Thursday, January 21, 2010

Best of the best ...

I’ve flown on UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters all over Afghanistan but never on a Russian Mi-17. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but the clean, large and roomy interior wasn’t exactly what I had pictured.

Today, I was assigned to cover Lt. Gen. William Caldwell’s visit to the Afghan National Army commandos at Camp Morehead. The purpose of our visit was to see the newest class of commandos graduate – this would be the 7th Kandak (the Afghan equivalent of a company) to graduate since the first class on July 28, 2007 – as well as see an awards presentation.

A large group of commando’s, and one in particular, had helped put down the Taliban attack in Kabul on Monday. These commando’s had graduated on Dec. 31, 2009, and just over two weeks later, they did exactly what they were trained to do – kick some ass.

After the main group of 929 trainees graduated, trading in their green and black berets for those of the elite red that identify them as commando, the Afghan National Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, called forth 1st Lt. Mumtaz from the 6th Kandak to be recognized.

Looking like, as my co-worker Petty Officer 2nd Class Hall said, an Afghan version of Jean Claude-Van Dam, Lieutenant Mumtaz was quiet and humble as he accepted his decoration – a first class Barya, similar to an U.S. achievement medal. During the multiple-pronged strategy that made up Monday’s complex attack on the capital, Lieutenant Mumtaz shot and killed a suicide bomber before he could detonate his vest.

During my short time in Kabul, I have witnessed other Afghan security forces graduations and training, and I can say that without a doubt, these forces displayed a strength and discipline I had yet to see. Their 12-week training course is modeled after the U.S. Army Ranger training; in fact, Army Rangers deploy and embed with the commando trainees, living and working with them, instilling their values of discipline and endurance. I spoke with the Task Force Morehead commander and several trainers and they all had the same thing to say – these commando’s are the best of the best.

It was clear to see, from the pride on the faces of the graduates, and the way that they responded to Monday’s attack, that the Rangers training had paid off, and as the commando forces continue to grow, it can mean nothing but good things for the future of Afghanistan.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Just another day in Kabul

As I was sitting at my desk, writing a story on the new Afghan biometrics capability, my email notice messenger went off – Ding! Ding! Ding! Distracted from my story, I checked my email and saw the words: explosions, rocket fire, small arms fire, Kabul.

Random rocket attacks are fairly common occurrence in Kabul so I wasn’t immediately interested but in rapid succession, three more emails popped up – reports of suicide bombers at the minister of finance and justice were coming in. These buildings are just a few hundred meters away … and suddenly I was interested. I walked out to the main office where the TV was on - Al Jazeera reporters were on scene and had more details. A suicide bomber had attacked the presidential palace; a hotel was engulfed in flames and reports of suicide bombers loose in the city and green zone. The footage was shaky and unclear, but it conveyed the sense of confusion and distress felt by a city under attack.

To get a better view, we went onto the roof where we could hear the rapid gunfire and see the billows of smoke. The gun fire was steady and at times loud … it was difficult to tell exactly how far away. The Mongolian’s security forces stationed here were deployed to provide assistance and our commander pulled us of the roof. Back downstairs, the TV had updated news – a suicide bomber detonated himself at the gates of the presidential palace. After a few minutes, I decided to go back to my desk and try to do some more work. Not a minute later, I heard gunfire – this time louder, as we couldn’t hear it inside before. Suddenly the base loudspeaker, or giant voice, went off announcing that the base had to go to amber status – all personnel had to put their IBA on and report to the bunkers.

I grabbed my vest, helmet and of course, laptop. Anyone could tell we were a bunch of Public Affairs workers – all of us had laptops, camera’s, video cameras, notebooks etc. We crowded into the bunker, waiting for further direction. In a way it was extremely frustrating; most expressed the desire to do something … get outside and document what was happening, fight back, help out, anything but just sit there. Our chief, recognizing our frustration, told us that we’re doing exactly we would should be doing but I know if my co-workers felt anything close to what I did, it was a mix of frustration, anxiety and excitement. We were sitting there, talking about what we'd heard outside and on the news before we had to leave. MC2 Horvath helped lighten the mood with a few jokes and soon, everyone was joking and laughing, trying to keep the mood light, when BOOM, we heard another explosion.

After awhile, we got the clear to come out of the bunker since we were in a hardened facility, but had to stay inside; most of us gathered around the television or computers to see if there were news updates. Dozens of emails with details about the attack were coming in – buildings on fire, additional explosions, gun fights etc. The Taliban had already claimed responsibility and said their plan was to attack the ministries of finance and justice, central bank and presidential palace by sending out 20 suicide bombers – some of them were the explosions we were hearing.

I learned from my co-workers that it was exactly one year ago today that a 500 pound vehicle-borne improvised explosive device was detonated next to Camp Eggers, a reminder that while we’re in a fortified area, anything can happen. Today was also the day that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was to have sworn in 14 new cabinet members; I have to wonder if the attacks were a coincidence or not. It seems to have been a well-planned out assault, striking multiple locations within the city simultaneously, and even now, hours later, there is still the sound of explosions, sirens and helicopters overhead. As the excitement from the morning wore off, things in the office settled down and we slowly turned our minds to more ordinary things - if the dining facility was open and our work we still needed to finish - I heard one of my co-workers sum up the day with, “It’s just another morning in Kabul.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A nurse I am not ...

I'm bleeding. A lot. I'm bleeding and I'm in a war zone. As the blood pours from my arm, I feel a little faint. Not good. Suddenly, hands are everywhere and as the IV bag was attached, the blood flow stopped. Petty Officer 2nd Class Horvath gently held onto the catheter as he placed tape over the IV tubing to hold it in place and gave the instructor an expectant look. He'd successfully placed an IV in my arm.

Ok ... so I wasn't wounded, I was attending a Combat Life Saver Course (CLS) at Camp Eggers where several of my co-workers and I were learning how to place IV's, apply tourniquets and to observe and treat for shock. CLS, a 40-hour course designed to supplement combat medics in the field, was taught at our Combat Skills Training (CST) course at Fort Dix, N.J., however I didn't have the chance there. When I got to Camp Eggers, manning levels required that most of the public affairs staff be CLS qualified. I was certified in 2007 during my last stint at Fort Dix so most of the training was familiar. The only hard part was knowing that I was hurting my "patient."

In reality, if someone had to place an IV or treat a buddy in the field, the injured person probably wouldn't even feel the slight pinprick and burning sensation as the needle pierces the vein, but in the classroom setting, you're focused on your partner's every grimace. When my turn to administer the IV came around, I felt fairly comfortable, despite my victim's, I mean patient's, hard to find veins, but after the first unsuccessful attempt and what I thought were his very unmanly grimaces, I was a little nervous about the second attempt.
Hands shaking, I tried twice more, both times successfully entering the vein but not making a solid connection with the IV tube. Although it wasn't required to actually give the IV, I wanted to do the whole process from start to finish ... unfortunately, my partner had had enough. I had to find another willing patient. Luckily, our fearless co-worker, Petty Officer 3rd Class Putnam stepped in, and on the first try, I placed the catheter, attached the IV and hydrated my patient. Hopefully, as they say, practice makes perfect, and if the time ever comes when I'll need to help someone in the field, I'll be ready.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The journey begins ....

From the beginning, I knew that this deployment would be an interesting experience. Things were rapidly evolving in Afghanistan, from leadershipto organization, and the information being passed on was changing daily. From the time I received my initial deployment notification in September until the time I actually landed at Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, in January, the transition hub for Afghanistan deployers, my deployment had changed five times. Although this was my second time to Afghanistan, and my second JET or in-lieu of tasking, I knew things would be much different than the first time around.

Upon landing at Bagram Air Base our group of about 20 Public Affairs personnel learned there was a flight leaving for Kabul International Airport in less than 12 hours. We were determined to be on the flight; having spent several days in Manas waiting on our luggage to arrive, two days getting from Norfolk to Manas and five weeks at Combat Skills Training in Ft. Dix, N.J. the, "Are we there yet?" feeling was running high. Since the flight show time was relatively close to our arrival time, we were given the direction to stay close by the passenger terminal, so our options included the dining facility, the USO and transient restroom facilities. Already sleep deprived, some decided to just hit the coffee pot and stay up all night, while others curled up wherever there was a space - on benches, chairs and floors. I was somewhere in between. I went for food, used the morale computers to send a few e-mails and decided to take a shower. During my previous deployment and from this travel experience, I learned it was always best to eat and take a shower whenever the opportunity presented itself as you never knew when your next chance would be. Slightly refreshed, I sat down to watch a movie and promptly fell asleep.

That two hours of sleep got me through the next day of travel to Kabul International Airport, Camp Phoenix and then, finally, to Camp Eggers. Another Air Force public affairs member was traveling with me, and as the Army convoy carrying us and our combined 14 bags of luggage dropped us off at the gates of Camp Eggers, we just looked at each other and laughed. It was just getting dark, we didn't know where we were or how we were going to get in touch with our points of contact, move our gear or find a place to sleep forthe night. It was one of those classic "so there we were" moments.

Luckily, the gate guards let us call the PA shop, who promptly showed up with enough people to carry our luggage to the office. It was a whirlwind of movement and within two hours, we'd had dinner, picked up our inprocessing paperwork, got assigned a room and were shown around the camp. My travel partner and I both were lucky enough to get a room in the brand new lodging, complete with a real door and indoor bathrooms. For those military folks who've had to get dressed and walk through the freezing cold in the middle of the night to get to the bathrooms, all the while cursing the fact that you drank water after 7 p.m., you understand how glorious this is.

Understandably, my co-workers who had to live in transient tents for weeks were a little jealous. I had been forwarned that living space was tight so I was prepared for the possibility of tent living but it was just the luck of the draw. So, on day two of my stay at Camp Eggers, I'm beginning to learn the ropes of a joint NATO Training Mission and our role here in Kabul. For me, our mission here is a new concept in military journalism; instead of covering the U.S. military and our efforts in Afghanistan, we highlight the progress the Afghan's are making in learning to govern and discipline themselves and their development as a nation. Both are vital topics, and so while my official capacity is to focus on Afghanistan, I hope to use this forum as a way to share what our team of 20 plus photographers, broadcasters and journalists are doing here, along with those serving with us in Afghanistan and Iraq. What we do, as media professionals, is important, but even more so are the efforts of our fellow military members.