From twenty thousand feet over Turkish airspace, the land below is grey and monochrome with no sign of life. It's winter, and the landscape has yet to reveal anything about itself or what's to come.
Our mission is to embed with the current 10th Mountain Division. Our videocamera is our weapon of choice. Our subject is the current 10th Mountain soldiers patrolling the high grounds in the mountainous Pakistan border.
We're traveling to Afghanistan to explore how today's 10th soldiers carry on the legacy of the original 10th. A long way from home, it's anyone's guess what these young soldiers even know of the legendary 10th. The mission has changed. The technology is different. Part of this journey is seeing how they're connected, and taking it from here.
Descending to ten thousand feet, small villages appear in the draws, scattered, disconnected, except by thousand year old tracks. At five thousand feet, the parcels of land break out, well-formed as any Iowa plot, dotted with long metal silos glinting on their sides. Fields wet with snow melt and the beginnings of winter wheat form the jagged puzzle pieces. The same winter wheat I see from my kitchen window, thousands of miles ago. It's wetter here-way more than you'd think from the pictures of dusty Turkish bazaars.
Magic hour is long and pink-or is that the clouds of the centuries hovering over the mountains circling the plains? It could be amber fields of grain half a world away, and surely the bread basket to a city on the horizon.
Two thousand feet and slowly gliding into the haze hovering across this valley. There must be a silo per person. Then rows and rows of olive trees form acres of groves on the outskirts of town, backing up to the backyards of a modern city.
At one thousand feet, the river reveals its green and blue colors, winding by a distant mosque with ancient bridges connecting its banks‹and time. At five hundred feet, modern housing mixes with old neighborhoods. We touch down amid World War II Quonsets, brakes in full play, slowing to a new timezone and a piece of the ancient world as soldiers button up and ready for today's war. Insurlec, Turkey.
415 AM LOCAL TIME/1115 ZULU
It's 48 hours into the flight from Fort Drum in upstate New York, and its starting to feel like a scene from the worst case scenario book. Because of airspace issues, we flew east‹past Afghanistan to get here, and will double back to fly into the country. This was all news to me. I quickly learned Kyrgyzstan was landlocked and mountainous, it borders Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the southeast. Descended from the Mongol Empire, ruled by the Turks, then Russians and eventually the Soviets, this is a crash course world history, as well as the 10th.
The briefing at Manas Air Base fills in some bizarre gaps‹this is the place for the massage/manicure combo and a decent omelet if you're up for it before the C-130 carnival ride continues on to Kabul. The 10th Mountain Division Band is on board too, headed out on tour to cheer up the troops, and the boys in the band are in good form. They're part official musical ambassadors and part Animal House with amplifiers, pumped up by an aging Mick Jagger DVD blasting from the Rec Hall.
I pick up some new words, like "pallet-ize-ing" hundreds of identical duffels from pallets-turned-baggage claim. Local workers are all Russian, along with the processed milk and water, which is all good at this early hour. We stay mobile, stay bundled, ready to board when ever there's space on a flight, nobody wanting to crack a duffle.
The base is really dark, minimally lit for security reasons. The moon will be full in a few days, and the additional light will be helpful. Finally we pack aboard a C-130, and settle into the web-slung benches (think sling-meets-beach chairs at thirty thousand feet.) Immediately everyone's digital cameras come out for snapshots of each other hamming it up. Once the ramps are sealed, the flight deck heats up (must be at least 40 degrees F!) and we taxi so long we might as well drive to Afghanistan. Eventually we drone our way to the west, slipping in early morning catnaps on swiped airline pillows and ever-present earplugs. Our destination is only one flight away.
Bagram has been home for lots of people, and the 10th Mountain Division are the new kids on the block. In 2001, the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces occupied opposing ends of the base in the "Battle for Bagram." Before that, it was the Soviets who departed in great haste. But it really started centuries ago with horse-riding invaders, and it's been changing hands ever since.
Gorgeous snowcapped fifteen thousand foot mountains tower to the north. Even from a distance they loom. Thirty miles south is the Afghan capital Kabul, once the country's cultural center but now increasingly trampled, neglected and basically bombed out due to constantly warring factions. At five thousand feet, Bagram is cold enough in the winter and a cauldron in summer. Though the huge snowy mountains have no treeline, their thick winter snow line belies the summer's intense sun and heat.
Finally we touch down at Bagram Air Base, are processed, packaged and punched in. The lounging around on long flights is over. My 10th Mountain public affairs escorts are helpful lining up locations, interviews and B-Roll; locating people spread over the country is tricky‹it would be impossible without them. Mines from years of previous wars are scattered throughout the base, throughout the region. One of the first briefings today is mine identification, always good to know. Some of them don't look much different than other trash littering the ground, exceptionally deadly trash.
We begin Day One (or Day Three?) with the 10th by interviewing what the public affairs nervously warns me is the most difficult person here, an all-business command sergeant major. Hmmmm, doesn't sound like he likes cameras and questions much. Filming on a rooftop near the Control Tower, his message points are finely tuned. He's well informed, passionate about the 10th Mountain experience, and full of parallels with the original 10th‹they're flesh and blood heroes these soldiers really look up to.
During down time later, I actually saw a public affairs training card with enough message points to cover any contingency, not that it's helpful to know the answers in advance. My notes are full of cryptic scribbles, abbreviations and acronyms about footage and people to locate, almost like a treasure hunt.
At sunset, pink glowed through the barbed wire on the ring road around Bagram, where a rusty graveyard of destroyed Russian Mig fighter planes were a bulldozed reminder of the violent upheaval of Russian's departure in 1999. It could be a decrepit used car lot from a Stephen King novel. Taped off areas are plastered with warning signs about mines and explosives. Twisted tanks dot fields. Carcasses of old truck frames. All deserted. All destroyed.
Off to the chow line where Brown and Root has it down from eons of experience. Who knew you'd find a salad bar, chicken, omelets on demand in Afghanistan? My press tent roomies are journalists, some complete with video editing, and all at least as tired as me.
This flight is sweet! Only twenty people in a C-130 headed over the mountains and down to Kandahar at a dusty 1700 feet elevation and balmy seventy degrees. Landing at Kandahar's Russian-built tourist airport is surreal, set against the military backdrop. This was the site of the Taliban's "last stand" two years ago, if it's not a jinx to call it a last stand, and a huge crater in Headquarters is a ever-present reminder.
Interviews today are with officers from the 2002 Operation Anaconda, the 10th's biggest action here so far. It was definitely under difficult conditions the original 10th would relate to. The short story about Operation Anaconda involved coalition forces trying to secure mountainous terrain of the remote Shahi-Kot Valley. Basically they faced up to a thousand Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters holed up in caves and ridges. Some believed Osama bin Laden and other high value targets were there, which accounts for the intense interest. It's an understatement to say it was a complex operation, and it's worth reading up on. Just about everything that could go wrong did‹for all sides. A common interview response reveals a lot of team credit, and sometimes these soundbites are an eerie echo of interviews from WW II vets‹like they could finish each other's sentences. Maybe they're cut from the same cloth, or the shared experience of war, or both. Passing through HQ between interviews, I see McKay's book "The Last Ridge" perched on a desk. Amazed it made it over here so fast!
6 AM LOCAL TIME/1315 ZULU
Time keeping here is not for the math-challenged. Zulu Time, aka Greenwich Mean Time, is common. But so is the local Afghanistan time, which is 9 _ hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The time conversions are endless, plus factor in the peculiar half hour timezone dreamed up by angry Afghans who didn't want to be in the same timezone as their enemies. Needless to say, being on time (whatever that is) is a challenge, regardless of local custom.
Today we're off on a chopper flight tomorrow to the interior of the country on a supply mission to Deh Rawood firebase. The 10th soldiers loading into the chopper at dawn are nonchalantly ready to go, staggering under enormous backpacks. It makes the original 10th's ninety pounds of rucksack seem quaint. An interesting mix of cultures, ethnicities, many are barely out of high school. After tons of cargo is loaded, people cram in. The pallets of gear have more room!
The flight to Deh Rawood is amazing: over an incredible range of mountain with sheer hanging valleys walls falling off to nothing, stacked right on top of another, peak after jaggy peak. As fast as you approach the range, you're over them, way past, suddenly buzzing mud hut villages with horse and camels scattering from the approaching chopper.
Apparently the Taliban like it too, this has been a stronghold for them among the ancient ruins.
On the ground at Deh Rawood we film the 10th deploying, supplies up and offloaded, other troops coming aboard. A few Special Forces stand out, and later as the Public Affairs officer records over their images, we realize how little we really know‹and are told. Sometimes they blend right in‹only their street shoes are different.
Returning to Kandahar, we fly over the most beautiful blue reservoir, with snowy mountains in the background and the rolling desert sands foreground. Its paradise, if you're OK with mud hut living. Sheep and sheep trails are every where in this otherwise remote and roadless region.
Back at Kandahar, several quirks of fate await and astound me, and I don't mean the latte either (though that was a surprise.)
Before departing for Afghanistan, an original 10th vet forwarded an email of correspondence between him and a Kandahar Sgt he supplies with Care packages. Would I keep an eye out for Eugene while in country? It seemed an improbable request considering the country is at war, practically impassable and everyone is all spread out and on mission. The chances must be one in a billion Eugene would stop to chat with his friend‹my press contact, back on base. But he did, and it took me two seconds staring at his name tag to make the connection. During an interview later where he reflects on the 10th bond, much like the original vets, I realize the walls are plastered with posters of notables, honoring Black History Month, and one of the posters is the former PBS Program Chief Jennifer Lawson, who advised me on this project early on. Now apparently a pin-up girl on the Pakistan border, she really was a long way from home. But besides the latte, Inquiring Minds want to know what the Alaska Crab legs and shrimp are doing here? I'm not kidding.
New day, off at dawn on chopper to Orgun-E firebase about 20 miles from the Pakistan border, which is about as remote as it gets. En route, the view from the gunner's door changes from dry, tan rolling hills to long stretches of high desert. If you needed to train for going to the moon, this would be a good place.
Then enormous mountains rise to our north. Looking down, more high desert with lots of ruins. Apparently when your house falls down, you build a new one next door, which explains the courtyard network. Sometimes you see walled villages, home to several family groups, with huge decoratively painted front doors. Really gigantic doors-you could drive a truck through them (if you had a truck which is not too likely.)
Orgun-E firebase is a forward operating base, meaning it's small (you won't get lost in it) and not much to look at (tents & mud huts.) But it's got what it takes to operate in the surrounding harsh mountain terrain. This is perfect 10th country: rough, tough, cold and inhospitable, contrary to the local Afghans working on the base who are friendly and smile a lot. A couple drive ornately painted jingo trucks, decked out with bells so you always hear them coming.
On arrival we're briefed and assigned sleeping quarters. Not bad, a tent with pot belly wood burning stove, cots, even lights, though electricity is non-existent, you can't have everything. The wood is a very soft & quickburning, probly from brush or scrub. There's not a tree for hundreds of miles. Heard that Tom Brokaw came and went last week, and it seem I'm mistaken for every female reporter who has ever been to Afghanistan, how ever many that might be at this point.
The mountains overlooking Orgun-E are perfect for Taliban to launch rockets down into the firebase, which is situated in a basin at seven thousand five hundred feet. So the 10th patrols into the mountains are always on the look out. Getting up in the mountains is no picnic for either side. Roads‹if you can call them that, are mudtracks (at best) but more likely non-existent.
About three hundred soldiers live at the firebase. Their primary mission is patrolling the mountains, getting familiar with the terrain and towns, getting friendly with the local folks and helping out in general. That's always been a 10th attribute, from their WW2 mission in the mountains of Italy to these high and dry mountains on the Pakistan border. Sometimes that means providing food, medical and veterinary support, looking for weapons at the same time, taking questionable Taliban or al-Qaeda in for interrogation and always working to gain trust with the elders. They're not kicking in doors‹they have a give-away approach that endears them.
We interview a captain who recently lost a soldier on patrol nearby. Very real, not coming off ultra-hard, you can tell he has heart even in the worst of the war. May be his Iowa farm boy background was good training for hardship on the edge of civilization. Like just about every 10th soldiers I've ever spoken to, he prefers to be out on patrol, not on base.
Patrol starts with the 87th A Company, driving humvees thru villages and across plains. Soldiers have huge bags of candy sent from home, and are throwing it to waving kids on the roadside. With military-like precision (minus a gun sight) they shout coordinates "Princess ahead on left," "kids on right." Part parade, part tooth fairy diplomacy, it would make a dentist cringe, but it's good stuff. Sometimes they throw the contents of the MRE food packs, except the chemical heating wafer which is poison, and unfortunately has been ingested in the past.
Afghan kids stand barefoot in ankle deep in snow. Most American kids would die on the spot under these conditions, figuratively if not literally. A few lucky kids have plastic jelly sandals you might see at the beach. Even deep snow doesn't slow them down. But when children aren't lining their route, the soldiers are extra weary, it often signals danger ahead.
As we drive by, there's a boy with no legs in a wheel chair, probably a victim of the mines still littering the landscape. He's as enthusiastic about the soldiers as the others, all thumbs up and shouting for candy. Besides the candy, the kids love pens. If you have a pen, you can be a student. If you're a student you can get a better job. With better job, you can have a better life. And it all starts with a pen. A pen is like gold to them.
Thru the foothills to the base of nearby mountains, we travel along dry stream beds, eventually stopping where it gets too steep for the humvee. Then we scramble to the top of the mountains by foot. Sometimes thru snow, mostly up fragile shale which scatters downslope, always looking for mines, a foothold, a handhold, and fighting the gear which constantly pulls us downhill. Following the ridgelines up and down and around, we cover the same thousand foot elevation several times. But the pattern is OK: everyone takes about 20 steps, stops, looks for rockets and snipers, so there's always rest and recovery. It's a great work out, which is code for hard enough. An invitation to join an upcoming five day patrol doesn't seem too inviting now, I've got the idea‹and plenty of footage.
When we reach the top of the mountain, the view down the valley is tremendous, sparkling in the sun. Soldiers spread out along the ridge, waiting through the late afternoon rocket hour, the time the Taliban like best for launching rockets and slipping away in the twilight. How they get to these places is pretty incredible. Mostly donkeys loaded with rockets and launchers. They blend in so well, lie wait so quietly, that the soldiers rely on hunches as much as any real clue that the enemy awaits. They said sometimes it's just feeling enough to put them on edge. Taliban and al Qaeda travel as woodgatherers until they pick up a gun, use it, drop it and pick up an armload of wood. The soldiers are wary of even the smallest child begging for candy. But a stray puppy on the road home becomes their new mascot, and a welcome addition. It's almost like it was their child.
Back at the firebase, everybody clears out and cleans up for dinner which is a variety of canned food. Regular flights re-supply the base, but they're regularly grounded by heavy weather at the ten thousand foot passes separating Orgun-E from lower elevations. Not much happens in the evening: we stockpile wood for the night, pack up for an early chopper back to Kandahar, clean the dust from every crevice of the cameras over in the HQ, which has heat and light, unlike the tent. It's buzzing with security issues, and it's clear something is up.
We wake up to an early morning snowfall of 3 inches-just enough to throw aviation into a tailspin. Then visibility shuts down as a stalled weather front on the Pakistan border begins to dump another 15 inches of heavy snowfall. The incoming flight carrying the base COL is turned back by weather, and there's goes our ride, all air support cancelled.
Actually, this is pretty typical (if not good) weather for the 10th. Living at Fort Drum in upstate New York, they've had a lot of practice with the cold, not to mention the 10th legacy of loving winter. If they don't like it, their motto is "Embrace the suck."
On the upside, all sides take the day off from the war, it could be a snow day from school. Instead of patrols, soldiers play video games, watch movies, sleep, eat. We keep cameras rolling and interview a Major who knows a lot about the original 10th. He has managed to import military issue 1950's ski equipment way out here. It's an upgrade from the 1940's issue used by the original 10th, probly left from their Cold War days in Korea, but it's surprise finding it here. It has convertible telemark/downhill bindings, big telescoping metal poles and calf length leather boots. He takes it for a spin on mine cleared trails outside the wire, and calls it PT for the day, not bad.
The day goes by and we hang out and interview six privates from 87-A Company. Their insights and interviews are remarkable‹I don't think they've seen the official message points playbook kicking around Bagram. What's extraordinary is how well-versed they privates are about the original 10th soldiers during World War II. They feel a tremendous responsibility to live up to the legend and take it forward. When they're in difficult situations, one soldier says he thinks about how much worse it was for the original 10th and it keeps him going. They have a variety of reasons for being here, ranging from duty to revenge for 9/11.
They're very young, and very old at the same time. A year ago, half of them were either in high school or delivering pizza. They're ready, even if they're weary, thinking about the upcoming five day mission into the mountains, now delayed by the swirling snow. But there's no sign of let up, and it's like we're living in a snowglobe.
Our video camera definitely dislikes the snowglobe life and ever-present dust, and disagreeably shuts down. So we take it apart, and dry it out by the fire, which is about all we can do, but it's not enough. They're calling for another foot of snow tomorrow, so there's no chopper flight in sight for us, and no mission for the impending patrol without chopper med-evac support. They would still rather be out there.
The sun is trying to break thru heavy clouds, and visibility is better. The snow lets up and everything is sloppy as the temperature hovers just over 32 degrees F'. With no chance of any chopper flights or missions, the soldiers are totally bored by now, and even edgy‹they really want to get out on patrol.
Camera is still not working so we spend the day at the Signal Corps shack, where wiz kids love nothing better than to work on this $60,000 camera with hair dryers, forced air and soldering guns. Their roof leaks with all the melting snow, and it's Tarp City in there. Actually the instant sauna aspect is pretty comfy, if it weren't created by water on the diesel heater. One unlucky soldier gets a free shower when he accidentally bumps a tarp.
The Signal Corps shack has a computer with internet, but takes about 30 minutes to get thru a couple messages before the system crashes. After a little news from home, it occurs to me there's really no outside news getting in here. Kandahar & Bagram seem deluxe now, with their lattes and massages, which you could certainly use after carrying all the gear and flak on patrol. Every five days there's hot water for showers, and tonight's the night. That's a good day!
Another day waiting on the flight line in Orgun-E, everything still cancelled. One guy has been waiting for a month to get out‹and has been cancelled on all six flights. No wonder he's a little dejected. The five day mission is cancelled again. Since the Taliban and al Qaeda forces hate this weather too, there's no action anywhere, and a minimal chance of contact.
Instead I learn more about the civilian affairs missions where they help the villages dig wells, build schools and raise living standards in general, much like the original 10th did for the Italians in 1945. All the soldiers at Orgun-E are tremendous with great attitudes & the Right Stuff. One soldier said it was like video game being here, except you only get one life and there' no re-load button.
On days like this, the real enemy is boredom. Movies are replayed endlessly, as if some alternate ending might miraculously appear. The Zulu Time conversations are endless, enough to keep you up-or put you to sleep. There's no windows on any buildings so at night black out conditions exist. No wonder getting outside is so desirable.
Still no luck getting the videocamera working, and my cameraman's analysis is something along the lines of "It's dead," which has not proved helpful so far. The Signal Corps Sgt is able to dial up Army bases in the U.S. so I place a call home to my husband, who had his videocamera crash out while filming in Antarctica. He knows the drill of how to diagnose and fix by phone. After a lot of diagnostic Q & A, the camera slowly comes back to life, and we're back in business, off to film target practice.
The big surprise came late in the day: a Blackhawk chopper arrives with the Colonial. This is our ride, we say quick goodbyes and pack it in. The other passengers are clearly Special Forces, strapped from head to toe with ammo and guns and seriously anonymous behind dark glasses. The flight to Kandahar is smooth, fast and low-flying. The best ride so far, as long as the Blackhawk stays up I think. There's so much forbidding land in this country, it's amazing the Afghanis eke out anything but a sub-standard existence. Endless rocks and mountains, mountains and rocks. Kandahar no longer seems remote-it's more like a resort by comparison. Just when you think you're in a remote place, there turns out to be someplace even more so. One soldier told me he lived for months at a time out of a humvee, coming into base every 30 days to shower.
Once we touch down at Kandahar, we have the fastest turnaround ever, hitching a ride on a small fixed wing airplane to Bagram. Arriving near midnight, we all turn in before another day begins.
This seems like the lap of luxury and every one sleeps in til 8 this morning. We keep missing the 10th's commanding General, who is always in another city no matter where we are. Instead we head off to interview the Chief of Staff, a soft, well-spoken Colonial dedicated to helping the 10th transform the situation here. He gives a lot of credit to every 10th soldier with boots on the ground.
We're supposed to catch a flight back to the State late today, but there's a lot of false starts and sitting around. Going through customs at Bagram to exit the country, a large display of elegant bongs and hookahs is a warning to anyone who tries to smuggle out anything related to the ever-present drug trade. The officer wryly comments that one industrious soldier tried to smuggle out an elaborate bong disguised as a lamp, now the center piece of the display. Eventually we board a C-17 for Turkmenistan, taxi out, get scrubbed and turn back. After many more hours, we're summoned by the Commanding General, who's arrived back on base and available. With our camera gear packed and palletted along with hundreds of other identical duffel bags, there is no way to find the gear, and we're back on the flight line.
Finally our number is up (in a good way) and we board a C-130 for Germany, then on to the States, another 36 hours before getting back to Maryland. These 10th soldiers were way more connected to the 10th legacy than I'd dreamed. Having privates on the Pakistan border telling me the history of the 10th was astounding, a real eye opener, with terrific footage chronicling the whole trip. It could easily be its own program and the hard part will be deciding what to use.
For More Information Contact:
Abbie Kealy, 5316 Glen Falls, Reisterstown, MD 21136
(443) 570- 9482 | E-mail: AbbieKealy@hotmail.com