Afghanistan Through a Muddy Window

  • October 23, 2013

Camp Leatherneck – I flew out of here yesterday (March 13, 2011) to visit a team at a subordinate unit, courtesy of our cousins from across the pond, and returned this morning by ground convoy, also courtesy of the Brits. Actually, it was a Scottish regiment that provided the ride today, and along the way, we stopped and visited with an Aussie field artillery battery.

In Flight – The flight yesterday was aboard a British Merlin helicopter, and I was impressed. It is quiet, with little of the pounding vibration of the Cobra or Chinook, and it has large windows on its sides so that we could actually see the ground. My guess is that when shooting starts, the hard skin is preferred to a scenic view, but since we were not fired upon, I took advantage to see as much as I could from the air. Unfortunately, the contrast of light inside the Merlin did not allow for good pictures.

Flight of Methuselah – There was a professional war-photographer aboard. He sat directly across from me, and had impressive looking cameras with massive lenses, and he probably found amusement at my little electronic Sony. He was tall and bearded, and probably about my age, and we both sat in seats immediately by the ramp at the back of the helicopter. He paid me no mind, but when we landed, he immediately descended the ramp, and I thought I’d seen the last of him. I had to wait for my backpack, and when I walked down the ramp and took that last long step to the ground, I saw that he had prostrated himself with his cameras aimed directly at the back of the helicopter, and as I passed, he aimed it at me, I heard the lens snap, and then he climbed to his feet. If he did, as a matter of fact, take my picture, he probably wanted proof to support his story that a man from the ice-age still wanders the earth in unexpected places – even aboard British helicopters.

They Honor The Queen – The post we visited is manned by a British brigade, and one of our teams is imbedded there. I took two members from my own team along to meet and greet the team there as well as the command and staff they support. Being in a thoroughly British war-time locale is a notable experience. The main staff area is housed in a place reminiscent of WW II movies, with desks pushed together in a massive room with wires running all about, people moving busily between sections, and Queen Elizabeth’s photo pinned on up-right two-by-fours behind desks. It seems that they really do have affection for the lady.

Poppy Fields  I learn a lot from visits like this. For instance, as we had flown in, I had noticed a patchwork of green square fields on the ground, surrounded by the ubiquitous brown of the desert. Then, the brown ended abruptly, and we flew above verdant fields extending to the horizon in every visible direction. Only later did I learn that this province is perhaps the most productive poppy-growing area in Afghanistan, and perhaps in the world, so probably what we had seen were mainly poppy-fields. Sadly, the region has the capability to provide sufficient food for the entire country, but currently does not produce enough even to support itself. As a result, most foodstuffs are imported, and convincing farmers that they should divert from the highly profitable yield that comes from poppies to something with more societal acceptance but less revenue is no easy task, particularly when encouraged to continue their current enterprise by criminal elements offering greater profits, and doing so at the point of a gun.

British Meals – The British and the imbedded team were terrific hosts. We went through their version of a mess hall, and I was ready to transfer down just for the food! I ate sirloin steak with mushrooms, but have done the same at many of our own mess halls in Iraq as well as right here at Leatherneck. However, the deserts were beyond anything I have known either here or in Iraq. Generally, I stay away from deserts so as to keep my youthful figure, but last night I indulged. There was bread-pudding, thick, rich chocolate ice cream, crumpets, and every other sort of British pastry imaginable.

British Detail – Walking from the airfield on arrival, I had noticed another peculiarity not noticed in such profusion anywhere else that I have been – a full, well-kept British garden, complete with paths and a covered seating area. I passed it again this morning on the way back from the shower, and have to admit to an immediate increase in spirit from seeing the myriad colors. To be fair, at Leatherneck, there is a small lawn with a rose garden (not yet in bloom).

Aboard a Mastiff – Business finished, this morning we loaded into vehicles for the ride back to home station. I rode in a vehicle called a “Mastiff.” It is shorter in height than an MRAP, but seems to seat the same number of people. The low silhouette decreases the sense of impending roll-over when driving parallel to a grade or when going around curves, but it can also jolt the senses (but so can the MRAP) – this Mastiff hit one bump particularly hard, and I can promise that within thirty seconds, I had secured my helmet on my head so that I did not have a repeat of the clanging in my skull from having bounced off the reinforced armored ceiling.

They’re All Our Guys – I rode with a squad of Scottish soldiers, and was thus fortunate to observe them being themselves as the trip proceeded. It was about a 3-hour journey, and so after initial courteous exchanges, they settled into their normal routine and ways of being – they joshed and joked and cajoled each other, and finally relaxed into snoozing interrupted by the incessant vibration and jolting of the Mastiff. Meanwhile, the gunner manned his turret. Aside from the British-flag patch on their shoulders, any of these fine young men could have been our own sons – they face dangers willingly, competently, and with good humor.

Color In Bleak – If keeping track of uniforms is to be a guide, this is a strange war in which to keep track of “friendlies.” The US Army has two uniforms in common use now, which is different from the Marines, which is also different from the Air Force. I have seen the Navy wear at least two different uniforms; then, throw in the Brits (which differ by regiment which seem to differ by which of the British Isles a unit hales from). I have already also met Danes, Estonians, Aussies, and of course, members of the Afghan National Army. I think this place could be described as a boiling-pot, with perhaps a more direct application of physical heat of various types.

First Glimpses Up Close – In any event, the only windows in the back of the Mastiff in which I rode is in each of two panels in the back door, and they were still coated with caked-on mud formed from the dust layered there that was then fixed in place by the recent rains. I strained to see through them, and surprisingly, came away with images and impressions that began to provide a sense of this region of Afghanistan. One of the first images was of a man on a motorbike. He had a long, white, flowing beard, and white flowing robes with a black turban, and he maneuvered through traffic and between vehicles of our convoy with impressive agility. Then, I noticed small panel trucks festooned with colorful articles that I could not make out, but given the numbers of these trucks, I have to believe that the driver of each was peddling wares from them, or perhaps hiring out to carry passengers.

Compound Mud – Yesterday, from the air, I had seen compounds scattered about the countryside – they each seemed to have been built with high walls on the outside, a courtyard in the middle, and rooms around the periphery. Villages seemed to be made up of collections of such compounds setting adjacent to each other. This morning, I saw them close-up, albeit with an obscured view, but when they were situated near the roads we traveled, I saw people sparsely lining the way. As in Iraq, they took note of our passing, but I did not see eager greetings from children – for that matter, I did not see many children at all.

Within The Armor – In built up places, I made out shops, and shoppers busily moving about their business, but I could not make out sufficient detail to form any common impressions. Then, as we continued toward our destination, the sun rose higher in the sky, as did dust in response to the departure of rains. Figures I had been able to make out in contrast to a blue sky during the earlier part of our trip faded against a white sky bathed in sunlight reflecting off the light cloud of very fine dust through which we drove – pedestrians became mere apparitions. At that point, I made like a soldier, relaxed into my armored-vest which held me in an upright position, tucked my chin into my breast-plate, allowed my limbs to go limp, and dozed against the Mastiff’s constant jolts.