Organized Chaos

G Company loading truck with boxes of school items.

Now that we had a solution, it was time to implement an action plan.  The next day, my teammates and G-Company, 186 BSB combined forces and loaded a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV) with the boxes packed full of school supplies.  Before loading them, we stacked them in the parking lot by type of item contained in the

Assembly line to load truck with school supplies.

postal flat rate boxes.  Then I divided the inventory in half.  We formed an assembly line and half of the boxes were loaded on to the truck and the remainder was placed back into the metal conex.  The boxes were then covered with a tarp and parked at the Motor Pool in preparation for tomorrow’s mission.

In the morning the convoy commander set

Sand table and walk through for today's mission.

up a sand table diagram (without the sand) and we walked through today’s mission.  He wanted to be sure everyone knew their security position and we discussed possible contingencies and egress strategies.  We weren’t taking any chances even though this appeared to be a safe village.

Everyone got loaded into their vehicles and we met

ANA soldiers receive instructions for today's mission.

up with our ANA counterparts.  I was pleasantly surprised to see most of them on time, although one third of them were still running late.  The ANA surgeon was all smiles and took charge of his men.  He lined them up in a row, took roll call, and then we started discussing the security parameters.  They seemed a bit uneasy since they visited

ANA soldiers readying all the school supplies for distribution.

a different village and didn’t have a chance to recon this village.  After a few minutes of discussion and describing our security plan in detail, they agreed with it and it was time to execute this mission.

Our armored convoy rumbled through the village and as planned, the vehicles established security at various over watch points.  Omid, our ETT leader, and I went inside the school and met the principal.  As part of COIN philosophy, we wanted to give the principal the opportunity to explain

Female soldiers handing out notebooks to Afghan girl students.

the best method of distribution.   By using this process, it gives ownership to the principal for the idea.  Often we may not agree with the Afghan idea, but we go along with it anyhow.  Such was the case today too.  He directed the boxes be stacked outside in the courtyard area and then the teachers would bring one classroom at a time to receive the items.  He also insisted that

Afghan girls pose with their Beanie Baby and school supplies.

no American soldiers distribute the items to the female students, except for the female US soldiers.  It was also permissible for the ANA soldiers to hand them the items.  I had hoped to go inside the school for security reasons and then we could limit the number of people grabbing for items in the open boxes.  I was especially concerned about the boys who were gathering outside the school complex and perching on top of the concrete walls.  Nonetheless, we off-loaded the items and ANA and female soldiers set up their distribution line.

Initially it was a very systematic and organized process.  The teacher would bring one classroom of students at a time and they were given a notebook, pens, and pencils.  Most of the teachers carried a small wooden switch and wasn’t afraid to use it to maintain order.   The children were elated to get the supplies and even happier when they got a Beanie Baby.  While this was going on, I went inside a 5th grade classroom to talk with the students.  They were studying basic arithmetic.  The black chalkboard the female teacher was using was in pretty bad shape.  Notice in the picture how it’s deteriorating and the slate or whatever the composition of it is, is falling apart.  Even though I was only permitted in one classroom, this was representative of the other classroom environments.

Boys gathering outside the school building hoping to get some handouts.

Outside, my teammates along with the ANA were rapidly handing out the supply items.  Now instead of one classroom at a time, they were bringing 3 classrooms at a time.  When the children saw the free items being handed out, they ran to get into line.  The boys who were previously sitting on the walls were jumping down and like vultures, they would make their way into the stash of supplies and grab a handful and run off.  The ANA soldiers were helpless to keep them all back and we asked them not to hurt the students either.  On previous occasions I have witnessed them remove their steel cleaning rods from their AK-47s and used this as a method of crowd control.  This is not a prudent way for the ANA to enhance their image among the local populace.

The boy from the shooting range and his friends.

Among the crowd I recognized a familiar face and he saw me too.  It was one of the boys I had met at the shooting range.  He ran over too me and in his best English said hello.  One of the ANA soldiers was trying to move him back from the other students.  Despite being one of the ornery boys jumping over the wall, I wanted to give him a special gift of remembrance.  So I got a notebook, pen, pencils, and a Beanie Baby for him.  Through one of the interpreters, I explained about keeping my promise to see him again.  He was very grateful and I asked him not to jump over the wall again.  He ran off with his booty and about 10 minutes later, he jumped over the wall again and tried to snatch some more school supplies.  I guess some things never change.

Me with the boy from the shooting range.

As the supplies dwindled, so did the fervor of the children crowding around to get supplies.  The boys from outside were jumping over the wall in throngs and we were losing control of the crowd and the supplies.  The ANA started to give out the teacher

Supplies running out, complete chaos.

supplies until I could convince the principal to take them inside and secure them.  Due to the ravaging boys, we ran out of notebooks and were quickly handing out pens and pencils to the remaining 25-30 students.  It didn’t help the situation when someone tossed a handful of pencils into the air because the students were pushing and shoving to grab these items.

The female soldiers put the remaining boxes on their heads and we handed out the remaining leftovers to some grabby hands.  One would think by their reaction, we were giving away hundred dollar bills.  Our ETT leader made the call to leave the area and mount up on the trucks.  It was time to go.  Outside there were several hundred boys pestering us for pens and money.  Somehow the ANA managed to hide a few boxes of school supply items in their vehicle and created even more chaos by handing them out to the boys.  But the distraction allowed us to get back inside our vehicles and within minutes our convoy was inching its way through the crowd of students.  We returned back to camp without incident.

Convoy departing the school.

By my estimates, we handed out over 600 notebooks, 2000 pencils, and 1000 pens to the students.  In addition, the Beanie Babies were a big hit and several hundred of them were given out resulting in big smiles on the children’s faces.  I had a great time and today, we won “the hearts and minds” of these students.  Before I left, I talked to the principal and explained the importance of education.  I said, “I really believe in education and these children are tomorrow’s leaders.”  He shook my hand, thanked me for the donations, and agreed with my statement.

A Visit to the Past

Decaying walls of 14th century ruins.

My curiosity finally got the best of me and today I would pacify it.  I’ve driven past it dozens of times and had hoped to see it up close.  Today a handful of teammates and I would visit the 14th century ruins that reside on a portion of ANA land.

We were a bit skittish at first, because of rumor concerning landmines.  But I was assured if we stayed on the paths then it would be safe.  I led the way as we followed a dirt path to these ruins.  For me it was like taking a trip back into the past.  I’m still uncertain of the exact history, but I presume this might have been a garrison fortress at one time.  I have been told it dates back to the 14th-15th century.

14th century Mongul ruins.

Due to hundreds of years of erosion and war, the structure is in poor shape and badly deteriorating.  But the erosion effect provided a glimpse of the construction and architectural methods utilized during this time era.  Although I can’t be certain it’s possible the original structure was modified throughout the centuries and served as different purposes.  It

AF SMSgt peers over wall of 14th century ruins.

appears the foundation was built of fired mud brick and stone and then the mud mixture coated the outside forming a protective barrier over the brick.

Based on my research, crushed egg shells and straw was used with this mortar mud mixture to strengthen it.  Remnants of straw could still be seen in the mud mixture.  I tried to envision a

My Capt and ETT leader pose next to 14th century ruins.

garrison of Mongol soldiers living within the large confines of this structure during the 14th century.  It has been documented that Genghis Khan attacked and pillaged Kabul around 1221.  Then in 1398 the city was recaptured by the Emperor Timur (Tamerlane) who married a daughter of the governor.    Later in

Tajbeg Palace seen through wall opening of 14th century ruins.

1504, the city fell to Babur who set up his headquarters in Kabul.  So based on this snippet of history and the close proximity of the capital city, I will make the assumption this fortress was probably used by the armies of Tamerlane or Babur in the 14th or 15th century.  I seriously doubt this monstrous structure was abandoned.

Me standing on top of 14th century Mongul ruins.

Today the ruins take on a different personality.  The vacant interior has been used as a dumping ground for broken concrete, rebar rods, and soil.  At one time the ANA used it for a volleyball court too.  I looked around for any hidden artifacts, but was unable to find anything.  I’m also unaware of any plans to preserve or protect these historical ruins from further decay.  So I violated one of my own rules concerning archeological ruins and climbed up on the deteriorating walls for some pictures.  In one of the pictures you can see the towering Hindu Kush Mountains in the background.  While we are experiencing 80 degree temperatures at 5800 feet above sea level, these goliaths still have snow on their peaks.  I might also point out these mountains pale in comparison to the monsters up north who soar over 20,000 feet above sea level.  Now Honey that is a serious hiking trip!

AF Captain shoots jump shot.

With the weather heating up, so are the outside activities after duty hours.  Some of my teammates are engaged in sand volleyball games, while others take advantage of the new concrete slab poured for the basketball court.  I watched two of my teammates; an AF Captain and MSgt compete in a one-on-one competition.  The MSgt is the one who has religiously worked out at the gym and sports his 19 inch biceps.  The Captain was outshooting him 2 to 1, and I was certain the MSgt would lose.  But in the end, the enlisted prevailed over the officer….lol.

Part Two … Herding Cats

ANA vehicles lining up in convoy.

Imagine lining up over 100 vehicles in a line.  Now imagine the drivers just got their driver’s learner permit a few weeks ago.  These drivers speak a different language and you only have a handful of interpreters for several hundred people.  Your mission is to travel with them through a city populated by almost 4 million people and keep

Me in my winter mask.

your convoy together.  Within this city, most of the other drivers are still learning to drive too.  There are very few traffic controls and painted lines are nonexistent.  This would be our logistical challenge and mission today.

We arrived at our destination and the rain was starting to leave up a little bit.  The large parking area was filled

with ANA vehicles.  Their armored fleet included 7-ton trucks, wreckers, ambulances, Humvees, fuel trucks, and LTV pick-up trucks.  Most of these soldiers just graduated from the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) and were being remissioned.  Their Marine ETTs also spent several weeks teaching them the fundamentals of shooting, combat

techniques, and driving these military vehicles.  Prior to this, some of these soldiers had never ridden in an automobile, let alone driven one.  One of the Marine ETT leaders assured me that his Kandak drivers were ready for the mission and fairly good drivers.  I was still skeptical and had reservations, but kept my opinions to myself.

The original plan was to meet the soldiers at 0300 hrs and depart at 0400 hrs with our train of vehicles.  But the plan didn’t go as planned and this was to be expected.  The ANA officers were late waking up and the ANA Sgt Major had to go wake them.  Then we encountered another radio problem that had to be resolved before departing.  Around 0430 hrs, a sea of halogen

Snowy road conditions.

lights illuminated the area.  Truck engines were grumbling and the soldiers were filling the vehicles.  At approximately 0530 hrs, the first vehicles departed the camp.

It took awhile to get all of the vehicles out the gate and on to the highway.  Our convoy stretched for over 2 miles.  As anticipated, we had the “slinky effect” with our

Traffic starting to back up at accident scene.

convoy too.  Not all of the vehicles could travel at the same speed due to traffic, checkpoints, barriers, etc.  This caused the vehicles to slow down, speed up, and others to come to a standstill, creating the slinky effect.

The real fun began when we entered the city with our procession of trucks.  There are several roundabouts, but the

HEMTT pulling out damaged ANA trucks.

confusion started when one of the ANA vehicles crashed causing the convoy to come to a halt.  By now the sun had just risen and the civilian traffic was trying to get to work.  The crashed vehicle was attached to another one and would have to be towed.  However, the vehicles in front of them had left and they were unsure of the route.  So at a critical

ANA trucks slid off the road.

intersection, the vehicles started going different directions.  Unsure where they were heading, I followed them too in hopes I could get ahead and turn them around.  While we were chasing down our vehicles, we saw another fleet going their own separate way too.  Our ETT leader described it as “chasing a herd of cats”.  I motored around to the front and

got my group of 30 vehicles halted.  The ANA admitted their mistake, but they were being stubborn and wouldn’t follow me as the lead vehicle.  Instead, we would have to follow them through a side street in the town under the pretense they knew where they were going.  Once again at an intersection, several vehicles were left behind

Cows crossing the road in front of convoy.

and unsure of the route.  I couldn’t get around them, so we just sat there and waited until an LTV pickup truck came along the side and squeezed around the stopped vehicles.  This new lead truck was able to put the convoy back on the right road again.

Meanwhile, we watched on our electronic tracking system and monitored the radio traffic while my

Two cars loaded on top of bus.

teammates were “herding their cats”.  It’s a bit humorous now, but it was rather frustrating at the time.  We waited in the market area before proceeding forward with our mission.  The rain/sleet/snow had resumed making the dirt roads soupy and muddy.  Of course the trip wouldn’t be complete without a herd of cattle walking in front of my

Truck loaded on top of bus.

vehicle or seeing commercial buses hauling trucks and cars on their rooftops.  First, I haven’t figured out how they get them up there and then how they stabilize them to keep them from tipping over or rolling the bus.  But it must work, as this is a common sight here.

The convoy was once again aligned and the snow flurries started to pick up.  Less than a mile from our hand-off point, a 7 ton truck that was towing another 7 ton truck lost control going down the hill.  As a result, it caused one of the trucks to roll and damaged the other one.  Fortunately, nobody was injured, except for their pride.  This accident caused the traffic to back up and resulted in several more hours of delay.  This was a good time to hand off the convoy to the Marines who would be responsible for the next segment of the journey.

Those are some big snow flakes.

We went inside the FOB and ate some lunch at their chow hall.  The snow was really pelting down as you can see in the picture of “my Captain” and our ETT leader (AF Major).  Decisions had to be made whether to risk spending the night and get snowed in or continue without rest and drive back to camp.  All of the drivers including me felt that we still had enough energy to continue the mission and return to camp.  On the way back up the hill, the Army was using an armored Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck or (HEMTT is the acronym) to pull the trucks back up on the highway.  We returned to camp without any incident.  I couldn’t wait to lie down in my bed and stretch out after being cramped in the MRAP all day.

Operation Big Wood 2

AF Captain as Convoy Commander.

This would be our 2nd trip escorting our ANA brothers to pick up lumber.  We started our morning by conducting one last inspection on our MRAPs, checked radios, and mounted our crew serve weapons.  Today the convoy would be composed of 8 ANA 7-ton trucks in conjunction with our MRAPs.   It was a little bit brisk out so we donned a

Convoy lining up

few extra layers to combat the cold.  The pollution from burning firewood at night hadn’t settled yet, so we had good visibility.  It was a great day for a convoy.

Our convoy commander gave us our mission briefing and then we jumped in the trucks and drove off to meet our ANA counterparts.  Surprisingly they were lined up and ready to roll out.  Timeliness and being punctual is not a great attribute for the ANA.  Normally they operate off of “Afghan time” which is 15-30 minutes late.  Even though they might arrive late, we still set the example and ensure we are always on time.  In time, we hope they replicate our habit because in combat, being late can be deadly.

We cruised through the capital city with ease and when traffic started to slow the convoy, the ANA soldiers would dismount and direct traffic by making a hole large enough for the MRAPs and 7-ton trucks to squeeze through.  These guys don’t mess around and sometimes they get a bit aggressive by hitting vehicles with their weapons.  These types of actions don’t do much for improving their image.  This is where the challenging job of being a mentor plays a role.

Loading 4x4 lumber on ANA truck

We arrived at Camp Phoenix and drove to the lumber yard.    The 4×4 lumber was already palletized and made it easy to load.  Our interpreter was kept busy with instructing the ANA truck drivers on where to position their vehicles and how to secure the wood once it was loaded.  It only took a few hours to load the trucks.  While there, I took a

Chinook helicopter creating dust storm.

picture of a Chinook helicopter coming in for a landing.  These choppers really create a dust storm and it felt as though it was raining dirt when it was coming in on its approach.

The ANA ate lunch with us at the BBQ Hut.  The only problem is they didn’t have much of a variety to choose from.  The main meal was some tasty Polish and

Dust storm created by Chinook landing.

Italian sausages.  Since they are Muslim, they can’t eat pork products, so they had to settle for some grilled cheeseburgers.  But I haven’t met an Afghan yet who doesn’t like a cheeseburger.

Before we departed the camp, I visited the PX and purchased a new laptop computer.  Last night I gave my old laptop its last rites and put it back into the case. The layers of duct tape holding it together was only a temporary solution and it was time for an upgrade.   I was accustomed to Hewlett Packard products, but the choices in the PX were very slim and I settled for a Toshiba brand name.    In comparison, the hard drive was double capacity along with the memory space.  The 17.2 inch screen really appealed to me too.

We lined up our convoy and departed Camp Phoenix with new laptop in hand.  It was still early enough that we could get through the city before rush hour started.  We just entered the outskirts of the city when the radio broke its silence.  One of our MRAPs was having mechanical problems and pulled off to the side of the road.  My truck was about 25 meters from one of the busiest roundabouts in the city and the convoy commander gave the command to stop the convoy.  Meanwhile, the trail MRAP would be responsible for attaching the tow bar to the disabled vehicle and then tow the vehicle back to camp.  This is no easy feat with traffic buzzing by and the tow bar is extremely heavy.  It usually takes 3 people to lift this heavy piece of steel and attach it to the front end of the broken vehicle.

Traffic starting to build.

It took about 15 minutes to complete this tasking and the convoy was rolling again.  By now, the traffic was starting to grow.  It felt strange to get passed by two push carts too.  But I have grown accustomed to seeing and dodging these carts as they are everywhere in the city as they are one of the primary means of transporting supplies, food, and heavy items.

MATV at the camp.

We made it back to camp without incident and dropped off the disabled MRAP at the Motor Pool.  We are hoping the mechanics will do their magic and fix it in a timely manner.  I also had an opportunity to see the new MATV up close.  For security reasons, I am only posting a picture of the exterior.  The MATV is the latest MRAP model and is an improvement over the older models like the one I drive.  But neither of them is really designed for big people.  However, they are designed to go off-road and access places the larger MRAPs can’t go.   So the miscreant insurgents better be wary because of this enhanced tool we have added to our arsenal.

Blue Moon on New Year’s Eve

AF MSgt being promoted to SMSgt and pinned on by ANA General and Marine LTC.

It was an exciting day for an AF MSgt on our team.  He was being promoted to SMSgt (E-8) effective at midnight.  In honor of his wishes, he requested a rather unique pinning ceremony.  The ANA General and our Brigade Commander (Marine LTC) would have the honor of tacking on his future stripes.  We started the ceremony by playing the Afghan National Anthem, followed by the US National Anthem.  However, we learned a valuable and historical lesson about the ANA anthem.  Even though it was originally written over 200 years ago, it has changed 5 or 6 times since then.  The version we downloaded

AF SMSgt being congratulated by ETT leader.

from the Internet was outdated and composed in the Dari dialect.   The latest version is derived from the Pashto language.  At the last moment, the Brigade Sergeant Major was able to find the most current version.  This saved us from possible embarrassment with our ANA guests present.  Our ETT leader gave a nice presentation and spoke highly about our team member.  He even memorized the words to the oath that this new SMSgt would recite after him.  I have only witnessed an officer doing this twice in my AF career.  Afterwards, the ANA General and Marine LTC placed a new set of SMSgt stripes over the MSgt stripes and customarily punched the stripes to ensure they would stay on.  Since I outranked him, I too had the privilege of tacking his stripes and congratulating him for being promoted to the top 3% of the enlisted corp.  Although his wife and children couldn’t be present, they can be proud of his accomplishment and at the end of the month be even prouder when they go on their shopping spree due to the new pay raise associated with being promoted.

Tajbeg (Queen's) Palace

After lunch several members visited the shooting range to hone our marksmanship skills.  One of the shooting ranges is near the Tajbeg (Queen’s) Palace which serves as a landmark signifying the Soviet invasion over 30 years ago.  This was the same site (Dec 27, 1979) where ANA President Amin was assassinated along with family

A little target practice.

members and 170 body guards, thus starting the Soviet invasion.  It also serves as a grim reminder of the atrocities committed by the Soviet regime who tried to install a Marxist Communist government against the will of the people.

While at the range, we practiced with our M-4 rifles, M-16’s, and M-9 pistols.  Although the targets were set at 25 meters, the target is still rather small to hit.  But as you can see from the target in the picture, our weapons are very accurate.  Some Afghan boys came to the fence line and kept begging for some food and water.  We had no food, so I tossed them a case of bottled water and they were pacified.  Coming back on to the camp I saw a unique

Looks good to me.

painted jingle truck.  This old truck was really jingling with the chains dangling from the front and side.

Tonight is New Year’s Eve and a blue moon.  It only happens about every 3 years and for it to occur on New Year’s Eve is even rarer.  A blue moon happens when there is a full moon twice in a single calendar month.  Contrary to folklore, the moon doesn’t turn blue either.  The next blue moon will take place in August 2012.  But the next blue moon on New Year’s Eve won’t happen until 2028.  So when someone says once in a blue moon, you will understand the meaning behind this saying.  I am hoping to figure out the settings on my camera so I can take a unique picture of this moon.

Afghan boys excited about the bottled water I gave them.

This is a once in a life time shot and I am not coming back to Afghanistan to repeat it.  I will let you know tomorrow how it came out.

Jingle truck driving past.

1st Day back

Mountains overlooking our camp.

Since my departure a lot of changes have taken place.  The first thing I noticed was my lounge chair was removed outside my b-hut.  Prior to my R&R, Wilson the dog was occupying it along with a donated blanket and make-shift shelter.  Not only was the chair removed, but apparently Wilson was gone too.  I also expected to see more

Looking up through turret at my gunner AF SSgt Cameron Blackmer.

snow.  But the only snow visible was a light dusting on the mountains overlooking the camp.  The weather is actually rather warm, but not exactly balmy…lol.

My room was in the same state that I had left it.  After unpacking my duffel bag, I lay down in my bed and zonked off for several hours.  It felt great to be sleeping in a bed again instead of a stiff cot.  It’s also a pleasure to sleep in a facility that doesn’t have 80 smelly and snoring men too.

I went to my office and observed several changes too.  It’s not as crowded as before, because most of our ETT team were 6 month folks and returned to the US while I was on R&R.  We had a great team while they

School supplies arriving from all across the U.S.

were here and they can all be proud of the missions and their accomplishments.  Personally I will miss my AF gunner SSgt Cameron Blackmer.  Not only was he an integral member of the team, but I got a chance to know him on a personal basis.  He was quite anxious to return home and see his new-born twins for the first time.  I wish him the best and with his future career wherever that might lead.  He wants to cross-train into another career field, possibly becoming a fire fighter.  If not, pilots can feel safe knowing that SSgt Blackmer worked on their aircraft because of his professionalism and attention to detail.

Boxes of school supplies piling up in the office.

The office was also filled with more boxes of school supplies.  My message and request for school supplies is spreading like wild-fire.  I am now working with 12 different states along with several schools and private organizations.  The money donations are still coming in which helps to defray the cost of shipping the items to Afghanistan.  Thanks to everyone involved for this joint effort.

Since our team has dwindled in numbers, we have merged and join forces with the Brigade who also lost most of its personnel due to rotations.  They are slowly being replaced, but in the interim our responsibilities and functions are being redefined.  I am excited because I will get involved with

More school supplies.

more humanitarian projects too.  Ironically one of these will be the CERP projects which I still can’t remember what the acronym stands for.  Tomorrow I have a meeting to discuss in more detail.

After attending our morning Brigade meeting, I attended a boring ANA brigade meeting hosted by the ANA general.  It’s quite different than any other high level meetings I’ve attended in the US.  There is a lot of arguing, bickering, and talking at the same time.  I felt as though I was watching a ping-pong match going on with people talking back and forth.  Meanwhile the interpreter is trying to translate what is being said.  On the surface, there were a lot of problems mentioned, but no solutions being offered.

Afterward my interpreter Omid and I drove around the camp trying to locate the ANA library.  We heard a rumor that the garrison had one.  Well the garrison doesn’t have one, but they have plans to create one.  An AF Capt from the Brigade is leading the charge in purchasing book shelves and items to establish it.  I inherited over a hundred books written in English (3rd-4th grade level) that I plan to donate to the cause too.  Purchasing books written in Dari/Pashto with FOO funds will be a little bit harder to obtain now.  The Army has added additional restrictions and layers of bureaucracy before the purchase can be made.  Oh well, I will just play along and play by their rules.  In the end, we will establish another library to help enhance the literacy program.  Approximately 4 out of 5 ANA soldiers are illiterate.

New ANA recruits.

While driving to the garrison building, I stopped to take a picture of the new ANA recruits.  Many of them are farmers, unskilled laborers, or unemployed workers.  Since the ANA and ANP were given a recent pay increase it has resulted in more recruits signing up.  Now the starting pay (approx. $250 a month) is almost equivalent to what the Taliban is paying for their recruits.  As a result, this will coincide with General McChrystal’s vision of training more troops and increasing the size of the ANA forces to combat the insurgency and in time assume defending the national security of Afghanistan.

Trying to leave Kuwait

Welcome sign at Kuwait International Airport.

As you can tell by the title, the saga continues.  Yesterday I boarded a shuttle from Camp LSA to the Kuwait International Airport.  First we had to stop at the APOD (another location that nobody seems to know what the acronym stands for).  Here we waited for another shuttle to take us directly to the airport.  We arrived at the airport around 2:30 pm and I decided not to pick up my luggage right away and walk around the airport a little bit.  I was still in civilian clothes and did my best to blend in with the local populace.

Harley Davidson store in Kuwait airport.

This airport had every popular fast-food restaurant you could think of.  But it also had some specialty stores including Rolex and a variety of French specialty stores.  There were designer clothes stores, jewelry and the one that really stuck out was Harley Davidson.  They even had one on display!

I purchased a Café Latte

Vendor selling designer knock-off bags at Camp LSA.

at Starbucks for $6.00.  The exchange rate is terrible here when you exchange good ol’ greenbacks for Kuwaiti Dinars.  Thinking ahead for a contingency and further boredom, I brought along a book to read (Christmas present from my wife).  Greg Mortenson’s new bestseller “Stones into Schools.”  I had about an hour and a half to kill before the next shuttle.  Around 6 pm, I was informed they weren’t going to send a shuttle just to pick me up.  Instead, I would have to wait until the night passengers arrived before leaving the terminal.  This meant I had another 3 ½ hrs to waste sitting in the airport.

Holy water from Mecca.

I went outside to get some fresh air and noticed a dozen carts with identical items being pushed along.  My curiosity got the best of me and I got closer to examine them.  It looked like jugs of water, carefully packaged in plastic.  I was rather intrigued and sat down next to a Muslim from Sira Lanka.  He explained the packages were water from Mecca.  Since not every Muslim can attend the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, they bring back packaged vessels of holy water to distribute to other Muslims.  This holy water is then given to family members and friends as a sign of good prosperity and health for the coming year.

The bag that has caused me so much distress.

I returned to the airport and visited the baggage claim center.  This was the moment of truth and I was breathing a bit rapidly in anticipation until the clerk delivered my Army green duffel bag to me.  Gosh it was a beautiful sight and at the same time, I wanted to kick it out of frustration.  If it wasn’t for this bag being lost, I could have been with my team for Christmas and not have to endure these past few days of sheer boredom and restless nights.

Around 9 pm, the rest of the folks returning from R&R arrived.  We waited about 30 minutes and then departed.  The bus dropped us off at the APOD again and we were informed to get comfortable as it would be a 2 ½ hour wait.  The Subway and Pizza shops were still open for those who were hungry.  The rest of us would wait inside a tent that had a large screen television.  I used this time to read some more of Greg Mortenson’s book.

Reading “Stones into Schools” is just as fascinating as “Three Cups of Tea.”  It doesn’t surprise me that this book is mandatory reading for military officers studying counterinsurgency concepts.  I have also noticed during my travels to various camps, FOBs, etc. that they have copies of “Three Cups of Tea” stocked on their shelves.  It’s really great reading and gives the readers an insight to the complexities of conducting any sort of business or transaction in the villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Mortenson makes a great point about establishing relationships, understanding the culture, and listening to the needs of the people.  If our counterinsurgency plan is going to work in Afghanistan, then I think its imperative we heed Mortenson’s advice and listen to the people and not try to tell them what they need.

I’ve talked about FOO projects in my blog and all of the restrictions placed upon them.  But there is also another pot of money used for larger projects and it is entitled CERP.  Due to lack of sleep, I can’t recall what this acronym stands for.  These funds can be used to build roads, schools, clinics, dig wells, etc.  Anyhow, Congress has taken an interest in the expenditure of these funds and has placed narrow limitations on them as well.  So now it’s much harder to build a road connecting these villages, but it is permissible to build a fire station or buy fire trucks.  Hmmm … first the villages need a source of water like wells first.  Also, many of them don’t even have vehicles or know how to drive and their houses are built of mud-brick which doesn’t catch fire too easily.  I’m not sure where the logic is or perhaps some aspiring junior Congressman or seasoned Senator is hoping for a contract for one of his constituents who builds fire engines.  In my personal opinion, Congress needs to address the multi-million dollar contracts handed out like candy to their constituents and question the amount of money they are soaking the taxpayers for.  Don’t get me wrong, corporations deserve to make a profit, but 200-300 percent is egregious and in my opinion greedy.  I might also point out that US contractors stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and abroad should be well paid for their sacrifice, skills and for the risk they take.  But then to turn around and charge the taxpayers double and triple the amount in the name of maximizing profits is sheer thievery.  Mortenson refers to these as “sweetheart” government contracts.  He is able to build schools for a fraction of what it costs the US or the NGO organizations established in Afghanistan.  Perhaps the US government should hire his “Dirty Dozen” crew to oversee the contracts.  But then this would deprive the corrupt Afghan administrators of their cut of the piece of the pie and would make it extremely difficult for them to retain their standard of living, driving SUVs, wearing expensive suits and ties, and living in wealthy neighborhoods on their maximum government salary of $650 a month.

Anyhow, we finally departed the APOD and arrived back at Camp LSA.  It was around 1 am and the plane I had planned to board already departed.  I guess it’s another night in the tent and maybe tomorrow I will leave this place.

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