Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Trip Outside of Camp

The other day I finally had the opportunity to get out of camp and see other parts of the country. My team from Utah has been helping their ANA folks conduct inventories, inspections and generally checking on the status of outposts within the Corps area. One command post they visited, there were 19 locked storage boxes. The ANA did not and would not let our guys look into them. The story change several times as to who actually “owned” the boxes. The changing stories as well as the extreme reluctance to allow our guys to look in them naturally raised suspicions. When they returned that afternoon, they sought me out and asked me to go back with them the next day. They were going to do a surprise inspection and if the soldiers continued to prevent them from looking in them, they were going to cut the locks off. They thought that having the American JAG with them would lend some weight and, of course, an extreme amount of credibility to what they were doing.

The first part of our journey was over dry, dusty and rocky roads. As I said in a previous posting, the dust here is like a very fine talcum powder. As you walk through it, it raises clouds of choking dust. As you drive through it, it’s even worse. Since our vehicles are not air tight – the gunner in the tower, the dust gets everywhere. I have never sneezed and coughed so much since I’ve been here. At times, I actually gag because of the dust. (This picture shows the dry terrain. It also shows an example of the many walls that are built. A lot of the walls don't encompass anything but dirt. We think that someone claimed the real estate, may someday plan to build something there eventually but in the meantime, came and built a wall around thier piece of dirt. In any event, you see lots and lots of walls. The Afghans love to build walls.)

Let me digress for a minute and explain where the dust gets. Merrill and I were driving back “home” and driving through the dust. The wind was blowing so that was stirring up the dust as well. After we got back, I was in the gym on the elliptical. I was starting to sweat and ran my hand through my short hair. It felt like sandpaper. I took the white towel and rubbed my head and the towel turned brown. I couldn’t believe it. I was driving, wearing a bandana on my head with my helmet on top of that and I still had dirt and dust in my hair. It’s incredible the places the dust goes. And you thought I was going to talk about something else.

Anyway, back to the story. We finally came upon a paved road. I didn’t realize they existed here outside of Kabul that is. It was barely wide enough for two lanes and it had plenty of potholes, cracks and repairs, but it was still hardball. It was great as we were able to make great time and no dust.

The closer we got to our destination, the more green things became. The valley we first went two had a clear, beautiful river running through it. And where there’s water, there’s green. Trees, corn, fields of grass and all other kinds of greenery. It was actually beautiful. I thought that the country once looked like that before the Taliban came and destroyed everything.

(It's hard to recognize the beauty in this picture, but believe me it was green. In the distance you can see the "luxury" homes on the hill. They're all mud and brick. I thought of the homes on our hills that command such a view. These are not even remotely close to what their American counterparts would be.)

When we got to our destination, we were met with resistance when we told them we wanted to open the containers. After those of our officers in charge explained that we were going to open the containers either with a key or bolt cutters, the ANA became a little more compliant. They called the representative of the ministry of defense and explained what was happening. He said that he would be right over and bring the keys. To make a long story short, he arrived too late. We began cutting open the locks.

I was hoping for a little more resistance from the ANA to make things interesting, but they actually became pretty compliant. Then, I was hoping for something totally cool and illegal in the containers. Here’s what we found; bed frames, target frames, motor oil, watering cans, fuel storage tanks, moldy pillows, etc. Pretty anticlimactic. Actually I was glad that it ended up pretty peaceful. I’m not sure what I would have done had things gone bad. Aaron was with us and he was being the security conscious soldier and maintaining a security watch. Me, I was observing the lock cutting and exuding my JAGness and making people think I was really cool. OK, I was simply observing, keeping a record of what was happening. Pretty boring.

(Two missles painted, and used as garden decorations.)

Our next destination required us to travel across the valley to the other side. There were no major roads so we ended up traveling along very narrow roads, alleys almost. We passed through several villages. Scott Flannery, my roommate, has told me about the very narrow streets they’ve driven through but I had a hard time believing him about how narrow they really were. I’m no longer a disbeliever. People, vehicles, shops and walls all crowded around us. At times we would come to a complete standstill as there was no where to go and there were vehicles in front of us. Had the crowd been hostile, I would have felt very nervous, but they were very friendly, waving at us, smiling. The only real time I became nervous was when a couple of young men came right up to my window and stared in. I supposed it didn’t help that I had been taking pictures out my window so maybe they were just trying to see who I was and what I was doing.

Once again, I was reminded of my mission from all the things being offered for sale. I’ll include the pictures to give you some idea. The dead goats hanging in the shops with the flies swarming was particularly appetizing. Makes you grateful for the meat section at your local grocery store.

The drive across the valley was beautiful. We crossed the river, several streams and irrigation ditches. The water was very clean. I was surprised. People were everywhere and it was fun to see the old and young alike as we drove through their villages. Everything was green. Trees lined the road. It was something I haven’t seen in a long time.

The next outpost we checked in on was on a bluff overlooking the river and the valley. I hope the pictures will give you an idea of how beautiful it was. I forgot to mention about the buildings at the first location we went to, but they looked abandoned. So did the next outpost. If I didn’t know that soldiers were stationed there, I would have assumed that they had been abandoned years ago. Broken glass, broken windows and doors in the buildings. Dirt and trash on the floors. Pealing paint. The smell of old, abandoned buildings. It was all there. And yet, these soldiers have nothing else to use for their buildings and their sleeping quarters. It made me so grateful for what I have.

While my US counterparts did their thing with the ANA, I was able to walk around and look at the valley. On three sides I had this incredible view of the green valley, the river, the river floodplane and the small village on the river. It was very beautiful and very peaceful. It made me sad to think of how war-torn this country is in other parts. I longed for the peace that I felt in this area to permeate the entire country. But with the intel we’re receiving, it may be a very long time before that happens.

(This is a grave and shrine to a military hero that moved to this valley and then died there. The poles and strips of cloth are typical of war heroes. You see them all over the country.)

Right before we left fisherman waded into the river with their nets and began casting them into the river. It was fun to watch them. Two men were in the middle of the river with their nets. Others were on the shore casting them. Then the guys on the shore began throwing rocks into the water. I can only assume it was to drive the fish towards the nets.

We also saw a couple of boys swimming in the river. It looked so inviting, especially since the air conditioning in our vehicle had gone out several hours earlier. Added to the no AC, our vehicle was running hot. It never overheated but it was running hot so you could feel the heat rising up from the floor. It was pretty miserable. Almost Shelby like; sweat running down my chest and back. So, when we got out and saw the kids swimming, I just about walked down the hill and got in with them. I’m glad I didn’t go down the hill though as we were told that the Russians had mined the hillside and all the mines had not yet been recovered. Glad I didn’t go off on some expedition.

As we drove back, the winds started up. The wind has been blowing every day for the last several days. When you have wind and dust you get terrible dust storms, It was so bad we couldn’t see the vehicle in front of us. So of course we were covered in dust inside the vehicle. I felt bad for the gunners in the turrets as they were completely brown by the time we got back. My M4 was covered in dust and dirt. I can only imagine how nasty it’s going to be when I clean it on Friday.

Despite the dust and the heat and my sore rear end (from sitting all day on those uncomfortable seats, it was a great day. I hope to be able to get out a little more often, when it’s safe, and see some more of this country.

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