Turn and Burn -- The Things I Saw At War

  • Published
  • By SSgt. George Cloutier
  • 439th AW Public Affairs
The following is a snapshot of my deployment while at Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan.

"So this is just a turn-and-burn right?" I ask the Marine.

We're standing on the side of the main road of Camp Phoenix, across from the building we both work at, in front
of a row of black SUVs. It's late afternoon on a mid-spring day in northern Afghanistan, which means that the temperature is just about perfect for all the body armor
and gear we're wearing.

"Just to KAIA and back. We're picking up some new guys," the Marine says with his deep southern drawl as he fishes the dip out of his pocket. He gestures the can to me and I shake my head.

"You wanna drive?" I ask. I know this guy likes to drive. It's just a little scary to drive with him sometimes, but I'm used to it.

"Sure," he says.
"Guess I'm TCing this one huh?"
"Go for it."

We both start getting the vehicle prepped for the trip. Paperwork, electronic countermeasure systems and navigation systems need to get fired up and we have to make sure the vehicle is mechanically serviceable.

These vehicles get run into the ground. We pick up one more body before heading out, leaving two empty seats for our new arrivals and a little breathing room for the three of us making this journey. Equipment whirs from under a pile of personal bags and emergency supplies stuffed into the back of the truck. Bulky bodies padded with thick, uncompromising armor shift around in their seats, adjusting the straps and belts that seem to be everywhere. It's comfortable, for now. On the way back weapons will have to get stuffed between legs and in the cracks of seats. Personal items will get stuffed into corners and down by feet and thrown in the back to get mixed up with all the other junk. There will
be no good place to put anything. Even the
cup holders will be full.

There's a moment of silence as we get ready to roll out. The other vehicles in our convoy start pulling out. Everyone comes to terms with the situation in their own way.
Some people fidget with their equipment compulsively. Others stare out windows. Tight armor coupled with the smell of diesel fuel and burning plastic makes it hard to breathe at times. Kabul International Airport, or KAIA (pronounced kai-ya), is the biggest airport in this part of Afghanistan. It's second only to Bagram in size, which is only a very short ride in a helo or fixed wing from Kabul but takes about an hour to get to by ground over bumpy terrain. That's why most everyone in Kabul comes and goes out of KAIA. It's
a big strip of tarmac, fully equipped with its own base and a slew of restaurants and shops that are frequented by many of the civilians and military making their way in, out and around the country.

Looking out the thick, dusty window, most everything on base blurs together in a mish-mash of earth tone clothing and crumbling tan buildings as we roll down the road to the main gate at a snail's pace. A few things stick out. A woman in her mid-twenties dressed like a JC Penney adwalks by, her inappropriate shoes clack against the pavement and equally inappropriate clothing and long dark hair blow in the cold dusty breeze. She's some kind of embassy type by the looks of her. A gaggle of dark-skinned soldiers in what looks like
purple cammo trudge slowly down the road behind her. A couple of Special Forces guys guiding a tactical truck pass by us going the other direction. They look like they're coming back
from the provinces; hats on backwards, body armor over their T shirts, expensive brand name sunglasses on their faces and hardly astitch of uniform on them.

Ten minutes later and only a quarter mile down the road, the SUV slows to a crawl and eventually stops by the weapons loading area where the road takes a 90-degree turn and transforms from the main drag into the gateway in and out of Camp Phoenix. I flip open my cell phone and thumb the number for the joint operations center clumsily through
my gloves. The Blue Force Tracker finally comes up. After some trouble-shooting, our electronic counter measures are giving me the good-to-go. Our ground guide
opens the door and jumps in the back seat, slamming the heavy armored door.

"Did you call the JOC?" he asks.
"Yeah we're good," I say, hanging up my cell phone.
"Did they say anything?"
"Yeah. Watch out for a white Toyota
Corolla." That gets a few chuckles. Every other car in Afghanistan is a white Corolla.

From December 2010 to June 2011, I worked at Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-435 (CJIATF 435), with headquarters at Camp Phoenix in Kabul. The unit includes U.S. service members from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, as well as coalition partners and civilian members from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development,
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Combined Security Transition
Command-Afghanistan. I lived and worked with them all. They were good people who brought unique perspectives to the mission.

Nobody was exempt from anything. Uniforms didn't matter. Eventually we just stopped seeing them. CJIATF 435, in partnership with the Government of the Islamic Republic of
Afghanistan and U.S. interagency and international partners, conducts operations in detention, corrections, judicial and biometrics in order to transition detention
operations to Afghan control and promote rule of law.

The other vehicles in our small convoy begin creeping forward again as the last of the ground guides gets in their vehicle. People start strapping on their helmets as
we get closer to the gate. Rambo, one of the Afghan guards, salutes a car coming in from the inbound lane. A clutch of the huge pigeons that Rambo keeps in an old shed
by the guard shack fly over our SUV as we rock up and down the first hump. Rambo isn't in the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police.His family was killed by Taliban
years ago. He lives here with us now. Someone gave him some uniforms and a set of body armor, which is heavily adorned with various medals and pins that he wears proudly. All those medals are probably personal medals given to him by servicemen and women that have worked with him. It's hard to tell how old Rambo is through the dark
glasses and deeply tanned face, but he's not young. An old wooden baseball bat or length of metal pipe is his weapon of choice. Everyone salutes Rambo when
they come onto base.

We come and go.
Rambo stays.

"Are we jamming?" our driver asks.
"We're jamming," I say, flipping the jammer switch, the soft whirring of the jammer becoming a much louder, higher pitched shrieking.

We cross the second hump, now outside the wall. The bullet holes on the Texas barriers that divide the outgoing and incoming lanes are a reminder of our most recent attack. None of ours died. Plenty of theirs did. Most of the bullet holes we can see from this side are actually from the 240 Bravo in the tower that overlooks the gate. From the incoming lane you can see the holes from the AK-47 fire and the blown up chunk of road where one of the insurgents detonated a suicide vest after being shot.
The outgoing lane gate guard is giving us the hand gesture to hurry up and go so he can raise the gate. The first vehicle in the convoy is already through. I hate that job and I feel for the guy. The guard waves on the way out, we wave back and we hit the ground rolling, pulling out in front of a taxi who knows enough to slow down for scary looking black SUVs. Our driver,
the Marine, floors the pedal and the big vehicle's eight cylinders start roaring. We're not watching our MPGs.

The road looks good, not locked up like it usually is this time of day. That's a scary feeling, being stuck in traffic, civilians just walking around your vehicle, unable to move or go anywhere. Visibility is good today too. The dust is visible but not bad. Sometimes it gets so heavy you can only see about 50 meters. Night is worse. The dust catches the headlights. It's like driving in a snowstorm.

For this time of day, there aren't many cars on the road. The Marine swerves our SUV narrowly around a rickshaw. Thecart is full of long, heavily scratched and scarred metal bottles of what looks like flammable gas. The donkey pulling the cart trots down the road at a good pace, like he couldn't be more at ease pulling a chopped off truck bed full of flammable gas down one of the most dangerous roads in Kabul. The kid driving the rickshaw waves from on top of the bottles of gas and we wave back. Picking up more speed, we pass a
faded burgundy jingled out minivan with the side doors open and some guy hanging halfway out, his shalwar flapping in the wind. (Some people call the shalwar "man-jammies". It's the traditional Afghan clothing, made up of a full-sleeve, loosefitting shirt that droops down to about the knees and a matching pair of loose, baggy pants tied with a simple chord around the
waist and sometimes around the ankle.)

The scenery of the industrial district starts to fly by as I play with the optic on my rifle to calm my nerves. Nothing separates anything from anything else. Old men and children tending garden plots on the side of the road. Guards sitting in flimsy towers, loosely gripping their AKs. Iron gates and huge industrial machinery. Dimly lit shops with golden brown slabs of bread in the windows. Red and white chunks of raw meat hanging on hooks. A boy walking a herd of goats through the alleyways. A mechanical garage with various parts for sale and a couple old cars. Kids and stray dogs sifting through heaps of trash. A man washing the dirt off a cart of vegetables with a rag. Piles of roughhewn poles and firewood. A huge faded
sign advertising cell phones. Another for some kind of drink. Our driver turns off the main road right before a covered pedestrian bridge that spans the highway. Few people use it. Most just walk through the cars.

Turning off the main road, school must begetting out. Kids of all ages swarm over the street. Women in blue burkas sort through the sea of kids, trying to pick out their own.
Two older boys start to fight by the burning pile of trash. Nobody seems to notice as one of the kids hits the other square in the face with his bare fist. He topples back on his back pack.
Preoccupied with avoiding Afghan school kids, our driver must not have seen the bump in the road. Hitting a speed bump window and makes the hand motion that looks like racking back the slide on a pistol that tells us they want us to clear our weapons. They drop the spikes and we head off into the interior of KAIA, which today smells strongly of human waste.

The Germans have taken over the parking lot outside the incoming terminal again. For some reason they like to park their entire convoy in the middle of the parking area instead of parking in designated spots like everyone else. We manage to squeeze our SUVs around their trucks and into a couple spots. Then the waiting game starts.

"Did you call the JOC?" our driver asks.
"What did they say?"
"They said they're on time. Should be hereany minute."
"So we're going to be stuck here for three
hours again?"

After about 15 minutes a C-130 hits the runway. Even though it looks like every other C-130, somehow this one looks like ours to our Marine.

"That's probably them," he says. He has an unusual sense about these things. About 20 minutes later, our new guys are dragging their bags down the sidewalk and loading them into the back of Big Sexy, our big silver Dodge 3500 pickup truck. After making sure we've got everyone we're supposed to get, handing out some ammo, picking up a few extras who need a lift and giving the "so this is your first ride through Kabul" briefing, we're back on the road. We get our people and get back without ahitch. It's the familiar excitement of a new place, new faces and new job. The new guys at about 30 mph sends all the people and equipment in the back of the SUV flying up toward the ceiling and crashing back down. The metallic thud of the jack is discernable above all the other noise. It's the kind of sound that makes your head hurt.

The jammer changes pitch for a second and then picks back up to its normal whine.
"Sorry ya'll," he says.
"Sorry jammer," I say.

The bump served its purpose. The driver slows down as we windthrough the little village. The houses and shacks collect along each side of the road, spilling their contents into the street. Blankets hang in some of the entrances. Others are just wide open. Villagers step in and out as if every building is communal property. Two men sit outside playing chess on a rug while waiting for their lunch, which is steaming in a large polished pot over a wood fire burning in a little portable stove. A family of wild dogs lay sleeping on the side of the road. They're beautiful dogs, that husky looking breed of white dog with the curled tail that's all over the country. A little girl with short dark hair, dirty and dressed in rags, stands by a couple huge sacks of grain and a vegetable cart and stares at us blankly as we pass by. I'm not sure whether I should feel sorry for her or not. We probably gave each other the same look.

At a fork in the road, we bear right for the military side of Kabul International Airport. The Belgians are out again. You might mistake them for Americans if it wasn't for the Fabrique Nationale assault rifles. From a distance they look like an M-16 but have a very distinct swinging stock. Weaving around the barriers, we hold up our IDs. A large Belgian soldier,
his face hidden under a mask, gives us the thumbs-up.

After we pass, he rejoins his buddy nextto the barrel in which they've built a fire from scrap wood. The cold starts to set in if you stay outside too long. At the second check point another team of Belgians sweeps our vehicles, first with the mirror then with the dog. One comes up to the go in the building to meet their coworkers and leave their stuff in a pile on the side of the road. It'll get picked up later when someone from their offices shows them to their room and gives them the short tour: the barracks, the chow hall, the office, the gym and the BX. Grabbing the last of the gear out of the truck, it looks like things are winding down for the night. Operations run 24/7 across base, but most people try to keep some semblance of a regular schedule. The nights aren't so cold now. Tonight will be a good night for a run around the perimeter road, or the track, which is really the helipad. It's peaceful out there at night. An occasional gunshot will ring off in the distance, followed by some barking dogs and yells from the kids who live on the other side of the wall. Out of nowhere a helo will fall out of
the night sky, blessing us with its presence, dropping off weary and hungry travelers before kicking up prop wash and floating back up into the night sky and disappearing
into the darkness.

Back at the barracks, the buzz from a hot shower after a hard work out is the closest thing you're going to get to a beer. It has a way of stopping time for a few minutes-watching the soapy water and a day's worth of grime and sweat go down the drain. Time gets away from you in the AOR, I like to think in a good way. The days of the week become inconsequential. Time starts getting measured in tubes of toothpaste, bottles of body wash, the number of weights on the bar, the rotation of the food at the chow hall and eventually seasons.

But that's the way I like it. Some guys religiously count the number of days until they get to leave, compulsively, as if by doing so they will get to leave sooner. I personally don't think this is the way to spend a deployment, waiting for it to be over. Even if it's not fun all the time, or even most of the time, take it for what it is. Appreciate those moments while they happen. You only get to be here once. Even if you come back, it will be somewhere different, in a different time.

Not here. Not now.