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Greetings from Afghanistan

by RLTW Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 11:02 AM

A US military officer writes from Afghanistan

Greetings from Afghanistan. My apologies to you for taking so long to provide you with an update.

Like all of you, we were saddened by the terrible news of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident and death of its crew. We broadcast that tragic news to every operations center within the Afghan theater and each operations center came to a complete standstill out of disbelief and horror. I've witnessed the grief of service members around me during this time of tragedy and it has been significant. And of course we remember the crew and their surviving family members in our prayers.

You may have seen on TV or read in the papers that we too, had a similar tragedy this past Thursday night (30 Jan 03). In the worst loss of life for the US military in almost a year, four special operations crewmen were killed when their helicopter crashed just a few miles east of Bagram. Three died immediately and the fourth died during transport back to the hospital here at Bagram. Friday night we conducted a memorial service for them as a prelude to sending them back to the U.S. to family and funeral. The memorial ceremony was simple but quite moving. From the minefields surrounding the airfield we could hear a pack of coyotes as if fighting over a downed goat or sheep. There was total darkness except for the light of the stars, the moonlight reflecting off the snow-covered mountains, and the cargo lights radiating from the rear of the C-17 parked on the taxiway ready to take them home. In that cold darkness I was privileged to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other Rangers - two files facing each other and forming an honor guard from the tent hanger to the rear of the aircraft. The extreme cold and high winds demanded the eyes to tear - creating a disguise for the tears being shed for the four heroes killed the night before. Shivering almost uncontrollably, we watched quietly as the four flag-draped coffins were slowly trouped through the honor guard. The sacrifice for those of us who stood in the ranks was simply enduring the wind and cold - the four great Americans we were there to honor paid the ultimate sacrifice - they gave their lives. "Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." (James 4:14)

Bagram Air Base sits in a bowl approximately a mile high and surrounded by mountains that range from nine to fourteen thousand feet in elevation. The snow-capped mountains are absolutely beautiful and make for breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. However, these dramatic mountain ranges also present some weather challenges that are unique. Several nights ago we had a Special Forces soldier fall into a dried up well in a remote village. The medics on site were sure he had broken ribs, a broken leg, and very possibly a broken back. Huge snowflakes and snow fog created poor weather conditions (just a few hundred yards visibility) and consequently our meddevac helicopters were unable to launch to retrieve him. We had to wait until the following morning when the weather cleared in order to get him back to Bagram and the medical care he needed and deserved. He has since been evacuated to Germany and more permanent medical care.

Troop morale remains high in spite of the environment and separation from friends and family. With temperatures well below freezing we still take the often-cold showers - though very quick. The porta-lets, having been strapped to the ground to prevent high winds from blowing them over (you can imagine what experience that would be - if in one when it blew over), still offer that crisp attention-getting-cold-seat early on those same cold mornings. You have to be imaginative in finding the small blessings...my sleep tent is up-wind from the porta-lets! We've now enclosed all our waters blivets (large canvas/rubber non-potable water reservoirs for showers) and potable water trailers with tents to prevent freezing. The recent - and huge - morale booster has been...omelets for breakfast. For the past 9 months we've been eating powdered eggs (in all honesty I quit eating them months ago). Our dining facility brought in a new grill and dedicated it to ham and cheese omelets (at least in the mornings). If you don't notice the eggs are some form of yellow liquid poured from a 5-gallon bucket they are quite tasty. And of course the highlight for the month of January - Outback Steakhouse sent over 15 employees and about 7,000 steaks and served the troops an Outback steak, baked potato, and battered and deep-fried onions. [I would ask you...next time you visit an Outback Steakhouse...please express our thanks for their contribution to the armed forces deployed to Afghanistan.] Also, as an added morale builder, we've allowed the local merchants to come onto Bagram and conduct an occasional bazaar - giving the troops opportunity to purchase local Afghan crafts/merchandise and to stimulate the local economy. Unfortunately, when we are pestered with rocket attacks we're forced to waive off the bazaar for force protection reasons. Lately, the rocket attacks have cancelled the bazaars.

January has been a busy month - thus the reason you haven't heard from me in quite a while. We began the month with a group of bad guys crossing the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan and conducting sniper attacks - resulting in a member of the 82nd Airborne Division being killed. They fled back into Pakistan before we could kill or capture them. (Unfortunately, we are not permitted to conduct cross-border combat operations into Pakistan.) In another incident, an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) or RCIED (Remote-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device) tied to a bicycle went off as a U.S. convoy passed by - two of our soldiers were injured. And unguided, but potentially lethal, rockets have been fired at U.S. bases and remote firebases almost daily during the month of January. In Kabul (the capital), we've had bad guys throw a grenade inside a U.S. military vehicle (Hummer)...some shrapnel wounds but thanks to modern military body armor, both occupants survived the attack. Also in Kabul, ISAF forces (our International Security and Assistance Forces) found explosives in the restroom of a girl's school - foiling a possible terrorist attack. (One of the things forbidden during the rule of the Taliban was for girls or women to attend any form of school/educational institution.) Also this month, a man threw two grenades at foreigners waiting outside the ISAF compound - killing one Afghan interpreter and wounding two French aid workers. The attacker died after a third grenade exploded on his body - a suicide attack. The terrorist in this attack was an Afghan with one wooden leg, was carrying religious items (Islamic), and had deep cigarette burns over most of his body. The conclusion was that this man had been tortured and pressured to carry out the attack.

The bad guys seemed to have stepped up operations this month. They've resorted to placing IEDs or RCIEDs so as to destroy/detonate fuel trucks (we've had 2 fuel trucks to explode). They're using females - wearing burqas (a burqa is a covering from head-to-toe) to hide ordnance or munitions on their person (big religious no-no for U.S. or coalition male soldier to body search Afghan females - must be done by female soldiers). They're even using ball bearings in their "improvised explosives" (in one weapons cache we found 180 pounds of ball bearings). Also, the bad guys are smuggling rockets and munitions over the rugged mountain border from Pakistan to Afghanistan via donkeys and horses. And then just a week ago (Jan. 28), our forces fought a fierce battle through the night against a large group of rebel fighters in the mountainous region of southeastern Afghanistan. Probably one of the heavier fighting events in several months, we engaged as many as 80 Taliban/Al-Qaeda who were lodged in caves and mountain hideouts near the border. Lots of enemy fighters were killed yet there were no coalition casualties. When the dust settled and daylight came we searched through the cave complex looking for bad guys and weapons caches. In that one area we discovered 160 caves, hideouts and weapons caches. In one cache alone we found more than 1,000 mortar bombs, 93 rocket-propelled grenades, more than 300 pounds of high explosives, 100 122-millimeter rockets, and 100 antitank and antipersonnel mines. The cache also included hundreds of heavy machine-gun rounds.

In the past few weeks two U.S. soldiers were severely injured after stepping on land mines. One was injured while clearing mines here at Bagram Air Base. He is in stable condition after surgeons amputated his right foot. And then one of our paratroopers was wounded in eastern Afghanistan when he stepped on a mine while on patrol (injury was not life-threatening). Land mines are forever a problem for military forces and for the civilian populace. It is now estimated that there are between 10-30 million mines remaining in Afghanistan. The sad thing is mines not only kill or maim civilians (most of which are children) but they also cripple economic life for years - inhibiting the tilling of fields that should contain crops, access to pasture, and the collection of firewood. One of the more nasty mines left here by the Russians is what the mujahidin called the "jumping mine." When activated, a projectile shoots up from underground. The mine is designed to go off just as you pass over it and it explodes at waist level. Kind of gory but it is designed to blow off the genitals, cripple, and pepper the guts with shrapnel. However, an even greater menace is the "butterfly" mine. During the Russian occupation, Soviet helicopters would fly over and litter the ground with butterfly mines. There was a light brown version for desert terrain and gray ones for riverbeds. They were approximately 8 inches long and, since they were made of plastic and blended in with the terrain, they were difficult to detect with minesweeping equipment. Afghan children have often mistaken the butterfly mines for toys. Over the years a lot of children have lost limbs or eyes due to this mine. And since the butterfly mine has no self-destruct mechanism, it will be mutilating Afghans for a long time to come. Earlier this week we had three Afghan children (from the same family) brought to our hospital with injuries caused by an explosion. They had been injured when one of the children brought unexploded ordnance back home and it exploded while one was playing with it (yes, all three had surgery for shrapnel or lost a limb). I've mentioned before about the international de-mining organization, "Angel Halo." Angel Halo has been here in Afghanistan conducting de-mining operations for 6 years and has only de-mined approximately 1 million mines during that period. At that rate, it would take at least 80 years to rid Afghanistan of all the mines.

Since Operation Enduring Freedom began, the U.S. has suffered 26 combat deaths and 137 wounded (considered low by military historians; one is too many by my criteria). Although we expected the Taliban/Al-Qaeda to rest and re-group during the winter months, they've been determined to harass and embarrass U.S. and Coalition forces. On the eve of a war with Iraq, the battle against Al-Qaeda is far from over. Since both Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters have found sanctuary in Pakistan - and many other Middle Eastern and African countries - they've enjoyed opportunity to re-group and plan both harassing attacks across the border into Afghanistan and to conduct terrorist attacks deep within Afghanistan. American combat units, meanwhile, are harassed almost daily by haphazard rocket fire and hit-and-run attacks. Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters particularly enjoy freedom of movement in the lawless tribal highlands of Pakistan, aided by sympathizers in Afghanistan's rugged eastern border regions. Pakistani border forces appear unwilling or unable to control the Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who have sought refuge in the tribal areas in the border region. Like U.S. troops in Vietnam, American forces here find it difficult to distinguish ordinary villagers from enemy op eratives. Reminiscent of the war in Viet Nam, many of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban blended into the populace following the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan and so it is impossible to be certain who are the enemy and who are not.

On Iraq... It seems we are destined to remove Saddam by force. Think we've all been watching the President take a beating in the media because of his determination to rid the world of Saddam from power. Too many have said the President has failed to demonstrate sufficient "credible proof" to warrant committing to war. I'm reminded of the movie, "A Few Good Men," in which Jack Nicholson declares, "You can't handle the truth." Maybe it's better the average citizen is isolated from all the gory scenarios that could happen (should we fail to remove Saddam) less we end up with a society panicked and paranoid. It's frustrating knowing the President is well justified but cannot tell the public all he knows - for that would surely compromise intelligence collection methods and very possibly put lives at stake. Obviously there is concern here in Afghanistan - for it is expected that, after a U.S. attack on Iraq, the Taliban/Al-Qaeda will intensify their attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces here. The regional Muslim extremists have declared a holy war - or "jihad" - against the U.S. and vow they will "fight against the Americans until they leave Afghanistan or we (holy warriors) die." Notes have been found in the streets of some towns - handwritten, photocopied letters, and signed by members of the mujahidin (Islamic "holy warriors") warning of the planned increase in attacks and soliciting support. Also, they've offered rewards - 500,000 rupees (about $9,000) - to anyone who kills an American (or collaborator). The call for a holy war creates some real fanatics who are ready to sacrifice their lives to become a martyr. Anyone who is not Muslim (military or civilian) is at risk of becoming a target.

The U.S. is doubling the number of military civil affairs personnel deployed into Afghanistan and they are busy helping to build schools and clinics, dig wells and provide humanitarian aid. Most Afghan people are illiterate and live in mud huts. Following twenty-three years of war, Afghanistan has become one of the world's poorest countries. However, there is one industry that is thriving in Afghanistan - opium. Opium production has risen twenty fold over the past few years. It is approaching the peak production rate it was famous for under the rule of the Taliban regime. The Afghan environment is perfect for growing opium poppies - which are processed into heroin. Due to a 6-year drought in Afghanistan - which apparently creates the best conditions for growing poppies - Afghanistan is believed to produce the largest crop in the world. The Afghan drug trade exists because of terrorist organizations and is a huge source of money for their arms and supplies. There have been some efforts to eradicate opium poppy crops but the Afghan government still lacks the trained police (in sufficient quantities) to control the production of opium. The authorities estimate that 3,700 tons of opium produced during 2002 represents a cash crop of about $1.2 billion. The problem of convincing farmers to grow food crops - vice opium producing poppies - is money. Also, there is pressure (rather, enforcement) on the local farmers by the Taliban/Al-Qaeda to grow opium.

The winter has really been tough on a lot of Afgan civilians - particularly the refugees returning from Pakistan, Iran, and other Central Asian countries. Some of the media here reported on families in Bamiyan (small village in central Afghanistan rich in history - where the 1,500-year-old Buddha statues once stood - and were destroyed when the Taliban left) that are living in caves. Most are one-room caves carved out of sheer rock - smoky and black from fires used to cook or stay warm. Bare of furniture and dirt floors - yet an improvement over the refugee camps they were staying in when they fled during the rule of the Taliban. The Taliban leveled most of their buildings and homes during their 5 or 6 year rule. Still no electricity, and water comes from the river. However, people have started piecing their lives back together - house-by-house, acquiring sheep or goats one animal at a time. Even in winter and very low temperatures, you see small bazaars, shops, and small schools busy with activity. Many of the new road construction projects, recently dug wells, and distribution of blankets and food by military, U.N. aid workers, and other non-government agencies has brought new hope to a lot of these people. Some of our soldiers have helped rebuild many of the destroyed homes. Good feeling...and a good thing...these projects.

About 10 days ago (24 Jan), a 12-year-old child was brought to our hospital by some local nationals. Supposedly the child had been involved in an auto accident. Bloody, and in an effort to get him medical attention quickly, the child was not searched. Once they started removing clothing, they found what appeared to be unexploded ordnance under his armpit. The entire hospital was evacuated and EOD (Emergency Ordnance Detachment) was called. EOD (and the doctors) removed what turned out to be a large piece of shrapnel from a mine. Apparently the child had stepped on a mine and the large piece of shrapnel lodged under his arm. The boy seems to be doing okay.

We normally have a pretty large group of media (journalists/photographers) camped out at our major military compounds. Occasionally, they will ask to go out on a mission (on a non-interference basis of course). A week or so ago we had a rather large journalist (he weighed 250 pounds plus) who wanted to accompany one of our 82nd Airborne Division elements on a mission. I won't mention the news agency he represents - except to say that he represents one of the top 5 in the U.S. After conducting a 6 kilometer (3.7 miles) cross-country foot movement, he had to be meddevac'd back to Bagram - due to a heart attack (believed). He survived the adventure but I think we've successfully encouraged him to go back home and get some exercise at a more subtler pace.

Another mental picture I would leave with you. Except for service members longing for the company of loved ones and family, New Year's Eve was just another normal night of operations in Afghanistan. However, not to be outdone by the famous New York "Time Square New Year's Ball Drop," the soldiers here attached chemical lights to a ball - raised the lighted ball to the top of a crane (fully extended) and then lowered the ball as the seconds counted down to New Years. Except for that little bit of excitement - a few rocket attacks and exchange of gunfire - New Year's was a little anti-climatic.

Finally, many of our troops were able to watch the Super Bowl. One of the capabilities my staff provides for the warriors in Afghanistan is a "media server." Although designed to process video and audio data files - i.e. satellite imagery, unmanned aerial vehicle video streams, etc. - we have the ability to pump satellite TV signals to the individual computer workstation. So we brought in an AFN (American Forces Network) satellite signal to our media server and then broadcast it to all the computer workstations and operations centers all over the theater. So the troops that were not stuck out on some remote firebase or on patrol was able to watch the game. I will close with comment regarding an article written by Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell and published in a San Diego, California newspaper on the eve of the Super Bowl. (One of you so graciously forwarded this article to me.) To summarize the article - Bryan was visiting Dick's Last Resort sports bar-restaurant the Tuesday evening prior to the Super Bowl. All in attendance were already getting warmed up and rowdy - except for one table that was noticeably different from all the others. Six young men - all much too serious for the pre-game events going on around them, occupied that table. The skin-close haircuts gave them away - they were all Marines (all members of Marine Aviation Land Support Squad 39). They were boarding a ship the following day for - you guessed it - the Middle East and most likely a war with Iraq. So that social event, if you could call it that, was their Super Bowl party. Last night out on the town before shipping out. All were wrestling with the sobering uncertainty of the rest of their lives. All going to war and none of them sure if they would ever come back. One commented that he wasn't much of a big sports fan anymore. When asked why, the Marine replied, "Well, here's my problem with pro sports today," he said. "I don't care whether it's football, basketball or baseball. Guys are complaining about making $6 million instead of $7 million, and what is their job? Playing a damned game. You know what I made last year? I made $14,000. They pay me $14,000, and you know what my job description is? I'm paid to take a bullet." The comment seemed to put the frivolity of sports into its proper perspective for Bryan Burwell. The next morning, Bryan was looking out his hotel balcony window and could see a Navy battleship easing across the San Diego Bay. As he watched he could see sailors standing on the deck of the ship as it departed. It wasn't so much the small pay the Marines are paid to "take a bullet" - to give their life for their country, but it was what the Marine said about the other Marines around that table. The Marine (from Southern Illinois) had pointed to the Marine sitting to the left of him and said, "You know, I don't even know this guy, can you believe that? We just met a few hours ago when we came into Dick's. Oh, I've seen him on the base, but I've never met him before tonight. But here's what's so special about that man, and why I love that man. He's my brother - Semper Fi. I know a guy back home, and he is my best friend. I'm 28 years old and we've known each other all our lives. But today, that friend is more of a stranger to me than that Marine sitting over there, which I've never met before tonight. That's why they call it a "Band of Brothers." The Marine to his left lifted his glass toward the Marine from Southern Illinois and nodded his head. That's right," he said. "That's my brother over there, and I'm gonna take a bullet for him if I have to." He said it with a calm and jolting certainty and there was a moving, but chilling, pride in his words. All around them in the sports bar, people had been drinking, shouting, laughing, and wearing expensive Super Bowl logo caps and jackets. The toasts offered around the Marine table was far more sobering and deserving than all the others that night. Afterwards, the Marines slipped out quietly and prepared for their departure. Bryan was very much overwhelmed with the feeling that, "suddenly, the Super Bowl didn't seem so important anymore." In your prayers, please remember all those service members who've deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom...and all those who've deployed in support of the war in Iraq.

Thank you for all your prayers. You are all great patriots and you are appreciated. God Bless you...and God Bless America.

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Greetings from America citizen Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 2:05 PM
Support Our Troops - Bring them home! metwo Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 2:11 PM
To All Military Personnel: Point Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 4:01 PM
This is Excelent Yourmama Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 4:21 PM
The objective is not liberation. Diogenes Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 5:19 PM
Oh, Spare Me Diogenes Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 5:34 PM
Why? fresca Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 10:25 PM
In Some peoples life Sheepdog Sunday, Mar. 02, 2003 at 10:46 PM
Some Days Diogenes Monday, Mar. 03, 2003 at 7:24 AM
And then there are good and sweet things.... Diogenes Monday, Mar. 03, 2003 at 10:50 AM
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