Saturday, July 17, 2010

Return to Afghanistan

I’ve been to war seven times. Tomorrow will mark the start of the eighth trip. A twelve hour flight from Dulles Airport to Kuwait International shoe-horned into an economy class seat will be followed by a shuttle bus ride out to a coalition air base called Ali Al Salem. Depending on the availability of military hops, a day or so might be spent acclimatizing to the heat and getting over jet lag while waiting on a flight to Kandahar Air Field.

My last time in Kandahar was during a frigid January in 2002. The former international airport had been blasted back to the Stone Age. Journalists and Marines spent nights sleeping on concrete floors and days huddled around a fire blazing in a dry fountain in the central courtyard of the main terminal building. Beyond great ovoid windows facing outward behind abandoned check-in counters lay the great expanse of Southern Afghanistan. The windows had the symmetry of a Mondrian painting, with the addition of bullet holes and shattered glass. With each setting sun a crazy quilt of blue and orange light would play through them across arched interior walls.

Life in and around the small coalition forces’ foothold in Kandahar was primitive. Toilets were plywood shacks open to the harsh winter wind. I met the commanding officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit with trousers around my ankles sharing a lone roll of toilet paper. Off to one side of the ramshackle commodes was the “piss pit”, a shallow ten feet by ten feet depression in the ground filled with rocks and perpetually on fire, yes, on fire. Night time trips to the facilities meant following lines strung with blue chem lights and at least one serious stumble on bits and pieces of the blasted terminal building. Food was strictly MREs. Failing to sleep with water bottles and canteens meant you could look forward to going thirsty. You can’t drink frozen water.

Now, they tell me, the place has completely changed. Something called The Boardwalk offers civilized amenities. However, the old terminal building complex, which included a pocked marked mosque, remains much as I left it and is now fenced off. I wonder if land mines are the reason. In 2002 a day rarely passed without some unlucky guy stepping on a toe popper and losing a foot.

In 2002 I carried weapons to Afghanistan. This time no guns. I do have a good set of body armor and a new Kevlar helmet. A pair of well worn combat boots is joined by fresh pairs of hiking socks, but no guns. My gear has been packed and re-packed a dozen times. The new flak jacket, without a holster and pouches for both a pistol and rifle magazines looks strange. I had a big Velcro patch that says PRESS done up at one of the uniform shops out in Quantico town. We’ll see if it offers the same amount of protection as sixty 9mm and a hundred and eighty 5.56 full metal jacketed 55 grain NATO rounds. I once traveled with the Wall Street Journal writer Michael Phillips in Ramadi, and he had a piece of duck tape on the back of his flak with PRESS written with indelible marker in English. I asked him why it wasn’t in Arabic. His answer was quick and candid, “It’s there for the Marines”.

For the past three months I’ve spent a couple hours each afternoon at the corner gym on a stair climber in a flak jacket with a full Camelback water bladder attached. Nature’s been kind to me, but I’m eight and a half years older since last humping the wilds of Kandahar. The additional weight is about fifty pounds. Out in the field a three day pack will add another thirty or forty pounds. So, at least the battle load, without weapon and ammo, will be down to eighty pounds.

Although no longer in uniform, the hardest part of going to war remains the same; saying goodbye to loved ones and knowing my greatest passion, being a war artist, is the source of their greatest fears. My mother and daughter have been through this before, but they’re as anxious as ever. My fiancée Janis, although she’s been to war herself, is putting on a brave front, but I know she’s scared. She knows that war is far more difficult for those staying behind. Episodes of actual combat are few and far between. Those of us at war know where we are and our level of safety. Folks back home don’t and find their days and nights disturbed by constant uncertainty. Now it’s Janis’ turn to worry. I wish I had more than pat phrases to counter her fears. All I can tell her, as well as my daughter and Mom, is how much I love them, appreciate their support, and that I won’t place myself in too much danger. Unfortunately, one of those three things is a bold-faced lie.

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