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Another investigation of the Battle of Wanat

Rabbi Chaplain Visits Afghanistan

Below is a Navy Chaplain's report about his short stay in Afghanistan.  He's a Rabbi assigned to care for the spiritual warfare of Marines - assisting with the jewish holidays.  Thought you might find it interesting:

Thursday, 24 September

Finding a computer is a real challenge – and then hoping the internet is up is the next challenge.  They do have an internet tent which is very hot, crowded and very slow…so, this borrowed account is my best chance.

Getting out of Camp [redacted] was the last event I last wrote about – and I have since learned that this is the norm.  So there we were, having missed the 3:30 p.m. flight and told to wait until 5:00 p.m. or so, when we were then told that 7:05 p.m. would be the next possibility.  Now, if you want to walk about 2 miles across the runway to the other airfield that launches planes (not helicopters) there should be a C-130 transport plane that is supposed to fly to Camp [redacted].  Was it the heat, the dust, the walk or that I just didn’t believe anything anyone said, and that they just wanted us to stop bothering them?  So we stayed put and we waited...

...The “lounge” is a sand pit with a torn tarp covering a portion of it and chairs which must have been a joke when constructed.  They took pieces of plywood and created a kind of deep “X” pattern where your back rests on the back of the “X” and your butt is down in the “V” part and then your legs are lifted up the left side of the hard wood “X” – so, as one walks by you’d see a surreal scene of all these legs in the air like an Afghani gynecology office.  And, after sitting in the chair for an hour or so, getting out means rolling off to the side into the dirt and then getting up off your knees.

Anyway, after we loaded up, shuffled through the dark to the helos – blasting dust and sand all over us – we were waved off and told they were taking no passengers…and they would be back.  The delay was to be until 01:30 a.m., so we had five more hours to kill.

I suggested that we go grab some dinner in the mini-DFAC – where they had warm drinks, cereal (no milk) and some cake.  Maybe not SouthBeach, but a way to kill some time in a tent with A/C.  So, I sipped the water (ice was non-potable) and positioned myself under the hole in the large tube blowing air, when “click” – off went then air conditioning.  I went up to the man in charge (it turns out he was from Nepal) and asked what happened?  He said, “No air, my friend…no air.”  My puzzled look asked “Why?”  He said, “After 8:00 until 5:00 next morning…we have no air.”  It felt like I was on Apollo XIII trying to find a corner of the room with air, so we just left.

The Marines in the ADOC (waiting area) said they would find us a tent with a cot to rest for the 5 hours, so we began to walk around barbed wire and down paths to a tent with its lights still on, and this was to be our home.  I had no pillow, blanket or jacket…but spread out on an available cot and tried to get some rest.  At first, I thought it was comfortably cool until it got colder and colder.  After an hour my “curling up technique” was not keeping me warm against the A/C, so I rolled off the cot and made my way to the flap and outside.  Reaching for my flashlight, I tried to remember which direction I came from to get back to the airfield, so I walked.

With my flashlight waving light before me, nothing looked familiar.  I was leaving the tented area and heading toward an unfamiliar wall.  It was dark everywhere and now only the distant lights of the tents were behind me, so I stopped.  So, I turned around and with four hours to make my way back to the flight, I thought, what’s the hurry?  So, standing before the tent again…I walked the other way, following barbed wire until I saw the chem lights of the airfield…and I was back in the “doctor’s waiting room” of wooded chairs.

Sipping water and making regular trips to the full porta-potty helped pass the time until we were told to present our hands to have "[redacted]” written with the permanent marker so the aircrew could put us on the right helo and get us off in [redacted].  Finally, at 0200 I could hear the CH-53 in the distance and saw two of them making their approach.  The “moon dust” (as it is called) blew everywhere as they landed. Now my concern was to get on the right one.

So, with hands extended, we marched past the air crew who shone a red light on our hand and mouthed something amidst the roar of the engines.  I had goggles down, collar up and with flak and helmet reached into the helo and yanked myself up.  Now, a dry seat…hmmm.  I looked up for drips and down for puddles, then for seats that were not stained with hydraulic fluid and there it was.

I buckled in and got ready for the 30 minute flight as we took off in darkness, with only the occasional light of a village to be seen.  We flew and flew, for 45 minutes, and we flew.  I didn’t want to take a snooze, so I could be alert if need be…so peering through my fluid stained goggles we rolled another 15 minutes until I could see [redacted].  As we touched down and the dust flew in the air, I unsnapped my belt and was ready for my rack.

The ride back in the beaten-up van was 30 minutes, and (thank you) I was dropped near my tent.  It was almost time to wake up, but I needed a shower to get the dust and fluid off me.  So, with just another push of energy I walked the 100 yards or so to the shower.  It was quiet and empty, so I chose a stall, and there was no water.  Hmmm.  So, out I went to the Pagoda and took 6 liters of drinking water and used one to get wet and soap down, and five to rinse off and I was fresh for another day.  After getting back in the rack I was hungry, so, after an hour’s rest, I threw on fresh clothes and headed off for breakfast.

Food has been quite the treat.  That crackling noise in my pockets are the Pepto-Bismol packets I carry to every meal.  I thought after such a dusty trip, I would treat myself to a special dessert.  I looked at the selections of cakes and cookies and pointed to and orange colored pie.  I said to the man, “one slice please.”  He said, “It sweet…yes?”  Odd comment I thought, not expecting salty or sour pie.  “Okay…sweet is good.”  “Cold sweet, okay?”  Well, I did not want it heated, so I smiled a dumb “yes” smile as he handed me a piece of frozen sweet potato pie.  Ahhh…now I had the full translation as I and the others stuck a fork in the middle of it and ate it like a popsicle.  It is easy to understand why our local grocery stores at home do not sell “brown” tuna fish…because all of it is here!  Once you douse it in lemon and eat it fast it is quite nice.

Camp [redacted] is a large base which comprises the Marine Base as well as a home to the Danes, Brits, and Estonians.  There are also a large number of DOD Civilian workers and the TCN (Third Country Nationals).  I have still searched for anything of interest in any direction, but we are living in what the Afghanis call the “Desert of Death.”  No water, no trees, just dusty sand and rocks.  I made a visit to the hospital which is a beautiful structure.  It is primarily run by the Danish Army, with others filling in.  It was a long way from my tent by car, but near the airfield for life-flight.  The mortuary affairs was also connected to its property.

From there, in the heat of the day, we began to visit my guys at the airfield.  After a pleasant time with the MAG CO, I had a better understanding of the scope of the operation, the grueling conditions under which they work and the strain it places on all of them.  The runway that they laid is the largest ever by a Support Unit.  They had to level a desert and then interlock pieces of concrete until it was big enough to land a large transport jet.

 My guys of [redacted] are about a half hour from my tent and in the heat of the dusty desert.  They have strung together tents with some wood connections.  Until only two weeks ago, only two tents had A/C.  And that was through a summer of 125’ temperatures each day.  It was home to some very brave crews and pilots that fly under the worst conditions to provide air support for those on the ground.  The level of danger is very high and no one will come home the same person that left San Diego.  We stayed for most of the afternoon and just talked about the stressors and combat.  What I will be able to take back with me is an understanding of readiness for the issues that face those going to Afghanistan and those that our military carry back with them and are in need assistance in de-briefing.  While my short stay is tiring at times, it pales in comparison to what these Marines are doing each day – for seven months.

I got back in the van as the Chaplain began to drive back to [redacted].  Dust blew in the windows that don’t shut and can only drive 20 mph because there are no roads, just a path through the sand.  These Chaplains are here for the year, the heat, the dirt and now a new warning to check daily for ticks.  What plague or disease could possibly be next?  I thanked the Chaplain for giving me the day and dragging me around, and he (an old friend for years) just said, “Rabbi, pray for me.”  And he drove off.

 Shabbat services are tomorrow and then Yom Kippur over the weekend.  Then, we will begin to weave our way out of Afghanistan and on to Kuwait and home.

Welcome home, Sir!

L'shana tova, tikatevu.