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...

Sunday, May 28, 2006

FOB Tillman

Everybody smile now! Posing during Saturday's regional security conference in Khost was a collection of Afghan officials, provincial and district governors, and U.S. military leadership. This visit by the head honcho of all Coalition forces in Afghanistan enabled me to jump aboard the entourage for a quick trip to other spots in the was a double bonus, since not only did I get out, but when traveling with top brass, you get a guaranteed return trip.

To borrow a famous line from Ireland's legendary Michael Collins, "Can I have that hat?" That's LtGen Eikenberry himself, bidding farewell to one of the region's governors before we set off for the tour. Some of these photos, including this one, were taken by a combat camera soldier who I brought along for the whirlwind trip.

The ol' chinook...where would we be without this capable bird in the 'stan? It was again my transportation of choice for this adventure, along with most of the schmoes in the traveling carnival.

As for the VIP party of the carnival? They're in the blackhawk, swooping down overhead here...a split second before blowing dirt, rock and anything unsecured across the wide-open dust spaces of our first stop.

"It's like this, sir...we can build structures all day, but this will still be a desolate wasteland." The general gets the lowdown on the latest construction progress of a sprawling new Afghan National Army base we visited, from the engineers overseeing it. (Not an actual quote)

On your left is a low-slung military building, the type popularized...oh, everywhere in Afghanistan. Keep in line, please.

Hard hat or no hard hat, nothing quite rocks out like a good set of manjammies.

It was amazing to see just how much construction was taking place at once on the large base, which will hold thousands of ANA (Afghan) soldiers when it's completed.

Touring the gleaming white insides of some brand-spanking-new buildings, which would surely be looked at with envy by residents of a few of our current Coalition installations...

Heading now to our next stop, we passed over a good bit of farmland along with the usual endless miles of arid land. Our pilots shook us up with some evasive manuever and terrain masking, making it an enjoyable ride...

See the enjoyment? That's how happy Marine captains are in this country when they see another one. My friend Shannon was instrumental in helping me get onboard this little getaway at the last minute.

Heading towards the mountains that border Pakistan, and our next destination, FOB Tillman...named of course for Pat Tillman, the NFL star who quit football to become an Army Ranger after 9/11, and was later killed in Afghanistan.

Sandbag bunkers guard the entrance to this outpost, situated in Lwara, an area that looks desolate but is actually a very active border region. It was here that Kevin Sites was writing about on his blog a couple of months back...;_ylt=AmgB2WfH6CkKyWwuJa6QBMmLFMsF

Check out the tactical red ballcap on the long-haired Afghan interpreter in the front few...he made quite a pair with the pot-bellied police chief next to him.

The deep and heavily-fortified bunkers and mortar pits give you a good idea of what a frontier post this is.

Nothing like the top general in the land coming through your barracks to brighten your day, right? Honestly, I was impressed with how he took the time to greet each individual he came across, despite always-tight schedules.

Check out the crazy wiring! God bless 'em for employing Afghan labor, but yikes. The woman who seems oddly out of place in the background is CNN's Barbara Starr, also along for the trip.

The soldiers of Alpha Company, 2-87 Infantry - known as Catamount - assemble for the general's visit.

After recognizing a few individuals for their actions above and beyond the call of duty, the general, a former commanding officer of their battalion, addressed the troops. He praised them for the hard fighting they've put in, and spoke frankly about the work yet to be done.

An air crew member lends the CNN cameraman a hand by keeping him from tumbling out of the rear of the chinook while we fly back to Salerno.

Alas, another helo flight without the 90 degree angle I was hoping to capture. I did miss the best banks, but this one was decent at least. On to the next adventure...

Friday, May 26, 2006

Krazy Khost Weather

Looking for that perfect Memorial Day vacation spot? Do you want strong sun, unpredictable storms and incredibly starry nights, without the crowds or bodies of water nearby? Then brother, have I got a deal for you! While not as scorching as Jalalabad, Khost is also quite a toasty place by mid-May, and surprisingly humid. And with that comes almost-daily thunderstorms...

The storms here take on some different characteristics from most t-storms I remember from home, especially when they approach. Lightning is often pulsating rapidly around the sky, putting any strobe light show to shame with its random but constant flashes and glows. Thunder is usually a steadily rolling rumble, without pause...then it all comes sweeping in, and the place just gets totally lit up with whipping wind, deafening crashes, and even hail. The baseball-sized hail we got pounded by the other night did a lot of damage, in fact...even the guys I talked to from the plains states and the southeast said it was some of the biggest they've ever seen...

OK, no making fun of my lame attempts to capture lightning in these pictures! I spent a half-hour out in one recent storm with my old digital camera, hoping that by the time it finished its tedious process of taking one photo, it would yield me a rare full lightning bolt, or something close to it. Alas, this is all I've got. Ansel Adams' descendants have nothing to fear - I won't be taking away their steady flow of income anytime soon.

Here is some of the driving rain that showed up to greet me the first afternoon I spent back in Khost. At the time, I thought that was a kick-ass storm (this was before the hailstorm), and was surprised the tent didn't break apart in it. Yep, I managed to return while my "hardshell" accomodations were being covered in flooring, so we were in tents...but I think the real reason was that they wanted the Marine to feel at home.

Speaking of which, I did embellish with a bit of blarney my recent postings: I am not the only Marine in the east (and by that I mean east of Bagram/Kabul, Shannon!), but I am sure as hell the only one on this large FOB, and that makes me enough of a curiosity. And a badass, of course. A badass crouching down to photograph standing water all over the place...

I know what you're thinking now...AfghaniDan, didn't you already post photos of this same place in a post-rain flood? And the answer is...quit asking me questions, I don't have time for them. I have indeed, but you've got to understand - I don't remember what open water looks like! For a dude who's lived near ocean his whole life, I had to stop and stare at a large rain pond the other day because the wind was creating little ripples on it. This place is seriously landlocked.

Some tents did show more wear-and-tear than others. Maybe post-rainstorm is just one of the only times I think to bring my camera as I walk around the base...that could partly account for my obvious fascination with giant puddles.

So back to the hailstorm - I had to actually wonder for a few seconds what in God's name was making such a racket on the roof (my internal thinking voice is patterned on Fred Mertz and other classic grouchy old men). A product of the great northeast, I was pretty unfamiliar with the stuff. So naturally when I stepped outside to pick up a couple of them, I got whacked in the head a couple of times. Lesson learned: large ice rocks falling from clouds tend to hurt.

Again, I was absolutely mesmerized by moving water. But there may have been another downside beyond just mud. I don't know if additional water made the shit pond stench stronger or not, but that mid-afternoon breeze has been FIERCE. The kind of smell that jacks you up against the wall, takes your money and kicks you a few times in the family jewels, you know?

Then it was moving day...again (that's my buddy Todd getting ready to haul his hope chest inside). Hey, I'm not complaining! My appreciation for the accomodations here is unsurpassed- anyone who bitches about conditions here gets a good lecture about the hard livin' elsewhere from me. It just makes me laugh that whether in civilian life or military, I am simply always moving. I have too many family members and friends who can attest to that - I love you guys, and will need your help again in

Monday, May 22, 2006

Leaving the Hotbox

And now, a quick recap of my final days in Jalalabad Airfield before bouncing from there to Bagram to my previous station, FOB Salerno in Khost. What's old is new again for the AfghaniDan...

For one last photo with Marine compadres in J-bad, I grabbed two jarheads who did an outstanding job of providing public affairs support to Task Force Lava...Sgt Kaus (on left) and LCpl Kwietniak (on right). Both are pros at their respective jobs, Kaus on video and Kwiet on still photography. Here we are posing on the JAF camp's main loose-rock-covered thoroughfare.

Here is a leftover photo from the transfer ceremony...Tony the FAC and the two battalion doctors register their excitement at completing the handover and leaving country. Or maybe it's the excitement of standing the shade, where it was only about 100...that's also possible.

A Marine passes by the flag of Afghanistan, on his happy way to one last official function before leaving. Lucky bastard!

There's my tent sweet tent, my last day there before flying out. It was pretty weird after the Marine battalion left and that half of JAF just became a ghost town. The base remains manned however, with the 10th Mountain battalions who stepped in...

A dust storm sweeps into the airfield camp, the day before I left. The assaulting heat, dirt and dust were all there, even spinning dirt devils that coasted through...all we needed were some tumbleweeds to complete the picture.

A soldier from 1-32 ties protective covering on his vehicle's machine gun as the dust storm hits. The windstorms are sudden, violent occurrences that pelt everyone and everything with dirt and rock. I hear that Naomi Campbell's outbursts are the only natural phenomena that compare.

One more J-bad sunset before leaving the base...for now, anyway. Sunset also happens to be the cue for yelping mongrels to begin their nightly call to each other. There were packs of them roaming around the airfield, looking hungrier and hungrier as I'd pass them on my running route.

Waiting for the C-130 the next day...this would be my first fixed-wing aircraft (I believe that's called an "airplane" in civilian speak) flight since arriving in country, and boy, was it a doozy. A short runway, steep banks, and some turbulent weather made for a knuckle-whitening half-hour or so after we lifted.

There's the big bird, as soldiers file on. I turned out to be thankful I hadn't scarfed down a lunch before the flight, as many who did lost theirs, including both guys next to me...not that I noticed at the time, since I just poured sweat and wondered if the cabin's heat or the g-forces were draining me of fluids. I looked like Ted Stryker of Airplane! after the good drenching my flak jacket received.

This was my sixth and final attempt to get a decent photo of the cabin, after we'd landed. As you can see, we were packed in there like sardines, which didn't help. But I'll post the kind of blurry photo I don't usually display, since it pretty accurately conveys how we all felt!

My next C-130 flight however, two days later, was the complete opposite. It was cool, spacious and mercifully free of turbulence. That flight was smooth as silk...I slept the whole way and barely felt us land. Bravo, good pilots...bravo.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Marines have left the building...

Today, May 13, was the last day of Task Force Lava in Afghanistan. The men of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines cased their colors, and transferred authority to the Army's 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry--a unit that's been in the region since March with the rest of Task Force Spartan. These photos are again those of Lance Cpl Stephen Kwietniak, combat photographer extraordinaire.

The battalions present arms as the national anthem is played. I do realize this may be confusing for awhile, as I jump back and forth between current photos (the past week's memorial and today's transfer ceremony) and ones from a month ago, but I figure it's better than backing everything up.

Marines from the remaining companies of the battalion stand in formation, bowing their heads for the chaplain's prayer. I mentioned the insane heat here, right? The constant 110+ degree highs? Well, it continues...this was held at 8 a.m., and was already sweltering.

There it goes...I could barely stand to watch as the Eagle, Globe and Anchor is taken down and covered. It's back to the never-ending questions I endure in an Army environment: "Why aren't you with the rest of your battalion?" or "So you're a Lieutenant, right?" Knuckleheads.

It's perfectly appropriate, by the way, for a Marine battalion to be sharing their battle space with, then turning it over to, the "Chosin Battalion." As their name implies, this unit's lineage is heavy with battles that were fought alongside Marines, right up through Fallujah in 2004.

There you have it...the colors are swapped out, remarks and kudos complete by all commanders, the plaque is handed over and it's "Aloha time" for the Lava Dogs, as they return to Hawaii. I've really enjoyed my time with them over the last couple of months. And then there was one Marine remaining in all of eastern Afghanistan...