Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ocean City Man's Trip to Afghanistan: 'Dude, You Will Be a Target'

It’s interesting how a Big Adventure can seem so appealing when you’re sitting in a comfortable office, feet up. Trouble is, adventures get messy. They have to. Otherwise they wouldn’t really be adventures.

For me it started to get complicated on a muddy, snowy December afternoon in Kabul, Afghanistan, which is more than mile above sea level and about a century behind the rest of the world. I was on my way to a U.S. combat outpost to spend time with a trauma team that literally brings blown-up soldiers and civilians — including local women and children — back to life. My plan was to fulfill a longtime ambition to report from a war zone and to try to collect enough information to pitch a book to publishers.

The book may or may not happen, depending on how well I write and how the proposal is received, but I did learn at least three things: 1) The troops I spoke with, especially those at the “front,” were professional, dedicated and motivated; 2) Despite what you read, there is still a bloody war in Afghanistan; and 3) I’m very glad I’m a civilian — and so is the U.S. Marine Corps.

Trouble from the get-go

The first adrenaline-producing step was flying into Kabul’s commercial airport and successfully locating my pre-arranged driver. This was a relief because getting into a random cab in Kabul can get an American kidnapped.

The real fun started when the driver, whose English consisted of one phrase, “no problem,” dropped me off near the gate of the coalition military base in Kabul, driving as close as he could without risking getting machine-gunned by the guards. Walking past a group of Afghan guards warming themselves around the wood-fed fire in a 55-gallon drum, I took advantage of their smiling offer to warm my hands. Fifty yards closer to the base I found myself looking into the muzzle of a machine gun, trying to communicate with Hungarian soldiers who knew two words of English: “no” and “sorry.” My authorization letter from the U.S. Marines didn’t impress them. They shook their heads and pointed me back out toward the city.

This brought to mind something people had said more than once: “In Kabul, you will be a target.” Even my travel agent, who is from Afghanistan and now lives in the Washington D.C. area, said, “Dude, you get into the wrong car and they will take you and sell you.” I had wondered, before the trip started, how much my wife would be willing to pay to get me back — and didn’t want to find out.

But after borrowing a mobile phone from a very helpful Afghan who was walking by and making a few calls to my Marine contact inside the base, I did eventually get in. (Imagine walking up to somebody in Manhattan and asking if you could use their mobile phone — think it would happen? This guy just smiled and handed me his phone).

Then came the military legs of the trip. First came days of waiting, hoping for weather to clear so I could fly. My destination was Combat Outpost Shukvani, a tiny base near the Sangin River Valley. Not long before I arrived at Shukvani, a mortar round had landed on and ignited a fuel storage tank there. This wasn’t a supply base, like the others. Shukvani was in the middle of the war. Though it serves several purposes, it exists in large part as a place where lives are saved rather than taken. Spending time there was humbling. With that in mind I offer the following thoughts.

Afghanistan is still dangerous and bloody

Americans are taking on more of an advisory role, but the mayhem continues. At Shukvani, unlike other bases where I stayed, the ground shook every day from the detonations of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set off, unfortunately, by coalition convoys. The Marines on the base barely noticed. At night Taliban moved so close to the Concertina wire and machine gun positions that the base had to be blacked out — Taliban snipers are very good. By day, Taliban “shepherds” grazed their flocks nearby to study the base’s defenses, scattering corn to steer their sheep closer until helicopters shooed them away. One day a soldier from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (now an independent country and part of the coalition war effort) wandered away from a neighboring base to do who-knows-what and was immediately captured by Taliban.

Late one night, as I sat at a blacked-out observation post with a young Navy officer looking over the beautiful moonlit desert, listening to the occasional explosion and watching the falling stars, he said something I could not have understood a few days earlier: “This is the real deal.”

A lifetime of soft civilian living leads to military culture shock

Somewhere deep and unspoken, I always wondered how people in the military coped when they had to reenter the civilian world. I respected what they did, but I wondered if military regimentation somehow did some damage to their ability to navigate independently. Of all the clueless things I have thought over the decades, that was one that should be mounted on the mantle. The Marine and Navy personnel I encountered were as capable as the high-level executives I encounter on the civilian side making big decisions at multinational companies.

One big difference between decision-makers on the civilian side and in the military: At the front, nearly every service member I spoke to believed she or he had a great job. Some expressed doubts about whether the Afghan government would stand once we leave, but as individuals they believed in what they were doing and were proud to carry out their jobs professionally and diligently. The lieutenant who led a group that went out to dig IEDs from the ground to get evidence that could put bomb makers in jail; the nurses; the tank commander; the 21-year-old Marines assisting in the trauma unit and carrying automatic weapons — if they did their jobs well, lives were saved. They were proud to be so good at such important work. How many civilians can say that?

No wonder some vets feel a little lost when they come home. It’s miserable being deployed, but their wartime work might be the most important and rewarding thing they do, with the arguable exception of raising kids.

Meanwhile, I learned that my civilian way of figuring things out as I go along doesn’t work in a war zone. From what I saw, they say it once, they say it fast, and you are expected to understand and execute. My civilian reactions were way too slow. When boarding my first military flight, a British officer shouted out instructions to make sure we were wearing our shrapnel-resistant body armor (at least 40 pounds) and helmets, and that we tagged our bags correctly. I got the tagging part wrong, so my bags stayed. Later I was told the ordnance people probably blew them up, as they did with all unclaimed (and therefore suspicious) bags. As luck would have it my bags and I were eventually reunited … after I reprovisioned at Leatherneck, a city-like base with a nicely outfitted store. Lesson learned.

As a result of my brush with this strange culture, I’ve come to believe we civilians could learn quite a bit from the military. Maybe it’s time for some kind of compulsory national service for our young people. Even the youngest Marines showed maturity and leadership. I didn’t see any swagger. I saw quiet confidence. It was a pleasure to be around them. I might be a lot older, but they taught me.

World-class emergency medicine in a plywood shed? Believe it

Combat Outpost Shukvani is a spec of a base in a vast desert basin in Helmand Province, within easy view of the Sangin River, a Taliban stronghold. It is surrounded by people who would love to get inside and kill everybody. Taliban can and do step a few feet away from their homes, fire mortar rounds toward the base and then duck back inside, where they are shielded by their women and children. It was one of those rounds that ignited the fuel bladder.

Amid this mayhem works a group of U.S. surgeons, emergency room physicians, nurses and corpsmen doing amazing trauma work. Patients are brought in by helicopter, checked to make sure they are not carrying any bombs and within seconds are moved into a plywood shed of a trauma unit to receive care so advanced it would be the envy of any hospital in the world. Everything the team does has the cadence and rhythm of a fine orchestra. Every movement and spoken word is scripted and rehearsed and triple checked until the team can do its job in the dark – literally, in case the generators go out.

The injuries can be horrific, and it’s not just warriors. An IED doesn’t know who is stepping on it or driving over it, so in many cases the Taliban’s bombs kill or maim local women and children. Those are the cases that turn up in nightmares. Several people told me that if you deploy to a place like Shukvani, you come back different. I believe it. Two weeks after I was home, I was still waking up thinking I was in my tent, wondering if I had just heard an IED. It wasn’t exactly fear I was feeling, because I always felt safe on the base, thanks to the Marines. It’s not like I was out with the grunts, sleeping on the ground and patrolling by day in areas infested with trip wires, snipers, IEDs and mines. It was more like my mind had acclimated to being in my tent at night and listening at some semi-sleep level for explosions or, worse, sounds of small arms fire indicating the bad guys were trying to get through the perimeter. It made me wonder what a long deployment could do to a person’s head.

M*A*S*H all over again – no kidding

Within Combat Outpost Shukvani lives a tent full of doctors who seemed to be a mirror image of the hit TV show M*A*S*H, produced from 1975-83 and still seen in syndication. Keep in mind that Shukvani is a tiny base that offers none of the amenities of a place like Leatherneck. You could slow-jog around Shukvani in about eight minutes. At Leatherneck it would probably take an hour or two to drive around the perimeter. Leatherneck has plumbing and multiple chow halls with good food. Shukvani was built as a place with no running water (porta potties only) and no chow hall, only Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). The one luxury is electricity, supplied by generators and required for the medical unit.

Yet the surgeons’ tent — the M*A*S*H tent — featured a sink with running water driven by a small pump (a dental sink procured from … never mind where it came from), two microwave ovens, a satellite dish to bring in broadband Internet, a Vonage phone, individual sleeping quarters walled off by sound-deadening blankets and a plasma TV to show, via DVD, hits like “Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad.” There were home-cooked dinners every night, along with warm fresh bread and desserts like cherry cobbler, thanks to supplies mailed by friends and family. iPads and laptops delivered words and images about the outside world. The only thing missing was a still.

Remember the wisecracking Hawkeye Pierce character in M*A*S*H played by Alan Alda? That role was assumed by the officer in charge at Shukvani, Ralph Butler, a surgeon, Navy Commander and, in his civilian spare time, an Ironman competitor. He held court at the head of the dinner table, acting like he despised being in charge but doing a great job in his unconventional way. He didn’t bring his Hawkeye-approved Hawaiian shirt on this deployment, but his comments could have come right from the show, which he loves. When somebody noted that fewer causalities had been coming in, he quickly said, “Yeah, business has dropped since we took the billboards down.”

The thoughtful, quieter, hyper-intelligent, family-focused character on the show named B.J. Hunnicutt (played by Joseph “Mike” Farrell) was there too. I know him well. He is Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Maher, the unit’s orthopedic surgeon. Jon – all 6’7” of him – is my wife’s sister’s first-born. He’s the main reason I was able to visit Shukvani. When Jon was first deployed to Shukvani, he would write great emails to relatives describing his experiences. I wrote back saying I always wanted to work in a war zone, but that he was such a good writer he had it covered. Soon Jon was kind enough to send me the forms to apply to visit. I never thought there was a chance for approval. It’s not like booking Cancun. But apparently it helps to have a Lieutenant Commander and a best-selling writer (my partner in the book project) on your side.

Jon introduced me around the base as Uncle Pat, saying I had stopped by to visit during the holidays, as if I had driven from Ocean City to Philly to say hello. Everybody got a kick out of that.

I’m not at liberty to tell you everything I witnessed and heard about when spending time with Jon and the M*A*S*H unit, but I will say each cast member had his own entertaining story: the nuclear sub veteran turned anesthesiologist; another anesthesiologist who doubled as the tent’s IT person; the surgeon who flew numerous combat missions as an A6 bombardier/navigator over Vietnam before going to medical school and volunteering for an amazing seven deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan … these are the kinds of people you find in a war zone. There’s more, but my “classified” drawer will be locked tight until this group exits the service. That’s when I can write the things that will give the book life. However, keep a sharp eye out on YouTube for a funny and well-produced Shukvani parody of the “Gangnam Style” video.

It’s the little things

Plumbing, a real bed where special forces people aren’t screaming in their sleep, proximity to loved ones, the ability to come and go … those are some of the appreciations I brought back. By far the most difficult part of the trip was being apart from my family. I was humbled to experience the good cheer of deployed solders. When you’re far from home and a soldier says “Merry Christmas” with a smile, it means a lot.

A beautiful country and a friendly people

I’m not a big world traveler, but I’ve been around enough to recognize the False Smile Syndrome. This occurs when somebody is benefitting from U.S. money, so they feel compelled to smile at you. However, their eyes say something different, like, “Listen — I’ll take your money but it would be fine with me if my buddy leaves you bleeding in an alley later without your cash and passport.” This is not what I encountered in Afghanistan. The locals were friendly and helpful, and their country is beautiful, though stark.

It’s a shame few outsiders will see Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush mountains, which stretch from central Afghanistan into northern Pakistan, top off at 25,289 feet. They are spectacularly forbidding. Just flying over them is scary. I would not want to be an infantry soldier who has to fight in them.

As pretty as it is, conflict is in Afghanistan’s DNA. Unprotected by oceans and sitting exposed in a historically strategic area, its history is written in blood. The failed nine-year Soviet invasion, which began in 1979, is only one example. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great marched triumphantly in, only to encounter very strong resistance in the tribal areas. He is said to have remarked that the land was “Easy to march into, hard to march out of.” Sound familiar?

I think I really did click my heels

When my flight to Dubai finally went wheels up, I was a happy guy. I’m very glad to come back to a job where nobody is trying to blow me up.

Many troops told me they find it funny when they hear us civilians complaining about waiting in traffic or having to work a few extra hours a week. When you’re deployed in a war zone, you pray to get back to that kind of thing. I hope I can continue appreciating what’s important.

Was it worth it?

If I’m able to write about the Shukvani medical team in a way that does it justice, maybe. If I can also help people understand the amazing dedication and professionalism of the Marines, Naval officers and other troops I encountered, then yes.

Will I be going back? No. Not unless a publisher offers me a BIG advance. I am in awe of foreign correspondents who inject themselves into the middle of mayhem. It’s one thing to hang out at a combat outpost, protected by Marines, with the only real danger being the occasional mortar round. But to purposely put yourself into the middle of a revolution, with no weapons? That is you-have-got-to-be-kidding material. While I was in Afghanistan, NBC's Richard Engel was dragged from his car in Syria by a dozen gunmen and subjected to a mock execution before escaping during a firefight at a checkpoint. Also during my trip, a U.S. contractor walking down the street in Kabul was shot dead by an apparent Taliban sympathizer who had managed to infiltrate the Afghan police force. Now you know why I was scared while I was traveling on the civilian side. With armed Marines: good. By myself: bad.


Throughout my working life, I had the idea that a writer should work in a war zone at some point. Thanks a lot, Mr. Hemingway. But there was no bravery involved in this trip. It was fear that made me go. I was scared of missing a Big Adventure, messy or not.
Ocean City


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