Licked By A Lamb (for real)

Scraggly Afghan sheep.

Over the past year, I have taken many photographs of sheep in Afghanistan.  I never got very close to them.  But on today’s mission, not only did I get close, but a baby lamb got quite “intimate” with me.

A few weeks ago we received notice that our AF Group Commander, several squadron commanders and select staff would visit our

Dirt road leading to shooting range.

camp.  This would be an opportunity to meet and greet, shoot at the range, and if time permitting, visit some of the historical sites here.  The original plan was to meet in the morning and then after lunch drive to the shooting range.  Two vehicle breakdowns delayed our guests from arriving on time so we started the day later than planned.

AF SMSgt shoots M-240 machine gun free-hand.

While driving to the range I noticed all of the snow has melted and the craggy mountain peaks have returned to their barren ugly brown faces.  We set up our targets for the small arm weapons and mounted a 50 caliber machine gun on an up-armored Humvee.

AF TSgt gives instructions on shooting 50 cal. machine gun.

The 50 cal would shoot at an abandoned Soviet tank at 800 meters.  I knew it would only be a matter of time until the village children would show up in hopes of collecting

AF TSgt mentoring on M-240 machine gun.

the brass casings.  According to Omid my interpreter, the children can make $40-50 off the brass we expend in one outing.

Our AF Group Commander (Colonel) prepares to load the 50 cal machine gun.

It didn’t take long before the children heard the thundering pop of the 50 cal and they came running from their village.  One boy was shepherding a flock of sheep and some baby lambs.  As a safety precaution the ANA soldier didn’t want the children near the shooting range.  Of course I knew this wasn’t the primary reason, because the ANA soldiers like to collect the brass casings and make additional money too.  I gave the

Afghan boys happy with their bottled water.

ANA soldier some hygiene and toiletry items and convinced him to permit the children to come closer while remaining outside of harm’s way.  Immediately the children responded and ran up the hill to our location.  The oldest boy spoke a few words of English and I reciprocated with a few greeting words in Dari.  I was curious why the

Afghan boy on my shoulders.

children weren’t in school.  They explained they already attended school in the morning for 3 hours.   There aren’t enough schools to accommodate the large number of children who want to attend.  So to facilitate the crowds, the school normally runs 3 shifts of 3 hours each.

Now that the children were present, we would have to entertain them until the target practice stopped.  The boys came prepared with fertilizer sacks to retrieve the spent brass casings.  I went back to the MRAP and retrieved a soccer ball.  Their eyes really lit up when they saw the soccer ball.  I asked my interpreter Omid about a fair way of presenting a gift to one of the boys.  We entertained ideas of rock, paper, scissors game, drawing straws, etc.  Omid came up with the solution and

Giving the Afghan boy a soccer ball.

each boy wrote his name on a slip of paper.  Then a random slip was drawn and one of the boys would be declared a winner.  Before presenting the ball, I wanted to ensure they would all play with the ball.  One little boy declared since they were all from the same village, then they would share it together.

After I gave the boys the soccer ball, one of the little boys went running

Little boy brings me his baby lamb.

after his sheep and chased down a baby lamb.  It was so cute to see him struggling to carry this baby animal in his arms.  But then it donned on me, perhaps he was going to

Afghan boy gives me baby lamb to hold.

reciprocate and give me a gift.  Knowing this was his family’s livelihood, this would be a gift I would have to turn down.  Instead, he wanted me to hold his baby lamb.  I couldn’t refuse this friendly gesture and he got a kick out of me holding this lamb along with my teammates who took pictures.  While holding the lamb, it got the urge to nuzzle against my neck and then slurped my face with its tongue.  This was a real crowd pleaser …. lol.  After the pictures I put down the lamb and it went running back to its mother.  Now I had to find something to wash my hands, because this animal smelled with odor and so did my hands.

My AF Squadron commander wanted the opportunity to present some gifts to the children too.  He brought along some handmade quilts that were donated by a private organization in the US.  Once again the children gleamed with excitement.  They told Omid, nobody has ever given them any gifts at the shooting range, other than bottled water and MRE packets.  The children also saw my pen and asked about school supplies.  It totally slipped my

AF Squadron CC poses with children and homemade quilts.

mind about bringing some pens with me on this trip.  The boys also complained that nobody gives their school any supplies, but the US mentors have visited a nearby all-girls school twice.

While my commander was giving them some Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), I went back to my MRAP and recalled there was a box of Beanie Babies stored inside.  I wasn’t sure how these stuffed animals would be received.  Perhaps the boys were too old to

Village boys put their Beanie Babies on their heads.

appreciate them.  I was totally wrong.  These children loved their Beanie Babies which were donated by Beanie Babies for Baghdad program.  What really surprised me is all

Afghan village boys pose with me and their gifts.

of the boys put the Beanie Babies on their head and posed for pictures.  One of the boys would habitually render a salute in the photographs too.  As you can tell by the

Taliban sympathizer village off in the distance.

smile on my face, I was having a great time interacting with the Afghan children.  For a few hours, the war was inconsequential and nonexistent even though down in the adjacent valley was a village of Taliban sympathizers.

Meanwhile my teammates and guests were finishing their target practice.  Everyone who wanted to shoot was given an opportunity to practice their marksmanship.  The Afghan boys patiently waited for us to leave so they could collect the brass and earn some additional money.

Group CC visits the palace.

Our convoy of vehicles departed the range and we stopped at the former Soviet Officer club for a small tour.  Our guests really enjoyed the birds-eye view of the Darulaman and Tajbeg Palaces.  I also pointed out some of the other 14th century ruins and sites while on top of this mountain and gave my historical recollection of the events that transpired in this area.

The last stop on the visit was a tour of the Tajbeg Palace (Queen’s Palace).  It still amazes me how large this structure is.  Unfortunately it was destroyed during the civil war and is in a state of constant decay.  I’m uncertain of the structural integrity of the building, because the bricks on the outer façade are continuously dropping and the metal roofing is peeled back and occasionally a piece of it flies away during a big wind storm.  Whether it can be salvaged and restored still remains to be seen.

Momma wants her baby back.

Our guests really had a great time today.  Many of them never get to leave their FOBs and only see the confines of their camp and the surrounding concrete walls and razor

Group CC visit.

sharp concertina wire.  For some of them, this was the highlight of their deployment.  Today was a memorable occasion for me too.  Being licked in the face by a baby lamb was not on my “Things to Do in Afghanistan List.”  My interaction with the children and seeing their smiling faces reinforces my commitment in fighting this war, despite knowing they are still living in fear and squalid living conditions.  Perhaps when they grow up, they will remember me not just as an American soldier, but as an American who put aside religious and cultural differences and cared enough to give them a gift of kindness.  Perhaps one day they will enjoy the freedoms we take for granted and will enjoy a prosperous life.

Moustache March participants.

Answering questions from WUSF listeners

Here is a link to a radio interview that aired on WUSF Radio in Tampa during NPR’s “All Things Considered” last night and during “Morning Edition” this morning. This week’s interview was a little different as all the questions came from the listeners of WUSF Radio. Thank you, Bob McCormack and Sharon Mays, for your questions. (Sorry about any incorrect spellings.)

My Last Tour: Listener Questions

If you would like to have your question answered on the radio, please go to WUSF’s new website and register. Here is that link.

To register, click on the “Login” button in the top right corner of the WUSF web page. Once you have registered, go to the “My Tour” special page and click on the “add a new comment” button and send in your question.

Video contest

From Liisa: Got a note from one of the good folks who follow this blog today about a video contest the NATO HQs is sponsoring for folks like Rex – troops out in the field currently serving in Afghanistan in the thick of it. So I am posting it here hoping to give it some publicity among the troops who might read this blog.

More information at: Afghanistan Matters

WUSF radio evening report 5-15-09

Rex talks about preparing for missions

This afternoon Rex was able to call WUSF radio reporter Bobbie O’Brien.

WUSF’s morning radio report 5-15-09

WUSF Radio\’s Morning Edition story from 5-15-09

Dedicating a new memorial + Afghan Meal #2

Written on 5-14-09

The sun rises early here and rudely awoke me around 0445 hrs as it peeked through my window and around the cloth window covering.  I used this as an opportunity to walk around the camp and take in my surroundings.  We are surrounded by huge bald faced mountains.  I watched as the sun slowly rose between the mountain peaks in the distance.  By best guess, the peaks reach up about 7-8000 feet.  They appear harmless, yet beyond them the enemy awaits for an opportunity to attack the coalition and Afghan forces.  This is when the reality of war reminds me where I am.
I ate an early breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs, ham, and cheese accompanied by some polish sausage and an overcooked hash brown.  Nearby I filled a paper bowl with some fresh pineapple, honeydew, and topped it with fresh strawberries.  My choice of coffee was limited to strong and weak coffee.  I learned from Camp Phoenix that strong coffee was really strong.  I wasn’t in the mood for watered-down asphalt, so I opted to mix my cup with half of each flavor.  This seemed to pacify my coffee tooth.  Yes it’s a far cry from my Millstone home brew and it can’t hold a candle to Starbucks either, but hey I’m in combat and the coffee is hot.  No need to complain.
Leaving Phoenix 008(2)Today we dedicated a special monument commemorating the efforts of the US and Afghan forces.  Previously the plan was to sacrifice a lamb and then allow it bleed it out for a day and then feast on the meat the next day.  Due to logistical challenges, the lamb was purchased and made in advance.  The Afghan Honor Guard surrounded the memorial and several guest speakers spoke.  Meanwhile our small military flight stood at parade rest in 90 degree temperatures and a glaring sun.  The Afghan general spoke in Dari without a translator for almost 40 minutes!   Our arms and shoulders grew weary from trying to maintain this position and our military bearing while everyone spoke.  Eventually the speeches ended and they unveiled the monument epitaph.Oops, someone forgot to spell check it, so “dedicated” was misspelled as “didicated”.
After the ceremony we were treated to another Afghan meal.  This time the main course was lamb, more vegetables and leafy greens with Nan bread.  Once again I forgot my spoon, but it wasn’t required for today’s feast.  The lamb was a bit tough and unsure what spices or marinade was used if any.  I smiled politely as I separated the gristle, fat and meat with my teeth.   I washed it down with some bottled water manufactured locally here.  I’ve included some pics for your viewing.Leaving Phoenix 007 (From Liisa: I’ll post more pictures in a slide show in the coming days!)
Later on in the afternoon a group of AF personnel took on the Army again at beach volleyball.  Yesterday we played for 2 ½ hrs.  The AF lost one game during the entire time.  Our volleyball court is rather unique.  It’s wedged between 2 buildings and surrounded by concrete barricades.  The out of bounds area is only 6 inches from the barracks walls.  It makes really interesting playing, especially with the air-condition units protruding from the walls.  So far nobody has gotten seriously injured as we are all cognizant of the dangerous obstacles.  I also took the opportunity to teach two of my teammates some more advanced fundamentals of playing volleyball.  They are quick learners and have added a jump serve to their weapons arsenal.  The Army won’t stand a chance!!

My first Afghan meal

The next morning we hit the ground running and inspected the up-armored vehicles that we would be responsible for.  Our training at Fort Riley familiarized us with them and now we will put our training to use.  The only difference is every time we leave the FOB, we will go “hot” with live ammunition instead of blanks.
After we received a small briefing, we visited our Afghan Kandak.  A Kandak is equivalent to an Army battalion.  I was informed my responsibility for the next year is to mentor the Afghan Sergeant Major.  Before we would meet and greet, we had to get a translator to accompany us.  The interpreters have a good understanding of our English language except for when we use slang or idioms.  They are too proud to tell you they don’t understand, so it’s important to observe nonverbal facial cues and provide clarity.
Initially the Sgt Major wasn’t in so we stopped by to greet the Kandak colonel.  My team chief was already inside his office when we arrived.  We were greeted and offered the traditional cup of chai (tea).  It reminded me of past deployments, especially in Kuwait when I made purchases for the government from local vendors.  Every vendor would insist on a cup of chai before discussing business.  I’m convinced by the end of that tour; I consumed a 55 gallon drum of chai!
Later on I met the Afghan Sgt Major.  He seemed impressed with the few sentences of Dari I was able to mutter.  Using the translator I explained that I was a writer and I wanted the American public to read and hear stories about Afghan life.   I quickly learned he has been a soldier for a long time and witnessed war first-hand.  My interest turned to the Soviet occupation era.  He explained that the Russians forced Afghan soldiers and citizens into their army to fight the Mujahadeen.  Recall the Mujahadeen warriors were being indirectly supported by the United States.  So in essence you had Afghans fighting Afghans.  Based on my short research of Afghanistan, I don’t recall reading about this in any history book.  So I am looking forward to exploring this subject in more detail.  If I were to draw a parallel, this would be similar to our Civil War.
Leaving Phoenix 004My team was invited to join the Afghan leadership in a specially prepared meal.  Immediately I panicked because I forgot to put a spare spoon in my pocket for this occasion.  As we sat down at the table I scanned it carefully and no flatware was to be seen.  Leaving Phoenix 005We would have to eat the meal with our hands.  The cook was stirring some sort of egg mixture in a steel pot on the floor.  It was equivalent to our eggs Ranchero.  On the table, the paper plates were filled with some basil leaves, Italian Parsley, small slides tomatoes and cucumbers and in honor of us they made some sort of French fries.   After watching our hosts eat, I mimicked them and followed suit.  The Nan bread substituted for the missing spoon for scooping up the eggs Ranchero.  We ate our meal, exchanged some pleasantries and then returned to our camp.

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