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.


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