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0207 PD: The View From Here

Mike Gangwer Published on 06 February 2007

As I turn the wall calendar over to January, the days left here in a war zone are on one page – a single page. I can, as often as I want, look up on the wall and visually see a day when I will likely leave Bagram Air Field (BAF), the day I will probably leave Kabul and the day I will arrive in East Lansing, then an hour later, in Alma, Michigan.

While this should be something rather easy, it is not. Soldiers leaving a deployment have a plethora of feelings, and though I do not carry a weapon or wear DCUs (Desert Combat Uniforms), after eight months here I have become so embedded in the PRT unit of 75 soldiers that I will find my civilian life uncomfortable at least for a time. So this is the ying-yang of emotions and culture; it’s what it means to leave here and what it means to be home. I am now able to see all that timeline on one page.

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I could not before nor can I now write much about the military here at BAF or Camp Eggers in Kabul. The protection of everyone here from “loose lips” as they are known is paramount to the mission. I have learned to be vague and not very descriptive about when and where and how often I go outside the wire. I have learned that what I see and hear here stays here. I cannot list or describe inventory, capacity, operational structure or the maps I see from the Space Command. I cannot write about intelligence gathering or kinetic operations.

I read a Washington Post article this afternoon suggesting that just over 40 percent of U.S. citizens now know of someone having served in Iraq or Afghanistan since the first Iraq war. You know me. So you are included in that list.

I call Sandy every Sunday evening (morning time in Michigan). You might think that we could fill up 20 minutes of phone time easily. We cannot. I offer her very few details about my work. So we just tell each other that time passes quickly and when January 2007 arrives I will be at the last page.

I can write this:

Soldiers think first and foremost of home. They think about their wives and their mothers. We have had four babies born to fathers in our unit; their wives all living with their mothers, and just one soldier was home to see birth. This summer during a TIC we had a truck driver nearly killed from a RPG attack; the windshield was blown into the cab, yet on that very day, perhaps within the very hour, his second child was born, a girl. We all cried over that one.

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Our XO, a civil engineer and ex-F15 driver went home for his child’s birth (number one). He has not been the same since his return; yet he, like everyone else here, compartmentalizes his family when the mission is underway.

I can write this too:

Soldiers have emotions that run the gambit. Some are, like me, rather progressive towards emotional crying – that moment when somewhere at sometime you realize that driving through a village could mean suicide or driving over a speed bump could ignite an IED. I was traveling with a group of ISAF soldiers, all Brits, all business, and fully armed. We were just outside Kabul when the traffic backed up and our three armored vehicles stopped. I was told to stay in the seat and not move. When a convoy sits still it is a target, and so we were. Yet the Brits buckled up their IBA, made sure a round was chambered in their weapons and posted guard around my vehicle, the middle one. They made sure nobody got near the three rigs, but especially mine. I confess some cowardice here; I had tears running down my cheeks because just two weeks prior to that moment a nearly identical event happened on this road, except that a suicide bomber did get to the middle truck. Two U.S. Army soldiers died; two more were taken to Germany and later Walter Reed Army Hospital. One day early in my assignment I was asked to conduct a flood assessment. A full Colonel went with me and rode in the back seat of a Humvee (me on the left, he on the right). As we left ECP, he noticed that I did not have on my fragmentary glasses or gloves. He read me the riot act. I never made that mistake again.

I can write this as well:

For all that is in the news, the good that is done is so overwhelming that we stay and do our job. At least here in Afghanistan, my post and my home for eight months, the war years are so fresh to local Afghans that the previous 20 to 25 years are not easily put in the past. Whatever we do here, we do humbly and walk the soft line.

Recently, a group of convoy drivers caught holy hell for driving too fast through several villages. We are rebuilding this country – one brick and one kilometer and one crop field at a time. We are spending federal taxpayer dollars, and my job is making sure they are spent well for anything related to agriculture. We are building roads, bridges, schools, clinics and communication centers. We are providing humanitarian supplies to the poorest and encouraging the richest to invest in their country. We are filling potholes, we are deworming cattle, we are drilling new wells, we are giving girls hope for an education, we are blanketing a homeless family, we are training Afghan National Police officers, we are building a runway here at BAF that General Miller says someday will support the wheels of commercial aircraft.

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And we stand on Disney Road dividing the base. The most regretful and yet noble call arrives over the speaker system for the journey that began with an ignoble act on some battlefield: the Fallen Warrior Ramp Ceremony at 14:00. When the ceremony is over, my weakness is once again overt. I cannot move until I have cried again. Perhaps this is not a weakness. Maybe I should find a better word. But for me at this moment in my assignment here, I have resisted any effort at compartmentalizing that emotion away. Most, I think, do.

To wit, one wonders if indeed we would be better off if these caskets arrived in the U.S. with full camera coverage, something like that which we see at the Capital in Washington or at the funeral for a former president. Instead they are hidden away, sadly, landing at Dover AFB in Delaware. However, I have seen them, and I have watched that aircraft fly away westward toward U.S. soil, and I have seen them placed in Arlington upon a hillside.

Yesterday, January 2, 2007, we made a delivery. A recently built school was on our way home from a mission in Parwan Province. In our Humvees there were six boxes. All sent to me from my families in Alma and my co-workers in East Lansing. The schoolmaster meet us at the gate. He is my age, 54. And he is working on some class material by himself. In this part of Afghanistan, schools are out for the winter. There is no supplemental heat in these buildings, so school is not in session. Yet there were a handful of his students nearby.

And this is how the conversation went:

“What is this visit for?”

“We have school supplies for your children. They’re probably not enough, but it’s a start.”

“You may bring them here, and I will store them in my office until March 21.”

“What happens on March 21?”

He smiles.

“School begins in the spring. We will open the boxes then and see what’s there. Tashakur, Tashakur (thank you, thank you).

This event will not make a news story anywhere – except here. PD

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