Friday, March 27, 2009

A Plethora of Pictures I've Been Meaning to Post

Life here has been pretty slow for a while, but I've still been taking a lot of pictures:
YoYo with YoYo

For quite a while now I've been meaning to post a handful of photos from daily life around the headquarters. I have failed. So without any further apologies, here they are.

First, here's a shot of me sipping tea at one of the carpet shops on base:
010

This just happened to be the same day that a bunch of the other guys from the office were carpet shopping too (the guy all the way on the left is Mires, one of the shop's owners):
013

Once we were done there, I went on to try on some new battle armor:
020
You've heard of Alexander the Great? I'm Shawn the Pretty Good.
021

Of course, I prefer my own rig:
Action Hero Shawn Thorsson
Here you can see me wearing my usual, ponderous Individual Body Armor with an attached Camelbak hydration system. The rest of the items pictured were my own personal add-ons acquired over the course of my tour so far. Just so you know, the "McLovin" nametape is designed to confuse any potential enemy who is trying to target me personally. It's hard to tell from the picture, but I'm also carrying 60 rounds of 9mm ammunition, 150 5.56mm rounds, two digital cameras, a handheld GPS, a personal locator beacon, a strobe light, a Sharpie, three knives (in addition to the Ka-Bar fighting knife strapped to the left side of my chest), two flashlights, a grappling hook, three Powerbars, and some Kool-aid mix. I added the bullwhip in case I find myself in a subterranean passage and need to swing from an overhead beam in order to escape being crushed by a giant stone ball rolling behind me.

Speaking of changing the subject, I posted the warning sign in the background of the above photo. This was mostly to mock the overwhelming abundance of warning signs found around the base.

Here's me next to Warning Sign #29947:
Safety First

This is me heeding that warning sign behind our State Dept. representative:
Clubbin'
I can't tell you exactly what happened next, but the cleanup took a while.
Shawn Thorsson and his box.
In other news, everybody assumes you're busy when you walk around with a big box.

I apologize if this post is a bit boring. There's been a shortage of inspiring views around here. I spent a day trying to take pretty pictures and this is the best I could manage:
sunstreams

The next day I got a better picture though. This is the headquarters building on a day when all of the flags were at full staff:
HQ building
We need more days like this.

Next up, a fun and exciting trip all over Bamian, Parwan, and Kapisa Provinces. Stay tuned...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

We Really Need More of These Guys

Yesterday an insurgent suicide bomber was heading out to find his target when he stopped to say goodbye to his buddies and accidentally detonated his vest. He killed himself along with six other insurgents.

CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL STORY

Now I know there's no way this guy will be getting his 72 smokin-hot virgins, but I wonder if Allah is willing to prorate him. I mean, instead of 72 hot ones will he at least get half a dozen homely ones for trying? I'm trying to push the idea of having ISAF send his family a thank you note, a posthumous medal, or a cash bonus, but I don't think the idea will go very far.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's the Little Things

A while back we had a couple of traffic accidents that resulted in injuries and deaths among the locals. You may remember a post I wrote a while back of one such incident that sparked a riot which raged on into the evening.

When slowing down or stopping in traffic might enable a suicide bomber to kill you, it's understandable that a lot of the ISAF personnel in Kabul are inclined to drive aggressively. The problem is when it gives the locals the impression that we're driving recklessly. It's hard to convince them that you're on their side if you nearly run them over every time they cross the street or change lanes.

In order to mitigate some of the potential PR damage potential, someone launched an awareness campaign here on the base designed to make people more be more careful behind the wheel. The message was simple, "WE can't win if YOU drive recklessly. Think about it." What could be wrong with that?

The only problem is a simple graphic design flaw that makes it ripe for mockery. The entire message is completely undermined with a couple of simple folds:
AWARENESS

The only thing that upsets me about seeing these posters folded up all over the camp is that I didn't think of it myself.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An Amazingly Wasted Day

The plan was simple. Go to the airport, catch a ride on a USAID* plane headed to Bamian Province, get to know the New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT) there, then find your way back. I've been looking forward to visiting Bamian ever since I've been here.

If Afghanistan ever manages to build a tourist industry, it will be focused in Bamian Province. This is where the world-famous Buddha statues were carved into the cliff faces (the largest known examples of such statues anywhere) used to be before the Taliban decided they were idolatrous and destroyed them in March 2001. This is also where the Band-e Amir lakes, a group of amazingly clear, azure bodies of water, are located. The area is so safe that instead of the armed and armored vehicles that are used in other provinces, it's common for the NZPRT soldiers stationed here to travel by horseback.

In order to minimize our impact on their operations, we decided to keep our footprint as small as possible. This meant that the entire visiting team from the headquarters would be myself and LCDR "Vic" Vale, armed with pistols, rifles, paper, and pens. Since travelling in Afghanistan is a sketchy proposition at best, we were loaded with everything we might need in case our three-day tour turned into a week worth of waiting for flights to get sorted out.

Vic and I met up in the office at, oh, seven hundred or so to grab all of our gear, check email one last time, don our armor and set out. At some classified time in the morning we met up with a British convoy to travel from the headquarters to the USAID terminal at the western end of the Kabul Area International Airport. The Brits were very serious and drove aggressively enough that we got there with plenty of time to spare before the flight to Bamian was supposed to take off.

Once we arrived at the terminal the booking agent, a local Afghan employee, told us that our flight had been cancelled due to the weather. While it was overcast, there were still plenty of aircraft taking off from the airport, so I don't understand why these guys weren't willing to fly. All the same, the agent said he'd put us on the afternoon flight to Mazar-e-Sharif (which I'd like to point out is not Bamian) if we'd be willing to wait around. It was the wrong place, but it was in the right direction, and the agent suggested that we'd have better luck trying to travel from MeS to Bamian.

We dumped our gear in the passenger terminal, a 40-foot shipping container with a broken down heater, a water cooler, and a handful of wicker chairs, and set about waiting. After five hours one of the guys from the flight line came in and was surprised to see us there.

"You guys are still waiting here?"

"Is there somewhere else to wait?"

"Not really," says he, "but all of our flights for today are cancelled, so there's no reason to keep waiting."

He went on to explain that there were no scheduled flights we could use the next day and that all of the flights for the day after were booked solid. With no chance to make any kind of progress toward our destination, there was no sense in staying at the terminal.

This presents a problem. At this point we're sitting in a passenger terminal that nobody from the headquarters compound has any reason to visit. We're not allowed to schedule convoy movements using a telephone in case someone is listening in on our conversation. So there we were on the wrong side of the airport on the wrong side of town with all the crap we could carry on our backs and stranded.

The solution was the ISAF military airfield on the other end of the runway. There was a small chance that we could catch a flight to somewhere in our intended direction, but failing that there's always someone coming and going between the airfield and the headquarters. Since the USAID folks didn't have a driver to spare so we could hitch a ride and Kabul isn't the sort of place you want to go walking around dressed as an American soldier in one-sies and two-sies, the only way to get there was to walk the length of the runway.

When I asked the USAID booking agent if we'd be allowed to walk along the runway, his answer didn't exactly inspire confidence:

"You'll probably be fine."

Nice.

It was a long walk, and about halfway along we strolled past a couple of airliners mated up to the civilian passenger terminal. It's not the sort of view I'm really used to at an airport (normally I'm on the other side of this scene) but otherwise there was nothing remarkable about it. As we ambled by, an Afghan policeman came out of the building on our right and started yelling at us. We managed to ignore him long enough to get past and eventually found our way into the back gate at Camp KAIA, the military airfield.

We arrived at the military passenger terminal and found out there were no flights left for the day that we could use to get where we were headed. We also learned that we arrived just five minutes after the shuttle convoy departed for the headquarters. Since it was clear we weren't going anywhere soon, we ditched our gear, grabbed lunch, and did a little shopping.

As we were walking from the post exchange back toward the passenger terminal, I spotted a US Army major that I'd seen around at the HQ as she was about to climb into her vehicle and bummed a ride. Our little adventure ended early in the afternoon and we'd managed to accomplish little more than pissing off an airport cop, but now at least we're better prepared for our next attempt at the same trip.

Stay tuned and sooner or later I should actually have something interesting to write about. That, and pictures of some big holes where there used to be big buddha statues. In the meantime, we'll consider this attempt a dress rehearsal.

*USAID is the United States Agency for International Development. They have planes. We're allowed to travel in them when they're going our way.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Happy New Year

Saturday marked the first day of the Persian New Year, known locally as "Nowruz." Under the Taliban regime, the traditional celebrations (which included such sinful acts as singing, dancing, and *gasp* kite running) were banned as being against the Quran. It's hard to imagine a civilization that would ban a New Year's celebration, but then again I come from the land of MTV Spring Break and Girls Gone Wild.

Now that we're here the locals get to party like it's 1388. That's the current year according to their calendar anyway. It puts this society only 621 years behind the rest of the world, so it's probably about right.

Predictably, the Taliban had a blast:

CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT TODAY'S INSURGENT BOMBINGS

OR HERE

OR HERE

All the while I've been here I've been trying to come up with any way that I can think of to make life better for the people here.

I'm still at a loss.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

You'll be Fine For as Long as You Can Hold Your Breath...

I've been reading a lot lately about the air quality (or rather the complete lack thereof) here in Kabul. In short: if you breathe here it will kill you. And not in the normal everyone who breathes dies sooner or later way (since birth is the leading cause of death). How cool is that?

How bad could it be? Well here's a couple of recent articles based on a recent report by Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA):

http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=77304

http://afghandevnews.wordpress.com/2008/03/17/kabuls-air-pollution-putting-peoples-health-at-risk/

The details are pretty damned scary. A recent report that I read stated that the majority of Kabul residents are exposed to levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide that are as much as 7.5 times higher than the World Health Organization's upper limits for the prevention of illnesses. Also, a recently conducted blood sample test for lead showed that Kabul residents have three to four times the level of lead in their bloodstream when compared to any other Asian city.

The goverment in Kabul is trying to put together a $100million (US dollars) public awareness and education plan to improve air quality in the city. $50million will be provided by the Afghan government with the idea that they'll be able to get another $50million from international donors. I'm not sure how they plan on using that money though. It seems to me that no amount of public awareness will help when some local gets up in the morning and has to choose between burning a tire or hypothermia. In the same vein, a cab driver living on $5/day isn't going to spend the extra thousands of dollars to upgrade his leaded-fuel-burning 1982 Toyota Corolla to a brand new Prius Hybrid.

While most of their plan is to establish a public awareness and education program, I'm trying advocate the installation of an air purifier system based on the ionic breeze from Sharper Image. I think my plan will be better than their plan.* It involves scaling these units up a bit and installing them all over the city:

kabul air purifiers
You might think this plan is far-fetched, but San Francisco installed one across the street from my union hall recently and there's plans to put in another one:



Even though the Sharper Image has gone bankrupt, I think it's still a valid plan. But until they see it my way we don't want to take any more chances:
deadly kabul air

*Another article I read stated that the city's 3,200 sanitation workers are unable to keep up with trash removal for the population of approximately 5 million folks. If you do the math (assuming an average household of only 5 people and a 5-day work week for each sanitation worker) that means that each of them only has to pick up trash from about 63 houses per day. That's about eight per hour if you assume an 8-hour workday. If they can't figure this out for themselves, I think they may be beyond our help.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bear Metrics

A large part of what my office deals with are what the Army calls “RFI’s.” This is Army for “Request For Information” which translates to “questions.” The idea is, while there are plenty of routine reports that include all sorts of measurable information (called “metrics” by Army nerds*) on everything from fuel supplies to medical status, there are often bits and pieces of information that aren’t routinely reported. If they’re tiny bits and pieces, you just pick up the phone and ask someone who knows the answer. If they’re going to require any sort of lengthy study or investigation, a more formal and thorough version of asking questions must be brought into play. This process is the RFI.

I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done, but the way it’s done in my shop is some random staff officer comes in with a series of questions for us to forward to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Before we blindly send these questions along, we do the sanity check. Is this really a question that the PRTs can answer? Is the answer already included in some sort of report which we already receive? Is this question vital enough to operational planning that it justifies having the folks in the field take time away from ongoing operations to find the answer? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, this is enough to get the staff officer with the questions to leave our office and go to wherever the answer is inside the headquarters. The rest of the time we’re stuck sending all sorts of random RFIs out and troubling the subordinate headquarters to find answers or dig them up among their subordinates.

On its face, this whole process makes a lot of sense. In practice though, not so much.
I’m not an Army guy. So when some Army colonel walks in and begins a conversation with “General So-and-So says we need to…” I’m at a bit of a loss. By my reasoning, it makes sense that an Army officer knows his way around an Army staff and understands which Army units are providing which Army information to which Army departments in whatever Army reports we get. If he’s coming to a naval officer who can push the “ask a question” shortcut button, I assume that’s because this is a question we don’t already get the answer to. I’ve learned through some small amount of pain that this is not always (or indeed not often) the case.

More often than not, rather than do the leg work themselves, these folks will walk into my office expecting to shortcut the normal reporting procedures and have us do their job for them. Here’s an extreme example: a few weeks back I was just getting ready to start my day when some colonel (we’ll call him Colonel X) came rushing into my office with a pressing question that COMISAF, the 4-star general responsible for running the entire war, had to have answered as soon as possible.

The question seemed pretty straightforward:

“Is there a shortage of medical facilities run by the Afghans in Khowst and Kunar Provinces, and is this because the ISAF forces are providing too much medical aid for the locals to see a need to build their own?”

I can say without hesitation that I personally don’t know the first damned thing about Afghan civilian medical facilities in these two provinces. I also don’t have any idea how often our people are going out into the field and offering medical services.** I’m not specifically responsible for tracking this sort of thing, so I don’t have to feel bad about my ignorance. But now that Colonel X is tasking me with finding out, it’s my job to become an expert.

Since I might quite likely end up briefing the answer to COMISAF himself, I have to be prepared with answers for any follow-on questions he might have as well. So I set to work thinking up questions I’ll need to answer. After a few minutes, I email my main point of contact in Regional Command-East (the headquarters subordinate to us that is responsible for those provinces) with a bunch of questions like these:

· How often are MEDCAP operations being conducted in Khowst and Kunar Province?
· How many patients are typically treated during one of these operations?
· How many locally-operated medical facilities are operating in Khost and Kunar Province?
· How many patients are these facilities capable of providing treatment for?
· Are MEDCAP operations conducted in districts which have their own functioning medical facilities?
· There were more, but I don’t remember them off the top of my head…


Within minutes I hear back from my main point of contact at the RC headquarters. He tells me that it’s their medical department that is keeping track of this sort of thing and that he is forwarding the message to them. A couple of hours later one of the staff medical officers writes back to tell me that these metrics are included in their regular report to ISAF headquarters. He goes on to tell me that he’ll forward the latest report to me, but that I should be checking with Commander C_____, the US Navy doctor on staff at HQ ISAF. Commander C____ is cc’ed on this email. A few more hours later Commander C_____ emails me to explain that he provided all of this information, to include color-coded maps showing which provinces have adequate or inadequate medical facilities as well as an overlay of where we are conducting MEDCAP operations.

These maps were included in a Powerpoint brief that Colonel X presented in front of COMISAF late the day before. So when COMISAF asked Colonel X the original questions (which he claimed ignorance of and then turned into most of an entire workday for me) the answers were in fact being projected onto the wall right next to him!

As a result of misadventures such as that one, I’ve gotten pretty good at saying “No” to a lot of fairly senior officers. I try really hard not to enjoy saying no, but sometimes it sneaks out.

It’s not always their fault though. Since the headquarters staff is so large and complex, and the various militaries represented tend to do things a bit differently, it’s amazing that we don’t have problems like this more often. Then there’s the potential confusion caused by the fact that the vast majority of the staff are non-native English speakers. They’re all highly educated folks with Master’s Degrees or Ph.D.’s and decades of experience, but because of their linguistic limitations, many of them are forced to communicate at a the level of a sixth-grader. So you can see why problems arise.

This is why it will be no surprise when some American general hears some banal or obvious question and snorts something like, “Does a bear shit in the woods?” and someone like Colonel X shows up at my desk with a list of questions designed to find out everything there is to know about bears, woods, and shit in Afghanistan (and to illustrate how brilliant the author is):

· Approximately how many bears are present, by district, within your Area of Responsibility?
· What is the total area (in hectares) of wooded area in each district within your AOR?
· On a typical patrol, how many ursine scatological samples (otherwise known as “bear shit”) are encountered in your AOR?
· What percentage of ursine scatological samples is found within reasonable boundaries of wooded areas?
· Are there a significant number of ursine scatological samples found far enough from wooded areas to suggest that these are more than occasional diarrhea-driven “emergency dumps?”
·
What is the approximate age of the average ursine scatological sample encountered? ·
· What is the average pH-level, by district, of ursine scatological samples found in your AOR?·
· Is there any evidence of opium poppies present in the poop?

· Has deforestation had an impact on bear constipation in any of the districts within your AOR?
· In the course of investigating ursine scatology in wooded areas within your districts, record any sightings of the Pope and/or papal scat samples as well. Amplifying questions to follow.


Being the kind of guy that I am, I’d probably forward it along just to see what king of replies I’d get. I could even come up with seemingly sound justifications like “the number of free-roaming bears has shown to be an accurate indicator of the overall health of the local ecosystem,” and “the presence of large predators such as bears proves the existence of a robust food chain…”

Of course it’d be just my luck that I’d find out that the Task Force Headquarters (under the Regional Command HQs) wouldn’t be able to get answers in a timely manner because they’d be busy sending out Special Forces teams to install covert listening devices in the wilderness as part of a Congressional mandate to determine if a tree falling in the forest still makes a sound when there’s nobody around to hear it.

*The Army has a lot of nerds. Who’d have guessed?
**This type of operation, called a MEDCAP, is one of our countless humanitarian operations in which military medical personnel will visit a village in the middle of nowhere and provide medical services free of charge. In many of the more remote areas of the countryside, this is the only medical attention the locals are ever able to get.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I Need a 28-Hour Day Again...

...your mom needs it too.

Catching Up on Goofy Projects

The other day I finished the HQ ISAF Staph Campaign Medal just in time for presentation:
Staph Campaign Medal

It came together pretty well in my opinion, considering the shortage of tools and materials I had to work with. The suspension ribbon was actually a small piece of the ugliest necktie I've ever seen and the split rings that hold the medal to the ribbon are pieces of binding wire from a chain-link fence that was being dismantled here on the base. The medal was a cold-cast bronze casting. The mold was taken from my own sculpt which was basically built on top of a cap from a bottle of multi-vitamins:
Staph Campaign Medal2
It was a bit rushed, but I'm happy with it all the same.

Meanwhile, I've had no shortage of other goofy projects that I'm tinkering with. For example, I've always wanted an ED-209,* so I've decided to build myself one:


Although I might find plenty of use for it here, a full-size one will be tough to mail home. That's why I'm limiting myself to the desktop version:
ED-209 Assembly

This particular model is a vinyl kit that I mail-ordered from a dirt-cheap supplier in Thailand. The pieces and parts are badly warped and it's probably a third or fourth generation recast of an old Horizon brand kit. It's bad enough that I've given up on making it look especially good. Instead I'm just using it to get a better feel for how it's articulated.

While I am stuck with the small-scale version for now, there's nothing saying I can't start figuring out how to make it move and talk. To that end, I've been playing around with servos and microcontrollers. At this point I've figured out how to use a hacked Nintendo Wii controller to change the pitch and roll of the upper body. I'm still working on making it move around the yaw axis as well. I'll probably skip any attempt to simulate functioning guns for now, but I've been reading up on the design and construction of propane-fueled gunfire simulators.

More on that when I get to it. Before then I'll need to figure out how to make it talk:


No real rush on this one though. I have to get home and finish building the tank first...

In between twisting wires and writing code for that project, I've also started sculpting out the model for a custom shift-knob. It's about the size of a large apricot. I'm not sure if I'll go through the trouble of finishing this one, but here it is so far:
skullknob
In other news, I've finished the sculpt for Katie from "Horton Hears a Who." Here are all of the clay parts for the character all set up in a box for molding:
Katie mold

These are the first successful castings from the mold:
Katie Cast

They're made of urethane casting resin, a fairly strong, lightweight material that's very easy to work with. It's simple to mix and quick to cure and generates a minimum of noxious fumes. Of course, for all I know I'm probably killing puppies in Pakistan every time I make a batch of this stuff here. So it goes.

Once it was out of the mold I went ahead and painted up the first set:
katie painted

For the picture I just set the painted parts on a yellow t-shirt, but I think she looks pretty good compared to the reference:


The next step will be fabricating the soft parts. I've ordered some faux fur swatches from http://www.mendels.com/, so once they show up I can pick a texture and color and order up enough fur and fluff to stitch together a handful of these little critters. Hopefully nobody will notice that the stitching was done by hand using "foliage green" thread from my Army-issue sewing kit.

I've also made some minor progress on my suits of armor, but that'll have to wait until I've got enought time to explain that project from start to finish.

In other news, I've only got about two months left before I can start winding my way home. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.
*ED-209 stands for "Enforcement Droid series 209." That's your dose of 1980's movie trivia for the day.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to Buy a Rug

Shopping in Kabul is slightly less interesting now that we don't have Derek out here looking for furry hats and jackets:

Derek Cheff at Kabul Bazaar

So I've been concentrating lately on buying rugs:
Shawn Thorsson carpet Shopping in Kabul

There are a wide variety of rugs to be had here in Afghanistan. They come in every shape, size, and color, so you shouldn't settle for anything less than exactly what you want.
Carpet Merchant in Kabul

No matter how odd your tastes might be, there's something for everyone:
War Rug

Once you've found a rug you think you'll like, the first step is to get a general impression of the overall piece. Remember to look at it from both sides, then turn it around and look at it from both sides again. A quality wool or silk rug will change colors dramatically when viewed from different angles and in different lighting. For example, this one was a very light wine color with brightly contrasting details when viewed from the angle where I was looking at it, but the camera captured a very different look:
012

If you like the overall look of a rug, you should then take a look at the back side of it as well. Check that all of the knots are straight and uniform. The smaller the knots are, the more intricate the pattern can be and the higher the price will be.


It's also important to feel the rug. As a general rule, the softer it is the more delicate it is. If you plan to place it in a high-traffic area, you should probably go with something made of wool. On the other hand, if you plan on keeping it in a low-traffic area, only occasionally sitting your bare butt on it, consider a pure silk or silk/wool combination. There are also options available involving synthetics or cotton, but they are only suitable for very high traffice areas, outdoors, or if you're a cheap bastard.


Here I'm feeling a 100% silk rug made in Iran (making it an actual Persian rug). You can shear a lot of sheep for pretty cheap, but pulling enough silk out of those little worms' butts to weave a rug is a costly proposition. I liked it, but it's the kind of quality wormpoop you pay a lot of money for.
024

If you don't intend to buy a particular rug, you may still get away with rubbing on it for quite a while, but don't push your luck. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll probably get kicked out of the shop after the first fifteen minutes or so.


This brings up the topic of etiquette. Many shopkeepers will offer you tea and a couple of hours of conversation. Take advantage of this. Everything in this part of the world happens through cups of tea and lengthy discussion. In fact, you probably shouldn't even start talking about prices until you know how many kids the shopkeeper has, how old they are, and so on.


I won't discuss prices here. If you'd like to know more about how to get the best price for anything, anytime and anywhere, you can purchase a copy of my book: Haggling, Bargaining, and Gouging: the Fine Art of Pissing People Off at Amazon.com for only $29.95. That's my final offer.

There are a lot of other bits and pieces about rug shopping that you may find helpful. The more you know, the better your bargaining position is, so read up. If you only take one piece of advice from me, this is it: make sure you let the shopkeepers pull rugs out of the stacks for you. This is not a task for the novice.
Carpet avalanche


Good hunting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recent Departures from the Office

Yesterday we got together to wish farewell to Major Derek Cheff of Canuckistan (aka Canadia). I realized this morning that I haven't mentioned anybody else going home in a while, so I figured it was a good time to catch up on farewells for folks from the office.

Last month, moments before we began most of our pain and suffering for the PRT Conference, LT Darrell "DJ" Jones, USN was pulled and sent home. DJ had been in Kabul for just over twenty months and was in the process of trying to extend his tour for the fourth of fifth time. Unbeknownst to us all, someone in the admin chain wasn't paying attention and another reservist, LCDR "Vic" Vale, was recalled to active duty and sent here to replace him. Since the Navy doesn't want to pay two people to fill one billet, it was time for DJ to go home. I won't mention how infuriating this was for DJ or Vic, who was yanked from his regularly scheduled life to come play Army for a few months.

DJ's send-off was a good time. We got together for pizza and jokes and the customary gift exchange. At this point we'd gotten into a bit of a rut of giving everyone who left the office one of the small Afghan "war rugs" (available at fine rug shops throughout Afghanistan) inscribed with the year they were here. The problem in DJ's case is that he was here for at least part of three different years. I came up with the solution:
DJ Departing044

Since DJ's in the Navy, I figured he could also use an official burgee from the Kabul Yacht Club:
DJ Departing 049
Since there's no shortage of sailors here in Kabul, I'm thinking I'll have Kabul Yacht Club t-shirts printed up too. "Kabul Yach Club: we've got plenty of sailors, now we just need boats... and a body of water... and liquor...."

While I was camped out at Camp Souter in preparation for the PRT Conference, the rest of the office got together to celebrate the departure of LCOL Rolf Helenius of the Finnish Army. I wasn't there, so I don't have any pictures. Instead, here's a shot of me and Rolf during DJ's farewell:
DJ departing038

Rolf's farewell was also the occasion to bid farewell to Commander Dan "Dozer" Dwyer, the former chief of our office who was back in town just long enough to pick up his bags, shake hands with everyone, and take off again. Last week CDR Hanley, CDR Dwyer's replacement, was shipped back to the states as well.

Finally, last night was Derek Cheff's farewell. With him gone, I am now the longest-standing member of the office. Not that that means anything. Since Derek has already bought himself a small fortune in large Afghan rugs, we didn't bother getting him one of those. Instead, since he's been having such a hard time finding a furry hat he likes in the office, we got him a couple to choose from:
Derek Cheff Farewell

A while back we'd had a discussion about the wide array of medals I'll get for my deployment to Afghanistan.* The Canadians in the office were pointing out that they don't hand out decorations as freely as the Americans do, so I decided to remedy that by presenting Major Cheff with the HQ ISAF Staph Campaign Medal:
Derek Cheff

It's a cold-cast bronze medal of my own design which, in my mind, symbolizes much of the way we do business here:
Staph Campaign Medal2

and yes, I'm happy with my spelling on the medal. A "staff" is a group of people that gets things done. "Staph" is short for "Staphylococcus" a common bacteria that is a leading cause of a lot of problems and discomfort. I'm a fan of analogy.
Staph Campaign Medal

So that's that.

Of course, for every quality person that departs, a quality person steps up to take their place. So we've still got a great group of people in the office. If all goes according to plan, I'm the next person scheduled to depart the pattern. And then it'll be LCOL Asbjorn Skogestad of Norway who will have been here the longest:
027

Stay tuned...

*For my trouble here I'll end up with a minimum of six decorations; a NATO medal, an Afghan Campaign medal, Overseas Service medal (gold star in lieu of 2nd award), Rifle Sharpshooter ribbon, Pistol Expert medal, and a Naval Reserve medal (which I get for actually showing up once I was recalled). There's also a chance I'll get an end of tour award. All of this assumes that I don't come under fire or meet an IED, in which case I'll also get a Combat Action ribbon at the very least. I will have a very shiny shirt when I'm done here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Pictures from the Helo Ride

As promised, here are a whole bunch of pictures from yesterday's helicopter ride.

The day started at some ridiculous time in the morning, before the sun came up or the coffee shop opened. The plan was to make sure we got to the airfield with plenty of time to meet up with the other passengers going to the conference with us and board the helicopters. "Plenty of time" was supposed to be one hour, but it turned out to be about three hours. While most of the civilians who were traveling with us were late, two hours of that wait were due to foul weather at the point of origin for the aircraft.

Since we had some time to kill, we grabbed some coffee and I made friends with one of the MWD's (Military Working Dogs) at the passenger terminal:
Shawn Thorsson and CPO K9
This one was actually a NAVY working dog, so he's a rated Chief Master-at-Arms (since his handler was a First Class Master-at-Arms). He was very friendly, but I didn't catch his name. Same goes for the handler.

After hanging out with the rest of the crowd for a couple of hours, our two Blackhawks landed. Then the colonel we were tagging along with split the group of civilians in two, gave half to myself and LCDR "Vic" Vale (the new guy in the office), and an Air Force sergeant guided us out to the bird.

Bird Ride

Here's a shot of Vic on the way out to catch our ride:
LCDR Vic Vale at KAIA

Vic and I were the last two to board the helo, so we got the forward-facing jumpseats right aft of the door gunners. Here I am all strapped in and waiting to take off:
Thorsson McLovin
Someone made the mistake a while ago of telling me that my body armor is not technically a uniform and so is not subject to any kind of uniform regulations. That's why I feel justified in wearing the "McLovin" nametape. I have to have my name on my uniforms. The armor is not a uniform. I win.
Being seated right aft of the door gunners did mean that all of the cold mountain air was blowing straight in at us in transit, it also meant that I got a great view all throughout the trip. Here's the door gunner's view of Kabul as we flew over:
Door Gunner view of Kabul
Before anyone asks, I don't know anything about that body of water coming up below us. It looks like some sort of manmade reservoir, but that's the more than I know.

Continuing on, here's a shot of the Kabul River as we flew over the city. Somehow this place manages to look filthy, even from a high altitude aircraft:

Once we were clear of the city, it was time to cross over the mountains to the South:
Afghan mountains

As we gained altitude, it got progressively colder and more picturesque:
Afghan mountains2

During the trip we reached an altitude of just over 11,000 feet. What was really fascinating though, was the few scattered little communities wedged into these amazingly remote niches. You can see one such place on the lower edge of the shot below. The mud huts are a bit tough to spot, but they're there:
Mountains South of Kabul
What boggles my mind is wondering just how pissed off someone has to be at the rest of the world before they take their family and climb up into the mountains and set up a life in these miserable little places.

As we decended below the other side of the ridgeline, the mountains faded away behind us and I caught this shot from the door gunner's perspective:


Then the foothills started to fade into the lowlands beyond:
Khowst Countryside2


Khowst Countryside3

And we passed over the surprisingly lush backdrop behind the town:
Khowst Countryside

Then we set down in the landing zone and piled out. Once again, it's always easy to remember where you parked in Afghanistan:
Blackhawk at Salerno
The trip back looked a lot like the trip there. Only backwards. In fact, it was so similar that a bunch of these pictures were probably from the return trip. Sorry.

Stay tuned for more updates on this exciting adventure.