Our sons and daughters fight in faraway places so that our way of life at home remains safe and free. My unusual opportunity has been to travel with them, to see what they see, feel what they feel, on patrol outside the wire, where they are deliberate targets for those who wish us harm. My privilege has also been to walk and talk with everyday citizens where they live and work in countries where we are at war; to hear from their own mouths about their dreams and fears. I am convinced of a few things: our military citizens are incredibly generous and dedicated, having given their fellow-countrymen a blank-check on their lives, payable to the ultimate price at any time, and without notice. And those citizens in the countries where we fight are mostly victims of evil, and they want nothing more than to live their lives in peace and prosperity. Those two themes are the basis for this blog, and I hope you will enjoy following as I add to it. If you laugh or cry from reading my stories, and if you can feel what our fighting sons and daughters feel; and if you glimpse even for a moment the despairs and hopes of those mothers and fathers in faraway war-torn countries desiring to raise their own children, then perhaps we can even better support our own in harms way. Best regards, Lee

Sunday, April 24, 2011

From Whence Anger...

I fall back again on the original premise of why I started writing about my experiences in the war zones: to record for anyone who’s interested what it feels like to go to war. I hesitate tonight because I am angry, and conventional wisdom says to do nothing in anger. Then again, if I am to capture the feelings of being in war, I should record this accurately as well.
I’m not even sure why I am angry.  I returned today from a two-day trip to visit a team south of us. While there, I finished up my meetings and went to the recreation hall to try to call my family. On the sign-in desk was a two-word message that I did not immediately understand. Turns out it was code for “commo equipment to the outside world is turned off.” That was an ominous sign.
Only two other people were in the rec hall at the moment, the attendant, and a Marine. He was watching a movie, so I sat down and watched as well. It was the ending of one of the Batman movies. I barely paid attention. My mind raced. By that time, I was pretty sure I had figured out the meaning of the two-word message, and I was already familiar with the circumstances that brought it about – 3 of our Marines from that post had lost their lives that morning.
Who were those men? I wondered. The incident had occurred less than three hours earlier. That meant that we had risen at nearly the same time. I had gone to meetings; they to meet destiny. Chances were that they had been in that same rec hall the night before, possibly sitting in those same chairs watching the same screen. I had been there then. Had I seen any of them? Perhaps they had used the same computer I had when trying to contact home. Perhaps in weeks past, they had come to sign into the rec center only to find the code words I had just seen, and wondered about those for whom the words expressed the message, “we are gone.”
Yesterday and today, I watched the Marines. When casualties occur, word spreads fast. They know, rapidly. These are youngsters with incredible resolve, skill, and dedication. Every day, they wake up knowing they might not see the end of the day. They do it for all sorts of reasons, but underlying all is love of country, and a determination to keep the wolves away from their loved ones back home. Would that the country matched their care and dedication. They cope. They are there for each other. They pick up, and move on to the next mission. Those who were close to the ones lost wear the loss on their faces – it appears in their gait, in the slight slump in their shoulders. But, they breathe deep, square shoulders, prepare for the next mission, and carry on.
On one occasion while I was in Iraq, I was sent out with my team to take the pulse of a local population. An IED had been detonated a month earlier and killed two US soldiers. The Command wanted to know if such acts were supported by the population local to that area, or if outsiders had set it.  Security was provided by the same platoon that had been attacked. By the time we left on patrol, I knew them. I knew them individually, and as a group. I saw the haunted expressions they wore, and the little things they did to support each other. They were led by one of the best and most caring platoon leaders I have ever met. They provided security escort for our team to the IED site, and set up protection while we set about doing our work. As usual, children showed up, and I snapped one of the most poignant pictures I have seen of either war: It was of this platoon leader and his men handing out school supplies and toys to these Iraqi children in the same place where only a month earlier, their comrades had been blown apart. That is the quality of our fighting men and women.
Today is Easter, and I woke up wondering about the families of the Marines lost yesterday. Had they been notified yet? How will/does their anguish feel? Despite knowing the dangers, I am sure that none of them started their days yesterday expecting the news that would come via official uniformed officers appearing at their doors.  At what point did it dawn on them the gravity of the news they were now bound to receive? What mothers, fathers, fiancĂ©es, wives, children were about to have their lives totally upended? Does our country continue to deserve such selfless devotion? Do its citizens even know, viscerally, that we are still at war?
As I made my way back to home-base today, I watched these young fighters. They sit or stand in their uniforms, their heavy equipment fitting them like a second skin, their rifles carried as another appendage. They relax into their immediate surroundings, their faces expressionless behind dark glasses, their helmets held tightly in place by chin straps. No one approaching them will doubt the damage any one of them can wreak when ordered. In the confines of the open flight terminal, they relax in the shade waiting for their flights. One stone-faced Marine approaches another. The second recognizes the first, sits up, and takes off his helmet and dark glasses. A bright smile crosses his face – joy at seeing a friend. They greet and joke, and personality pours in and transforms them back to what they are – our kids, who deserve every ounce of special support that we can send their way.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Those Magnificent Troops In Their Flying Machines

Cirque de Soleil cannot match the performance that US, British, Danish, Georgian, Jordanian, Afghan, Australian and other NATO and Coalition Force warfighters see every day when they ride in the indomitable machines that fly them from here to there. Pilots sit in their cockpits studying charts or flipping switches. At lift-off, we are strapped down in the rear of the aircraft, so we no longer see them at all. However, by “wheels-up” we have been guided by the skill and professionalism of the flight crew, who quadruple as baggage handlers, cargo wrasslers, flight attendants – and gunners.
Regardless of whether it is an Army Blackhawk or Chinook, an Air Force C-130, a British Merlin, or one of those big, ominous Marine helicopters that Hollywood loves to put in movies so much rising from obscurity; regardless, the routine is the same: Passengers are met at the tarmac by a crew-member dressed in flight-jump-suit with all the paraphernalia required for his/her job – to include special helmets with dark visors that completely engulf heads and hide faces. We are in the care of strangers whom we cannot even see. We are outfitted in our own required equipment, which for flight, means wearing body armor, helmets, and ear-plugs – and most people are carrying heavy instruments required to do their jobs, with most passengers being soldiers and marines on their way to or from the battlefield.
At night, the effect is magnified. Airfields are all but blacked out, so we approach and deplane at the instruction of dark phantoms who communicate mainly by hand-and-arm signals. Regardless of rank, they are in charge, and they set about bringing weary, deathly quiet passengers into the yawning cave that is the rear of most of these aircraft. (Blackhawk helicopters are much smaller, and do not carry heavy cargo, and thus do not have the cavernous doors. They load from the side. However, their crew/gunners are every bit as lithe and professional as described below.)
When time arrives to board, passengers form in a single line, and follow a crew-member across the landing zone to the rear of the aircraft. The engines are already roaring, and we stand in a heat-blast, waiting for final word to board – on a cold night, that heat blast can be welcome. On command by a hand-signal, we follow the person ahead of us to the lip of the ramp, careful to take the high step while not jarring the machine gun setting there. Rollers on the floor for cargo handling require stepping carefully. Inside, another crew member directs us where to put our carry-on bags – usually back-packs, and typically they go onto the center of the floor, and form a pile that is then strapped down.
After we are seated and secured, we gain full appreciation for these men and women of acrobatic prowess. As often as not, having guided tired strangers carrying implements of war through the dead of night lit only by isolated diodes, and having safely seated them within the dark holds of military aircraft, they now become cargo handlers, wrassling large crates and sling-loads of materiel into already cramped spaces. When they are done with that, the night has just begun…
The noise of thunderous engines winds up. Meanwhile, these slender, lithe, athletic crew-members move into their respective positions. On Blackhawks, they swing themselves through incredibly small openings, strap themselves in, and pull their machine guns into position in front of them. For the duration of the flight, they will scan and cover every inch of ground with watchful eyes, poised to react.
On the larger aircrafts, gunners take up positions along the sides near the front of the plane. They have more room than their Blackhawk counterparts, but just like them, their real jobs now begin. At the rear of the aircraft, the crewman there transforms. He pushes a button, and hydraulic controls lift the ramp - not all the way closed – it remains open, and now becomes the platform for this very brave crewman to man his machine-gun, which juts out over the end of the ramp. As the aircraft taxies and begins its ascent, he straps a safety-tether just around his chest and back, just below his arms. It is attached to the ceiling of the aircraft so that he has full motion in every direction. Another line attaches to his helmet so that he has clear communications with the cockpit. Then, he sits on the deck of the ramp, facing into the night, legs spread on either side of the machine-gun, toes out over the lip of the ramp – and he peers through his goggles into the dark void, his hands guiding the gun in the direction of his line-of-sight.
On landing, these incredible people once again become cargo holders, flight attendants, and ground-crew. With all of the flying I’ve done here and in Iraq, I have never seen one act impatiently or inappropriately. Quite the contrary.
About 10 days ago, I made a night flight from a location up north. The aircraft was scheduled to make several stops over a four-hour journey. My destination was at the end of those four hours. At the first stop, the man who was the tail-gunner for this flight motioned for me to deplane. I indicated that my destination was further on, at which point he took off his face-mask, uncovered his ears, and yelled above the engine, “I know. We have some other stops we have to make. We’ll come back and get you.” I yelled back, “OK. I can stay or I can go, but please don’t forget me.” He laughed and yelled back, “Don’t worry, sir, we’ll make sure we get you.”
I waited at the terminal for about an hour, and then received word that the big Marine helicopter was on its way back in. Once again, I lined up with passengers, and once again made my way through the dark to the back of the helicopter. The night was cold, and I basked in the heat of the engines. Then, the gunner came and got me out of the line. He guided me to the ramp, past the machine-gun, and into a seat near the ramp where I would not be soaked by dripping hydraulic liquid and condensation. Another crewman handed me a card.
That had been a long day. It had started early, been challenging, and I still had hours to go in front of me. Nevertheless, my tasks already seemed small before the physical and mental challenges faced by these magnificent crews for hours at a time, day after night after day after night, in a war-zone.
I pulled a flashlight from my pocket and pointed it at the card. On one side it read:

On the back-side of the card was the following:



The circumstances of travel prevented a proper thank-you, but I did my best. Those guys put a very big smile on a very tired face. I cannot say enough good things about them.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Crossing Paths With Alexander The Great

Alexander the Great passed this way 1000 years ago, and left his mark in the form of this ancient fort where I spent last weekend. At least his army came this way. To be honest, we’re not sure he or his army ever came here, but it makes a good local legend, and the fort is sitting at what was back then a major trading juncture (actually, he came to this part of the world about 2400 years ago - still makes a good legend, though). Remarkably, it is still largely intact, and strong enough to be used in today’s defenses. The mud walls are many feet thick, held together with wattle – fine stems of wheat, because insects would get into and eat wood, and rebar was in short supply in those days.
From the battlements, picturing marauding armies on horseback is easy - and so is imagining Clint Eastwood in slow-motion glint-eyed pursuit of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Wide wheat fields stretch from one side of the fort, and poppies on the other. In the distance is a low mountain-range, and nearer is a cliff that looks like it belongs in the Painted Desert. Within the walls of the fort, the rooves of pre-Taliban health facilities are now decked with satellite dishes and communications antennas. The bad guys had this place for a while, and when they departed (rather hurriedly), they stripped out all of the copper wiring and fixtures, and set the buildings on fire. Of course, being constructed of cinder-block, they only succeeded in adorning the ceilings with an ash patina. In this austere world, though, any splash of color is appreciated.
We got out into the local populace – to be accurate, I should say we got out into about half of the local population. I never saw one single woman or one little girl. Only the men were out and about. They look beleaguered. In Iraq, despite their travails, much of the population was vibrant. Girls and boys played in the streets, and followed us enthusiastically. Not so here. The boys listened intently, but they looked aged beyond their years. Their clothing is colorful, but smiles were scarce. That they currently feel fairly secure reflects in one of their most repeated concerns: the lack of cell-phone service. Beyond that, they say, they are not sure how they will earn livings when the poppy crops are gone for good.
Marines here do what Marines and soldiers do everywhere – accomplish their missions and find ways to pass time when not on mission. In this place, they have a dog adopted as a puppy, and now intent on staying with its wards when they patrol – and keeping danger away from them. In self-appointed air-field security detail, he is aided by his friend and companion – another dog. They have captured the hearts of the Marines – we only fear for their futures when we depart.
At any time, the MWR is in active use – Marines calling home. Ironically, here it is easier than in the larger FOBs. Without the large numbers attempting to access at the same time, connections are easier and faster. And, because they are constantly aware of those waiting, if a line forms, it moves quickly – our kids, sent to fight, and considering each other.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Somber Note From A Combat Surgeon

I am very honored to be allowed to post (below) a letter home from a combat surgeon. He gave permission to put this on my blog on condition that I remove identifying information. Otherwise, it is just as he wrote it. Keep in mind that this was written by a very tired man who takes care of our kids when bad things happen in combat:

Dear Dad

I apologize for not writing sooner. But having said that . . .

Well here it is. The halfway point in my deployment in Afghanistan. I spent so much effort to get here and now I am halfway through. We were VERY busy last night. Many operations, many injured and no sleep. I am never really told when the injured will come but they make an announcement over head just like in MASH when the character Radar would announce that helicopters where arriving. The injured come by Hummer/MRAP ambulance, helicopters, and transport. I head down to the ED and find organized chaosbut they know what the are doing. They are so young . . . The good news is that the American and coalition service personnel get "patched up" by us and then are flown (out). I don't know if you will remember the several weeks I spent at (the) Regional Medical Center as a surgeon. That is where we would work on them some more before being sent back home. For lack of a better term, this is bloody work, Dad. May be I should have become a Cardiologist. (Jets are taking off overhead - something is up). The Americans then fly home to … or … or … or if burned to ... There are also a lot of elective cases like laparoscopic appendectomies, gallbladders, hernias, etc. I find that we do a lot of elective cases here as well. However, I am sure that the Vietnam physicians and surgeons saw a hundred times more. Their numbers were staggering with many more dead. Either we have become better or the warefare in Vietnam was hell. I do not mean to minimize the other doctors work here in Afghanistan, but Vietnam and the lessons learned there still reverberate in the halls of our hospital.

The helicopters also bring in EPW's (Enemy Prisoners of War) or really Enemies of Peace as they are now being referred to. [Deleted (sic)] They get the same care as the coalition troops. Don't worry. I carry a shoulder holster (lent to me by my friend and LTC in the US Air Force) with a 9 mm at all times. My friend and combat medic, Lt. X, taught me how to use it well enough plus before I left I took a bunch of classes at Shooter's World. We don’t (talk about it much) as it is serious business here but you know this from when you were overseas. I take my 9 mm even to the shower. I remember as a child the story of a US Air Force hero and (my friend’s) uncle, carrying his gun to the showers which saved his life. He is a Vietnam vet. Anyway, [Deleted (sic)], I am planning on coming home . But weariness, long hours, and lack of sleep, take a toll. I find church and sleep are my only reprieve. I am feeling all the years of my age.

The weather is getting warm so action is picking up. We were treated to a dust storm here that obscured the tall mountains around us. The winds felt like they were going to blow down our huts they were so strong. The dust is everywhere and you constantly have the taste of dirty in our mouth when outside or smell it in the air. You wash your hands about one thousand times a day.

As for the people, it is like everywhere. Some are good leaders and I love working with them in fact it is a pleasure. Others are just bad. But I feel that many of the times people are just inexperienced and make up for it by acting tough or hard, etc. Or perhaps they think they need to do so for their superiors for a promotions. All I see is fear in them and their lack of experience but hopefully in time they will learn that being a good leader does not have to be conveyed with hostility, anger or cold toughness. I remember what you and mother used to say about "winning more flies with honey than with vinegar".  You both were correct. She was a wonderful women and not a day goes by that I remember some lesson she taught me. I miss her.

I am learning several of the languages here. Well, kinda sorta! Just some phrases but mostly have interpreters speak to my patients. I spend some amount of time telling the captured that they will be alright and that I will fix their wounds or their injuries and to trust me. I tell them that I care for them and that we will fix them. Once you gain their trust and they see that you do not mean them harm they are generally friendly back to you. But this cannot be taken for granted. I have no illusions that My kindness and caring will win this war. The horror stories of what brought them in or what they did to our troops or their country men are for another day and not for e-mail. [deleted (sic)] Actually, I think I will just as well forget all of that as it does no good to hold onto the memories of such events. I just do what I can on a daily basis and pray for the best.

American medicine is great. This country has nothing like the United States. Even our little hospital does its best but we must send the injured Americans on for higher level of care. The local hospitals in Afghanistan for the local nationals are nothing more than places for people to go and if sick enough to die. The seriously injured or sick all want to come to us as to stay there means months of care, poor care and / or possibly death. Families constantly try to bring their loved ones to us. It is heartbreaking. Often triage is done by a marine or soldier at the gate. Many times people are turned away. We just cannot open our base to the masses of sick and injured otherwise we would never be able to care for our tropps or the colaition troops and other priority peoples like those friendly Afghans injured by the enemy or the enemies of peace. I will never again complain about not having something or about some resident or nurse or anyone's lack of experience or poor judgment. You have to leave the United States to see just how lucky and privileged we are at home.

Home. I miss home. I want to come home. There is no place like home. Home is where the heart is. I speaking about the heart of the matter, I want to get home to see my true love and you and all of my friends. I know it is halfway through this rotation but it is hard. Anyway, I suffer from lack of sleep and not speaking to my wife for 48 hours. I miss you and I love you dearly and hope to see you in a very few weeks.

Your son,

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thanks For A Noble Country

A few months ago, I returned from Iraq. I was made to feel very welcome still far away from home:
I arrived in Atlanta early that morning, enroute to Texas. I had just flown 12  hours with a plane-load of soldiers both eager and anxious to get home. When going back and forth to the combat theater, I encounter surreal feelings that seize at odd times. When going home, the notion of having ever been in the war-torn devastation that is Iraq seems alien, far off, unreal   the idea that people live in a place like that seems beyond imagining. Yet our soldiers willingly go there and sacrifice life and limb to be there.
On the way to Iraq, I encounter the flip side of that feeling: Could a place called the United States really exist, where people live in general peace and prosperity? While in Iraq, that notion seems as far off and ephemeral as the vagueness of Iraq seems when I am home.
I opened my eyes that day I landed in Atlanta, and knowing where I was immediately brought me awake. Soldiers still wore the uniforms, but weapons were gone, stored for another time.  We stepped across the airplane’s doorway into freedom, and friendly faces greeted our weary eyes. Moms and Dads celebrated, families hugged…some wept in quiet solitude…there would be no warm reunion for them.
I changed my clothes and rented a car and headed south to Ft. Benning.  Thirty-three years ago, I was there with my wife beginning a new career and a new family.  A week before our daughter was born we had stopped at a little town along this road called Pine Mountain. It had been a 4-way stop with a gasoline station, some shops, and a restaurant. Not much had changed in those 33 years. The road was wider, there was a light signal where the stop sign had been, and the buildings showed a community of people who cared.  
I parked my car and walked into the Aspen Mountain Grill. A pretty young girl greeted me and took me to my seat, but no one paid particular attention to my being there. I sat quietly, very tired while sipping a cold one, and chomping on the best BLT known to man. I felt exhilarated for being in the land of the free, and I watched how free people live. They come and they go, and they laugh and they cry, and they act with courtesy and respect. They’re young and they’re old and everything between, and they walk without fear of repression. They talk and discuss both quietly and loud, and don’t worry about offending a tyrant.
 My mind trailed back to places I’d been with names like Taji and Tarmiyah and Abu Ghrayb, where people live behind high, concrete walls, and travel through checkpoints with soldiers with guns. That’s what they have to do to buy milk for their little ones. They live in fear of saying too much, or not saying enough when required. But when American soldiers are near, they feel safe – to work, to play, to go to school, and to buy groceries.
People often ask soldiers why they do what they do. Why they leave families and friends and travel to far off places in heavy armor to shoot and to fight and to suffer depravity.
I finished my BLT and wrote out a note. “Thank you,” it said, “for my welcome home; it made me feel like I had finished a job well done.” I left as quietly as I had come, with the light banter continuing as I walked out the door. I got in my car and drove away with a lump in my throat because I had seen the answer to that same question of why soldiers do what we do. We do it so that good people can gather and live in peace and prosperity in places like Aspen Mountain Grill in Pine Mountain, Georgia. Thanks.

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A Texan Thanks Pine Mountain, Georgia For A Warm Welcome Home by Lee Jackson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported

Monday, March 21, 2011

Calling Home

This is a gathering place. It's the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation center, the MWR, and every FOB, Patrol Base, Camp or any other military facility I’ve had the privilege to visit in Iraq or here in Afghanistan has one. Sometimes they are dank little tents with plywood floors and poor lighting made even darker by confined access points to blot wayward light-shards from escaping to the attention of watchful insurgent eyes. Sometimes, they are well furnished and well lit facilities furnished with pool and ping-pong tables, electronic games nooks, theatre rooms, phone and computer banks, and lounge areas with access to wifi. Always, the story is the same: war-weary American fighters and their support elements finding a place to cool down, relax – and contact home.

The lines for the phones and computers can be long and slow – when busy, a 30 minute time-limit is enforced. During those times, people working on their own computers via wifi can be seen to grimace often as they are repeatedly knocked off from a connection, often that they just barely secured.

Each area has its own unique characteristic added to by the antics of soldiers and marines themselves. My first night in the one here, I watched marines shoot pool. Their pistols were strapped to their hips, and they had to hitch them out of the way to aim the cue. At the ping-pong tables, the soldiers had taken their weapons off so that they had full mobility – but a buddy always kept watchful guard. One night, a soldier in battle-trousers and tan t-shirt did a rendition of the robot-dance after trouncing his buddy in ping-pong.

Not much happens in the room where others wait for their turn on a phone or a computer. They signed onto a waiting list when they entered the building, and they wait patiently for the 1 – 1 ½ hour wait for their turn. They read books and converse and patiently wait for the very few minutes available to connect with home. In another area, soldiers and marines sit clustered together in front of large screens – these are the gaming gurus, and they hunt, and fish, race cars, fly airplanes, and practice combat skills, all in the virtual world.

The most interesting place is the lounge area. Along the walls, long extension cords provide additional outlets for the myriad collection of our fighters to communicate with the outside world via wifi. To get to this point, they must have brought their own computers, registered it with the command, received access via a password – and then arrived at an opportune time when the band-width is not already so consumed as to prevent their entry onto the net. However, watching those already connected is a study of human emotion. They stare into their screens with microphones and earphones often strapped on. Then, connection made, their expressions break, and they coochy-coo to babies on the other side of the world. They flirt with girlfriends and boyfriends from hometowns and places stopped along the way to this edge of the planet. They smile, they laugh, they frown, they catch with emotion, each staring into his/her private, left-behind life, through the window of Skype and Google and Yahoo, and each lost to the surrounding cloud of similar emotion, and rank is immaterial. They sing songs to children or other buddies; they read bedtime stories; they discuss family problems; and plan vacations. They attempt to carry on normalcy in a land that defies the definition.

They are not alone. Fighting men and women from Britain and Scandinavia come here, as do interpreters from Pakistan and India, and US civilians supporting the war effort far from their families. They come hoping to “connect” in a way that adds new dimension to the meaning of the word.

Camp Leatherneck is known for being Spartan. A few nights ago, I started to sit down on a couch to open my own computer. A young marine offered to slide to the other end so that I could be closer to the outlet – he was not plugged in. I accepted and sat down, and we entered into conversation. He was smiling broadly, because he was on his way home in a few days, and he was more than ready to talk. He had spent most of his year here in and around the town of Marjeh, a few miles south of here. Marjeh was the town where the battle raged two years ago as Marines mounted the surge that drove the Taliban out. Less than three weeks ago, peaceful elections were held in that town, a council formed, and now citizens take action to keep the Taliban away. This marine had participated in stabilizing this area, and he was proud of his service. Interestingly, he was enthusiastic about being at Leatherneck. “People complain about this place,” he said, “but that’s because they haven’t been where I’ve been. They don’t know how bad it can get.”

These are our kids. They live for home, family, and friends, and they are here because we asked them to come. They experience unimaginable highs and lows, and victories and sorrows – often expressed right here at the MWR.

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At The MWR by Lee Jackson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Afghanistan Through a Muddy Window

March 13, 2011 – Camp Leatherneck - I flew out of here yesterday to visit a team at a subordinate unit, courtesy of our cousins from across the pond, and returned this morning by ground convoy, also courtesy of the Brits. Actually, it was a Scottish regiment that provided the ride today, and along the way, we stopped and visited with an Aussie field artillery battery.

The flight yesterday was aboard a British Merlin helicopter, and I was impressed. It is quiet, with little of the pounding vibration of the Cobra or Chinook, and it has large windows on its sides so that we could actually see the ground. My guess is that when shooting starts, the hard skin is preferred to a scenic view, but since we were not fired upon, I took advantage to see as much as I could from the air. Unfortunately, the contrast of light inside the Merlin did not allow for good pictures.

There was a professional war-photographer aboard. He sat directly across from me, and had impressive looking cameras with massive lenses, and he probably found amusement at my little electronic Sony. He was tall and bearded, and probably about my age, and we both sat in seats immediately by the ramp at the back of the helicopter. He paid me no mind, but when we landed, he immediately descended the ramp, and I thought I’d seen the last of him. I had to wait for my backpack, and when I walked down the ramp and took that last long step to the ground, I saw that he had prostrated himself with his cameras aimed directly at the back of the helicopter, and as I passed, he aimed it at me, I heard the lens snap, and then he climbed to his feet. If he did, as a matter of fact, take my picture, he probably wanted proof to support his story that a man from the ice-age still wanders the earth in unexpected places – even aboard British helicopters.

The post we visited is manned by a British brigade, and one of our teams is imbedded there. I took two members from my own team along to meet and greet the team there as well as the command and staff they support. Being in a thoroughly British war-time locale is a notable experience. The main staff area is housed in a place reminiscent of WW II movies, with desks pushed together in a massive room with wires running all about, people moving busily between sections, and Queen Elizabeth’s photo pinned on up-right two-by-fours behind desks. It seems that they really do have affection for the lady.

I learn a lot from visits like this. For instance, as we had flown in, I had noticed a patch-work of green square fields on the ground, surrounded by the ubiquitous brown of the desert. Then, the brown ended abruptly, and we flew above verdant fields extending to the horizon in every visible direction. Only later did I learn that this province is perhaps the most productive poppy-growing area in Afghanistan, and perhaps in the world, so probably what we had seen were mainly poppy-fields. Sadly, the region has the capability to provide sufficient food for the entire country, but currently does not produce enough even to support itself. As a result, most foodstuffs are imported, and convincing farmers that they should divert from the highly profitable yield that comes from poppies to something with more societal acceptance but less revenue is no easy task, particularly when encouraged to continue their current enterprise by criminal elements offering greater profits, and doing so at the point of a gun.

The British and the imbedded team were terrific hosts. We went through their version of a mess hall, and I was ready to transfer down just for the food! I ate sirloin steak with mushrooms, but have done the same at many of our own mess halls in Iraq as well as right here at Leatherneck. However, the deserts were beyond anything I have known either here or in Iraq. Generally, I stay away from deserts so as to keep my youthful figure, but last night I indulged. There was bread-pudding, thick, rich chocolate ice-cream, crumpets, and every other sort of British pastry imaginable.

Walking from the air-field on arrival, I had noticed another peculiarity not noticed in such profusion anywhere else that I have been – a full, well-kept British garden, complete with paths and a covered seating area. I passed it again this morning on the way back from the shower, and have to admit to an immediate increase in spirit from seeing the myriad colors. To be fair, at Leatherneck, there is a small lawn with a rose garden (not yet in bloom).

Business finished, this morning we loaded into vehicles for the ride back to home station. I rode in a vehicle called a “Mastiff.” It is shorter in height than an MRAP, but seems to seat the same number of people. The low silhouette decreases the sense of impending roll-over when driving parallel to a grade or when going around curves, but it can also jolt the senses (but so can the MRAP) – this Mastiff hit one bump particularly hard, and I can promise that within thirty seconds, I had secured my helmet on my head so that I did not have a repeat of the clanging in my skull from having bounced off the reinforced armored ceiling.

I rode with a squad of Scottish soldiers, and was thus fortunate to observe them being themselves as the trip proceeded. It was about a 3-hour journey, and so after initial courteous exchanges, they settled into their normal routine and ways of being – they joshed and joked and cajoled each other, and finally relaxed into snoozing interrupted by the incessant vibration and jolting of the Mastiff. Meanwhile, the gunner manned his turret. Aside from the British-flag patch on their shoulders, any of these fine young men could have been our own sons – they face dangers willingly, competently, and with good humor.

If keeping track of uniforms is to be a guide, this is a strange war in which to keep track of “friendlies.” The US Army has two uniforms in common use now, which is different from the Marines, which is also different from the Air Force. I have seen the Navy wear at least two different uniforms; then, throw in the Brits (which differ by regiment which seem to differ by which of the British Isles a unit hales from). I have already also met Danes, Estonians, Aussies, and of course, members of the Afghan National Army. I think this place could be described as a boiling-pot, with perhaps a more direct application of physical heat of various types.

In any event, the only windows in the back of the Mastiff in which I rode is in each of two panels in the back door, and they were still coated with caked-on mud formed from the dust layered there that was then fixed in place by the recent rains. I strained to see through them, and surprisingly, came away with images and impressions that began to provide a sense of this region of Afghanistan. One of the first images was of a man on a motorbike. He had a long, white, flowing beard, and white flowing robes with a black turban, and he maneuvered through traffic and between vehicles of our convoy with impressive agility. Then, I noticed small panel trucks festooned with colorful articles that I could not make out, but given the numbers of these trucks, I have to believe that the driver of each was peddling wares from them, or perhaps hiring out to carry passengers.

Yesterday, from the air, I had seen compounds scattered about the countryside – they each seemed to have been built with high walls on the outside, a courtyard in the middle, and rooms around the periphery. Villages seemed to be made up of collections of such compounds setting adjacent to each other. This morning, I saw them close-up, albeit with an obscured view, but when they were situated near the roads we travelled, I saw people sparsely lining the way. As in Iraq, they took note of our passing, but I did not see eager greetings from children – for that matter, I did not see many children at all.

In built up places, I made out shops, and shoppers busily moving about their business, but I could not make out sufficient detail to form any common impressions. Then, as we continued toward our destination, the sun rose higher in the sky, as did dust in response to the departure of rains. Figures I had been able to make out in contrast to a blue sky during the earlier part of our trip faded against a white sky bathed in sunlight reflecting off the light cloud of very fine dust through which we drove – pedestrians became mere apparitions. At that point, I made like a soldier, relaxed into my armored-vest which held me in an upright position, tucked my chin into my breast-plate, allowed my limbs to go limp, and dozed against the Mastiff’s constant jolts.

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Afghanistan Through A Muddy Window by Lee Jackson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.