VMO Day 4 – Taliban determined

Worthless heater inside our tent.

Before going to sleep, another heater was brought to our tent.  The females found refuge in the ANA tent that were burning firewood and their tents were hot in comparison.  In turn, we were given their heater stove.  I also walked around the tent and sealed off all of the openings I could find to prevent the cold air from circulating through our Hygiene center and shower tent.sleeping quarters.

The next morning, we woke up and felt a difference in temperature.  The outside temperature was warmer and the additional heater increased our ambient temperature by 5 degrees inside the tent.  Before going to chow we shaved, showered, brushed our teeth, etc.  The shower tent is a bit of ingenuity.  The

Shower instruction sign.

water heater is rigged to the Humvee engine.  Posted on the outside hygiene station are the instructions how to use it.

Me prepping my whiskers.

Before we went to the school to set up, we received intelligence of a possible suicide bomber with plans to disrupt our activities.  Since the road leading up to the school was

Afghan females waiting in their own separate area to enter VMO site.

narrow and heavily guarded, I expected the bomber to be a man dressed in a burqa.  As a matter of precaution, everyone is searched by the ANA and ANP before entering the facility.  Respecting the Afghan culture, female soldiers search the village females in a separate enclosed location.

Today the lines grew rather long and it was a

Patient being transported to VMO site in a wheelbarrow.

non-stop flow of people patiently waiting to see the doctor and be given some HA.  While outside, I took some pictures of the villagers lining the road.  Coincidentally, an elderly man was being transported by a wheelbarrow.  The Army soldier told me to return inside due to the suicide

ANA medics in pharmacy.

bomber threat and this patient would have to be searched thoroughly.  Inside the hallways were lined full of people waiting by the pharmacy for their medicines and another line by the HA room.  The Army Captain decided to empty his connex of HA and before long there was no standing room inside the HA center.  Every customer was being

Little boy with his HA goodies.

issued a wool blanket, clothing, socks, wind-up radio and a limited supply of children’s shoes.  The Navy Petty Officer and I continuously pumped air into deflated soccer balls.  On several occasions I would hand the soccer balls to the young boys just to see the expressions on their faces.  They were too young to differentiate between a Muslim and an infidel.  In their eyes, all they saw was a generous man handing

Navy Petty Officer pumping up soccer balls.

them a soccer ball.

I also noticed some repeat customers too.  They were wearing different clothing today.  The female medics made this same observation too.  They grew suspicious when the women would not reveal their faces to them, even though they were in segregated privacy and no males would be able to see them.  The local

Afghan grandfather with grandson.

ANP officers also visited.  They would change out of their uniform and put on civilian clothes to appear like a villager.  Some of these people returned 4-5 times.  On a few occasions, I would stop them and question them with the aid of my interpreter.  Others, I recognized and would take their HA voucher so they wouldn’t be issued anything.

Through our interpreters, we learned many of today’s visitors left early in the morning and walked a long distance to get here.  A decision was made to stay open late and try to accommodate as many villagers until the medicines and HA run out.  The suicide bomber threat never materialized.  In my opinion, the villagers reached an agreement with

Afghans waiting in line for HA.

the Taliban so they could get free HA and not be attacked in the process.  I’m also certain some of the extremists visited our site to gather intelligence along with receiving free HA items.   This happens at every site we visit.  But today and yesterday was a small victory.  The insurgents tried to scare away the villagers by instilling fear and attacking our people and

Children waiting at pharmacy for vitamins.

location, yet that didn’t dissuade them from not visiting.  Our best guess is we treated over 1300 patients and probably gave HA to about 1500-1800.  Due to repeat visits from the same person, it was hard to keep a valid tally.

It was getting late in the day and the pharmacy ran out of powdered milk, children’s vitamins, and a variety of other

Little Afghan boy and his sister get HA.

medications.  The command was given to shut down the operation and load the remaining supplies on the back of a pick-up truck.  My teammates were anxious to return to camp and rest.

After dinner I called for a team meeting to discuss our departure mission brief.  But we also had a special surprise for the female AF Lt.  Today was

AF Capt presenting AF Lt her birthday present.

her 27th birthday and we wanted to do something special for her.  I managed to get a blue berry muffin from the chow hall and the Captain inserted a match stick to serve as a candle.  Then he presented her a gift from the team.  It was a traditional blue burqa commonly worn by Afghan women.  On the trip down here, the Captain and I joked about doing this and we made it happen.  This will be one birthday she will never forget and now she has a unique souvenir to remember it by.

Illumination rounds light up the sky.

Before we called it a night, the Army lit up the sky with some illumination rounds.  I’m uncertain if someone saw movement in the mountains or they were just practicing.  I also saw a few shooting stars streak through the sky.  A few nights ago, I had hoped to see the Leonid meteor shower, but it was too cold outside and I didn’t.  This would be our last night in our refrigerator tent, because tomorrow we would start our trek back to our home camp.

Camp memorial service for Capt. Matthew Freeman

Freeman memorial service 050The rest of Captain Freeman’s team finally arrived in country.  Captain Freeman arrived several weeks ahead as part of the advance team.  Instead of a being a reunion of Marines, they would attend their teammate’s memorial service.  Unlike some of the previous services held here, this one was a bit different.  To begin the service, several songs were played.  Marines holding helmet,weapon, and boots.Three Marines stood stoically 1 pace in front of a wooden box.They were holding the symbolic helmet, weapon, combat boots, and identification tags.  On cue, a Marine inserted the M-4 rifle bayonet into the wooden slot.  The helmet was then placed on top of the butt stock.  A set of identification tags were draped over the pistol grip and a pair of combat boots was positioned on each side of the bayonet.   Freeman memorial service 051On an adjacent table with a white cloth were two pictures of Captain Freeman along with his Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals.

At the podium, several speakers spoke about the life of Captain Matthew Freeman and the Army Chaplain provided some spiritual words too.  Behind the memorial, stood several rows of Marines, Airman, Soldiers, and Sailors at attention.  Freeman memorial service 014A roll call was announced and Capt Freeman did not respond to his name being called out.  Seven Marines who assumed the position of Honor Guard stood ready with their weapons.  With crack precision they raised their weapons to their shoulders and fired a volley of shots.  A command was given and the entire formation came to attention and rendered a sharp salute.  In the background, the somber notes of “Taps” echoed across the speaker.

Single file line waiting to pay respect.Once the final note of “Taps” was played, everyone formed a single line to pay their final respects to Captain Matthew Freeman.  One by one, each person approached the memorial.  After executing a facing movement, they slowly brought their right hand up from their side and performed a precision salute.  Then each member would remove their hat and kneel in front of the memorial.  Marine paying final respect.Some personnel would touch the helmet, while others touched the boots or held the identification tags in their hands.  A few individuals placed mementoes at the memorial to include a Sergeant Major insignia, Army metal cross sabers, patches, and the Marine Corp emblem.  Although I stood a few paces away, I could feel the powerful emotions expressed by his teammates.  Freeman memorial service 044It just wasn’t Marines saying their final goodbye, instead this long line was composed of Army, Air Force, Navy, and some coalition forces from Turkey and Greece.  We all felt the same way; we have lost another brother in arms.

It’s not easy taking these pictures because at times I feel as though I’m violating a person’s privacy.  Freeman memorial service 042But at the same time, I also know the families appreciate them.  After everyone filed through, I also approached the memorial.  I recognized his picture and recall seeing him at the dining hall when he first arrived.  I knelt down and held on to his ID tags and said “Capt Freeman, your death was not in vain and you are a hero.”

Later that night, I was invited to the pavilion area to smoke a cigar with the Marines.  I felt honored and was curious if this was a Marine tradition.  The pavilion was filled with smoke and Marines smoking cigars in honor of Capt Freeman; even Marines who don’t smoke still honored him.

Marine Captain Matthew Freeman

Marine Captain Matthew Freeman

As you can see here (and in the additional slide show pictures), he enjoyed a good cigar.   Not just any cigar either.  Over here, it’s rather easy to buy foreign-made cigars and Capt Freeman had an exquisite taste for them.  I too, participated in the honorary cigar smoking.  This is when one of his teammates gave me a CD with pictures on it.  I also learned a few more things about Captain Freeman.  His team was working on a motto and had plans to have it embroidered on their t-shirts.  According to his team, Capt Freeman with the assistance of his newly married wife Teresa crafted “Locus Pendeo”.  This is a Latin variant for situation dependent meaning—making the right decisions based on the situation on hand.  In honor of Capt Freeman, they have adopted this motto.  In the words of his Marine Staff Sergeant teammate, “I think he lived up to it [motto], taking in the situation around him, analyzing it to the best of his ability, and based his actions on his conclusion.”

Promotion to Capt., USMC

Promotion to Capt., USMC

Through my blog and talking with others, I was able to find out some interesting information too.  Captain Freeman came from a proud military family.  Son like father, they both graduated from the US Naval Academy and flew fighter jets.  Capt Freeman initially flew the Navy Harriers and then trained on C-130 aircraft.  He also served as a General’s aid.   When he was promoted to Captain, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was present at the Army-Navy football game and posed for a picture.

Semper Fidelis Captain Matthew Freeman, may God comfort your family and rest your soul.

Please take a moment to click on the link below and read the documents announcing Capt. Freeman’s Bronze Star for Valor.

Capt. Matt Freeman Bronze Star documents

If you’d like to have the slide show move faster, click on the “+” sign in bottom left corner to reach desired speed. You can also click on “View all images” and look at the photos at your own pace.

Some additional notes:  Family members can request the video and all of the pictures of the memorial service through the Casualty Assistance Officer.  Michael Jordan, freelance photographer and president of Cosmos Mariner Productions was also present.  He will incorporate the memorial service into a movie he has been filming for the past few days.

Scorpion and Social Media Websites

Internet connectivity has been like a roller coaster lately.  Despite paying $90 a month for private Internet, it hasn’t been reliable.  This creates a challenge for me to post my blog entries.  The connectivity at MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center) isn’t much better either.  The other night it took an hour to send 2 pictures to my wife.  Normally we are limited to 30 minutes, but if no one is waiting, you can stay on longer.  Thursday night I briefly talked to a Tampa Tribune reporter about this topic.  He was writing a story about military and social networking.  Just recently rumors have spread about cutting off access to websites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

This DoD photo appeared in Wired with no additional information about its origin

This DoD photo appeared in Wired with no additional information about its origin

The uncaptioned and undated DOD picture in the Wired.com article (by Noah Shachtman published on July 30, 2009) is a bit misleading because the soldier appears to be using a laptop in a tent.  I seriously doubt this is a government system.  It might surprise some of my readers that I would support the ban with a caveat that there should be exceptions.
Maintaining the morale of the troops is extremely important in a combat zone.  One of the biggest morale multipliers is being able to communicate with family and loved ones.  Prior to the adoption of computers, soldiers relied on snail mail and telephone calls.  During DESERT STORM era, we utilized email because these other social media websites weren’t in existence.  But now, we have a large variety of mediums to choose from to communicate with our families.  If I understand the articles circulating on the webcorrectly, the DOD is trying to protect government resources from hackers and increase bandwidth.  I personally don’t think security is a real issue because the same message can be sent via email.
As such, I would support this ban for the following reasons.  First, active duty military should not be using government resources to post on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.  This is why we have MWR centers or private resources offering these services.  Secondly, if military personnel are using these sites during duty hours, then they are not being productive at work.  These sites slow down the bandwidth making it difficult to process official business.  It’s already frustrating that we wait several minutes for official sites, emails, briefings, etc to download.  But it’s even more irritating when you find out the reason is because personnel are downloading unofficial pictures or using social media websites.  Lastly, the ban is only targeted at the social media websites and not at email which is easily accessed.
Earlier I mentioned about a caveat or exceptions.  The only exceptions I would support are the troops who are stationed in remote combat outposts who have scarce resources and cannot connect to private Internet, use cell phones, etc.  They do not have running water, cook their own food, wash their clothes in a barrel and use bottled water to take a mini-shower.  Their only lines of communication are usually satellite communications using government resources.  Provided it doesn’t interfere with the mission or security, these troops should be allowed to use government resources to access these sites.   Regardless, we will still follow the guidance published by DOD and our commanding officers.

Scorpion found at the library-tea shop location

Scorpion found at the library-tea shop location

On a side note, while working on the library-tea shop project one of the ANA soldiers found a live scorpion.  He wore gloves and insisted on giving me a gift.  The scorpion attempted to sting him and he tossed into the air.  Omid my interpreter is deathly afraid of these arthropods and jumped back leaving out a girlish scream. Not wanting to insult my host, I found a water bottle and the soldier stuffed it through the circular opening.  I think he broke off the metasoma (tail) in doing so.  This is the second scorpion I’ve seen since being here.

Radio interview June 25, 2009

Click on this link to hear the latest interview segment with WUSF Radio’s Bobbie O’Brien.

My Last Tour: Going to School

Friday or Jumaa in Afghanistan

Today is Friday or Jumaa in Afghanistan.  This is the day that most Afghans take off instead of Saturday and Sunday as we practice in the US.  Generally they work ½ day on Thursday and are off on Friday and start a new work week beginning on Saturday.  However, just because they are enjoying their weekend, doesn’t mean we get the same day off.  Usually this is a day used for training and honing our combat skills, vehicle maintenance, etc.  It also doesn’t mean every Afghan soldier takes this day off either, because this would make them vulnerable to attack. I can’t speak for the Taliban, but I presume they take a break now and then too.
Camp Activities 024

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The Afghan Solar Chronological Calendar is rather unique and complex to use too.  For starters, they are in the year of 1388.  No, this is not a misprint; they are in the solar perpetual calendar year of 1388.  If my calculations are correct, today is 1 Jawza 1388.  Or it can be written as 8063 which translates to the 63rd chronological day of the year 1388.  If you are scratching your head, you are not alone.  I don’t pretend to understand it, but the Afghans use it in the same manner as we utilize our calendars.  To complicate matters, Jawza is actually the 3rd month in the solar calendar.  Note:  I’m using a printout from year 1386 and added 2 years to it for my calculation.  I couldn’t decipher the Arabic writing on the Dari calendar and this was the only English conversion chart available.

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The country band that was supposed to perform is not coming.  They were delayed at another FOB and arranging transportation for them to fly here became a challenge.  This is the 2nd attempt in trying to get some USO entertainment here in the past year and neither have been successful.  One other activity took place at the small fitness center this afternoon.  Camp Activities 022Our camp held a weightlifting contest and it was based on your body weight and then how much weight you could lift.  An AF member won the men’s contest by bench pressing 335 pounds for his weight class.
It was a clear day, so I took a picture of the mountains surrounding our camp. Camp Activities 001 The other picture is that of my teammates in their PT gear relaxing in the Cigar Lounge Pavilion. Camp Activities 004 Later in the evening, a group of AF members played volleyball.  Note the net is the width of the space between the buildings and the horseshoe pit in the background.Camp Activities 026

WUSF Radio interview – Rocket attack, IED, etc.

From Liisa: To hear Rex’s latest radio interview with WUSF Radio 89.7 FM, follow this link: My Last Tour: Rocket Attack

It aired on Morning Edition and on All Things Considered around 4:30 pm.

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