Friday, November 26, 2010

The Bazaar

Every Sunday from 1000 until 1600 the local merchants come to NKC to sell their wares. They set up just inside one of the Entry Control Points (ECP). The area is separated from the rest of the compound. Here are a few pictures.

No, he's not selling those generators in the back. He certainly would like to get his hands on one though. If he can only figure out how to get one up under his man dress and abscond with it.

We buy a lot of scarves, hats, and blankets from this guy. That's my room mate negotiating a deal.
Some lapis. A local semi-precious stone.

This is the generator guy again. I got some interesting Buddha stuff for my wife from him.

More stuff.

Rugs. Still expensive over here. I think they come from Pakistan or Iran.

Lapis and some turquoise jewelry.

This is the same stand as in the above picture. I bought some lapis jewelry for my wife from this guy. Note the lapis bowls behind him on the table.


I think I figured out how to get my pictures uploaded. Let me experiment a bit and as time allows I'll get them on this Blog.

Having a near beer at work. It's in my 2010 Sturgis coozie, of course.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Move To A New Room

One of the guys I work with (Barry the TAMIS Contractor) is in a room several doors down from me. He and another contractor  were the only ones there. Lo and behold the other contractor guy got a better offer and moved out to the embassy to work for some 3 letter government agencies.

Barry said he had some space and I smelled the opportunity for a bottom bunk. I contacted billeting and got a key. It wasn't long before I went to my new room with an available bottom bunk to stake my claim. I threw the bed together and tossed some stuff in a wall locker (with 2 doors!). Not a moment too soon because fate intervened and denied me a 2 man room. Shortly thereafter another contractor moved in and made it a threesome.

Nevertheless, my quality of life points went up by 5 with this move. I get a bottom bunk and it is now only 74 paces from the door to the latrine. Too bad my total quality of life points are still about -95. Now, don't think that I am oblivious of the conditions that the majority of soldiers over here live in. I am well aware that life in the Afghan hinterlands are both uncomfortable and very dangerous. I get reminded of that every day.

When I did my final move and got all my belongings into the new wall locker the left door fell off. Oh well, at least it still has one door on the right.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Typical Day

The alarm goes off at about 0530 - 0600. I get up and put my socks on before I slide out of my top bunk. I hate the days that I forget to take them up with me the night before. I put my socks on in bed because my back is too stiff first thing in the morning to bend over. There is no place to sit in my room. One of my roommates has a chair but it always has stuff stacked on it.

Using a clamp on desk lamp attached to my bunk I get dressed in front of my doorless wall locker. The light bulb is a 220 volt 60 watt job. It puts out about 1 candle power since we have 110 power at NKC. Usually at least one of my room mates is still in bed at this time so I  keep it as quite as possible. I usually fail though as being a long armed galoot I usually tag a wall locker with my elbow or hand.

By the time I am dressed I am loose enough to bend over to slip on and tie my boots. It still hurts to do this but I gotta get it done so I can hit the latrine. Being almost 50 my bladder isn't as pliable as it used to be.

The walk  to the latrine is a short but chilly one. Most time there is at least one other person already at the sinks and maybe one showering after PT. I do not shower in the morning -  just shave and brush my teeth. The traffic is too high and the water and outside temprature is too cold. I choose to shower at night after work.

I return my toiletries to the room befor heading to the chow hall. It opens at 0600. Again, the walk there is a short one. I try to eat a light meal and watch a little TV on the plasma TVs they have set up in there. They show a command channel Powerpoint Slide Show with pertinent info we should all know, zzzzzzz. One of the other TVs has AFN Europe and one TV usually has Al Jazeera. Typically there is no sound on any of them.

I try to be out of there by 0700 or a little before. If it is a laundry day I will return to my room and get my dirty laundry for turn-in at 0700. After that I go to my workstation. I begin the day there and stay most of the time until 2130 or 2200. Later if mission dictates. I grab lunch and dinner, of course, during the day. I take about 30 minutes for those meals.

My offical work day as set by USFOR-A is a total of 11 hours. I  work 8 regular hours and do 3 hours overtime per day, 7 days a week. I certainly am in the office a lot longer than that. I only record additional overtime if I am actively engaged in doing something. The office is just the only place to hang out.

The first thing I do when I get back to my room is go take a shower. I then climb into bed where I read, post to my blog or write my son a letter.  As I write this I realize it is 2332 hours on 22 NOV 10. Time to quit for the day.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Finally Updated

OK. As you can see I was able to update the Blog because the external antenna came in the mail. Scroll down to the bottom to catch up. Maybe tomorrow I'll  try and post some pictures.


So I got a haircut and a mustache/beard trim this morning. We have a small Barber Shop in the building where I work. The 3 ladies who run it are, apparently, Russian. Well, that ain't exactly right. One has a definite occidental look while the other two definitely have Asian features. They do speak Russian so they could be from anywhere from any country that has had Russian influence. Anyway, they acted very familiar to me. If anyone has ever been to Korea and had a haircut (I wrote haircut not steam and cream!) you will recognize the attitude and methodology. The only difference here was you have to pay for the neck massage. I passed on the neck massage. The cost?  Five hundred Afghanis , with tip, for the haircut (~$11.60). It was the same price for the neck of message.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

New Kabul Compound

The drive to my new home was short and uneventful. On the way I tried to soak up as many sights as possible while looking for danger and talking to my new work mates at the same time. As I said, the truck had the electronics that block the signals that initiate IEDs. I saw a local with a cell phone and thought that he was about to whack us. As we drove by he looked up at us in disgust – I guess we dropped his call for him. I’m sure he was just trying to call his chai boy.
OPSEC prevents me from describing what I saw at NKC when we drove up. Let’s just say it looks like a prison. Tall concrete walls, concertina wire, and armed guards. Just past the ECP there is the admin building called Crisostomo Hall. This is where the majority of the folks here work. Again, not going into detail, there are other work areas in RLBs. Although the compound is about 14 acres it is covered with permanent and semi-permanent structures (tents, RLBs, and many, many stacked shipping containers of various sizes). There is little open space. People are everywhere.
Unlike other camps and compounds of any size we do not have any fast food vendors here. We do have a PX. It is in a 40 foot trailer. Laundry is free and done by local contractors. I swear they use gray water to wash in. A trick that many of us use is to pour laundry detergent into a sock. It seems to help. The nice part about the laundry service, besides the free part, is that they have 24 hour turn-around.
My first 2 weeks here I stayed in a tent. It was air-conditioned and had heat as well. It was very crowded but at least I got a bottom bunk. When I arrived I put my name on a list for permanent quarters. There are 2 three story barracks made of reinforced concrete and several blocks of two story Re-locatable Buildings (RLBs). They are 8’ x 20’. That sounds adequate but not when you have three people living in them. Of course that is where I was sent on 21 October.
Located along the blocks of RLBs and sleeping tents are the latrines. These are small pre-fab buildings that are for our hygiene. They have, left to right as you enter the door, 3 toilets and 3 shower stalls. On the opposite wall are 2 sinks. Most have mirrors. You have to shower at off-peak times otherwise you only have cold water. The electric water heater sits in front of shower number 3. It’s a tight squeeze when you’re down at that end.
The best thing that NKC has to offer is also a curse. The Dining Facility, run by contractors, has some of the most varied and delicious food one can imagine. All free. Every weekend we get steak and either lobster or crab legs.  They have shrimp or scallops for those of us that don’t like the lobster or crab. It is clear that to lose weight here is next to impossible. The one criticism about the DFAC is that the bread is always stale. The toaster runs all day long. The supply line runs from some port in Pakistan as it is too expensive to fly bread in. 

On To Kabul

It wasn’t until after 12 before we were called to our flight. One thing I quickly learned about the great Hercules C-130 is that you should try to be one of the last people on board. The seats up front are 4 across and are longitudinally aligned – that is you either face in or out. The seats at the rear of the plane beyond the landing gear area, on the other hand, are only 2 across facing out. Much legroom there.
I don’t remember how long the flight was to Kabul but it couldn’t have been more than 90 minutes or so. We landed and were picked up out away from the terminal by a modern bus designed to do such things. We drove a short way to the terminal which was modern looking on the outside and equally modern looking on the inside. Small but clean and deserted. All I had to do was get my ID card scanned again and move on out the door. Outside were a group of “Combat Drive Teams”. Each Camp has them. They are like a taxi service. They take people throughout the Greater Kabul Metro Area to the various posts and camps. The vehicles they drive are typically up armored Chevy Suburbans or Toyota Land Cruisers. They are festooned with massive steel bumpers, various antennae, and electronic devices that help defeat IEDs. The drivers are fully armed and equipped to handle any situation.  The people from my office were expecting me and I found them in short order. My new boss, a CW4, and our driver, a Navy petty officer greeted me and we moved over to our vehicle. Suburban? No. Fancy Toyota Land Cruiser? Of course not. Since they weren’t an official “Combat Drive Team” they came and picked me up in an armored F350 Ford 1 ton pickup. Super Duty, yeah. Big steel bumpers, bullet proof (I hope) glass with shooting ports and the fancy antennae and IED defeat electronics. I almost felt right at home.

Arrival In The 'Stan

The C-17 touched down around 4 in the morning on Saturday, 9 October. We were all in our IBA and helmets as we walked down the ramp into the cool Afghan air. In due time, we grabbed our bags from the cargo pallet that accompanied us and walked the short distance to the Arrival Terminal. Well, the term Arrival Terminal is not quite accurate. The building was a dilapidated relic that looked like a left over movie set from an old French Foreign Legion flick. I wanted to walk up to the young Air Force sergeant herding us inside and ask “Beau Geste I presume?”. The heavily plastered walls were made of bricks from another era. Large columns that flared at the top supported a weathered and stained ceiling. The rough thick plaster was cracked and large chunks were missing from the walls and columns in irregular patterns. Although I didn’t see any I am sure there were a fair amount of bullet holes decorating this architectural marvel. In a cramped waiting area there were several mismatched chairs as well as some homemade benches cobbled together from scrap bits of wood. Billions of dollars spent so far on this war and this is my first impression…
After some briefings on what to do and what not to do we were released (Did I mention our ID cards were scanned again?). I was able to get to a phone and call for a ride to the Departure Terminal. The Departure Terminal was only a couple hundred yards down the road so I got there still in the early morning darkness. I dragged my stuff up to the door but couldn’t get in because there were about 50 people waiting to get in and on a flight.
I stumbled my way over to an outdoor break area and plopped down on my bags and cooled my heels for a while. I was exhausted. I did rest a bit on the C-17 flight but, although I was on one of the more comfortable seats on the side of the plane, I was less than refreshed upon arrival. As I rested the sun began to rise and the planes and helicopters started to take off. Eventually the line of waiting Canadian soldiers in full Battle Rattle wound down and I ventured in to the terminal. Although nothing to brag about, at least this one looked like it was out of the 20th century (circa 1975?). It was run by Canadian contractors with help from several non-fighting NATO countries. I saw some Romanian soldiers (male and female), among others, helping out. I found a guy at a counter and he placed me on the list to fly to Kabul on a flight leaving around lunch time. I was about 10 names down on the manifest and since it was a C-130 flight it looked good for me to be on it.
I went back out and resumed my position on my bags and whiled away the time watching various different aircraft take off. I especially liked seeing the Predator unmanned drones leave with Hellfire missiles slung underneath. It made me smile to see some Canadian F-18s go off to hunt in the southern mountains of Afghanistan as well.  
As I sat there I could tell that Kandahar was a true NATO / international coalition base. I saw soldiers from all over the world – Singapore, Australia, England, Holland, and even Germany. There were lots of contractors as well and some folks who looked like they did the secret squirrel thing.
Sometime around 10:00 a.m. my flight was called. Those of us that were on it lined up at the door with our bags and waited to be let in. We had to pass through a security check point. Our pockets were emptied and our bags were examined while every person was wanded. I made the wand beep somehow but the guy didn’t care and waved me on through. He was from one of our Eastern European NATO countries. I’m sure had one of the Canadian contractors wanded me he would have given me the 3rd degree at the sound of the beep. Those Canadians looked like a serious lot. Our bags, including carryon, were X-rayed, electronically and physically sniffed (by a dog) and then loaded on a pallet. We weren’t allowed to have a carryon, NATO rules I guess.
After passing through security we were hustled up a flight of stairs to a large waiting area. Passengers are sequestered here until their flight is called. I noticed a box sitting on a counter and went to investigate. I was starving, having last ate in Kuwait the night before, I had a feeling there may be vittles in the box. Bingo. Plastic wrapped diagonally sliced sandwiches. Chicken salad, maybe. I grabbed one and noticed a sticker with the date 9 October on it. At that point I didn’t really know what day of the week it was or what the date was. What was in the wrapper looked good and the date seemed plausible to me. I took the sandwich, grabbed a bottle of water from a glass doored refrigerator, and retreated to a 1970s era waiting room bench of chromed steel and green vinyl. I ate slowly but ravenously; relishing every bite.

Going To Afghanistan

The time I spent at AAS was short. But at the time I had no idea how long I would be there. I was able to secure a bottom bunk in a sea of tents set up for all the transients. Bathrooms were in trailers parked on the periphery.
Every four hours or so we would wander to tent #4 to see if we made it on a flight manifest out. I was told to try to fly to Kandahar instead of Bagram in Afghanistan. Bagram was described to me as an overcrowded shit hole where you would be stuck several days waiting for a short (60 mile) flight to my final destination, Kabul. Kandahar, on the other hand, was described just as a shit hole with regular departure flights to Kabul.
I did have the opportunity to wander around a bit between flight checks and naps. I ate my first meal there at a McDonald’s late Thursday night. They have a small 24 hour outdoor food court there. Other food joints they had were KFC, Pizza Hut and a Subway. Early on Friday I found the PX and was able to buy my son a stuffed camel and get it into the mail back home. I realized how much I was missing my family at that point. Things had slowed down enough to let my mind wander back to Kansas and the loved ones I had left there.
Late on Friday the 8th I was able to make a Moose flight (C-17) to Kandahar.

Arrival In Kuwait

I landed at Kuwait International Airport around 1:00 P.M. on 7 October. (It had been 1 week since leaving home.) Many of my colleagues from the UDC were on the same flight. We all gathered in the Food Court next to Starbucks waiting for someone to come and invite us on to a bus to our next destination. I went into Starbucks and bought 5 bottles of water. It came to almost $8.
As I looked around the airport, taking it all in, it reminded me of being in Korea somehow. Yes, the people, the way they dressed and the way they behaved was very different but there was something about the architecture and ambiance that said I was in the old Kimpo airport or the Dong Daegu train station. It was as if I was in a familiar place from another time.
Eventually someone in civilian clothes (a soldier? a contract guard?) came up to the group and wrangled us into several small buses for the ride to Ali Al Salem (Ali Al Sa-LEEM).The guy was armed with an M4 as were all the escorts located in each of the busses. He did not bring his weapon into the airport. I guess they were doing everything on the DL.
 Ali Al Salem is a Logistics Support Area (LSA). Lots of stuff here – an airfield (the other side of Kuwait International), supply depot, replacement center, and various and sundry other things that support our war machine in the region. I believe some soldiers from Fort Riley were there at AAS from the 1st Sustainment Brigade. I saw several soldiers sporting their patch (they don’t wear the Big Red One).
After we got off the bus it was time to in-process. We lined up like cattle and moseyed / shuffled on – “Go into tent number #1 to get your ID card scanned in, go to tent #2 to check with your LNO (Liaison Officer).” LNOs are people that represent your unit or command at certain locations. They help you if you have problems or questions. And finally- “Go to tent #4 (skip tent #3) to get on a fight manifest to you next destination.” By the time this was all done it was late afternoon / early evening.

Departure For Kuwait

The last day at the UDC was a short one. We came in wearing our uniforms and did last minute classes and paperwork to finalize everything prior to our impending departure. After the obligatory group photo, those of us who wanted to were loaded up on one of the buses and went to the Post Office to mail things either home or to ourselves at our final destination. I did the latter to lighten my load.
Since I had a rental car I departed the hotel for Dulles just before lunch. I wanted to get checked in and relax before the journey. The drive was uneventful and the check-in took some time but was easy. I found my departure gate and then found a micro brewery / food joint. I proceeded to enjoy several types of beer before I boarded my fight. To say the least I was a bit inebriated when I boarded. The bill was close to $50 but I don’t expect to have another drink until March of 2011.