Culvert Clearing Crew Ride

Sgt Major collapses on the floor after returning from a mission.

I was unable to sleep at night and kept pawing at my eyes. The eye drops the medic gave me provided little relief. Around 0530 hrs, someone turned on a fluorescent light and I retreated from it like a vampire. My right eye had become red and swollen and was extremely sensitive to any light. I pulled my knitted hat down over one eye in attempt to block out the penetrating light rays. It was time to inform the convoy commander of the bad news. I was unable to drive and needed to seek treatment. The closest treatment center would be FOB Airborne.

Another AF Captain came up with a solution. He coordinated my transport with another convoy that was already planning to go there. This convoy was known as the culvert clearing crew. This team had the responsibility of searching for IEDs that might have been placed under the highway and into the culverts. The culverts provide an easy access for the insurgents because they don’t have to waste time and energy to dig a hole to hide the IED. I also knew this would be a long and laborious task, but it was the only choice available and I eagerly agreed to ride with them.

I managed to eat some chow before meeting up with my new team. Everything was cold to include the eggs, hash browns, and sausage links. But the coffee was hot and I mixed in a packet of hot chocolate to make a Mocha. My ETT team leader inspired this idea and now I am hooked on these things. Granted it it’s not Starbucks, but it’s pretty tasty.

AF MSgt (teammate) at FOB Airborne.

My Brigade team packed up the MRAPs and departed COP Conlon. They were continuing with their mission and driving west in the Wardak Province to visit some more COPs. I really wanted to be with them, but my eyes had become my priority.

I met the clearing crew and was placed in the back of a Max Pro MRAP. It’s been a long time since I was a dismount (passenger) because normally I am a driver, convoy commander, truck commander and on rare occasions; crawl up into the gunner’s turret. But being a dismount, you get a different perspective of the countryside and are able to look over the mud-brick walls and see life and people interacting, children playing, etc. This view is usually obscured from the front because the focus is on traffic and the road in front of you.

For OPSEC reasons, I will only generalize. The culvert clearing crew is responsible for ensuring the culverts are clear of any IEDs or obstructions. It’s a long and tedious process and such was the case today. Unfortunately due to my eye irritation and low charge on my camera battery, I was unable to take pictures. Instead, I just absorbed the view as we drove through patchworks of orchards, fields and primitively built houses. The villagers cautiously watched our vehicles as we drove past. It was hard to tell what the villagers were thinking, especially the older men. They have persevered through 30 years of war with the Soviets, civil strife, Taliban terror and now 8 years of seeing coalition forces on their native land. It’s almost impossible to empathize because we only stay here for one year and can’t fathom the hardships they have endured.

Entering the outskirts of the capital city.

My crew dropped me off at FOB Airborne and I went to the Temporary Medical Clinic (TMC) for treatment. The Army Sgt made a quick diagnosis and prescribed me some antibiotics and eye drops and sent me on my way. Later on, I caught up with my AF MSgt teammate. He helped me secure some VIP quarters through the Army Sgt Major. I had plans to

spend the night and then rejoin my team the next day. This was also an opportunity to catch up on some rest, but around 2 pm, my Brigade Sgt Major woke me up. They finished their mission early and we were departing for our home camp in 20 minutes. So I quickly packed my stuff and met the rest of my team. Once again I would be a dismount in the back of the MRAP as we proceeded east back through the outskirts of the capital city. I was looking forward to returning to camp and to my small cubicle.

COP Conlon, Eye Infection and IED

My team pulling security with the village animals.

The ride north on the “Highway of Death” was pretty much a repeat of the drive south.  We stopped at a few more ANA COPs and OPs.  At one OP, a herd of sheep was roaming freely about.  I didn’t see anyone guiding them, but the thought of savory taste of lamb kabobs was starting to fill my head.  Maybe it was because we didn’t have lunch yet.

SUV being transported on top of another truck.

Also notice in the other picture how a large truck is transporting a vehicle on its roof.  This is a common sight here.

We came upon a bridge that was being heavily guarded by the ANA.  As usual, the ANA general saw this as an opportunity to meet and greet his men.  After our Marine Lance Corporal checked out the bridge, my MRAP crossed over and we pulled off the side of the road next to a small village and

ANA OP protecting the bridge on Highway 1.

established security.  Originally the village children were engaged in a game of volleyball, but the sight of our MRAP piqued their interest.  Our convoy commander (AF Captain) saw this as an opportunity to meet and treat the children.  He decided to share a bag of red licorice with them.  Initially only 3-4 children approached him cautiously, but when the

AF Capt handing out red licorice to the village children.

other children saw him handing out licorice, others came running for their share too.

Our convoy continued our journey to FOB Airborne.  Our MRAPs were becoming thirsty for fuel from the long trip.  Before arriving there we listened attentively to the external radio traffic.  U.S. soldiers discovered an IED on the highway near COP Conlon.  This

ANA OP proudly flies Afghan flag.

was going to be our next stop after we refueled at Airborne.  Another group also located some leftover cluster bombs.  We were certain that the Explosive Ordinance Disposal team would neutralize the explosives, so we didn’t pay much more attention to it and continued with our journey north-bound.

We arrived at FOB Airborne and filled up the

Overlook from ANA OP.

large diesel tanks on the MRAP and prepared for the next segment of our trip.  The chow hall tent was still open too.  Even though it wasn’t serving hot entrees, they still had a sandwich bar and some hot chili stewing.  The soup and sandwich meal was good, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about lamb kabobs.  When prepared properly, the lamb raised in the Middle East is much tastier than the domestic lamb in the United States.  I still haven’t pinpointed why, but the flavor is much different, even when I cook the lamb at home.

ANA living quarters inside ANA COP.

While at Airborne my eyes started to itch and became sensitive to the sun light.  At the time, I didn’t give it much thought because there are so much dust and pollution particles in the air, this is a common occurrence.  The sun was slowly setting and we were losing daylight fast.  The command was given to board the trucks and depart for COP

My eye irritation starting to bother me.

Conlon.  The goal was to make it there before dark.  Somehow we missed the turnoff and our ANA counterparts took us to the ANA COP.  It took a few minutes to get sorted out, but the ANA general would accompany us back to COP Conlon.

It was during this

PFC Paul E. Conlon

segment of driving, my eyes became very sensitive to on-coming traffic.  It didn’t help matters that most people travel with their high beams on because there are no pole lights on the side to illuminate the road and since the villages don’t have electricity, very little light was being emitted from their wood-burning stoves.  Needless to say, it was pitch dark and difficult to see the road.  I kept my focus on the vehicle’s taillights ahead of me so I wouldn’t run off the road.

COP Conlon was named in honor of PFC Paul E. Conlon who died Aug 15, 2008 after his vehicle struck an IED and then received small-arms fire and RPG fire.  In June, prior to his death, he was injured and received a Purple Heart, but refused to go home and stayed with his team.  This Mashpee, MA resident and hero was only 21 years old when his life was taken in Wardak Province.  1Lt Donald Carwile who I mentioned earlier (re: COP Carwile) was also in the same vehicle when PFC Conlon perished.

Sleeping quarters at COP Conlon.

I’m uncertain whether COP Conlon was expecting us or our itinerary had changed.  Initially, they had no room for us to stay.  So they improvised by clearing out the gym tent and we set up 20 cots inside of the make-shift gym. All of the hot water was consumed, so I waited until 1130 pm to take a hot shower.  Just as I finished, the hot water ran out again.   My eye situation had worsened and I set out on my own to find the medic.  For security reasons, no white light is used, so I resorted to my headlamp and utilized my red light.  Barely able to see with the lamp and one eye, I stumbled into the mortar pit by accident.  Fortunately I caught myself on both hands and knees, preventing any major damage.

I went back to the chow hall/MWR center.  This facility houses the chow serving line, dining table made from plywood and a handful of computers and 2 telephones to contact loved ones.  It was still filled with soldiers actively engaged in playing the game of Risk and people typing and chatting on the internet.  As luck may have it, the medic was playing Risk and went back to his clinic and returned with some eye drops.  To be cont’d …. Tomorrow my ride with the culvert clearing crew ……

Wardak Pre-Mission and Day One

Mapping out mission on basketball court

On a concrete basketball court, long strands of white tape formed segmented grids.   Each square grid was marked by their respective longitude and latitude degrees.   Shale rock would serve as a border outlining the route and signify the mountainous terrain.  A toy Jeep was used to demonstrate the route and the various stops that were planned.

Army Capt uses toy Jeep to show route of convoy.

Our ANA counterparts watched with eager interest as the whole mission was mapped out in front of them.  This battlefield drill was one of the many tools used in conjunction with PowerPoint briefings used for our upcoming mission.  Our mission was to escort the Brigade ANA General throughout Wardak Province and visit numerous ANA Combat Outposts (COP) and Observation Posts (OP).  In conjunction with a platoon of ANA soldiers, my brigade team would provide joint security for the general.     The ANA general wanted to meet his soldiers and commanders and make a first-hand assessment of their needs and quality of life issues.  In addition, members on my team would conduct their own evaluations at the jointly operated COPs.

Lining up the convoy.

Normally for safety and security reasons we would fly to these remote COPs, but this time it wasn’t feasible and we were driving.  I would be the lead US driver and would follow behind an ANA up-armored Humvee.  The remaining vehicles would align on my vehicle and establish appropriate intervals as needed.  Our convoy totaled 14 vehicles and

Heading west in Wardak Province.

we carried enough ammunition and explosive rounds to start a small war.  If we were to encounter any Taliban, we had enough fire-power to decimate a small town.  But the real threat wasn’t so much from insurgent small-arms fire as it was from hidden IEDs that might lie in our path.  We would be traveling on the section of road

ANA lead vehicle on mission.

nicknamed the “Highway of Death” which has claimed many lives of coalition forces and Afghan civilians alike.    These deadly homemade devices are responsible for over 60 percent of the coalition fatalities in Afghanistan.  Even as I write, 14 minutes ago it was reported that two more of my US brothers in arms were killed by an IED device.

Day One:  This morning was really chilly outside.  Most everyone wore their thermal underwear and shirts to combat the cold.  The MRAPs were fully loaded with water, MREs, extra ammunition, and our cots and ruck sacks were strapped to the sides of the vehicle.  We had our mandatory convoy briefing and the convoy commander said a group prayer before we jumped into our vehicles.  Well we don’t actually jump into the vehicles, instead it’s more of a climb and a crawl, especially with all the armor we have on and the weight of the ammunition and other gear really weighs a person down.  Due to my height and size, it’s even more of a challenge for me to squeeze into the armored cockpit of the MRAP.  But somehow I manage.  At times I look like a contortionist bending my legs and body before getting behind the steering wheel.

We fired up the massive diesel engines and they groaned and grumbled under the strain of 40,000 pounds of armor and vehicle weight.  But before we could leave the parking lot, we had some communication problems and one vehicle experienced a Class III leak of transmission fluid.  This wasn’t good, but fortunately maintenance just repaired our other MRAP and we were able to transfer all of the gear, weapons, etc. to another vehicle.  Although we were running a little bit late, so were our ANA brothers.  But within a half hour, our convoy was aligned and we were driving out the gate with our train of vehicles.

Two Blackhawks landing at FOB Airborne.

We meandered through the city traffic which was surprisingly light and then headed west.   But before leaving the city, one of the ANA vehicles started having mechanical difficulty and stopped in the middle of traffic.  Somehow they were able to repair the deficiency and the convoy was moving again.  Our first stop would be FOB Airborne.  The convoy was making good time and we could see the outline of FOB Airborne in the distance.  We coasted down the long hill leading to the FOB and they pulled over for a short halt.  I’m still uncertain of the reason, but have grown accustomed to this.  On other trips, the ANA will stop and buy cigarettes or snacks and stop without giving any indication.  However, this time when I tried to pull out I lost all of my air pressure to my brakes and until the pressure resumes, the vehicle won’t move.  This took a few minutes and then we resumed our drive to the FOB Airborne.

While there, we had enough time to top off the vehicles with fuel and our Marine Gunnery Sgt mechanic made some minor adjustments to a quick disconnect coupling on my vehicle.  This seemed to do the trick, but we didn’t have enough time to work the heating issue.  My MRAP did not have any heat and we were freezing cold inside.

My vehicle wasn’t the only one having mechanical problems.  The lead ANA vehicle motioned me over and was pointing towards his power steering reservoir.  Without the aid of an interpreter I was able to decipher what he was trying to tell me.  He wanted to get some additional fluid for the vehicle.  So I drove his vehicle over to Airborne’s maintenance facility.  Our Marine mechanic diagnosed the problem and discovered the ANA added engine oil to the power steering fluid making the steering more difficult.  So I got a container of fluid and the plan was to drain it at the next COP and put in the right fluid.

Our convoy departed FOB Airborne and we started driving south.  Most of the mountain peaks were snow-covered and the air was much colder too.  To be cont’d ………………………

Helo mission – Part 1

Approachng helo at LZ

Approachng helo at LZ

Instead of driving our armored vehicles, the Captain and I would be transported by helicopter to visit one of our supported FOBs.  This would be a new experience for both of us.  While we waited at the LZ (Landing Zone) we were greeted by a stray dog.  The Captain is somewhat afraid of dogs and this one stood at the exact spot where

Stray dog on the LZ

Stray dog on the LZ

we would board the helicopter.  It quickly moved when it heard the helicopter approaching.
As the helo was touching down it created a large cloud of dust and it was like slow motion as this ball of debris rolled towards us.  It only took us about five minutes to board the helicopter, get strapped in and lift off.  As we flew through the towering Hindu Kush

Remote villages seen from the air

Remote villages seen from the air

Mountains, I took note of the isolated villages dotting the valleys between the ragged peaks.  At a distance the folds of the mountains resembled a table cloth that was scrunched up.   Vegetation was sparse except for some conifers that outlined some of the villages.  It’s hard to believe that small hamlets are built in this mountainous terrain.  No

Villages in the valleys

Villages in the valleys

wonder they had to use donkeys to transport the ballot boxes for the elections.  I can only imagine how tough it will be to survive the coming harsh winters in these desolated areas.
As we approached FOB Airborne, the chopper started to vibrate.  The vibrations started in my feet and worked its way up to my teeth causing them to clatter.  The vibrations only lasted for a few seconds and then we touched down on the LZ.  With my vest, helmet, ruck sack, weapons, and ammunition, I was toting over a hundred pounds of weight.  I looked around hoping to see a small burro or donkey for transport, but none could be found.  So today I was the donkey as we “rucked” up the hill in search of a place to stay.

AF Captain in helo

AF Captain in helo

We checked into billeting and since the Army gives special treatment to E-8 and E-9, the clerk inquired whether I would mind if the Captain could stay with me in the VIP tent.  The difference with the VIP tent is that it had beds with lumpy mattresses instead of fold out cots.  I was feeling gracious and let my Captain and the interpreter stay with me.
After unpacking our gear, we scouted the FOB looking for our ANA Kandak soldiers and our future office building.  It didn’t take long to find the building.  It was the well known decrepit looking structure.  It didn’t look too bad from the outside, but I have learned not to judge a book by its cover.  Such was the case with this building too.  The

Me and my interpreter at FOB Airborne

Me and my interpreter

Marines were also going to use this building previously occupied by the French and constructed many years ago by the Soviets.  A Marine Staff Sergeant showed us to our future office.  It’s going to take a little bit of work to bring it up to Air Force standards.  The wiring was a bit primitive and the fuse box looked rather antiquated.  With a

Our future office

Our future office

little bit of elbow grease and some repairs, I think we can make it habitable.

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