April 06, 2012

Name: Old Blue 
Stationed in:
: Afghan Blue III and Afghan Quest

As mentors, we go where our counterparts go and we do their missions with them. Sometimes we are teaching, sometimes we are recommending, and sometimes we are being supportive. We are also sharing their experiences and taking in their world. You can’t really advise and mentor very well when you don’t understand the world of the man whom you are trying to help develop as a professional. The mission to the checkpoint was one of those missions. I took along others on that mission, partly for communications, partly for security, and partly because if I didn’t, the mission would have been stopped.

Another such mission was our recent one to the Aquina Border Crossing Point (BCP). Aquina is out west in Faryab Province, on the border with Uzbekistan. It’s about 160 miles from Marmal. The ABP Zone Commander, a General and the mentee of COL Mollosser, needed to go to Aquina for a cross-border meeting. He planned on making the journey by wheel, and it was decided to support that mission. This was decided, in part, because the Colonel goes where the General goes and does what he does. Another reason was to keep the General safer with our armor and firepower. Faryab has a significant Taliban presence which has increased over the past few years.

There is a Taliban commander in that area who has a Dishka, a 12.7mm (.50 caliber) Russian-made machine gun that is quite capable of penetrating the MRAP. It’s a big honkin’ gun that shoots big honkin’ bullets a half inch thick. Khoob neys (not good).

The mission planning was very detailed, as could be expected for a 320 mile round trip to be done using MRAPs in one day. A stop by the Zone’s 2nd Kandak was built into the plan, since we would be right around the corner from them at the BCP. We needed to take as many trucks as possible, and since we would be so far from support, all kinds of contingency plans had to be made. Communications, MEDEVAC and recovery of a stuck or broken down vehicle had to be planned for, with each part of the mission having a different plan based on the availability and distance of resources. And in those contingencies, we would perhaps have to depend on others. For instance, the day we got the MRAP stuck in that precarious near-rollover position, it took five hours for the maintenance crew to arrive on site from about 15km away. What if we needed recovery assets over 50 miles away? What if we needed recovery assets from 0ver 100 miles away?

Never mind what happens if they arrive at an average speed of 3km/hr.

We SP’d (Start Point; when you begin a mission) from Marmal at 0330, picked up a few additional personnel -- often called “pax" -- at Spann and headed west on the Ring Road. At first, very few people were out, and we had to be vigilant for darkly-clad bicyclists in the dark. In a world where a bike is a common form of transportation, there were those who were making their way to or from work in the wee small hours of the morning. As time passed, more pedestrians, bicycles, animals and finally cars and buses began to share the road.

As we moved into open country, donkeys loaded with brush would appear in the darkness, headed into town and accompanied by fathers accompanied by sons who looked as young as perhaps 8 to 10 years old. Their shapes would loom out of the darkness, where the gunner or myself would note them verbally, in the case the driver, PFC Rogers again, could not or did not see them. Occasionally a pedestrian, cyclist, donkey cart or tricycle cart would materialize in front of us, headed in the same direction as ourselves. The prospect of sudden disaster hung over this phase of the mission.

The sun began to rise behind us, and the landscape looked much like northern Ohio; nearly flat, rolling farmland with dwellings and villages scattered across it. We drove westward for hours and passed through the city of Sherberghan, where there were many friendly waves from what appeared to be a largely Uzbek or Hazara population. We drove further west, and the land to the south of the ring road began to look like desert. This was noted by the gunner.

“Hey, that looks kinda like desert.”

The wind had picked up, and windblown sand began to dance on the road in rhythmic sets of waves in the same manner as light snow will dance on the roads in Ohio in the winter. Another observation came from the gunner.

“The sand on the road looks like snakes.”

“Two things,” I told him over the intercom, “and the first one is to stop eating the mushrooms.”

I never got to the second thing because of the laughter.

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View from the turret of the ABP vehicles at Aquina.

As we neared the the city of Ankhoy, the wind was picking up and visibility was beginning to get limited. We headed north towards the BCP and after what seemed an eternity arrived at Aquina.  A sandstorm was holding spirited sway over the BCP, and a fine coating of dust was starting to accumulate over everything in the vehicle. I put on a pair of my WileyX glasses with the foam seals around the frames, wrapped my head in a shemagh (or desmaah), the colorful scarf that it ubiquitous in Afghanistan, and stepped out.

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Desmah-wrapped Blue. Yeah, that's me. In a sandstorm. Eyewear courtesy of WileyX.

I was immediately pelted by fine sand. I have been in a number of sandstorms from Helmand to the Mojave, and each has its own quality.  While the sandstorm in the Mojave was like getting sandblasted, this one was like high pressure hosed with moon dust. It permeated, and did so quickly. My covering did a fair job of keeping the sand out of my mouth and nose, but I could still smell the rock dust that it was. I could feel the grit in my teeth, and the seals around the Wileys, which have never failed me, permitted tiny amounts of the finely ground stone into the space around my eyes.

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View of an MRAP from 10 feet away.

An Afghan approached as I stood talking to SFC Louong, a Cambodian-American NCO who I had the privilege of working with on my first tour. He had taught himself Dari so well that he actually passed the linguist test. Someday, perhaps, I will tell his story. The hard part will be figuring out who will play him in the movie they should make about him. The Afghan approached and asked me a question which Louong interpreted. They had apparently brought up working dogs only a couple of days before.

(Via Luoung) “Will the sand hurt the dogs?” he asked.

“Not as long as they have some cover,” I told him, “where are they?”

“In that building.”

“They will be fine.  How often do you have these storms?”

“I have only been here for three days, so… always,”  the Afghan concluded.

SFC Luong went about his business, and after answering the call of nature (not the most comfortable thing to do in a sandstorm), I found no reason to remain outside and got back into the TC seat. On the tiny ledge of the screen of the commander’s display, a quarter inch of moon dust had accumulated like a tiny snow drift. Everything was coated in a layer of tan moon dust. The dust was literally getting in through the door seals and, of course, through the open turret. Still, it was amazing how much of the stuff was getting into every single space on the vehicle. Eyes and nose were full of fine dust. Nothing was untouched.

Outside, it had gotten worse. Visibility was terrible, and vehicles only a few meters away were viewed as through a heavy snow. The pictures look like fog, but that is in fact flying sand. It’s actually more like flying sand dust.

The foreign contingent came and went inside. We waited. I dismounted and remounted several times, each time dealing with a painful process of clearing the sand from my eyes. I started to get questions.

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These Turkmen brought to you by Chevrolet. Chevy. Like ground rock.

“Are they staying for lunch?”

“I don’t know. I would assume so,” I offered.

“Crap. I’m already tired of this sandstorm. It’s not fun anymore. Let’s go!”

There was nothing I could do but sit there in the relentless wind tunnel of dust; just like them. It gave the world a sense of unreality. The world became very small, dimly lit and uncomfortable. I was in and out of the vehicle a number of times, usually for a good period of time, after which I would have to spend painful minutes getting the incredibly fine sand that had made it past the desmah (shemagh, the ubiquitous bandana-like piece of cloth worn by nearly all male Afghans) and the seals of my normally very trusty WileyX’s out of my eyes.

One NCO, who had nothing more protective than his wraparound sunglasses, had so much sand in his eyes by the end of the day that it actually hurt to look at his eyes.

When lunch was served, an Afghan soldier came out to our vehicle with a platter of food literally wrapped in a small blanket, which kept the sand out quite well.  There was rice, nan, beef, chicken and riverfish.* We ate a little and let everyone know that there was Afghan food available. Normally, our soldiers will flock to eat Afghan food, but on this occasion, most of the food remained uneaten.

The Afghans warned us that the Taliban with the Dishka were talking about us. I assume they were monitoring ICOM chatter. They told us that the eager ones wanted desperately to fight, but the leadership was less enthused due to the storm.

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Turkmen on the move.

Time marched on through the relentless penetrating sand. After what seemed like six hours, it was finally time to move. We moved at a snail’s pace for miles through sand that at times totally obscured the vehicle just in front of us.  Several times we lost sight of the lead truck completely. We guided on the road by being able to see the ditch just beside the vehicle. It took over two hours to go just a few miles, and every moment of it was interesting.

The blanket of sand wrapped us in a shroud that kept us from the view of the Taliban and their powerful Dishka. The young ones, the ones with no combat and a desire to see the elephant, were disappointed.   Having seen what the words, “torn asunder,” actually mean, I can say that these young’ins could live the rest of their lives without seeing that elephant, and the only thing that will be the worse for it is their pride. I told them that someone in that convoy has a purpose in this world that it wasn’t time to end that day, and that’s why we were wrapped in a blanket and literally smuggled right past the angry Taliban.

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That is an MRAP two vehicle lengths in front of us... and we're moving.

As we neared Ankhoy, visibility picked up a bit and it just looked really foggy. The choking dust was still flying, but it was not nearly as dense. We proceeded to the headquarters of the ABP’s 2nd Kandak and dismounted to again be made miserable by the merciless dust. Imagine having the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag blown directly into your face through a fire extinguisher, and that’s close. Finally, it was time for the long return trip. We retraced our steps through the rest of the afternoon and into the approaching night.

By this time my camera, which has been with me for 2.125 tours, had been destroyed by the sand. When the camera is powered on, the lens deploys and two shutters open exposing the lens. Not anymore.  I have disassembled the camera and cleaned it as best I could. It will never work again. I’ve taken thousands of pictures and dozens of videos with that camera, but it is no longer and I shall miss it. For what it was, it did yeoman’s work.

I switched to using my Motorola Photon, which I have equipped with an Afghan SIM card, and used that to take pictures.

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Street scene in Ankhoy. Dust storm abating.

On the way to Aquina, there had been chatter inside the vehicle. Now there was little. The sandstorm had beaten us up pretty nicely, and combined with fatigue, it was much quieter in the vehicle. The stress of driving in the blinding sand was now replaced by the stress of driving fatigued in the darkness while sharing the roads with ever-creative Afghan drivers. Even the welcome sight of the outskirts of Mazaar-e Sharif did not buoy the spirits much. Everyone just wanted a shower and bed.

The Taliban were indeed frustrated about their failure to engage us. The next day apparently the weather broke a bit, and some men of the 2nd Kandak went on a water run to get drinking water from a nearby source. They were ambushed and one of them was killed. Many of us feel that the Taliban took out their frustration on the ABP.

The journey to Aquina stands as the marathon mission.


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