Friday, July 31, 2009

We've got a long and difficult month ahead and I've got plenty more to write before I close this blog, but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those people from that have supported my unit while we’ve been out here. I know I sent the link to this website out to many of you, so hopefully at least a couple of you are reading this. And my apologies to those of you I couldn’t always write thank-you notes to. For awhile there I was receiving so many packages that I had many of them diverted to other guys in my unit at different places. was a great resource for us. Just sign up and request what you need and random people from all over contact you with letters and send you what they can. Guys in my unit received just about anything they asked for including: hiking boots, school supplies for local children, power saws, printers, textbooks, tool sets, floodlights, Polaroid cameras, entire seasons’ worth of DVDs, and loads and loads of girl-scout cookies. At a couple of the more austere bases the marines do in fact live on their care packages. I should know as that was me for the first four months of our tour. I’ve always known but my experience with confirmed for me that Americans are the most generous people in the world. And thanks to everyone for the correspondence as well. Sometimes it's nice to get items, but a good letter from home goes a long way as well.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ups downs

There are plenty of ups and downs here, and not just when you're climbing around in the mountains. They tell you coming out here that you'll come out strong that first few months - all motivated to make the world a better place. And it's true. I think we all had a feeling of great optimism upon arrival - a feeling that gradually dissipated into disgust and disappointment about halfway through our nine-month deployment. Dealing with the ANA is hard sometimes. I think I've documented that pretty well throughout this blog.... You're warned that these feelings of disappointment and frustration with the local inhabitants and culture will get to you eventually, and it most certainly did, though it never stopped us from doing our jobs and doing them well.

They say those negative feelings about all things Afghan will stay with you until near the end of the deployment when you'll hit a kind of second wind. I have to say, whoever "they" were that made all these prognostications based upon what others have experienced was right again, as I find myself trying to really savor every moment as things wind down. I'm really going to miss a lot of things about this experience, including those little moments like when the ANA were trying to laminate their personnel charts with plastic wrap, and how when we gave them some lamination paper they proceeded to laminate everything they could get their hands on, including their phones.

We've still got a ton of work left to do, especially with the elections coming up, but with the new guys starting to trickle in it's now become hard to avoid the realization that we'll be leaving soon.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Many times I've been asked to help find someone a job on a base somewhere here in Afghanistan. You'll certainly see a lot of Afghan men sitting around in the middle of the day doing nothing, but I've not found Afghans unable or unwilling to work. I suppose when the price is right people will work, and we probably pay far too much for what is delivered to us in the form of work, which would certainly increase the incentive to work for us. Whatever the case may be for the average Afghan citizen and his work ethic, I can certainly speak for the Afghan soldier, and his work ethic is by and large non-existent. Self-improvement is not a commonly sought after goal for the average Afghan soldier. Some of the younger officers and a few of the NCOs want to improve themselves, but most of these guys just do not really care (about their job anyway) and are "paycheck players".

Without attention everything reverts to chaos, and nowhere demonstrates that fact better than here. Things in Afghanistan just seem to fall apart. But then when you have a high level of apathy in the average citizen, I suppose that's to be expected. Nietzsche said that industriousness from generation to generation extinguished religious instincts. I the converse also true? Does religiousness hamper industriousness? Seems to in Islamic societies. I was confronted many times in Iraq with the "Inshallah" (if God wills it) attitude. You don't hear that word spoken as often here in Afghanistan, but the attitude it represents is no less prevalent. Of course, if you ask your Iraqi or Afghan counterpart something and he comes back with Inshallah once too often, you can always turn it around on him and say Inshallah when he asks if you're going to provide him with something. Inshallah can be a tough attitude to get past. There's no point in aiming your rifle if the bullet is only going to hit the target if God wills it.

The "Inshallah attitude" does lend itself to a certain ambivalence on the part of the populace that is alien to an American. We tend to see things as fairly black and white...not so much as shades of gray, and especially so among members of the military. As an American, if you have something to do, you do it. Simple. Not so with these guys. That feeling of "dualism" - that something or someone can represent two potentially opposing things or ideas, is much more common in the Eastern way of thinking. Not sure if we can attribute that to their religion or not, but in any case this ambivalence of thought tends to make the convincing of an Afghan of the need to get a certain thing accomplished, whether it be cleaning the base or conducting a patrol, that to us seems self-evident in its need to be done, more difficult.

I will say that to these people the Islamic religion is like food and water are to us, and without getting into a discussion on religion, for I am surely unqualified to speak on the matter, Islam emphasizes submission. If submission to God's or Allah's will is your overriding principle, a lot of that individual autonomy and will to forge your own path through your own efforts would seem to be extinguished...and you end up with what we perceive to be apathy. I am sure that Afghans do care about results, but the disconnect lies in how results are achieved. Marines understand effort and planning produce the results you want. Things don't just happen how you want them to because you want it that way.

Oh well, I'm probably attributing my issues with these guys entirely too much to culture and not enough to experience. After all, I've spent plenty of time with people back home that just somehow expected a certain event to transpire without any hiccups, and clearly did not understand the intricacies and difficulties that inevitably arise when one is confronted with situations beyond the norm (think of a weekend away with a significant other).

Ok, I think I'll close this entry before I run afoul of another Nietzsche quote...something about forgetting what you were trying to do in the first place being the most fundamental form of stupidity. Let's just hope that idea doesn't aptly represent the whole endeavor over here...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Selling ammo

We've been getting sporadic mortar and rocket attacks at the base here lately. No damages have been done so far, but if it continues it's only a matter of time. Apparently, recently a round landed next to the local Afghan National Police (ANP) station because the other day the ANA found an unexploded mortar round there and brought it up to me to show it off and ask me what to do with it. They were quite proud of themselves, and when my terp took it off their hands he proceeded to handle it a little nonchalantly for my tastes. I can't profess to being very fond of dealing with unexploded ordnance (UXO); I'd just as soon leave that job to the pros. But...sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, so I grabbed it and carried it up to the UXO pit where it was destroyed the next day by Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). The whole incident got me thinking about the ANA and ammo. Why is it that we get reports all the time of them selling ammo, but then when they find UXO they bring it right over to me? Why not sell that damn UXO too and keep it away from me...? haha. No, but really, better if they give it to me than sell it. Even if a rocket or mortar is no good anymore as a flying projectile, it can still make a helluva an IED. Best of all if they just marked it and left it in place for us to call EOD.

It's true that we often get reports of ANA and ANP selling ammunition to the insurgents. This fact is probably one of the motivations for our changing them over to our weapons - different weapons/different ammunition and the insurgents don't (yet) have our weapons. I think in most cases it's probably the ANP doing the selling for the simple facts that the ANP has a reputation for corruption which is worse than that of even the ANA, has much less supervision, is much closer to the population, and is in general, less trained than the ANA. But it's always tempting to see the problem elsewhere than with your own. It's amusing to me that the ANP has heavy machine guns in their police stations and carries RPGs with them on patrol sometimes, and yet the ANA can't search houses under normal conditions. To draw such a legal distinction between the ANA and ANP when the country is so unstable that the police forces must use heavy guns and RPGs seems ridiculous, though I can see where they're going with it...the idea being that we're more likely to win over public support if home searches are done by the local police who are more involved with the community than the ANA and are (supposedly) better trained to do home searches.

Realistically though, legalities and such 'rights' against searches by the local army are a luxury of modern, stable countries...not Afghanistan. It's a tough enough coordination between the ANA and US elements...bring the ANP into the picture and it's only going to get more difficult. The fact that the ANP are notoriously corrupt and not often trusted by the us, the ANA, or the local people is another strike against involving them.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Men must be taught as if you taught them not. And things unknown proposed as things forgot. - Alexander Pope

The M16 transition is finally getting going in earnest. I'm still not sure I agree with the whole idea of replacing the venerable AK with the M16 for these guys. Seems I remember reading somewhere that we should train indigenous forces to mirror the enemy, not to mirror us. By giving them armored humvees and NATO weapons we're certainly making them look a lot like us, which would be great if the Afghan Army had any hope of supporting an army with such equipment. But I guess we'll do the supporting. Still...we've got plenty of soldiers of our own that can roll around in armored vehicles. What we need more of are lightly loaded guys that can go up into the mountains and ambush the enemy. The basic load for the Americans makes moving around in the mountains difficult to say the least. If it were me, I'd have the ANA up in the mountains with no equipment at all other than a weapon with ammo and some water...mirroring the insurgents. It takes a lot less food and water to support an Afghan...we need to take advantage of that by not weighing them down with body armor.

At any rate, we enjoy training them on the weapons systems. They're especially happy to be getting our machine guns. I usually spend the first 5 minutes of every class on the M16 'selling' it to them, as most of them are initially skeptical of why they need it. We tell them the M16 is better for a trained fighter, whereas the AK is better for the untrained guy...a not untrue statement. They seem to buy that explanation.

The rifle ranges are pretty fun with these guys. Some of the Afghans shoot better than I do, no question. We had a guy keyhole his first 3 shots at 25 meters the other day. It was easy to see he was going to shoot very well given his technique and demeanor but that was uncanny. Others...well, it takes awhile but we get them all in the vicinity of the target eventually even if they are hitting 'the four corners'. Our attached soldier from the Georgia National Guard seems to have more problems with his shooters than the marines do...a circumstance we exploit fully in poking fun at him. Coincidence? We think not. Haha. We get guys shooting left-eyed right-handed. Others close their eyes when the pull the trigger, and many like to yank the trigger. A couple of guys I've had look like they're hyperventilating when they go to shoot. If they can relax, they have some hope of hitting where they're aiming.

Certainly, the training environment is different over here. You do what you have to do to train. If a bunch of goats take up residence on the mountainside behind the range, just send a couple of ANA up there with rocks to throw at them to 'herd' them away. We try to keep the shooting going in situations that might not fly back home, but when two US Army lieutenants come out to the range to throw grenades and one of them doesn't detonate...well, you pretty much have to shut it down after that.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Stumbled upon an interesting article by Michael Yon. Kind of nice to see that someone who knows what he's talking about has reached many of the same conclusions about this place that I have. It's tough to avoid the conclusion that we're being taken over here. Taken for everything we can provide, while we can provide it because developing this place is simply a herculean task. If anyone's doing a cost-benefit analysis of what's going on, I find it hard to believe they'd find this endeavor worth it at this point, though as an American I have full confidence that we can achieve anything given enough time. Frankly, I view a lot of what we're doing as enabling. And if there's anything an Afghan is especially good at, it's letting another person do his work for him and clean up his mess should such a person prove so willing. Our being here enables the local forces (the ANA, Afghan National Police) to sit back and let us do most of the fighting.

I'm not saying the ANA don't know how to fight, because I know from experience when the times get tough they are more than capable of turning it on and getting down to business. But since I've been over here I've seen the US forces in the area take a good number of casualties and KIAs. And I've yet to see the ANA lose a single soldier. Part of this is because the people we're fighting against sometimes don't target the ANA because they're fellow Muslims, but it's mostly because the ANA don't really get out there and do the kind of operations that would put them in danger...and would have more of an effect on the enemy. They like to sit back and let the US Army handle those missions. At this point in the war, the ANA should be doing the bulk of the fighting while the Americans sit back and provide fire support, medical support, and logistical help. But that's far from how it is. Allowing our absence to be felt might give the ANA the impetus to put up...or get overrun.

I will say this: the optimism, can-do attitude, perseverance, and industriousness of the Americans over here makes me very proud to be a part of what we're doing. Since I can't see our efforts magically producing those qualities in the average Afghan citizen, I foresee more of the same difficulties.


it's a rough month in Afghanistan. It's hot, it's humid, the mountains are teeming with enemy fighters. The fighting season has arrived no doubt about that. We've already lost more than 30 Americans this month, making it the worst month of the year so far. Our area is emblematic of the country as a whole. The new battalion has already lost a couple of guys after one month. But they keep getting out there and having it out with the enemy. The last battalion went through the same thing when they arrived last July because the summer is always the worst time - tough time to show up on the job when you're a new unit. Thankfully, our unit arrived in November and had a few quiet months to figure out how to do our jobs. And I would say we've figured out the ANA by now. We know what they're all about, and they know that we know what they're all about. And I'll leave it at that for now.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


To lengthen our stay in the mountains we decided to incorporate donkeys into a recent mission. We figured donkeys are a reasonable way for the ANA to sustain themselves...they can't exactly call on helicopter resupply the way we can. Donkeys come at a pretty reasonable rate around here - $5 a day for a donkey, with a bit extra tacked on for fodder. Afghan donkeys are small, maybe three feet at the shoulder, totally unlike the large mules we worked with briefly during training. They can supposedly carry a third of their body weight for long distances.

With donkeys you obviously can't pack them too heavy and you can't pack them unevenly, but easier said than done on the packing part. Not having a lot of experience with donkeys, we let the local donkey handlers we rented them from pack the donkeys with our supplies: mostly water and ammunition. You'd think letting the professionals pack the donkeys would be the way to go, but it wasn't long into the walk that we noticed the packs slipping to one side or the other of the donkeys. A donkey will most certainly walk crooked if he's not packed evenly. So there we were pulling the packs back and forth trying to get them balanced on the donkey as we stepped off into the night. For the most part, the donkeys would at least follow along with the program, and they were in no hurry, which wasn't really a bad thing since we were all carrying a pretty heavy load. Despite the slow pace, 30 minutes into the show the unfortunate happened...a donkey keeled over and would not get up. I actually felt sorry for the little guy as he did seem to be one of the smaller donkeys and he was carrying what seemed to be a heavy load. I learned later just how much abuse it sometimes takes to get a donkey going when I saw two donkeys handlers grab the halter and tail of the donkey, yank him to his feet, and then kick him in the balls to get him going. Not being willing to mete out quite that much abuse at the time, and not having a lot of time to deal with the fallen donkey, we just unloaded him and left him there. So basically, the donkey had his way with us...fall over a couple of times and they'll leave you be and you can skip the trip up the mountain. Let the humans carry their own stuff.

After spread-loading 80 pounds worth of stuff between four of us we were falling pretty far behind everyone else, and not looking too good for catching up given the extra weight, but we eventually caught up after a few tense moments looking around for everyone else in the dark. The rest of the trip involved one more donkey falling out (but this one could still walk...just not with any weight) and a long and difficult trip of the mountainside that ended with me nearly becoming a heat casualty - all that dragging of the donkey, running around, and extra weight didn't sit too well with me given that I was already less than 100% physically to begin with. In the end, we didn't end up making it as far as we would have liked with the donkeys as the weather and mountains have a way of just crushing your best efforts this time of year, but we managed to spend enough time out there to learn a few things.

Lessons learned:
Pack the donkeys better and lighter
Bring extra donkeys with no weight as spares
Let the ANA handle the donkeys - they are more accustomed to them

We even came up with an excel spreadsheet on how to load them, though I haven't figured out how to attach it in its original form to this blog.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Trip to Vegas

I have taken a few trips to Las Vegas in my day, and even had the pleasure (or misfortune) to live there for a spell.  Well, out here a trip to Vegas for us means a ride on a helicopter out to Firebase Vegas, our beleaguered neighbor when I was at Vimoto.  Though we could see Vegas from Vimoto, and from Korengal Outpost as well, we never once visited it as it was a fairly difficult walk over there, and I suppose we just never had the occasion or desire to go see it or conduct an operation involving them.  One time when an operation was conducted with troops from Vegas, they were brought to the KOP via helicopter.

In any case, Vegas is pretty much its own little world, more cut off and isolated than any of the other positions.  At Vimoto, we at least had the Marines and Army personnel at KOP to keep us company and vice versa.  And all the FOBs along the Pech are easily accessible between each other.  Vegas, with its Army platoon, two Marines, and ANA platoon, is kind of on it's own.  Many of the patrols those guys do involve long, difficult, uphill hikes to not-so-nearby villages such as Chitrall.  FB Vegas ostensibly provides some overwatch on the road leading into the Korengal.  Given how infrequently the road is used anymore for supply trips, one might wonder what purpose Vegas is serving, other than providing another nice target for our enemy.  Of course, to say that a base exists only to help with re-supply to another base would make it look like we exist out in the Korengal simply to exist.  Bureaucratic-type behavior invading a warzone.  And that is not the case now is it?

At any rate, we had a "tourist" come out to Blessing at one point not long ago.  (From time to time, we have active-duty guys visit us (generally field grade officers and senior SNCOs) from somewhere in the rear.  They make excuses to come out and embed with us in the hopes of getting to see some combat.  I am not sure whether we really have a choice whether to accept them or not...they are often more trouble than they are worth, though occasionally the come in handy to help man our vehicles.)

This particular tourist was an older guy, but had some infantry experience in his background, so we sent him up to Vegas in the thought that he might be useful to them and help break up the monotony.  He may have helped with the monotony, but he (not surprisingly) did not prove useful.  On his first (and only) trip outside the wire, he promptly sprained his ankle, which necessitated the patrol being interrupted to bring him back.  Had to be embarrassing for him, so maybe I should feel a little empathy, but frankly, these are the kinds of things that happen when people come out unprepared in the hopes of getting a Combat Action Ribbon (CAR), which is something everyone wants.  That particular tourist apparently spent the next couple of days convalescing while waiting for the next round of helicopters to come out and pick him up, and from there went straight back to wherever he came from without us seeing him again...probably spared him some ignominy.

On the subject of CARs, I can recall another tourist pestering us about writing him up for one after our convoy that he was a part of  heard a round go off nearby.  I use that phrasing deliberately ("heard a round go off nearby"), because oftentimes when driving down the main road (Route Rhode Island) we "take fire".  More often than not, these rounds rounds do not impact anywhere near us, but we can certainly tell they are shooting at us.  Depending on the situation, we might just ignore the incident completely without returning fire if we can not establish where the shooter is with any reasonable degree of certainty...and furthermore, once we start shooting back, the Afghans will start shooting, which more often than not results in a loss of ammo with nothing to show for it.  In my experience, it is just as well to move on if it is not a serious attack, because the shooter is generally well up the hillside, well dug in, and simply trying to harass and delay us.  A platoon of Marines would probably go up the hillside and eliminate the shooter, but a platoon of  At any rate, we told that visitor that a few rounds going off nearby, without even response from anyone, certainly did not rate him a CAR.

I digress.  My one and only trip out to Vegas was to deliver them their quota of NATO weapons, so they could commence weapons training.  Delivering weapons is not so simple as putting them in a box and leaving it on the LZ for the cargo guys to deal, they have to be hand carried, like othe sensitive material.  Since the NATO weapons training fell under my responsiblity, I got the joy of carrying a load out there, though I managed to rope others in to help at times with the deliveries, as we took more than one load out to different bases out in the Korengal.

As mentioned above, the way to Vegas was via helicopter, so a trip out there involved a late night.  Daytime helo trips ended when we had a bird shot down (which incidentally "landed" just outside FOB Vegas).  Helicopters were fired on fairly frequently around Vegas, whether nighttime or daytime.  In fact an older Russian supply helicopter that was used to bring the ANA food was shot down just before we started our deployment.

Being on those helicopters at night was never the most comfortable time for me, at least not after my innocence was lost in January when that 47 went down.  Having no control over your fate when confronting a situation with a relatively high probability of mayhem is never fun.  And further adding to the unease, little was done to help make these helicopter approaches much safer after the one went down.  One has to understand, the 47's are large targets, and they aren't just tapping down and dropping off a load of spec ops guys and then departing.  Out in the Korengal, the 47's are delivering supplies with every run, as well as people.  Supplies in the Korengal means sling loads...underneath the aircraft.  Those loads have to be released while the bird is hovering near the ground.  This means extra time hovering, as well as a slower approach...and sometimes they have to pick up slings too, which means more time on the way out.  All of this time is important when the nearby hillsides provide plenty of decent vantage points from which to take your shot.

Before the incident in January, the 47's would come out accompanied by Apaches in broad daylight.  After January, the 47's only come out at night.  But their arrival is preceded by Apaches buzzing around the area, using their thermal and night scopes to look for the enemy.  They do quite often shoot rockets or gun rounds.  Whether sending the Apaches out first is a good idea or not, I could not say.  Perhaps the intention is to intimidate the enemy.  I will say that an Apache doing its thing with rockets can be a startling way to be woken up.  I can only imagine how startling it would be if they were shooting at you as you are alone and dug into the side of a hill, waiting to take your shot at a helicopter.  With the available communications technology, surprise is probably out of the question anyway.  Word gets out.

So yes, tactics did change, but nothing was done to make things "safer" in my opinion...primarily because the guys on the ground did nothing in particular to support the helicopters.   Not only did the guys on the ground seem to progressively use more and more supplies as these FOBs get more and more developed over time (It's the American way to improve your station in life...and that applies here...FOBs get better over time, but "better" often means they require more resources.), but no additional effort was made to "secure" the LZ.  Of course, men were on watch during the helicopter approaches, but we did not send people out on ambushes or patrols to distract or hunt the enemy.  That would have been proactive...but our entire posture was reactive...and the helicopter delivery operations were no different.

Landings in the middle of the night when you are in a hurry are always chaotic.  The noise and darkness broken only by red lights add to the other-worldliness of the experience of floating around strapped to the inside of a huge metal tube.  The bird finally thumps down after hovering just over the surface for what seems to be an eternity, as it must first drop off the sling loads it has underneath.  Upon landing, you unbuckle and make your way out the door, struggling under the weight of all your gear and whatever it is your are bringing with you.  (Unless the helicopter is supporting a tactical operation you are doing, which we did very few of, you are going to be carrying something more than yourself and your gear.)  You quickly hand over a sea bag full of M16s to a sergeant from the team, noticing how he's managed to grow quite a beard in the 6 months since you have seen him.  You trade hellos with your eyes and nods, give each other a clap on the back, hand off the package, and go your separate ways.  You try to facilitate getting the ANA on and off the bird so you can get out of there.  Finished, you strap back in, quickly take off and are back at Blessing in minutes.

Caught up

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."  -Abraham Lincoln

I wondered if/when it would happen, and it finally did...I got sick. In Iraq, spending a lot of time with the Iraqis, eating their food, and drinking their chai, I got moderately under the weather pretty regularly. Usually not too seriously, just gastrointestinal issues leading to repeated trips to the outhouse/ditches. I had some of the same issues in SE Asia and Latin America from time to time. Surprisingly, given how much Afghan food and boiled river water I've drank since I've been here I hadn't had the problem at all till the other day. Well, the sickness finally came and it got me good. Being 100 meters from the nearest bathroom when you're in such a state isn't much fun. Not even watching the "Training Montage" from Rocky IV was much help in getting me going. That video reminds me I've still yet to fully reach manhood since I've yet to chop down a large tree.

On the plus side, the schedule the last few days has allowed me to catch up on my sleep, and since I haven't really been eating I've inadvertently managed to knock off those last few pounds of baby fat that the heat in recent months hadn't already melted off my body. Carrying around extra weight when it's 105 degrees and moderately humid doesn't make much sense. The trick will be keep those pounds off till we're almost ready to go home and then bring them back in a more solid state to get ready for the beach in Hawaii. At any rate, I'm feeling fine now.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

New guys

We've had a new US Army unit in charge of the area for a couple of weeks now. New units bring different things to the table, mostly good in this case. The guys that left had already been here for awhile when we arrived in November, and we could tell. This new unit has that optimism I remember having when we first showed up...not that we've completely lost it, but it's hard not to be a bit jaded after nearly eight months. It's been very refreshing working with them and seeing how they do business. They're much more willing to work with us and the ANA than their predecessors. They also are happy to get out of their trucks and get up into the mountains, which is nice to see. We're happy to be here to help with the transition and provide some continuity. Given that the end is in sight for us, I think the guys in my unit are starting to get a bit of a second-wind and have really been enjoying ourselves lately, while keeping very busy. We're lucky to have each other.

I learned quite a bit working with several different Army company commanders from the last unit. One of them especially really knew how to put his collection assets to work and then operate based on the things he learned. And as for the old battalion commander, well, he was a character that's for sure. During a small firefight I tripped and "fell down a little hill" (as my 3 year-old nephew would phrase it) while running toward the old battalion CO to let him know my unit and the ANA were going to move on out of the area. Falling on my sprained wrist I let out an "Ah!", and he looked at me and laughingly said, "Are you shot?" It's not every battalion commander that's out there calling fires and talking to air support during a firefight - but he was there.