Friday, October 29, 2010

Combat lawyer in the attack

My friend Ian Brasure and I. Ian was going to Arizona State law school when I was stationed in Phoenix from 1993-1996. Now fast forward only 15 years or so, and he is one of the top military lawyers under Gen Petraeus, and I am... well, here too.

It is a big world, but a small Corps.

Final note: I was feeling every day of my 43 years as I went up this thing, but Ian damn near ran up it, God bless him. I think he was the first of our group of seven to get to the top.

Climbing the Gar

400 meters up. A great way to spend a morning with friends.

Will write more later, but wanted to let y'all know that I was back from my schoolin'.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Off the net for a couple of days

Sorry for not posting more lately. Have been very, very busy. Not a very good excuse, but the best I can offer.

Will be going to a five-day course on counterinsurgency here in Kabul, and will be staying out at that location. The silver lining is that I should be a bit isolated from e-mail, the internet, etc., and may be able to get some writing done. Will also be sure to take some more pics.

Oh yeah; submitted my request to extend to 01 July. The insurgents are really shaking in their boots now, I am sure.

Thanks for your patience...

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Past and the Future

From the Governor's compound today, portraits of President Karzai and Ahmad Shah Massoud, revered Northern Alliance leader assassinated two days before Sept 11, 2001. Saw an amazing National Geographic documentary about Massoud a week or so ago, filmed only a couple of months before his assassination. I highly recommend it.

"Ever taken a defensive driving course?"

And not the kind you get for a speeding ticket, but the kind where you learn to evade blocked and unblocked ambushes?

When I got that question a few days ago, I realized that today was going to be interesting. I and another Marine from the office were going to make a run with the General in charge of our section at the Embassy out to visit the Governor of Parwan, accompanying Ambassador Eikenberry and the Ambassador from the Republic of Korea. Initially, the other Marine and I were going to be driving the General in one of our own SUVs, but that changed at the last minute, and we went as riders, both to get a chance to get out of the "Ka-bubble" and see some of what is outside the Embassy compound, as well as to provide a little more firepower if necessary.

So off we went this morning, and had a great trip, start to finish. No shots were fired, although based on the lunch served by our hosts, some chicken, lamb, and cows were harmed in the making of this event. Following the meeting between the Ambassadors and Governor, and the Q&A with the press, we were all invited to a fantastic lunch of rice, kebabs served on three foot long metal skewers, some kind of spicy chicken soup, and locally baked flatbread. Truly, a superb meal. Once done, the Ambassador made a decision to take a walkabout down in a local market area blocks away from the Governor's compound, so off we went, surrounded by heavy security of Afghan police, Afghan army, some US military, the Korean protective security det (PSD) covering the Korean ambassador, and me with my 9mm in my pocket. When the security level appears to be acceptable, we are trying to reflect that level by modifying our own personal protective posture. In the compound for the brief, the Embassy personnel (including myself) grounded our flaks and long guns to send a message that they were, in fact, unnecessary (of course, "unnecessary" because of the protective bubble provided by some other folks WITH flaks and long guns). We probably spent only 20 or 30 minutes out in the 'ville, but it was a real eye-opener to me. It wasn't "normal" to anyone from the outside looking in, but to a guy who had been in Ramadi in 2005... this was a lot better than I had expected. Five years ago back with Team Drifter, we would never - ever - have even considered walking around downtown on a shopping trip, but it is in fact BETTER here than it had been there. I picked up on nothing weird in the "atmospherics" amongst the locals.

There is some serious fighting going on out in the Regional Commands (RCs), especially RC-South and South West, where the Marine Corps has established "Marine-istan" based around Camp Leatherneck, but the parts of Kabul we visited today are better than expected. In my opinion.

Once complete, we mounted up, and rolled out to a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) location for the Ambassador and General to get a tour of the progress being made there. There is a lot of really good work going on out there.

The drive back was uneventful and we returned just at dusk. I had a screaming headache by then, some from wearing that flak jacket and being crammed into the back of an armored SUV all day, but a lot from scanning out the window for any threats and just having sensory visual overload. The people, the poverty, the terrible roads, the heavy traffic observing absolutely NO LAWS, the mix of donkey carts and armored SUVs, the sheer level of activity, spanning medieval to modern. I will try to write more about this later, but it was a LOT to take in.

Enjoy the pics. More to follow.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Witness to a Fallen Hero

No pics of this one.

Was asked yesterday morning if I would be free to fly out to Bagram with other Embassy staff to attend what is called a Fallen Hero ceremony.

It is unfortunately exactly what you think it is: the beginning of the final trip home for a fallen American serviceman or woman, some father, son, wife, or sister escorted with incredible solemnity onto a military aircraft.

I and an Air Force officer from our shop showed up early at the landing zone, a soccer field which serves double duty as a helicopter LZ. While he started checking people off as they arrived for the lift, I jogged out on to the field to tell the two young male soccer coaches that they needed to clear the field. I was wearing my flak and helmet out of habit, even though we weren't required to do so. I can't remember the last time I flew on a helo without a flak and helmet. The two coaches didn't want to stop their team's practice (a girls team, which I thought was interesting), but when I pointed past them into the sky at the helicopters coming on, they shooed them off into the stands.

About 20 of us, half civilians dressed in black, men and women, half military, stood on the perimeter of the field as two old Soviet MI-8 helicopters - now civilian owned and contracted - swooped in, hover, and lightly touched down. I led one stick of 10 civilians out to the far helo, minding the tail boom, and within minutes, we were aloft, climbing out over the city.

Kabul could be a beautiful city, surrounded by high mountains, deep blue skies, the afternoon sunlight beginning to drop to the west. We lifted higher, skirting the rims of the beautiful and unbelievably rugged mountains. As usual, I was having trouble staying awake. For some reason, helicopters always put me to sleep. Loud, warm, rocking slightly. I kept nodding off to awake to to view of nothing but the hindu kush. Within 30 minutes, we were flaring to touch down at Bagram.

The two MI-8s set down just to the right of a line of three C-130s from the West Virginia National Guard. Near the hangars, a loose formation was beginning to form. Army soldiers and Navy sailors, Air Force airmen and Marines, the Embassy personnel who had flown in with us, all stood silently, waiting to see how this would go down. There was no laughing, no carrying on. We all knew why we were there.

Two lines of soldiers who had been briefed took their posts to either side of the cargo door of the middle C-130, about twenty soldiers per side. The soldiers making the bulk of the personnel fell into a formation to in front of the hanger. Taking their cue, we lined up to their left, on line, military and Embassy personnel, and came to attention. Four military working dogs and their handlers took the left most position, the dogs laying down quietly on the tarmac until their handlers signaled for them to sit at attentions as well.

A tan HUMMV, unarmored, open-backed with eight soldiers sitting in the back pulled slowly up from the right. It was the cleanest HUMMV I have ever seen. It's tires were washed clean as a car on a showroom floor, the soldiers at attention in the bed. Between their two ranks lay a silver container beneath an American flag.

The HUMMV stopped. The soldiers dismounted the vehicle as a precision drill movement, two out, pause, two out, pause, until they were all down. As the began to reverently remove the casket, the commander of the formation called "Present arms". The small band present began playing; I can't honestly recall what the song was, "America the Beautiful" perhaps. I was too focused on the care and solemnity of the rest of what was going on. Once the casket was out, the eight pall bearers began their slow walk to the rear of the aircraft. As the casket moved past the color guard, the unit colors dipped in respect while the American flag remained high, bearing witness to her fallen son. The airfield, noisy only minutes before, had become suddenly quiet. Even a pair of F-15 Strike Eagles that had come in for a landing during the ceremony seemed strangely silent as they touched down.

Once the casket was aboard, the chaplain, General Hood from the Embassy, the senior civilian representative, and members of the fallen soldier's unit crowded into the back of the aircraft as well. A small service was begun right there in the cargo bay, led by the chaplain.

The formation we were a part of was given the order to dismiss. While not in formation, we quietly awaited the completion of the service going on in the aircraft. Once complete, the General and senior rep from the Embassy joined us as we moved to the MI-8s and climbed aboard. As the rotors began to turn, I sat, strapped in to the seat, quietly watching the C-130 sitting alone, now attended only by the flight crew. The other helo taxied out onto the runway, and we fell in behind, slowly bouncing along as we rolled out, and suddenly lifted gently into the air. 30 minutes later, retracing our route back into Kabul, and we were down on the soccer field again. Mission complete.

God bless the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines out across this blighted land tonight. And God bless those kids we put into aluminum containers, gently load into a cargo aircraft, and send back home to their families and their nation.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Home Sweet Home

I kid you not. And yes, those are flowers.

Thank you, State Department!

Burkas burkas everywhere

Taken on the drive back. Friday is the big day off here - Saturday and Sunday not so much - and we hit BIG crowds of people out shopping coming back. I drove "dash two" coming back, so my boss took this shot.

For the Drifters and other OIF alumni, lots of people, lots of mopeds, lots of squirley dudes in dish-dashas with cell phones, and everyone driving like it was Mad Max.

Logically, I knew that all was OK, and there were no atmospherics about anything bad, but DAMN was it stressful. In Iraq, we would have rolled up half the MAMs we drove past.

I was glad to get off the street.

P.S. Uncle Barry: this pic reminded me of that flyer you made a few years back.

From inside...

A beautiful view, wrap around windows... Maybe the Queen used to look out at the mountains from here.

Now, there are sandbagged emplacements to either side, and a small city of foreign troops in the foothills.

A silent testament to better times...

Big brother again

The big f-ing balloon set against the damaged steel and stone of the Queen's Palace.

Big brother

There are a couple of "aerostats" positioned in Kabul, providing God knows what kinds of visual and electronic surveillance.

I was calling them "balloons", but the Air Force officers on the team corrected me. Turns out they're "aerostats". Interesting.

I still call them "balloons", though, mainly to get under their skin. We are on the same team, but Marines have a reputation for belligerence to uphold, and I am only doing my part.

The Queen's Palace

One upon a time, Afghanistan had a King and a Queen, and they each had their own beautiful palaces, facing each other from opposite hills on the outskirts of Kabul.

And then came war, and the Soviet Army, and then roving bands of criminals and murderers and then the Taliban, and then, nine years ago, the US followed by ISAF.

This place has taken a beating for 30+ years, but on the edges, you can still see signs of what Afghanistan used to be.

Like this once beautiful, and now bullet-scarred, looted, shell of a royal palace. Truly a crying shame.


This picture is included just to give you a visual of the smog hanging over the city. You don't really see it while you're in it, but a little bit of altitude, and you can see just how jacked up things are at ground level.

There's an analogy about life in general somewhere in there...

That ole '62

Hard to tell at that range, but I think this is an old abandoned Soviet T-62, but the body looks weird, like some kind of APC.

The Marines from Two-Niner Palms would feel right at home.

Unhappy trivia fact

According to a retired Army colonel who is part of our team, it was down this road that the two Navy sailors who got lost, captured, and killed a few months back travelled out of Kabul. It looks surprisingly like 29 Palms, CA, and it sounds like they took a wrong road, not looping back into the city, but out into the hinterlands. It is not a place to travel alone. Ever

There but for the grace of God...

Soviet Officer's Club

This past Friday, we made a run out to a military training base on the outskirts of Kabul in order to recon the route (only one member of our team had been out there before), as well as to get oriented to the base itself. Several of us will have a chance to attend some classes there in the near future. It turns out that this used to be a Soviet military base back in the day; one the outskirts of the town, butted up against the mountains, along an major road, it was a natural and defensible location. The picture above is the abandoned Soviet officer's club, a la 1970s. A beautiful location, but they could have done a better job on the design, that is for sure.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Your humble correspondent

From a trip yesterday to a different part of the city, standing on the roof of an old Soviet Army officer's club. Kabul is in the background. Will share more pics of this trip tomorrow...

The 'ville

Heading back to the Embassy after the school visit. Yes, that is raw meat hanging open air on the street. Sorry if the photo is a little blurry; we move a a pretty decent clip when outside the "Ring of Steel".
Girls, four to a desk. Kids are kids; they seemed happy to have what they had, and I sensed nothing but curiosity and good will from them. The man with his back to the camera is the principal. New desks are pending delivery and the fresh paint inside and outside the school are all courtesy of the American taxpayer.

Old guard, new guard

Maj Bron Roeder and I at the school he and the Military Liaison shop at the Embassy have been helping with. Getting there was via armored SUVs in full gear (flak, helmet, ammo, etc.), but once there, we grounded our equipment in the vehicles, locked them up, and proceeded to tour the school with an interpreter and the principal. Kids everywhere, girls and boys, all ages. I didn't pick up on any weird atmospherics at all. We also delivered some school supplies that had come in from friends and family in the States; all was received with much thanks from the students and teachers.

Friday, October 1, 2010

No pics in Kuwait, but this was where I spent my time in Bagram, waiting for a C-130 lift. The top container on the right is a pre-fab living unit, referred to as a "can". Inside, had a bed, a wardrobe, lights, A/C, desk, even a window cut in the side. Pretty good living, to be honest. Bagram was a tremendously busy, overpopulated base with all services, all very bizarre. Every different service, coming and going, heavy traffic along the main circular road, some in workout clothes walking around, some not, some saluting, some not, Third Country Nationals (TCNs, i.e. Pakis, Serbs, etc.) all over the place, etc., etc., etc...

I was happy to be away from the place. It stressed me out.

While I was only there for a couple of days, and by no means even saw a fraction of the base, my sense was that it was 95% admin/logistics, 5% warfighter. To the Marines out there, it felt a lot like TQ, but busier and more chaotic. Not demeaning admin/log folks at all, but my experience has always been very heavy on the warfighters, with the admin/log guys there to support that element.

A 30 min C-130 flight at 2100 solved that problem, and I landed at Kabul Airfield before I even had time to fall asleep. The Marine I am relieving - Maj Bron Roeder - was there to meet me at the terminal, helped load up the gear into the armored Toyota LandCruiser, and within 30 minutes, I was sitting in my hootch on the Embassy grounds, wondering what the hell had just happened.

Brush with greatness

I have a lot more substantial stuff to write about, but this one is too good, and I'll forget it in a few days.

I was leaving my hootch this morning around 0715, with full gear on (flak, rifle, pistol, etc.). I step out of my door and turn around to pull and verify it is closed, and 30 feet away headed in my direction are about eight people our for a early morning run. I've seen small groups of two or three running, but none this large; it's just too unwieldy in a tight area such as we live in.

"Well, who the #$*& is this?" I thought, remaining in place to avoid getting trampled.

When they got to the 10 feet away mark, I realized it was General Petraeus and his entourage, probably including a couple of guys less than pleased to see me standing there with a pistol and a long gun.

I managed to get out a "Good morning, sir" just as he came abreast of me, but failed to render a salute due to the speed of the event.

"Good morning," he returned as he jogged past, turned to the left, and was gone.

I have heard absolutely nothing but good things about this man. Nice to start the day off with a brush with greatness.