Coming home

At home at last.

Despite delays caused by regime overthrow in Manas, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, a refueler strike in the Azores and delays caused by aircraft maintenance…. After 60 hours of sleeping in chairs – I am home at last! Warmest thanks to my wife Liisa’s former teaching assistant Sarah Wilson for this homecoming video. (If you are looking for information about the “School Supplies for Afghan Children” project, please click on the tab at the top of this page.)

Air Force Band of Brothers

A long year has finally come to an end.  We are still spending our last days in Ali Al Salem AB, Kuwait waiting for the “Freedom Bird” to transport us to BWI Airport.  Here we will say our goodbyes and each of us will take a different connecting flight back to our homes and to our families who are anxiously awaiting our arrival.  It will be a bitter sweet moment when this happens.  It has been a long year we’ve shared together.

Helping to rescue Afghan family after a bad car accident at J-Bad Pass in June 2009.

When you live, sleep, and eat with a group of men over a year’s period of time, you develop a bond that is not only professional but personal as well.  These are the same team members you entrust your life to when going on a mission outside the wire.  But the bond my Air Force brothers shared was rather unique and I never experienced this type of closeness on any other deployments in the past.  Prior to this deployment, most of us had never met or knew each other.  We were assembled as a team at Fort Riley, Kansas.  Of the 10 personnel featured in the photograph, 8 of us were on the same team and shared the same open-bay sleeping quarters and trained together as a team.

My ETT Team displaying their Bronze Star Medals.

When you have this type of an arrangement, it’s hard not to learn about the personal lives, ambitions, and goals of your fellow members.  Even though we had a rank structure to include officer and enlisted, we established a strong bond of unity and personal friendship.  Being assigned to the Army had its challenges, but we learned the Army procedures and before long, we were conducting our own missions using Army vehicles and weaponry.  Our journeys took us outside the wire to some very remote villages.  Whether you were a gunner, driver, or truck commander, everyone played an integral role and you learned to trust each person with your life and theirs in return.  Unlike many teams who struggle with the forming and storming stage, our team quickly advanced past the norming stage and moved into the performing phase.  Bottom line:  We were damn good at what we did and efficient at how we did it!

Traveling through the Uzbin valley.

Our primary mission was to mentor the Afghan National Army (ANA) on logistics processes.  First, we had to understand the basic Afghan supply system patterned after the Army’s antiquated supply processes.  Then we were expected to advise our ANA counterparts on the intricacies of this logistics process.  Not only did we succeed, but collectively we excelled at our first camp with our ANA counterparts.  Our ANA Kandak was awarded the Minister of Defense’s Capability Milestone 1, which is the highest rating a unit can receive and the warehouse area was lauded as “best seen to date.”  So this was testament to what our team could achieve.

Jorga (village meeting) in Yakdand Mountains.

Not only did we accompany our ANA counterparts on logistics missions, we went on joint humanitarian missions to some secluded villages nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains.  While on these journeys we saw poppy fields as far as the eyes could see and crude mud brick houses without electricity.  I affectionately called this “driving through the Old Testament area.”  We saw towering mountains and climbed a few along the way too.  It truly was an experience!!  Despite being exposed to the perils of rockets, mortars, RPGs, small arms fire, IED devices, and planned Taliban ambushes, we came out of this deployment unscathed.

Capt Matthew Freeman memorial Camp Blackhorse Aug. 2009

Unfortunately, we attended the memorial services of our camp mates and mourned for those who had their life taken by the insurgents we are at war with.  These men and women are the true heroes and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

In the end, the US Army recognized our accomplishments as well and awarded my entire team Bronze Star Medals for “Exceptionally meritorious service in support of Operation Enduring Freedom … personal courage and commitment to mission accomplishment in a combat zone, under the most extreme of circumstances, greatly contributed to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom.”  What makes this medal so unique (without being self-serving) is that this is an Air Force team who was given an Army mission and performed remarkably in a combat zone.  I don’t know how many Air Force teams can make this same claim because it’s truly a unique accomplishment.  In fact, as the Army migrates to the “partnership concept”, the

We helped treat this little girl during a village medical mission in June 2009; her nose was rotting away from Mucocutaneous Leishmaniasis disease.

Embedded Training Teams (ETT) will disappear.  We were one of the last Air Force ETT teams left in Afghanistan and can proudly mark our place in history.

Tomorrow we fly our final leg of this journey together and then will go our separate ways when we land in Baltimore. It’s not a final goodbye because I have a feeling sometime in the future we will see each other again.  But this will be the last time we serve in this capacity as a team.  To my Air Force Band of Brothers, it was an honor and a privilege to serve with you.  I wish you all the best and to your families who are anxiously awaiting your return.  We can be proud of what we did and let us never forget, freedom is not free.

Leaving Afghanistan, Parting pictures

Inside the C-17 aircraft.

As I write this entry, we are on board an Air Force C-17 aircraft flying to Al Udeid AB, Qatar.  Originally, we were supposed to fly into Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan.  But ever since the uprising it has affected our travel plans.  One day they are accepting inbound and outbound flights.  The next day all flights are suspended.  Nobody on my team projected a regime overthrow in Kyrgyzstan; therefore our departure mission has been see-sawing back and forth.

Throwing concrete at the wall.

Yesterday I made my final trip to ANA land.  At one of the entrance gates, some Afghan local employees were working on a new building.  It was a bit comical to see how they were applying the concrete mixture to the exterior wall.  They would use their trowels and scoop up a gob of concrete and then throw it at the wall.  Only half of it would stick, but they were persistent with this process.  Then another employee would come along and smooth out the concrete.  I guess this additional layer of concrete is to strengthen the integrity of the concrete block wall.

Smoothing out the concrete wall.

I met up with Omid and had hoped to see the ANA Sergeant Major one last time.  We went to his office and found out he was still out on mission.  So I will never know what kind of a cook the SGM is.  I still appreciate his gesture of kindness and wish him and his family the best.

Our next stop was the Kandak Assistant Religious Officer’s office.  He wasn’t there, but the ANA Mullah was present.  He invited us in for some tea.  He seemed to be upset about something.  I learned his superior was trying to take away the cell phone I had presented to him.  Somehow, this person was under the impression I gave the phone to the Mullah to present to him.  This officer is also a former Mujahedeen commander, but I never had the opportunity to interview him.  Based on my research, he was one of the financial managers for Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance.  He also had a dislike for Americans.  I rectified the cell phone issue and the Mullah was happy.  We drank our tea (my last cup of chai in Afghanistan) and said our goodbyes.

The rest of the day I spent packing my gear, uniforms, books, etc.  I was quickly running out of bag storage space due to my last minute impulsive shopping trip to our small bazaar outside the camp.  These merchants will be sad to see me go…lol.  But Mrs. T should be happy with my purchases, especially these igneous and metamorphic rocks that I bought at bargain basement prices.  Some people refer to them as gem stones and are very appealing, especially the corundum.  The time quickly flew by and before long it was night time.

Fastening tarp on LMTV holding all of our luggage.

In the morning I packed my final belongings and we loaded them on an armored LTMV for transport.  This would be our last mission and this time, we would all be passengers in the back of the MRAPs.  Our 173rd Army brothers would be our chauffeurs.  It was time to pass the torch because now they will be responsible for running their own

AF TSgt assists Army SFC with .50 cal machine gun.

missions.  We had a small hiccup with the radios not communicating with each other and took some time to resolve.  My Air Force team made a habit of checking the vehicles and communication equipment the day before the mission to prevent delays the day of the mission.  But this is no longer our worry and hopefully this Army team will come together as a team and figure it out the same way we had to.

As we drove through the capital city one last time, I took notice of my surroundings.  Being a passenger allowed me to look further back into the side streets and focus on the people longer than I normally would if I was driving.  It was only fitting we had to dodge around hundreds of people gathered in the market area and swerve around a horse cart.  I don’t recall seeing too many horse carts in Florida, although near my home in Pennsylvania, the Amish still travel around in them.

Horse cart in the middle of traffic.

We arrived at the Kabul International Airport (KAIA) military terminal and off-loaded the truck with our bags.  As luck may have it, after several hours of waiting, we were able to

Military terminal at Kabul International Airport.

leave there the same day.  Our first stop was Al Udeid AB, Qatar.  This is the temporary processing center until the situation in Manas gets resolved.  It was obvious they were still struggling to accommodate the large influx of passengers and clearing customs there can be a royal pain in the butt.  Unlike most other Air Force personnel processing through, my

Waiting for our plane.

team was rather unique.  We still needed to turn in our Army weapons and gear.  The Army is a real stickler for accountability and we are personally accountable for thousands of dollars worth of gear.  No inventory, except for the weapons was performed.  Instead, we filled out name tags and attached them to our bags of gear.  Some of it has to be shipped to Manas AB, once they start allowing flights, while the majority of the gear and weapons will be returned to Fort Riley, Kansas.  Either way, it was a relief to return these items.

Our team before leaving.

Lady Luck was still smiling on us and we caught another flight to Ali Asaleem AB, Kuwait.  This place is great and I am nicknaming it “Air Force Club Med”.  To be cont’d…..

Last in country radio conversation

Rex with his MRAP on a mission in Afghanistan.

From Liisa, SMSgt Temple’s wife: Rex is on his way home; he’s made it to Ali Asaleem, Kuwait. Before leaving his camp in Afghanistan Rex did one last “in country” interview with WUSF Radio’s Bobbie O’Brien about his deployment year, which aired last night in Tampa during NPR’s “All Things Considered” and again this morning during “Morning Edition.” You can hear the chat by clicking on this link

4-15 MLT Rex Heads Home

or if you’d like to read the entire transcript, it’s available here.

Female ANA General

From Liisa, SMSgt Temple’s wife: Rex is on his way home and may not be able to write today. So he asked me to post this video about one of only two Afghan women who have the rank of General in the Afghan National Army.

Radio chat for this week

From Liisa, SMSgt Temple’s wife: Rex has departed his camp and is on his long journey home. Before he left he had a chance to chat with WUSF Radio’s Bobbie O’Brien. They talked about Rex’s recent visit with two female Afghan National Army officers. You can download that chat by click on this link  4-12 MLT women ANA or if you would like to read the entire transcript, you can see it here.

Mujahedeen Revisited

After yesterday’s interview with a former Mujahedeen commander, I was inspired to revisit him.  I was prepared to meet the ANA Brigade surgeon but I couldn’t locate Mir Wais, the interpreter.  I wanted to get his side of the story before confronting the ANA officer.  Since he wasn’t available I opted to visit the garrison Religious Officer.  He

ANA Brigade surgeon during the school supplies drop after some ANA soldiers say the convoy first dropped off some of the donations at the Surgeon's house.

agreed to bring in his revolver that was presented to him by his former commander Massoud.

As Omid and I walked to the RO’s office, I thought about the Brigade Surgeon and the allegations of him stealing the children’s school supplies.  As much as I want to confront him with these allegations, I also want to leave this country in peace and not be distressed during my final days here.  Last night it really bothered me, but my wife and some friends responded with some comforting words and support.  As such, I will leave this chapter unfinished and go forward with my journey because there would be no just resolution.  I will chalk it up to another case of corruption that is sadly destroying this country.

Major Shah and his assistant religious officer were in their office and must have been waiting on me because on the table was some Naan bread, Afghan- made cake, and empty chai glasses.  He asked Omid and I to sit down and they would join us.  Another soldier filled our glasses with some hot green chai.  It’s called green tea due to the leaves, but it has a yellow color in appearance.  In the corner, another ANA officer sat busy reading a book.  Major Shah introduced him and revealed this officer was also a former Mujahedeen commander who served under the Massoud the Lion of Panjshir.  I was rather excited to have two former Mujahedeen commanders in the same room.

Before we started eating, Major Shah presented his pistol to me.  I could tell by the way he gingerly handled it, this gift meant a lot to him.  By him placing it into my hands was a true gesture of friendship and trust.  As for the weapon, it wasn’t really anything special to look at.  It was a Spanish-made LLama, .32 caliber pistol and the pistol handgrip was severely worn.  But it held sentimental significance, because Massoud presented this to Major Shah shortly after his Mujahedeen fighters destroyed 5 Soviet Commando helicopters.  I found it ironic they used Soviet made Zeko 1 mortars to destroy the Soviet aircraft.

Pistol presented to Major by Massoud.

When I inquired about Massoud’s leadership traits, the Major could only praise his former commander.  He said, “Massoud was a devout Muslim who prayed 5 times a day” and he was not only known as a military strategist, but equally known for his kindness and forgiveness.  These personal characteristics also played an important role in his battle successes.  When the Mujahedeen would capture Soviet-Afghan soldiers, they were treated as detainees and given an option.  They could remain a detainee or they could return to the Soviet-Afghan Army and provide intelligence on the Soviet movements.  The Major referred to these former detainees as “friends” inside the Soviet Army.  Much of their plans for ambushing relied heavily on good intelligence reports from these “friends.”

Me with 2 former Mujahedeen commanders.

As I presumed, the turning point in the conflict with the Soviets was when the Mujahedeen acquired the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.  This weapon system was an equalizer to the Soviet MI-24 gunship helicopters.  The rebels nicknamed this helo “Satan’s Chariot” due to its awesome firepower and bombing capabilities.  NATO refers to it as the Hind.  After the introduction of this heat seeking system and the downing of 270 aircraft, the Soviets were less reluctant to fly them into battle and by 1989, the Soviets completely withdrew from Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen declared victory.

After the Soviets departed, there was a vacuum of power and the Mujahedeen factions were fighting among each other in attempt to gain power and control of the country.  This allowed the Taliban to rise to power and Pakistan unleashed thousands of brain-washed Wahhabism students from the Saudi Arabian- financed madrassas to fill the void.  When asked, Major Shah said the Taliban are a much tougher opponent than the Soviets.   The Taliban coincidentally is also composed of former Mujahedeen fighters.  They are still employing the same tactics against the coalition forces as they did fighting the Russians.

In order to defeat the Taliban, Major Shah listed several criteria.  First, the endemic corruption must be removed from all sectors of government to include the ANA.  He felt there is still too much nepotism and cronyism based on ethnic tribe origin, i.e.Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun.  The second factor is the people are not satisfied with the current government and they must unify.  Unity is the key and he repeated this theme several times.  Then he shocked me with his next statement.  He alleged Britain was supporting the Taliban.  I found this preposterous and gave him an opportunity to explain.

Maj Shah alleged Britain is playing both sides because they are supporting the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Pakistan.  The ISI in turn is supporting the Taliban.  For the next 20 minutes I defended Britain and the Religious Officer never answered my questions directly.  He claimed the security situation is worse in Herat because of the Brits and that they don’t suffer many casualties.  I strongly objected because Britain has the second highest casualty rate behind the United States.  He also mentioned something about revenge against the United States that didn’t make sense to me.  (Note:  After the interview I tried to discuss this in more detail with Omid and I got the impression what he was inferring that Britain wanted the United States to lose the war, the same way the Soviets did.  I recall a snippet from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates memoirs, “From the Shadows”, the United States saw an opportunity “give the Soviets their Vietnam” and they took the bait and invaded Afghanistan.)

I am still perplexed over this whole issue.  There were rumors that Britain used their helicopters and dropped off the Taliban fighters in the Mazir Sharif province.  But I explained to Major Shah, this is an example of how the Taliban spread rumors in the same way they allege American soldiers intentionally burn the Koran.  These rumors are propaganda and only incite violence, demonstrations and infuriate the Afghan citizens.  However, due to the high illiteracy rate, the people believe their religious mullahs and the rumors.

Our conversation continued and the other former Mujahedeen commander decided to join in this spirited conversation.  His father was a Mujahedeen who was killed during the Soviet occupation and this seemed to inspire his fight against the Soviets.  Seeing that our conversation was at a stalemate, he shifted the topic and directed his blame toward Pakistan’s interference.  He detailed how Pakistan arrested the two Taliban leaders who were going to meet with Karzai to discuss possible reconciliation.  He alleged Pakistan arrested them to prevent them from discussing peace propositions with President Karzai.  He said, Karzai asked Pakistan to release them, but they didn’t.

So I decided to dig further to understand the political ramifications of Pakistan’s alleged involvement.  This is when this commander informed me it’s not really political as it is economical.  Pakistan is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in support to fight the Taliban and their country is being used as an avenue to transport fuel, food, equipment, etc. to the coalition forces in Afghanistan.  As such, they make a large profit off this venue.  The commander also said Pakistan did the same thing when the United States was covertly supporting the Mujahedeen.  He said Pakistan would take their share of profit before giving money to the Mujahedeen.  So basically Pakistan doesn’t want this war to end because they don’t want to lose the millions of dollars being provided by the United States.  “Pakistan has no motivation to stop the war or the money would dry up,” he said.  This same theme has come up in other conversations, except instead of Pakistan, it is Afghanistan who doesn’t want this war to end.  The corrupt war lords and government officials enjoy receiving million dollar contracts which they subcontract out for pennies on the dollar and in turn, they become wealthy.  So if the Taliban can be kept at a stalemate, the millions and billions of dollars in aid will continue to flow in, subsequently making government officials extremely rich.

I’m glad I went back for the 2nd interview, but still puzzled about the allegations against Britain. This time I can’t attribute the misinformation due to lack of education, because the people who I conversed with are educated and seem to be very well informed.  To my British friends and brothers in arms, I don’t believe this allegation for a minute.  So please don’t be upset with my entry, because I am only reporting information from an interview.  Surprisingly, this is the 4th or 5th person who has made this same claim.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 130 other followers

%d bloggers like this: