Wednesday, October 26, 2005
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
Sunday, October 23, 2005
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
No sooner than I praise the efforts of those providing relief to
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
Monday, October 17, 2005
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
Now it's been 9 days since the earthquake struck, and most of you have already seen
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
Thursday, October 06, 2005
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
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