16 June 2011

The next trip will call for a passport

Continuing from my previous post, here are my last few observations from the south, with slightly more chronological coherence...

My gateway to the south was Kandahar Air Field (KAF).  For a major movement hub, it presents a startlingly high number of absurd obstacles to its transient population.  Of particular interest to me was the Hellerian conundrum of badges.  KAF has a specially issued badge, without which one cannot wander willy-nilly around the base.  Instead, you must be escorted at all times.  This includes getting to the badging cell across the street.  Furthermore, the DSN (landline phone) is likewise beyond the un-badged quarantine.  So, if one arrives at, say, 3am, and the individual you expect to pick you up isn’t answering their cell (as it’s 3am), you suffer the exquisite torture of being able to see your only means of calling support and the badging office, without being able to access either. 

My night of sleeping in the terminal was somewhat redeemed by the good weather (I ended up nesting at the outbound terminal, which is outdoors) and excellent people watching it afforded.  At one point, a pick-up rumbled by, towing about four six-foot long missiles on a trailer, crossing the path of a minivan with a ‘baby on board’ bumper sticker.  Now, if only the sticker had been on the missiles…

I did finally manage to make it to Leatherneck, the American corner of the flagship base complex in Helmand.  I apologize for not having any photos, but Leatherneck is a Marine base, and they’re extremely camera shy.  Really.  If they catch you with unregistered electronic equipment, it’s declared a security risk and whisked off to what down-range depot only heaven knows.  I had to stash everything in the Site Manager’s office for the duration of my visit. 

It was fun to notice how, even as this unwieldy complex was fairly homogenous (everything is a tent.  And I do mean everything), each arm had some distinctive features.  The British-run Bastion, for example, was the place to go for coffee, even if the carrot cake had overtones of cardboard.  Meanwhile, the Afghan section had round-abouts, which are especially hilarious when navigated by top-heavy tactical vehicles.  My favourite sub-base, though, might have been Camp Tombstone, home to a Danish OMLT.  There, the MRAPs are parked in the OK Corral and the linguists stay at the Bella Union.  I felt the joke was lost on them.

There are a few other points of interest for the next time you find yourself with some time to kill in Helmand, first among them the poppy located immediately outside the front gate.  It is irrigated by base sewage water.  I suppose it adds to the aroma.  If, however, the finished product is more your thing, you might try hanging with the local national truck drivers, who apparently like to get all doped up in the holding pen outside the ECP just before they come on the FOB.  Leatherneck also boasts a top-flight auto shop; I saw what was possibly the best after-manufacture mod ever – a dump truck with a turret.  West Coast Customs has nothing on these guys. 

In the interest of winning hearts and minds, the Marines have also set up a Pashtu-language radio station.  While airing the latest music out of Iran and India (I didn’t ask about what kind of licensing rights they enjoyed), its programming includes PSAs about child trafficking, VOA reports, and readings from the Quran.  The station also has two call-in lines – one to request music, and the other to report insurgent activity.  Apparently, it had been used to stymie three planned attacks in the week before my arrival (insert moment of pride here for our linguists who comprise the station staff). 
I was slightly stealthier at Dwyer and stole a few photos

My ultimate site visit was to Camp Dwyer, a deceptively large Marine base to the southwest.  The temperature frequently climbed to heights of 120 degrees, the heat wrapping around you and drowning you like water.  Like Leatherneck, everything in is a tent, up to and including the mosque.  I was hoping for a mini canvas minaret, but no soap.  

Even so, Dwyer is not without its distractions.  The British UAV pilots are extremely skillful with RC planes.  They and the American UAV fliers have miniature dog fights, which the Union Jack invariably wins.  This might have something to do with the fact the UK’s UAVs are little more than RC planes themselves.  They sound like Estes rockets when they launch and have a biplane buzz when they fly overhead.  My favourite memory of Dwyer, however, came at the gym.  It was hot and humid, the air so thick with testosterone it was a bit difficult to engage in pranayama.  Someone’s iPod provided the sound track, a driving mix of Disturbed, Lil Wayne, Linkin Park, and Taylor Swift.  Wait, what?  200 Marines turned in unison to stare at the speakers, the same look of bemused incredulity on their faces.  Then they turned back to their weights, muttering under their breath “it’s a love story - Baby just say yes…”

I eventually made my way back up to Kabul on an Australian flight out of Kandahar.  Aussies seem to prefer the defensive technique of terrain flying, a somewhat more topsy-turvey method than other nationalities that go for altitude.  The Special Forces sergeant to my right (the trip was oddly sandwiched by SF.  I approved of the symmetry) regaled me with story of his first such flight.  It had, by his account, been much worse, and two of his team members ended up vomiting into their Kevlars.  I shudder to think about the next time they had a mission.  I might have chalked it up to a combat loss and tried to avail myself of a new one.

12 June 2011

To Guadalcanal by way of Little Hethrow

I kicked off my final road trip auspiciously – by offending the sensibilities of a Special Forces Colonel.  With horror etched on his face, he grabbed my New Yorker out of my hands as I was sitting in the KAIA terminal and demanded to know what I was doing reading this rubbish.  Once upon a time, it was a good magazine; now it was a fringe liberal rag and would turn my brain to mush.  Given that the article I was reading was about Christian Louboutin, I didn’t have much standing to argue the second charge (bit of a tangent here, but Monsieur Louboutin associates the word comfy with a sad, lonely, puffy woman holding a big bottle of alcohol and wearing clogs.  And here I just thought it was after-work sweats).  Several of his soldiers, meanwhile, were huddled together, thoroughly engrossed in an iPod shrilly asserting that cap-and-trade policies cost more than the annual defense budget and were in fact the linchpin of a global plot to weaken the United States.  Brain mush comes in myriad guises, sir.
Helmand - it's a beach with no water

This turned out to be more or less the theme of my outing, as a series of delays, frustrating interactions with linguists, exhaustion, and intense heat definitely fried some of my synapses.  My enduring impression of southern Afghanistan is of a dust globe – think all of the swirling motion of a snow globe, but decidedly grainier.  Rattled as I was, my notes and observations were a bit more obtuse than usual (or they might always be this random.  Sometimes it’s hard to judge from this side of the looking glass).  But here goes – some random musings from my jaunt through Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

I ended up passing quite a bit of time on NATO bases during a trip that was ostensibly to Marine-dominated outposts.  In fact, I spent two days at three different terminals before I ever even hit Helmand, bouncing from Kabul to Bagram to Kandahar and finally to Leatherneck.  One leg even saw me strapped into a plane, IBA and Kevlar on, gear palletized, before I was yanked off to make way for some VIPs and delayed into the wee hours of the morning.  MilAir, I love you so.  What with all the opportunity I had to make comparisons, I did notice how seriously NATO bases take female security.  The tent locks at KAIA are so fierce that I actually got locked inside the tent.  Even so, I do rather enjoy hanging around NATO installations.  When I finally escaped the transient tent, I stumbled out into a gaggle of Swedish commandos, all sun bathing.  Never have I found bearded men so delicious. 

Overall, Coalition forces seem to approach their deployments with an airiness that Americans, when housed alongside them, likewise adopt.  They also co-opt some of the more obviously European mannerisms, like excessive smoking and Puma-wearing.  Likewise, Afghans, when housed with units they like, will start acting like Americans.  They curse with startling fluency, make dirty jokes, say roger and pop smoke…  Some even go so far as to start collecting tattoos.  The lucky ones had a benevolent tattoo artist in their unit – there are lots of artists, though few willing to work on linguists – while others went local.  The quality difference is…noticeable.  However, I have yet to see an Afghan act like an Italian.  I wonder about the directionality of the equation.

NATO bases, perhaps because of the language barriers, also have some of the best signs I’ve ever seen.  I need to preface this by admitting that I love signs.  I think it’s amazing how we communicate so much information though terse sentence fragments and iconography.  For example, KAIA sported some posters reminding me that, in the advent of a rocket attack, I should don my body armour and lay flat on my belly.  As confusing as the Taliban may find planking (God knows it baffles me), I don’t think it’s sufficient to make them stop.  The British helio terminal at the multi-national base complex in Helmand is a self-styled ‘Little Heathrow’. 
Fair warning at KAIA

Coalition bases are not alone in their quirks, of course.  I’d never noticed it before (I’m not one for energy drinks, but turns out there’s nothing ingesting 40000% of your daily value of vitamin B to heighten your powers of observation at 2 am), but the man/woman stick figures on the restroom signs at the BAF terminal are exactly the same.  They’re both wearing pants, rifle held casually to one side; mirror images in different colour schemes.  Meanwhile, when you land at Dwyer, a rather tremendous welcome sign announces that “The Marines have landed…the situation is now well in hand”.  As if to reinforce that notion, the street names are Al Anbar, Guadalcanal, Chosin and a number of other Marine conquests of yore. 
Force multipliers at KAF (apparently these barriers are leased.  Good financial sense, that)

When I did finally arrive in Helmand, a series of heat-induced power outages revealed to me that I find dark bathrooms terrifying (this trip was surprisingly introspective).  If I ever end up writing a horror film, it will involve either Taliban vampires (for campy horror) or bathrooms with burned out lights (…probably also campy horror, but my fear will be genuine).  I imagine that it wouldn’t have both, though.  Allah knows what happens in the female ablution centers; the Talibs don’t want to.  Darkened bathrooms, however, are better than none.  I spent nearly a week at Camp Dwyer and never managed to find a female latrine.  Showers, yes.  ‘Female Only’ marked porta-potties, sure.  Fourteen male latrines within walking distance of my tent, no problem.  But actual female latrines were MIA.  Rumor has it there had been one, but they relocated the day I arrived.  To where, no one knew.  When I got to KAF and was again able to wash my hands in running water, it seemed a small miracle.  I really shouldn’t complain, though.  One of our female linguists described to me how, assigned to a Marine FET, she had spent 7 months at a COP with no running water at all.  It was a bit discomforting how very similar MREs and bag-based field latrines look.  Incidentally, she was turning in her resignation.   

While the Marines might rough it, Army ladies travel in style.  In nearly every transient tent I passed through, my bunk-mates enjoyed pillows and fitted sheets to go compliment their sleeping bags.  Their uniforms and towels were neatly hung up, curling irons set out for use in the morning.  I do not take any such amenities with me when I travel and consequently feel like a heathen and the world’s most inefficient packer.  Their rucks had to have been blessed by Mary Poppins.