Friday, December 11, 2009

Getting there

The events referred to in this entry happened about a year ago. Put this together based on some...memories.

You may find yourself in another part of the world...and you may ask yourself, "Well, how did I get here!?" - "Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads

Thankfully, the worst part of all of my deployments has been the getting there. The anxiety of the unknown combined with saying goodbye to friends and family, as well as the actual travel involved in getting yourself and your gear to these places on the other side of the earth combine to wear on you mentally and emotionally. Though my personal exposure to violence has exponentially increased through each successive deployment, I still felt quite a lot of unease before even the first one simply because I did not really know what I was getting into before I got there. One’s tolerance for known dangers can increase over time, but increasing one’s tolerance for uncertainty itself seems tougher to develop.

My deployment to Afghanistan has come with a special sense of concern, and is the only time in my life thus far I have felt compelled to buy more life insurance. If the numbers involved put the probabilities in your favor you have to invest right...? Going to a place as well known for danger as the Korengal Valley, one can’t help but be a little apprehensive, although those feelings of worry are offset somewhat by the excitement for the adventure and challenge ahead. All of us headed out the Korengal volunteered to be here, and several other Marines had wanted to be out here but couldn’t be. The Korengal is likely to be a bit more dangerous than the Pech Valley where the rest of the team is stationed, but the chief difference is likely to be in the living conditions, which are bound to be much more austere with no running water.

The trip out to the Korengal began about 2 AM one morning in late-November. We had to get up that early just to get over to the passenger terminal and get registered for the flight that would take off in the late morning. Hauling a few large bags around with all of your body armor and weapons has always been my least favorite part of these trips overseas. Something about that feeling of vulnerability when you have all of the things you are going to need and rely upon with you at that same time makes you a little nervous.

Pax terminal: we showed extremely early – par for the course. Sat around for a long while waiting before anything at all happened. Check. Mid-ranking personnel working there but not helpful - unable to make decisions or give useful information. Mm-hmm. People sleeping on the floor with their packs for pillows and few chairs in the pax terminal. A bearded well-built guy in the corner with tricked out gear keeping to himself. Removing rank insignia and boot bands...won't see those again for awhile. Having to physically attach each item we’d brought with us to our bodies by strapping, stacking, and grabbing before jumping on the scale to get weighed. After a few hours in the pax terminal we finally made it out to the tarmac…just as the sun was coming up.

Tarmac: cold, windy morning. Soldiers hiding from the windblast behind the massive CH-47 smoking cigarettes…but not standing too close with those cigarettes. Been on a Chinook before, but never been this close to one in the daylight with this much time to look at it…it’s as big as a bus. We know we’re all headed out to the same place so the Marines strike up some conversations with some of the soldiers around us, who don’t appear to be new to the country as we are. A few of the soldiers are returning from leave and headed back to the Korengal. They have some interesting stories to tell about the place. Not much of it pretty. They manage to convey the impression quite succinctly that they hate the Korengal and are sick to death of getting shot at. These aren’t really the things most would want to hear on their way out there, but what can you do but laugh and say to yourself and your colleagues, “It’s all part of the adventure…” We talk to the crew chief and ask if we can get dropped off at Firebase Vimoto, or if we have to get dropped off at the Korengal Outpost (KOP). The crew chief looks at us like we’re crazy and says he doesn’t know what Vimoto is. One of the soldiers nearby chimes in that there is nothing resembling an LZ at Vimoto. We’ll have to walk down to Vimoto from the KOP.

Ride out: first first-hand look at the landscape. It’s clear day but the helo is not made for sight-seeing. Can see enough to notice mud-brick abandoned-looking homes scattered about just outside the wire from Bagram. The flat valley around the air base quickly gives way to mountains…tall snow-capped mountains…but not as green and tree covered on the slopes as I had expected. We make a couple of stops on the way out. I’m a little surprised how much time we’re spending on the ground here in broad daylight, but I suppose they know what they are doing. The last leg of the helo journey out to the Korengal only has ten or so passengers on board - the remaining few. Once we land, we’re not quite as organized as we ought to be getting our possessions and persons off the bird quickly, but we manage to get it done and the helo gets away without incident.

KOP: We're admonished by the head of the guys we're replacing for not getting our gear off the bird quicker. A Russian helo went down not far from here not long ago - no use keeping the bird around long enough for them to draw a bead on it. We chat for awhile, before we pack a bag with the stuff we need most and then take off for Vimoto.

Walking: Even the one kilometer walk over to Vimoto along a flat road is fairly difficult at the speed we’re doing it at with the stuff we’re carrying. I realize quickly my conditioning will need some work, though I thought I was pretty strong coming in. Tough to stay acclimatized to altitude when you’re not at altitude…and now we’re at about 4500 feet. Not too high, but high enough for now. At least we aren't heading up to Firebase Restrepo...that looks like a long way up.

Vimoto: Vimoto is about what I’d imagined it to be: a few mud buildings surrounded by concertina wire on the side of a mountain situated on the edge of a village. The guys we’re replacing look very lean and intense, but are confident and relaxed in this forlorn place. The ANA soldiers seem friendly enough…no doubt they’ll be sizing us up over the next few weeks. Rounds start flying around the valley a mere hour after we arrive, and a bomb gets dropped on a house a kilometer up the road. We made it here and some of the things I’ve been wondering about for quite awhile now are starting to become clear; all in all, a good first day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The White House

Our typical mission was to conduct “Leader’s Engagements” with the populace. Basically, that meant we’d go into the villages and talk to the people, typically the head man. The idea was to get the ANA out there mingling with the populace and basically showing themselves to be present and competent. Gathering information about security developments in the area and what projects the villagers would like to see done was a secondary part of those missions. We may have considered the actual information gathered to have been the most important part of the mission, and not of ancillary importance, if we’d been able to get relevant information about the security (enemy disposition, whereabouts, etc.) more often, or ever for that matter. Given the peoples’ reluctance to tell us anything about the enemy we’d usually just talk about happenings in the area in a general way, unless we had something specific we wanted to talk to them about. We’d always ask them about what small projects we could help them with. As ETTs with the ANA we depended on the US Army logistically for, well, everything really, so obviously we didn’t have control over the money for projects or humanitarian assistance to give to the villagers, but we could help coordinate with the US Army.

Often when the Army had humanitarian assistance to hand out, they’d let the ANA take the lead on the actual distribution of the goods. Those “HA drops” were always interesting. We’d usually try to hand out whatever it was, like radios for instance, in an organized way, but in the end it almost always became a scrap for whoever could grab what. A bunch of men with guns are no match for determined youngsters in the presence of what, for them, must be riches.

At any rate, we’d always prefer the ANA to do the talking with the villagers. We’d try to prepare the ANA beforehand on what topics should be discussed, or which propaganda pieces we’d like to mention, but it’s tough enough to get the ANA to patrol and conduct security the way you might want…getting them to conduct “conversation ops” perfectly was not a major concern.

Whether the ANA were taking the lead on the talking or not, if you spend enough time out there you’ll have some interesting conversations. Sometimes it’s funny stuff. Sitting down and having tea in a village I’d never been in before with an old man I’d never seen before, the old man inquired who I was and whether I was new in Afghanistan. I mentioned I’d been around a little while, but had been over in the Korengal Valley before. The old man and his friend looked at each other and said something to the effect of the Korengal being “the tiger valley” (referring to the fighters in the area). I was like, “yes, beautiful place, the Korengal, but I don’t think the locals liked us very much since they were always shooting at us.” That brought a few laughs.

Another time a village elder, when inquired what help the village needed, stated they needed a well. At the time we were sitting in a kind of small village square, complete with a fully functioning well. When I pointed out the nice, relatively new well to the old man, and asked if there were some problem with it, the elder replied that the well was fine, but the ‘village’ needed a well nearer his home, which was apparently on the other side of the square, a good 30 yards from the well. Those requests usually end with a “We’ll see what we can do” from our end, which I was fairly certain was interpreted on their end as I intended, i.e. as a “Not gonna happen.”

Some of the conversations are not funny at all though. The average Afghan has seen a lot of tragedy in his or her life. They usually don’t feel compelled to share stories that are personal in nature, but I do recall one time when it happened. The mission was to visit a particular village, known for having a huge white house. The village was not far up the valley from our base. In fact, we could see the white house from the base, though it would take a good 30 minutes to walk over there.

Upon getting into the village, we did the usual – looked around at the terrain and figured out how we were going to set up security with our sparse forces (2 Marines and perhaps a dozen ANA), before looking around for the village elder to talk to. We eventually got ourselves set up and found an elder, who invited me, my terp, and the ANA leader inside “The White House” for tea, nuts, and candies. No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying. Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do.

We stayed there for quite awhile talking about a fair number of topics, and had quite a good time after we got past the initial sadness over the death of their relative. The young men were hoping to get jobs working on a base somewhere. In reply to their requests, I said my usual “I’ll see what I can do”, which I figured would get interpreted (by my interpreter and the young local men) as a polite brushoff, but apparently was not, as they showed up at the base the next day saying I’d promised them jobs. It can be tough to know who your enemy is, but in that case I think those guys were good. It’s unfortunate that many of the men who can’t find jobs end up in the welcoming arms of the Taliban, but there was not a lot that we could do about that situation at that time and place, so we had to send them away empty handed.