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Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day & Returning Home

Before talking about myself, today on this Memorial Day, I must first offer my utmost gratitude and respect to the soldiers who voluntarily put the lives of others before their own, who distance themselves from their family and friends to benefit people they'll never meet, who strive, bleed, sweat, suffer, and die in hopes of making this world a better place for all of us. To the current members and veterans of America's Armed Forces, I say with all my heart, you are greatly appreciated, Thank you!!!

In case you weren't yet aware...I'M HOME!!! And wow does it feel good to be home! Jeff and I arrived at Ft Campbell a little after 8pm on Saturday the 28th with a plane chock full of anxious soldiers. The trip from Manas, Kyrgyzstan to Leipzig, Germany to Ft Campbell, KY took almost 20 hours, so everyone was yearning to get off that plane and reunite with their family, friends, and country. We were greeted with a massive crowd of cheering joyous people. I've been to plenty homecoming ceremonies at Ft Campbell, but this one felt different. It was exponentially more relieving and fulfilling to see the soldiers reunite with their loved ones after experiencing first-hand the risks and hardships they routinely endure in Afghanistan. I sincerely hope that the welcome home ceremony, Memorial Day festivities, and decompression classes help the soldiers become healthily reacquainted with civilian life. Having been away from their families, many for their 3rd or 4th deployment, and surrounded by such continual risks and hardships, I know they have many obstacles to overcome. On this Memorial Day in particular I better understand just how much respect and support the men and women of our armed forces deserve. To them, on this Memorial Day, I must again heartily say thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, for all you've done and have yet to do for the good of our communities, country and world.



Some of the bases we were on had some pretty impressive amenities. Kandahar Airfield had a TGI Fridays and Kentucky Fried Chicken, along with pizza, donut, ice cream and coffee shops. Getting a little taste of home like that is a pretty good morale booster. However, the soldiers who could benefit most from such services are usually the ones who are out in the middle of nowhere for months on months at a time. Still, I imagine when their chance finally comes to partake, it's a welcomed and appreciated experience. Pictured above is a Pizza Hut at the Transit Center in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Manas is typically a stopping point on the trip back to America, so things like this are meant to help troops in the decompression process before returning home. The pizza wasn't quite as good as it is in the states, but it nonetheless hit the spot. Some soldiers are also allowed a 2 beer per day allotment in Manas. After not drinking for a year, that was quite well received also haha.



One of the biggest surprises to me, as well as most of the people I've talked to after returning home, has been the prevalence of drugs throughout Afghanistan. Marijuana (as seen above) and poppy (used to make opium) are literally everywhere you look, everywhere you walk, and everywhere you drive. Driving down Highway 1 out of Kandahar you will see farmers harvesting poppy like you would see Illinois farmers harvesting corn and soybeans. It's totally commonplace. The bad part is that after these crops are harvested, they're often sold at a low price to the Taliban, who then process the drugs into a useable form, and then sell them at high prices in exchange for guns and explosives. This problem really complicates relations between US forces and the local Afghani population. While in theory it might seem smart to just burn all the poppy, thereby cutting off the Taliban's source of income. In doing so they'd also be cutting off the source of sustenance and mode of survival for many local families. So instead of destroying the crops and punishing the local farmers, soldiers interview the local population, try to discover who buys their poppy, and then go after the middleman who ultimately produces and sells the drugs. This strategy was actually taught to Army officials by drug enforcement agencies in the US. It's interesting how much the problems in Afghanistan have in common with narcotic crimes in the US.



The exhausting heat and travel conditions during air assault missions make it possible for soldiers to get rest in almost any conditions...albeit intermittent and uncomfortable. Let's just say you're not likely to hit the deep REM sleep cycles often, if ever over here. Rooms like this were some of the only cover from the beating afternoon sun, and to be honest, they were straight up gross. They had dirt floors peppered with animal feces and bug infested hay. The ceilings were often black like charcoal from people cooking in the rooms. Soldiers talked about having contracted lice, ticks, and fleas in such environments. Jeff can personally vie for the tick problem, which he found was worst in the grape rows. Although our longest mission was 48 hours, the soldiers we were with had established a continued presence in a compound with similar conditions for 5 straight months. My hat is off to them! I dunno if I could handle that.



This member of the Afghan National Army was very kind, friendly, and engaging. He knew a little bit of English and always took it upon himself to show that off. His language skills were quite impressive and he was good at lightening up the mood. Anytime he saw Jeff and I he would say "MEDIA, MEDIA, CAMERA!" He loved to be on camera, but always made sure to appear as if he was doing something important if the camera was turned his way. One of the most memorable things he liked to do was to go up to the company's bomb-sniffing dog and say "Sit dog, dog, sit, good dog!" It didn't matter if the dog was already lying down or even sleeping, this gentleman would pridefully tell the dog to sit, just cause he could haha. It made for some very good laughs.



This is a picture of the Afghan National Army force that accompanied Delta Company on our 2nd air assault mission. Each US soldier is paired with an ANA soldier that they're expected to keep account of. When it's time to leave a location, each US soldier is expected to ensure their ANA counterpart is in tow. Similarly, at base headquarters, US commanders have their offices next to Afghani commanders. This partnership is intended to assist in the training of ANA forces and ultimately prepare them to take sole control of their country in 2014. This level of shared leadership was one thing that impressed me the most. The US Army is working hard to put Afghanistan back in the hands of its own people. Hopefully the transition will go smoothly and the ANA, along with the Afghani National Police and Afghani Border Patrol, will be prepared to preserve stability in Afghanistan without a large US presence. Only time will tell, but one Colonel we talked to was optimistic, saying that ANA forces have a substantial timeframe ahead of them are that they're progressing more quickly than Iraqi forces did.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Final Stop: Kyrgyzstan

Jeff and I are at the final stop before our long flights home. We're at the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. We were laid over here for a day on our trip into Afghanistan and we're back for a few days on our way out, so this seems like a fitting time to look back on all the different trips we've made. Here's a list of everywhere we've been. The locations marked with an asterisk (*) mean we loaded, unloaded, packed and unpacked our immense amount of gear.

5/2
Ft. Campbell, KY (*)
to Ft. Stewart, GA
5/3
to Shannon, Ireland
to Manas, Kyrgyzstan (*)
5/4
to Bagram, Afghanistan (*)
5/5
to Kandahar, Afghanistan (*)
5/9
to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Pasab, Afghanistan (*)
5/10
to combat outpost 10 miles east of FOB Sakari Karez, Afghanistan (Ramrod)
back to FOB Pasab, Afghanistan (*)
5/12
to FOB Sakari Karez, Afghanistan (*)
5/16
to Air Assault 1
5/17
back to FOB Sakari Karez, Afghanistan
5/18
to Moulian, Afghanistan (Air Assault 2)
5/23
back to Kandahar, Afghanistan (*)
5/25
back to Manas, Kyrgyzstan (*)
5/28
to Leipzig, Germany
back to Ft, Campbell, KY (*)

Ya know that (*) you saw connected to most of the locations listed above? Well that represents all this stuff. This was taken right before leaving Sakari Karez for Kandahar; the first leg of our trip back home. And actually, this pile is missing 3 other decent sized packs that we had with us most of the way. We decided to leave them back at Bagram out of fear that we wouldn't be able to handle it all. In retrospect, that was a very good call. But in the scope of carrying-thing-difficulties, this load paled in comparison to hauling a 40lb camera, 15 bottles of water, and an MRE (meal ready to eat) in 110 degree weather across the desert, through streams, and over grape rows on the 3 days of air assault missions.


This is a what the Avid editing software I use looks like. This program allows me to put together all the various videos and sounds precisely how I want them to flow together. This timeline, for the 2nd part of our 48 hour air assault mission, is the most complex project I edited in Afghanistan. If you look closely, each particular clip was carefully selected, placed, and adjusted to fit my vision for the story. The blue pieces are audio and the greyish clips are video. There are a total of 4 tracks of video and and 4 tracks of audio. The topmost video track is a color correction layer to enhance the vivid colors and somewhat stylize the look of the story. This story alone probably took about 10 hours to edit. I'm VERY particular when editing. My perfectionist tendencies definitely come out; especially when I have a decent amount of time at my exposure.
Believe it or not, this is my camera. It's completely covered and sealed in its rain protection sleeve. While rain wasn't a problem in Afghanistan, SAND WAS!!! No amount of cleaning could keep sand off of anything. The sand in the Kandahar region was particularly light and fluffy. Anywhere you stepped, the sand would puff up into a cloud beneath your foot. Such small granules were good about finding their way into the smallest of camera crevices. Every camera adjustment was accompanied by a faint unsettling grinding noise (highly stressful for a cameraman with a brand new camera). Sand became especially problematic during sandstorms (obviously) and when anywhere near a helicopter. The huge courier chinook helicopters in particular would stir up massive sandstorms of their own. So the rain cover was applied to the camera before boarding any helicopter flights. Eventually I bought some compressed air to help clear the pesky sand out of my beloved camera's components.

The dining facilities (dfac's) afforded many opportunities to get take-out beverages and snacks. But in Afghanistan, surprise surprise, there's not an abundance of mini-fridges to cool off said beverages. Major problem right? I mean who wants a warm Mt. Dew or Pepsi? Not me! So I got a little creative. The air conditioner in our unit would get pretty cold. So I busted out some duct tape and started taping drinks to the air condition. Since duct tape keeps its stick I could just leave the same 2 strips of duct tape up to conserve. Once a drink is all taped up, just wait 30 minutes and VOILA you end up with a pleasing ice cold refreshment. Like they say in the military "adapt and overcome."

This is the CHU that Jeff and I acquired. CHU stands for something housing unit. I can't remember exactly, but this is where we stayed in Sakari Karez. We were originally setup in an Alaska tent, but the AC and electricity in it failed, and we desperately needed internet to be able to send our stories back. So we used our connections to line this up. The internet was incredibly slow, taking over 5 hours to send back a meager 100MB file. But it was better than nothing. The mattresses were horribly uncomfortable and I acquired the wooden table from another CHU when someone was moving out. In perspective, this was a suite though. It allowed us to do a lot of work in a fair deal of comfort. Jeff and I were in very close quarters for a month and yet we got along very well. We talked about that and believe that the mutual respect we hold for each other went a long way in helping us preserve an air of peace. It helps that we're happy to cut each other slack since we're already good friends and familiar with each other.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Time has been hard to come by lately. As much as I'd love to blog right now about the 2 intense air assault missions that Jeff and I accompanied Alpha and Delta companies on, my priority is to produce a story for tonights newscast about the memorial service we just attended for Cpl. Kirton. Brandon Kirton was killed on the 2nd air assault mission we went on. We did not originally plan to be turning a story for tonight. But the service was so touching that we can't help but share this relevant event with the community. Not to mention how much his family and friends back home deserve to see this. I cannot begin to grasp the agony they must be going through after anticipating Brandon's return in a few days, only to find that he would not be coming home. My heart breaks for them. Hopefully seeing this service and hearing the comments of gratitude, love, and respect for Cpl Kirton will help bring them peace.


I do have a moment to share a few photos from our 2nd air assault:















After trudging through grape rows, one after another after another, Jeff finally relaxes between two medics, Spc's Pickel & Gadison. Maybe one of the safer places to be. Although, if you'll notice just above them, gunners were always posted, scanning the horizon for insurgents. Anytime men of military age were sighted, a smoke shell was shot their way as a warning to stay out of the area.















After clearing compounds for the day, we established a strong point to take cover and further surveil the area. This structure belonged to a family, but is basically taken over for a day by our forces. The owner can't really opt out of the occupation, but they are paid in return. I was relieved to see that the soldiers don't trash the compounds. A force of this size consumes a lot of water and MRE's (meal ready to eat) which creates a lot of trash. But before leaving, it's all collected and burned.















This is another shot inside the strongpoint. Midday, when the sun is overhead, shade is hard to come by. This makes for a potentially dangerous situation in dry 110 degree weather. Rooms like these are often sought for shelter from the sun. But there's a trade off, as ventilation in these rooms is horrible. We found the best method was to alternate between the two locations. A shady room to stay out of the sun and then outside to feel the breeze.















I took this picture of the strongpoint while leaning against a wall after trying to get some rest. You can see some soldiers utilizing the shade of a tree taking some cat naps as well. They effort to finish clearing compounds early before the hottest part of the day kicks in. Since ex-fill flights only arrive under the cover of night, there's a lot of waiting around to do before leaving. So there was plenty of time for rest, but it was intermittent, and never comfortable or fulfilling. The ground was rocky and hard and the walls made of animal manure. They were rock solid, a light brown color, and contained lots of straw and grass. I look forward to sleeping on my nice soft mattress at home rather than on and around so much poop.















This was taken at the last compound we cleared. Jeff is relaxing near a few soldiers with some rather leary locals sitting watch behind them. They waivered between skepticism and hospitality. Sometimes shaking hands and offering smiles, other times keeping a blank stare and rigid expression. Although I don't share a language with the Afghani people, it was refreshing to find commonality in our facial expressions. It was mystifying to gaze deeply into the eyes of people I know so little about, yet grasp so much from a single glance or smile. The white sheets you see hung across a string in the back were to abstract our view of the women hiding themselves behind. It was rare for women of any age to be out and about whenever we were present. Although, they could often be spotted peering around a corner with a curious eye. I got one shot in particular with my video camera that captures such a moment beautifully. It screams National Geographic or Discovery Channel haha. It'll end up in one of our stories for sure.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hangups...

Today is the first day Jeff and I have had personal internet access in quite a while; 5 days or so. We've had access on some military and public computers at limited points, but no way to share pictures, video, and blogs easily. So that's been a bummer. But that's been reality. What's worse, is that we've been without our editing gear for just as long. We were advised that our computers would just get in the way at FOB Pasab and Ramrod cause we'd often be on the move and have no internet access or electricity. So we left the gear at Kandahar, but soon found out the advice we'd been given was wrong. Ever since we discovered we'd have the time, location, electricity, and internet for editing, we've been effortlessly trying to get our gear shipped to us; attempts that have been continuously unsuccessful up to now. The two hard-shell cases were supposed to arrive last night on a helicopter, but the bird broke down in Kandahar and our stuff got stranded for yet another night. Hopefully it arrives tonight like it's supposed to, but a sandstorm may further delay the flights. I'm not getting my hopes up, but Jeff and I could use a pleasant surprise at this point. We've gone as far as officially petitioning Allah for some help. We've heard he hangs out in Afghanistan a lot, so we're hoping he'll offer a hand (I kid, I kid).

The MIA editing gear hasn't been the only hangup. We had great difficulty getting from FOB Pasab to Ramrod. As detailed in the last blog, the convoy that was supposed to get us to Ramrod Tuesday, ended up getting us nearly to the base, but then turned around to go back to Pasab to transport the accompanying Colonel to a meeting (specifically a shura: a meeting with local Afghani leaders). Obviously the Colonel takes priority, but it was frustrating to waste an entire day just sitting around for nothing...in the 100 degree weather with no AC. Then the next day, Wednesday, there were no convoys going to Ramrod. Finally, on Thursday, we got put on another convoy (but not before finding out that our seats had been given away and having to lobby to get them back). We finally made it to Ramrod Thursday afternoon and got setup with sleeping quarters. Of course the air conditioning and electricity in that tent failed a few hours in and we got more lovely exposure with those searing temps. First thing on Friday, we worked some connections to get a unit that has internet access and AC (our lavish new trailer pictured below). But unfortunately and tragically, the base went on a day long 'black-out' of communication technology because a company of soldiers took some casualties. This practice is in place to protect and prevent families from finding out about the death of a loved one over the internet or through other unofficial channels. After all that, we're connected, comfortable, and anxious to edit the great deal of compelling video we've capture all along the way.

We've experienced a few trials and setbacks, but as I constantly remind myself, it's nothing like the challenges the soldiers have been facing for many months or years now. Tomorrow is the first time Jeff and I will share such experiences with the soldiers as we leave on our first full day mission with them in a few hours. On that note, I'd better get some rest. Below are some catch-up pictures that I haven't been able to post because of our lack of internet access.
















Our new living quarters! Pretty deluxe.















A shot of the MATV driver during our first failed attempt at getting to FOB Ramrod. Just above me and to my left was a turret gunner who could spin around 360 degrees and fire huge explosive shells if necessary.















This was one of many arabic posters around FOB Pasab. There is a major presence of both the Afghanistan National Army and National Police on the different bases. So I'm assuming these are motivational posters of some sort. There were other posters in English for American soldiers as well. I remember one saying something like "What have we done for the people of Afghanistan today?"















Jeff and I are throwing back a Beck's "near-beer" at dinner. Alcohol is prohibited on post, so this non-alcoholic beer is as close as you'll get. It's pretty nasty stuff and obviously brings no buzz along with it haha, so we'll just have to wait till we get back home to enjoy a brewski again.









These names were on the incoming board at the Public Affairs Office at FOB Pasab. Apparently there was a mixup, because Jeff's last name isn't "Yang" and my first name isn't "Chris." Oh yea...we're not from Fox either haha! This was a running joke with the kind souls in the public affairs office. They were good sports and we actually made some good friends there.















These pics are out of order. Oops. This is Jeff in Kandahar, waiting with all of our gear for our Blackhawk flight to Pasab. Nope, there's no editing equipment here. Big mistake! Had we known better and not taken the advice we were given, we would have hauled it along. But as you can see, we already had A LOT of gear to be carried by two people and we wanted to travel as light as possible.















This is the shnazzy media badge on my body armor. Hopefully it will cue one of those kind thoughtful intelligent Taliban insurgents not to shoot me when they see it.















Even more out of order...this is Jeff and I packing up to head to the flight line in Kandahar to fly to Pasab. We got a call 30 minutes before this informing us we need to get packed up and ready to leave. That's a lot of gear to pack up in 30 minutes! Ahhh the unpredictable life of news vagrants...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

If at first you don't succeed...

Just found out, after a 2 hour ride, with no A/C, in 100 degree weather, in a pressure cooker of a vehicle, after waiting around for 4 hours, at a post close to Ramrod--where we needed to go--we have to turn around, go back to Pasab, on a 2 hour ride, with no A/C, in 100 degree weather, in a pressure cooker of a vehicle, practically wasting an entire day.

Apparently a Colonel had to get back to Pasab and the convoy didn't have enough time to make the final small leg of the trip to get us to Ramrod, where we needed to go to connect with the 2nd Brigade. I guess we'll try again tomorrow...(hopefully with A/C)

Destination Ramrod

Right now I'm sitting in the back seat of an MATC--military all terrain vehicle. We're at a stopping point on our trip from FOB (forward operating base) Pasab to FOB Ramrod. So the frequent movement continues. Monday morning at 9:30 we got a knock on our door informing us we'd need to be ready in a half hour to check-in at the airfield in Kandahar for a blackhawk flight to Pasab. We packed the majority of our gear with haste and again left some non-essentials behind. We've still been consolidating and downsizing at every stop. Each location requires us to pack lighter so we're more mobile. We mistakenly thought our editing gear would be non-essential because we were told there would be few electrical and communicative amenities, but that info was wrong. We found out that we'll likely still be able to get wired internet at Ramrod and still be able to send stories, tweets, and blogs back. That's exciting news, because one of the main goals of our trip has been to make it as experiential and current as possible for viewers and social media followers. Our editing gear should hopefully be shipped out to us at Ramrod by tomorrow.

Mentally the trip hasn't been ovely taxing on me. The first few days I was pretty exhausted from working so many hours non-stop, but things have settled down a bit. We've made sleep a bigger priority for our overall well being; which I can attest to being a solid decision. For me there's been shifts between feelings of fragility and security. Even riding in the MATV and traveling down Highway 1 across Afghanistan hasn't felt that dangerous. It's a HUGE armored vehicle with anti-rocket netting around it. We're in a convoy of 6 vehicles. A gunner mans a weapons turret at the top of the vehicle that's armed with massive shells. Like all specified military vehicles it also has ECM (electronic counter measure) which is a signal jammer to prevent insurgents from remotely detonating IED's underneath the vehicle with cell phones. The rocket attacks on Bagram and Kandahar were a little unsettling. Similar to hearing a phantom cell phone ring from your pocket, I heard a few phantom rocket warning sirens in my head. The whir of an air conditioner or laptop sometimes registered in my mind as a warning from the basewide loudspeakers about rocket attacks.

The most bizarre feeling I got was last night while standing in the hallway, waiting for our briefing with Colonel Frank. On the wall were framed pictures of soldiers who were killed in aciton in the RC South (Regional Command South) area; some from the Striker Brigade who Jeff and I are going to embed with. As I looked at the framed pictures of each soldier I didn't just see the nicely staged photo with flags in the background. I didn't just see the smiling face and freshly pressed uniform. No, as morbid as it may be, I was unwillingly overcome with mental images of these soldiers' faces grimacing in pain, covered in blood as if they'd just been killed on the battlefield. I know that's not how they should be remembered, nor how their families remember them. But the truth is that when you're our here, despite a few things that distract you from the warzone atmosphere, you can't help but see the darker side of things. It's sorta silly to say that after being here 9 days and knowing I'm leaving in 9 more, when most of these soldiers have been through 3, 4, 5 deployments for 12 to 16 months at a time. But I guess I'm getting at least a little taste of what they see, feel, and experience. From talking to soldiers I've gathered that the pain of what they experience is rivaled by the pain of what they don't experience. Like Sgt Maul who is a medic on his 3rd tour of duty who hasn't been around for any of his 4 years son's birthdays. Or another Sgt who couldn't be around when her father left her mother and then her mother came down with a serious illness. It hurt me to hear about those experiences, so I can't imagine what it feels like to live through them. I'm guessing it's a quite helpless feeling.

Our MATV's are back on the road now. Better get buckled in.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Catch Up.

I've slowed down on the blogging because the days have been getting busier and busier. We've been averaging 20 hour work days. It seems every time Jeff and I go out on a story, we start 3 more before returning home. There's just so many things going on, so many good stories. A few of our completed stories are up on http://www.newschannel5.com/category/209916/assignment-afghanistan and we're already getting a positive reponse from the troops here who have seen them. That's pretty rewarding to see their eyes light up with pride and thankfulness. For future stories we've got one about helicopter pilots, unexpected rank promotions, another sit-down with General Campbell, and a story about a Sgt. anticipating the arrival of her wedding ring in the mail. All good stuff!
And that's all before we leave for the real deal when we embed with the 502 infantry regiment, the last of the 2nd Brigade here from Ft Campbell. We will likely deploy with them somewhere in South Afghanistan on Monday. So it's good I got plates for my kevlar vest today, because although they add weight and bulk, they offer a lot of added protection. Other than flying over the base boundaries, our embed with 2nd Brigade will be our first extended trip off post. Gone will be the amenities of air conditioning, the DFAC (dining facility), a mattress, wifi, electricity, TGI Fridays...that's right, there's a TGI Fridays here in Kandahar haha! Jeff and I actually ate there one evening cause the DFAC closed early. If you ignored the loud planes flying overhead, the military trucks rumbling by, and the soldiers decked out in camo with assault rifles, it really felt like you were back in the states.
But as we learned yesterday, feelings of security or normality can be misleading. Bases are typically the most secure areas, but just a day after leaving Bagram a rocket crashed 25 yards from where we had been staying at the Media Resource Center. A few people were injured in the surrounding area and it left Jeff and I with an eerie looming unease. In the mean time we just hope for the best and trust that the military will keep us safe. They do seem to have a thorough understanding and good strategy for handling the predicaments here. Jeff and I have had the priviledge of receiving multiple classified strategic briefings from high ranking officials like General Campbell to help us grasp the overall status of the mission in Afghanistan to help us report on it accurately. Those briefings have unquestionably been some of the most interesting moments of the trip.
So overall the days have been busy, but we're trying to slow down and get some rest so that we don't get sick. Yesterday we got closer to 8 hours of sleep and that's also the plan for tonight. (In fact, I totally dozed off while writing this sometime after 10pm, which is about 6 hours earlier than my usual bedtime here.) So that's a good thing. On that note, I'm gonna go back to sleep, got a big day of editing before we ship off with the 2nd Brigade.