Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ready to come home

While I don’t leave Kuwait until 20 August, I am less than 48 hours from departing ISAF HQ and Afghanistan. As of right now, I have been here for the past:

- 283 days
- 6,802 hours
- 408,132 minutes
- 24,488,287 seconds… but whose counting???

This has been a tough year for my family but I couldn’t be more proud of how Susan and the kids handled the separation. My wife is one of the strongest, most loving women I know and everything a deployed Sailor could wish for in a Navy wife. My biggest thank you goes to her.

I also want to thank those who called, e-mailed, sent care packages, included us in your prayers and/or helped my family on the home front. There are many people who say, “I support the troops,” but few who actually put those words into action. If you did one of the above, THANK YOU. My family is eternally grateful. I also want to thank the countless people who responded to my request to send medical supplies for the local children’s hospital. We raised $5,000 in bandages, anti-biotic cream and medical tape… enough to keep them stocked for the next six months!

Serving our country here in Afghanistan has been an incredible experience and one that I will forever remember. I have had a chance to serve side by side with patriotic, loyal Americans who believe our country is on a noble mission to bring security and stability to a region that threatens world peace. Since I have been here, I have seen these Americans put on their body armor and go outside the wire day after day to carry out their orders. They do not bitch, complain, moan or whine despite the incredible danger factor. They know their job… and they do it. The average American could learn a lot from the people serving here.

My father served in the Navy during Korea and my brother is a career Air Force officer who spent his fair share of time deployed away from his family. I am proud to be among their ranks.

Below are links to three videos my team produced while I have been here at the helm of the MPPAT. I hope you will take some time to watch them and learn the true story about the fight in Afghanistan.

The IED Hunters

Kabul; a city of progress

We are NATO

Again, thank you for all your support over the last 11 months.


Monday, August 3, 2009

I gotta get out of here!

With the Kabul video done and the closed circuit television system up and running, I have nothing to do. I can either hang out here at the country club and twiddle my thumbs or go find a story and do something productive. I’ve never been one to give 50% effort so I’m now headed to Bagram Air Force Base to shoot a story on the people who clear roads of IEDs. This is the most dangerous work being done in Afghanistan and these people need… no deserve… some publicity for the job they do.

I’ll be here for a week following them outside the wire as they clear routes and train the ANA and the Polish in route clearing techniques. More on this story to come.


Since my return, I have been tapped to coordinate the installation of a closed circuit television system here on base. Basically, the idea is to put televisions in high traffic areas across ISAF HQ and have a video on a continuous loop playing the products the MPPAT produces. I think it’s a good idea as the people on base never get to watch our stuff unless they log onto DVIDS, which nobody here ever does.

Three TVs are now installed in both dining facilities and the Milano Palace which is basically an entertainment hall. Will anybody stop and watch or will they mute the programming and tune out the products, I’m not sure. Only time will tell. Regardless, this system is another mark I’ve left on ISAF HQ.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Back from Helmand

I made it safely through my embed with the Marines and Operation Kanjar; the US surge into southern Helmand Province. The drive from Camp Dwyer to the fishhook of the river was a drive I’ll… or my butt… will never forget. Since we blazed a trail where no vehicles had ever gone before, we ended up hitting potholes, dips, sand dunes… and more potholes. If it weren’t for the fact I was wearing my combat helmet on my head, I probably would have been knocked unconscious several times. Vehicles ended up getting stuck in the sand and moon dust a number of times so the drive took 10 hours. This was to go a distance of roughly 112 kilometers; about the same as driving from one side of Los Angeles to the other. We arrived around 0800 and that’s when I saw the Marine Corps do something amazing. Instead of taking an hour or two to sleep or plan the day’s events, as soon as we parked they began unloading the bulldozers, cranes and forklifts and started building COP Payne. They knew their mission and got right to it. No officers had to give motivation or direction. These 18, 19, 20 year old kids were given responsibility and they responded by getting the job done.

By the end of our first day, they had built giant dirt walls all the way around the outpost. By the end of the second day, they dug the burn pit, fuel depot and a number of other critically needed facilities for base operations. I should mention setting up tents for them to sleep in was not a priority. They thought of themselves last and the mission first. We slept on cots under the stars which in itself was an incredible experience. Way out in the middle of nowhere with no city lights for a hundred miles around, the stars shined down on us like they did for people a thousand years ago.

Within 96 hours, the COP was complete.

With that story shot and in the can, I caught a ride over to a place called the Khan Nechion Castle. The castle was allegedly built by Alexander the Great more than a thousand years ago but was more recently used as the compound for the Regional Governor. That is until the Taliban kicked him out years ago and used the castle as their base for terrorizing the local population.

The night that the operation began, the Marines with LAR or Light Armored Reconnaissance swarmed towards the castle, parked outside and in Dari announced over a loud speaker to give up, come out with their hands up and no one would be hurt. No one came out so the Marines stormed in but there was no battle to mark their arrival. The Taliban fled hearing the Marines were on the way.

The following morning a young Marine was driving a bulldozer, pushing mud from the front entrance the Taliban put there as a barricade when he hit an IED. Marines in the area were all knocked on their butts from the huge blast. Pieces of the vehicle were thrown more than 200 feet in the air. The explosion was heard several miles away. Unbelievably, the Marine driving the armor plated bulldozer was unhurt. “I was thrown around inside like a pinball in a pinball machine,” he told me. When I asked him what he was going to tell Mom and Dad, he said with a smile on his face, “some things are best unsaid.”

Shortly after my arrival at the castle, we began taking harassing fire from insurgents outside Alexander the Great’s giant adobe walls. While most people would be nervous at the sound of incoming fire, the Marine’s were thrilled. They were excited to fight; to get some trigger time. Pulling the trigger meant they could put in for their Combat Action Ribbon (CAR). You’re not a real Marine unless you have that pinned on your chest.

It was just one guy 500 yards out testing the Marines. He was probably under orders to see what how the Marines would react and how long it would take them to fire back. If there is anything I learned from this day, it’s never test the United States Marine Corps as you will pay dearly.

With three stories now on tape, it was time to say goodbye to the southern Helmand Province, the 135 degree weather and the Marines. I returned to ISAF, dirty, sweaty and proud of the time I spent with these incredible Americans. I love the Navy, but if my kids ended up joining the Corps, I’d be thrilled.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Odd but true

It may sound totally ridiculous, but after a few days your body does get use to temperatures soaring above 12o- degrees. How hot it actually is here nobody knows because the only temperature gauge I’ve found tops off at 120. Trust me, I’m still sweating like crazy but it doesn’t affect me like it did when I first got here.

Tomorrow is D-Day for this operation which is now being called “River Liberty” by the U.S. I’ll be with the Combat Logistics Batallion-8 who will be pushing south where the Helmand River fishhooks to the west. It’s there they’ll build FOB Payne from the ground up in just 96 hours. They’ll also construct a bridge across the river and fortify a former Taliban stronghold into a new district governor’s office.

The convoy of vehicles we’ll be driving in won’t be taking a road to our destination. They’ll be blazing a new path right through the open desert. No vehicles have ever taken this route before. Imagine driving from Phoenix to Vegas without going on any roads. That’s what these Marines are doing. Incredible! This should be fun to watch.

A rare breed

In the days leading up to this operation, the Marines at this Forward Operating Base have plenty of preparations to make, not to mention the never ending cleaning of weapons thanks to the constantly blowing moon dust. It’s exhausting work made even more difficult by the 120 degree temperature.

When the day is done, most people would find an air conditioned tent and chill out for the night, but not the U.S. Marines. On D-Day minus 1, when the sun was starting to go down and the air had cooled off to a chilly 119 degrees, a handful of Marines put on their body armor, picked up their weapons and went for a three mile, “fun run.” After that, they formed a circle and took turns beating the crap out of each other in the moon dust, calling it hand to hand combat training.

With the sweat pouring off their bodies and their faces and uniforms coated in moon dust, for the first time ever I saw Marines smiling. They were in their element; hot, nasty and fresh from a fight. This is where Marines belong.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A walk in the moon dust

He sat on a small wooden folding chair keeping a sharp eye on a wall of blackness. His fate, just inches from the end of the platform with only a machine gun bolted to the floor and positioned between his legs; the only thing from keeping him from going over the edge. “Don’t mess with Texas,” was written on the back of his helmet in orange marker. At the opposite end of the helicopter, the flashing lights of the instruments guided the pilot and co-pilot to our destination.

Like a horse rearing up on its back legs, the aircraft took off. We were only in the air for less than two minutes when the pilot made an abrupt landing. A crewman got out and made a strange look towards the port side. He was followed by the pilot who made the same face. Then they disappeared. It wasn't very reassuring for myself and the three reporters I was escorting.
Ten minutes later, with the thud, thud, thud of the huge rotors still spinning, we were off again. No problems occured so I guess the aircraft was okay. The flight would take us over some of the most dangerous land on Earth.

We eventually landed safely at our FOB or Forward Operating Base. From here, thousands of Marines will launch their largest air and ground operation since the Vietnam War, and I’m getting a front row seat documenting the event as a combat photographer. For the magnitude of this operation, surprisingly, there aren’t many media embedded on the trip; no CNN, Fox News or New York Times. The only people with me are a reporter from National Public Radio and a photographer from the Washington Post but I hear a couple of French journalists and an ABC documentary crew are also lurking around. It’s funny to watch each of these journalists secretly cozying up to the lead Marine Public Affairs Officer; each jockeying to get with the unit that is guaranteed to see the most action. It reminds me of my parents telling me, “be careful about what you ask for. You just might get it.” But the media’s ambition to see some action is only outweighed by the Marines here who are tired of walking in the “moon dust” and are ready to fight.

That’s what the Marines call the ground here, moon dust. It’s a talcum like powder dirt three to five inches deep everywhere you step. You can’t help but kick it up as you walk across the base; everyone surrounded in their own private brown cloud just like Pig Pen from the old Charlie Brown cartoons. Between the dirt and the sweat from the 120-degree weather, is there really a point to showering?

If you use the shower, go to lunch or have the insane idea that a run in this scorching hot weather sounds like a good time, make sure you know exactly where you tent is located. There are dozens and dozens of rows of unmarked tents and they all look exactly alike. You could easily find yourself walking into someone else’s tent or even worse… or even better based on your perspective… walking into one of the all female tent. Sorry ladies. Thank you for understanding.

A front row seat to history

I’ve had to take a break from my last assignment and head outside the wire. No one was available to shoot an operation that was going down and so I volunteered. Lucky for me because this will be the largest Marine Corps helicopter assault since Vietnam. I’m embedding with some Marines and after nearly 10 months in Afghanistan, it looks like I could finally see some action.

Even though I won’t be posting this until after it’s publically known, I’m still going to keep it vague. Just keep your eyes on the news and you’ll quickly learn where I am/was.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

So now what?

The MPPAT is now in the hands of Lieutenant Commander Mark Walton. It’s his baby. Like Ted Williams or Babe Ruth, I ended my career there with some stats I’m very proud of; a team that produced 140 print stories, 130 broadcast stories, 60 live television interviews and nearly 3,000 pictures posted to the web.

In my final 45 days here in Afghanistan, I’m working directly for the Chief PAO, Captain Mark Durkin to produce videos for him. The first is on Kabul; a relatively safe city which the media often like to report as being surrounded with the enemy banging at the gate. This simply is not true and my video will tell the true story not through my eyes, but the eyes of Afghans who live here. We interviewed nearly a dozen people off the streets and their perspective is very interesting and different from what you hear on TV or read in the paper.

Here is a link to the Kabul; A city of progress video. I am very proud of how this video turned out. So far it has gotten 300 hits on the DVIDS web site.

Back in Kabul

It’s been a while since I wrote anything in the journal. When I got home from R&R, I didn’t want to take a single second away from playing with the family. Now that I’m back in Afghanistan, I have been so depressed to be here, I didn’t want to acknowledge my presence in words because those words would only serve as a reminder to my situation. But alas, I have returned.
Let me begin with my R&R; it was awesome. When the plane landed in the United States, my fellow Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines all burst out into applause. That was in Atlanta. On my connecting flight to Memphis, the flight attendant made an announcement for everyone to remain seated and allow the military to get off first. That was pretty cool.

My reunion with the kids was just as I expected; Kathryn and Charlie running into my arms. Susan was right behind snapping pictures. Next to the day they were born, it was the happiest moment of my life. It had been nine long months since I last held them and while the seemed a little bigger, a little more mature, they were still my babies. My wife was as beautiful as ever yet strikingly different. It took me a day or two to figure it out. Her appearance hadn’t changed; she was just a stronger person. My being away has given her a confidence and strength she didn’t have before. I am in awe of this woman and so proud to call her my wife.

We spent a couple days at home which gave me such an odd feeling. Home was so familiar but so different at the same time. I felt like the Lord of the Manor and a stranger. Sleeping in a comfortable bed, a bath, food whenever I want to eat; these are thing I just wasn’t used to having. It’s a good thing we didn’t stay at home long because I’m not sure I would have felt normal by the end of my trip. When I go home for good, it will take me a solid month to readjust.
Within 48 hours we were off to Disney World and the dream vacation Susan and I have been planning for months. To see the Magic Kingdom again after so many years was exciting but to see it for the first time through the eyes of my children was truly magical. We ran our children ragged from the early morning until the late hours of the night. We rode rides, had breakfast with Pooh, ate lunch with the Princesses, watched parades, swam in the pool, made new friends and celebrated our anniversary. It was a great vacation; hopefully the first of many to Disney World.

I am the luckiest man alive to be blessed with the family GOD has given me.