Thursday, July 31, 2014

July 17, 2014 -- Under Attack!

I know many of you have already seen the posts on my Facebook page, but for those that haven't or don't have Facebook, I was asked to share.

On July 17, 2014, I was awakened at about 0420 to a large explosion. That was not (that) unusual. What followed was a lot of small arms fire. That was different. I quickly threw on my gear over my pajamas and headed around the corner to the BDOC (Base Defense Operations Center), as I always do for attacks. It's there that we control the base response.

That day, the insurgents must have been saving up. They had taken up a position in a high-rise complex across the street from the Afghan Air Force Base our compound is on and began their attack. Over the next five hours, they set off a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED, or car bomb) and launched over 17 RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) in the first 20 minutes, as well as machine gun fire.  Below is a picture of the building they were shooting from.

Within two minutes, we had reinforced the towers and pushed out two Quick Reaction Force vehicles. We were in the fight.  We put down over 3000 rounds of fire (note the pock marks in the picture above), which kept the insurgents ducking. Two of my guys dismounted their vehicle and took up a position only 100 yards away, exchanging fire. One of them took down two of the insurgents.  One of the guys in the towers took down another two.  

At one point we saw what looked to be a resupply point on the mountain to the rear, so we laid down some fire on that point as well, disrupting that.  Capt Phillips, my head cop, told me that with that resupply point, they were going to keep it up until we got some better firepower on them, so we called in for air and ground support.  Finally, after about two hours, an Afghan team arrived and cleared out all the high-rise buildings, eliminating all the remaining insurgents.  While the Afghan team ultimately ended the attack, if it had not been for my team of Defenders, it certainly would have been much worse. We likely would have suffered casualties and many more facilities damaged.  They weren't out of RPGs and ammo when they were finally killed.  We also kept them ducking so they couldn't fire effectively.

Our historian tells us this was the longest Air Force firefight since Vietnam.  And my guys were nothing short of heroic and phenomenal. Our Public Affairs did a nice job putting together some pictures with quotes from the guys.  What I like about it is that it shows how heroic they were while also clearly portraying them as real people that have to screw up their courage in the face of danger.  I haven't nearly captured all of what happened that day here, but let me just tell you that this was extremely intense for every one of us, and each of us has our stories.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Day in the Life of the Mayor

My days are frequently busy, and something unexpected almost always comes up.  But the other day was one of the biggest adventures I’ve had since I’ve been in Afghanistan when it should have been relatively straightforward.  All I needed to do was meet a truck that was bringing some gym equipment.  I should have remembered that nothing is easy in Afghanistan.  Nothing.


A couple of months ago, I won a bid for some excess gym equipment from a base that was shutting down.  The plan was simple:  The equipment gets shipped down to us in a shipping container loaded on a truck, we unload it, sign for it, done deal.  Well, okay, I knew it would be a little more involved with that because I would need a crane to offload the container.  Since we don’t have a crane on base, I’d have to rent one.  That wouldn’t be that big of a deal because I already needed a crane to move some other stuff around, like a few T-walls, a mobile armory, and the coffee shop (yes, the coffee shop.  But that’s another story…).  I would just rent it for the day and get all my requirements knocked out at once.  My to-do list would look pretty awesome with all those things checked off!


I had it all set up.  My facilities contractor was bringing the crane in that morning and would start taking care of my other moves while I was picking up the container truck.  Both trucks had to go through the scanners at NKAIA (the main base) to make sure they were “clean”.  My Captain and I left early enough to stop and get coffee before we had to meet the truck at 0900.  That was fun, sitting outside, practicing for retirement for a few minutes before we had to do real work!


We left in time to get over to the gate.  Since we had never picked up a truck going through the scanner before, we weren’t sure how the process worked.  We asked a few questions of the Jordanian guards.  They could see on the camera that our truck wasn’t there yet, but they pointed us down a path leading to another guard shack.  From there we could see the scanner, so we could just wait.  We waited a long time.  I called the trucking company several times, and they kept claiming the truck was at the gate.  We didn’t see it, so we kept trekking back to the original gate shack to look at the camera.  No dice.  Meanwhile, the Jordanian guards were very friendly.  They offered us Cokes and cigarettes, and they tried to help us, but they didn’t speak very good English.  We kept calling the company.  The story changed that the truck was right outside the gate but the ANP (Afghan National Police) wouldn’t let them come on base, and we needed to walk out there and talk to the ANP before they would let them come on.  That seemed odd since there were no ANP right outside the gate, and we certainly weren’t going to walk off base!  We asked them if they were sure the truck was at the right gate, and they assured us they were.  Then the story changed that they were a kilometer away at an ANP checkpoint and were having trouble getting through traffic.  They also threw in that I was supposed to pick up two trucks.  I assured them that, no, I was only meeting one truck.  Finally, we stumbled into an interpreter who offered to help because we were pretty sure something was getting lost in the translation.  Magically, the truck finally appeared; we could see him on the camera.  Finally!  We’d get this thing over with, and I could get on with my day!


The Jordanian guards sent us from the gate shack we had been waiting at, past the scanner, and down to the next gate shack – the initial entry point to the base, the first line of defense.  They told us that the truck didn’t have a license plate and so they couldn’t positively identify that it was our truck, and asked if we were sure it was our truck.  We were pretty sure since the interpreter had just been talking to the driver, but we couldn’t say with 100% certainty.  The guard asked us if we wanted to go out there to check with the driver.  My conscience, Capt Phillips, my head force protection guy, said “I’m not going out there.”  I was stuck.  I was pretty sure that was my truck, but I couldn’t verify it – and I had the crane waiting on me that day.  It’s not like I could reschedule. 


NOTE:  At this point, my mother should stop reading and skip down to the next NOTE in bold face!  Do NOT keep reading!


Finally, Capt Phillips said he would go get his armor on and go out there.  I said that I would go with him.  So we traipsed all the way back to our vehicle (probably a quarter-mile away), got our body armor and helmet and came back.  The Jordanian guard told us that the sniper in the tower would have us covered if anything happened.  As we started walking out there, Capt Phillips said, “You see where those Hesco barriers end and that the truck is past it?  That means there’s nothing between us and Afghanistan.”  Then the Jordanian guard told us to rack a round in the chamber of our M4.  In that instant, all of the training from Air Advisor came rushing back.  We agreed that Capt Phillips would ask the driver for documentation, and I would provide cover.  I watched the driver.  I looked for people hanging around outside the gate that didn’t look to be well employed.  I looked for drivers wanting to take a target of opportunity.  Fortunately, all was well.  The driver just had his license plate covered, and his identification matched what we had been given, so we escorted him up to the designated location so the guards could examine them as well.


NOTE:  Mom, you may continue reading from here.


The truck came through the gate, made it through the scanner okay, and after another very long wait, we were finally on our way to Oqab.  Whew!  When we got to the FOB, I called Jason, my head facilities guy, to find out where the crane was, and he told me there had been a small problem – that the crane wasn’t allowed through the gate because it was too big, so it was just sent away (rather than sent to another gate).  Ugh!  Now what was I supposed to do?  I needed a crane!  Otherwise I couldn’t offload that gym equipment!


Never fear!  Necessity is the mother of invention.  Some of my guys decided that they would use a couple of forklifts working together to offload the container.  Well, we started down that road, but the forks wouldn’t fit exactly into the holes in the container, so we needed four forklifts working together.  It eventually looked like a preview to a YouTube video that started with, “Hey, Bubba, hold my beer and watch this!”  (I bet you saw that coming, didn’t you?) 


In a moment of desperation, I asked my interpreter if it would be possible to borrow the Afghan CE Squadron’s crane, figuring it would be out of fuel as it always is, but it was my lucky day!  In less than a half-hour, we had them over there, preparing to offload that container.  They’re lacking on training, though, so we watched apprehensively as the container moved all over the place while being offloaded.  Getting it back on the truck would certainly be interesting.


We asked the driver for the keys to the locks on the container, and he said he didn’t have them.  That was convenient!  So we got the “master key” and cut the locks off.  We opened it up and found six treadmills and two bikes.  For some reason, I thought there was supposed to be more, but I couldn’t remember, and at this point, I really didn’t care since it had taken so long to get this far.  We got the forklift and a pallet and ferried the equipment over to the gym where it would be stored.  Thanks to my cops for providing some manpower, because that equipment was heavy!


Finally, we got all the equipment moved to the gym and the container put back on the truck (it went considerably well considering the operator’s lack of proficiency), and escorted the crane and container truck off the FOB.  I went back to my office to see what e-mail damage had been done in the seven hours since I started this adventure and immediately saw an e-mail from the trucking company that drew my attention.  I opened it up, and to my horror saw proof that, despite what I had been told all along, indeed I was supposed to meet two trucks.  Awesome.  You just can’t make this stuff up…Guess, I’d get the opportunity to repeat this adventure another day!  Yeehaw!

When I Grow Up, I a Wanna Be a...

(Note: This blog post has now been sitting for a couple of weeks because I was afraid to post it – afraid that it would be viewed as whiny, afraid that no one really wanted to read a blog about my problems figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, afraid of letting people see the real Tim Schwamb.  But…here it is.  Once again, I’m just like Jango Fett:  Just a simple man trying to make his way in the universe.  Maybe you've had similar struggles...)


When I grow up I want to be a…?  That's the question I've been asking myself for a few years, because at some point, it dawned on me that when I take the uniform off, I'm going to have to do something. And while I would like to answer with "full-time traveler" or "professional hiker", my wife would be quick to point out that AF retirement typically does not leave one independently wealthy, and those preferred professions tend to have more out-flow than in-come.


But I've had trouble deciding what it is I do want to do. Should it be an upward mobility position, where I can make money and continue to achieve, or should it be "just a job" with predictable hours and little extra required since I've required so much of my family over the last several years? Ideas have run the entire gamut from landscaper (that requires manual labor, so I'm thinking not!) to national park ranger (since I love history and the outdoors) to writing for a travel book company to working for Disney World to being a bottom-feeder defense contractor. I've also considered going into ministry as a worship leader.


That last option is one I've considered for the last 5 years or so based on my experiences in working with, leading, and in some cases, building foundations for, worship ministry. But it's fraught with peril. Why, you say? What a noble profession! see, I've never had formal vocal training. Everything I've learned, I've learned from being around others. That’s even truer when you talk about leading a praise team. I don't know the first thing about how to teach people to sing the right notes, or to tell it's the alto that's sharp, or the bass that keeps missing that note. Being in that position frankly scares me to death. So I'm not sure a church that's looking for a serious worship leader would even hire me.


Second, and sadly, after watching several minister hirings and firings first-hand and being a part-time worship leader, I've come to realize that our churches have some of the most unloving, hateful people in the world -- or at the very least that they don't think about how their message will be received before speaking. I know for many that will read this blog, that sounds overly harsh, but I am amazed at what some people will say or how they will say it when they feel like they don’t get a vote in leadership decisions, or whether we “allow” clapping in church (yes, that is actually still an issue in some of our churches!), or they don't like the song selections for two weeks in a row. I often wonder how they would feel if someone made similar accusations to them in a similar tone. I also struggle with self-esteem. I absolutely hate to not be liked. I'm not sure I could handle people being critical of me routinely.


Third, I feel like I've routinely been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because that sequence of events is hard to explain and because some of it is better left unsaid, I'll just leave it that I started to wonder if God perhaps wasn't calling me into that role.


Fast-forward to earlier this week. We said goodbye to my boss this week, and I volunteered to do the invocation for the Relinquishment of Command (for my oldest daughter, that means I said the prayer). Afterward, one of the Colonels that went through the Air Advisor Academy with me, Col Fryer, came up to me and said, "Wow! That invocation was really good! You can just tell when that comes naturally to someone, that it's a part of who they are, and clearly it is for you. Have you ever considered doing that for a living?", to which I responded that it was one of the things I've considered doing after I retire. He then told me he thought I'd be really good at it. Just a few minutes later, our Wing Vice Commander came up to me and said almost the exact same thing. It started to make me wonder...


That night, I was eating dinner, and Col Fryer sat down with me. Now let me take a minute as an aside to talk about Col Jim Fryer. I can say without hesitation that there is only one other officer that has had the impact he has had on both my professional AND personal life.  If leadership is the ability to motivate people to get stuff done even when they don’t want to, he models it every day.  As I’ve alluded to before, people don’t really line up to give attaboys to the guy that runs the chow hall and the gym and base security.  In fact, there are a lot of people that know how to do my job better than I do.  Just ask ‘em.  So I take a fair amount of grief from the population at large and a lot of pressure from up above.  Col Fryer is always there, encouraging me, telling me that he notices and appreciates the work I do.  To be fair, I have received positive feedback from several, including my boss and my boss’s boss, from time to time, but…well…there’s no other way to say it other than Col Fryer is an encourager.  Not everyone is.  One day, I was having a really rotten day and was ready to spit nails at the first person that got in front of me.  As I walked through the gym trying not to make eye contact with anyone, Col Fryer saw me from a distance, interrupted his workout, and walked over to intercept me to ask how I was doing.  If ever there was any doubt as to whether I wear my emotions on my sleeves, there’s not anymore.  He could tell from that far away that life was not good.  Being that mad, I was in no mood to talk.  But the simple fact that he went completely out of his way to check on me made a huge impact on me.  Another day, I had had about enough of frivolous taskers and ridiculous demands.  We are in a war zone.  I am not worried about whether there are ruts in the gravel or not.  Fortunately, that day was our weekly dinner with my Air Advisor classmates.  While the group covers just about all ranks, we’ve deemed the time non-attribution, so we can pretty much say anything we want.  That night I let it all out.  Col Fryer then used his sense of humor to get us all laughing at the absurdity of it all.  By the end of the night, we had all laughed as hard as we ever had, and I was healed enough that I could go back to work the next day without killing anyone.


Anyway, back to the story…So Col Fryer sat down to dinner with me that night after the Relinquishment of Command ceremony, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “So tell me more about you becoming a man of the cloth.”  I started by telling him that I had thought about doing a lot of different things after I left the military, including becoming a worship leader, then said, “This is going to be a long story.  You may be getting more than what you bargained for.”  He responded that he didn’t care; he was truly interested. 


After I had finished walking him through all of the reasons I outlined above of why I wasn’t sure I could become a worship leader, he asked, “Can you see yourself doing that?  Is that something you want to do?”  I responded, “It’s probably the career choice I come back to the most.”  He said, “Well, do you think you would enjoy doing it? If you woke up every morning and had to go do that, would you look forward to it?”  I said, “Yes.  I think so.”  Then he simply stated, “Well then maybe you have your answer.”


At that moment, it was as if a great darkness had suddenly become light.  After all these months of wondering, worrying, praying for answers, there was finally clarity, as if I had finally gotten a message directly from God.  Now I still don’t know with a 100% certainty that my future is in ministry, but that one conversation, from someone who cared enough to ask, listen, and offer an opinion lifted the oppressive weight of uncertainty after so many years of not having to think about what I would do after the military and suddenly realizing that the time to make that decision was sneaking up on me.  That conversation gave me the freedom to prepare for and pursue a dream and to realize that the future didn’t have to be so scary, or that I might be forced into something I wouldn’t be happy doing if “professional traveler” or “Chief Ride Tester” at Disney World don't work out.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Another Afghan Meal: Seafood!

This week, my interpreter, Safi, ordered fish from downtown and brought it in to share, so I just had to share!

Captain Phillips, my lead Defender, who is from North Carolina (the photo bomber at the end of the table on the left -- not of Somali pirate fame) and I both decided that it was a lot like a good old fashioned fish fry.  It smelled delicious and tasted great, but you had to eat slowly to look out for the bones.  It was awesome!  And it wouldn't have been an Afghan meal without naan (bread). 

I will definitely miss the food when I'm gone. It's one of the things I look forward to every week (even if my counterpart forces me to eat fruit!). I think I'm going to need to learn how to make that ubiquitous Afghan bread and rice before I leave and pass it on to Cristi. What do you think?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Uncertainty in Afghanistan

It's been a while since I've blogged.  Thank you to those that noticed!  It's nice to know that people actually read my posts!  Things have been crazy here the last few weeks and have just now settled down a bit, so this is really the first chance I've had in a while.
As you probably know, things are very uncertain over here.  The US has been working on a bilateral security agreement (BSA) for months and was hoping to have it signed by President Karzai immediately following the Loya Jirga with all the tribal elders that endorsed it.  That was back before I even began this little adventure.  This document is important because it defines the terms under which the US can stay and operate in Afghanistan legally.  Unfortunately, Karzai has put off signing the BSA, and now we're in the midst of a diplomatic game of Chicken. 
The US gave a deadline of the end of the year.  That came and went.  Then, we said it needed to be signed in "weeks, not months".  It's been months.  Now we have egg on our face because we put up an ultimatim and Karzai called our bluff.  I honestly think Karzai is trying to position himself for survival in the event the insurgency comes back with a vengeance after the elections.  The problem is that it's now seriously undermining all of what we're trying to do -- and what Afghanistan really needs.  So now the US is hoping that Karzai's successor, who should be named in the spring/summer timeframe, after the election and run-off, will sign it.  The problem is that we need this BSA.  Afghanistan is just not ready for us to leave.  There is much advising work left to be done in building a capable and sustainable Afghan defense force. 
A bit of history:  The Afghan Air Force (really the entire Afghan National Security Force) is made up of two kinds of people:  Those that have been around forever and fought the Russians and then the Taliban, and those that have just joined this newly created force.  You see, when the Taliban was in power, there was no professional military -- zero!  My counterpart that I advise went off and got a demining job during the Taliban years.  So we have an entire military with no "middle management".  These are the people that are typically the experts, responsible for training all the new people and mentoring them into effective technicians and leaders.  So we have a force that has people, but no established structure, and no one trained to do the things we need them to do, like task and prioritize missions, fly airplanes and helicopters, fix them, get parts and supplies, protect the base, and on and on...Ironically, they've got plenty of bureaucracy!  How is it they figured that out that quickly?  Actually I've got thoughts on that, too...but I digress...
So you can imagine how the uncertainty of whether we're going to be here past the end of the year or not is playing havoc with all sorts of things, not the least of which are the insurgents that are intent on disrupting the elections and showing the Afghan citizens that the government is not capable of providing sufficient security to those citizens.
It's one of the biggest things on everyone's mind -- ours and the Afghans.  I talk about it frequently with my interpreter and my Afghan counterpart.  In fact, most of the senior members of the Afghan military (the ones that fought the Russians and Taliban) believe we need to stay.  They even tell us that most of Afghanistan wants us to stay.  I've never really been sure I believed that.  I had an experience the other day that perhaps gave me a glimpse, though.
One day, during the trenching portion of our electrical upgrade project, it was my day to provide the security overwatch. We do that any time we have Afghan civilians working on the base because we just don't have any way to truly vet their credentials. Over the course of their time here, I routinely greeted them and tried to make small talk with the limited amount of Dari I knew (which lasted about two sentences). I think they appreciated it, though, because they would smile and wave and greet me anytime they saw me. On this day, though, standing there, all geared up with my body armor and both weapons, the supervisor, who spoke very good English, asked me if I thought they were doing a good job. I told him I thought they were and I appreciated them doing this work for us and I was glad that it was helping them take care of their families. He told me that they were very happy to be working for the Americans and they were glad we were here. He went on to say that most Afghans were glad the Americans were here. Then one of the men pointed to his hardhat, where he had written, "USA -- Long live Obama!" Now I'm not an Obama fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to believe that for him, Obama was a symbol of what he saw as American dedication to rebuild Afghanistan from a multi-decade war-torn country into something much better. From my (admittedly limited) interaction, I don't think, at their core, the Afghans are that much different from us. I think they want the same things for their children and grandchildren that we want for ours -- a safe environment to raise their kids in, the opportunity to provide for their family, and a better life for their kids than they had for themselves. Alas, many of them can't even remember a time when those things were true. They yearn for a better time -- a time when they can walk around downtown without fear of being shot or blown up, when they can travel cross-country without fear of being detained or robbed, or when their wives and daughters can interact with other people without constant fear of being accused of bringing dishonor on their family. I have such a small role in shaping Afghanistan into what it could become, yet despite missing my family tremendously, I'm honored at the opportunity to do so. I just hope that when it's time for us to leave, we will have helped realize even a small part of their hope in a lasting way.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Exciting Week

Whew!  This week is finally done!  I felt like I was on the Harry Potter mine train underneath Gringotts for most of the week.  It was just one bombshell after another (metaphorically, not literally, for those concerned...well, okay, perhaps literally in one case.  Guess you gotta read on, now!).

The week started with notification that our water delivery contract was going to end within a week.  Now this is Afghanistan, so you have to understand:  We don't get our water from the city.  There is a piping infrastructure underground, but every day we get a water delivery to fill up a bulk storage tank that then gets pumped into the pipe infrastructure.  It was that water delivery contract that was ending in a week.  The frustrating part was that our Engineers had been working it with Contracting for the last two months, but Contracting was just getting around to doing something about it.  By that time, it was too late to get the new contract in place by February 1st.  That meant we got to go through the headache of sourcing a "bridge contract" whereby we use the same vendor that was doing the work to keep doing the work while Contracting got their act together.  Oh by the way, since the contract is really for the Afghan base that our FOB is on and we just tap into that supply, we can't pay for it with regular money; we have to use a special color of money.  But wait...there's more!  We can't use the special color of money to pay for the portion coming onto our base; we have to use the regular color of money.  Now get all that figured out in the space of just a few days.  STOP THE MADNESS!

If that wasn't enough, we had a series of security issues over the space of about 36 hours (I can't tell you about those), which ultimately meant extra work for our Defenders.  That meant my Captain and I were burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how we were going to make it all work.  In fact, we're really still trying to pick up the pieces.

Speaking of picking up the pieces, we've got a major electrical upgrade project going on right now, so we've had Afghan laborers trenching all over the base.  That should have sent up a red flag since we're in Afghanistan, but it didn't.  Thursday, one of my cops came in told me they had found a UXO (unexploded ordnance).  I said, "I want to go look at it."  We went out to look at it, and it had been moved over by one of the T-Walls!  Now, I admit, it looked like a heavy weapons bullet that had been in the ground for about the last 30 years (anyone remember what was happening here 30 years ago?).  But we called EOD to look at it to be sure.  It did turn out to be inert, but you're not supposed to move those things!  The next morning, they found another one.  This one looked like a landmine.  Once again, one of the Afghans picked it up and was even about to chunk it until our US member providing overwatched screamed, at which point we convinced him to put it down carefully.  Once again, we called EOD, and they determined this one, too, was harmless.  It had already been exploded...probably 30 years ago.  That afternoon, we had yet a third scare.  STOP THE MADNESS!  By now, we had finally convinced the Afghans to leave anything they found in the ground.  Here's a picture of what they found:

We called EOD for a third time and, after digging it up, determined that this one, too was harmless.  I'm sure you can even see that for yourself:

As my week was ending, and I thought (hoped?) things were returning to normal, I got tagged to get a maintenance problem addressed in one of our dorms over on the main base.  That's not normally even my area of responsibility, but I'll spare you the gory details of how I even got involved.  But they had some major plumbing issues that was causing raw sewage to collect in a pool outside the building.  We were just getting maintenance contracts switched over, so I was able to get the contractor out there to look at it.  That building still needs some serious work since it appears that there's a broken pipe underneath the building, but at least they were able to clear the current clog and temporarily alleviate the sewage cesspool.

As I lost altitude and airspeed and prepared to crash into the weekend, it ended on a good yet bittersweet note.  We said goodbye to my first squad of Defenders.  They're now headed home to their families at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs.  

I also got to promote one of the new Defenders to the rank of Staff Sergeant.  That's a big deal in our Air Force because it's the first time they have the opportunity to supervise anyone.  That almost numbed the stress from the junk of the week.  Almost.  But that's why I put up with the junk -- to make a difference in the life of someone and see the smile on their face as they eagerly look forward to the new challenges ahead.  At the end of the day, it's all about the people.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

First Trip Outside Kabul

This past week, I had the opportunity to get off-base and fly to Jalalabad (or as Cristi calls it Dramallamabad), which is only about 30 miles from the Pakistan border.  My M4 never got zeroed before I deployed, so we set up a trip there to use the range.  In addition to instructing Afghans, our pilots have to stay current, so we took an all-American crew on a C-208 training line.  The C-208 is a small passenger plane that the Afghans use for small troop movements and light medevac.

On our way, our pilots took the opportunity to do a little sightseeing as we flew over the mountains. Here's a taste of what we saw.  The snow-capped mountain range in the background is the Hindu Kush. Those mountains are probably over 20,000 feet!

The river valley leading to Jalalabad:

Jalalabad...It nestles right up next to the mountains and is very green along the river.

Flying into Jalalabad...In the last picture, you can see crop fields.

Me on the range...Don't I look like a professional?

Flying back into Kabul...You can see how congested it is.

The C-208...Mission complete!  It was great getting out of the office. This was easily my best day in Afghanistan so far! One of the guys I work with says it really helps to pass the time, so I'll be looking to get out on other missions to other locations while I'm here!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Festivities, Flat Stanley, and Force Protection

This past week saw not only New Years but our first snow.  Finally!  I love seeing the snow on the mountains.  I also think that if it's going to be this cold that we should have something to show for it.  Here are a couple of pictures of the morning after.

Apparently, we've had a light snow season so far, so I'm looking forward to more.  For New Year's Eve, one of our contract partners, G3, that handles all of our Base Civil Engineering functions invited me and Col Doty, my boss, to their New Year's Eve celebration.  I'm still not sure why, but apparently we were big celebrities.  We stood and took pictures with cameras from everyone that had one for about half an hour.  Most of them are Philippino, and they are extremely hard workers.  I'm thankful for an amazing group of folks that make my life easier.

They had karaoke going there at the party, and I got goaded into singing.  After what seemed like an eternity of trying to find "the right song", I finally settled on "Desperado" by the Eagles.  What was really funny was that most of them -- especially the ladies -- kept running up there to take pictures with me while I was singing!  One tactical mistake I made was that a couple of my Defenders happened to be there (along with my boss).  They promised that they wouldn't tell anyone and would leave no surviving record of the performance.  That lasted until the next day!

Flat Stanley came to visit later in the week, courtesy of my nephew.  Because mail takes so long over here, he really had a whirlwind tour before he had to get back to the States.  I didn't realize it at the time, but it was my responsibility to dress him in addition to taking him on some adventures.  Well clearly if he's going to be on base, he had to have a uniform, and in Afghanistan, weapons are required.  So I made sure he had the proper gear (forgive the background noise from the scanner).

While here, he got to have lunch with Col Zalmai, my Afghan counterpart (Trust me, he doesn't always look this solemn!).

And he also went out on patrol with the Defenders.

When we went out, we went to a little compound called PeH, which is their equivalent of Air University.  The main thing the advisors do over there is teach English to those that need it for their job, like pilots, who have to talk to Air Traffic Control.  They're geographically separated from Oqab, so I wanted to get a feeling for what the route is like traveling over there, what the security situation is like, and what exactly they do.  I wanted to walk in their shoes.  We had a little bit of slack time, so they gave me the 5-star treatment.  After one of our walking patrols, they asked me if I wanted to drive the MATV (which I think stands for Massive Armored Truck Vehicle).  I drove it all over base.  They told me I was doing great, and I responded that I had had a driver's license for a year or two.  Oh yeah...and I had driven a wheat truck in college.  Next thing I know, we're turning down this street that has a wide-ol' Humvee on one side and a Toyota Land Cruiser on the other side and not much room in between (Afghanistan is not known for wide roads.  Actually, Afghanistan is not really known for roads, period).  I stopped short, but they told me I could make it.  Somehow I squeezed it through.  I must have actually been driving the Harry Potter Knight Bus MATV.  After squeezing through and popping out on the other side, I asked them if they had done that on purpose.  They just laughed.  I think I had been had! 

Shortly afterward, it was time to go back to base, and one of the guys asked if I wanted to run the gun on the way back.  Because I consider that one of the two most important positions in the vehicle, I reluctantly said yes if he gave me a tutorial on how to operate the M-249 fully-automatic heavy rifle.  The trip home was awesome!  Standing up in the turret, I could see much better than on the way out there.  It wasn't all sightseeing, though.  We travel right beside a major Kabul road with lots of traffic and buildings alongside.  I got to apply some of my pre-deployment training looking for bad guys.  Fortunately, nothing doing.  Fortunately, it's nothing doing almost every day.  You can't take this stuff for granted, though.  That day, it hit me a little harder what our Defenders do for us, and I'm thankful they're professionals.