Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Operation Eastern Resolve Day 2 - Compound Day

Operation Eastern Resolve 2
Day 2
Dahaneh, Helmand, Afghanistan

It was the flies that woke me up before dawn, lying on the floor of a filthy piece of carpet covered in dirt and broken glass. These were not the type of normal domestic flies, but the ones that seemed intent on landing on the corners of your eyes or the edge of your mouth.

The day had not even begun and the filth of deprivation had begun.

You become so exhausted that any gunfire outgoing from the roof of the compound does raise anymore of a thought than I must film some more of that later.

There is no cup of coffee, no breakfast and for a toilet, go and relieve yourself on that old car tire in the corner of the compound. The concept of even changing clothes is not on the cards, I had bought on extra t-shirt and a pair of trousers but decided to save them, as there had been no talk at all about when we would be able to get out, as this was only the morning of day 2 of the Operation. So I wanted to save them for a future day.

Perhaps if there was one luxury I could point too, was that there was a well. Yep a plain old fashioned, been around for two thousand years type of well, hole in the ground, bucket on a pulley, lower it and lift it and you have water.

Water that was actually cool and you could wash in, as for drinking it. Well no one tried, as there was only one WAG room and hundreds of Marines.

Morning is often a time for reflection; everyone after the adrenaline of yesterday’s firefight was flat. Those who could not claim that had a shot a Taliban were jealous of those who had, and those who had been on the trigger on the roof knew that they had shot a lot of rounds into mud brick walls but would not admit it.

The greatest damage to the Taliban the previous day had come from the sky, via a large J Dam bomb. One enormous explosion but given the situation in the village no one had been out to try and assess the number of Taliban that had actually been killed. Even when they did get out no traces of bodies were ever found or reported on, numbers were always so vague and variable that I did not bother to write down them. The estimated claim for the first day had been according to Operations Commander Captain Zachary Martin had been “at least a dozen Taliban have been killed”.

Logic would have it that any operation in the heat, given that it would rise into the high 120’s within hours, should logically take place earl in the morning or later in the afternoon. But enter the ANA (Afghan National Army) of which I wrote about in the entry “Rambo’s Pink Mirror”. The ANA would not be able to get ready before 11:30am and thus the mission to search every compound in the village would take place during the hottest period of the day.

The Marines privately would not hold back in their stinging criticism’s and complaints about the performance of this ANA unit, turn a camera on and ask a question and it was as if they discussing a completely different army.

This mission was dangerous by any definition, apart from the threat of having your legs blown off by an IED or shot from the hills around the village as you tried to run across fields between compounds. A third threat was that we would be going out and trying to get the ANA to enter the compounds and conduct the searches for the Taliban.

To win the hearts and minds of the residents of Dahaneh, well those who had remained after the first day, during which they had been bombed, strafed from Apache helicopters, had more ammunition fired within their homes than in history.

It was considered politically correct for the ANA to enter and search the Compounds, putting an “Afghan Face” on the operation, whilst the US Marines would provide security outside.

The Marines were ready to start at 11:30 and standing in the sun slowly cooking inside our body armor and Kevlar helmets, we waited and waited for the ANA to get ready. They had no desire to leave the shade and start anything.

The operation was divided into 2 patrols, and Greg and I were with the second patrol. As the first team left they were greeted with gunfire and from behind the walls of the compound it was not a nice sound to hear.

Finally after getting the half a dozen ANA assigned to our patrol to get into formation we too walked out and made for the first compound. As the gunfire began around us, you just kept low and kept moving searching for a wall to provide shelter. The Marines maintained tight formation, the ANA for their part did not have a clue and it was not unusual to hear a Marine screaming at an ANA soldier to stop pointing his weapon at a Marine. The wording of these pleas soon descended into out and out swearing, which mattered little to the rag tag fighters.

The Marines would kick or blow in a door and stand back; the ANA would then enter and find the first piece of shade and somewhere to sit down. We would wait a few minutes them in frustration enter and try to get them to search. It was repeated time after time.

The heat was now at its zenith and every movement was becoming soul destroying. Each run across the open drained me to the point of exhaustion. After one sprint the Marine medic with us dropped to the ground and vomited everything in his stomach up, losing any precious liquid in his body.

Two hours into the search and I was finished, my body was just closing down in the heat. I had stopped sweating and my skin was dry, I had trouble even focusing my eyes and leaning against a wall, I realized that heatstroke was rapidly overcoming me.
I had the video and material we needed and after the patrol returned to the sanctuary of the compound I collapsed. Removing my body armor my t-shirt crusted in sweat and salt I knew that to go back out would have only endangered my own life and potentially those of the Marines if I collapsed.

Drinking water hot enough to make coffee in, is no cure and I dropped for half an hour,

The patrol went back out for a few more hours, and the ANA became so ineffective that the Marines took on all responsibilities including searches.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon on the roof watching attempts to bomb the hills were the Taliban had positions, editing material and doing a live shot from the compound.

The mission “Operation Eastern Resolve 2” had perhaps accomplished its goal to drive the Taliban out of the village, but it seemed that little had been achieved. And if anything it was becoming bogged down. Observing the Captain and XO of Golf Company locked in a conversation it was apparent that even the Generals back at the Marines HQ at Camp Leatherneck were questioning just what had been achieved in two days of fighting given the new directives of how to fight this war.

We heard word that a convoy was going back to FOB Now Zad that night and that it could be the last one for three day, given we had to get back to Kabul for the Elections. We made the decision to leave Dahaneh; the kinetic fighting was all but over.

Lying on a steel grate for a bed and a water bottle for a pillow, I looked up at an amazing sky of stars and thought long and hard about the previous two days. There were few positive thoughts that evening.

I never question the attitude of the fighting Marine, for they are each and everyone of them are heroes fighting as they are directed.

The problem is that this war, after eight years has if anything gotten worse and to which a solution seems further away. And those in charge truly have no clear cohesive strategy to bring it to an end, all we have to look forward too in the coming months and years, are more reports of young brave men being injured and dying.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fire in The Hold

Operation Eastern Resolve 2
Dahaneh, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Ten km’s (6 miles) from FOB (Forward Operating Base) Now Zad lays the village of Dahaneh. To get there you must enter thru what is know as Devil’s Pass, according to the Marines of Golf Company, Alexander the Great, the British of a 100 years ago and the Russian’s thirty years ago had been defeated trying to enter the “Devil’s Pass”.

However we did not have the heart to tell them that despite exhaustive research, there has been no record of any of the above armies ever mentioning “Devils Pass”.

The objective of the mission was to enter and control the village of Dahaneh, where no form of Government or law had existed for years and was in affect in the control of the Taliban. Secure the village, eliminate the Taliban threat and enable free and fair elections to take place. Given that the good residents of Dahaneh have never voted before in history and have probably never felt the need too. The village Shura and Jirga system had served them well for centuries, only the Taliban were causing problems for the locals.

Thus the powers to be that run this war decided that Dahaneh was a critical lynch pin in the “Surge” and close to 500 US Marines and 20 or so ANA (Afghan National Army) were to establish democracy, law and order, build an Outpost, win hearts and minds and kill as many Taliban as possible all in time for the Election.

August 12th 2009, 2 am FOB Now Zad.

The mission was already running late before we had even started, the reason was that the ANA were running late and were not ready. Under a waning moon Greg Palkot and I stood and waited frustrated by the fact that we were assigned to the last vehicle in convoy, a 7 ton truck that was also carrying the ANA. Which given there track record meant that the chances of us seeing kinetic action and the assault were greatly diminished?

If I heard one more cliché speech that included lines like “ A watershed moment or a critical point in time” I would of vomited. Standing in the dark a Marine to hide his nerves stood on a truck and sang Neil Diamond songs as if he were auditioning American Idol.

Eventually the ANA came to the Convey rendezvous point with about as much interest for this mission as one has going for a root canal treatment at the dentist. In the event of trouble or actually running into Taliban I had no doubt that these troops would have been totally ineffective and more of a danger to us than the Taliban.

With the Commanders stretcher safely on the truck and a box of RPG’s to clog the benches so that they could not get out the convoy, we began the very slow and painful trip to Devils Pass.

The frustration of being at the back of a convey for a cameraman trying to cover war is dreadful, as I commented to Greg as we approached we might as well be doing radio for what I could see thru the lens.

Dawn broke as we entered the pass and the sound of gunfire suddenly increased dramatically, there was a lot going down as the first Marines had gone in by chopper under darkness and where coming under stiff resistance. With each 100 yards closer to the village the sound of gunfire reverberated around the truck, at least one good thing was that the ANA never bought their weapons up into any offensive posture and the risk for us of being accidentally shot was negated.

As we entered the village outskirts it became apparent that things were spinning wildly and the Taliban resistance was stronger than originally anticipated and waves of gunfire swept around us from the mountains.

Villagers were seen fleeing from compounds as more bullets cracked from heavy guns and recoilless rifles. A RPG went screaming between two Marine MRAP's and exploded on the hill behind us. The compound of the base of operations that the Marines had set up in was under serious attack and from a hundred yards away I stood in the back of the 7-ton truck and filmed Marines ducking and running as the Taliban bullets kicked up dust around their feet.

The worst thing is that you realize in a few minutes we would both be having to do the run ourselves from truck to compound, not a happy thought as I could see from my viewfinder what was going down.

On the rooftop a line of Marines could be seen and the noise from the gunfire echoed around the valley and village. I needed to get there and get the action as soon as possible, the smell of cordite is a lure to a cameraman that is hard to avoid. And knowing that it is safer to be at the front rather than stuck in a truck exposed also weighed on my mind.

When it came time to disembark, my mind switched off from the scenes I had been filming minutes before and it was a fast crouching weaving run across the 30 yards to the sanctuary of the compound.

“Where is the rooftop?” was my first question panting and dripping from sweat. Greg was to get the equipment into the compound I was to get to the roof and start filming. Climbing thru a hole blown between compound walls I raced thru the building and up onto the roof.

8 Marines were stationed behind a three-foot wall on the roof; the floor of the roof was littered with spent ammunition. And every few seconds another volley was spewed into the village. Keeping low I dashed across the roof to the wall and took cover next to the Marines. Bathed in sweat and dirt they looked happy this was the action that every one of them craved.

One Marine stood up with binoculars exposed and started calling directions for fire, at that moment a Taliban bullet hit the wall inches from him and flew up, missing him by inches. Another volley from there machine guns bought a few minutes of silence from the Taliban.

And so for the next hour or so it was volley, counter volley. I crawled up and down the line trying to anticipate the salvo. Greg joined me on the roof next to the wall; keeping low we filmed a couple of on cameras and talked with the Marines as they improvised ways of trying to keep their ammunition out of the dirt.

By now the sun was a furnace above us, and Marines poured water down there backs trying to keep cool, none of them wanted to be relieved as this was were the action was going down. I realized that soon Greg and I would start getting heatstroke if we did not get off the roof soon and crouching low we ran to the stairwell and down.

It was now past noon and I needed to get the footage to New York, the incredible thing is that with todays technology we carry a small satellite dish about the size of a briefcase that gives us a direct uplink and hooked up to a computer, I can edit, compress and send the files direct to New York.

The room we found in the compound had been stormed earlier and the dirt floor was covered in broken glass, window frames hang loosely, old rags and a frayed piece of rug were the only things in the room. And old tin box became my workspace out of the wreckage that existed.

First footage sent in and a live shot from the safety of the garden outside, every few minutes another volley of gunfire echoed around, to a bizarre extent you can become immune to the noise, as if it were just the norm.

The next phase for us was to edit a feature length piece for the Evening Primetime broadcast, and sitting in the shell of the room we were piecing together a spot, when all of a sudden there was a loud scream around the compound.

“Fire in the Hold”

What the f…! . Every single person suddenly ducks down into a fetal position and puts their fingers in their ears. You close your eyes not sure of what are about to happen.

Boom !!!!

A explosion blasts thru every single nerve in your body, it shakes every organ and the room simply disappeared in a barrage of dirt, dust, rubble and even pieces of window frame exploded and shattered around us. The computer was blown almost to the ground and the dish outside was now in a new position.

A wall had been blasted to allow more movement round the compound.

Picking ourselves back up Greg took a photo of the aftermath.

You cannot dwell on what has happened, the explosion had blown the computer around so much that I lost half the work I had done and had to start again. Brushing the debris off it. I started again. Five minutes later…

“Fire in the Hold,” screamed from room to room. Grasping a bit of rag I covered what I could in the few seconds. Computer on the ground this time. Running for the door we ducked down and covering our ears waited for the explosion again.

Kaboom !!!!

The building shook around us as dirt and dust once again engulfed us. Like Pig Pen from a Peanuts cartoon we stood up and looked back into our room half expecting that everything would have been destroyed.

But as the dust cleared the computer and camera gear came into sight, looking the worse for wear yet still working. Daylight was fading fast and I told Greg “ Forget the next live shot to New York”, we were basically trying to stay alive.

With no power the computer and little satellite transmitter were running on battery and it was a race against time. As I started the file transfer to New York the computer low battery warning came on, as did the satellite battery. It was a race against time and as darkness fell the story made it to New York, and a minute later the sat dish went dead.

As we lay down amongst the rubble and broken glass for the night, drinking a hot bottle of water, the gunfire continued from the roof above us. Exhaustion swept over us and in clothes crusted with salt from sweat I slipped into a sleep on the floor. Sharing the space with a company of young Marines we all had just enough room to stretch out.

Dawn was a few hours away and for a few brief hours we both slept. Tomorrow we knew was when we would begin foot patrols around the village to clear out the Taliban compound by compound.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rambo's Pink Mirror

Everyone has to be diplomatic whenever they raise the issue of the ANA (Afghanistan’s National Army). To quote correspondent Greg Palkot “ they are a work in progress ”.

Military leaders whenever asked about how the ANA perform seem to come up with metaphors that make this rag tag collection of “now you see them now you don’t weekend warriors” to be the 300 Spartans ready to take on the global struggle of counter terrorism single handed.

Even Company Commanders have to publicly praise their performance with gritted teeth, as it is the politically correct thing to do. When in doubt anyone tries to draw comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq, the trouble is that this is a ridiculous contrast that even a 5th grader can understand.

Afghanistan has population of around 32 million people is 50 percent larger than Iraq, and has a combined Military and Police force of approx 220,000. Iraq; smaller population 28 million, yet it has now close to 600,000 troops in its various branches of service. In 2007 Iraq’s own Security Forces grew by a staggering 100,000 members in one year, this is why the “Surge” was so successful.

After nearly 8 years, Afghanistan’s Military is believed to have over 130,000 members according to various reports, but you would have to be an eternal optimist to actually believe this number is accurate. For no one wants to offend or rock the sensitive political correct types, who are trying to talk up the success of a continuing failing project, which has cost billions of dollars, and every six months or so a new plan is drawn up at a substantial cost to try and solve the issue.

If a basic drug test was done on the members of the ANA, it is estimated that 85% would fail straight up.

On the recent US Marine Operation, in Dahaneh in Helmand I had the opportunity to observe the ANA again in operation. Marines would literally be screaming at them to stop aiming there weapons at US forces. They were considered so completely ineffective that when the Marines were setting up defensive positions, the ANA were completely ignored, as they could not be trusted to obey simple instructions.

One key objective was a search compound by compound of the village to rout out any Taliban; the mission had the ANA taking the lead and entering the compounds so as to put an Afghan face to the operation. There own main objective was to enter a compound find any available shady spot, sit down and relax. Whilst US Marines stood in the heat and sun protecting them, time and time again after a few minutes we would enter the compounds and find them lazing around with absolutely no interest in the mission. After a few hours the Marine Lt. in charge of the squad gave up on them and had his own troops do the searches. The only thing the ANA wanted to do was go back to the base, as they were “too tired”.

The ANA members on this mission had absolutely zero apparent interest in being they’re trying to win the hearts and minds of their own people.

When in the heat of the Compound Objective, I only managed to get two reasonable shots of the ANA in action, the first was they trying to kick a door to a compound in, and the door did not budge.

The second was of a kid soldier barely looking sixteen years old who somehow was a member of the ANA, we nicknamed him Rambo, because like many here, they like to strap ammunition around themselves in a bandoleer fashion from a spaghetti western. As he took up a watch position with a gun as big as himself, without the slightest care in the world or concern for the bullets coming from the Taliban in the mountains above, he took out a small pink plastic mirror and for the next two minutes preened and checked his hair. Not once did he look around the battlefield, his hair was far more important.

It is easy to be cynical and there is no doubt that some elements of the Afghanistan Army are trying, but from what I have seen and heard they are truly a work in progress and the timeline for there success is not promising.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

River City

Forward Operating Base: Now Zad
Northern Helmand Province

At all bases the Marines operate in there is an expression they use “River City” to describe what happens when a Marine is killed or injured. All contact with the outside world ceases to be available all phone lines and Internet connections are cut until the next of kin are notified.

At Forward Operating Base Now Zad, it is almost the norm, rather than the exception. Life continues for the Marines, another day passes and it is one day closer to going home. The majority of the Marines I talked with “going home,” meant safe and still intact, whilst they all grieve for fallen comrades there is also an acceptance that what they do entails risk.

Whilst they may be Rambo one minute, the next minute reflection replaces reality. When we arrived at Now Zad, 2/3 Marines Golf Company had already lost 2 Marines and a further 7 had been wounded in action, including 3 double amputations. All had been killed or injured as a result of IED’s. Any foot patrol was forbidden as the risk was to high to quote Captain Martin of Golf Company, “We will not walk in the area”.

Now Zad is a ghost town, not a soul lives there, or has done for the past couple of years, where once approx 15,000 Afghans once lived, not a soul is there. The British and Estonians have held ground there and the Marines are now on their third rotation there. With a casual ease Marines would point to a spot 100 yards away and say there is a high possibility that the Taliban are there now and watching us. What separates the two is often just a minefield of IED’s. They are so randomly set and spread out that even the Taliban to a degree now will not enter certain areas.

And so in temperatures that destroy any remaining part of your soul, a stand off exists in Now Zad. As if it was the 1st World War, a no mans land of death separates the adversaries. The only thing that moves between the two sides apart from bullets, mortars and rockets are the wasps. For some reason Now Zad has a plague of them. Any water or liquid and you are surrounded by them, and for someone like me who has a certified terror of bee’s let alone wasps, this was no happy place.

Showers and the basic laundry facility was closed between 11am and 2 pm, not to conserve water but to minimize wasp attacks. Hesco barriers and concrete walls may stop Taliban attacks but not wasps.

Unlike large bases back at Leatherneck and Bastion or even in the capital Kabul, FOB Now Zad has no luxuries, most rooms are plywood boxes with no air conditioning, and the temperature inside the rooms can easily reach 42 degrees Celsius close to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no dining facilty for meals apart from some netting on poles, two meals a day are served out of trays, miss the meal time and it is MRE’s. I saw the trays of food just lying around in the dust like discarded waste next to a dumpster, no doubt tomorrows meal.

Water is measured in degrees of bath water, and tepid is something you actually crave. There were fridges around, but they were closely guarded secrets and rarely if ever would anyone ever offer Greg and I a cold drink, they were just too precious, I did not begrudge them this as it made me realize how hard it actually is for them. And how pathetically easy Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen have it at the bigger bases, where 24 hour meals are available and signs on the fridges ask you to limit yourself to two cold cans of soda a meal, but no one ever counts.

And yet not one Marine at FOB Now Zad wanted to be anywhere else but there, at the frontline in the fight against the Taliban. In adversity they become a true “Band of Brothers”, and to be honest you never hear a word of despair or frustration from them.

The only thing they do not like is “River City” because it means one of there own has fallen.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Death and Taxes , plus Wag Bags

Death and Taxes are the two things in life that we can be sure of, and well there is a natural third. What goes in most go out, and at FOB (Forward Operating Base), in Now Zad Afghanistan, what starts in plastic ends in plastic.

MRE rations come in brown plastic bags, with yet more plastic bags inside that then contain more plastic wrapping different items from a spoon to the salt. The thing about MRE’s is that is like grown up’s baby food, sometimes there is consistency more often not the meal resembles what’s on the label, just do not read the ingredients, to keep meals from spoiling no chemical compound is forgotten.

Eating on this trip is a challenge; not because the meals are bland and monotonous, but the heat makes your appetite just disappear. It is hard enough to keep drinking enough water to stay hydrated and alive.

But nature does take its course and in the middle of the desert with nearly 400 US marines, you simply cannot have everyone defacting wherever they wanted, as sickness would spread fast. Portaloos would be useless as they cannot be emptied and the proverbial taken away and disposed off.

Enter plastic bag Number 2 the “Wag Bag”. WAG naturally is a military acronym for “Waste Alleviating Gel”. Porcelain is a distant memory and a plastic frame greets you as you enter the little room. Open your Wag bag Kit take out of the plastic bag from inside the plastic bag and fit over the frame. Let nature take care of itself, sans fluid.

Take out the plastic WAG and seal it in another zip loc plastic bag and walk up to the drums and deposit the WAG in the drum.

Perhaps one of the least glamorous job for any Private is being assigned to burn the bags, but every evening you would see a couple of Marines pour diesel in the bins and setting fire to the Wag Bags. Not exactly back breaking hard work but a key function on the frontline.

The guys would sit there, talk and occasionally stand up grab the shit stick and poke the bags to complete the “Cycle of Plastic”.

Death and Wag Bags, two facts of life in the War on Terror in the Helmand Desert

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Around 8 Hours

Getting to the Frontline in Afghanistan is not easy; you take what ever you can, whenever you can. Competition amongst all Media agencies whether TV, Print, Stills or Radio is intense. We all want to get there before the others and get the preverbial scoop.

Sitting in the tent at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, South Afghanistan, Correspondent Greg Palkot and I where grouped with 3 members of Associated Press and Radio Reporter from NPR. We had already waited at Kabul Airport for 37 hours trying to get ahead of the rest of the pack only to have had two flights cancelled and had become known as the “Kabul Two” for being stranded there and waiting.

To get forward the usual method is by helicopter, inevitably at some insane hour of the morning like 2am, and without doubt we are generally classified as “Space A” passengers. Meaning that if Space is Available you can get a seat on the bird, if not you are bumped to the next flight, which can be 24 hours later or more.

To get to our FOB (Forward Operating Base) at Now Zad, in Northern Helmand we were told that we might have chance in the next 36 hours, but as we saw other media going to other areas returning to the tent we shared at Camp Leather neck coming back after being bounced time and time again. Greg had an idea, if you cannot fly then what about driving up in a Convoy, the FOB is only sixty miles North of Leatherneck.

Without letting on we managed to find a Supply Convoy heading out that Afternoon (August 6th 2009), a forty one-vehicle log train driving through the “Desert of Death” as the Helmand Desert is called for being one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, carrying everything from ammunition to food and water. It would stretch over 2 km’s long.

It should take no longer than 8 hours was the word from the PAO (Public Affairs Officer) organizing logistics. That’s do able, I agreed with Greg, anything beats sitting around and waiting. And we could also do a story on the Convoy itself.

Cutting the number of bags we were traveling with to seven (Five equipment and Two personal) we were taken to the Convoy staging area and introduced to the guys who were to become relatively close friends in the confines of the MRAP we were to travel in.

Sgt James Mitchell or (Terrets) was the Vehicle Commander, Lance Corporal Chris Lance (Old Man) driving the beast, sharing the gun of the roof were Lance Corporal Raul Lustre from California and (Dr J) Lance Corporal Jaron Hester.

They simply laughed when I asked about the 8 hour drive, “Man the record for this trip is 17 hours, the longest trip 53 hours” replied the Sarge. Something you should know is that we expect to get hit by IED bombs, we have done this convoy four times and only once have we not been hit. “Welcome to the most dangerous trip you can do in the world”. Seatbelts not required but you must wear your body armor at all times, these vehicles are designed to withstand IED blasts but we hoped not to test the theory”.

The Chaplain for the HQ, came and lead the prayers for all traveling, and we loaded up closed the thick armored door behind us, together with 131 Marines we began the trip.

There would be no road traveled we where to make our own new road across the Desert to avoid IED’s as is the normal practice here now. A bulldozer scrapes a path and everyone stays in tracks ahead of them.

“Old Man” finally touched the gas pedal at 3:40pm, it took forty minutes to actually get out of the Base and past the final strand of Razor Wire less than a mile and the sixty to go did not start till the gate.

We approached the main East West Highway and the only two hundred yards of road we would be on. It was considered safe as the Base had “eyes” on this stretch. Greg and I had actually driven on this road back in May 2001, when the Taliban were in power, we had simply hired a couple of taxi’s and driven from Heart to Kandahar, with no security or for that matter concerns about safety.

Before the second hour was up we stopped, not for an IED but simply a vehicle had broken down, not one but three trucks were in trouble. Thirty minutes later we rolled forward 50 meters and stopped again a fourth vehicle now had a problem, then a fifth.

As the last light faded, we had covered less than 300m in two hours. I started to question our decision to convoy and began to plot just how long this could take, had we made a bad choice.

5 hours after leaving the Base and we could still see the lights clearly, things were not going well and there was no turning back, only the tracks of the vehicle ahead in the sand.

Just before Midnight the convoy halted to refuel, the convoy travels with its own gas tanker. And the lights of the Base were still on the horizon, nearly eight hours after leaving

There is only so much room and so many positions you can try to get comfortable in, imaging two economy class seats facing each other with even less legroom than a cheap charter plane crams in, and that is your world, your body armor plates dig into your back making sleep near impossible, two minutes here five minutes there, the next bump wakes you as we tumble into each other. At times it became a Pilates Stretching class as you try to find that extra inch to stretch out a cramping muscle.

Lance Corporal Lustre, 19 from California, joined the Marines not because of 9/11 he vaguely remembers being at school and watching the aftermath on TV in the hall, but because he wanted to “Make a difference”. President Reagan once commented, “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they had made a difference, Marines don’t have that problem”. And that’s why he joined, his Girlfriend and Parents are not excited about him being here in Afghanistan, however was he excited about being here, he answered “Yes”.

We were yet to enter what the Marines called “Hell Pass” and the beginning of Taliban controlled territory, over the radio you could hear muffled messages from the Intelligence guys warning of trouble looming.

Twelve hours into the trip, we had stopped asking how far or how much further, first light was coming, we had not eaten since Lunch the day before, it is too hard to digest when every 15 seconds or so you go over another bone jolting bump. Conversations in the vehicle became less and less, exhaustion was setting in. Boredom a fact of life as was my body armor chaffing my skin red.

We had requested to move up in the convoy after dawn as there is only so much video you can shoot from the back. And after 16 hours we bade farewell to the guys and moved into “Vic 2” the second vehicle after the clearance team in the convoy.

I could now stand up through the exit hatch at the back and see why we had taken so long to get such little distance. We were know approaching the most feared part of the trip for the convoy the “Wadi Zone”. Dried river and creek beds where the Taliban favored planting IED’s the previous attacks had all taken part in this area.

The armored bulldozer with almost trepidation descended into the first of the Wadi’s plowing a road for us to follow. The theory being that if there is an IED then the front scoop will take the blast. I tried to imagine just what must being going through the drivers mind as you plow ahead and expect to hit a bomb, and then you think the person driving this suicide plough is probably only 19 years old and not yet legal to drink alcohol in States back home.

We crossed without incident and I expected that tension would ease up in the vehicle, but as the Sarge said we were still to cross “IED Wadi” the one we had traversed was simply a tributary of the one they all feared.

Before crossing two guys from Explosives Team swept by hand “IED Wadi” bed with metal detectors, an almost futile gesture now as the Taliban no longer use any metal parts in their homemade bombs to avoid detection. Once they gave the all clear the bulldozer again descended the bank and made a clear path.

Our destination was getting close but 4 more Wadi’s had to be cleared, 18 hours had passed and the lookouts were nervous, children carrying yellow plastic jugs were noted, shepherds with flocks of goats were potential Taliban lookouts. Anyone moving at more than a slow shuffle in the late morning heat haze was a suspect.

The final miles had become a struggle against exhaustion and nervous tension. Locked in a metal box the air conditioning battled the extremes of the approaching noonday sun. But at least we were moving closer by the hour.

We entered the safe confines of FOB Now Zad after twenty hours; given the delays at the start the mood of the Marines as we all climbed out was that of relief. For Greg and I we looked at each other and wondered just what planet we were on. Moon dust or “Afghan Snow” a fine powder was six inches deep and the temperature was in the 120’s degree Fahrenheit. We had beaten the competition up, and had a good story in the can as we say.

The other Press flew up that night; it took them 18 minutes in a helicopter to cover the same distance it had taken us twenty hours to travel.

When I next buy a lottery ticket, I am going to use the numbers of hours that were predicted, discussed and joked about how long it would take to cover the Desert of Death Convoy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Return From Embed

Operation Eastern Resolve 2
Now Zad / Dehanna – Helmand Afghanistan
August 2009

The media calls it “Bang Bang or Action”; the Marines call it “Kinetic”. What it means is that everyone wants War. It is not unusual to be sitting around on a FOB, (Forward Operating Base) and hear a 19-year-old Marine say casually as if talking football that he wants to “Kill someone today”. The officers sitting around do not politically correct him, more than likely they will nod their heads and smile, for that is what Marines on the frontline are trained to do. War is about killing and defeating an enemy.

Now that I am back in the relative safety of Camp Leatherneck in Helmand after nine days being embedded in the North of the Province, reflections become like a stone thrown into a pond the initial splash causes the ripples to extend out and memories are like that, there is no central point but just expanding thoughts on what I have experienced in the last days.

The first thing that strikes you here is the heat, you hear about it, read about it but to live it, is like taking your soul and slowly stripping it down to the point where you simply try to function. A cold bottle of water is something you actually start to dream of, the reality is that you simply accept that you are going to have yet another bottle of hot bath water. I eventually resorted to wetting my sock and putting the bottle in the wet sock and by the process of evaporation the bottle would cool down a few degrees, and that was as good as it would get. One day I drank 11 liters of water and yet only urinated less than half a teacup of dark treacle, drinking water here is not a trendy good for you fad as recommended by a health agency, but a fact of trying to stay alive. Talk with anyone on the frontline and the conversation inevitably turns to urine, colors and amounts are discussed with strangers, stand a piss tube (a plastic PVC pipe into the ground, serves as a urinal, with a piece of gauze over to stop the flies and wasps going down it) and you compare amounts discharged.

This entry will run over a few entries as the story is long and has like a book many chapters, but there is no end, for the war here has no end. More will die, more will be injured.

The “Read Board” of 2/3 Marines newsletter has a 10x8 photo of a colleague who lost both his legs in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion with two prosthetic limbs learning how to walk again, he looked no older than 20.

They have an expression at the frontline called “River City” whereby in the event of a fellow Marine being killed or injured then all communication with the outside world is severed for them, no phone calls, no Internet. The next of kin must first learn of the casualty from a knock on their front door from an officer and normally a chaplain. When you prepare for any event the first details you give in order are; Surname, Christian name, last four digits of your Social Security Blood type and Religious Preference. The later reflects who will knock on your next of kin’s door.

The War in Afghanistan has become the second longest in US history, after Vietnam. There is no end date, no timetable, just a circle of mistakes and bad policy decisions by leaders, both Political and Military. The average age of an Infantry Marine fighting is between 19 and 20, when 9/11 happened they were 11 or 12 years old not even in High School. Most of the Marines I talked too on this trip cannot remember or recollect where they were when the World Trade Center in New York was attacked.

As most of them say, “ I just want to get some “ action.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Boots and Bare Feet

Boots and Bare Feet

En route Kandahar Afghanistan on US Air Force C130 Plane

August 3 2009

There is a strong push now to involve the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) in the frontline in the war against the Taliban, and yesterday we Correspondent Greg Palkot and I were flying down to Kandahar, where the ANA was to add to the forces down there.

I add that we were flying down there, because as we were in the air there was according to the loadmaster in the plane a “sustained rocket attack” on Kandahar Airport. In the back there was confusion as the flight dragged on, what was supposed to be an hour and change flight was getting up to two hours. Being strapped into the webbing seats with no window for reference the only sense that we were circling Kandahar was that every ten minutes the sun would beam through the port hole above us.

Finally the word was passed around that we were flying to Bagram Air Base. North of Kabul as the weather in Kabul had deteriorated to the extent that even a Air Force C130 could not land. Landing in Bagram presented another problem, as it is a secure US Military base and the Afghans are not permitted on the base without major security clearances.

An hour later we took off and headed back to Kabul as the winds had dropped. And the ANA who took off in the morning expecting to be deployed out of Kandahar in the South found themselves back in Kabul.

Our adventures were to take on another level.

The initial impression of the ANA deployment is more confusing than logical. Only a third of them had any sort of uniform, the rest dressed in traditional Sharwa kamisa’s and sandals. Looking down the plane it was the image of an army boot and bare feet, that will remain with me.

There were some classic moments in the hours that we spent together, like the fact that a few of the Afghans thought it would be good to get up and standing on the web seats try and look out of the portholes as we actually landed.

Then of course there is the issue of everyone sitting on the plane drinking water to avoid dehydration for a couple of hours. Human nature takes course and on a C130 the toilet facility can only be described as “primitive”. Standing on a platform, wearing body armor and trying to aim into a sucking sinkhole is not easy.

The first Afghan to come back was more shocked than anything else as the polite way here is to squat with modesty, not standing behind a screen with fifty plus people watching you.
By the time we had landed at Bagram, there were many crossed legs, and there was a polite but urgent trot to the edge of the flight line, where in accordance with modest tradition. Nature could be attended to, even strict security and guidelines can be transgressed the male to male knowledge that when a man has to go, he has to go.

In Afghanistan it is no different.

Update - we were meant to get a flight down South to Helmand this morning and billeted overnight in the Transit barracks. Kabul then experienced its first serious rocket/mortar attack in the lead up to the Elections, with 8 rockets landing in the city close to the airport. Result airport closes, after getting up at 5am, we were only to have our flight cancelled as we walked down the terminal stairs to the plane. Next plane 11:40pm, only a 14 hour wait, and given our penchance for attracting rockets in the last twenty four hours, lets see what the gremlins of the air have for us.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cheese & Processed Meat

Sunday August 2nd 2009

With very hour passing we are getting closer to embed and the fears that it brings with it. You cannot hide from your own soul and the fear that perhaps something bad will happen, July has been the worst month for casualties of troops here, the scary statistics are the ones that do not make headlines the injuries and number of amputations. The Military Hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand has had to call in extra Surgeons to deal with the sheer number of victims being bought in. The call for more doctors and surgeons seems to be ignored, as headlines continue to concentrate on the call for more troops.

I have written previously about nerves before going to the frontline, lucky omens and charms I carry. Am I nervous, the simple answer is yes. It is going to be tough and dangerous, each trip to Afghanistan seems to get that little bit more tense.

Packed cheese and canned processed meat for sandwiches for breakfast tomorrow, as they say its game time.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Pssst ... You wanna buy guns

Saturday Afternoon Kabul

Not exactly Mall cruising, but picking up some last minute supplies for the embed. Correspondent Greg Palkot needed some knee guards, myself simply another T Shirt, hopefully without any death head logos embalazzened on the back (which is quite common surprisingly with any t shirt bought in a war ravaged nation, with tens of thousands of Foreign Troops deployed here).

Conor Powell, the Fox News based Correspondent here took us down to the "Bagram Store". Bagram is the enormous Air Base just North of Kabul, and in fact was also used by the Russians during their very succesful campaign here twenty years ago.

The Bagram Store effectively finds what drops off the back of trucks heading to the base, and or somehow buys the rejects and overflow from Army Surplus Stores globally.
Where else can you easily find a Security Pass Holder from an Air Base in Tashkent.
The guys in the store were nice and friendly and more than willing to show us anything we took fancy to, and given that nothing has a price tag, customer service tends to be very attentive.

One of the store salesman struck up a conversation, wherein he told me that he had worked as a translator for NHK TV (Japan) and other Western Media. This is actually quite common here, and like all young men he seemed to be sizing me up to see if there was any potential for work.
Retail therapy completed we left the store. I had just walked out the door when the translator came out and passed a note into my hand, casually as if you were tipping someone. I fully expected it to be a name and telephone number in case we wanted a translator.

I took a couple of steps opened the note and lets say it wasn't call me if you need me note.

"AK weapons, M16 weapons and pistols"

Afghanistan a nation were shopping is... well never dull


Taliban Set to disrupt Elections in Afghanistan

Have started writing for the Fox News Channel website - have done three stories so far including this one -

More to come , currently in Kabul about to embed to Helmand for ten tough days