Saturday, November 26, 2011

Climbing the Moutain

For a bit of local adventure, I joined one of my DEA counterparts this morning to climb the mountain ridge located behind our compound in Kabul. Locally, the Asmai and Sherdawaza mountain ranges dominate the landscape, ringing the city of Kabul in all directions.
A view of the surrounding mountain ranges reveals a staggering number of peaks already covered in snow. Surprisingly, more than 49 % of the total land area in Afghanistan lies above 6000 feet elevation. Here in Kabul, the elevation averages just over 5,800 feet, with the mountain crests adding to the total. The average elevation in the state of Virginia is only 950 feet, which certainly requires a temporary adjustment period that one definitely feels when engaging in physical activity.

The mountainous areas are mostly barren, or at most remain sparsely sprinkled with trees and stunted 
bushes. True forests, found mainly in the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Paktiya, cover barely 3% of the country's area. Even these small reserves have been disastrously depleted by the war and through illegal exploitation, with less than one million acres surviving today.

During our climb, we passed several rock walls and 
hand-dug gun emplacements that were once used for cover by the mujahadeen during their fight against the Soviets. The ground remains littered with all types and sizes of rifle casings, while signs warn of the dangers of straying off the trail as you climb toward the crest. A local goat-herder discovered the unfortunate result of straying too far from the path when one of his goats stepped on an unexploded land mine and blew itself up. I am unaware of anyone human doing the same thing.
Along the way, I stopped numerous times to take in the view of Kabul, hardly believing that the city I was seeing was the same one I'd driven through. From 6,000 feet, it looks like a typical sprawling city spread out over thousands of acres, a thin layer of smog hanging heavily above it. From my vantage point, I could clearly make out the Kabul International Airport and saw at least a half dozen jets, both military and civilian, climbing slowly toward us as we continued our ascent.

From atop the ridgeline, the view of the surrounding area quickly deteriorating as the morning progressed. The haze seemed thicker the higher we climbed and obscured the higher mountain tops in the distance. On the opposite side of the ridge, a vast expanse of desert plain lay before us, apparently an unfriendly area to our coalition forces.

The previous night’s rain had made the usually dusty climb more tolerable than normal, however, resulting in a number of other adventurers braving the cold to reach the peak. Joining us at the top were several Brits, one Lithuanian, a team of FBI agents, and several contractors, many of whom were also on their first trek up the mountain. Although some of the climbers had dressed in PT gear, I noticed most were armed, with some even wearing their armored vests. By the time I had reached the top, I was certainly glad I’d left my vest behind.

While taking in the view, we noticed several individuals climbing an area of the mountain that was unmarked and without trail. Using the magnified scope atop my rifle as a makeshift set of binoculars, I determined the people were simply collecting firewood and placing it in cloth bundles strapped across their backs.  I had no idea where they came from and even less of an idea where they were headed to after reaching their limits. 
The walk down the mountain proved tougher than the walk-up, at least on my knees. Regardless, it was much quicker than I anticipated, with plenty of time left for breakfast. Unless the weather fails to cooperate, I'll likely make this a routine event.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Change in Scenery

I recently moved from 350 miles N from Camp Leatherneck to Kabul. At first glance, Kabul international airport seems very modern, as there are actually several civilian aircraft parked along the runway. The airport is partially blocked off to allow military aircraft access, with restrictions set in place to separate military from civilian aircraft.

Despite the initial appearance from the outside, it more closely resembles third world airport inside, with few amenities, most of which are in place for official military use only, such as encrypted telephones, weapons and baggage transfer points, ID card scanning stations, etc. Outside the front doors, the mountains loom ahead, very steep, jagged and foreboding - some already covered in snow at higher elevations. Lately, the airport has been relatively safe, whereas the American Embassy endured a 20 hour attack in September.

Leaving Kabul International Airport, the environment quickly turns sour.  The roads I traveled were full of deep potholes, no pavement anywhere to be seen once I left the airport perimeter. A variety of "businesses" inhabits the slums and shanties sitting off the sides of the road, with a crazy mish-mash of buildings, garbage, trash piles, junk cars, and rubble all mixed together in some odd form of apparent civilization. I actually think it's worse than Iraq...there is still much destruction left over from not only recent fighting, but from the Soviet occupation 20 years ago. I am told that the opposite side of town is much more modern, but I have yet to see it.

There was significant traffic getting out to the compound where I  currently reside, with cars jockeying for positions to pass each other on the roadway, all trying not to bottom out in some of the largest potholes (more closely resembling craters) I've ever seen; cars were sometimes spaced 2 to 3 wide across the road; at other times, there might have been 4 or 5 side by side, each headed different directions, a near disaster. Here, the biggest car wins, and most of them are owned by westerners - military, contractors, or government of some sort.

Throughout the drive, I viewed a variety of compounds obviously built for coalition forces or foreign contractors. They are obvious, as all are surrounded by huge walls, concertina wire and hescoe barriers to discourage attacks. Host nation guards are visible at most gates and block entrance to the compounds. Regardless, you never feel absolutely safe in this environment. 

Situated on the slope of a large mountain, my particular compound lies at nearly 5000 feet elevation and has a great view of Kabul. Nearby, the mountain steeply rises another 1000 feet where an ANA (Afgh National Army) outpost rests along the ridge line looking directly down at us. 

The mountain is littered with unexploded ordnance left over from the soviet invasion. Just last month, a goat allegedly managed to get away from his herder and blew itself up after stepping a few feet off the well traveled trail leading up the mountain. Several of the compound residents here have climbed the same mountain, but make the climb with body armor, long guns and a heightened state alert for safety sake. It makes the climb a little harder, but the view is apparently worth the climb.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Long Road Ahead

I am currently serving with some superb U.S. and British officers in the Current and Future Operations section, where operational orders are drafted developed and published. These guys are the truly brains of the command and conceive all of the rough draft orders and concepts of operations that upon approval, form the basis of operations conducted by the combined military forces utilize in this region.

The office is a pressure cooker, with planners putting in 12-16 hour days every day of the week. What keeps them going is a bottomless coffee pot and a great sense of shared humor among the members of the group.

Nothing in a military environment is executed without a written order, and in Afghanistan, our forces have to coordinate closely with higher headquarters in Kabul, as well as the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, referred to as GIROA.  it's a very complicated and extremely cumbersome process, but somehow it works. 

This command's particular region of interest lies within the Helmand Province, one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan. It is one of the largest Afghan provinces and arguably the most unstable. To make matters worse, the Helmand province yields the highest quantity of illicit opium, morphine, and hashish in the country, all of which funds the insurgency and the Taliban via illegal "taxation" of the farmers. The illegal flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan destabilizes the government and hinders the transition of military operations from coalition forces to the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF.

Each regional command (RC) has thousands of soldiers, Marines, and coalition forces working as mentors/trainers and partners to the ANSF. The ANSF not only includes the Afghan military, but also incorporates  the various Afghan National Police forces, including the Afghan national police, civil order police, counter narcotics police, and even local and tribal police. The poppy problem alone is enough to keep the police forces busy, which make the training and mentoring piece a huge task as we lead them to self-sufficiency.

Back to the officers of the FOPS section - one particular Marine officer assigned to assist in the transition of counter-narcotics operations from the coalition forces to the Afghans is Major Sean Dynan, an Annapolis grad who has is on his 5th deployment. A former company commander right here in Helmand, his company operated only a few miles away from where we currently work. In 2008, Maj. Dynan had a PBS reporter embedded with his company. Although reporters often sensationalize their experiences or inaccurately portray their subjects, this particular PBS reporter appears to have conveyed a very realistic and accurate portrayal of what is still occurring on a daily basis in Helmand Province. The report shows how  military operations have radically changed from the WWII, Korea and Vietnam eras, when the military man was simply a war-fighter. Today, our Marines are not only war-fighters, but also peace-keepers simultaneously filling military, civil, law enforcement and humanitarian roles.

Although the video is nearly 3 years old, it could have been filmed yesterday. The situation portrayed in 2008 remains the same in much of the Province. You'll see The blurred civil-military mission continues in Afghanistan today.

Here's the link:  Reporter Embed in Helmand

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy 236th Birthday

Yesterday was the 236th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Corps is rich in history and tradition and all Marines begin learning our traditions the day they enter boot camp or Officer Candidate School. Ask any Marine who Chesty Puller is or why we wear a blood stripe on the side of our dress trousers and they'll know. There's not a Marine alive, past or present, who can't recite the Marine Corps hymn word for word.  

One of our yearly traditions involves taking a moment to celebrate the founding of our Corps, better known as the Marine Corps Birthday. No matter where Marines are stationed, you'll certainly hear them wishing each other happy birthday. If circumstances arise, the celebration will often include some sort of cake cutting, even if it is simply a pound cake pulled from an MRE pouch in the field. It's a day we all reflect on our heritage and honor those who served in the Corps before us.  I've spent a several birthdays deployed - Iraq, Liberia, Turkey -  and we've always celebrated the birthday in one form or another. This year was no different.

Due to the size of the FOB (Forward Operating Base), several different celebrations occurred yesterday. Despite the immense walls that ring the FOB's outer perimeter, most of the units have internal compounds that are also surrounded by Jersey barriers and concertina wire for added security. As such, each unit is somewhat cut off from the other, hence the decision to hold multiple celebrations.

Sure enough, the 2nd Marine Division (MARDIV) held their own celebration within the larger Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) compound. The celebration was held outside during sunset, with great care taken to ensure the traditional pom and circumstance held back at home was included. A color guard was present, as was a small band put together for the occasion. A series of rough-hewn benches were hastily constructed for Marines and their guests to sit on and were filled to capacity. 

The MARDIV even set up a large video screen to play the Commandant's video-taped 236th B-Day message - if you have a moment, please take a look - it's a great video and helps explain to those who've never been part of the Corps why we Marines are so proud of our service Commandant's Birthday Video.  

During the ceremony, the 2nd MARDIV Commanding General (CG) was the guest of honor. Behind the General, an honor guard marched out and the flags were retired for the evening. Following the presentation of the Commandant's video message, a birthday cake measuring at least 6' long was carried out of the building and in placed in front of the gathered crowd. As tradition goes, the Guest of Honor received the first piece; the oldest Marine present received the second (he was 55), while the 3rd piece went to the youngest Marne present, born in Sept, 1992. 

It was a nice ceremony. Having attended many variations of Marine Corps birthday celebrations, from simple cake cutting at a friend's home to the Commandant's Ball in Washington, D.C., the 2nd MARDIV celebration was more than acceptable. The CG reminded everyone, whether they were a Marine who'd just returned from patrol or a clerk working administrative issues aboard the Camp that they were all part of the continuing  legacy of the Corps. He reminded us thank our families for their sacrifice, as they are the ones left behind, taking care of things at home. I thoroughly enjoyed the event, which renewed my faith in the Corps and the bond I feel toward my fellow Marines, past and present.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


This morning, I read a tattered news article that was tacked to the wall inside our compound. The Marines chronicled in the story are heroes. Heroes are not celebrities. They are not sports figures. They are men like Lance Corporal's Dominguez and Love, the men whose photographs appear on the front page of the article. Please take a look... Heroes

The fight rages on in the Sangin District. There, heroes are common. We call them Marines.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Chance Encounter

Nov. 3, 2011

Before leaving the transit base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, I was grazing at the chow hall salad bar and noticed a long-time friend standing directly in front of me, completely oblivious to my presence. It was Col. Ken Desimone, my counterpart from the Inspector General’s Office at Camp Lejeune. Ken had deployed to Afghanistan last March as the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Provincial Police Training Team in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. During his tour, the Police Station where Ken and his team were living was hit twice by suicide bombers, both times killing a number of Afghan National Police Officers whom Ken’s team was mentoring. As Ken later noted, it was sheer luck that neither he nor his Marines were injured or killed, as the building was nearly destroyed by the force of the blasts. After each bombing, the Afghani Police rebuilt the station, which still remains a favorite target of insurgents. 

Since meeting each other as young Lieutenant’s in 1988, we have managed to stay in touch and have since served together in a variety of units and locations. In 2005, I ran into Ken in Fallujah, Iraq, where both of us had deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. At that time, Ken was serving as a mentor to the Iraqi Border Police, which later became the subject of a story I wrote and subsequently published in Leatherneck Magazine. A draft version was posted to this blog in 2006 - Leatherneck Border Story

As Ken glanced up from his salad-filled plate, we couldn’t help but laugh aloud at our surprise encounter. For the remainder of the evening, we swapped stories and quickly caught up. 
In Iraq, Ken joked that based upon our assignments at that time, he was a “meat-eater,” whereas I was simply a “leaf-eater” (similar to the long-standing argument that grunts, or Marine infantry, are superior to Marines in combat service support roles). This time, however, Ken acknowledged that our chance meeting at the salad bar was a sure sign that he too had finally become a leaf-eater.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Waiting Game

Nov. 2, 2011

We arrived in Kyrgyzstan at 4:30 a.m. following a 14 hour flight, with an anticipated 24-96 hour layover before heading on to our next destination. Our current location is strictly a way-point where forces temporarily halt en route to Afghanistan, although the newly elected Kyrgyz President, Almazbek Atambayev, has decided that the base may close by the end of 2014. As noted in today’s edition of Stars and Stripes, the base is used by both the military and civilian airlines, which certainly is a cause of conflict among the Kyrgyz citizens.

It's very cold here – the temps were in the low 30's when we arrived and never rose above 45 degrees the rest of the day. Upon landing, we were shuttled to a large Quonset hut where we received an in-brief and temporary lodging. It took approximately 3 hours for our gear to be moved from the airstrip to the staging area, where we found that it had accidentally been combined with another unit’s baggage. It was quite frustrating to sort through 600 identical bags in order to find your own.  There's no Delta baggage crew here to do that job, but thankfully the Marines jumped in, took charge, and had the bags separated and identified within 30 minutes. As we sorted our gear, I was thankful to be wearing a cold weather jacket, as the weather was "bone chilling" cold.  

Time drags by at waypoint locations. For the transient service member, there is little to do but sleep, eat, and perhaps read a book or check your e-mail if an internet drop is available aboard the base. As was the case in Iraq and Kuwait, the Kyrgyz base provides several Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) tents for transients to relax, catch a movie, and order a coffee. These days, it seems rare to find a base or FOB without internet access, and it is not untypical to find troops “Skyping” their loved ones via video-chat, a technology that would have been unimaginable a mere decade ago.