For three hours today I stood guard at one of the many towers that protects Camp Phoenix. My tower overlooked the Jalalabad Highway that runs from Kabul, AFG to Jalalabad, Pakistan. My vantage point gave me an opportunity to really observe the Afghan people for the first time as they went about their lives outside our concrete walls. There were children running around and playing, women in burka’s walking to the local market to shop for fruits and vegetables and groups of men walking up and down the median of the country’s busiest highway (The Jalalabad Highway is their I-95). Standing with me in the tower was an old friend from my days on the Dole for President Campaign. CPT Wedekind is a JAG Officer here at Camp Phoenix; but in 1995-1996 he was a young law student at Carolina and one of my best volunteers on the campaign. He has been in Kabul for several months now as an augmentee for the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Georgia. Larry and I couldn’t help but laugh about the fact that here we were, 15 years later, standing guard together in a war zone in Afghanistan. This truly is a small world.
Let’s get back to the basics of life. You need air to breathe, food to eat, water to consume and clothing to protect your body. Everything outside of those essentials is a luxury. The first of those necessities is air — clean air; without it, your body (lungs) will deteriorate and die. The air in Kabul is anything but clean. The people here burn everything imaginable to keep warm during winter. You can hardly blame them. They burn tires, trash, wood, trees, anything that will light on fire and produce heat. The smoke from their heating source creates a foggy haze unlike anything you have ever seen back home. The smoky air and the high altitude (Kabul is 5,900 feet above sea level vs. Columbia at 332 feet above sea level) makes it difficult to breathe for the newcomers here at Camp Phoenix. I am told you get used to the air here and that as soon as summer comes the air clears up. Today when you walk outside your house, take a deep breath and enjoy the clean air. It’s a luxury the people here don’t have.
We arrived Bagram at approximately 0230 local time (we gained another hour and a half in AFG). By now we were exhausted from our travels and the lack of sleep. I think I had maybe four hours sleep in the last 48 hours up to this point – and our traveling was just beginning. After a short brief inside the terminal I was told that we would have to take another plane to Kabul at 1015 in the morning. Apparently it is safer to fly the 15 minutes to Kabul than take the 45 minute convoy there. At this point in the journey my guys were worn out. The sleep deprivation and lack of food was wearing us thin; and the thought of crashing on the floor of the small terminal at Bagram for another 7 hours was not appealing. So I inquired with the staff there about an earlier flight that was posted on the board. If we could catch the 0600 flight to Kabul, then I could get my guys a hot breakfast and a bed before noon. Once again, my lobbying skills paid off! I was able to talk the staff into putting us on the 0600 flight and they walked my guys across the street for sandwiches, chips and coke. Things were looking up. The Seventeen’s spirits were lifted and I could see sleep in my future. At 0500 the boarding call was made. We loaded another bus to the flight line only to find out that the C-130 we were supposed to fly on had a front landing gear issue. We sat on the bus in full battle rattle for another 30 minutes while the ground grew fixed the problem. Finally, at 0530 we boarded the plane with passengers that included government contractors and other military personnel. Our space was very limited this time – you couldn’t move at all. The flight to Kabul was bumpy but thankfully short. It only took 15 minutes to get there. We arrived at the terminal just before 0600 in the morning. The Seventeen quickly moved our bags off the pallet to the front of the terminal. Our next task was to catch the first convoy of Rhino’s (up armored buses that look like Rhino’s) to Camp Phoenix – our home for the next month. It was cold outside as the morning sun came up over the mountains that surrounded Kabul International Airport (KIA) While we were waiting our Executive Officer (XO) and another member of the ADVON drove up to meet us. They walked us over to the DFACT for a hot breakfast. The food at KIA was cooked European style due to the large influx of foreign military living on the base there. It wasn’t the tastiest breakfast I had ever had but it was one of the best.
The journey to AFG was long and hard. Our travel from Manas to Kabul began on Tuesday, 23, January. At 1300 we had a special Chapel service performed by the Chaplain. At 1500 we had to meet over at baggage to move our bags onto the pallet for strap down and loading. At 1860 we had an inspection with my team to make sure everyone had their weapon and gear. At 1900 we reported to the terminal for our two hour lock down. I was able to talk with Janie via Skype on the iPhone through the wifi network while we were there. I was great to talk with her. Technology is truly amazing. At 2100 we boarded a bus for the C-17. Once we arrived at the plane we boarded and waited for takeoff. We were surprised to find out that we would be the only Soldiers onboard the aircraft. The plane holds 158 but tonight it would carry 17. I must admit, it was at this point in the journey that I really grew anxious. I knew that the next time my feet hit the ground I would be in Afghanistan. The plane took off at officially 2155. The team of 17 cheered as the mighty C-17 from Charleston thrust into the air. This was it – we were finally going to make it. Not so fast. After 10 minutes in the air and a quick cat nap, I felt a tap on my arm that startled me. It was one of the air crew telling me that we needed to return to Manas to fix a problem with engine number 3. Every Soldier on the plane was watching for my reaction. They could sense something was wrong. You could see their joy deflate as I yelled out the bad news. We were heading back to Manas. After 2 ½ hours on the ground the crew was able to fix the problem, refuel the plane and draw up a new flight plan. We took off the second time around 0100 in the morning. The 1 ½ hour flight to Bahgram was uneventful until we hit Afghan air space. It was at that moment I was instructed to have my Soldiers put on their protective vest, eye-pro and helmets. We were now entering a combat zone. A few minutes later the lights inside he cabin went from green to red – we were making our descent.
As you may recall, I was given the responsibility of leading our Battalion into Afghanistan. After two days of flying we made it from the States to Manas. Once in Manas we were told that the planes there couldn’t hold our entire Battalion on one flight. So the Commander decided to leave me with the group that would be left behind – a group of seventeen Soldiers. The rest of the Battalion would catch a flight out of Manas on Monday for Kabul. That was the plan. After two failed attempts to leave on Monday the larger group was pushed out of the rotation. My team of seventeen Soldiers was moved up on the flight schedule. We would now be leading the charge instead of bringing up the rear. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with the bigger group but it excited my guys. We would be the first to hit the ground in Afghanistan. I was proud to lead these men there.
We made it! I am now stationed at Camp Phoenix in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan. The trip here was exhausting but it was worth every minute of it. What an incredible journey (Stay tuned for more post on the trip here). The first image that sticks in my mind as we convoyed from Kabul International Airport to Camp Phoenix is the hundreds upon hundreds of small dirty children waving and giving us the thumbs up as we passed by them on the Jalalabad Highway. I pray they give us the same finger when we leave this place!
Most of the civilians that work on Manas are locals. They look either Russian or Chinese. Ghengis Khan’s crude infuence in this country many centuries ago is the reason for the Mongul look. The Russians who work here are mostly women. They all look sad. They also hesitate to look at you when asked a question or during an exchange in the DFACT or Barber Shop. One of the Americans that lives here told me that most of the locals are very poor. The jobs they have on this base is keeping them from going into sheer poverty. The girls that pick up trash would be cheerleaders back home. You can tell that the effects of communism is still affecting the people of this country. Nothing good can come from government servitude. I can’t help but wonder what they think of the American Soldiers, Airmen and Marines that pass through this base. Does it remind them of a time more than 25 years ago when their fathers and grandfathers left this land to fight a war in Afghanistan? Maybe that look in their eyes is the answer.