Letter From Bagram

Occasional dispatches from our man in Afghanistan.

(John Sotham)
airspacemag.com

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I don’t know what to think about Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently spoke of lowering our expectations, even as we prepare to send thousands more troops there. And what are we trying to accomplish? I remember standing in line one day along the road, waiting for the slow approach of a Humvee with “transfer cases” carrying two dead U.S. GIs. I watched two Afghan workers in our camp and we realized they weren’t affected in any way; they slowly poked their shovels into the dirt as they prepared a foundation for a new barracks that would be made from shipping containers. Others slumped indifferently inside the concrete bunkers nearby. There are towns in Europe that still honor the memories of long-ago battles and American dead. The bodies of two kids—barely out of high school—passed before us. The workers loafed. I was angry.

Time has provided some clarity, though. If we closed the base, most likely the Taliban or other ACMs (anti-coalition militants) would quickly fill the void and the workers would simply realign with whatever force took our place and paid a decent wage. Or they would be threatened into compliance. Even around Bagram, the largest base in Afghanistan, the Taliban were present. And sometimes they attacked. During my stay, a few rockets landed inside the base, and one night we had small arms fire from a band of militants trying to probe the perimeter. As a small firefight ensued, we ran for cover and donned our flak vests and helmets. So even around Bagram, where the surrounding villages provided workers, our influence was fragile. And across the expanse of desert, another village nearby had no such allegiance to us.

On the Edge of a Minefield (Posted Aug. 27, 2008)

I was out in a barren part of the airfield today. We were checking out some conex boxes (shipping containers) that have some of our equipment in them. They’re stacked in one of the old Soviet bunker areas—where they parked aircraft and stored munitions. There had been a dust storm all day and the wind was wicked. I took my weapon off so I could shimmy under the gate of the area we needed to get into. The 30-40 mph wind promptly blew the shipping manifests I had in my hands across the road and into more bunkers. I took off running after them. When you drop something and the wind takes it, you just take off—it’s a Pavlovian response.

I was bolting across the road as the papers blew toward one of the uncleared minefields. I suddenly remembered what the hell I was doing and stopped. The papers plastered themselves across a barbed wire fence short of the field, and I gingerly retrieved them. Mainly because of the fighting this area saw during the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, Bagram is littered with mines and unexploded ordnance. The “no-go” areas are indicated with triangular red signs and other markers. There are also countless hulks of Soviet tanks, armored personnel carriers, and even aircraft scattered across the fields next to the runway and around the base—the Soviets suffered their final defeat in a desolate mountain pass not far from here. The mines and ordnance don’t seem to concern the locals who live outside the base perimeter. They live simply, in adobe dwellings made from the brown, finely powdered soil, and they tend to their farm animals in many of the same areas that are still uncleared.

Fallen Comrade (Posted Aug. 27, 2008)

Bagram is the main hub for air travel into and out of Afghanistan, which means it’s also the departure point for the remains of military members killed in action who are being sent back to the States. When remains are readied for the trip to an awaiting C-17, we hold what is called a Fallen Comrade Ceremony, which is usually announced over the loudspeakers about 6 hours ahead. Fallen Comrades mean you report to the road on the way to the flightline, regardless of the time of day or night, in uniform. We line the road and salute in unison as the remains are carried past, usually in the bed of a Humvee.

One ceremony was especially poignant for me. Designated time for us to line the road was 00:00, or midnight. The time was near, and everyone was silent and at parade rest—feet shoulder-width apart, and hands clasped behind your back. In the darkness, the only thing I could hear was the wind. The vehicles came around the corner and down our road—they go very slow, almost walking speed. We came to attention and saluted. There was a light in the back of the Humvee that illuminated the flag-draped transfer case; in the dark, the colors of the flag were absolutely brilliant as it passed in a pool of light.

Visible in the glow was a soldier slumped forward in the bed with the case; I don’t know if he was the squad leader, a buddy, or what. He had the far-away look of someone in grief—despite his combat gear, he looked lost, like a little boy. One of my Airmen who has been having a hard time with these ceremonies was visibly upset; I talked to her briefly and squeezed her arm. She smiled a smile that told me she’d be okay. As always, once the vehicles pass, it’s time to put the experience behind you and go back to work.

Arriving (Posted Aug. 15, 2008)

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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About Tony Reichhardt

Tony Reichhardt is a senior editor at Air & Space.

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