Filtering by Tag: afghanistan

The Land of Conexes

Back when I was in the Army, there were these rusted-out hulks of metal containers called Conexes that littered the motor pools.  We stored all kinds of crap in there.  I remember being told that they weren't being made anymore and that we were lucky to have them.

Conexes are a shorter version of Milvans or Seavans.  All of them used to be in high demand since the Army is famous for squirreling away all kinds of stuff, sometimes useful, most of the time not.  Because the Army supply system was sometimes unreliable, every unit Supply Sergeant had a rat's nest of double secret supplies that could be called upon, if necessary.  These supplies also made great trading material for other supplies and materials that a unit needed.

Even in Antarctica, Conexes and Milvans were in high demand, again to store and squirrel away all kinds of stuff where there was no other room for it.  On  the Ice, we stashed away cabling, tires, connectors, antennas, old radios, car parts, basically whatever folks thought they would need in an emergency -- but usually never did.  As a result, all the stuff in these rusted, metal containers usually were covered with dirt, grime, dust, and other filth -- inches deep.

Not until I came to Kabul did I realize that these horrid things had other uses and capabilities.  Here in Afghanistan, people live and work in them!  They provide the raw building blocks for most of the new structures standing up here to meet the coming surge.  When I see how many of these containers have come into country, it makes me wonder why I didn't see this earlier and bought stock in the company.  It's probably not too late to get in on the next wave of profits.

This new barracks is constructed of seven rows of Milvans, two stories high.  There's three guys sleeping in a space of 130 square feet.  Make your buddy smile!!

Here our guards camp out in them.  We plumb them for electricity so there is light and heat.  The Conex next to the guard shack is used for garbage.  The difference between sleeping quarters and garbage receptacles is electricity.

Another Year For Broken Resolutions

I had the best of intentions of doing PT (Army physical training) while I was spending a year of my life here in Kabul.  I bought Army PT uniforms and hauled all that stuff over here.  There’s well equipped gyms at most of the camps and compounds that have both weights and cardio equipment.  All the military folks constantly are running and working out.  I mostly watch and stare, wishing I had the motivation.

My biggest excuse for not running is the uneven roadways, streets, alleys, walkways, and byways that service the camps.  Even Area 10, the location where many of the safe houses are located, has very poor streets full of ruts, holes, trenches, and gravel with various sized rocks.  Not a day goes by where I don’t turn an ankle while walking from one location to another.  I’m saved from injury because of my combat boots.  Those boots have kept me from spraining or breaking an ankle at least once a week (my ankle ligaments and tendons are too stretched from previous injuries).

I have another excuse.  Kabul has some of the worst air pollution in the world.  Because Kabul sits amongst hills and mountains, the smoke from the wood burning and vehicle exhaust hovers stagnantly over the city and obscures what would be wonderful views of the snowy mountains.  Running into pollution is not an option for me.  I never could understand those folks who run on busy streets while sucking up bus and truck exhaust while they gasp for air from the exertion.  Why would anyone pollute their lungs like this and think that this exercise will provide for a healthy life?  Just doesn’t make sense to me. 

There’s times here when the winds blow out the smog and smoke and make for pretty good running conditions.  About the only place I’ve found to run without breaking an ankle is NKC (New Kabul Compound).  This is another US compound in Kabul, newly created, and still undergoing expansion.  NKC has a very nice perimeter road inside the walls.  Because of the construction, there’s too much mud and water on the road to make for safe running -- at least for me.  Others run and that helps to instill in me more remorse for my slacking off. 

NKC is overlooked by one of the hills in Kabul.  Like all the hills here, one-story mud huts populate the landscape.  There’s no utilities servicing these neighborhoods.  No power, no water, no sewage.  The poor and very poor live in these hovels and they’re the ones most prone to radicalization.  To keep NKC safe from snipers, the military has OPs (Observation Posts) out in these neighborhoods.  Military patrols interact with the locals and prevent incidents from happening.  I’ve been told that the Army provides food and medicine to these villagers to help keep them safely on our side -- for now.

The hill can be seen in the background.  Above the blue container on the left is a glimpse of the green mesh curtain that is put up to help prevent snipers from hitting their targets.  These curtains also add a bit of privacy to theUS operations here. 

Reminders exist that, even with the precautions taken for ensure safety, danger is just around the corner.  These signs below are posted at once section of the perimeter road in NKC for the runners and joggers.  It’s yet another reason that I think I’ll put off my PT program until I come home!

A little motivation to pick up the pace!

Back to a crawl...

The Mongol Hoard, Part II

Yesterday I discovered where the Mongolians are camped out in a sub-complex near Eggars.  Today I invited myself over for a look-see.  After some embarrassing moments where I was trying to explain to the Mongolian guards why this Yankee wanted to enter their premises, they finally understood my intentions.  Who said speaking loudly and adding a vowel to each word didn't work?

The yurt in the middle of the Mongolian Compound.

Entering the yurt.  A portrait of Genghis Khan is the centerpiece.

Another view inside the yurt.

A "candid"shot.

I have a hard time imagining Genghis Khan in this little saddle.  I also doubt it would fit Denver, my mule.  I know it wouldn't fit my ass.

I was told was this instrument was but there were too many consonants for me to comprehend.  It didn't sound very good anyway.

R&R -- playing that hateful, Chinese game.

Anyway, I had a nice visit with the Mongolians.  I'd really like to visit them again when they're serving up some native cuisine.  I have no idea what that would be, but I'm game anyways.

The Mongol Hoard

One of the pleasures of being in Kabul at the various military compounds is being around so many of the allied and coalition forces that are here supporting the war effort and the country building in Afghanistan.  NATO is here in force and a number of other European countries trying to get into NATO.  We've got Macedonia here, Albania, and other countries providing representatives to this effort.  Trying to recognize each country from its camo uniforms is difficult; so many look alike that it's hard to differentiate.

The smaller contingents aren't providing combat soldiers, however.  They're mostly gathered at the headquarters elements and compounds here in the Kabul region.  They're contributing to the war effort, but they're also contributing to the overcrowded conditions here.

One of the countries providing troops is Mongolia.  When they first arrived, small squads of Mongolian Army soldiers marched around in formation with all of their "battle rattle," helmets, weapons, body armor, and new uniforms.  American and British soldiers only armor up if they're going outside the wire, so to speak.  It didn't take long for the Mongolians to get a feel for how Americans fight their wars.  The helmets have come off in favor of soft caps, I have to elbow my way into the chow halls now where Mongolians have discovered good American mess hall food, and now I have to elbow my way into the MWR building where the common use computers are located.

The Mongolians now have discovered Facebook, Yahoo Mail, Skype, and other social networking sites.  Because none of them have their own laptops, unlike every American soldier, airman, sailor, and marine who is here, they use the common use computers here at MWR.  They may not fire their weapons alongside Americans while serving time here in Afghanistan, but these Mongolians certainly will go home better oriented to the American lifestyle and culture than when they first came.  Long live Facebook...

A Shackleton in Kabul

I was having lunch today at the New Kabul Compound DFAC (Dining Facility) and talking with some work mates.  I looked up and noticed an American NCO walking towards me.  His name tag had Shackleton on it.  It's not a common name but one that carries a lot of weight around the Antarctic business.  I thought there might be a connection to Sir Ernest Shackleton.  I stopped him and asked him if he was related to Sir Ernest.  I didn't even finish my question when he replied that he was.  The young NCO is the great, great nephew of Shackleton.  He seemed pleased that someone in the region had a clue as to who Ernest Shackleton was.  Everyone at the table had no clue as I'm sure few in the Army do.

So, a remotely related piece of Antarctic history lives and breathes in Kabul today.  Small world...

A Death in Kabul

Things have been pretty busy here in Kabul.  They didn't get any better when one of our senior techs, who took a leadership role at the New Kabul Compound (NKC), died two weeks ago.  Gerard was young, experienced, a technical whiz at the communications infrastructure that we support here, and an Air Force veteran.  His sudden death shocked us and reminded us that we all are at risk over here.  We still are trying to fill the void that he left.

Gerard, I didn't know you well or for that long.  But you were a good guy and you will be missed.  Travel well, my friend.

Abandon Ship!!! Better Digs, Part III

Last night I heard some weird sounds coming from my room.  They sounded like someone chiseling around my window.  I blew it off, slept well, and this morning took a nice hot shower and went to work.

I received a call first thing this morning from Ray, our guy who manages our billeting and ensures we live in decent conditions.  He told me that my hot water heater had fallen off the wall in my bathroom and that it had flooded into my bedroom.  Since he was on the job, I turned my attentions back to work.  Then it dawned on me -- my laptop was in my bugout bag which was sitting on the floor.  I got up to go find a driver to get me back to the house, when Ray stopped by my office to tell me that I ought to go home and sort things out.

Sure enough, there was two inches of water in my room.  Ray had picked everything that counted up off of the floor.  I immediately checked my laptop, and while the outer protective case was damp, I suspect my laptop is fine.  I won't know for sure until I turn it on tonight.

What saved my laptop was Ray's quick action, and that my two Afghan rugs and my dirty clothes in the laundry bag had soaked-up enough of the water. 

Remember my comment about poor engineering in my previous post?  The hot water heater was mounted by cheap, thin screws loosely drilled into the marble.  When the heater came down, it ripped out the cheap plumbing, ripped out the electrical socket in the wall, ripped off the shelf beneath the mirror, and broke some glassware. 

The bedroom floor is slanted, I discover now, so that the water accumulated the furthest away from my front door.  So, as I spent two hours squeegeeing the water out the front door, half of it flowed back into the bedroom.  I remembered an old WWII movie in the process (it might have been "The D.I.").  Anyway, in the movie, a Marine who killed a mosquito by slapping it loudly while on a patrol was forced to dig a grave (full-size human grave, 6' down) along with his battle buddy, while another recruit was filling the grave in at the same time. 

So, I dragged my rugs out onto a balcony handrail for them to dry.  I'm homeless again, it seems, and this evening I'll look for another bunk to crash on while KBR attempts to repair the damage to my room.

Better Digs, Part II

It's getting darker earlier now that we're approaching Winter Solstice so I haven't taken more photos of the new place, The Tillman House, where I now reside.  I work between 10 and 12 hours a day, so I arrive at work in the dark and leave to go home in the dark.  On my recent "day off", where I only work 8 hours, I was able to get back to the abode and take some photos with my iPhone.

Portal shot of the Tillman House.  One of the guards is walking towards me.  The vertical electrical box to the right converts the generator power to 220 volts for the house electrical service.

Every house in Kabul has stone or concrete walls that separate it from the street and the neighbors.  Every large home becomes a compound with a walled courtyard in the front with no backyard at all.  Added to these walls now are additional blast walls and concertina that reminds us that we're living in a war zone.  Rockets and mortars still fall within the compound and this additional protection is meant to keep you alive during these brief but intense reminders of war.

A shot taken from my room out to the courtyard.

The rose garden in our courtyard.

So, you're thinking that I'm living in the lap of luxury, right?  Well, considering the tent I was in for the first two weeks, yeah, maybe I am.  Despite the nice looking exterior to these newer buildings and houses, there really is no engineering underlying the construction.  Our guy who manages the housing for my company told me that he supervised the construction of the Tillman House from day one.  He said that the workers used practically no mortar when they set the bricks, used no rebar, and slapped concrete up quickly to finish the product.  This area is prone to damaging earthquakes, and I was told to run out of the house should there be one -- this house probably would collapse.

When we first moved in, all the guys using the showers and toilets caused the sewer system to back up and flood throughout the first floor and basement of the house.  KBR (the current support contractor) had to come out two days in a row to roto-root the drainage system to clear out all of the water bottles and plastic wrappings the construction workers had rammed down the drain. 

In the photo above, you'll notice the yellow tank behind the rose garden.  This is a chlorine injection system that squirts chlorine into the well water to kill some of the impurities.  It doesn't kill all the bad stuff, so we still have to brush our teeth with bottled water.  Anyway, this is our second tank.  The first one died last week, in the process dumping the tank's entire chlorine contents into the well water.  The next morning when we all rose to take showers and get ready for work, all that came out of the faucets and shower heads was milky white chlorine solution that reeked of its bleach smell.  The chlorine ate away all the fake chrome plating from the sink and shower drains.

I made the right decision not to take a shower that day and poured a bottle of water over my head to sponge bathe.  Others, not so wise, chose to risk a shower, and in the process one guy nearly was overcome by fumes and had to be dragged outside to recover.  Others pissed into the toilets, mixing the ammonia in their urine with the chlorine, and creating mustard gas.  Two other guys currently are suffering complications from this experience. 

The street from the Tillman House leading outside the compound.

This photo depicts the street separating the US Embassy from the Tillman House.  There's two blast walls adorned with concertina wire.  The shorter one on the inside keeps us from escaping our man-made prison.  The larger one prevents even the most persistent escapee from entering the US Embassy.  Walking or driving from here to the outer gate entails passing through four other checkpoints all of which are protected by armed guards. 

There's enough armed guards carrying AK-47s in our housing areas to maintain a certain level of safety.  Nearly everyone else is armed too with M-4s and pistols.  It's an armed camp that the Taliban can't easily penetrate.  So, the rockets and mortars come instead.

All of this makes me appreciate raking leaves back home.  At least there, I can drink beer.

Better Digs

I recently moved to a real Safe House, a new home called the Tillman House, named after Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinal turned Ranger who was killed by friendly fire here in Afghanistan a few years ago.

I'm out of the tent and into real quarters.  We can't walk from the house to the compound.  We have to be driven there in an armored car because we pass through streets that have been targets for IEDs and bombs in the past.  We also don't have commercial Internet access there yet, and that is why I have not updated this blog in the last week or so.  I've been chided by nearly everyone who reads this, so this is a quick update until I get the time to submit another post.

One view from the veranda of the Tillman House

And another view.

Kabul is surrounded by mountains that mostly have turned white with the recent snows.  And there's more on the way.  Days are still sunny and warm, but nights have cooled to the point where we know winter is coming and wet and muddy days will soon be the norm.

A Friday Bazaar

Most of the compounds around Kabul used to allow its residents to walk downtown to frequent restaurants and shops.  Since the Taliban have resorted to car bombs and attacks on coalition forces, we are no longer allowed to walk outside the compounds.  The local shopkeepers had become dependent upon the westerners shopping in their stalls.  So, in the name of good relations and good business, the bazaar has come to us on Eggers -- but only on Fridays.

Some interesting drawings and paintings.
The usual cloth, clothing, and trinkets.

A gem seller with loose stones.  I'm told the prices are good.

Nothing attracted me except the gemstones.  I'll have to confer with my friend who is a gemologist to see what I need to look for and what prices are reasonable.

The troops were more attracted to the the piles of DVDs that were available.  We get AFRTS here (military television), but most Soldiers pass around stacks of DVDs for their entertainment back in the barracks.

The Alamo

One of the "Safe Houses" where Americans live is The Alamo.  This is where I currently reside, although today all of the techs that were housed with me left to go to a new and much improved Safe House, The Tillman House, named after the professional football player turned Ranger who was killed by friendly fire a few years ago.  I'm now living alone in a GP Medium tent erected in the courtyard of a former mansion.  I'm so lonely and confused...

NOT.  Anyway, I'll figure out what is going to happen to me sometime tomorrow.  I've got to work all night in the Technical Control Facility, where I currently work, to assist with an Authorized Service Interruption (ASI) for some equipment that needs repair and maintenance.

Ah yes, home sweet home.  I'm learning to dig tent living again.  It will be much better when winter comes, dumps piles of snow onto the dirt and dust, and I get to traipse through it going to and from the showers and bathrooms.

We have bunkers to run to should RPGs, mortars, rockets, or bombs go off near our compound.  I've been lucky so far.  But I'm told that we get hit every few weeks or so.


More shots of the Alamo.  It's a pretty good sized compound.  The military have priority for the hard billets.  Sleazy, slimy contractors like myself are relegated to the tents.

The Places in Between, Part II

I've been finishing the book, The Places in Between (by Rory Stewart), as I cool my heels here in Leipzig.  Two quotes stand out for comment:

"They were religious questions.  Islam, much more than Christianity, is a political and social religion.  Clear rules govern who and how you can marry.  In this region most people married their first cousins."

And then:  "Everyone in Rezak was descended from a single grandfather.  There were six houses and seventy people in the village..."

The river valley Stewart walked through in the winter was inhabited by small clans and tribes.  The two quotes above describe the lineages from which all these tribesman descended.  What I haven't quoted is Stewart's discovery that these tribes constantly warred with each other and most of the tribesmen (certainly not the chattel (women and dogs)) never moved further than 40 kilometers each way down the valley in his lifetime.

I keep thinking back to the images of the "imams" we see in the news.  Am I wrong that these guys all look crazy, have one eye, and are toothless?  I attribute most of it to inbreeding!  I'm serious!  How does a western power civilize groups like these and restore central government?  When you consider all that Karzai has accomplished since 2003 (read nothing), the answer is -- you can't.  All we can do is kill our share (or more than our share since we're nearly alone in doing it), call it good, and move on.

This book has reinforced my worst fears about the potential end states resulting from our occupation.  Vietnam never looked so good.

The Places in Between

I'm reading Rory Stewart's The Places in Between.  It's about his walk across Afghanistan in 2002.  Very interesting.  I found the passage from which he derives the title:  "I told him Afghanistan was the missing section of the walk, the place in between the deserts and the Himalayas, between Persian, Hellenic, and Hindu culture, between Islam and Buddhism, between mystical and militant Islam."

I'm also reminded of the description of Afghanistan given to me by my friend, Keith Conrey, who traveled in Afghanistan back in the mid-70s.  He was entranced by the sights and the smells, much of which remains with him today.

This book is one of 34 I downloaded onto my Kindle before departing home.  While overseas, I won't have a chance to acquire more books on the Kindle; that will have to wait until I get back home in March 2010 for a couple of weeks.

I'm looking forward to visiting and working there.  But first, it's off to Iraq.

A week at Fort Benning

Bunking in the barracks at Fort Benning's Harmony Church area brings back too many memories of my early days in the Army. And I mean "early." This is like a major flashback to when I was in my early twenties. It makes me wonder what I've done wrong that would have caused me to have to relive my old experiences.

Thinking about getting a rental car in order to be free of this barrack's life. I'll be able to hit most of my old haunts around the city.