My stay in Bagram was short. I was number 34 on the "Space-A" list when I arrived in the morning for the Chinook flight. I knew the probability of getting on the flight was slim, but I stayed around for the roll call to ride out my fate. Things worked out. Calling me by my last four of my social, I was checked off as present and officially manifested on the flight. Putting my bags in the back of a truck, we loaded onto buses and were shuttled to the waiting Chinooks. We were then broken down into groups by destination, reclaimed our bags, and loaded in reverse order. Within an hour we were on our way.
The Chinook has become one of the iconic images of the war in Afghanistan. Passengers are seated on each side, the length of the entire airframe,with bags and cargo piled high in the center. The flights are never about comfort; only about getting there. The Chinooks are the Army's workhorse, a literal air taxi that is the backbone to troop and cargo movements throughout the country. With a legacy stretching back to Vietnam, the Chinook has both a practical sense and a historical nostalgia tied to a timeless aspect of modern warfare.
The fifth stop was Gardez. Flying first south to Kabul then East over the mountains and snow capped peaks, we arrived. Unloading is always a joint venture. Everyone pitches in, grabbing bags and boxes without concern for ownership, only interested with taking off all items intended for the destination. Speed is always the focus. Once unloaded, our backs now turned to the spinning rotors, the Chinook lifted gracefully into the air, as the rotor wash and accompanying dust swallowed us in a torrent of momentary chaos. As the dust settled, we moved quickly to find your things, and begin moving to the awaiting vehicles. A few minutes later I had arrived; a place I had been several times before. FOB Lightening... it had a strange sense of returning home.
This is now the fifth day since my arrival. The week has raced by. Yet today seems like the beginning. As the force structure in Afghanistan has been changing, those changes have impacted the latitudes granted embeds. For the past five days, working closely with the Public Affairs Officer and the firebase Commander, a full-bird Colonel and veteran of Operation Anaconda some 7 years ago, we have now created the foundation from which I can move forward to capture the stories I seek.
Afghanistan is not a country that allows for a quick visits nor easy access. It is as complex geographically as it is politically. Stories told in one region, often don't apply to another. The key to telling any story here is time. And that is something that years of tribal structures have taught the Afghans. To understand the story, one must be here long enough to experience it.
After a few days of settling in, I was invited to join the Colonel for a lunch with the Afghan Army Corp Commander. A General by rank, he speaks English along with several other languages including Dhari and Pashtun. Near the end of the lunch he looked across the way to where I was seated. With a modest expression of a man worn by years of war, he commented on our first meeting back in 2006. Then in a soft, yet commanding tone, he said in front of all of his senior staff seated around the table, "I am glad to welcome back my old friend and may he have continued success in telling the stories of Afghanistan." With that he rose from the table, shook hands with the American commanders that were present, and headed out the door.
To be acknowledged as a friend within this culture, is for the Afghan's a blessing from God. It is a gift I hold close, as I step forward into the stories yet untold.