinct was confirmed when I caught a glimpse of their name tags and ranks.


Thinking back, I’m not sure why I did it or if I would do it again, but I was surprised to see my hand tugging at the commander’s sleeve.  When he turned to face me I saw the trails of tears glistening on his cheeks, and I could say only “Sir, I’m sorry for you loss.”  Words failed him but were unnecessary as he reached out and squeezed my shoulder before I started my walk back to the terminal.  What I did know at this time was that this man had completed his tour and was scheduled to hand over his command.  This couldn’t have come at a worse time for him personally, but what I didn’t know then was that the reason those aircraft had flown up that valley to start with was to search for four other SEALs who had gone missing.  Though I’m not sure why I tugged at this man’s sleeve, I knew that as I made the walk back to the terminal, I no longer felt like an intruder but rather a person who was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to express my condolences when it mattered most.


The lights illuminated in the cabin stirring me from my slumber and the crewchief announced that we would be landing at Ramstein in about 20 minutes.  After zipping up my bag and tightening my seat belt I looked across the cabin to see the soldier with the Special Forces patch still sitting ramrod straight gazing at the two rows of flag covered caskets giving every indication that he hadn’t moved for the past seven and a half hours.


When the door finally opened and I made my way to the front of the aircraft, I noticed something different about the last casket I would pass.  There was something on the flag.  Thinking that something had fallen from a rucksack on the way out the door, I reached to remove it before I saw that it was a dogtag with an inscription.  I touched it briefly then continued out the door, and standing on the ramp with the cool, early morning German rain streaming down my face I considered the inscription I had just read:


“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Then I said “Here am I!  Send me.”  Isaiah 6:8

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Cold Beers and Hot Baths

Please excuse the hiatus.  I was recently assigned some duties that took me TDY back to Germany for a few days.  The hot bath, cold beer, and cool rain were a welcome respite from the heat and dust of Metropolis but unfortunately, the Evil Air Force Flight Planning Voo-Doo Witch Doctor was all too willing to get me a timely return flight from Der Fatherland to this dust bowl I’ve come to call home.  There is quite a bit to write about but I still have some work to finish up first.  The Army is funny that way.  Thanks for your patience, and check back soon.