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Sunday, August 27, 2006

LETTERS FROM A SOLDIER #8 - FIRST MISSION 

LETTERS FROM A SOLDIER #8 – FIRST MISSION

The following is the eighth in a series of letters home from my nephew. We are publishing them so that we may all have a better understanding of the young men and women who are placing themselves in harms way to protect us, and our way of life. They have been following him through his training, and continuing into his deployment. We do so with his permission, and the concurrence of his wife and son.

S/SGT Keith is an army veteran and civilian police officer who joined the active reserves after the September 11th attacks. He and ten members of his MP unit have been called up for deployment to Afghanistan to train U.S. soldiers and new Afghani police officers on arrest and detention procedures. All eleven are either police or corrections officers. This is the third letter from Afghanistan, describing his first training mission. We are withholding his last name out of courtesy to his family and simply thank him for his service to our country.


Hello All Aug 27, 2006

I just returned from my first training mission yesterday, and it is good to be back at Bagram Air Base. My first trip was to the Forward Operating Base, or FOB, at Ghazni. Ghazni is about 110 miles southwest from Bagram and it took us approximately 45 minutes to get there by helicopter. The trip started very early on Monday morning because we had to be at the hanger by 3:00 AM. The flight itself didn’t leave until 5:30 AM. So for that two and half hours we sat around the hanger, until we were moved to the flight line. We sat there until the flight crew was ready to crank up the CH-47. A CH-47, or Chinook, is a very large helicopter that has two horizontal rotors. It is meant for hauling fairly large amounts of cargo and/or troops.

The flight out to the FOB was very interesting. As soon as we cleared Bagram it was as if I was flying in a time machine. The further we flew from the air base, the further back in time we seemed to travel. For the first 10 minutes of flight or so, there was a fair number of buildings and small towns that could easily be seen. The reason for this is because the helicopter never seemed to fly higher than 1000 feet or so above the ground. Plus, the Chinook has a large ramp, for loading and unloading, in the rear of the aircraft. This ramp remained open for the duration of the flight with one of the flight crew seated on the open ramp manning a machine gun. There are also gunners on the left and right side of the aircraft. I was able to take some nice pictures and video from the windows and the open ramp.

As we neared the mountains that surround Bagram my journey back in time continued. The small villages were replaced by compounds. These compounds appeared to be made of mud brick, and were themselves surrounded by walls of mud. Inside these compounds I could see several buildings, none of which had windows, electricity, or indoor plumbing. But what struck me the most was that inside the compounds there was green foliage, trees, and crops. The different shades of green would jump out at you due to the contrast with all the sand, dirt, and rocks that were outside the walls. When we entered the mountains some of the compounds were built right into the side of them. Every now and again I would see goat herders tending to their animals. As we moved farther into the mountains the compounds were replaced with small groups of tents. Again, every once in a while, I would see people and animals on the sides of the mountains, or in the valleys.

There was a few times during the flight that when I looked out of the window, I was starring directly at the side of a mountain. The helicopters have to fly through the mountain passes since they are too high to fly over. Bagram is at an elevation of 5000 feet above sea level, and Ghazni is 7200 feet above sea level, and the surrounding mountains rise thousands of feet higher than that. If the helicopters try to fly over them, the air is too thin, and the rotors are unable to create enough lift.

When we arrived at the FOB we were met by a Master Sergeant who gave us a brief tour of the base. It was quite a brief tour since the FOB is rather small and really has nothing to offer. The Post Exchange, or PX, is about the size of a single car garage, and offers only the essentials. He also showed us where the Chow Hall was located as well as the tent where we would be staying. The Chow Hall was fantastic. While it was small and didn’t offer the variety of foods that they do in Bagram, the quality of the food was much better. The tent we stayed in, on the other hand, was not better. It was air-conditioned but it was situated right next to 2 generators that made it impossible to hear yourself think. It made it rather difficult to sleep as well.

On Tuesday we were not scheduled to teach any classes since the soldiers we were to train were out on a mission and not set to return for another day. We did have to conduct an inspection of the Field Detention Site, or FDS, which didn’t take very long. The FDS was in good shape and we only noted a few minor things that would be very easy for them to address. Wednesday we conducted our training session. We had a class of about 20 infantry soldiers who appeared to take a lot from the training. Our training was geared towards advising the soldiers how to better document the reasons for detention so a better case can be built against the detainee. We also discussed the collection and processing of evidence, as well as many other topics. Apparently our training session received a good review because we were asked to give an abbreviated version of the training to the leadership the following day.

Friday we began our odyssey of trying to get out of the FOB and back to Bagram. We had seats on a flight for Saturday but since we were done training we figured we would try to get back early. The trick with this is you never know when a helicopter is going to land at the FOB. This isn’t United Airlines, and they don’t follow a set schedule, for obvious reasons. So we spent about 8 hours on Friday sitting near the landing pads waiting to see if a helicopter would come in on its way to Bagram that had room for us. Several landed, but none of them had room for us, so we wound up spending another night in the tent next to the generators, sleeping on cots.

We spent the evening attempting to watch a movie on my laptop. Actually, watching the movie wasn’t the problem, it was the hearing part that was difficult. We were watching The Dirty Dozen of all things, when we heard and felt a large explosion. Due to the loud generator we couldn’t hear the warning siren, but we knew it was in-coming mortar fire. We made our way to the bunker and remained there for about 30 minutes before returning to the tent. Then, just like in Kandahar, as soon as we got into the tent another mortar round impacted near the FOB, so back out the bunker we went. We were later told that a total of 4 rounds were fired at the FOB, but none of them made it inside the wire.

Saturday we woke up early and made our way to the flight line so we wouldn’t miss our flight back to Bagram. While we were waiting I asked the Master Sergeant who had been our liaison if anybody was injured in the mortar attack. He stated that everybody was fine and that in his 11 months at the FOB they had been fired upon 30-35 times and a mortar round had never made it inside the wire. Never say never, right? Not 10 minutes later a mortar round impacted inside the wire approximately 200 meters from where we were standing, so off to the bunkers we went again. We only remained in the bunker for about 15 minutes because some helicopters were inbound and we were hoping they were our ride out. They weren’t, so we would have to wait another 8 hours before our ride to Bagram arrived.

After another 45 minute flight we were back at Bagram. I was very glad to be back “home”. I couldn’t wait to once again enjoy my lumpy bed, internet and cable service. I get Sunday off to unpack and get settled in before I return to work on Monday. I am scheduled to go out on another training mission in the not too distant future and am looking forward to it. Despite the generator noise and extremely thin cot, I really enjoyed the mission.

Well that is all for now. You’re probably all tired of reading this thing anyway. Upon my return to Bagram I was greeted with several pieces of mail and packages which was fantastic. I also have purchased a cell phone and have used it several times to call the family. I again thank all that contributed to the fund that was used to buy it. Time seems to be passing a bit quicker for me now and I hope the same is true for all of you. I am closing out my first month over here and hope that the passage of time picks up even more speed. I love and miss all of you and try not to worry too much. I am in good health and good spirits and hope all of you are the same.

Talk to all of you soon,
Keith

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