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...

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Lumber Yard

Late afternoon light at the lumber yard outpost in the Korengal, and blackhawks are still busy. There was a constant pace of activity as Marines and soldiers (even the occasional sailor or airman), supplies and weapons, building materials and everything else were shuttled to points throughout the mountains of Kunar in support of the massive operation...

And man, did they rearrange the dirt of the place every time they did!

Morning sun created a daily haze over the valley, which would then burn off. It was already heating up significantly over the first few days of the operation, which still featured some bitter cold nights.

Afghan workers were signed up for each day's work, which in this case meant retrieving contents of an aerial resupply drop. It was quite an event - the drop, that is - though organizing locals was always an event as well.

And the pallets are off! (the cluster of dots on the left) It's an impressive process to see those seemingly tiny bundles ejected by a large cargo plane way overhead, then remember that those dots are actually tons of supplies...are those cows out of the designated landing zone yet? If not, we eat good tonight!

Drifting to the earth (nowhere near the giant zone marked by green smoke and orange tarps) were the bundles, bringing needed supplies for the planned MEDCAP and humanitarian aid distribution. No cows were harmed in the conduct of this aerial resupply.

"Ayyy, I make you an offer you can't refuse!" So goes the motto of our trusty payments officer, Al the Sicilian. He had a ton of great stories, including golfing with every recent Commandant of the Marine Corps and lots of other top brass. Which is funny, because it really is fair to say that he's "connected."

"C'mon, little you go..."
"Dude, you are NOT taking my water bottles!"
Capt. Tim Kelly offers to show some young Afghans the photo he took of them, to no avail.

The ANA brigade also had their own command headquarters at the outpost landing zone...though they trusted in Allah much more for protection than we did, eschewing the double layer of blast wall.

Much to my amusement, one unit brought along a little friend. And who doesn't love monkeys? Unfortunately, the hairy biter was deemed a bit of a health hazard and had to be sold to the Afghan soldiers...

So here he is getting a bite to eat with his new friends, outside the wire this time. Monkeys actually seem to be everywhere in this country, though they're not employed as trained killers as often as I imagined.

Far more common, and far less entertaining, were the cows that wandered through the outpost. It was when there were no herders in sight, like this time, that the scene became puzzling.

See, here's one doubling back...there were a few times they'd have to be led on their way by Marines. All this is probably not that interesting to any of you who grew up with cows around, but for me it was hilarious.

"Brother, can you spare an afghani?" (that's the national currency, though US dollars are gladly accepted everywhere) Locals wait for the start of the first MEDCAP held in the Korengal Valley.

The first patients arrive as the medical tents were now open for business. A team of doctors, nurses and medical support flew in from Bagram to provide the staff needed to host such a large clinic. More on that later...

One of the battalion's mortar teams poses for a group shot. They kept us, and the smaller ground units, safe by suppressing the enemy, often striking their movements late at night. Great weapon to have on your side, though when there's no heads up, nothing quite prepares you for that eardrum-shattering shot out if you're dozing a couple hundred meters away!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Morning shines its light on the strangest outpost in Afghanistan, as Afghan soldiers perched on top of one lumber pile look out. It wasn't nearly as serene a scene if you could hear the horrific music blasting from their boom box though...which was more like cats being tortured as a rythm-less class takes drum lessons.

The command post, now properly adorned with the battalion shield, was the center of activity as local elders began to arrive by the dozens for a large shura, or what we would later call the SuperShura.

Though it definitely be cheesy, I thought I'd pose with the backdrop of the heart of the valley, whose villages were represented at the large gathering of leaders.

"So whatchu whatchu whatchu want?" asked Afghan Col. Esop of our battalion commander. Well, that's what I think he was rapping in Dari. I later showed this photo to Mike, the interpreter in sweatshirt and ballcap, and he said, "Yeah, that colonel likes to shake hands a lot."

The SuperShura takes shape. A couple hundred gents wound up attending this meeting, dressed in all variations of manjammies and beard/hair dye (red is clearly the most popular).

Expectantly we all waited...for the governor was taking his sweet time getting to the helicopter that would take him here, I later learned.

Though it seems like a ton of pictures of the same event, believe me - I only selected relatively few. I was fascinated by this gathering, and the setting. This 'amphitheater' had been hastily shaped by a couple of the towering timber stacks.

Each time a new contingent of important or self-important people, or another gaggle of elders, arrived the crowd would undergo another round of musical chairs in order to strictly enforce priority seating. Punctuality, on the other hand? Not enforced.

Get those shawls over your faces, because every few minutes there were the repeated intrusions of those pesky blackhawks, which - as we were below the landing zone - kicked up the whole dirt of the hillside into our faces.

"Now people, please! We thought there'd be enough punch and cookies for all, but you each brought a dozen friends, so you'll just have to accept cash instead."

An up-close look at one of our colorful participants. I learned quickly that the seats on the side are coveted, for the ease of spitting off to the side instead of just down, like old man firebeard here is busy doing.

Some of the key leaders huddled for more substantial decisions after much of the SuperShura had dispersed, such as where to go for lunch (seriously). Remember, blue sport jacket = big man on campus.

"Thank you all for coming. Remember to get your parking validated on the way out!"

When it was time to go, there was the standard way home for some...

And the standard for others.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Into the Korengal

'Stand to' comes early in the field - it's the hour when all are to be up and on watch, guarding against a daybreak attack or other suspicious activity. It wasn't hard to be up that early when sleeping on a rock river bed anyway, so I didn't mind much.

Even the jingle truck drivers get bed head out here! Mornings were still chilly in Kunar at this point. A couple of these trucks would be part of my latest hitched convoy, from the Pech River to a just-established outpost in the Korengal Valley.

More jingle trucks! These colorful beasts, decorated as festively as possible, transport anything and everything for the Afghans and often for us. Check out the crown on this one...

King of the jingles, right here.

Meanwhile, the river crossing still continues, as some vehicles remained on the other side for security overnight. Soon though, the convoy was whole and ready to roll...

Naturally, in no time the local population had turned out to watch the show. Look at the feisty guy in the right. Buddy, watch where you're throwing those stones! (he was actually just chucking them into the field - probably undoing a project that we funded at some point)

Soon we were making our preparations to roll, after a convoy brief and threat assessment. Villagers had to be reminded to stand back from the vehicles about every 5 seconds, as usual. I can't blame them for being curious though - we were in one long train of vehicles.

I found my friend Al Andriotti on the convoy...this guy was a complete riot, raised in Sicily and later all over Europe, he was one of the unlikeliest Marines you'd ever come across. Naturally for a Sicilian, he handled payments to the locals.

At long last, we were underway...and driving literally up a river for a stretch. As noted before on this journal, sometimes that IS the road.

This is my favorite shot of curious passersby. It gives a pretty decent perspective on how wedged in between the banks we were.

A few tight twists and turns and we were out of the creek and heading up past large compounds into the entrance of the valley...

I was stunned at how close the Afghans would walk by our lumbering vehicles, although there were clearly weren't many options on these slopes. It was definitely their main route of transit also.

Sorry, sorry...coming through. In places they were hard at work, "improving" the road. How larger jagged rocks improve it, I'm not sure, but they sure were working back-breakingly hard.

The higher we went, the more gorgeous the views became. I'll admit that it became easy to be distracted by such scenery, so it's probably a good thing I wasn't driving or manning the .50 cal machine gun.

This road was no joke. I thought I'd travelled some harrowing ones before in this country, but this took the "Please watch the edge!" cake. On the passenger side, we'd guide to the rock wall until we were scraping it in order to avoid drifting the other direction.

As with elsewhere in the valley, terraced fields could be found way, way up there. How on earth these farmers get down to the river beyond sheer rock cliffs remains a mystery to looks dangerous as hell.

You take the high road and I'll take the low...actually we took the high while our jingles took the low when it split, so they had to climb back up to re-join the convoy. I liked how the roads just snaked away from this vantage point.

There's my trusty gunner and the vehicle that took me up this last leg. After a few hours we'd reached the lumber yard, where the Marine battalion had set up an outpost a couple of days earlier.

A view of the emerging outpost, looking up from the one flat area. It was a crazy scene, with shelters and lean-tos springing up all over the hillside, like an Old West mining camp.

The center of a sprawling lumber yard for years, this building was heavily reinforced for use as a command post. But it was an individual effort to go stake out a sleeping spot. In true wandering fashion, I'd be in a different location every few nights while staged out of there.

By the Grace of God, I was able to pull a building crew together to assist with my construction...that's the chaplain, his assistant and a combat cameraman with me, in between some heavy lifting.

Soon I was chillin' in my new digs, adjacent to one of the towering lumber piles of the hillside. That Kunar timber is extremely heavy, and they don't use machinery to cut or haul's done the same way it's been done for millenia here, by hand.

I'd spend the next few days primarily at the outpost, getting out only for a few patrols and missions in the surrounding valley, and will post some of that too. It's strange to be posting this all now that I'm leaving soon, but time and internet didn't allow for it sooner, so I hope you still enjoy the journey...