Between Iraq and a Hard Place #19

Between Iraq and a Hard Place #19 - March 6, 2008
Kabuled Together # 1.5 - March 14, 2008
Kabuled Together # 2.5 - March 21, 2008
Kabuled Together # 3.5 - March 28, 2008

Written by Susan of Kabul

March 6, 2008

Final Exit Report
Okay, so where were we? In my last update I think I was delirious from exhaustion and complaining about having only gotten two hours sleep on a dirty couch in a tin trailer on the side of the Baghdad Airport tarmac as the dust filled window A/C unit tried to best the 100 degree midnight heat. Oh, yes, I had blocked it all out for awhile, but in the words of Celine's all coming back to me now.

So my ninth (and final) trip to Baghdad came to a spectacular conclusion at the beginning of June 2007. Our milair flight to paradise (aka the Four Season's in Amman) had been delayed by 11 hours and I spent my final day in Iraq sweating my buns off on the tarmac waiting for that C-130 flight to take us out of there. I call my final Iraq exit "spectacular" mostly because whatever could go wrong for us certainly did on that day.

A good part of the 11 hours on that tarmac was spent trying to drink the bottled water faster than I was sweating it out in the 120 degree afternoon heat. Once I had beaten the odds and actually re-hydrated myself, it dawned on me that the restrooms on the C-130 cargo planes are not exactly user friendly for females (think funnel connected to a tube and a privacy shower curtain that hangs to about knee length). So after my rush to hydrate, I began a quest to dehydrate again before we boarded the plane. The dehydration took only about 10 minutes of sitting in the tarmac sun....after that, I didn't pee for days.

Finally Headed Home
So, we're finally loaded onto the C-130 for departure to Amman. The adrenaline rush of our impending departure had us a bit giddy despite the heat.....until we were all loaded like sardines onto the cargo netting seats along the walls of the plane....sitting so close to each other that we were one sweating mob of flesh as it was even hotter in the plane than outside. Our knees were interlocked with the person sitting directly across from us.....that's when it happened. They were running the engines and doing the pre-flight tests when an older man across from me and two people down started convulsing from a heat stroke.

Two thoughts went through my brain at exactly the same time....and I think now with 9 months of retrospect my two immediate thoughts perfectly reflect the conflict of emotions to get the heck out of there. The no particular order, were:  Thought #1:  Oh my gosh, I hope that guy is going to be okay. Thought #2:  Throw that geezer off the plane and let's roll to Amman. Ten sweltering minutes later, the medic crew was there checking the guy over as the flight crew informed the medics that they had exactly 2 minutes to make their call on this guy's flight status...any longer and we'd be spending another night in Baghdad. The poor guy, now cooled, consious and embarrassed was deemed well enough to fly and we were finally wheels up to Amman.

So, I was home for a glorious nine months enjoying life's little pleasures like hot water on demand, satellite TV, Starbucks coffee, vacations in Italy, fine dining and mostly restful nights with no rockets or mortars exploding and no helicopters landing outside my window. Big was SO good to be home (despite the fact that my dedicated and loyal house plant, Robert, did not make it through my last about dehydrated....poor Robert House Plant took one for the team and is now resting peacefully in a Virginia landfill). As I stood in the immigration line at the Dulles Airport re-entering the United States, I was so darn happy to be home that I darn near did a face plant and kissed the ground. That last rotation was a grueling six month tour in many, many ways.

Up Next
And now I'm on to other projects, mainly focusing on Afghanistan.  I'm actually in Doha right now sitting on (yet another) tarmac, on (yet another) dusty and dry US military base waiting for (yet another) cargo plane to take us to Afghanistan. I'm on a three person team heading to Kabul to try to help improve the strategic communications efforts in Afghanistan.

After dozens and dozens of meetings and pre-trip briefings, it is very apparent that this mission will be very different from Iraq. First of all, NATO leads this operation, not the US like in Iraq. And one of the more interesting nuggets of information I've picked up thus far is that NATO does not use the phrase "strategic communications" in any of its official documents......because the twenty whatever member countries of NATO cannot agree on what the definition of "strategic communications" is. Yikes!!  We will have our work cut out for us.

Vital Statstics
Departure Date from Iraq...................................May 31, 2007
Arrival Date in the US.......................................June 1, 2007
Total Number of Trips to Iraq...............................09
Temperature in Baghdad on Departure Date.......120
Number of Months Home....................................09
Vacations While Home....................Italy, Niagra Falls, Lake Placid, Atlanta, Italy again
# of Days in Doha............................................02
Expected # of Days in Afghanistan....................2 months
Expected Arrival Date Home.............................May 4, 2008


Kabuled Together #1.5

March 14, 2008

Heading to Afghanistan
Okay, so there I was flying on the Qatar Airlines flight with my two colleagues Bob (who is a Pentagon civilian) and Jeff (who is a Brigadier General in the US Army) on the way to Afghanistan. Our first stop was a US Air Force base in Qatar. We had a direct flight from DC to Qatar which lasted just over 12 hours. So, upon arrival in Qatar we began comparing notes on our flight over. We did not sit together. The economy class seating was actually quite nice. Each seat had its own video screen in the seatback in front of it. And the video screens were computerized so we had about 150 movies to choose from.....not bad. So, there I am with a screaming little urchin behind me making my life miserable as I tried to sleep. And I decided it best to sit up and watch a movie that would get me in the mood for another war zone. Of all the choices of flicks, the only thing that seemed even CLOSE to what I deemed appropriate was the movie Robin Hood with Kevin Costner. I thought THAT was embarrassing enough, until I asked Bob and Jeff what movie they watched. Seems of the three of us, I was the most manly and macho. The General and Bob BOTH watched the chick flick "Enchanted"...and to make matters worse, the General said he enjoyed it so much that he even watched it TWICE!!! I am so embarrassed for them both!!

So, after a day in Qatar we fly to Bagram Air Field in Northeast Afghanistan. We spent a day there before our flight to Kabul. So there I am in the chow hall in Bagram, dining on pizza and french fries and trying to look distracted by reading a book, but really taking note of the folks around me. So I sit down, start chowing on pizza and decide to crack open my Diet Coke. That's when it happened. I was sitting at a table with a man and a woman I didn't know....hey, in a chow hall, you sit where there are empty seats. Turns out they were both from Kyrgyzstan. So I'm sitting across from some strange Kyrgyzstan man when I reached to open my Diet Coke. I cracked it open single handedly.....but sadly the pthpthpthpth from the can had a horrible spray and it sprayed all over the face of the guy across the table from me. Hmmmmmm, awkward. I apologized profusely as he wiped his face......well, I think I figured out why they hate us. Sorry guys, it's me.

Finally In Kabul
So a day later I was in Kabul where what seems like should be a very familiar environment with soldiers, humvees and helos, is actually all completely unfamiliar and quite disorienting at first. I suppose partly because there are soldiers from 40 countries here, so the uniforms, languages, convoys, etc, everything is different. The camp where I am based, called Camp Eggers, is in Kabul and it looks somewhat similar to Baghdad in that everything is varying shades of brown, and there is dust and dirt and sandbags and bunkers everywhere. But, over the fence line and way in the distance there are massive and spectacularly beautiful and jagged snow capped mountains. From a distance, this place is just too beautiful to be a war zone. But then when you look a little closer while driving through Kabul, you see that the beauty is certainly out in the countryside, not in the sewage filled streets of the city.

Where do I even begin to explain how crazy it is out's completely understaffed on almost every front and at almost every level. This is the bastard step child of wars. All emphasis is on Iraq, and comparatively very few people and resources are being sent here.....and this is supposed to be the GOOD war. Our team is here to help coordinate the strategic communications aspects of all the varying players. Not an easy task with so many organizations involved and all doing their own thing with no synchronization or even coordination, and when no one even agrees on what the phrase "strategic communications" means. So with NATO running the show, and other organizations (all with their own acronyms of course) like CJTF-82, USAID, ISAF, CSTC-A, UNAMI, OEF all here playing in the same sandbox, from my first week's perspective here, things are confusing at best.

We found ourselves sitting at the NATO headquarters, which is referred to here as ISAF HQ (International Security Assistance Force), so we were at the ISAF HQ the other day having a coffee meeting with our NATO colleagues. The coffee shop was filled with soldiers from the UK, Germany, Canada, Italy, France, Romania, the Czech Republic and on and on. Everyone is frustrated. The Brits complain about this....the Italians complain about that. And about the only thing anyone seems to agree on around here is that the Germans (up in the North) are doing absolutely nothing other than guarding the base they built. We've heard the complaint several times that the Germans built a base in the north for the sheer purpose of having a base to protect. And then getting credit for being part of the NATO alliance. This is crazy. No one seems to know who is in charge, what it is they are in charge of, or who they report to.

And to top it all off, we've heard more than once from very high level Generals here that one of the biggest frustrations stems from the "casual" interest in this war back home....casual interest at every level.

Dining with the Four Star
We had dinner the other night with General McNeill, the 4 Star US General who is the NATO Commander in Afghanistan. He invited some of his Deputy Generals, mostly Two Star Generals from various countries, so there we sat in the General's dining hall surrounded by all the NATO Generals running the entire show in Afghanistan and we dined on smoked salmon and Chicken Kiev while lamenting the poor schmucks that got stuck with corndogs at the chow halls.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself to realize where I really am......hello? I'm in Afghanistan? Eating Chicken Kiev with a dozen military Generals, who, oh, by the way are in the middle of running a war? I'm sorry, who am I? And why am I here?

So it was Chicken Kiev and smoked salmon with the Generals one night, and the next night it was corndogs and mystery meat at the chow hall, served by Afghan food service worker wearing white paper hats and hair nets on their beards. How quickly they fall.

911 or 119?
Recently a new "Crime Stoppers" hotline was established in Afghanistan. The NATO and Coalition Forces designed a network for regular Joe Schmoe Afghan to call if they have an emergency, see something suspicious, or want to report a crime. It's much like our 911 system in the US. In fact, being designed by Americans, the number to dial here was slated to be 9-1-1, just like ours. The news release announcing the new "9-1-1 Crime Stoppers" number was distributed in English. However, when translated into Dari and Pashtu, and with Afghans reading right to left, the Crime Stoppers number was inadvertently officially announced as 1-1-9 rather than 9-1-1. So there is officially a "Crime Stoppers 1-1-9" system in Afghanistan.

Time Zones
One of the things that weirds me out the most about Afghanistan is that the time zone here is 8.5 hours ahead of East Coast.....uh, hello?? What's up with the HALF hour off? Does this strike anyone other than me as strange? It's killing me when I have to figure out the time in DC....and since the US went on Daylight Savings time and Afghanistan does not, it only adds to the confusion. But with or without Daylight Savings time, being a half our off the rest of the world is messing with my mojo. And so to keep with the theme, every time I number an update to you, I will number it with a half number as well. I find it's important to blend and be consistent, and oh yeah baby, I blend here....especially when I wear my beard net at the chow hall.

Iraq vs. Afghanistan
So everyone wants to know "is it safer in Iraq or in Afghanistan?" The answer is no. But it does feel safer here, even though I feel that admitting that fact opens up the possibility that I would take unnecessary risks. Things have changed dramatically in Baghdad since I left last June. When I was there, it was darn right scary with rockets and mortars and things going BOOM all the time. We've been here for a week now. The only explosion I've heard thus far was a controlled detonation yesterday. Of course, they didn't announce that there would be a controlled detonation. So while merrily typing along at my computer, there was a HUGE blast, the windows rattled and I was instantly reminded that no matter how much you THINK you are prepared for these types of sounds, you never quite are. Then, ten minutes later, a voice came on the loudspeaker announcing that the explosion was controlled.....HELLO?? Could we PLEASE announce these things ahead of time??? Sheesh!!

Trailer Park Livin'
I've got a trailer mate this time. Gone are the days of solitary hooch living. My hooch mate is named Anne. She's a Navy Lt. Commander who has two weeks left in her year long assignment here. So there is a slim possibility that I'll be alone in the hooch for a bit when she leaves. But considering how small the base is and how overcrowded the quarters are, I suspect I'll get another hooch mate almost immediately. Anne and I have been comparing notes. She's been explaining to me what life is like here in Afghanistan, and I've been telling her about what life was like in Baghdad. There are many differences and many similarities. Most striking of the similarities is the fact these types of intense and frustrating work environments tend to zap people through a similar emotional cycle.

Anne described this as the "Grief Cycle" as describe by Dr. Kubler-Ross (I suggest you Google it). In a nutshell, when people are informed that they have a terminal illness, or are facing serious circumstances in life, the emotions they cycle through are very similar.

First there is the Denial Stage: It's really not as bad as everyone says. Clearly they don't recognize that so much more could be done. It really cannot be that bad.

Then they cycle to state two, the Anger Stage: There frickin' rat bastards. If only they tried harder. If only they were smarter. If only they knew what it is they don't know. These idiots will never understand.

Then comes stage three, the Bargaining Stage: The anger is flaming out at this point and we seek ways to avoid having the bad thing we fear happen.

Enter stage four, the Depression Stage: People turn in toward themselves, see only a horrible end to the situation. They become passive and turn away from any solution or help others might give.

Then the final stage, Acceptance: People put their affairs in order. Accept that the inevitable will happen and become more content as they move forward.

And so is the life in Iraq AND Afghanistan.

Nine months after my last stint in Baghdad I was just cycling from Depression to Acceptance with regard to Iraq. It's a very hard transition, but I was finding peace, and after nine months home, I was beginning to sleep through the night with relatively few nightmares.

So now here I am in Afghanistan, and being here causes me to fluctuate between Tony the Tiger enthusiasm for the possibilities that exist and complete and utter despair for what I know is the inevitable. My only hope is that I don't re-cycle through the steps. Or worse yet, get stuck in one particular stage. In my 7 days here I think I've cycled quickly through most of the steps and am somewhere between the Depression Stage and the Acceptance Stage, with regard to Afghanistan.....but every once in a while I leap frog backward right into the anger stage....anger for what is possible, what could be and what is not.

Mission #1
Today we went on a humanitarian mission in central Kabul. It was really a neat experience. Our military counterparts receive donated items (shoes, clothes, blankets, hygiene products, etc) from home. A couple times a month they organize "humanitarian" missions and distribute these items to poor Afghan families, orphanages and hospitals. Today we delivered food, clothing and hygiene products to dozens of filthy poor families squatting in an old, dilapidated government building with no power or plumbing. Little filthy (but very cute) children with sticky nasty hands scrambled for toys and candy the soldiers were handing out, while their parents lined up for food, cooking oil, heating oil and clothing donations. The kids were so darn cute. They'd rush right up and try to loot your pockets for candy, and then with little, nasty, sticky hands reach out and try to shake your hand. If you've not had a chance to wash your hands you certainly think twice before covering your mouth with your hand when you sneeze.

On the drive to the area where we handed out the clothes and food today we passed a trash field where little 3- 5 year old kids were ripping open plastic trash sacks, heaped in a field of sludge. They were ripping open the trash sacks looking for food. This country is poor by Africa standards. It's the FIFTH poorest country in the world.

So, there I was in a dilapidated government center filled with Afghan squatters, handing our hygiene products to the women who were too shy to come outside. Bags were filled with toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, feminine hygiene products, dental floss, skin lotion, baby wipes, etc. I was standing next to a very tall and tough Army soldier when a woman with a sack of hygiene goods came up to me. She took the products out one by one to ask me what each product was intended for. As there was no translator available this became a charades game. The soldier stood there smiling as the woman held out the tooth brush and I very animatedly pretended to brush my teeth. Then came the soap. I took the soap and pretended to wash my armpits. She smiled in recognition. She reached in the bag and pulled out the skin cream. I pretended to rub the cream on my hands....I knew the Afghan lady understood when she pretended to rub it on her face. She held out the dental floss and I pretended to floss my teeth. She smiled and nodded.

Then, horror of all horrors. As the soldier stood there enjoying the charades game, the woman reached into the bag and with a very inquisitive look on her face she pulled out a handful of tampons. The record skidded to a stop. I stood there dumbfounded, trying to figure out how to get out of this moment gracefully. The soldier started laughing. And the Afghan lady stood there waiting for her answer. I did the only thing you can do in such an awkward moment and I played dumb while raising my hands with my palms up and my eyes wide in an "I have no idea" kind of look. It was one of the more supremely awkward moments of my life. How could a charades game go THAT wrong????

Vital Statistics
# of Days in Afghanistan.................09
# of Explosions Heard.....................01 (controlled detonation)
# of Diet Cokes Consumed..............18 (ahhhhh, all the free Diet Cokes you can drink out here)
# of Charades Games Gone Awry.....01


Kabuled Together #2.5

March 21, 2008

Happy New Year
Yesterday was New Year's Day in Afghanistan. It's the year 1387 according to the solar calendar which Afghanistan in about 600 Afghan years, I'll be graduating from high sense cramming for the SAT tonight then, eh? Movement between the camps and bases was limited yesterday in anticipation of "activity" surrounding the celebration of New Years. In addition to the fact that Vice President Cheney was in Afghanistan yesterday to meet with President Karzai and to award the Silver Star metal to a 19 year old female Army medic. So between a VP visit and the solar New Year, it was a busy day in Afghanistan yesterday. Although, I am happy to report that despite the raucous celebration expected to ring in the New Year, we heard not a peep, not a bullet, not a blast, nor a boom....all was silent in Kabul...well, at least all was silent in hearing range from Camp Eggers in Kabul.

So that means in the 15 days we've been here, the only explosion we've heard was a controlled detonation last week. But it doesn't mean there's not stuff happening around here. We didn't hear the suicide car bomb last week that hit a convoy from this base and injured four American soldiers as they made their way to the Kabul International Airport. We didn't even know it had happened. But this base is small, like a small town. And within an hour of the attack, word had spread throughout the base that a convoy from here had been hit. The airport is not that far away, so we were all surprised we didn't hear it.

A couple days after the car bombing incident I was in a little shop here on the base when a couple soldiers walked in, one with serious burns across his face. The burns were covered with medical ointments. So I asked the soldier what happened. He was in the convoy that was hit by the suicide bomber a couple days before at the airport. He was the most seriously injured for the four. The burns looked painful, but he didn't give any indication that he was in any pain. It never ceases to amaze me the courage and dedication with which these young soldiers do their jobs. This kid was attacked by a suicide bomber for crying out loud (the trauma of that alone would cause lesser people to falter), had serious burns across his face, and after being treated by the doctors, well, he did what soldiers do here...he simply went back to work. And then there are those like me....those who have a tuna melt at the chow hall that sits particularly hard and we can't handle the pain. I am full of shame.

We had a mission slated for today to do another humanitarian run like last week when we took toys, clothes and food to poor families....we were going to plant apple trees in central Kabul to repay the city for some apple trees that had to be cut down when one of the coalition partners (us) built a base and the trees were in the way. Turns out apple trees are a pretty big deal here and cutting them down is a huge offense, so a deal was made with the Governor or Mayor that the base would help plant more trees....that was supposed to be today, but plans were canceled due to threats surrounding the Afghan New Year. So apparently we just donated the trees and the Afghans planted them.

Trip to Kunduz
So last weekend I went on my first trip out of Kabul. We had the opportunity to fly to the northern province of Kunduz right along the Tajikistan border. To get there we took a helicopter over the Hindu Kush Mountains. Wow, talk about spectacular. So, there I was, an American in a Russian made helicopter, piloted by Ukrainians, flying over the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan on my way to a German base. The Russian helicopter was an MI-8, which means nothing to me, but looked a lot like a small tourist submarine complete with small circular windows and a giant rotor on top. And the Hindu Kush....yowza...snow capped jagged peaks with plunging valleys and gorges. The areas without snow had little to no greenery....everything was brown, just dirt and rocks and caves. We flew for over an hour with nothing but mountains below.....suddenly it's quite clear to me how looking for one guy who is plotting dastardly deeds while hiding in a cave in these mountains is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

So we landed, unloaded and were off to visit the German run PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) and a Regional Training Compound where American police advisors are training the Afghan National Police. The police training was really interesting. There were about 100 American trainers and nearly 300 Afghan police trainees. The police training program is called "Focused District Development". It's a fancy way of saying that this is tailor made police training accounting for the specific and varying needs of individual police districts. They tried the one size fits all approach to police training awhile back and that didn't work. What ended up happening then was the Afghan police would go through training, then go back to police the towns where they are from. But Afghanistan is rural and relationships are mostly tribal, and newly trained police were looking the other way when their friends, family and neighbors in the towns they'd spent their whole lives in were breaking laws.

So, with the new Focused District Development, the Afghan police are trained for two months, different districts with different policing needs receiving different and specific training. Then, after graduation, rather than just sending the police back into their old environments and expecting them to not be susceptible to the tribal pressures and bribes, they now graduate and have mentors with them to show them how to implement their police training in spite of the pressures of the tribal system. And it's working. It's working very well. In fact, it's one of the best untold news stories in Afghanistan. It is the Afghan Police that need the training...the Afghan Army is actually very well respected among the Afghan people and very well trained. The Afghan Minister of Defense said the other day, "Afghans don't do many things well, but one thing we know how to do well is fight." And considering nearly every time the Taliban take on the Afghan Army, the Taliban get their tails kicked.....well, the Taliban have stopped taking on the Afghan Army and instead threaten local communities by taking on the local police who are vulnerable to tribal and social pressures....hence the need for the Focused District Development police training..

After watching the police training, we went down the barren dirt road in the middle of nowhere, to the German PRT next door. We only had a few minutes to tour the PRT before we had to head back to the helicopter to go back to Kabul. The German base is nice, of course.... and clean, of course....and very well structured, of course. A funny little tidbit we learned was that every week for Thursday dinner, Friday breakfast and Friday lunch, the German chow hall is closed for disinfecting.....considering this is a war zone, that's pretty darn funny and SO German (hey, my mom's German, so I understand their need for order and cleanliness). So, all the German soldiers, who are criticized by other countries for spending all their time polishing their helicopters that they don't fly and washing their armored cars that they don't take on patrols...well, they rough it on Thursdays and Fridays every week with the MRE (nasty prepackaged military Meals Ready to Eat). Yes, life is rough....whether it's an MRE or a tuna sits about the same.

So back to the helo pad for our ride back over the Hindu Kush....and, well, to make a long story short, we flew to where the mountains should be and couldn't see the mountains because of the sand in the air. So, back to the Regional Training Compound where my presence doubled the female population of the camp....and then there were TWO. So, I spent the evening being taught how to play Omaha Poker by a table full of very beefy US contractors who provide police training to the Afghans. I won six bucks. Waaahhhhooooo, I'm that much closer to retirement!!

So I got an email response after my first Kabul update last week...someone responding to the line I wrote: "So now here I am in Afghanistan, and being here causes me to fluctuate between Tony the Tiger enthusiasm for the possibilities that exist and complete and utter despair for what I know is the inevitable."  The question was "What do you mean by despair for what you know is the inevitable? Do you mean you think we're losing?"  The question indicated to me that I was clearly unclear in my statement. No, I do not think we are or in Iraq. I do not think we will ultimately or in Iraq. In fact, having seen both places up close and personal, I have no doubt we are winning and will win in both places. But, these things do take time. So when I said I have despair for the inevitable, I meant the grueling process of attaining the victories.

And the process IS grueling. Not only the process of actually fighting the fight (a nightmare I thankfully cannot even begin to comprehend). But just the process of living in these environments....while thrilling in the most unusual of ways, and often entertaining in the most unexpected of reminds you that there is really no place like home. When I'm home I miss the action of being here. And when I'm here I miss the serenity of being home.

I suppose when I'm home missing being here, I forget about the details of life that have a tendency to wear on you. For example....
- If I never again in my life have to drag two 70-pound suitcases through 300 yards of gravel in 120 degree heat while wearing a 40 pound bullet proof vest, it would be too soon.
- If I never had to waste another brain cell trying to determine if standing in the sun dehydrating myself would be a better option that using an outhouse that's nearly filled to the rim, it would be too soon (oh, and by the way, the Brits don't call them outhouses...they call them "thunder boxes" which I think is far more appropriate).
- If I never again in my life had to "hot sheet" it, it would be too soon. (Hot Sheeting is what they call it when you're unexpectedly stuck overnight someplace and your only option is to sleep in a bed with questionable sheets...or sometimes, no sheets at all...often times you wake up with strange bug bites.)
- If I never again slathered Oil of Olay all over my face only to walk out of my hooch into a sandstorm, it would be too soon.
- If I never again had to hide from an overly amorous contractor who insists I refer to him as "Buffalo", it would be too soon.
- If I never again woke up to find a mangy cat sleeping at the foot of my bed, it would be too soon.
- If I never had to take another shower while standing in 4 inches of someone else's sludge because the showers don't drain, it would be too soon.
- I could go on and on and on, but I think you get the point by now.....

Vital Statistics
# of Days in Afghanistan...................................................................16
# of Explosions Heard.......................................................................00
# of Overly Amorous Contractors Who Insist I Call Them "Buffalo"..............00 (although there is one in Baghdad)
Temp. Today in Kabul........................................................55 (sunny then rainy then sunny)
# of Diet Cokes I've Had Since Arrival................................................29 (I'm slowing down)
# of Tuna Melts I've Had at the Chow Hall..............................................01
# of Tuna Melts I Will Have for the Rest of My Life..................................00

Hope all is well on your end, and I will sign off with a line my six year old nephew said just before he road his bike over a rickety and steep plywood ramp he and his brothers made....

"See ya at the hospital!"


Kabuled Together #3.5

March 28, 2008

I've Got it Goin' On....
Well, I hate to brag, but I Kabuled Together (get it?) a black market wine source at Camp Eggers where the soldiers can't drink, but the civilians (all two of us) can, if we can find it. So here I sit at 10:30pm on a Friday night two glasses into my box of vino rosso....ahhhh, good times. Times made only better by the post Easter supply of blue bunny Peeps we received in the mail today. So I'm sippin' the vino and poppin' the Peeps a week after Easter in Kabul....does life get any better than this? I would divulge my "black market" wine source, but am almost assured my supply line would be cut and I'd be forced to put on a black jumpsuit, belly crawl under the razor wire under the cloak of darkness and find my way to Chicken Street to buy another stash....and I'm wayyyyy too lazy for that kind of action.

The only down-side to my illicit vino supply is that my civilian office mate, Bob, has discovered my stash and I now must quench his thirst to buy his silence. It's a dog eat dog world out here.

The Fog of War
So last Monday we went to the Afghan Ministry of Defense to meet with the MoD Spokesman. The MoD is only about a 10 minute drive from Camp Eggers (where we live and work). The Ministry is housed in an old, yellow, cinderblock building that was the Russian Army Headquarters back in the day. It's large. It's sterile. And it needs a good overhaul. But it works for the MoD for now. So we had extra sweet tea with the MoD Spokesman and his civilian American "mentor". We chatted about Strategic Communications and discussed ways we can work together and echo one another's work. It was a very productive meeting. And the meeting ended, the US Army General on our team asked what we can do to help the MoD spokesman's office. The MoD Spokesman unleashed a barrage of needs. He needs cars. He needs computers. He needs staff. He needs money. The Spokesman's American "mentor" sat there with a strange look on his face as the Afghan Spokesman went on and on about how he has no cars.

So after the meeting the American "mentor" pulled us aside to let us know that the MoD spokesman's office has actually been supplied 139% of the cars they have requested. A strange percentage I thought, especially considering the plea for more cars. Then it dawned on different as the cultures are, what's happening here is much like what's happening in Iraq. They're all in hoarding and survival mode. At first I was irritated that they'd ask for more equipment and cars when we've already supplied them with more than they need. But then I remembered that the culture here is very different. Cars and equipment here equal status. And status equals power. So cars that are purchased for office use, are often driven home and parked in driveways to show the neighbors power and status. It's the "I must be important, I've got 15 cars in my driveway" mentality. I guess I can't blame them for hoarding....that would be the pot calling the kettle black. I got busted by my office mates for hoarding chocolate Easter eggs from the chow hall in my office desk embarrassing is THAT? But again, it's survival mode out here.

One of the more entertaining aspects of the meeting with the MoD spokesman had to do with the MoD website. At first we were told there is NO MoD website and they need our help in creating one. Then, the more we poked and prodded for information, it came out that there actually IS an MoD website, but no one at the Ministry of Defense has a clue who is running that site. Hilarious. Can you imagine having a Pentagon website with no one at the Pentagon having a clue who runs it? This STILL has me laughing. Talk about the "fog of war". So, some contractor is probably getting paid big bucks to maintain the Afghan MoD website, but no one at the Afghanistan MoD can figure out who the webmaster is. Big sigh....these are the things that bring me gray hair and bring me joy all at the same time.

Surgery in Kabul
My officemate, Bob (whom I am supplying with bootleg booze) is roommates with a Navy surgeon here on a one year assignment to train Afghan surgeons western techniques. One of the problems for him is that there are not enough translators available, so he has to draw diagrams on x-rays and play charades to get the point across about surgical procedures. His biggest concern is that there is not enough security at the hospital where he works and often times the under-trained Afghan surgeons will promise Afghan families that their family member will be fine because the best American surgeon available will be doing the operation. This puts the Navy surgeon in a jam because if/when things go wrong and patients die, which happens a lot here, the families don't sue, they kill. In addition, the Navy surgeon says that trying to get the Afghan medical crews up to first world standards is a real chore. He says often there will be two surgeries happening in the same operating room at the same time. If a doctor doing surgery on one patient needs a utensil from a doctor doing the other surgery, they simply pass the utensils back and forth with no cleaning or even rinsing of the utensils. Yowza.

Why Do They Hate Us?
So Friday is the "slower" day here. Soldiers can sleep in a bit and take part of the Friday off. The best part about Fridays is the local bizarre. The base security sweeps and cleans a huge selection of local vendors who come onto the base and set up a market...selling rugs, movies, jewelry, and knick-knacks. Everybody looks forward to Bizarre Fridays. So, last night soldiers here were on cloud nine knowing they could sleep in a bit, and spend Friday morning buying stuff they clearly could not live without. But, a Dutch film maker spoiled all the fun for today. This morning a Dutch film maker released a movie considered in these here parts as anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim. Considering that only months ago the publication of a Dutch newspaper cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed sparked a round of protest killings in Pakistan and other areas, the release of this film today created "anticipation" of negative activity. The Friday market was closed and all non-essential missions were halted as roads in Afghanistan were deemed "red" for travel.

We were slated to go on a mission this morning to deliver toys, clothes and food to a refugee camp in Kabul, but that mission was called off. And the Friday market at Camp Eggers was closed down. So there were a lot of bummed out soldiers and bummed out Afghan vendors today. My suspicion is that if the Afghans weren't maddened and ready to protest at the release of the Dutch film, then they were certainly mad that the market was closed and they weren't able to elicit their millions out of American soldiers with money to spend. Can you even imagine an environment in the U.S. where the simple opening of a controversial movie causes the streets to be deemed unsafe for travel? We are certainly lucky to live where we live.

Dude Flicks
So did I mention that I work in a military public affairs office where the average age of the soldiers in this office is about 23? These guys are so darn young and hilarious. I am one of TWO women in the office. And every night we are tortured with horrible "dude" flicks. We've watched Dumb and Dumber, the Big Lebowski, Wedding Crashers, Austin Powers, Super Bad, Knocked Up...and pretty much any other really stupid guy flick you can imagine...a million times. The best part is watching the guys in the office giggle like school girls at these stupid movies. Never before have I seen so up close and personally the vast divide between the brains of men and women. The other night I was thumbing through the movies when one of the soldiers asked if I wanted to have the honor of choosing the movie of the night. I quickly accepted the task and asked if they had the movie "Hope Floats" (a big time chick flick)....the record skidded to a stop and there were crickets chirping in the Public Affairs Office. I got a good laugh out of it, but I think that just the thought of no night filled with teenage sexual innuendo freaked out my young soldier colleagues. Again, it was a moment that brought me awkward joy.

I Am Full Of Shame
Did I mention that the showers here are nasty, drain too slow and that the water is like showering in over chlorinated pool water? I'm embarrassed to admit, but I think I've got a reverse pedicure going on out here....cheese is actually being ADDED to my feet rather than scraped off. I am unclean and full of shame.

Easter Sunday in Kabul
I'll conclude with Easter 4th Easter in 5 years in Iraq or (now) Afghanistan. The only Protestant service was the sunrise service....and as I'm so not a morning person, I figured the best thing to do was to defect over to the Catholic service at Noon. It was much like Easter in Baghdad, only without the rockets. I spent three Easters in Baghdad, each one punctuated by rocket and mortar blasts...and this one was very different in Kabul, but no different in Baghdad. The base in Kabul was silent, but the Green Zone in Baghdad was hit with a rocket barrage on Easter Sunday that killed a US Government employee who worked in the Embassy. All I can think is "thank God I'm not there". Easter Sunday in Kabul was very quiet. Although I don't think I'll ever get used to soldiers with M-16s and thigh holstered pistols filing up to the front for communion. Soldiers packin' heat on Easter Sunday. It's a sight to see.

Vital Statistics
# of Days in Kabul............................23
# of Easters in a War Zone.................04
# of Diet Cokes Since Arrival..............40
# of Bootleg Vino Supplies.................01
# of Tuna Melts Since Arrival..............01
# of Easters in Kabul........................01
# of Easters in Baghdad....................03
# of Reverse Pedicures.....................01 per day