As per routine, we were awakened at Bagram at 0230 Thursday, 21 October morning by a quiet tap on the door. "Bring your gear to the TOC," SGT Smith said.
Yesterday we made the conscious decision to leave Bagram even though both of us still felt weak and washed out from bouts of the Afghanistan crud. We were frustrated that we'd already lost several days of this embed laying up at BAF, the air was not improving, and we knew that if we missed this bird, the next one would be on Monday. Time to ruck up and go.
The easiest way to carry the IOTV (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) body armor is simply to don it and go. We've tried carrying it draped over an arm and that works, too, but with two rucksacks apiece, wearing it is the preferred option. So, banging into plywood doorways, and crunching over the gravel, we hiked the short distance to the tactical operations center of the 95th MP Battalion's liaison office and dumped our loads unceremoniously on the boardwalk in front of the B-hut near the waiting white Ford SUVs.
One, the one parked closest to the building, had a black spray paint splatter all over the rear door and side. "Ask Sergeant Fabian how that happened," SGT Douglas said with a grin when we queried him about the mess.
We later learned the story. Sergeant First Class Raphel Fabian, a fully-squared away Dominican personnel specialist, and a great friend (he had been with the 95th in Iraq when I first met him) had been selected to attend warrant officer school, a wonderful promotion for him. He had been at Bagram making preparations to paint the last four of his social on all clothing and decided, in a rare mental lapse, that using paint rather than spraying over a stencil would be the preferred method.
Growing impatient to get at the paint, Fabian then punctured the can! The explosive results were a splotch of paint on the SUV door and a BIG splotch of paint on the sergeant. The already dirty BAF air was rendered a deeper shade of blue by the mixed island Spanish and English cursing that resulted from the mishap.
This morning, though, we were a bit worried about space on the aircraft. Soldiers returning to Gardez crowded the boardwalk. Many were 615th MP Company Soldiers returning from R&R leave or appointments at BAF. Others were from the 95th and the Vermont Army National Guard Infantry battalion that also based out of Gardez.
SGT Smith, the up-all-night NCO began to shuttle us to the passenger terminal. We tossed our gear aboard and made the second run. At the PAX terminal we encountered the normal congestion and confusion that typifies combat-zone military flight ops. Announcements were made for flights to Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kabul, Manas, and a handful of other locations.
We crowded together in a rough line to get to the counter, stacking rucksacks and IOTV along the jammed walls. For the Soldiers and contractors getting on to such flights are routine: they show a special CAC card, coded with a magnetic strip, and they are processed. For us with ISAF media badges, it is always a drama with the Air Force sergeant booking flights as to our eligibility to fly. As usual, we presented a set of ISAF orders outlining our in-theater privileges (one paragraph specifically permits us to use military aircraft), and were rewarded by being booked on the Dash flight to Gardez.
We then weighed our check-in bags on a scale, then mounted the scale ourselves with our individual gear. Those numbers recorded, we turned in our badges and were told to go to waiting area 1 and await a call. By now it was creeping up on 0400 and the flight was not scheduled to depart till 0730 at the earliest. We found seats, stepping over Soldiers sprawled on gear on the floor trying to catch some sleep. Others pulled out books and began to read; a few watched the television in the main waiting room.
After a while we were instructed to bring our check-in gear to the ramp to palletize it. This was a good sign. More waiting, during which we crossed the street to get coffee at the 24/7 USO facility, to use the bathroom (the small one in the terminal was closed for repairs), or simply to smoke or get some air. In the east the glimmer of false dawn was slowly changing the night into day.
Soldiers came and went as various flights landed or took off. Occasionally the roar of fighter aircraft - usually pairs of F-16s or F-15s - split the night. Though most of the Soldiers are blase to it, I always got a thrill watching the glow of the afterburners as they lifted off the runway into the black Afghanistan night.
After what seemed an interminable wait our Dash flight - a special short takeoff and landing bird - was called. We gathered around the exit to collect our ID cards as the Air Force sergeant called our names. Then with a final word, "All weapons unloaded, no hats on the flightline, follow me," we filed out for our aircraft.
The Dash aircraft are manned by a three-person civilian contractor crew. They seat approximately 50 with double seats on both sides of the aisle. "Sit anywhere you like," we were told. Though it was not crowded Avery and I sat beside each other to talk on the way. We fumbled to get the seat belts extended sufficiently to go over the bulky IOTV and settled in for a short flight.
Afghanistan from the air is probably the most dramatic, especially in the dawn or dusk. We noted that unlike our spring embed, this time the snow was absent from even the highest peaks. It is always a marvel that anyone can survive in the stark, harsh terrain, especially deep in the mountains, yet even in some of the most forbidding terrain, you can occasionally see an isolated kulot (a mud-walled compound) stuck in some of the oddest places.
Landing in Gardez is always a thrill. Pilots, cognizant of the possibility of ground fire, jinx a bit, losing altitude quickly and performing erratic banks and turns on approach, followed by a bumpy landing on the short macadam strip.
At 7,500 feet the area is cool, crisp and clear in the morning. Compared to the ubiquitous dust of BAF even the thin air felt good to breathe. Piling off the flight we were immediately met by our 95th MP Battalion friends from Gardez. SGT "Ski" (Nicholas Olsiewski) embraced us as we debarked, his grin as large as his wide shoulders. "You're riding in my truck," he pointed. "Throw your gear in the trailer." Ski and others grabbed our rucks and tossed them into the trailer. It was good to be home.
"You haven't seen Justice yet, have you?" Ski asked over the internal commo set as we rolled quickly away from the airstrip and out on to the familiar Route Idaho, the main road passing through Gardez. "You'll like it."
As we passed the old British fortress that had housed Provincial Headquarters, across the street from the too-long firefight of 21 December 2009, Ski noted. "PHQ's been moved out by us, now. You'll see."
We exited the main road a couple of miles west of the traffic circle marking Gardez center and bumped along a rutted dirt entryway passing through several army and police checkpoints till we backed into tactical parking places on a gravel lot. "We've got your stuff," Ski said. "Just go through there."
Inside the small Forward Operating Base called "Justice" was a cozy, newly-constructed compound that housed the 95th MP Battalion and supporting civilian and military units. We were greeted by "you're back!" almost continually, as we paraded by familiar faces. The dinining facility is self-contained - the 95th brought a cook, SGT MacNamara - from the rear in Germany to run it - and very user-friendly.
We had coffee and breakfast, and were told that we would be in B-hut number 5, room 11. "We hear that you guys are married now, so you can share a room!" was the cheerful instruction.
The room is small with a double-deck bunk against the far wall, a standing metal locker and nothing else. The building is new and the place is kept clean though like most other places in Afghanistan the dust settles when you turn your head away for a moment. After a night with Avery in the top bunk uncomfortable, we decide to place one set of box springs (inexplicably delivered en masse to Coalition forces instead of mattresses) on the floor and trade off for a couple of days until I end up with the floor model.
We need a few days to get strength back and relax before hitting the road. Both of us are still shaky from the crud. This seems like just the right environment, so we conduct some interviews and hang out till we feel better.
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)