We began to encounter major dust storms when our DFS Middle East Boeing 737 out of Dubai was still a few hundred miles distant from Bagram Air Base (BAF). As is customary with both military and civilian aircraft entering Bagram air space, the pilot began to fly an irregular approach pattern with deep banks and turns, rapidly losing altitude before smacking down firmly on the strip. It's designed to thwart potential enemy ground fire. The tactic usually works, but is not fail-safe. Some aircraft have been shot down landing or taking off.
The return to Afghanistan had a surrealistic feel to it that struck both of us at about the same time that we walked into the small, cramped terminal building. Did we ever leave? It is an odd feeling that persists into our second day. We seamlessly fell into the typical Afghanistan routine: hike to shower and latrine facilities, living out of a rucksack, standing in the chow line at the Dining Facility (DFAC), and conversing with Soldiers at odd times.
It seems that life here is reality and the months spent in Florida, North Carolina, New Zealand, and the Midwest are almost dream-like. I remember a similar feeling when I returned from R&R to Vietnam. Maybe it's all part of the psyche of a war zone.
Everyone looks familiar, though we astoundingly ran into one of our pals from the last embed, a civilian contractor, Jim, who was our friend at FOB Lightning. As we were checking in at the Dubai ticket line, there stood Jim. A large man, a few years younger than me, Jim had been something of a fixture in the Gardez area, driving his small Ford truck wherever he pleased and chatting up local Pashtun tribesmen. When the Kochi nomads returned to the high plain valley, Jim would toss a few blankets, some snacks, and other trinkets he'd accumulated over the months and drive out to visit with them, distributing the loot to the children.
He wore a real Santa Claus beard when we last saw him, but confessed that his wife found it "too scraggly looking" so he shaved. Now he has about two inches of gray showing all around. "Give me a month," he grinned, "and most of it will be back."
Hope we cross paths again on this embed, but we think he's headed to a different area, probably a hot one. That seems to be his nature.
As part of our Welcome Wagon program we got hit with mortars last night, precisely at 2300 hours (I woke up and checked my watch). We had crashed early, due to jet lag and the heat, and it felt like oh-dark-thirty when we woke to the familiar crunching sound of incoming rounds. Since our last visit the base was hit from the ground on 19 May so the Hesco barriers have been replaced by huge concrete "T-walls" almost 20 feet tall that now constitute the perimeter. As with most defensive measures, this is a good news-bad news affair. Makes penetration more difficult, but limits visibility and fields of fire. I would have been most uncomfortable with a similar arrangement in Vietnam, but that may be the old Infantryman's preference for visibility and line of sight out to probable approach lanes by the enemy rather than hunkering down behind a barrier.
We were picked up at the terminal by our good friend, SGT Stan Douglas, who shepherded us around Germany last December and mother-henned us here in BAF last spring. Great to see him, though like just about everyone he has a cough and feels run down. I think it's the ubiquitous dust. Driving back along Route Disney (named for a fallen Soldier, not the animator) my sinuses, already acting up, flared angrily. Last visit we were assured somewhat tongue-in-cheek by a medic not to worry. "The dust is only about 17% fecal matter," he deadpanned. Ugh. Welcome back.
The roar of high-performance fighter aircraft taking off around the clock seems familiar rather than odd. Part of the natural background, although an especially loud flight of four F-16 right over our B-hut at about 0415 this morning served as a wake-up call. Being jet-lagged, we went ahead and got up, went through a quick morning routine, and hopped into the chow line at the 0530 DFAC opening. Coffee as bad as usual, and still - this puzzled me on the last embed - only skim milk available. Can't figure it out, because the DFACs in Iraq served a range from whole, 2%, and skim. Just makes the coffee an off-putting, dishwater color.
There are two flights weekly down country so we will weekend here and if we can get on the manifest, fly out early in the week. BAF is always more pleasant in our rear-view mirror, so we look forward to the departure.
The book "Warrior Police" by Gordon Cucullu and Avery Johnson will be published by St. Martin's Press in 2011. This blog contains background notes, informal interviews, and photographs gathered during the Afghanistan research phase of the project... click here for a little more background on this blog, and enjoy!
- ▼ October (7)