Afghan Army food poisoning – Part 3/Conclusion

ANA dining area

ANA dining area

After we inspected the serving line and dining tables, I wanted to focus more on sanitary conditions.  I inquired whether bleach was used and if we could see a sample.  The ANA Captain showed me the bottle of bleach they used.  The decorative label had some catchy American name, but after closer examination I determined it was manufactured in Karachi, Pakistan.  My wife will tell you that I am really sensitive to a strong bleach smell and it bothers me.  But today my sensory receptacles just weren’t working or something was wrong.  Note:  Please don’t do this at home.  I unscrewed the lid off the bottle and couldn’t detect any odor.  This seemed very peculiar so I placed the bottle closer to my nostrils and still nothing.  By now I have a curious audience and they watched as I placed the opening of the bottle next to my nose and inhaled.  I detected a slight aroma of chlorine.  The ANA Captain inquired through the interpreter so I handed him the bottle and he mimicked my actions.  Where was the bleach?  The AF SSgt smelled it and concluded until it was tested with litmus strips, we couldn’t be certain.

ANA dish & tray washing station

ANA dish & tray washing station

Our last stop was the dish and tray washing station.  The Portuguese sergeant mentioned they would not follow his advice about washing the dishes.  So I had to see the station with my own eyes.  It wasn’t anything fancy.  Inside a small room were two giant metal tubs and a water hose.  According to the ANA captain the problem was lack of hot water.  The Portuguese mentor insisted it was a process and the soldiers were not washing dishes during times of hot water.  Well this curiosity led me to the boiler room.  I was informed a hot water heater was installed specifically for the dishwater station.  Upon further examination it was determined the piping connected to the entire DFAC.  As a result, the hot water was consumed in a small amount of time.  Perhaps this was the root cause of the food poisoning.
Although these past entries might read like a good mystery suspense novel, I’m not certain we will ever pinpoint the root cause of the sickness.  The water source and unpasteurized items could also be the source.  It didn’t take long for the word to disseminate and the Taliban exploited it on the Afghan Freedom Radio.  The insurgents took credit for sabotaging the food.  Although I haven’t ruled this out as a cause, I don’t give much weight to the enemy’s propaganda.  Any one of the potential unsanitary conditions I depicted could have caused the sickness.  Fortunately it wasn’t as serious as it could have been.  The soldiers will just have to stay in the proximity of a restroom for the next day or so.  The food samples were sent off to a lab for testing.  For OPSEC reasons, I may not be able to divulge the findings.
On a positive note and as a result of our tour, our AF SSgt is going to be assigned to the Bakery and DFAC on a semi-permanent basis.  I’m confident in his abilities and expect to see some great improvements in the near future.  Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor will the ANA change their mindset or processes.  Mentoring and adopting change is a slow methodical process.
It’s been a whole week since I’ve been out on a convoy mission.  It feels rather strange to stay within the confines of the barbed wire.  Today my team is out on a mission delivering a pallet of Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MRE) to the soldiers at a FOB.  This will be a good opportunity for the newest members to familiarize themselves with part of our Area of Responsibility (AOR).  I am currently working on some goodwill stories and hope to update my readers in the near future.

Army NewsWatch video

Current battle operations in Afghanistan and the importance of Afghan security forces in ridding the land of insurgents. Produced by Gail McCabe of Army NewsWatch.

4th of July in the combat zone

Happy 4th of July!

Happy 4th of July!

Well here it is the 4th of July.  Not much fanfare here and for good reasoning since we are in a combat zone.  So if we don’t have any fireworks tonight, this will be a good sign.  Anyhow, I woke up early this morning and prepared for another mission.

Practice firing at targets 800, 1,000 meters away

Practice firing at targets 800, 1,000 meters away

Today my team was going to the firing range to practice shooting the crew serve weapons.  These are the weapons that are mounted on our armored HMMVWs and can reach out and touch someone at more than 1,000 meters away.
As usual we had to convoy or patrol to the location.  It seemed to take forever to get to this specific range.  Even more surprising was the amount of local civilians who live nearby and the children casually visit the range.  I think they gather the brass casings left behind and sell them.  Normally we have to clean up all of our brass before departing the range.  But today, we cleaned out the vehicles and dumped the casings on the ground.
Off in the distance appeared to be a very prominent looking structure.  According to our interpreter Saleem, this building used to be the Presidential Mansion for former King Zahir.  Previously I visited one of his summerhouses by the lake, so I can only imagine what this place looks like inside.

Remains of a house destroyed before by the enemy

Remains of a house destroyed before by the enemy

But annexed to our shooting range is another building.  At one time it was a huge dwelling and was supported by its own water well.  Now, it has been destroyed and resembles a piece of Swiss cheese with all of the bullet holes and pockmarks from explosive rounds.  Several years ago the Taliban or the insurgents were responsible for destroying this residence.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get any additional information about this house or its history.

AF Lt shooting M-240 machine gun supported by bipod

AF Lt shooting M-240 machine gun supported by bipod

Anyhow, after our safety briefing my team loaded ammunition into the 50 cal. and M-240 machine guns.   A few people had the opportunity to shoot some explosive rounds at the targets using the Mark-19.  Our targets were some old metal vehicle shells and positioned 800-1000 meters away.

AF Captain shooting the Mark-19

AF Captain shooting the Mark-19

I suspect they were former Soviet vehicles.  Throughout my travels (over a thousand miles now) I have seen many skeletal remains of old Soviet armored personnel and tracked vehicles.  In fact if you looked closely at the waterfalls picture I posted during my first week here, you will see a Soviet APC flipped upside down at the base of the falls.  If you didn’t catch this detail, then you probably won’t qualify as a gunner for my HMMVW.  It’s almost as if they kept these carcasses as a souvenir to display their triumphant victory over the Soviet invaders.

That's me behind the M-240 machine gun

That's me behind the M-240 machine gun

Being it was the 4th of July, I was feeling a little bit frisky and decided to fire the M-240 machine gun from my shoulder.  Perhaps I watched the Rambo series too many times or perhaps I just wanted to see if I could do it….being the ol’ man I am…lol.  Normally this weapon is mounted in the turret and secured by a metal pin because of its awesome firepower.  It’s also made to be fired using a bi-pod.   But after seeing one of the Georgia Boys fire it from the standing position, I had to try and repeat this feat.  Surprisingly, I was able to hold it and fire a few rounds at my target.  The weapon is really heavy and the recoil caused it to ride up, but I accomplished my goal.

AF MSgt reenlisting on 4th of July

AF MSgt reenlisting on 4th of July

After our target practice was over one of my teammates who also happen to be my roommate or cubicle mate (whatever you want to call these blankets strung on 550 parachute cord separating our space) seized this opportunity to reenlist in the US Air Force.  Our team leader administered the oath and this SMSgt select raised his hand and repeated the oath.
After returning to camp, I logged on to my e-mail account and was humored by the pictures my wife sent me of the dogs sitting by her laptop.  My dogs are now “celebrities” and had their pictures printed in the local newspaper back home in Tampa.  When I get a good Skype connection with video I am able to see them interact.  I miss playing with my “boyz” and making them bacon and eggs for breakfast on the weekends.

Dining facility on 4th of July

Dining facility on 4th of July

Tonight our DFAC showed their 4th of July celebratory spirit and decorated the dining facility.  They hung decorations from the ceiling and paper flag replica table covers adorned the tables.  But what really caught my eye was the fruit and vegetable sculptures.  Normally one or two are on display, but tonight they were everywhere!  We have two individuals who are responsible for these works of art.  One is the sous chef and the other is a local Afghan.  In the future, I will have to research this in more detail.  I really think there is a story to tell.

DFAC decorative table

DFAC decorative table

Customarily I try to eat BBQ chicken on the 4th of July and they had some tonight.  However, it just wasn’t the same as being back in Pennsylvania with my mom and dad and extended family or with my wife at home in Tampa.  I suppose having to cook for several hundred people might have something to do with this.  Although it’s still early, I’m sure my Uncle Blair is preparing the charcoal briquettes for his outside grill to appease 60 hungry visitors.  This is my family’s tradition in PA.  Most of my relatives come there to celebrate the 4th of July with the traditional BBQ chicken.  The marinade or rub is still a family secret and come to think about it, I still don’t know what it is.  It was passed on by my grandfather and when applied and cooked properly, the meat just falls off the bone.  Anyhow, after my relatives gorge themselves with chicken and all the home-made covered dishes we play volleyball in the backyard only to be followed watching firework displays later in the night.  Hopefully next year after this deployment, I can rejoin my relatives and celebrate with them.
For those history buffs and inquiring minds, Afghanistan celebrates its independence every August 19th.  This date symbolizes the Afghan victory over British colonialism.  The Treaty of Rawalpindi was signed on August 19, 1919.  It should be noted that Britain never conquered Afghanistan.    Not only does this date commemorate the country’s independence but is also symbolic that their nation will never be conquered by any invading force.
Admittedly tonight is a bit of an emotional low.  Writing this blog entry makes me miss home and most of all being with my wife.  Tonight she will be at our best friend’s home without me and later on they will watch the city fireworks display along the bay water’s edge.  I will not be there to hold her hand or embrace her body to see the sky being lit up with pyrotechnic explosions.  Instead, I have to hope the sky here stays void of any flashes or rockets.  Say a special prayer for our Marines down south who are heavily engaged with the enemy.  Freedom isn’t free.  Happy 4th of July America!!

Hats off to NBC’s Carson Daly for supporting the troops

From SMSgt Temple’s wife Liisa: Rex is without Internet access for the next few days and can’t post new blog entries. So to give his blog readers some new content I’m uploading links to Monday’s special “Last Call with Carson Daly” on NBC. Mr. Daly visited the troops at Ft. Irwin and along the way promoted the “#Military Monday” campaign on Twitter started by military blogger Greta Perry AKA Kiss My Gumbo.

Just click on the links below and enjoy!

Fort Irwin Part 1: Carson arrives at Ft. Irwin and learns how to fire real Army artillery!

Fort Irwin Part 2: Carson rides in a tank and chats with troops at Ft. Irwin!

Fort Irwin Part 3: Carson tours the troop training town of Medina Jabal!

If you are not yet following Rex on Twitter, you can find him at http://twitter.com/Afghanistanlast

Teaching M-16 rifles and lunch with my ANA SGM

Training on M-16 rifles

Training on M-16 rifles

Lying on a bed of jagged rocks, the ANA soldiers take careful aim at the stone wall in front of them. Their M-16 rifles do not contain any bullets, yet. This is the first stage in teaching the ANA the fundamentals how to properly hold and aim their weapons. In the next stage they will be provided a weapon magazine to practice loading and unloading before being transported to the live firing range. After this they will receive additional instructor training so they can train their soldiers how to properly use this weapons. A US contractor with the aid of a translator exercises patience while providing aiming instructions. Note: The thumbs-up gesture is no longer considered vulgar here and is widely accepted.

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SGM eats at US Dining Facility

SGM eats at US Dining Facility

This morning my ANA SGM had very little small talk and quizzed me on military formations. Since the ANA is trying to replicate the US Army, I found myself unable to answer his questions since the US Air Force has different procedures and do not hold formations as frequent as the US Army. I saw this as an opportunity to invite him to my camp for lunch so I could find an Army soldier to answer his questions. The SGM enjoyed the western food and commented on the variety of food being offered. At his DFAC, his favorite meal is beef kabobs. Today he settled for Cornish hens, French fries, corn, fresh fruit and salad fixings. His favorite soda is A&W Rootbeer. After lunch we sat in a pavilion and a US soldier answered his questions on military formations.

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Rainstorm at camp

Rainstorm at camp

Before dinner tonight, the clouds became dark and we had some intermittent thunderstorms. I tried to capture the dark clouds with my camera as they surrounded the mountains off in the distance. It kind of felt good to be pelted by some cold rain drops. It’s the small things that give me the greatest pleasure. Behind the DFAC, I found some employees practicing their cricket batting skills.

DFAC employees playing cricket

DFAC employees playing cricket

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.

2-hour wait for phones and Internet

It’s Liisa again as Rex had very limited phone and Internet access today. He called me on my cell when I was out to lunch with a girlfriend for about 6 minutes but it was a horrendous connection where most of the time I had no idea what he was saying. And then we got cut off. Fortunately when I got home I found an e-mail and from it I could publish these parts:

From Rex:

I only have 30 minutes of computer time and I have been waiting for 2 hrs to access.  In the future, I will bring my blog entries, pictures, etc., and make the best use of my time.  We finally arrived at the camp X (for now he can’t publish his location).

I’ m still unpacking my bags, but at least I got a hard billet here and have 3 roommates.  They all scavenged all of the stuff from my side of the room and removed my TV cable and my clothing rack.  I got a new rack, but will have to find another cable.  This place isn’t too bad.  I will be spending more time on the road than I had originally planned.

Today I met with the Afghan Sergeant Major, Colonel and “Maint” commander.  We drank chai and then we were treated to an Afghan meal.  Still not sure what I ate other than the vegetables, Italian parsley, basil, and Nan bread.  One of my teammates took a photo and is going to send it to me.  I have to remember to take my camera in the future.

Rex's vest without the ammo during packing in Tampa

Rex's vest without the ammo during packing in Tampa

I’m getting used to carrying a weapon around with me everywhere I go.  I bought a cheap shoulder holster so I don’t have to have it attached to my leg.  The vest weighs a lot more with all of the ammunition too.

I’m really tired and sore after playing 2 1/2 hrs of volleyball tonight.  We lost one game to the Army, but after that, we were undefeated.  My team has adopted me as the coach/player.  I got some good spikes and blocks in too.  But now I am feeling extremely sore as the ol’ bones aren’t as young as they used to be.

Well, my time is running out.

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