A young man's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk...and apparently, back again.

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Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

The details of my life are quite inconsequential, really. Summers in Rangoon...luge lessons...

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Sunny side of Khost

Yes, we are doing our part to keep America's tent producers in business. It's remarkable to me how much this place reminds me of good ol' Twentynine Palms with its rocks, dust and desert climate, which should bring a tear to any Marine's eye (or a curse from his mouth, more likely). I'm drawing a blank on any other descriptions at the moment, having spent FAR too many hours inside the stuffy confines of the operations center.

We had an interesting time of it here this past weekend, when a threatened rocket attack put the base on alert. Our long-range fire and aircraft were quick enough to break up the force before they could launch, so we remained safe... [military censor intervenes here: Operational Security precludes AfghaniDan from saying anything further]...and that's about all I know about attempted rocketing of this place, besides actually wearing helmets and body armor for a few hours.

Ah, the Media Operations Center, the base conference center and jewel of our multimedia empire! This is a luxury building in Afghanistan, people. It's actually a great little place for meetings, lunches and even the occasional dinner. Aziz and his staff are the most gracious hosts, and do wonders cooking up the same stuff that the chow hall butchers!

And on a totally non-Afghanistan-related note: Let's welcome back the NHL from its Olympics break with a photo from February 3...Scott Stevens, one of the greatest defenseman ever to play the game, had his #4 jersey retired in NJ. Let's go Devils!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bloody curling!

I apologize in advance for the side rant, but I can't help myself. Now I know I'm fortunate to have any TV at all in this remote corner of the globe, and I know warriors of past conflicts would cringe to hear me criticize what we're seeing, but are U.S. audiences held hostage to curling matches each day and night? We receive only Armed Forces Network, and we turn on AFN Sports in the chow hall to try and catch some Winter Olympics action, but unfailingly it has been shuffleboard on ice for 12 straight nights. We're supposedly seeing a feed of NBC's coverage of the Torino games, but can anyone confirm for me that you're being subjected to this stateside each night? I would imagine that there would be riots in the streets by now...or at least the streets of Vermont and Colorado. It would be nice after a long day of trying to protect and rebuild a war-wracked country to catch a little of the hockey, or skiing, or bobsledding, or even figure skating that takes place only every four years...but no, we get only this manianical game of one person screaming while two others sweep little motions in front of an orb sliding toward a big circle. Someone please, stop the madness!

Monday, February 20, 2006

FOB in the Rain

"Well I’ll run in the rain till I’m breathless. When I’m breathless I’ll run till I drop, hey." I apologize to Messrs. Page, Plant and Jones...I just couldn't help myself. FOB, fool, it was just too easy (Led Zep for those who are lost). I experienced a couple days of rainy weather here for the first time, though in fairness it was probably only a couple hours of actual rain. It just threatens for awhile, drizzles now and then, unleashes pounding raindrops about 1/4" thick for a few minutes, threatens more, then clears up nicely. Not too bad for winter weather, but it leaves the entire place chock full of mud and new hit up the song one more time, "It’s all a terrible mess."

Quite a few people have asked what exactly I do or what each day is like, but I'm really not at liberty to say. There are lots of meetings, both in person and by computer network, there is lots of planning and juggling schedules, and in my case, lots of reporting and paying attention to reports. It's not as exciting as say, firing artillery or flying helicopters, but on the other hand it's a hell of a lot more interesting than many jobs in a base like this. Can you imagine a year away from your family to supervise an Afghan cleaning crew? Me neither, but I'm damn glad the KBR guys are here to do that.

The changing weather has made the skies more interesting, day and night. And for the first time in years, I've been paying attention to the lunar cycle. Not just how full or new the moon is, and it is a brilliant sight in a dark sky, but what time of night it rises and sets (when you're base is lights-off, it's a helpful thing to know). What cracks me up is how the concept of light discipline escapes many soldiers who walk around with their flashlights bouncing all over the damn place. When dinner lets out and dozens of red, blue and green lights are shining every which way, it looks more to me like a glowstick war at a Phish concert than a forward base.

Ah, the rainbow. Made me smile and gave me some nice hope for the people of this land until my buddy here pointed out that it ends in Pakistan. Ok, that's just being wicked, but there are many Afghans who are resentful of their neighboring country, for good reason. While Pakistan is a poor country by most international standards, Afghanistan is one of the very poorest by a wide margin. The barest essentials are all that most people in this land have, if even that. Hopefully most of the recently-promised international aid from the London conference gets where it needs to go out here.

And just like that, the sun is out. This was only taken about 30 minutes after the puddle photos. But the post-rain night sky is even more striking, if I may ramble yet again about the stars here and how they are dusted across the dome, from flickering to steady, faint to bold, even shooting is far better than any planetarium. I can make out Orion, the Big Dipper, and uh, maybe one or two others--Sorry Dad, I never did pay much attention to how to navigate by constellation!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Afghani Ramblings...

I'm not sure how I got this bunch to stand still for a second after receiving their meds, but maybe the camera helped. These are some additional photos from the medical clinic (MEDCAP) that I wrote about three weeks ago. I liked these lil' guys, and had to get them in here. Their reaction is really priceless when I show them the photo on the camera screen, as if to say, "Hey thanks for stealing my reflection and putting it in that box, that was cool. Can you put me back now?" Actually some of them know that a printed photo can come from it, so if anyone knows of a tiny, handheld photo printer, I'm all ears. I went out on another of these missions this past weekend (any excuse to get out into town, but also to see more of the incredible difference our trained people and resources can make), and will get those photos up soon.
Burqas are still an absolutely jarring thing to witness in person. In a very religious region like this, the burqa is still omnipresent, and I really find it ghostly to watch them interact with each other. But as I noticed this past weekend, they often remove the veil once they've entered an environment of westerners, revealing a human face behind the shield. The most disheartening thing to see, aside from the obvious extremes of poverty that many Afghans live with, is the little girls who imitate women and try to cover their face whenever they feel anyone has glanced at them. Of course our girls have Britney to emulate, so there are reasons to worry the world over, I guess.
Khost doesn't look so bad, does it? This is one of those views where it's easy to see that this area was fertile and more arable not long ago. With the "winter" weather as warm as it's been, it's not hard to see why orange groves are prominent in this region. But a drought going back a few years has dried up the ground, and their reliance on wood fires can't help matters...come to think of it, I have no idea where they're still chopping down trees. The result? Oranges that are drier than a policy speech on total quality management. But when they can't burn wood, they're busy burning garbage...ah, torched trash, the smell of every Khost morning.
Connection issues are hampering me again and I'm upset like this guy about it. But I have a few notes: First of all, this blog has spread farther and wider than I ever imagined already, so welcome to all you strangers! Also it has resulted in some hilarious moments for me...a friend of mine from Norway responding to two Marine friends who were with me in Norway, none of whom know each other...and all reminiscing about how the unbelievably terrible Cher song "Do you Believe in Love?" became the norse nation's anthem in the winter of '99. Between that song and liters of beer, I'm not sure how the suicide rate stayed under control. Oh, and there have been some commenters whose questions I'd be happy to answer in email, but can't do it through the blogger system. So leave an email address when you comment, and I will do my best to get back to you.
One last note: Like my young friend here, I'm a bit of a skeptic. So pardon me to be surprised at a couple of milestone birthdays that just passed. Buenos cumpleanos to you, Joneser and Lara! I haven't learned it in Pashto yet...they're not big on birthdays you have to settle for Spanglish. And though the day has just passed, it's not too late to say HAPPY VALENTINE'S don't have to tell these guys (did you think I was kidding about the special, um, closeness?)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

J-bad from a Blackhawk

Getting off base last week meant another new mode of transportation: my first ride in a Blackhawk helicopter. Much smaller than a Chinook or the helos I got to use in the Marines, the Blackhawk is a lighter, more enjoyable ride...and not a bad way to skim over river valleys and past those imposing mountains. You can really feel the lift when flying in these suckers! The scenery between Jalalabad and Khost was a trip, as the towns are similarly located in weather-defying bowls that were once fertile. Both are (relatively) green, surrounded by brown hills, then brown mountains, then snowy ridges and finally jagged mammoth peaks.
This is one of the typical valleys that struck me as straight out of an early civilization book...a series of farming communities along the river and at the river's mercy, walled in on both sides. It is an amazing thing to see some of this country from above, realizing how much more of it is at least as inhospitable, and then to reflect on the constant hardships here that have been if just surviving in Afghanistan wasn't hard enough. That's why I love the work that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams do.
The PRTs are set up in each province to assist communities in pretty much everything, often using methods decided upon by local jirgas (councils). From enhanced security to building schools to funding projects that not only build but teach trades to local Afghans, they do it all. The cops I met who train Afghan Police cadets are part of a PRT, for example. So are a number of soldiers and Marines I've met so far in country, and they have civilian representatives of various agencies there to provide know, in areas other than defeating the enemy through fire and maneuever.
Speaking of the fight, we lost another brave warrior yesterday. A Navy corpsman, or doc, from the Marine battalion was killed when his patrol came under fire from some anti-coalition militia. Many of you extended prayers and thoughts for the family of the Marine I wrote about last entry--please do the same for this hero. Truly a special breed, they are the guys trained to save lives under fire. He will surely be missed by his brothers.
The typical eastern Afghanistan town looks pretty much like this...a number of compounds strung together, surrounded by fields. The compounds hold extended families, which are not like American extended family living arrangements or even Huvane-sized ones. They often have 60 inhabitants or so! Five to ten per room is not uncommon...think about that the next time you're annoyed with just the one person whose snoring you're sick of.
I'll close out the gallery with this scene, which I liked because it had captured the region near here. Notice it's back to the springtime temperate weather instead of winter, which resides just a couple dozen miles away. What struck me that day was how peaceful it all looked, and really was...the cartoon furor hadn't erupted across the country yet, and progress could be seen almost everywhere.
The progress is still there, evidenced this time by calls for restraint by influential Afghan leaders throughout this recent wave of demonstrations. But it is up to the people to reject extremism and heed those calls. That's why I spent yesterday searching for statements by their own leadership, to be translated and broadcast on get out the message that calm and forgiveness should prevail.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Farewell to a brave Marine

This past Thursday- James Joyce's birthday, for those in the know- I managed to get outside the wire, but for a solemn occasion: to fly out and attend the memorial for a Marine who was killed by an IED last week. He was by all accounts a dedicated, sincere young Marine who knew more about engines than anyone else in his mechanic shop...and those guys bust their butts to keep vehicles running in every sort of imaginable terrain and weather. Now he is the first fatal casualty in a battalion that saw more than its share of tragedy last year in Iraq, but one who continues to inspire his brothers to accomplish their mission. Now that's not a line from some public affairs officer, that's what they'll tell you, these warriors who stick their necks out each day when every convoy or patrol could bring a deadly encounter.
For those unfamiliar with the ritual, the fallen Marine's downturned rifle, helmet and boots are set up, he is called to report to duty one last time, presented with the purple heart by his commanding officer, his brothers say a few words, and finally taps is played. This was my first such memorial, and I don't look forward to attending any others. We know the risks we face (and by "we" I mean the ones who are in constant danger, not those of us on protective bases), but every loss like this makes me ponder the cost that will be faced by incredibly brave young men and women in this struggle against an ideology.
It did feel like a homecoming though, being surrounded by fellow Marines...even though I was meeting them all for the first time. Not to knock the Army soldiers of my command here, as many of them I would serve with anywhere, but it's a little like being a foreign service officer when you're in a structure of another service branch. The little things are amusing, the bigger organizational or procedural differences sometimes very frustrating, but you make it work. Still, it's just a damn good feeling to hang with Marines again, if only for a few hours.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Gen Honore, meet Capt Dan...

To demonstrate what kind of situation it seems only I encounter, this was within my first two hours on the ground in this forward base. That's Lt General Honore on the far left of the (grainy) may remember him as the Nat'l Guard general who was credited with being the only figure of authority worth a damn when he arrived in the post-Katrina New Orleans nightmare. I'm happy to report that a no-nonsense guy he still seems to be.
That's my commanding officer here standing between me and the general, Col. Patrick Donahue from Boston. He's very Italian, as you might guess. Col Donahue was funny: I had introduced myself to him a couple seconds before that photo, and he turned to Gen Honore and said, "Look, they must be getting serious about public affairs here--they sent me a Marine." Damn straight, sir.

I don't look at all like I've been traveling for 3 straight days at that point, do I? Aside from the surly expression in this unexpected photo, I was raring to go. After realizing no one was grabbing me from the dusty landing zone, I caught a ride in a gator (little 4x4's made by John Deere) to my new office, checked in, dropped my gear, and in no time was in the chow hall to make sure my new public affairs correspondents were ready for Honore's visit. Sleep be damned, there was work to be done (and yes, I realize how comical that is for those who know me well).