After another night in the equivalent of a hotel room, I was ready to get to my final destination, even if it meant hauling ridiculously heavy gear down three flights of stairs. We drove over to “ROK Aviation” (Korean helicopter parking lot). They were extremely friendly and courteous, grabbing our bags, ushering us into their office and assuring us that we would fly on time (though once again no in-flight beverage or service). Sure enough, they got us onto the tarmac and soon we were tossing the bags in and buckling ourselves in. I was very glad to have had the practice in training with the harness, and not be “that guy” fumbling around and holding up the whole show. “That guy” for the flight was a seasoned flyer who had the bad fortune of being twice the size of the average passenger and whose bulk was doubled by a baffling array of gear.
Soon we were rolling, yes rolling, waiting our turn for clearance, and then up we went towards the dust clouds, over the buzzing airport/city/base of Bagram and into the dusty plain. Almost immediately though the brown yielded to green, a river appeared and I saw what looked to me like a rice field. Of course it may have just been that I was looking past the helicopter gunner at a scene that looked way too much like Platoon for comfort. All the same, the plains are stunning, studded with canals, green fields and mud walled compounds.
OK, it's not THAT green
but I didn't want to be "that guy" with the camera
Very soon we were arriving at the base, an impressive affair that made me feel both secure and isolated from the country we flew over.
As luck had it, as soon as we landed, we dumped our bags, rechecked that our gear was squared away (not the time to have your cell phone be out of charge), and headed out on a KLE (see prior posting on KLEs if you’re not keeping up with the lingo). This is not dissimilar to a Sunday drive after church, that is if you grew up in a very large family that drove around in heavily armored vehicles with automatic weapons in the back and a machine gun in the cab.
We were a pretty hard group to miss, and I kept thinking of all the places the Taliban could jump out from. This line of thought occupied me until I noticed the first little boy giving us a thumbs up. Now, if he’s anything like my boys, (and I’m convinced that all boys are basically the same until age 40, when some feel compelled to do something really “out there”) he was not endorsing the coalition presence and embracing the efforts of the international community to bring peace and development to Afghanistan, he was saying “cool truck”. All the same, I reasoned that if enough Taliban dads and big brothers saw the little guys cheering on our cool trucks, they wouldn’t attack, at least at that moment in time…
We engaged the key leader (hint hint KLE) and a series of other contacts in wide-ranging and interesting conversations that I generally don’t plan on relating in this forum for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m sick and tired of writing about them in my daily work. Suffice it to say that my first impressions of the Afghans are that they are a fascinating group, of tremendous diversity bravely facing challenges that would break spirits less intrepid than theirs. While I have seen enough of the world to know that there is more to all my new friends than simple smiles and selfless desire to build the future of Afghanistan, I am certain that my frustration with this tour will include not having more time “outside the wire” to befriend and understand a fascinating people.
Anyhow, after a nice cup of tea (and yes I know I fell two cups short), we mounted up and rolled back to base. This time I was slightly less paranoid, and had time to notice some of the telltale signs of poverty – like the number of school age kids in the street during school hours (though on balance I was still happy to see them), the somewhat vacant stare that marks an illiterate adult, and the fetching of water, which consumes an obscene percentage of the day of girls and women in the developing world. Notwithstanding, there were also plenty of signs of hope, including the high tension power wires overhead, and the wide smooth road we were driving on.
Soon we were back onto the base, the ladder dropped down, and I got my first good look at my new home.