No Good Shepherd

Afghanistan. August 2007.

Question 1208: What movie or book ending really left you hanging to the point of anger?

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen that Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie movie, and you still want to, then don’t read …

We were in Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan, our fifth location in less than four weeks. It was August, and everything was hot and dusty as we schlepped all our gear, weapons, and armour from place to place, documenting Airmen as they went on convoys, destroyed weapons caches, and trained the Afghan police force.

I was sleeping in a room designated for distinguished visitors, since I obviously couldn’t sleep with my two male teammates in their room. The room had a bunkbed, a wardrobe without a door, and bars over the tiny window in the corner near the ceiling. Compared to a tent, it was nice.

But it sucked.

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Reflection

2:04 p.m. – This is a photo of me taking a photo of me as a reflection in my laptop screen. Still following?
6:34 p.m. – I am devastated to hear the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction team lost four members due to a suicide bomber. I LOVED my time in “The Lion’s Den” and it breaks my heart the current team suffered such loss.

Happy Birthday, Martin!

 

Today is Martin’s 29th birthday.

I woke up at 5:45 a.m. The sun wasn’t even up. As to be expected, Miss C was snuggled in our bed with us, so I picked her up and carried her downstairs to our kitchen with me. Fortunately, she wasn’t too grumpy at first, and perked up when I gave her some ginger ale (her most favorite drink) and slid a birthday card over for her to sign. As she decorated that, I started the coffee pot and proceeded to make a grand breakfast for Martin: blueberry pancakes, two sunny-side-up eggs and all the Turkey bacon he could eat.

I prayed the entire time I cooked, hoping Martin wouldn’t wake up. Normally, when I make such a breakfast, it’s not uncommon for him to stumble down the stairs, hair stuck up in every direction, making a groggy-eyed bee-line to the kitchen as if the smells carried him. Fortunately, he stayed asleep.

When everything was made, Miss C helped me decorate a tray with our good Lennox plates and a rose tucked into one of the vases I bought in Afghanistan. I poured a mug of coffee, added some milk, and put another glass of juice on the tray. Then, the two of us crept back upstairs and Miss C was more than willing to wake him up.

“Happy Birthday, Dad!” she said, poking him in the shoulder. “Wake up! You have to share your eggs with me!”

Martin seemed genuinely surprised by the breakfast. It was sweet to watch him and Miss C share the pancakes, feeding each other the strips of bacon. It was peaceful.

It really struck me at that moment as to how much Martin has grown since I’ve met him. I was 18 years old. He was 20, just a few months from turning 21. He was soft-spoken, almost shy, and uncertain about what was in store for him in the future.

Now, he is so social and confident, able to talk to anybody. He knows what he wants out of his career and he works hard for that. And he is so committed and loyal to Miss C and me – an amazing husband and father. And others see those qualities in him, too. Neighbors have come up and recounted little instances during the summer when they saw him and Miss C together, remarking how attentive he was with her despite juggling the household and the stress of me being gone.

While I was in Ohio, I made a comment about Martin doing the laundry and my Aunt Eileen held up her hand to make me stop. “You are going to make me cry,” she said. “How did you ever find such a man who’ll do the laundry and help with the house? Hold on to him!”

It makes me proud when I hear these things, even more proud when I actually see him in action. As he cut a pancake into bites for Miss C this morning, I just watched him and smiled. Sure, the years have made his hair a little thinner, his face a little older, but he’s definitely better than ever.

What’s the Definition of Combat?

Bad guys trying to kill us doesn’t count as “combat” to the Air Force, apparently.

It’s been almost a week since J-Team 2.0 has been back at home base, and it’s been interesting to say the least and not all of it has been fun.

My room situation has been resolved. There are only suppose to be two people per room, but since there was an added bunk bed, a third person was added since I was gone. Now that I’m back, the third person was moved. I also got my clock, lamp and towels back, which made things a little awkward, but now all is fine.


We learned that instead of three people replacing our team, there would be six people. Because there is so much going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it makes sense to create two teams of three, as opposed to having one go all over the place. The first three replacements are already here and we liked them immediately. The writer is a guy who was born and raised in Germany, and he immediately started speaking German to me when we met, which really impressed JZ.

“I can’t believe you can just speak German like that!” he said. “Martin would be so proud!”

Of course, having three additional people in the work center makes this very crowded, so JV, JZ and I have tried our best to avoid going into the office, and instead, have set up shop in our rooms, working with laptops and trying to catch up on the stories, photos and video we gathered in Mehtar Lam.

Another thing we learned was that J-Team 1.0’s packages for the Air Force Combat Medal were turned down by the awards people here at home base. To get a combat medal, a package of paperwork is submitted – first to the folks at your base, then to headquarters for final approval.

We were submitted here at our home base, in a country far away from any combat, for our actions while in Iraq when we were mortared and stuck in the security offensive that night. Capt. E, the officer who was with us and who applied first aid to JB, was submitted through his base in Baghdad. Capt. E’s medal was approved to meet the board at headquarters level. Ours was not.

“The officer in charge of awards here said you guys don’t really meet the criteria for combat,” Chief Z explained. “Since you guys were behind walls, the officer here said you were at an established location, which doesn’t meet criteria for the medal.”

This, of course, didn’t seem right. After doing some research, I learned that the Air Force combat medal, which is relatively new, is very controversial, since it’s seemingly written for a war where people shoot at each other in wide open rice patties. The criteria is so vague, it’s open to a lot of interpretation, which makes it easy for an officer sitting far away from war to turn awards packages down, while those in Iraq (who live through attacks nearly every day) would approve a package. There is, obviously, no consistentcy and a lot of Airmen who’ve been in combat are denied it for one mundane reason or another.

We’re now in a holding pattern, waiting to see if Capt E gets a combat medal or not. If he does, than my leadership will re-engage with our packages.

This situation has really forced JV and me to figure out what we would like to do about it. Personally, I would like my hearing back and JV doesn’t like a lot of attention. But it was really unsettling to be told that the Air Force (at least, some officers here at home base) do not believe what we went through is really “combat.”

As for lighter news, I got to step on a scale in the gym here for the first time in two months. I was beyond happy to learn that I lost 17 pounds. I didn’t even believe it at first and I made two strangers walking past me to read the numbers for me.

It was true. I’ve lost 17 pounds since being over here.

This evening, JZ and I joined the new team for a game of trivia in the morale tent. Our team was against about eight other teams. JZ had asked me to join them earlier that day when he heard about the event.

“You head is full of all this crazy trivia and pop culture stuff,” he said. “I figured you could be our secret weapon.”

I had to smile when he said this. Martin is always – ALWAYS – asking how I could possibly remember the things I do, how I should go on jeopardy and win lots of money. Obviously, over the course of this deployment, JZ picked up on this character trait of mine and wanted to use it his advantage.

So, I joined them in the morale tent and played. We were tied with two other teams, and there was one more question: what four presidents had been assassinated?

The others looked at me with blank expressions.

“I know Lincoln and Kennedy,” said JZ. The others nodded.

“But what about the other two?” said Sgt. M, one of the graphic Airmen who worked with in the public affairs office. I sat back in my seat. I knew this one!

“McKinley,” I said slowly. “He was shot, but it wasn’t an instant death. I think he suffered for awhile before falling to infection.”

They wrote down this third name and looked at me for more. I felt my brain muscles straining.

“Grover … the fat one,” I said carefully. “I think it was the guy who was really fat with the big tub.”

I watched as JZ went to write down G, for Grover, when I slapped the table.

“GARFIELD!” I hissed, suddenly very confident. “It was Garfield. McKinley and Garfield.”

Our answers were submitted and we turned at waited for the announcer to call out the correct answers.

“The four presidents who were shot were Lincoln, Kennedy, which everyone got,” he said, looking at his answer card. “But the other two are President McKinley and … (pause) Garfield!”

Our table erupted as JZ pointed at me, and said, “Here’s our brain, right here!”

The other sergeant (the guy replacing JZ, can’t remember his name) patted me on the back.

“Good last minute decision there,” he said. I laughed, relieved that I remembered that detail. Ever since reading that article about traumatic brain injuries and ear injuries, I had wondered. This restored my confidence. We got to pick prizes out of a box (I got a pack of gum) and get our picture taken with some camel mascot that gets passed around. It was a good night.

Sliding into Home Base

JV, our team lead and frustrated travel manager. We were traveling in a convoy here.

We never did make it to Kabul.

After a few days in Bagram, we found ourselves in the terminal at 2 a.m., waiting for word about our flight to Kabul. The flight was good to go, but, as JV later learned, all the Americans stationed there in Kabul were on a travel restriction. In other words, nobody would be able to pick us up at the airport.


So, there in the terminal during the early morning hours, JV made the decision to head back to home base. JZ and I looked at each other, trying hard to fight the smiles that were creeping onto our faces.

“That sucks,” I lied, trying to look disappointed. “We could have gotten one more story.”

“Yeah,” piped up JZ. “We were on a roll.”

I could see JV hesitate.

“Maybe if we do go to Kabul, we can get a ride to the camp with someone else …” he wondered outloud. I didn’t give him time to change his mind.

“Maybe the travel restriction is a sign that we should go back to home base,” I said. “With our equipment dying, our flights getting bumped …”

JV didn’t give me time to finish. Seemingly satisfied with my “it’s a sign” explanation, he turned and headed to the counter to get us on a flight to home base. JZ and I high-fived each other.

“Home!” he said. “We can check mail!”

“I just want to sleep on a mattress,” I said. “That’s all I want to do.”

A few hours later, we were rolling onto the flight line, toward the C-17 that would fly us to home base. We all stared out at the mountain ranges surrounding the base.

“I’m not emotionally ready to leave Afghanistan,” said JV, and I knew what he meant. Although home base would offer us a lot of the creature comforts we so craved, we were, essentially, done. In a few weeks time, our replacements would be coming in and we would be in the process of going home, leaving the Middle East. After months of going, going, going, it was strange to be slowing down.

During the flight, JV fell asleep in his seat, his head bent, clutching a magazine. So, JZ and I did what any good teammates would do and took pictures of him, with me posing around him, making faces. When we got bored with that, we went up to the loadmasters and asked if I could go into the cockpit. (JZ flies these things all the time, so he wasn’t really interested.) I took my camera up there, and said hello to the pilots and navigator, trying to get good shots of the blue and white expanse of sky outside the windows.

When I returned from the cockpit, I realized JZ was asleep, so I took some unflattering pictures of him, too, and then settled in my seat with my DVD player. After watching a movie, I too felt a little sleepy so I got down onto the floor of the C-17 and fell asleep, too.

Of course, JV woke up during then and took video of me sleeping. He swears he got images of me flailing around in my sleep, but I’ve yet to see the proof.

I woke up after being nudged by the loadmaster to wake up about an hour later – we were landing.

The heat hadn’t changed at all at home base. We immediately began sweating profusely as we carried our gear off the flight line. We had to turn in our weapons, which was kind of bittersweet. For two solid months, at least, I had that thing strapped around my leg and now I felt naked without it.

The computer systems were down, of course, so it took awhile to in-process back onto the base, but before too long, we were standing outside waiting for our ride.

Chief Z picked us up and drove us to our rooms, explaining that a lot of things had changed. Our leadership had changed, with a new colonel replacing the Col. D. John, our team manager, was already back home. New people were replacing them, and as to be expected, there were some learning curves.

As soon as I walked into my room, too, I realized that Nina, my room mate, was gone and was replaced by two others, too. A bunk bed had been put over my bed, which was stacked with care packages and mail. The room was a mess, and I noticed some of my towels, my lamp and alarm clock were being used by the new roommates.

Great, I muttered.

But I didn’t have time to fuss. I unpacked my bags as best I could and spent a good solid hour going through care packages, dividing up things I needed and things to be forwarded onward to the people I’d met and left behind in Afghanistan.

Finally, about three hours after landing, I was able to crawl onto my bed and sink into the mattress, dead asleep to all the world.

Keeping Busy, Making Plans

I didn’t have a mirror in Laghman. Just as my skin was was going nuts, too.





We stayed out in Laghman Province for about a week. 

Our last day there, I went out with the provincial reconstruction team for a meeting with the governor. JV and JZ needed time to produce their images and video, so JV gave me his camera again and off I went.

It was a meeting with the local mullahs, not unlike the other meetings I’d attended throughout Afghanistan. There was an Afghan general there, too, wearing a neck brace, the result of an assassination attempt in his vehicle. His car had rolled, leaving his son-in-law paralyzed from the neck down.




I took some notes during the meeting and took pictures. It ended after about an hour and a half, but as we got up to leave and say our goodbyes, the governor swung his arms out.


“Lunch!” he said. “Join me for lunch!”

So, instead of heading back to the base as planned, we were soon driving to the governor’s residence in the middle of Mehtar Lam, the streets once again crowded with people.

After passing through several security blocks, we were finally at the residence. A black and white puppy greeted us anxiously and even though we’re encouraged to not touch any animals, some of the guys bent down to pet it.



We followed the governor into his garden, which reminded me of Disney World, with its brightly-painted pastel gazebo, walls and pots. Flowers flourished and in the middle of the green lawn stood a long table filled with food. If this was an unplanned lunch “thrown together” I was greatly impressed.

I sat at the end with my camera, hoping to get shots of the PRT members interacting with the governor, which I did. Servants brought out more plates of food – spiced lamb, fried rice, veggies soaked in an orange-red sauce. Large, flat pieces of oven-baked bread were offered to everyone. I was surprised by how hungry I was and I ate nearly everything on my plate. The air was clear that day and the sun shining, and the governor and the commander talked about their families and sons, since both had boys. Again, it was neat to watch the interaction between the two nationalities, the comfort and friendship between each other.

We stayed for just over an hour. When I returned to the Humvee, one of the Soldiers (who provided security the whole time) handed me a pastry purchased from one of the Afghan boys who sold them on the street. It reminded me of a Twinkie.

“Take it. It’s good for you,” he said. I did, trying not to think of how many hands and flies had been all over it. All things considered, it was pretty tasty.

When I got back to the FOB, JV and JZ were in the dining facility. I told them all about the lunch at the governors, about the puppy and the pastry.

JZ and JV didn’t have such a nice afternoon. Both of their equipment was dying. JV’s power source wasn’t working and JZ’s computer was being uncoorperative. Both said that getting back to Bagram was paramount, as they could probably get repairs done at the American Forces Network station there.

I agreed a return to Bagram was necessary. I had gone without Internet connection for quite some time now, and several of my stories needed to be sent out.

We were on a helicopter the next day. This time, the sun was up and it wasn’t so crowded. I got to sit on a real seat with butt support, too. The view outside the back of the helicopter was amazing. We skimmed over gray mountain ridges and wide, green pastures.



The hum of the propellers and the sway of the machine almost lulled me to sleep but sometime during half the ride, I was jolted awake by the sound of metal clanging against medal. I sat up and looked around. That’s when I saw the door gunner in action. He was shooting his gun – this huge piece of machinery that spit out bullets rapidly – down into the ridge below us. The casings were flying up around him, bouncing off the inside of the helicopter. I felt the helicopter rise up, but that was it – nothing major. In less than 20 seconds, it was all over and the door gunner casually leaned over and began to pick up the casings around him. I glanced at the other passengers, too. Some had heard it, others slept right through it. I settled into my seat. It was good to know our gunners had sharp eyes.

Arriving into Bagram was uneventful. We gathered our bags, borrowed a truck and drove to the transient tents, the same ones we had stayed in before. I picked a cot toward the middle and set up shop. We decided to check out a barbecue stand on the base we hadn’t been to yet for lunch. Over chicken and ribs, we set a tentative schedule – a few days there at Bagram to push out products. Then, we’d head to Kabul for one final event and then, we’d head back to home base.

It sounded like a good plan to me.

Just Another Night in Afghanistan

Rat-tat-tat

The sound came from just outside my window, which had long ago been sealed with heavy-duty duct tape and glue. It was about 9:30 p.m. and I was spread out on the bottom bunk, a half-eaten bag of microwave popcorn balanced on my stomach with a Reader’s Digest from 2000 leaned up on that a few inches from my nose. The noise caught my attention, but didn’t hold it as I assumed people were firing at the range near the barracks. I continued reading the jokes in the magazine.

Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat

I glanced up at the window again. Wasn’t the range behind the barracks, in the opposite direction of my window?

Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat

I sat up, pushing the popcorn to my side and swinging my legs around the edge of the bed. What were they doing, shooting their weapons out by the smoke pit? Something wasn’t right.

Just as I slid my feet into my crocks (slippers that are made of foamy plastic), I heard commotion outside my door, in the main hallway of the barracks.

“They’re shooting at us!”

“Can’t you hear it?’

“Everyone out in the hallway!”

I swung open my door to see a flurry of activity. Most of the people were like me, dressed in the physical training uniform – running shorts and a shirt. One guy had on flip-flops. Another was pulling a shirt over his head. A female sergeant walked past me.

“Do we need our battle rattle?” I asked. She nodded.

“Yeah, you’ll need it. And kill your lights.”

I ducked back into my room, grabbing my vest, helmet, weapon and gym shoes. I glanced at the bag of popcorn and magazine on my bed and sighed, flicking off the lights and closing the door behind me.

Someone had turned off the lights to the hallway, and the only illumination was from the various flashlights and headlamps. I slipped into my vest and immediately felt strange since I normally wear the thing dressed in full uniform, but I was in shorts now and my legs felt exposed. I sat down on a box of bottled water and changed my shoes, listening to the conversations around me in the pitch-black of the hallway.

“We’re heading out to our defensive positions,” said a male Soldier, clad in the battle rattle and carrying his M-16. A few other Soldiers and Airmen, similarly dressed, followed him. I knew they were heading out to the firing positions I’d seen around the forward operating base – little alcoves created out of sandbags on top of the perimeter walls.

“I wonder how long it’ll take for them to send out some mortars,” said a female Airmen. “Last time, it took awhile.”

“Don’t they need to get approval for that?”

“Just from the scene commander, right?”

“Whatever. Those freaks are long gone. They’re back in Pakistan by now.”

“I wonder what they were aiming for this time.”

I found an empty chair further down the hall and sat down next to two females. One was a Soldier and the other a civilian contractor. I pulled out my video camera (which I grabbed along with my M-9) and fiddled with the settings, trying to get it to work in the darkness.

“How long do you guys normally hang out here?” I asked.

“It depends,” said the female Soldier. “Normally, they shoot at us first, to see what our response is going to be. Then, when they think we’re settled, they usually fire a rocket or something.”

I could hear the chatter on the radios, as people around the FOB took accountability. I called out that I was part of a three-man news team, and that my teammates were probably up in the offices working or in their room. People rushed past us, barking out orders and organizing people into different positions.

I watched this with more interest than fear. While it wasn’t cool someone was out there shooting at us, I didn’t have the pit in my stomach or the knot in my throat like I did during my first mortar attack in Iraq. I didn’t even have the queasiness I’d felt on my first few convoys. Instead, while I was definitely more perked up, I was just observing, waiting to be told what I needed to do, waiting to see what was going to happen.

After awhile, everyone had found a place in the hallway, staying out of doorways and windows. Some were quiet while others chattered. After deciding my video camera was useless without more light, I played with my lever on my holster, which secures the weapon into it. I flipped it back and forth, wondering why I was even issued an M-9 when an M-16 would be a lot more effective in environments like this. I focused back onto the conversations around me. Someone wondered if a package they ordered online was going to arrive by the end of the month since mail only comes once every three weeks. Another complained about some of the shower facilities not being repaired fast enough on the FOB.

Others started making jokes and teasing each other, which made a lot of us laugh.

“Wait, there’s a reporter over here! We better keep this clean!” someone bellowed. I held up my hands, although nobody could really see me.

“I’m not taking notes! Nothing’s on the record!” I shouted, a smile creeping on my face. I never said anything about my blog, of course. But even so, it was fun to be included in the team’s banter. It really changed the mood of the hallway.

After about 45 minutes of no activity, the all-clear was given and we retreated to our rooms. I had just flipped off my shoes and sat down on my bed, reaching for the bag of popcorn, when there was a knock at my door. It was JV, who was still wearing his helmet and vest over his PT gear.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “It was actually kind of fun. They were ripping on each other out in the hallway. Where were you guys?”

A sort of impish smile creeped across JV’s face.

“I was out in the smoke pit towards the end there,” he confessed. “All the security guys in our building left and it was just me and a few other guys. We figured smoking near the barriers would be okay.”

As it turned out, it was okay. The next day, word got back that the gunfire came from the Afghan side of the FOB. Some of the guards thought they heard someone shooting at them, so they shot back into the darkness of night, not really knowing or seeing where the firing was coming from. (Americans are trained differently – we have to actually see the person firing at us before we can fire back.)

The most common theory was that the gunfire they heard was coming from the local village for a wedding. It’s common for Afghans to fire weapons into the air for celebration.

So, nobody was ever really under attack. It was just another night in eastern Afghanistan.

Tea Time With Afghan Women

These are the photos I took, featured on the Air Force website.

Afghan women love to talk.

They also love make-up, beautiful clothing and pastries.

And they are fiercely protective of their families and children.

I discovered this during tea with a group of them at the forward operating base. The night before, JV stopped by my room, where I had set up shop with my two computers to write my articles. Earlier that day, he had told me about the women’s tea.

“JZ and I are going out to get images of the communications guys repairing some antennas outside the wire. I’ll need you to cover the women’s tea, and take photos. Think you can do that?” he asked.

I had nodded with confidence, recalling that I had shot some pictures up in Panjshir during the women and children’s medical visit. Sure, I could take pictures. But now, he was standing in my doorway with one of his bulky cameras in hand, along with a second, scary-looking zoom lens. “These are for you,” he said. I eyed them suspiciously. He gave me a brief summary of them.

“I have them all set up for an indoor environment. You just need to push this button here to adjust your aptiture here, or for ISO, you turn this knob, and if you need to switch lens, pop this out here, but also, I have everything on manual, so to change your focus, you twist this here…..”

The afternoon of the tea, I found myself nervously standing in the FOB’s conference room, the camera hanging around my neck as I fiddled with the adjustments. Capt. K, the information officer for the provincial reconstruction team and one of the hostesses for the tea, was multi-tasking – setting up the conference table, arranging the pecan, cherry and pumpkin pies in the middle, while also giving me a few details about the tea.

“These women shouldn’t mind having their photos taken, but I’ll ask,” she said. “They are pretty known in this area anyway, but of course, just be mindful.”

She said the women visited the base once before, shortly after the current PRT arrived at the FOB. They all worked, in some way, for the governor of the province and were connected to other women in the community.

“It’s a good way to get information out to the other women,” said Capt. K. “Plus, it’s just a good time for them to get to know us.” She had to run off just then, so I scanned the room, deciding where I could get the best angles. I knew I wouldn’t be sitting down and eating, so I knew I’d be roaming around, too.

I felt the weight of the huge camera in my hands and hoped to God I didn’t screw anything up. I could hear the women before they actually entered the room. The chatter was nonstop. They burst into the room with an energy I didn’t expect. Their blue burquas were flipped over their faces, and they carried purses and bags with them. A few other female Airmen and Soldiers were in the room with me, standing and greeting them as the Afghans entered.

Before I knew it, an older Afghan woman with kind, brown eyes approached me. “Hello,” she said, leaning in to kiss my cheeks, once, twice and then a third time. Caught off-guard, I kissed the air next to her cheeks, too, muttering hello. I didn’t have time to recover because right behind her was another Afghan woman, who enveloped me in a warm hug and kissed me three times, too. All of the women did it. Finally, a younger woman, who looked to be in her mid-20s, hugged me and gave me the three kisses, slowly saying something in Pashtun that sounded to me like a sing-song greeting, similar to our “Bless You, Good Health and Lots of Wealth, too.”

There was a little boy, too, who was howling and crying with misery. His head was constantly swiveling around, his eyes round with fear. Some of the women grabbed some cookies off the trays on the table and tried to give them to him, but wanted none of it. I made my way through the crowd and to the office across the hallway, where I knew they had a lot of care packages.

“Do we have crayons and paper?” I asked. One of the male sergeants reached in a box behind him and tossed me a box of crayons. Another pulled a stack of construction paper from his desk. I thanked them and rushed back over to the conference room. The boy was now seated on the table, clutching a juice box and still crying his eyes out. I put the crayons in front of him and leaned in.

“Hey there,” I said. He eyed me suspiciously, his mouth still open in a wail. One of the Afghan women next to him began talking in Pashtun to him. She pulled out a piece of paper to show him. His wailing paused. Encouraged, I took out a crayon.

“Watch this,” I said, using the soothing Mom voice I haven’t used in months. “I can draw one big circle and lots of little circles and draw a happy little flower.”

He watched as I drew the flower. I knew he couldn’t understand English, but I had his attention. I picked out a green crayon.

“And now, I’m drawing the stem and the leaves,” I said. “And when I draw these eyes and a big smile, he’s a happy little flower!” The woman laughed, and pointed to the flower, saying what I assume was the Pashtun word for flower.

The boy looked carefully, now quiet with the hint of a smile on his face. I handed the crayon to him and took the juice box. “You try to color while I open your juice,” I said. Not comprehending, he held the crayon, confused, as I poked the straw through the box.

That’s when his eyes lit up, and he actually smiled.

Handing the box to him, I smiled back, nodded my head to the woman, who now looked relieved he wasn’t crying any more, and retrieved my camera again. By this time, the women discarded their burqas and shawls and took seats at the conference table, where Capt K and Capt B (an Army officer) were slicing the pies for them. A female translator was also in the room, and through her, the captains greeted the women formally, and encouraged them to eat and drink the tea, which was carefully prepared for them by one of the male sergeants, which made the women laugh. I began taking pictures as they spoke.

I realized JV wasn’t joking when he said the focus was on manual. My first few shots were horribly out of focus. I made the adjustments and tried again, with better results. Okay, maybe this wasn’t going to be too bad. During the tea, the women talked non-stop. The translator had a heck of a time keeping up with everything. There was talk about security within the province, along with talk about their jobs, families and upcoming classes and programs for the women at the district centers. Some of the women talked about how fearful they were about the bombs on the roads.

Many of them knew people and children who were killed or hurt by them. Many solemnly shook their heads, and I wondered of all the things they’d seen in the past 30 years of war here in their country. Another Air Force officer, Capt. L, produced a bag of material to the younger-looking woman, who is a teacher and conducts sewing classes for widows and handicapped villagers. The Afghan woman couldn’t believe it at first.

 

“For clothes?” she asked in broken English. Capt. L moved her hands, mimicking sewing with needle and thread. “Yes, for your sewing classes,” said Capt. L. The translator piped in a further explanation and a huge smile came over the woman’s face.

“Thank you,” she said, ducking her head graciously as she accepted the bag. Capt. L smiled, too. Standing across the room, I watched it all through the camera lens, snapping as everything played out. Joining Capt. L in the back of the room a few minutes later, I asked where she got the material. “I wrote to my coworkers back home after I saw what they were using in the classes,” she said. “They were re-using material that’s been used before for other things.

So, they went to Wal-Mart and just picked up bolts that were on sale and sent them over. That’s how we usually get our stuff to hand out, from friends and family back home.” A few minutes later, I heard laughing from one corner of the table. Capt. K was holding a tube of lipstick while one of the Afghan women talked to her excitedly, pulling tubes and bottles from her purse.

“I don’t know what she’s saying, but I think she wants me to try it,” said Capt. K, smiling. She twisted the tube open, revealing a dark, maroon color. “Yes, I like this color,” said the woman carefully in English.

“This is nice,” said Capt. K. “It’s not my color, though. I usually wear paler colors. Maybe for winter, though.”

The event lasted about two hours. As everyone stood up to leave, I raised my camera again, hoping to get more shots of the interaction between the women. Shawls and calendars were brought out by the Americans to be passed to the women. Capt. L left the room briefly and came back out with her arms full of boxes of sanitary pads, too, and began passing them out.

“The Army sends us huge boxes of these things,” she explained when she saw my face. “We seriously don’t have the room to store all of them and most of the girls here buy their own stuff. So, we give them to the Afghan women. They won’t take tampons, but they take these.”

The women were also encouraged to take the leftover pie and cookies, which they did with a flourish. I noticed the little boy standing near the doorway, proudly clutching another juice box and some stuffed animals that were given to him.

He gave me a shy smile as I lifted my camera to him. Any fear he had of us in the beginning of the tea was long gone. Throwing their shawls and burquas over their heads, the women leaned in for hugs and kisses, saying goodbye to everyone as they filed out the door. I stood on a chair over them, snapping pictures, so they just waved to me.

I waved back, watching them leave with a male Afghan soldier who was waiting for them outside. As we cleaned up the conference table, Capt. L let out a huge sigh.

“Those things are exhausting,” she said. “With the men, they wait their turn to speak. But the women just love to talk.”

I had to laugh. As different as the Afghans are to Americans, as different as the religion and culture is from ours, it’s funny how alike we are as females.

Strip away the politics, the flags, the uniforms, the burqas and in the end, all that matters is our families and their safety, our friendships, and maybe some pastries and makeup on the side

9/15/07 note: By the way, the pictures turned out awesome and one was featured as the headline photo for Week in Photos on Air Force Link!

Combat Landings Are Fun

We left Kandahar after only three days.
The night before we left, a few of the Airmen from the warehouse, JV and I met in the MWR tent. I bought nachos and jalepeno cheese dip at the base exchange, which the guys devoured within minutes. One of the guys bought all of us shakes from the local coffee shop, and I couldn’t help but think of the all the calories we were inhaling. After losing so much weight, I’m in no rush to put any back on. It was good stuff, though, and terribly worth it.

Our flight was in the early afternoon, meaning we had to be at the terminal a few hours before. Our flight was on another C-130, the smaller of the airlift aircraft. Fortunately, it wasn’t a packed flight. There were two other security forces Airman and about 30 Afghan Soldiers, who were going to be dropped off at a forward operating base. JV and I were allowed to board first, so we got two seats in the middle all to ourselves. The Afghans lined the sides of the plane, looking a little out of place on the red cargo seats. Some of them looked like they were from the very north of Afghanistan, since there was a hint of Chinese in their features. (After being here so long, the differences between the regions in Afghanistan and its people is becoming more obvious to me.)

JV pulled out some gum and shared some with those directly in front of us. They smiled and nodded their heads in appreciation. The aircraft took off and I turned on my iPod, tuning everyone out. Before too long, I was asleep.

I woke up about 45 minutes later to find the aircraft dipping into a steep turn. Outside, I could see some green fields and distant mountains, plus a sandy-colored plateau underneath us. The aircraft turned into an even steeper turn and I grabbed onto the cargo netting to keep balance. JV leaned over to me.
“Combat landing!” he yelled over the roar of the engines, my earplugs and headphones. I just shook my head. Having flown so many airlift missions, I was more than familiar with the different tactical landings, mostly the kind when the plane goes in a few circles and lands at a very steep angle on a runway. This particular combat landing business, though, was something new. From the looks of it outside the windows, there was no flightline to land on. And I was right. We were landing on the plateau, on a wide dirt road.
As we turned, the airplane dropped suddenly. It felt like free-falling. I lifted out of my seat, letting out a startled shout. The Afghans across from me, who were also holding onto the cargo netting, laughed as they watched my face squish up as my stomach lifted up into my throat. It was exactly the feeling of a roller-coaster, right when you go over the first hill. Your stomach knots and you grit your teeth, riding the wave as your body reacts to the feeling of weightlessness. Just as I caught my breath, the aircraft banked again, so steep that I could feel the gravity push me back into my seat. I started laughing – this was intense. JV leaned back over and pointed to the Afghan soldiers.
“They are laughing at you,” he said. Sure enough, all eyes were on me, waiting for my reaction. I shrugged. What more could I do? The aircraft then leveled out, and I realized we were buzzing the ground. I waited for the sound of the landing gear hitting the ground, but it never came and soon we were lifting back up into the air. The Afghans looked around, trying to get an idea as to what was going on. I grabbed hold of the netting again, assuming we were going to do the roller coaster thing again. And I was right.
We climbed altitude and once again, began spiraling down into a steep turn. I was trying to peer out of the window when JV nudged me. One of the Afghans was bent over, his cheeks puffed out and his eyes wide open. Crap, he was going to puke. My eyes fell on my bags, which were at his feet. Crap. JV, though, was two steps ahead. He leaned over me and grabbed an empty box that was stacked over my head on a bunch of bags. He pushed it at the soldier who took it and promptly bent over it. I looked away just as the plane plummeted again. Once again, I was lifted out of my seat. This time, I knew what to expect and so the feeling was less intense. But even so, as we banked and gravity pushed me into the seat, I had to laugh. This was actually fun.
This time, we landed. It was bumpy and nowhere near as smooth as landing on a paved flight line. But how exciting! I tried to look out the windows to get an idea as to where we were. But I didn’t have a lot of time to stare. The plane stopped and the back was opened immediately. The female security guard (who I later learned puked the whole time in a garbage bag) ran out with her weapon and stood guard as the Afghans lined up and exited the plane. The ones in front of us shook JV’s hand and ducked their heads at me as a farewell and then they were gone. JV gave the puke box to a crew chief to throw out (thank goodness) and within 10 minutes, after the security Airman loaded up again, they closed the aircraft and we were back in the air.
With only us, the security Airmen and the crew, we had plenty of room to stretch out now. The rest of the flight was uneventful.
We arrived at Bagram again and went straight to the billeting tents. And so here we remain for now. JV’s been busy editing his photos and coming up with a plan for our next location. We’re still waiting for JZ to return from home base with the new equipment, too. So far, his flights have been canceled, so it’s just a matter of time before he joins us again. I can’t say I’m too anxious to be on the road again. I can really feel the fact we’ve been doing this for three months now. Since I wrote my articles in Kandahar, all I had to do was send them to the news services. So, I’ve been using this lull time to get caught up on my “errands” – doing laundry, buying toiletries (since my care packages await me at home base), updating my blog entries, cleaning out my bags, downloading my pictures, etc. I found a bunch of Afghanistan postcards at the base exchange, too, so I’ve been writing letters, something I haven’t done in about a month.
I was also able to meet up with a friend of mine, Airman D. She and I went through combat skills training together and were “battle buddies” during that training course. She’s stationed here at Bagram, also doing public affairs work although she is working with the Army.
It was her day off, so we met for lunch at the dining facility. It was really great to see her. She even said I looked ‘tiny’, which is one of the reasons she’s so awesome.
It was as if no time had passed since we last saw each other. Afterward, we got ice cream from a stand here and then walked to the computer lab to check our e-mail. She is really enjoying her time here, and has taken a very active role in her job, volunteering for different assignments and all. She even gets up with the Army soldiers early in the morning to do physical training with them, just so they can’t say Air Force doesn’t pull its weight. I’m so proud of her! She plans to go to medical school when she returns and I know she’s going to do really well.
While I hate not actively working, I can’t say I’m not enjoying the time here. It’s always nice to get a break every now and then.