FINALLY, AFGHANISTAN: THIRD FIRST IMPRESSIONS |
February 14, 2012
I’ve arrived at Marmal, a German Air Base near Mazar-e Sharif. Now that the movement is over, I can say that we trickled into theater. Some of the brigade has been on the ground here for just over a month. Others have just arrived. Most of my team has been in place for several weeks at least. I was on the third to last (out of a bunch) movement to country, which was passed by the second to last and finally entered country at the same time as the final movement. Throughout the long, painful movement into Afghanistan, I kept in touch via email with the Lieutenant Colonel, LTC Grass* who is the deputy team chief for the Security Force Assistance Team (SFAT) that I am a part of.
A couple of years ago, SFATs were called ETTs or PMTs. Embedded advisors. I’ve done this before, but this time I’m doing it with the Afghan Border Police. Most of the team have been working with them for a little while now. It will be a few days, at least a couple, before I meet any of the Afghans the team is working with. First, we have to do RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration) training. Counter IED stuff, check the zero on our weapons, that type of thing. You’re not allowed “outside the wire” until you’ve done it. So that’s what Taco and I have to do for the next couple of days.
I hate arriving at a new place after dark. Actually, we got here in daylight -- right at dusk. It always takes a little time to get off of a C-17 because the pallets have to come off first before you finally file off of the ramp and go in whatever direction you’re pointed. The rear of the plane opens up and light streams in, the gaping aperture at the rear of the plane framing the bustle of activity on the flight line. Added to the whine of the various systems on the plane, the noise of vehicles and equipment outside are blended with the overall din. It’s noisy.
A large, strange vehicle resembling a tiny aircraft carrier pulls up to the rear of the aircraft and the pallets of bags and rucksacks (backpacks) are pushed across the built-in rollers onto the vehicle. Finally, the ramp is lowered the rest of the way and the human cargo can unload in two files. We were pointed at a set of buses that sat waiting, and dutifully walked to them under the weight of body armor, weapons and whoever’s carry-on bag we were handed as we filed off. The carry-ons had been stored during flight in a large plywood box chained behind the seat pallets locked into the floor of the plane. Not given time to sort them out, they handed a bag to each person until the box was empty. We would sort it out later in a large Chinese-fire-drill-type activity.
Crammed into the buses, we were driven off the flight line and disembarked to load yet another series of smaller buses which then drove us to an area where we were told to ground our gear and go into a large tent for a briefing. In those few minutes I finally saw LTC Grass for the first time since the first week of January.
He’s grown a mustache, and it’s working for him.
We sat through a PowerPoint briefing on what to expect for the next couple of days and how things work at Marmal. Particulars like chow times and the little details; like don’t drink the tap water, brush your teeth with bottled water, three minute “combat showers” so that the septic systems don’t overflow. They tried to explain where things are, but the description of the route to the American DFAC (dining facility) was so convoluted that it was practically gibberish. By the time we emerged from the tent, it was dark.
I found the team’s accommodations, dropped off my gear and went to find the team’s offices. They were right where the LTC had pointed in the last daylight before the briefing. More long-lost teammates to greet me. Handshakes, chest-bumps, humorous remarks about how I still have a pulse, that I am not a figment of imagination. I roll my eyes at the hackneyed jokes and try to get the lay of the land. There is much to learn, and I think I absorbed perhaps a quarter of what was spewed at me. The team S-2 (intelligence) advisor, 1LT Steve** offered to be my guide to the DFAC, and off we went through the maze of tentage, over the bridges, through holes in the wall to the place where it seemed that everyone on this base had gone to eat.
There is a German DFAC and a an American DFAC on the base, but it seems that everyone prefers the American chow hall. I’m told that this is because the American DFAC has a wider selection and more of it. Now, what I said about everyone preferring the American DFAC is purely an impression, but the line was long and there were lots of Germans, Norwegians, Croats and the like in the chow line with Americans.
There is accountability for the partner nation forces, so I’m sure that we are being reimbursed for the meals. Just sayin’.
1Lt Steve gave me his version of the rundown on the events of the past few weeks, particularly his take on the ABP (Afghan Border Police) S-2 shop, which was informative. His overall impressions go into the bin with those of LTC Grass, COL Molosser*** and the rest of the team. In time, it will all congeal to form a larger picture along with my own impressions which, at the moment, are limited.
Being led to a destination in the dark is like being driven somewhere in the trunk of a car. I’m not sure I’ll find the chow hall easily on my own.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent -- and sometimes to postpone conflict with the not-so-innocent. This one is innocent.
**Also not his real name. Also presumed innocent; at least until the Grand Jury returns a verdict.
***Again, a pseudonym. Again, innocent. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.