October 20, 2008
Name: Scott Kesterson
Posting date: 10/20/08
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog url: c/o bouhammer.com
Getting around Afghanistan is slow and challenging. My destination was ultimately to the east, Gardez, and then further east towards the Pakistan border. To get there from Kabul, you have to fly north to Bagram, then fly south and east from there. Being that I had to complete my credentialing process for American forces in Bagram anyway, the trip north worked in well with my final destination.
As I arrived back at Camp Phoenix, I was informed that I had three hours to be ready to go to Kabul International Airport. The plan was to move me to the ISAF side of the airport, get a room for the night and then try to secure a flight the next day to Bagram. I called the Public Affairs Office in Bagram to notify them of my forthcoming arrival. I was given a contact number for when I arrived, and told that they would have someone available to pick me up. When I mentioned my experience with ISAF and media credentialing, there was a pause and then the NCO at Bagram added, “We will get you credentialed in fifteen minutes once you get here.” I packed my things, and then headed to the staging area near the front of Camp Phoenix for my trip to Kabul International.
When I was embedded in 2006 / 2007, transportation to Kabul International was done in large five ton trucks with armored cabs, wooden bench seats in the back, a canvas top and sides, and floors lined with Kevlar blankets. So I was a bit surprised when I discovered that transportation to the airport was now done using an armored bus. With a design reminiscent of a Winnebago on steroids, the entire concept reminded me of the movie Stripes. Air conditioned, leg room, individual seats encased in blast-resistant plating with emergency gun ports. We loaded, and sat back for the ten minute drive.
Once there, we unloaded bags and got ourselves situated. With a room for the night arranged, I headed to the flight terminal to put myself on the standby list for the morrow's flight. As I approached the counter, I started to laugh. The person running the flight scheduling was dressed in civilian clothes, but had been in the same position as an Oregon Guard Officer during my previous embed. He looked across the counter with surprise, “Scott, what the hell are you doing here?”
Funny thing about this war is that it seems likely that you will cross paths with someone you know. Like the time I was sitting on the back of a Canadian “G-wagon” bumper at a resupply point in the middle of Helmand Province, only to hear someone call my name. I looked up to see a line of vehicles, American and Canadian, stretching across the Ring Road and disappearing into the horizon. As I looked, I could see a dusty figure walking towards me. It was a 10th MTN Lieutenant that I had met a month earlier in a small fire base in eastern Zabul province. War brings about a randomness as much as it brings a fate. Destinies cross.
And here I was again, looking at a face of a friend that I never expected to see in Kabul; as he looked at me the same. Needless to say, I was on the roster for the morning's flight. After I settled in, and unpacked what I needed for the night, I headed out to get something to eat. The military side of Kabul International Airport is ISAF / NATOs “Club Med -- Afghanistan.” With over five unique military stores, referred to as “PX’s” representing the different NATO/ ISAF countries, several restaurants, a coffee shop, free wifi and a large dining hall, the war in Afghanistan takes on a surreal feel. So I embraced it and had dinner at the Thai Restaurant.
I had eaten here during my last embed. The food was excellent, especially considering where we were located. I took my seat, as the waiter brought me a bottle of water and the menu. I selected two dishes and waited for the waiter to return. Next to me were three officers from Denmark. They were studying the visual menu closely as the waiter arrived at their table to take their orders. It soon became apparent that they had little experience with Thai cuisine. As the waiter worked his way around the table, one of the officers spoke up, “Is the shrimp fresh?” It was all I could do not to choke laughing on the sip of water I had just taken. Did this officer realize what he had just asked? Did he consider where he was? Afghanistan is landlocked. The closest thing one will get to “fresh” shrimp will be via Pakistan or by frozen container via air. That is, unless the Afghans had created some form of shrimp pond farming I was unaware of. I finished my water, still laughing under my breath, as the waiter arrived and took my order.
The meal was excellent, and took me away for a moment from the war that is continuing around the country outside of Kabul. It has been nearly 15 months since I was last here. Nothing much seems to have changed. If anything, ISAF forces had been increased, while Kabul International has grown more distant from the reality I am soon to face. I walked back to my room, grabbed my things for a shower, set my alarm and fell asleep.
At 4:30 a.m. my watch alarm woke me up. I quickly got dressed, grabbed my bags and headed to the flight terminal. I checked in and waited for my flight. The other soldiers were going on leave. There was an eagerness in their waiting. And then we were called for boarding, walking through two sets of doors with small glass windows, our hats tucked into our cargo pockets, as we walked single file onto the tarmac to the waiting twin engine Blackwater airplane. As we filed passed our guide, we handed the soldier our boarding passes and took our seats. Ten minutes of flying later, we landed at Baghram Airbase.
Once on the ground we were met by a ground crew who directed us towards the terminal. I called the Public Affairs office and was met by a staff member within 10 minutes. My greeting was the typical formal politeness practiced by military personnel, “Welcome to Bagram, Sir. We’ve been expecting you. Are these all of your bags? Have you had breakfast yet?” The doors of the SUV were closed, as I took my seat on the passengers side, and we headed to the dining facility. After a quick breakfast, we drove to the Public Affairs Office, where I was given a room and credentialed in fifteen minutes as promised. From that point the day was mine to relax and enjoy.
The next morning came quickly. I grabbed my bags as I was met by one of the Public Affairs NCOs waiting to drive me to the rotary flight wing. He helped me carry my bags in, as I checked in and was directed the waiting area. Helping me to the point of my seat, the Sergeant First Class wished me safe travels, told me to call if there was any issue, and left. A short time later I heard the last four digits of my social security number being called. Once again I grabbed my bags, loaded them onto the waiting truck and walked to one of the many Chinooks lined up on the flight line. After nearly one week to the day, my embed was about to begin.
Looking out of the back of a Chinook on the Baghram flightline.