Friday, November 12, 2010

Adventures in Nahri-e-Shahri

Last week the Recon Company of the Battalion of ANA soldiers that we mentor was tasked to pull security and have a presence in the Nahri-e-Shahri distict, during the Afghan Regional Development Conference. I am not really sure what was discussed or happened during the conference meetings, just that Nahri-e-Shahri district is just north of Mazar-e-Sharif and we went to the field to help support a company of our soldiers.

Because of force protection requirements whenever we (the US Army) go outside the wire of our base we have to go with a minimum of three trucks. Which translates to a minimum of at least nine soldiers; each vehicle will have a driver, truck commander (TC), and a gunner. Additionally we will also have at least one interpreter, often two; as well as other US soldier from our team to fill up available seats in our trucks. The Recon company is mentored by our Croatian partners, so they also brought three fully staffed trucks. So we were mentoring a group of about 30 Afghan soldiers, yet we had almost as many mentors for this weekend excursion.

The night before we departed we got our first real rain that left visible traces of moisture since the day we arrived, the 22nd of May. I was quite tickled to finally have some rain, but like everything in life be careful of what you wish for because you just might get it. The paved roads in Afghanistan for the most part are in pretty good shape, the dirt and gravel roads are another story. Heading out to the area in which we would be operating we were slinging mud over the top of our M-ATVs from the recent rain.

Our base of operations for this mission was a school in Nahri-e-Shahri area. Because over the elections there had been some violence in the area surrounding the school we made sure to set up a good perimeter. My truck, affectionately known as The Big Lebowski, drew the unenviable task of taking the area near the school toilets. Because this is Afghanistan, and effective plumbing is sometimes hard to find we were next to a row of outhouses.

Plus compared to western outhouses, they were just little rooms with holes in the floor. In our case the pun did apply, we had the crappy job of guarding the outhouse.

Fortunately for us the enemy did not want to attack the school outhouse both nights that we were there. My truck had a fairly boring night of scanning the area around, seeing only mice and an occasional cat or dog running around. We helped ensure the ability of Afghan children to safely and securely use the toilet in the future.

Both nights that we were out in the field were for the most pretty boring nights for all the guys on the team. One team saw some men doing what they perceived to be kind of suspicious in the middle of night, a few hundred meters from their position. To be on the safe side, a team of the Afghan soldiers were awoken to go out into the field and investigate what the men were doing. By the time the soldiers were awake, a hasty plan was put together, and they started walking towards the men the sun was just starting to come up. When the investigating Afghan soldiers came upon the men, the men ran. As I think I would if armed soldiers surprised me and all I had was a shovel. It turned out that the men were in a field working on an irrigation ditch from about 0300 till sunrise. Who works out in the field in the middle of the night, let alone without a flashlight? Although I think that if you ask the guys who first saw the men in the field, they will still be convinced that they were in the early stages of planning to assault us, with their shovels and mud balls.

When morning arrived, because the school is a working school, we had to pack up everything and move off the school property and hang out in a nearby field. I don’t know who discovered it, but a few hours after we had gotten parked in the field, the senior office of our team, my Croatian Lt Colonel said that I should come with him as there was damage to the school that my truck caused. As the Truck Commander for The Big Lebowski I would be responsible for anything that my truck does. This really confused me when he said there was a problem, as we were careful in parking near the outhouse and could not think of anything that my truck might have done. The M-ATVs that we drive are like driving a 30,000 pound 4X4 semi-truck, only less maneuverable and with a lot of blind spots for the driver. In fact, so many blind spots for the driver that whenever the truck enters a restricted area the truck commander will get out and ground guide the truck. Apparently I did not do a very good job of ground guiding The Big Lebowski, as it got a bit too close to the school and due to the sheer weight of the vehicle cracked a bit of the sidewalk.

We were introduced to the headmaster of the school, and the LTC expressed our regret at causing damage to his school. He said that we correct this damage and help out, to which he basically looked at me. It suddenly became obvious to me where this was headed. I asked my interpreter to ask the headmaster how much it would cost to repair the small portion of sidewalk. In my mind I was prepared for the headmaster to tell me cost for the small portion of sidewalk, but also pad in the cost of the all of the other repairs that school might need. Much to my surprise he said only listed off repairs for the repair of the sidewalk. They would need a bag of cement, and then to pay a man to do the labor to fix the sidewalk. All of this he figured would probably come to about 1500 Afghani’s (Afghani is the Afghanistan form of currency) which translated to about $35. I did not have any Afghani’s, as me giving him US Dollars would have been useless to him.

Fortunately my terp had some Afghani’s to which he paid the man, and I later repaid my terp with dollars. So for $40 dollars I bought my first piece of real-estate in Afghanistan, about two feet of cracked sidewalk.

Even though I really didn’t want to pay for the cracked sidewalk, I knew that in the long run it was the right thing to do. I feared that it would just be a shake down, and if we were to return to the school in a couple years the sidewalk would still be cracked. In addition to it being the right thing to do because we did crack their sidewalk; it showed that the coalition forces want to protect their school and not damage it while protecting it. Much to my surprise when we returned to the school that evening someone had already set up some forms, mixed some concrete and fixed the cracked sidewalk. Seeing that was probably the biggest surprise of my day.

The next day before we called our mission complete, and departed back to our base several of us got to check the block of getting to pet a camel. In the late afternoon three or four camel trains came through on the road near where our vehicles were parked. When we saw the train of camels coming through we grabbed our terps and asked the camel drivers to stop so that we could get some pictures near their animals. We were all like a bunch of kids at a children’s petting zoo. Some were a bit nervous to get next to the large beasts, one of us was able to convince the owner to let him have a short ride on a camel. While most of us, including me, we able to get a picture next the animals. Something that I can say only in Afghanistan was I able to get my picture next some camels.


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