Thursday, August 31, 2006


Rather than try and put pictures into previous posts, let me just add a bunch here and explain them.

Here's Aaron and I on the bus from Shelby to the airport. See, I am better looking than he is, that's why I get to be Maverick - see previous posting.

OK Natalie, here's the original...

Speaking of Maverick, here's our Top Gun pose and strut.

He is better looking than me!!

This is George Graff and me sitting in first class. It was so comfortable!!

You know how the flight attendant will go through the safety briefing? Well our soldiers took over and took care of that job from them. One read the safety card, not well I might add, and several others demonstrated. They shouldn't give up their day jobs. Notice the funky "Elvis" glasses?

Here we are at Gander Airport in Gander Newfoundland. Aaron's wife described this pose as the "prom pose." I was trying to embarass him for his camera and he was holding on to my hands to stop me. That's all I'll admit to at this point. Suffice it to say, there's more to the story.

When we finally reached Manis Airbase in Kjerjistan (sp) they put us temporarily in this clam shell to pass a few hours. It was late in the evening when we got there. Some left around 0230 and my group left at 0700. We tried to get some sleep on all the bunks. Some were successful, others not.

Here's Afghanistan from the air. Sorry about the poor quality, but that's what you get when you take pictures from a plane window.

Here I am sitting on one of the jump seats in the back of the plane. The next one is me "peeing" on Afghanistan.

OK, I'm not really peeing. It is a urinal though. Of course it's funny!! OK, maybe juvenile is the better decription.

The next several pictures are of us on the convoy from Bagram Air Base to Camp Phoenix. This is the real thing - Afghanistan... Sorry that some of them are blurry, but they were taken from the back of a 5-ton truck.

Well we finally got to Camp Phoenix. That's where our higher command is located. They're a National Guard Unit out of Florida. Here's our team after we got there.

For security reasons, I couldn't take too many pictures of Phoenix, but here's the row of tents we lived in and my "personal space" in one of them.

Here's the view of the countryside around Camp Phoenix....

Here are some pictures of when we had to say goodbye to part of our group. It was pretty hard to see these guys go, knowing that some, many, all of them may actually be in the fire fight. Our prayers are certainly with them.

This is me and an interpreter on a hill overlooking Camp Blackhorse. Some pictures from the hill. The mudhuts are the huts where refugees from Pakistan are living.

As you can see from the pictures, it's pretty brown and bleak. That's thanks to the Taliban. They came in and cut down all the trees. Apparently this valley used to be very green and covered with trees. I have no idea why they would cut them down, other than to do their best to make people's lives miserable. Up on the hill was this beautiful swimming pool area. They destroyed that as well. The Afghans are now filling it with water again, but it's no where near what it once was. Finally, there are these buildings on the hill. The Taliban destroyed them as well. Don't know why other than they're idots.

Did I tell you about our visit with BG Shir, the ANA JAG? I've been having so many problems with the computers here, I can't remember what I've posted and what got lost before it was posted. I'll put the picture here and tell you about it later, if I haven't already. This is Merrill LeBaron, my new assistant, Paul Waldron, BG Shir, me, and Dusty Kawai.

Here's a picture of the sun setting behind the mountains. It was a beautiful night.

Haven't told you yet, but we got to meet with the chief judge of the ANA's 201st command. I wish I could remember his name I can't. I'll get to work with and mentor him as well as the prosecutors, defense attorneys and other legal staff. There's a court martial on Saturday and we're going to go and watch it. It's a case against three deserters. Should be interesting. Commentary later.

I think that should do it. Don't expect an entry like this again for some time. It's taken me over two hours to upload all these images. Slow connection. But, I hope you've enjoyed it all.

I'm still more handsome than Aaron! And no, I'm not insecure!!! (just bored.)

I may have opened Pandora's box. What do you think?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Plagarism is a great thing...

I'm going to unabashedly copy and paste one of Aaron's entries into my blog. Janae is printing these out and keeping them and since we both had the same experience and I would have told it essentially the same way, I'm going to let Aaron tell it:

Maverick and Goose, by SGT Aaron

"The other day, my battle buddy LTC Church and I went on our first real convoy in a combat zone. We were in the last vehicle and I got to be in the gunner's hatch. I felt pretty cool, but I am sure that feeling will go away very soon. Anyway, we got back to camp without incident. LTC Church and I had to walk across the camp to get back to our tents. We were walking side by side with our full "battle rattle" with our helmets in our hands. The sun was behind us so we could see our shadows in front of us as we were walking. After about a minute, I thought of that scene in Top Gun when Maverick and Goose got out of their F-14 Tomcat fighter jet and walked in slow motion off the runway. It was a cool scene, I mean, those guys were studs! Well, that is what I thought we looked like. You know, hardened warriors getting back from battle walking back into the safe zone with all their cool equipment on. Then I said to LTC Church.. "Hey, you know that scene in Top Gun when Maverick and Goose are walking off the runway with their helmets in their hands and they looked so tuff.. well, I feel like that now". Then he turned to me and said, "You know Aaron (he left out the other part of my name "El mejor hombre en todo el mundo", but I forgave him)... That is exactly what I was thinking too!!" I thought that was cool, that we were both on the same wave length. That only happens to me with people to whom I am very close to. So, we just laughed.. then we spent the rest of the walk to the tents arguing who was going to be Maverick and how would be Goose. We finally settled on that he would get to be Maverick but I would be Ice Man. Nobody was going to be Goose. Not because he wasn't cool or anything, but he bit the dust halfway through the movie, and that is bad "ju-ju". So I get to be Ice Man. I mean, Church is a Lieutenant Colonel for Pete’s sake, if the man wants to be Maverick he can! GOSH!!"

Now let me just say that I don't get to be Maverick just because I'm a Lieutant Colonel. I get to be Maverick because I so much better looking than young Aaron.

You can read Aaron's entry first hand in his blog at:

Newly Edited: Now for the funny version of our LDS meeting...

For those of you who have already read this, I am editing it as I forgot one important point. So read on and you'll see.

Before Aaron beats me to it, I'll share this experience. Be sure to log onto his blog to read his version. I'm sure it will be entertaining.

Because we had to have all our gear packed and ready to go, I needed to get to the PX to get a few things that I wouldn't be able to get at Camp Blackhorse. They don't have a PX. The only time I had was right before church.

So, I was in line at the PX looking at my watch. I had minutes to spare but as I walked outside, realized that I had left my glasses so had to go back. I now had one minute to spare so I was hoofing it to get to the chapel.

I walked in just as they were getting ready to start.

Someone asked for a piano player. I was the only one. So there I was, walking up the aisle to the front of the chapel with my plastic PX bag, full of junk food and other necessities, swishing by my side. I'm sure it looked so very spiritual and dignified.

Now, here's the part that I forgot in the original version of this story - I was in my PT gear, you know black shorts, grey t-shirt, running shoes. So, not only was I late, walking down the aisle with my bag of junk food, I was not really dressed for church. Of course we do show up to church in PT gear as it's an authorized uniform, I just thought it added the final bit of humor to the whole situation.

Well I sat down and opened up the hymnbook. I couldn't see anything. My near eyesight when I wear my contacts has been getting progressively worse to the point that I have to have reading glasses to see anything. I mentioned that fact and the group leader gave me his bifocals. They didn't work. I had to take them off to play. I haven't played the piano in months so was pretty rusty. The hymn chosen was Come, Come Ye Saints. I knew I was in trouble with that one, especially the last verse. Well I struggled through it, not being able to read the music very well.

(Insert small, non-humuorous thought)

I'm glad that I can't sing and play at the same time. As we sang the last verse, you now the words, And should we die, before our journey's through..." I thought I might lose it. We had just sent a third of our command down range to one of the most hostile, dangerous areas of the country. As we wished them farewell earlier that afternoon, all our thoughts were on the same thing, just come back alive. Well what a song to sing after having to go through those goodbyes.

Anyway, as we prepared to sing the sacrament song, one of my old buddies gave me his reading glasses. That did the trick. I could now see. It so sucks to be old.

As I said, Aaron may post something about my sacriligous act of bringing a shopping bag into church so I had to get my version posted first.

Here are the pictures, finally. They were e-mailed to me. I'm obviously not the only one in PT clothes, but I was the only one walking in late with a plastic bag swishing at his side.

From left to right....

Our First LDS Group Meeting In Afghanistan - The Spiritual Version

Before I lose the feelings and the spirit I just felt, let me tell you about our first LDS group meeting in Afghanistan.

We met in the base chapel. It comfortably holds maybe 55-60. We filled it up. We fell in on a group of 8 guys from Oregon. They were amazed to see our numbers. Unfortunately we were missing an additional 20 or so who had already left for their assignments.

The group leader said that this was probably the largest group of priesthood holders that had ever gathered in Afghanistan. You could feel the spirit ripple through the room when he made that comment.

Instead of having the regularly scheduled lesson, he asked that we share our testimonies. My eyes are welling up again just thinking about the spirit that was there.

One of the first to share their testimony was a young specialist. He told of an experience when he was in basic training. He needed a battle buddy to go with him to church. The only one who would volunteer was a soldier who had previously told him that back home, they used to wait for the Mormons with shotguns. After one meeting, this soldier told the specialist that he wanted to be baptized. After reading and studying for a month or so, the soldier was baptized by the specialist. The Lord is mindful of us and will lead us to those who thirst and hunger.

The recurring theme from the brethren was that we were on a mission within a mission. While we cannot actively proselyte, we will be sharing the gospel through our examples and through our spirits. Over and over testimonies were born that the Lord had sent us here. We don't know what will happen, but the Lord does. Japan and South Korea were mentioned. It took a war to bring the gospel to those countries. A war has now brought priesthood holders to Afghanistan and Iraq. It may be 50 years before the gospel can be preached, but it WILL happen. Of that we all were born witness to. Slag mentioned how there are Afghans who have probably accepted the gospel in heaven. I never thought of that before. He then mentioned that they too, are praying and helping us spread the gospel to their descendants. At that thought, my eyes again welled up. I thought of those good men and women on the other side who are probably doing everything in their power to bring the gospel to their children and grandchildren. What an awsome responsibility we have to be worthy priesthood holders. SGT Tripp told of an experience he had when he was 10. He contracted spinal menangitis. His parents called the LDS chaplain and a friend to come and give him a blessing. The doctors told him he would not recover and would never walk again. He was out of the hospital within 24 hours of the blessing and playing football again within 2 weeks. Is the Lord mindful of us? Of course He is. Over and over, men of the priesthood stood and with tears in their eyes, bore witness of the truthfullness of the gospel. They said that we were here for a reason and we are. It's hard. Oh it's been hard at times to be here, away from our families. But there is a reason.

This country reminds me so much of my mission in the Dominican Republic. OK, it's not nearly as green, but the conditions are the same - extreme poverty. I've been going through the exact same emotions I did as a new elder - fear, trepidation, homesickness, and excitement. I remember thinking and wondering if it was going to be worth it, if I would learn the language, if I would be a good missionary. With each new struggle that came my way, once I got through it, I was able to look back and see why that particular struggle was placed in my path. I could see the growth that I made and could see the wisdom of the Lord's plan.

I'm having all the same feelings. However, I feel a little different. Because I feel the same way I did on my mission and know that I'll have the same or similar experiences, I'm not as afraid. Trusting the Lord as I do, I know that the struggles that will be placed in my path will only be for my good. Just like my mission, I'll be able to look back on those struggles and see the growth that I've gone through. And because of that, the unknown isn't quite as scary.

These and so many other thoughts were going through my mind as I sat there in that wonderful meeting.

It had to come to a close as we had other places we needed to be. I was hoping to sing God Be With You Till We Meet Again but we didn't have time. Just as well. I don't know if I could have held in the emotions.

SGT Tripp said that his testimony came from the military. I can see why. These meetings we have had as priesthood soldiers have been some of the most spiritual. We are soldiers. Not only fighting for our country and our freedom, but for our God.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

What I'll Be Doing

On Saturday, Saturday here, we met with most of the JAGs here in country and got training on what each of the various commands are doing. It was pretty cool what kinds of things are happening on the legal side here in country. I'll explain them in a minute. The cool thing is, they want us to help with their missions. What that means is that we are gong to have three major areas that we can work on.

So let me explain. Our first priority is to provide legal services for our commands. Paul and Dusty will have only one command to help. I've been assigned two. My primary command is the 201st RCAG and my second is the 41 TAG. The 201st is where most of my team will be so I'm excited about that. The 201st will be mentoring and training a couple of ANA batallions. The 41 TAG is the American training element within the Kabul Military Training Center. That's where new soldiers and officers go to get their basic military training.

We are also going to get to mentor the military legal process by mentoring the prosecutors, defense counsel and judges. We will get to help them work through the court martial process. We will get to mentor them on how to prepare and present their cases. We will get to mentor them in the presentation of the case and then mentor them in any appellate process. I was concerned about the confict of interest issue since we, the mentor, will be working with all sides. The answer is that we're just going to have to be careful in what we do.

The court martial process here is not as adversarial as our system. In fact, there's only one file that's created. What that means, is that the prosecutor and defense attorney work with the same file. Even the judge gets a crack at the file. Dusty and I kept asking all kinds of questions and it became very obvious that he and I were a prosecutor and defense attorney. It really baffled us at how open their system was but I guess it works for them.

Since the military justice code was only recently enacted, a lot of the JAGs are unfamiliar with it. We will get to work with and train them on the code and help them implement it. We are so excited.

We will also get the opportunity, if there's time, to work with the civilian justice system. That will be our third mission and only if we have time, but it would be great to actually get out into the civilian court system and do some mentoring there as well.

I know that I have left out so many details and you're probably wondering why this is so exciting, but for lawyers, especially military lawyers to get to work in a system that has barely laid the foundation for their entire military justice system, it's incredible. There is no case law written. We hope to help them begin that process. We hope to be able to instill in them a sense of just how important the military justice system is.

We will also get to work with the military commanders and mentor them and get them to understand just how valuable their JAGs/SJAs can be. In many batallions, the JAG is viewed as a non-essential member of the command. It will be our responsibility to change that perception. I can hardly wait.

As we left that briefing, the three of us were so excited to get out and start working.

So, that's kind of a very brief overview of what we'll be doing in the next year. I hope to be able to share with you some really cool and exciting experiences. In some small way, I hope to have an impact on the future of the Afghan Military Justice Code.

It sill boggles my mind that we get to do this stuff!!!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In an effort to keep my postings shorter, I know, I can get pretty long winded sometimes, I'll try to limit what I write about. With that said, here goes. Oh, I also only have about 15 minutes to draft and post anything I want to write about this time.

SGT Aaron also has a blog page. While he didn't write much about Shelbystan, he wrote a good piece about our trip over. Here's the link to his page if you want to read his version and see the pictures he posted. You can also see his lovely wife and daughter. We had them over for home-made ice cream Sunday night of our leave and got to meet them. Cute family.

Aaron, Steve, Ken and the majority of Team 2 - our Shelbystan team - are going to be stationed at the same location as me so I'm happy about that - oh wait, I already told you guys that.

Anyway, we came down for the day to meet with our ANA (Afghan National Army) counterparts as well as our coalition counterparts. Since I am not replacing a JAG, I've got a few minutes before we leave and go back to Phoenix.

I'm excited about my job because I get to make it up. There's no written SOP (standard operating procedures) so I get to create my own. I get to work with and mentor my ANA JAG counterpart and assist him in implementing the new military justice system that has been established. A big part of what I'll be doing is dealing with corruption issues - things like stealing fuel, building supplies, etc. I'll be able to work with our forces and the ANA forces to try and curb the corruption that has plagued the Afghans for centuries.

Camp Blackhorse is a small base within the ANA base. We're told that it serves the best food but it's still food bought at Sysco and warmed up. I mean, how good can that get?

I'll be sharing a room with a LTC Scott Flannery. The rooms are designed for 4 people but for now, it will be just us. I haven't seen my actual room yet as the lock was broken and they were getting it fixed, but I saw another one that should be like mine. I'll have quite a bit of space for my own stuff as well as a corner that has a small couch and TV. I'm told that we can invest and purchase a cable box so we can get the Armed Forces Network directly into our room. May have to look into that.

The latrines are real bathrooms with hot and cold running water and it's all indoors. The toilets are real porcelain toilets and believe me, that's a real luxury when you've been using port-a-johns and make-shift bathrooms out of shipping containers. I think life will be good here.

There's no PX here and only a small coffee shop so I should be able to curtail my spending a little. Camp Phoenix is close and there are convoys going up there every day so I should be able to get most anything but will just have to wait a day or so in extreme cases.

This area is surrounded by mountains. It reminds me so much of Utah. We were told that would be the case and it's true. I'm sure once they get snow on them, I'll really be homesick.

Since I still don't have my Army computer yet, I haven't been able to download pictures. Once I do, I'll get them posted. When I looked at Aaron's page, I saw that he inserted video into his. Actually I knew that he had I just haven't had the time to learn how to do it. I'll have to have him show me as I've got lots of small video clips that I can put in here.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough for this entry, plus I'm almost out of time.

Later, I'll regail you of things we learned today.

Oh, most importantly, here's my mailing address in case you want to send me cool stuff or delicious home-baked goods, etc.

Send things to:

Robert Church (Don't put my rank on anything)
201st RCAG
Camp Blackhorse
APO AE 09320

Monday, August 21, 2006

We're Here!!

We made it. We’re actually here in Afghanistan. The trip was uneventful, safe and fast. We thought for sure that we were going to be held up in a couple of different places waiting for transportation in-country, but everything went really well.

So, within the limitations I have on what I can tell you about; let me tell you about our trip. We left Shelbystan at 0500 on Friday the 19th. Our flight left Gulfport around 1045 or so. We were told that we would be on a plane that would already have 50 passengers and with our 120 or so, we would fill up all but 3 seats. That was not a very pleasant thought. Well, when the plane landed, we discovered that it was a bigger plane than we expected, that there were no passengers on board and that there were 12 first class seats. Just enough for all the LTC and senior NCO’s. I’ve never flown first class before so I was excited. Realize though, that everyone got the same services so there wasn’t any difference there, but the room was great. I could stretch out and not have my knees banging against the seat in front of me. It was great. I can see why people fly first class.

We flew north to Newfoundland where we stopped and refueled. We were able to get off the plane, walk around, and get something to eat. The accent of the locals was fun to listen to. I had just enough time to buy a couple postcards and get them sent. The gift shop actually sells postcards with prepaid postage. What a cool concept. Something we should adopt in the states.

After a brief respite, we were back on the plane heading over the Atlantic to the Emerald Isle. Again, we deplaned and were able to get some more food, not that anyone was hungry, drink a few beers – Guiness was the brand of choice among those who partook, shop in the duty free shop and generally relax. Again, you could buy pre-paid postcards and since I had some more time, bought a few more to send.

After 2 hours or so, it was time to get back on board. There was another plane next to ours full of soldiers heading home. About 30 minutes or so before we got back on, we heard the announcer asking for the last passenger on flight XYZ to please get on board. Our plane left and there’s was still sitting at the gate. We decided that that soldier must have fallen asleep somewhere in the airport and no one could find him.

We then flew into Turkey. We weren’t allowed to get off the plane so just got to look out the window. By that time, I was so tired; I don’t really remember much about the stop.

After that, we flew into one of the “stan” countries, Krygistan or something. I can’t remember. There, we got off our plane and figured that we would have a long wait to get into Afghanistan. To our pleasant surprise, we were told that we would only be there long enough to transfer our cargo, get it prepped for flight and then we would be leaving. While we waited, we spent a few hours in the “clam-shell. (I’ll post pictures to this message later when I can get them off my camera.) I ended up going in the second group that left the country because my name was accidentally left on the flight manifest. At first I was a little upset, but then realized that I’d actually have a few more hours to try and sleep. The only problem with that was, even though it was 2:00 in the morning, my body thought it was 2:00 in the afternoon and wasn’t very sleepy. When we finally got onboard our flight, I was pleased to see that in addition to the jump seats around the walls of the plane, there was also regular airline seating installed for our flight. Since I was the senior officer in this group and the Group Commander, I boarded first to get everything ready so I got the pick of the seats. Of course, I got one with lots of leg room. (Again, I’ll post more pictures once I get them off my camera.)

We then flew to Bagram airbase. Again, we thought, and had been told, that we could spend up to a week there waiting for a flight or convoy down to Camp Phoenix but our pleasant surprise, we were told that we would be leaving within hours. We were excited about that.

That was where the real adventure began. We were told that we would be going in a bus and a couple of 5-ton dump trucks fitted to transport passengers. The 5-tons had Kevlar going about half-way up the wall, but it was open from about mid-sternum to the roof of the vehicle. The bus was not protected in any way.

Before we left Shelbystan, we were told that IED attacks were being increased and that we could possibly encounter them going from Bagram to Kabul. That didn’t make any of us feel very safe. But we didn’t have much of an option. So, we all loaded into the various vehicles and took off.

Aaron, Steve, Slag and several others were in the back of the 5-ton sitting on wooden slat benches. My butt is still sore from that ride. The road was “paved” but it was like riding on a bumpy, dirt road. It was really jarring and rough. But you don’t want to hear about the physical discomfort of the ride so let me tell you about what we saw.

The countryside looked what I imagine Utah Valley must have looked like before the pioneers got there. Mountains were all around this wide open valley. The ground was pretty barren, save for a few bushes here and there.

Leaving the city outside Bagram reminded me of my mission in the Dominican Republic. Thrown together buildings lined the streets with shops selling all sorts of things; fruit, vegetables, candy, soda and various odds and ends. Men, very few women and lots of children lined the streets. Trash was everywhere. The buildings were made from brick, made from the brown dirt that was everywhere, as well as boards, pieces of tin and anything else they could find. We passed a couple of streams and I shuddered to think that the people washed their clothes and may even drink from these bodies of water.

We saw lots of “jingle” trucks. That’s what they’re called here. They’re semis, dump trucks, moving trucks and other large trucks that are painted in these vibrant colors with all kinds of patterns. From the mirrors hang steamers and other decorations. The cabs are intricately decorated with brightly colored material and other hanging things. (Again, pictures will be posted.) It’s the custom here. Anyway, these trucks were hauling all kinds of things, mostly scrap metal that I saw.

Since we were traveling in a convoy, we are trained not to let any vehicles pass us or try to get in between us. That happened on a couple of occasions. When a vehicle tries to do that, we’re supposed to yell at the vehicle, use hand gestures and other signals to let them know not to get too close. A couple of times we had vehicles try to pass us or go around us and our gun trucks had to close in on them, yell and let them know they couldn’t get that close. It was a little surreal to see what we’d been trained on actually happening. I don’t think any of the drivers meant us any harm, they just didn’t want to get stuck behind a convoy that was traveling slower that they would liked to have driven.

As we got out into the countryside, you could see mud/brick walls surrounding very large areas. I wasn’t sure why they created these “courtyards” as I couldn’t see anything inside the courtyard. Later, we saw signs that said that, at least some of them were used as brick manufacturing locations.

We saw several burned out and rusting remnants of Russian troop transport vehicles littering the countryside. It was a very visual reminder of the legacy the Russians had left behind, that and the tens of thousands of mines that still scatter the countryside.

Sheep, camels, a lone rabbit, a donkey and a few dogs were the only real animals we saw. A few shepherds were seen with their sheep.

The little kids were fun to watch. For the most part, they gave us the “thumbs-up” sign and would wave. I saw a couple give us the “thumbs-down” sign, but then most of them smiled after doing so. Most waved. It was cool. We didn’t see too many women, which didn’t surprise me. Some were unveiled and wearing Western style clothing. Others were completely veiled in beautiful blue veils. The men looked exactly as I imagined, based on the photos we had already seen. Most ignored us or simply stared; others waved and appeared to be very friendly. I was somewhat surprised to see a large number of men without facial hair. The fact that men wore facial hair here was so ingrained in us at Shelbystan in our culture classes, that I assumed that everyone would have at least a mustache but that was not the case.

As we arrived at Phoenix, we were met by our advance party. They were excited to see us and we were excited to see them. We got assigned our temporary housing. None of us will be assigned to Camp Phoenix so we’re all thrown into tents. They’re air conditioned though, which is nice. We have a few days with nothing to do which will also be nice. It should give us plenty of time to get acclimated and over the jet lag.

The symbol for Camp Phoenix, is as you might imagine, a phoenix. Under the symbol it says “rising from the ashes.” I really like that considering the fact that Afghanistan is literally rising from the ashes of so many years of war. The Russians devastated the country during their time here, then all the years of the Taliban. It’s sad to see what has happened to this country, but I believe that we well be able to help them recover and over time become a stable, free country.

I can’t give a lot of details about the camp, but it’s pretty nice. Great chow hall. I could gain a lot of weight here but am trying to lose a few pounds before I come home so will have to watch what I eat. A fairly large gym, post office, laundry facility, Post Exchange, phone center, computer lab, showers, etc. are all here for our use. This wouldn’t be a bad place to have to serve. I’m told that the camp where I’ll be at is similarly outfitted.

And on that note, the “Gods of War” are smiling on me. Unless things drastically change, my team will be at the same camp as I am. That means that even though SGT Aaron and I will not be working together, we should be able to see each other almost every day. I’ll be able to see the rest of my team with the same frequency so I’m excited about that.

Actually, the true God in Heaven has been smiling on us. As we left Shelbystan, I thought I would feel a great sense of dread that would only get worse the closer we got to Afghanistan. That didn’t’ happen. When we were told about the conditions of our convoy, I thought I would be terrified, but I wasn’t. Maybe I don’t have any feelings left in me, but I don’t think that’s the case. That’s not to say that I felt nothing. Of course I was nervous, but it wasn’t this debilitating fear that I thought I might have.

As I’ve said in previous postings, the Lord has made it known to me that while this would be a hard deployment in many respects, He was watching over me. I have felt that on so many occasions. So as we were convoying under less that ideal conditions, I wasn’t too worried. Does that make sense? My only hope is that I don’t place so much confidence in that peaceful feeling that I don’t get careless. I hope that never happens.

Anyway, this has gone on pretty long and you’re probably getting bored so I’ll close. Three’s so much more I could say and I’m sure that over time, I’ll get it all said.

I should be getting my own computer issued to me in the next few days so that I’ll have more time to put some thought into these postings. Right now, I’m frantically typing in the computer lab trying to get it all said in less than 30 minutes.

Anyway, things are going well. We’re all safe and sound. And again, thanks for all your prayers.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Final Posting from Shelbystan

It’s over. Our training prior to leaving for Afghanistan is over. A very big part of me is excited to finally be through. Once we step foot on the ground in-country, we can begin our countdown to finally going home. But at the same time, we’re now heading into a hostile and dangerous situation. That part of me wants to stay at Shelby. But like I said, I can’t get home until I leave the country. So here we sit. Waiting. Thinking. Praying.

As the days went by here in Shelbystan, they were some of the longest, most miserable days imaginable. Wearing our IBA for the first time and feeling the sweat just pour down your body. There’s nothing quite like the agony of feeling a bead of sweat run down the small of your back, hit your waist line and keep going, feel it pick up speed as it continues down, down, down your leg until it starts to pool in your boot. One bead of sweat combines with others eventually turning into a small river, all heading towards your boots. Then combine that with having to low crawl through the dirt under barbed wire, climb over walls, sit in the hot sun…well you get the picture. Oh I left one out, having to eat MRE’s (meals rejected by Ethopians, I mean, Meals Ready to Eat.) I hate those things but realize that they are a necessary evil. Sitting through hours of death by Power Point, sitting in long lines while we processed paper work, and all the other nonsense have all contributed to the agony.

Anyway, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time about the negative aspects but drive home the point that on a day to day basis, the time here has drug by very slowly.

But, looking back, the time has gone by incredibly fast. I can’t believe that we’ve been here for two months. Looking back, the days have become a blur and it’s hard to pinpoint exact dates as to when we did what. Actually, I lost all track of time. Each day was a Monday. We coined the phrase that every day in the Army is a Monday. We also felt like we were living the movie “Ground Hog Day” as each day seemed identical to the previous. I’m sure it will be the same once we get in-country. There won’t be a lot to distinguish one day from another. What I do hope for though, is that the days will go by just as fast as they have while we’ve been here in Shelbystan.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the only thing I’ll miss about Shelbystan is the green trees and the lushness of the vegetation. Actually, there are two things I’ll miss about Shelbystan; the green and my close contact with the men who I’ve come to regard as very good friends.

About a month ago, it became official that I was being broken off from my team and being assigned to be the JAG officer for the commander of the one of the main areas in Afghanistan. As time progressed, the other teams were being whittled down and divided up. Our team continued to remain intact but as we all expected, even our team started to be broken up. I can’t really go into detail about who’s going where but the team is no longer the team it once was. We’re all saddened by that fact. The one good thing though, several of my team will be in the same area that I’ll be in so I hope to be able to see them occasionally.

I’ve talked a lot about SGT Aaron. I’ll miss working with and associating with him. He’s an outstanding man and soldier. And Aaron, yes, if I wake up one morning and my house has been TP’d, you will be the first suspect.

LTC Steve Esplin has been a good friend for a couple of years. We first met when we went to Japan on the Yama Sakura exercise two years ago. I was “assigned” to be his assistant, the assistant personnel officer since I didn’t go over as a JAG. We hung out, told lots of stories and did just about everything together. We were there reigning karaoke champions. He’s a great guy. He’s a LT in the Utah Highway Patrol so we have a lot in common in that respect as well.

LTC James Slagowski is new to 1 Corps Artillery. He’s our new intelligence officer. He’s become a very good friend as well. He loves to play jokes and I still need to get him. When we were doing our mounted land navigation course, we each got to take a turn being in the turret of the humvee. After my turn, my pistol fell out of the holster and I didn’t realize it. He picked it up and didn’t say anything until 3-4 stops later. He then casually asked if everyone had their sensitive items; weapons, etc. As soon as I felt my holster and realized it was gone, I went into panic mode. I jumped out of the vehicle and started looking around on the ground to see where it could be. I said that we now had to go back to all the previous positions to see if I could find it. After a few minutes of letting me freak out, he laughed and handed it to me. Jerk!! He’s also been a good leader. As we broke up into 4-man stacks to conduct urban operations, he was our team leader. I learned a lot by watching him.

MSG James Stewart filled out our 4-man stack. He was Slag’s battle buddy. He’s our LDS group leader and is a man not taken to loud, boisterousness, but is a man of great spiritual strength.

LTC Ken Mundt is our team leader. For those of you who know Ken know what kind of guy he is. Let me just say, his goal for this deployment is to get me into a strip bar. I won’t share the other exact conversation but he laughs as he says, “Church, I’m going to get you in one yet.” I’m afraid he’s got a losing battle on that one, but we laugh about it. He too has some great leadership qualities. Once you get past the exterior, he’s an amazing leader. I’ve enjoyed spending time getting to know him and trying to emulate some of his truly better qualities.

Ken’s battle buddy was our team’s Sergeant Major, Larry Hansen. I never really knew him before but have enjoyed spending time with him. He’s quick to perform whatever act of service needs to be done, often sacrificing his own needs for those of the team. It’s been great getting to know him.

Our team has gotten along so well. Of course, we have very different personalities but then that’s what’s made it fun. We’ve had our moments of disagreement but we’ve been able to get past those and reach the goals we’ve had set before us. Each brought incredible strengths to the table. From each one, I’ve been able to glean some gem of knowledge or personal growth.

The reason for mentioning just a few of them is because I’m going to miss them. I’ll admit, I’m a sentimental kind of guy. When I first found out about the guys on my team, I was excited by the thought of spending a year with them. Now I’ll only get to see them on occasion and some of them I won’t see until we leave Afghanistan. It makes me sad as our family is being broken up. War is hell.

OK, enough of my drivel.

As I write this I’m sitting in the Gulfport Airport waiting to catch my flight home. We get to go home on leave for 4 days. I’m so excited. It’s been really hard being away. I just hope that having to say goodbye on Monday to come back here won’t be too hard on all of us.

After we get back from leave, we’ll only have a few more days in Shelbystan. We still don’t have an exact date when we leave and even if we do, I can’t post it on my blog. It’s a violation of security to publicly post that kind of information. I may post one more article before we actually leave. We’ll see. Suffice it to say, we should be in-country before the end of August. Then we can start our countdown.

Well leave was great, except for my cold. As I was sitting on the plane leaving Gulfport, I could feel my throat starting to tighten up. I was just praying it was the dry air on the plane, but it was not to be. I was sick.

As we boarded the plane in Atlanta, it started to rain. I was praying it wouldn’t be one of the typical rainstorms we’d been having lately, but those prayers were not to be answered. It began coming down in torrents. We were not moving. The flight attendants started the movie Mission Impossible III and we saw it from beginning to end and hadn’t pulled away from the terminal. After 2.5 hours we were finally cleared to leave. Janae and the boys ended up sitting at the airport for over an hour. I was able to let her know that we would be late, but miscalculated the time.

This is now the third day that I’ve tried to finish this posting. I obviously didn’t finish in the airport. I didn’t finish yesterday when I was in the computer lab (I left my computer at home since I’ll be getting one in country) so I’ll try and finish this up today and get it posted. This will be my last posting from Shelbystan. Take from that what you will about a departure date, but it’s getting closer and closer.

As I was getting my haircut this morning, the lady asked me how I really felt about it. All along I’ve felt at peace. Ever since Janae and I went to the temple in February, I’ve felt that while things will be hard and difficult, things will be OK. I still feel that way.

Heavenly Father has really watched out for me and it’s not always in the big things. Take yesterday for example. I was going to catch the base shuttle into town. That would have involved sitting in the hot sun for who knows how long until the bus came. As I was half way there, I realized I’d left something in my room. I walked back to get it and as I was leaving my room, there was our command bus waiting for someone else to pick them up. I no longer had to wait for the post bus and got to spend the day with some of the guys from our command. I had them let me off prior to their reaching their stop as I had some other things I needed to do. I thought they were going to see a movie so I was heading to WalMart to return an item and to catch the post shuttle. Well, lo and behold, there they were. They had altered their plans so they ended up at WalMart the same time I did.

Now I know, some of you are chalking this up to coincidence, but I’m simply going to say that even in the small things, the Lord is watching out for us.

The last couple of days I’ve been struggling emotionally and spiritually, mostly with our impending departure date, but to have these little reminders that maybe, just maybe, the Lord has a hand in all things helped to rebolster my spirits.

I don’t think I have too much more to say. I’m glad to be leaving Shelby. I hate to leave the country. But to come home we have to leave.

To my wife and sons, I love you. You have been an incredible source of strength. I can feel your love and support on a daily basis. To my friends and family who pray for me and think of me, I can feel of your love and support as well. It’s so reassuring to know that so many of you are “wearing” our Heavenly Father with your prayers on my behalf.

Thank you.

I should have access to the internet once I get settled. It may be a week or more before I’m actually back on line but I hope to be giving you a recap of our travels and adventures in the next week or so.

So until then…

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

BG Wilson's Visit

We had a visit from our commanding general from home, BG Pat Wilson. With him came several other visitors as well as my good friend MAJ Chaplain Joel Miller. Joel was deployed to Iraq with the 115th Engineers. That was the group I was attached to several years ago. They were able to observe our training on the AK47. It’s the weapon used by the enemy. In the morning we learned about the weapon itself. In the afternoon, we went to the range and fired it. We had 3,000 rounds to use up so we got to fire quite a bit. The weapon does not fire as smoothly nor handle as well as our M4. It heats up quite fast. In fact, it gets so hot you have to wear gloves to shoot it. After firing the weapon, I was very grateful for my M4.

Here are a couple of pictures from that day.

If you look closely at the name tape on Joel's IBA, you'll see that it's not his, so don't let the name tape fool you. That's really Joel.

That afternoon, we had a command barbecue so General Wilson could mingle with us. It has been raining every afternoon for several weeks and that day was no exception. Fortunately, it rained a couple of hours before the actual barbecue. But, it was one of the larger down-pours we’ve had recently. In the field next to the pavilion where we were at, a huge puddle/small lake formed. As you all know, boys and water are like magnets. A football got thrown in the middle of the water so one of the LTs went in to get it and he really never came out. Later, a small group of insurgents converged on COL Jerry Acton, our commander for this mission, grabbed him and threw him into the pond. Of course we all got a good laugh. That opened Pandora’s box. A select few were then “helped” into the water. 1LT Dusty Kawai, one of my JAGs who I rate and write evaluations for, “helped” me into the water. Not very smart on his part!!

As they came for me, I decided to go willingly. In fact, I started to run towards the water. I think they thought I was trying to get away. As we approached the water, I was actually helping them into the water. For whatever reason, maybe my forward momentum, one of the guys fell in the water and I was able to get away. I got out of the water with only my feet getting wet. Of course, my “dryness” didn’t last for long. As I was running to get away, Dusty and the others caught me and eventually dragged me into the water. Since two of the three JAGs were now wet, it was decided that MAJ Paul Waldron, our other JAG, needed to be “helped” into the water. So here’s a picture of the three of us.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Jerry Springer Live

This incident occurred several weeks ago and I forgot to write about it. Soo…that means that I don’t remember all the exact details. Sooo…that means I get to remember it how I remember it and if I embellish the details a little, this story becomes a work of historical fiction. The location is real. The characters are real. And I’m not even changing the names to protect the innocent.

We were at WallyWorld (Wal-Mart). We were at the “ghetto Wal-Mart”. There are two stores within driving distance of Camp Shelby and we call the closest one – the Ghetto Wal-Mart. It’s because of the type of people that frequent this one (what does that say about us?) and the area that it’s in.

So here’s what happened. I was walking down the main aisle towards the front of the store. All of a sudden, I hear yelling and screaming. I see a tall, skinny black kid in the clutches of a very large, short black woman – “big-mama”. She’s wailing on him. He’s not fighting back, just trying to get away. Her fists were flying as were the curse words. It was pretty funny. Of course, this ruckus was attracting on-lookers and people were scurrying out of the aisles like roaches to see what was happening. I got shoved out of the way as someone was rushing past me towards the front to see what was happening.

Well the fight was progressing itself across the front of the store. Eventually, the skinny guy got away from the fat woman and took off running towards the other door. By that time, store security had gotten involved and was trying to corner the woman. Someone was going after skinny guy but I never saw what happened there.

Well of course, I wanted to know what had happened. And as it turns out, our team leader, LTC Ken Mundt was right there when it happened. As he tells the story, apparently skinny guy had been dating fat woman’s daughter. Oh it was a tempestuous relationship! The passion! The romance! They couldn’t live with each other. They couldn’t live without each other. At some point, as in all “Jerry Springer” relationships, he began to trash-talk his former beloved. The lies! They were all lies!

Well, “big-mama” was with her trash-talked daughter and her friends when they came upon trash-talking ex-boyfriend at ghetto WallyWorld. Well the sparks flew…as did “big-mama’s” temper. She began yelling at skinny kid about his trash-talking ways.

A woman next to Ken said, “We’d better get out of here before someone pulls a gun.” As he put it, that was what solidified the term “ghetto Wal-Mart” for him.

About the same time, “big-mama” started wailing on skinny guy. Ken watched her start “bitch-slapping” the kid around, tearing at his shirt, yelling all sorts of vulgarities. At one point in the verbal barrage, he actually took off his shirt. Ken said he knew people tore off their clothing in fits of anger on the Springer show, but he never thought it really happened in real life. Well, he was a witness to an actual “clothes-coming-off” ghetto brawl. He laughed as he told it.

Of course “big-mama” quickly got the better of him and for all his shirt-tearing-off bravado; it did him no good in the end. He just looked like an idiot. Actually, they all did.

Later, I was wandering through the store when I saw a young black woman with long, garishly painted fingernails speaking in “Mississippi” (see previous posting). It was obvious she was talking about what had happened. As I described her to Ken and the others, he said that was “trash-talked-about” girlfriend. I can see why he was trash-talking her, if you know what I mean.

What I'll Miss About Camp Shelby

The only thing I’m going to miss about Camp Shelby is the green and the sounds that are here. At night, the crickets and cicadas can be “deafening.” I love it. There is a thick stand of trees directly behind our “hooches” (that’s Army for room) and I’ll go out back and just stand there and listen to the sounds and look at the stars.

On the way back to our hooches from our operations center, there’s a tiny little puddle of water that has been there the whole time we’ve been here. It’s a “mini-wetland.” Tall grass/reeds grow in it. Anyway, as you approach it in the evening, you can hear the frogs just singin’ away. As you get closer, their song begins to die down and as you directly pass its location, it stops entirely. Then as you walk away it slowly picks up. It’s pretty cool. I stopped one night and tried to find the little buggers but they were too well hidden in the reeds and stuff.

On one of the back roads coming into camp, the trees are covered in a large-leaf creeping vine growth. It’s really cool looking. Ferns are everywhere. The ground vegetation is very dense. On a couple of our lanes, we were supposed to traipse through woods to achieve our objective but the undergrowth was too tangled and too dense. It’s a veritable jungle.

"Marijuana" grows everywhere – really. OK, it’s not true marijuana. Here it's called "ditch weed." Apparently what's growing here is the male version. The female version is the illegal kind. LTC Steve Esplin, Utah Highway Trooper, pointed it out to me. He said, “can’t you smell the hemp?” At first I couldn’t, but then when I walked over and looked at it and smelt it, I could. Now that I look for it, I notice it growing it everywhere. It’s really quite weird to see it as my first reaction is to think of the illegal version. I’m going to get some laminating sheets at WallyWorld (Wal-Mart) the next time we go and make bookmarks. Maybe you’ll get a marijuana bookmark in the mail one of these days. If you get caught with it, make sure the officer knows it’s the male version and not the female!!