Yes, I said it... I love Afghanistan.
The weather is amazing most days, even though it rained yesterday for the first time since we arrived. The scenery is unlike anything that I have ever seen. The mountains are majestic like the Rockies in the U.S. The fabrics and the clothing are so exotic and beautiful. There is a tangible optimism amongst the people that I've met, which would surprise most people back at home. Now, make no mistake... I am very well aware of the fact that I am in a war zone. This country is like walking around an episode of the Flintstones sometimes. The images of the dirty children playing in the streets rather than learning in school, the puppies that I know will never be loved like they would back home, the women in the burkas walking behind their husbands who are desperate for civil rights, and the buildings that were once beautiful, and are now blown apart remind me that the world is less than perfect. There is so much work to be done here, and it's going to take the Afghan people generations to move forward as a society.
But, the reason why I am writing this blog is our guys... Well, actually they are my guys now! I've been accepted into this group with open arms. As a woman, being allowed this kind of access to an Infantry unit in a war zone, is a special thing. They are not used to having a girl around. The long walk to the woman’s latrine is evidence of that. The guys were shocked from day 1, when they saw that I didn't pack suitcases, and that all of my stuff was in Army issue duffel bags. I traveled light here, since I knew I was going to be moving around a lot. I packed stuff that I knew I would need, and nothing more. 'Acting like a girl' is not going to win me any points here. I knew that before I arrived. It's a lesson that I learned 5 years ago in Iraq. From minute #1, they guys have treated me with respect, and have taken me under their wings. I'm always trying to stay out of the way, apologizing when someone needs to get by. I try to keep my stuff out of the way, and keep from making their lives any more difficult. But, I always here the same thing... "You're fine, you're not in the way, relax".
To the people back home who have loved ones over here, I can tell you this... You're loved ones are brave, well trained, hard working, and very special human beings. It's been an honor getting to know them. They miss home, and they long for the days that they can hang out at the bar and watch the Sox and the Pats... But they also love it here. They are understood here. They are surrounded by people who relate to them, and don't question why they do what they do. I try to imagine these guys, back at home, working 'regular' jobs and it's hard for me. I only know them this way. I know that reintegration is a tough thing for our troops that have seen combat overseas. The suicide rate for our veterans is scary, the divorce rate is well above the average, the incidents of alcoholism, drug abuse, and violence is evidence of this issue too. It's tough to imagine what they are going through, until you witness it firsthand.
The events that occurred in Kabul yesterday are a perfect example.
Yesterday the ISAF headquarters came under attack by the Taliban. I was there the night before, taking pictures and handing out T-shirts to the local troops that are stationed there.
When the word came down that the attacks were happening, the sirens went off on Camp Phoenix. The QRF (Quick Response Force) that we have been embedded with, were activated and told to get ready. 'My guys' started preparing for whatever may come their way. They began packing up the trucks with ammo, and water. They programmed the radios and cleaned their weapons. They had classified briefings to go over intel, and made plans based on possible scenarios. I was asked by one soldier to use my SAT phone, so that he could call his wife. He knew that she would be watching the news at home, and he wanted her to know that he loved her, before he 'rolled out'. He asked me to keep her number, and to call her if there was bad news. Remember that I just me him a week ago! I was told by Nick, my 'body guard' to get my stuff together, and stick close to 'the shack'. I'm safer around all of the troops and all of the weapons, than I would be in my room alone, Mike too. The guys were pacing around, waiting on the 'go ahead' to go and do their jobs. There is nothing they hate more, than sitting around when they know there is work to be done! They went through the training, and they want to be the ones to make a difference.
The war in Afghanistan is so different than Iraq. Here, they are fighting with a scalpel, not a machete. Most Afghans are good, and our troops are not here to hurt them, or destroy their way of life. They are here to root out, the select few insurgents that are hell bent on destruction and terrorism. This makes fighting a war very complicated. They have to worry about civilian casualties, and collateral damage, while hunting down and killing the enemy. It's a tough job, and they are doing their best. When innocent people are hurt and killed, it's used against the allied forces, to try and convince the populous that the troops are bad and that they don't care. Progress is slow. The guys waited around all day, 'all dressed up and no place to go'. The word came down that intel was sketchy and that while CNN was reporting rocket fire and attacks down town, it was possible that it was a plan to get the bases to deploy the fighting forces off of the major bases, thus leaving them weakened and easy targets. The question of how many resources to deploy, was the question to answer.
We passed the time with a card game, a movie, and video games depending on your poison. Some guys took the time to get a few minute nap in, while others just paced around counting the seconds until it was time to go. I just waited to be told what to do, and in the mean time... I took pictures. I figure that they guys would like to have these photos later on, to remember this experience.
They kept their senses of humor, and goofed around with me. Asking which weapon I wanted to take with me, and if I was ready for my first firefight. I knew very well that I would not be hitting the road with them, but if I could have gone, I would have been in that MATV so fast, it would have made their heads spin! I feel safer around them on the road, than I do on the base in my room alone. Its sounds stupid I know, but it's the way that I feel. I napped briefly on a chair in the middle of the chaos, and it was the best sleep I've had since I arrived.
In the middle of the night, some of the guys rolled out, leaving another team back on base 'just in case'. I was told to get some rest, and given specific safety instructions about what I should do if the base sirens went off again. While I struggled to get to sleep in my room, the guys in the shack waited to get the call, and the guys sent to ISAF earned their CIB's (Combat Infantry Badges) when they were shot at, and when a grenade was thrown at their vehicles. One minute they were joking around with me, and the next minute they had shrapnel hitting the sides of their trucks. That's how it is here... You never know what the next minute will bring, but whatever it is... they are ready for it.
I'm sitting here, trying to figure out what makes these guys tick. What makes a person run towards danger, when most people scatter away from it. They are not 'super heroes like in the comic books. They are mortal men, with flaws. They know that they are not perfect, but somehow together, when the sh*t hits the fan, they become perfect together. I am so grateful for the opportunity that they have given me, and I just don't feel worthy enough to accept this gift of friendship and loyalty that they have presented to me. I know that in a few days, I'll have to say goodbye and I don't know how I am going to do that. Soon enough, I will be at Logan, ordering an iced coffee, and heading home to my family, while 'my guys' are still here, waiting to go to work when they are needed. I'm not sure how I'll say goodbye, or how I'll feel. I just hope that I leave them with a little love from home, and the understanding that they have changed my life forever. One SGT. told me that I was 'breath of fresh air here' and another wrote home saying 'that the opportunity to just sit around and talk about Boston with someone from home was appreciated'.
It's not the scenery, or the culture, or the weather... it's the guys! That's why I love Afghanistan!