Family and friends- after just over a month I can finally write to say I've joined with the rest of the 3-19 Agribusiness Development Team here in the Khost Province of Afghanistan. First and foremost, my apologies for the lack of recent posts, as you might imagine things got quite hectic when I finally got the call to move. I'll try my best to remember the flurry of activity that has been my life this past week while also attempt to put into words some of the unimaginable sites I've seen already in the infancy of my mission here.
Now, on to the journey...
After a false departure alarm last Saturday afternoon, I decided I'd better attend mass that evening in the event we were called out early on Sunday morning. (There were more than a few prayers sent up that night to get off Camp Atterbury as well!) Late Saturday night we got the call that we'd be departing Indianapolis Int'l around 4PM and would need to leave Camp Atterbury at 1PM. After one final meal at the dining facility and a few goodbyes to my new friends on the dining staff there, I boarded the bus with all my gear to depart Atterbury...finally! I'd use this short drive time to make a few last minute calls to inform folks that it was for real this time. As we arrived IND, we were taken over to Integrity Air, a cargo handling service the Camp Atterbury logistics office uses on contract for material handling jobs. Our good friend Murphy and that darned law of his were bound to strike again though, this time it was a faulty load plan for the cargo. The Air Force loadmasters and the Atterbury logistics staff would ultimately reach an agreement that involved loading the remaining cargo into the nose of the plane, a tactic rarely seen at the end of a loading operation. This would result in nearly a four hour wait in Indianapolis but honestly who was counting hours after we'd now started quantitating in weeks?!?!?
Take-off from IND occurred at 8:25PM Sunday evening, four weeks and a day after our official departure ceremony that took place on September 25th. What a relief, no more explaining why I was still in Indiana! At this point I would have been content to just be on the east coast, Spain was a great bonus. If you've never taken off in a C-5, it's a feeling you'll never forget as the 250ft long aircraft capable of hauling 840,000 lbs utilizes every last inch of runway before hurling itself into the air. Our aircrew was actually a group of Air National Guardsman, like myself, out of the 155th Airlift Squadron in Memphis, TN. They were a great group of guys (and Cindy) who had really been on one heck of a journey before even coming through Indianapolis; with stops in Norfolk, VA as well as the country of Panama preceding their stop in IND. Our crew consisted of four pilots, three flight engineers, three maintainers, and finally another three loadmasters. There was quite a bit of training going on during the flight, hence the inflated crew numbers.
Touchdown in Spain brought a very welcomed seabreeze as we walked off the runway into the passenger terminal at Rota Naval Station. Rota sits on the Southwest coast of Spain, directly across the bay from Cadiz which is filled with much rich history in Christopher Columbus' journey. Our stay in Spain would only be about 18 hours but as we've discussed earlier in this blog, that's plenty of time to explore! I started by just walking off the post and into the town of Rota in an attempt to find the ocean. After only 10 minutes or so I found myself staring at the vast waters of the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. The weather was very pleasant, a bit chilly for swimming but warm enough to warrant a barefoot walk on the beach, after all it would be the last time I'd see standing water for ten months. That evening I joined the aircrew for dinner and got to know them a little better, they were a great group of guys that got along extremely well. For the first time since leaving flight training in March of 2009, I actually questioned my decision to leave. Perhaps I should consider more of a crew focused airframe with a bit more travel involved? Here was a group getting paid to travel from Tennessee to Virginia, Panama, Indiana, Spain, and then of course Afghanistan. Their mutual thirst for adventure, service to their country, and appreciation of travel made for a great conversation. It was really a great treat to share a meal with them as they were regulars in the area, recommending a meat-lovers paradise called Los Arcos in downtown Rota. Iberican pork is a local specialty so I decided to go with "presa Iberica" and wash it down with a bit of Sangria, another few luxuries I'd not soon have the pleasure of imbibing in.
The flight from Spain to Afghanistan would be highlighted by the pilots' offer for me to ride in the jumpseat for that leg of the trip. Interestingly enough, our aerial refueling came courtesy of a KC-135 tanker aircraft based out of Grissom Air Reserve Base in Peru, Indiana! I've always wanted to witness an aerial refuel, I just never dreampt I'd see it take place over the Black Sea. It was amazing to listen in on the radio communications and hear how cohesive of a unit the entire aircrew was over the course of the entire trip. They all were extremely professional but as always with a group of pilots you might imagine a few friendly jabs were thrown out over the course of nine hours as well. As we prepared for landing, I moved back into the crew seating area in an effort to provide as little confusion as possible. If anyone had forgotten where we were about to land, it was quite apparent we weren't going into Charles 'de Gaulle as the crew suited up in their body armor and also anti-lazing goggles worn to counter insurgents attempts to blind landing aircrews on approach with giant laser pointers. Remember my good friend Murphy and his law? Well apparently he accompanied me for the trip across the pond as well. As we slowed to a stop on the runway, one of the loudest horns I've heard in my lifetime started to sound. From my vantage point I could only see red lights flashing in the cockpit and of course hear the alarm resonating throughout the mammoth aircraft. As the sound and flashing stopped, I heard from another member of the crew that there was a fire on the left wing within the auxiliary power unit. Thanks to quick reaction on behalf of the pilots, the fire was extinguished with the flip of a switch and all was safe. After a quick survey by groundcrews and the fire department, we were finally cleared to disembark the aircraft.
From the moment you step off the plane at Bagram Airfield, there is no question your life is about to undergo some major changes. Bagram lies about 25 miles northeast of Kabul in a bowl beneath the Hindu-Kush mountains and is the logistics hub of the Afghan war. Any troop coming in or out of the theater passes through Bagram and it was quite evident that plenty were coming in that same evening we arrived. To think that it was after midnight there and then to see people moving every which way down Disney Road (main street), dining halls open, the gym and workout facilities filled to capacity could nearly be enough to send a person into sensory overload. The next major difference you notice is the what seems to be a constant cloud of dust in the air. The arid climate of Afghanistan naturally has it's fair amount of dust; but the introduction of 40,000 living, breathing individuals- and the airplanes, helicopters, buses, and yes even John Deere Gators required to move them has exponentially diminished the air quality in that area where you honestly hesitate to take a deep breath outdoors. Most photos you take with a flash can actually capture the dust particles in the air, so large you might even confuse them for raindrops.
There are countless different groups of people co-habitating on Bagram. The highest number I heard while on the base was 27 different countries represented. From the Ugandans searching for land mines on one of the many mine-filled areas of the base to the Kyrg's serving food in the chow hall, many different cultures and groups of people are calling Bagram Air Field their temporary home. I found myself as a transient guest on Bagram, thankfully only needing to complete two days worth of Afghan theater specific combat tasks. After only being on Bagram for less than 48 hours, I have the utmost respect for the many serving their entire tour of duty at such a deplorable location.
Thursday evening would finally be the night I arrived to my new home for the next ten months, Forward Operating Base Salerno. As I came in on the C-130, armed with a full combat load of ammunition as well as body armor and helmet, it was an altogether different feeling than Bagam even. We exited the plane to complete darkness as well as silence. Salerno is a black-out FOB that practices noise and light discipline. (Basically this means no loud voices and also no white light, but makes for a very peaceful evening once you have adjusted.) The darkness is like nothing you've ever witnessed before, it is literally impossible to see your hand in front of your face and makes carrying a colored flashlight while walking to the restroom at night a necessity. As we exited the airfield, I was immediately greeted by our Team Commander Col Colbert, Executive Officer Lt Col Kulich, and two great friends on the Ag Team Majors Robbins and Gulley. They assisted me with my baggage and whisked me back to my room to get some rest and try to get things settled as well as I could in what was relative darkness. I did have one reading lamp in my room which was a great asset to unpack, but aside from getting my bedding out the rest could wait. After four days of travel and four weeks of separation from my team, I was ready for bed...