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April 17, 2005

Afghan Sitrep: "At least the kids are laughing..."

MSG Keith, the Castle's War Correspondent, is getting ready to hand over the reins and return home shortly. Accordingly, his output on current events has slowed, considerably - but his past work, unshared here, still offer useful glimpses into the what, why, and how of our work in Afghanistan. Here is Keith's Thanksgiving dispatch. Keith was concerned that the relative lateness would cause me to not want to publish this.

Keith - the last paragraph alone is reason to publish this. So here it is.

18 Nov Takhar We flew up for a grand opening of a National Army Volunteer Center in the city of Taloqan in the Takhar province. I had to fly up early because of limited room in the main body flight. Which worked out good for me since it gave me more time to take photos before all the pomp and circumstance started. Takhar is on the northern border with Tajikistan, formerly part of Russia. They have a lot more rain and water, so there was virtually no dust. Just mud. There were a lot of maple trees at the end of the color change. Things were a lot greener, which you can see in some of the scenery photos taken from the helo ride on the way home. For some reason, the people in Takhar like to decorate their horses. Almost all had a lot of flowers and other ornate stuff on their harnesses. There were a lot of spectators, especially kids. The kids were cool. Just like kids anywhere, but more on that later. We got to eat an Afghan lunch of kabobs with some kind of meat. (we don't ask what kind of meat. if you have to ask, you probably shouldn't be there....) They also have these candied almonds that are awesome. Someone says it's a biggie here. Anyway, attached are a couple pictures from Takhar. Pay particular note to the one labeled ANP boy. He's a 13-year old in the Afghan National Police. And that's an AK-47 he's carrying. They grow up quick here....

23 Nov Herat
Another grand opening of an NAVC [National Army Volunteer Center, a recruiting station, ed.]. They are getting routine, but I go just to be able to see more of the country. But not too many good photos this time.We flew up in a C130 airplane. It was flown by Missouri Air National Guard guys. Taz is their mascot. It would have been a 4-and-a-half hour flight by helicopter. We landed in Herat on the Iranian border. I was taking pictures of the general shaking hands when someone taps me on the shoulder and says, "They let anyone into Afghanistan, don't they?" I turned and it was an officer that had been in my Ft. Pierce National Guard unit back in the 80's and 90's. He and a couple other guys I knew were deployed to Herat. Small world. The opening was routine, except the commander of the recruiting command talked for 40 minutes, and killed the time schedule we had. It was located outside of town so there weren't any kids around. There was a group of girls from a local school who sang during the ceremony. They were cute. The lunch was back at the governor's palace which dates back a few hundred years. Herat was claimed by the Persians at one time, then the Brits and Afghans kicked them out in the 1800's. After the lunch the general wanted to visit the Afghan Army Regional Command Center. So half the group went back to the airfield and we went to the command center. Here is where the trip gets interesting. Apparently, the C130 crew we had in the morning left and a new regular Air Force crew replaced them. We get a phone call at the regional command center that the crew was ready to leave and they were leaving, with or WITHOUT the two-star Air Force general they were sent there to pick up. So we hauled a** back to the airfield. We drove out onto the tarmac and had to run to the ramp on the back of the C130 because they already had all four engines running. We get in and sit down. The Afghan NAVC commander and his two sons were flying back with us. The Air Force "gentlemen"(since this is going to mixed company, I won't use the term I would normally use....) said "they aren't on the passenger list, they aren't going" and kicked them off the plane. Even though we had 10 or 12 empty seats. So we take off. The pilot, expecting missiles or gunfire or whatever Air Force "gentlemen" expect when they take off, started doing evasive maneuvers immediately after taking off. Very severe evasive maneuvers. One of the security guys for the general got sick and puked on the floor. After that, then the "gentlemen" started flying level. Guess no one will shoot at an airplane with puke on the floor... We landed at Kabul International and started to taxi. The tower however, wouldn't let us taxi into where we had our vehicles parked. We had to taxi to the end of the runway, which took about 10 minutes. We pulled into the designated area and there was discussion on how to get the drivers to the vehicles. A couple minutes later, another C130 taxied in behind us. Come to find out, the tower got us mixed up with the other C130 so now we had permission to taxi the 10 minutes back to our parking area. All in all , an interesting trip. Thanks 'gentlemen".

25 Nov Thanksgiving
On Turkey Day, we all volunteered to work two hour shifts in the guard towers so that they could have the day off. That's their job 365 days a year, so it was proposed and we volunteered. I had a tower by the front gate. School must have let out because around 1130am a bunch of elementary aged school kids walked by wearing backpacks. They were typical kids. Laughing, giggling, hitting each other, poking each other. Just like kids at home. And half were girls. One of the other volunteers came up in my tower and we talked for a few minutes. One of the things we talked about were the kids. He's a special forces colonel who guys were here right after 9-11. The differences he said was that back then there were no girls walking home from school. And the kids didn't laugh. His guys would try to do stuff to get them to laugh or even smile, but without luck. We are winning the war here. We are doing good stuff. They still have a long way to go, but at least the kids are laughing...