Afghanistan

The following Blogs written while on assignment in Southern Afghanistan first appeared on NineMSN – ‘Our Man In Afghanistan’ series, April 2007.

‘SHOT AT BY THE TALIBAN’

Given a choice between a C130 flight or Chinook to Kandahar, everyone in the group threw their hands up for the Chinook ride.

You quickly learn traveling with the military – there is usually no choice, so there were smiles all-round when we were told we’d be taking the chopper back to Kandahar. From a reporters stand point it was a great opportunity to have a look at Afghanistan from the air. The danger never crossed my mind.

‘Skip’ and Myself standing in front of our ‘lucky’ chopper!

Awaiting for the Chinook to arrive, two US Special Forces soldiers rode up on their quad bikes inquiring what are bunch of civilians were doing on their heli-pad.

One American recognized ‘Capt. Lochie’ our escort guy and a few insults later we were all standing around chatting – no worries. Sounds odd, but it was like we were on holiday and we’d stopped them for directions and before long the conversation moves to .. “So were are you from?”

The soldier we were talking to was from Montana. You could easily imagine him in his dodge pickup, out hunting deer and drinking Budweiser. Believe him or not, he was unusually frank about the job he was doing in Afghanistan. A survivor of fire fights with the Taliban, his view was simple – “we’re not going to win this thing. They don’t want us here”.

Ten minutes later the Aussie CH47 Chinook touched down unloading Afghan National Army soldiers, local guides and a couple of American’s in civilian clothes carrying M-16’s. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know who those guys were.

Journalist Mark Wilton – ‘Can you smell smoke?’ ‘Don’t worry .. it’s the flares!’

Frantically, the Chinook’s load master was waving us onboard. Kitted in our flack jackets and helmets, it took a few trips to get our 10 bags on the chopper.

In hindsight, this flight felt different. It was cold and rushed – taking off the pilot climbed steep and floored it. Jeff was at the back, camera pointing out over the rear door gunners shoulder. Before long we were in the mountains – doing 300 kilometers an hour, no higher than 100 meters off the ground. It was an exhilarating ride. I struggled to look out the Chinook’s porthole sized windows, the cliff faces were so close it was like you could reach out and touch them.

It was interesting to see people living up in the mountains. Banking over one ridge line, we startled a herd of sheep – which bolted and soon after we were flying over villages carved into the side of the mountain.

It’s likely that it was from one of these villages that we were fired at, by what‘s thought to be a rocket propelled grenade. I didn’t know we had been shot at, no one onboard knew – not even the Aussie crew.

It’s been suggested the RPG missed the Chinook by twenty meters and others reported seeing flashes coming from the hills. We’re these reflections off mirrors? A form of third world communication or was it heavy machine gun fire targeting us? All I know, is that Afghanistan is a dangerous place.

The Commander of the Chinook detachment, LT COL Kevin Humphreys admitted they get targeted by RPG’s around once a month. That sounds like a conservative figure considering the missions the Australian aircrews fly in Afghanistan.

25 minutes after take off from Tarin Kowt we landed at Kandahar Airport and even unaware of the RPG attack, I was relieved to be on the ground.

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‘OUTSIDE THE WIRE’

Safely seated in the middle of a convoy of armor plated trucks (Bushmasters) and ASLAV’s we departed Camp Holland for a small village called Barekai, around 6 kilometers away.

The 7th Royal Australian Regiment soldiers had gone ahead – making sure as best you can that there were no surprises like an ambush, mines or more concerning an IED (improvised explosive device) waiting for us to pass.

Many of the infantry soldiers had already been living in the field for four days – scouting the area, preparing for our visit.

Along the bumpy dirt road, locals pulled over to allow the convoy to pass and children would run from near-by fields to stand and wave – hoping you’d throw them a lolly or something useful.

It was the first time we had been exposed to Afghanistan. Women were walking around fully covered in berka’s, sheep herders were in the fields. It was great to finally see the people Australia is trying to help.

‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’

In the village the engineers were busy building a roof onto the side of a mosque. Kids were running around, there was a sense of excitement in the air. The only English word the children know is ‘Bic’. As in ‘Bic’ pen. Apparently when the American’s first arrived in this area after toppling the Taliban Government in 2001, the US soldiers would hand out ‘Bic’ pens – so now the kids have come to expect it.

The villagers are grateful for the help and assistance the Australian soldiers are giving. However it’s odd when you speak with a local through a translator and ask what do they think of us? The answer is usually to the effect – “Australian’s very good, but we need more help – can you come back and concrete the floor next time”.

’Under promise and over deliver’ is the engineers motto. These locals probably think, well we should try and get as much as possible before the troops leave and the next foreign force invades.

‘Skip on patrol’

A highlight of the day was ‘hoofing’ it on a patrol with a ‘brick’ (4) soldiers through the village, along a river bed, across orchards and down alleyways. The four guys from 7 RAR – average age around 25 were happy to have us along. They’d more than likely down the same patrol a couple of times before. I found out later that we were tracked most of the way by a sniper team, not a bad thing to have looking over your shoulder.

Near a road block manned by Afghan National Army soldiers, a group of children came up – this time offering to trade home made roti bread for US$1 or a ‘Bic’. One of the soldiers brought some bread, telling me – “you should try it, it’s really good. It’s the first thing I’ve eaten all day”.

Now, it’s moments like this that catching some horrible belly bug goes through your mind. But this is what being a reporter is all about, taking risks, living life, trying new things and having a go. So I ripped off a layer of the bread and it tasted great.

The gear list from Army head quarters didn’t mention anything about bringing your own cup. So, standing there in the Afghani field – hanging for a hot drink, I feel like a city slicker out in the ‘boonies’ until a soldier was kind enough to cut the top off a plastic water bottle and I used that as a cup.

Chatting with kids from the village ‘Barekai’ in Southern Afghanistan

These were the senior grunts of 7RAR. With 3 Bushmaster vehicles parked in a triangle for protection, their job was to protect the command vehicle overseeing the whole security operation.

Lunch was a choice between Australian or American MRE’s (meals ready to eat). We went the American option because you can heat them up using a plastic bag containing chemicals – you just add water. Chemicals inside the bag react with the water generating heat.

Also, the Yank MRE’s are like buying a show bag at the Easter Show – you’re never really sure what you are going to get inside. With a variety of choices including ‘vegetarian’ to ‘beef pattie’, Jeff chose the ‘cheese and bacon tortellini’ and I went the ’Cajun chicken’. Having lived on MRE’s before, I was hoping to get the pound cake as desert, besides the other goodies like chocolate, coffee, toilet paper, matches. Unfortunately no pound cake, I ended up with a processed cheese spread thing to be eaten with an American version of a Sao biscuit. I gave the spread a miss, fearing I’d be clogged up for a week!

Finally, one thing you learn on embedded trips like this is that the little things matter. A text message from your girlfriend back home or a hot shower in the morning can change your outlook on the whole day. The same goes for a BBQ that’s thrown for the soldiers each Saturday night at Camp Russell. Steak, chicken, beef patties, even lobster tail was on the menu the night we were there. A normal Aussie backyard meal in a place that is far from normal.

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 ‘KAMP HOLLAND’

Landing at Kamp Holland, the base for the Reconstruction Task Force – the first thing you notice is the remoteness and the dust. 7 kilometers wide, surrounded  by reinforced dirt berms, and hundreds of kilometers of razor wire it feels like something out of a western movie. We’re the US Cavalry on the inside, waiting for the Indians to attack.

Meeting us at the airstrip is Captain Lachlan Simond the army public affairs officer. Enthusiastic, ’Lockie’ as he becomes known is more like a new recruit than an officer – running around taking photos of two heavy armored bulldozers rolling of an American C17 heavy lift plane.

‘THE TRAVELING PACK’

Home for the next three days is Camp Russell, named after Special Forces Sgt Andrew Russell who was killed by a land mine in 2002.

It’s a mixture of wooden huts cut down the middle to contain four rooms with single beds. Nothing flash, but it’s warm and safe. The first thing you’re told is the location of the bunkers. The lecture goes something like – “we haven’t had any lobbed at us since October – but just in case.“ You learn the siren to signal incoming or an indirect attack is a world war two era – “woooooorrrrrrr”. Importantly, the other siren is an intermittent version of the same sound, now that signals a direct attack on the base – i.e.: the enemy charging the perimeter, trying to fight their way into the base! Welcome to Tarin Kowt.

370 Australian soldiers live at the base, a mixture of engineers and combat soldiers. The combat soldiers job is to protect the engineers. They go out and scout the area the engineers will be working in, then set up a perimeter so the engineers can go about reconstructing.

‘A Brew’

In the rec-room later grabbing a ‘brew‘ (military term for coffee or tea), everyone above the rank of private is keen to have a chat. I suppose the younger guys are suspicious of reporters, where as the older soldiers enjoy speaking to someone new, someone from home, someone from somewhere other than Kamp Holland. It’s not that they want to give you a big scoop or have a whinge – I think it’s just to hear someone else’s point of view. After 4 months listening to your best mates’ same old stories you can understand why.

Lunch .. don’t discount the importance of lunch. On trips like these it’s usually a case of fill up when you can and a much as you can, because you don’t know how long it will be before you’ll get a chance to eat again.

Interesting is the best way to describe the food at the Dutch mess. As you enter there is a bank of hand basins making it compulsory to wash your hands before eating, a good thing. Cafeteria style inside you have a choice of hot food, salad bar and deserts. On the menu today is something labeled – ‘spare ribs’. Around 15 centimeters long, they’re shaped like spare ribs, but there is no bone. It tastes like a spicy meatloaf. Jeff and I end up grabbing two pieces of bread and making a sandwich out of it.

While the food wasn’t flash, the Dutch mess made the best coffee of the trip. It’s funny how an automatic coffee machine in the middle of no-where pumped out double espresso’s as good if not better than my local coffee shop back in Darwin.

Back up at Camp Russell we’re shown the bathroom and shower block. Built only months ago – a Warrant Officer explains, ’they’re actually brand new – it’s just the style of Afghani painting that makes them look old!’

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‘BILLABONG FLATS’

Inbound from OZ, the first place you land in the Middle East is the central Australian base – ‘Billabong Flats’. It’s like the transit lounge of a bus station where soldiers grab their guns and gear, then jump the next flight to ‘wonderful’ destinations like Iraq or Afghanistan.

Here we get issued body armour – it’s blue in colour which good or bad, makes you stand out in a crowd. Weighing around 8 kilograms the vest is uncomfortable, heavy and bulky. You’re told the ceramic plates are capable of stopping a bullet from an AK-47 as well as shrapnel from a mortar round, so the vest quickly becomes your best friend.

In a large garage a supply corporal offers us all kinds of wet weather equipment – coats, pants, fleecy undershirts and the ’Puff-Daddy’. The ’Puff-Daddy’ is a nickname we’ve given to a hooded down jacket, it’s no fashion statement but gees it’s keeps you warm. This time of year the temperature in Tarin Kowt fluctuates between 17 degrees on a sunny day to zero and rain in minutes. At night … it’s cold. I grabbed all the goodies – from experience it’s always better to be over prepared, especially when heading into an area you’ve never been before, let alone a war zone.

'Cameraman Jeff Kehl and Myself on our way to Kandahar Airfield'

‘Cameraman Jeff Kehl and Myself on our way to Kandahar Airfield’

Bags bulging, we were greeted by a medic who wanted us to sign consent forms, giving permission to use a new ‘you-beaut’ trauma bandage, in the event you end up with a ‘sucking chest’ wound. Made from crab shells and a bit bigger than the bottom of a coke can – it acts as a second skin and coagulates in a wound, stopping you from bleeding to death basically. I signed the form thinking – at least with the bandage I’d have a fighting chance, I’ll worry about the allergic reaction later!

Back at the transit lounge or patio area were a bunch of guys waiting for a ride into Baghdad. They’re sitting around in chairs chatting, I say Hi – being a reporter you’re never really welcome, so I continue walking to the ‘welfare’ room. It’s an American

'Cameraman Jeff Kehl in action'

‘Cameraman Jeff Kehl in action’

term to describe a room where you can make a phone call or get onto the internet, a place to keep in touch with home. Inside a Captain recognizes me from Darwin and strikes up a bit of a conversation. He‘d just had a couple of days out of the Baghdad ‘Green Zone’ and was about to go back in.

One of the perks at the ‘welfare’ room for the soldiers and guests, is free internet access and phone calls to Australia. Jeff, the cameraman/editor who I’m traveling with was already making use of the hospitality on offer.

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Above is a feature story on the work of the Reconstruction Task Force 1 soldier who are running a ‘trade school’ to teach local Afghan men skills such as carpentry.

‘HURRY UP AND WAIT’

Following the rocket attack on the Chinook, we ended up having to cool our heals in Kandahar for three days, while a C130 could be found to get us back OZ.

Life on base at Kandahar Airport is tough – there is very little to do. Home was an

'Home Sweet Home'

‘Home Sweet Home’

enormous tent 25 meters and 60 meters, filled with double bunk beds. An enormous generator pumped in warm air to stop us freezing at night, but there was no off switch, so during the day it became very toasty inside.

John Hunter Farrell, the eccentric publisher of ’Australian and NZ Defender Magazine’ – who is a walking encyclopedia on everything military, patches, guns, tanks, battles – he knows it all. ‘Skip’ as I nicknamed him became our ambassador, stopping, chatting to or accosting anyone who walked past the entrance to the tent. These trips are a ‘mish-mash’ of TV and Newspaper journalist all thrown together for a two week tour. You get to know people and ’Skip’ is cool.

'Anyone got a story they haven't told yet?'

‘Anyone got a story they haven’t told yet?’

Housed in the tent next door were a squadron of troops from the  British 2nd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment. They were about to head across to Bastain in Southern Afghanistan. It’s not a good place to be – not sure if there is a better way to put it. Soldiers are dying there. Looking at them, they’d all been issued new uniforms and packs, you could still see the creases down the back of their camoflarge pants.

I ust’a run into the ‘lads’ having a shave or brushing my teeth. They were young, one would be telling the other not to forget his flack jacket or helmet. I told one guy we’d been up at Tarin Kowt, he asked if it was ‘hot’ up there – meaning was there fighting? I said no – then he said he was going to Bastain and he expected it to be ‘game on’. The language of war – he was probably 26.

Stuck at Kandahar, eating became the highlight of the day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was a chance to get out of the tent and sample some good old home style American cooking. The caterers did a good job actually, serving around 15 thousand people everyday. Corn dogs, Southern Fried Grits, burgers, fish .. it was all there, not the sort of place to eat if you’re

John Hunter-Farrell ‘Skip’ and Myself

worried about packing on the pounds.

In our final meal at the mess hall, we sat with an Australian Brigadier who was reading a book. I approached the table with my tray, thinking he was the Australian chaplain or priest. As I sat down next to him, I saw an American M4 assault rifle resting on his lap and realized he was no priest. The M4 is the weapon used by the Australian Special Forces. The Brigadier asked if we were surprised by the Prime Minister’s visit to Afghanistan the day before, followed by a bit of small talk then he politely left. Surprised about the PM‘s trip? I’d just like to know what a special forces Brigadier is doing in Kandahar, when the Government is yet to announce if  SAS and 4RAR soldiers will be returning to Afghanistan to confront an expected summer offensive by the Taliban.

R and R on the base was a coffee shop called ‘Green Beans’, whose claim to fame was having stores in Afghanistan, Isbekistan, Kurdistan – (all the ’stans’) Iraq and Kuwait.

Near-by was an area called the ’Boardwalk’, it had a burger king, pizza hut and subway. Sounds fancy, but it’s not. There was even a carpet shop, where ’Jahan Shan’ will happily sell you an allegedly hand made Afghani rug.

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‘THE BUS STOP’

‘The Bus Stop’ is an unusual name given to the 10 by 3 meter shacks around the Ali Al Salmen Airbase where you are permitted to light up. US soldiers pile into them, sitting side by side on bench seats running along both walls, puffing away – shooting the breeze, then toss their butts into a tin can in the center. It keeps the base free of cigarette butts I suppose.

‘Skip’ and Jeff were inside a ‘Bus Stop’ after breakfast one morning, chatting to a couple of Privates from Chicago – I don’t smoke, but interested to hear what they had to say .. I jumped on ‘The Bus‘, sitting there with a coffee to have something to do with my hands.

Everyone talks about the war in Iraq. Most soldiers are either transiting through the base on their way back to the States for 2 weeks R and R, on the way home after finishing their tour or waiting to go into Iraq. You don’t actually ask how the war is going or what they do, you just say something like – ’are you meeting many un-friendlies out there? And before you know it … you’re getting a first hand account of what it’s like to drive down an Iraqi street, knowing that an IED could forever change your life at any minute.

'Mandoza, Hughes, Spencer and Myself - waiting for the BUS!'

‘Mandoza, Hughes, Spencer and Myself – waiting for the BUS!’

I sat next to a guy named ‘Mandoza’. His platoon had been hit by an IED a few weeks earlier. He described how a pile of bricks they’d been driving past for months blew up one day – ‘they must have unstacked the pile, planted the IED and put it back together unchanged, because it looked exactly the same.’ 26, ‘Mandoza’s’ wife and two children are living in Germany on an American base there. He said ‘my kids are now reading and getting an education, they’re better off there than at a school in Chicago’.

Unlike the Australian soldiers who are well paid, you learn quickly that many of the US soldiers come from poor backgrounds and joined the military to try and get a leg up. A better life for their kids, an education or health benefits for their family.

We spent 24 hours at Ali Salem – transiting before catching a commercial flight back to Darwin. The accommodation was a tent, this time with 6 bunk beds. The half dozen soldiers inside got a bit of a surprise when a bunch of journalists walked in looking for a place to sleep. Immediately one asked if we were the guys who’d been shot at in the Chinook? And if they could see the footage – we showed them and it broke the ice. The attack on the chopper gave us automatic acceptance or credibility in the eyes of the grunts.

Unfortunately for us, only the top bunks were free. This meant having to climb up, usually waking the guy sleeping below. Also, the roof of the tent was only 20 centimeters from your pillow so when the wind blew the canvas would occasionally hit you in the face. It wasn’t the best sleep I’ve had, but what are you going to do? Just laugh it off – there are more important things to worry about. Now it’s a good story to tell.

The next day I headed back to ’The Bus Stop’, keen to hear more about the American kids who were fighting the war in Iraq. I’ve thought about it and politicians say what they need to in order to get reelected, officers worry about getting promoted while the grunts just tell ya the way it is. At an area near a McDonalds and basketball court I met a group of Army soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division, based at Colorado. I explained who I was, an Aussie journalist and that I wanted a photo of the ‘The Bus Stop’. They all piled out saying – ’I want to be in it too’. Here I met Private Hughes and Spencer. (Photo – Spencer is to my right and Hughes is next to him) Both had joined up 8 months ago and are part of George W. Bush’s 20,000 strong troop build up, a final attempt to try and bring peace to Iraq.

Hughes and Spencer knew when they joined up that they would eventually end up in Iraq. Spencer just didn’t think it would be so soon. With their M16’s slung across their chests we chatted. They would be heading to Remade, like the Brits in Afghanistan heading to Bastain – Remade wasn’t a good place to be going. I asked if they were worried, both said ‘Na’. I told them Australia had had only one combat death so far in Iraq. They were surprised, but grateful that we were there helping out. Hughes said yer – ‘we’re shouldering the load out there’. As I write, the US has had .. .. .. combat deaths since 2003. But a figure that’s not reported that often is the number of seriously injured soldiers that are maimed or incapacitated and unable to return to duty. It’s called DRT (did not return), that number is currently … …, in all .. … have been wounded.

While there is no doubt about the sacrifice Australian men and women are making in Southern Iraq and Baghdad – it’s the American’s who are doing the hard yards. Hughes and Spencer now 19 and 18 were 12 when the Al Qeada terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center. 6 years on – watching them you notice there is nothing left of their cigarettes when they’re done. Each is smoked all the way down to the filter. Spencer told me he wasn’t a big fan of ‘The Bus Stop’, describing it as a pain being told where to smoke and he said it stops him smoking so much.

Hughes said he joined the Army instead of the Marines because in the Army you get to choose your job. He obviously wanted to be an infantry soldier, already a father and with another child on the way I asked why he joined up? Hughes replied for the health benefits. Now on his way to Remade, lets hope he doesn’t need to use them.

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‘SNAP SHOTS’

 

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