Father's Day was my first real trip outside the wire. Technically, each flight since landing in Bagram was a trip, but not really, those were all above the wire. The short jaunt from Camp Arenas to Camp Stone was an outside the wire trip, but it was a part of my arrival. Those trips were to this trip what my previous journeys outside the United States were to this journey--pale comparisons. Prior to the week before, my only journeys outside the United States were a pair of visits to British Columbia in the early and mid nineties. Canada is a different place and yet, not completely different. They use the metric system and talk with a different accent. Their money feels like monopoly money to a first time visitor, but since they speak English it is close to home. Traveling anywhere was different before 2001, there was no Passport ID Card to use for traveling to our neighboring countries. You just stopped at the border, told them you had no alcohol, tobacco, or guns and kept on driving. You just drove different because the speed limit was kilometers per hour instead of miles.
It started as all my trips will, with a security brief detailing what we were going to do, how we would do it, recent activities in the area, and our route. Part of the trip was eliminated due to risks. I keep saying that this area is the safest place I can be in, but it is all relative. My security teams are there to keep me safe though. It is their job to jump at every shadow so that I don't have to worry about that and can concentrate on my job of constructing buildings, roads, and infrastructure.
After we put on our body armor and helmet, we got into the up-armored SUV and headed out. In many ways this makes you feel uncomfortable.All together it is about 40 pounds of gear, the vehicle windows do not roll down, it is effectively sealed from the outside. Part of our briefing told us that in the event the vehicle was disabled we were not to get out because even if it cannot move it is still a safe zone. Another vehicle will come alongside us and signal when they will open the door and drag us out to throw us into the other ride. Uncomfortable, but safe.
My previous descriptions of the geography have not changed much after seeing it up close with one exception. The tufts of vegetation are everywhere. It is hard to imagine that this is really a desert because there are trees, bushes, weeds, and grass all over. Previously I mentioned that the bushes looked brown like the ground until they became concentrated in the draws. As we drove I noticed that there are actually green-tinted rocks particularly in the intermittent streambeds and wadis so the ground literally is green.
Along the way we passed through a few towns. There were herds of goats, oxen, donkeys, and farmers. I saw huge piles of grasses. I'm not sure if it was wheat, but they were a bit misshapen, not the uniform masses of crops we see from the automated farming equipment in the States. Later on I saw why. I witnessed men using scythes to harvest the wheat. There were a few women and children following behind at some distance which made me think of the biblical stories of gleaning after harvesting.
Every 15 to 20 kilometers there were gas stations. They weren't Circle K and they weren't Jr. Food Marts. Most did not have a canopy over the pumps but most of them did have white, decorative buildings. This stands out from the rest because the two main building colors are brown and yellow. There were a few compounds that contained fancy buildings, one had an overabundance of glass in it, but along the way mud huts ruled the day.
Some huts were walls without a roof, some had flat roofs, a lot of them had a sort of domed roof but they were all covered or made of mud. The buildings we are constructing are made of concrete masonry units, what we call cinder blocks. They make the blocks on the job site, and after they build the wall they plaster over both the inside and outside. Once that is cured they paint them all yellow. There is no color scheme, no architectural renderings, no color book of choices. Just yellow. Old and new buildings alike.
Just before we reached Shindand there was an old Soviet outpost. It was just off the road and set in a thicket of trees. The buildings were low, single story, and made of stone. Everywhere there are walls, fences, whatever you might like to call them. Mostly mud, some brick, a few with iron fencing on the top, very few like the wall around this Soviet post were made of stone. It was like looking into a ghost town of an outpost.
Shindand is another old Soviet air base like Bagram. Most all of the work we are doing there is repairing or replacing things that the Soviets made during their occupation. A few of the buildings were made of stone, but those that weren't are yellow.
One of the things that is done at Shindand is flight training. Both fixed wing and rotary aircraft. It seems ironic that we would be teaching flight here because of why we came here in the first place.
While driving around the runway I saw a Reaper Drone taxiing, a contingent of Soviet helicopters, some planes that looked like Cessnas with a Soviet paint scheme, and one pilot-in-training bounce into a three-point landing. In some ways it reminded me of one of my recent flights in which the pilot bounced the 737 off the runway before final touchdown.
In addition to a mosque, I also drove around an old Soviet boneyard. I've been told they're all over, but since this is the first "sight-seeing" I was able to do it was fascinating to see burned out Antov aircraft, husks of Yak, Sukov, and MiG aircraft interspersed with BMP bodies, tank treads, utility trucks of unknown manufacture, scrap steel and tanks for oil, gas, water, or who knows what else.
Some of the job sites we visited were on the air base, but not all. Those projects still outside the wire, even though they may be inside a stone or Hesco wall we constructed the security was not by hard and fast military troops from NATO. I have been on many job sites in my career. Some as a peon, some as a surveyor, some as an engineer, some as a representative of the owner, some as the head man's right hand guy, and some as the head man. For these projects I am the head of the construction management team so very much I'm the Boss. However, my inspection of the project was a secondary concern to the project engineer's inspection of the project. He is the guy that knows the ins and outs of the job. Where things are, where they're supposed to be. He knows what issues the contractor has had in the past and what issues are likely to appear in the future. So while my own curiosity and desire to know what is going on will be quenched, we don't take these trips just to get out and see the countryside. We go so the project engineer can see what he needs to in order to be able to oversee the contract.
This was the first time I felt like I was in an envelope. The security team was around us, to the front, rear and sides. Not so close that you were claustrophobic, but close enough that within a few seconds they could be on me like white on rice. If something bad were to happen I get treated like a rag doll because they will put me where they need me to keep me safe. My mental image keeps going back to March of 1981 when the Secret Service threw President Reagan into his limo. Reagan was yelling at them telling them they had broken his ribs. Of course later on we learned that it wasn't his ribs but a bullet but the point is the same. If something bad happens, I will be thrown into a safe place even if it pisses me off that I've been thrown around. My safety trumps my comfort to these guys. I am the client. It is very much like having body guards because, put simply, they are my bodyguards.
Having the team around me, close but not interfering was surreal. As we walked from building to building, the vehicles hovered close by as well. Before entering a building a security team ensured it was clear. These guys were the jumpy ones expecting to be surprised so I did not have to worry about it.
On the way back, I fell asleep. Nodding off on a road trip is not a truly notable event but I mention it here because I felt safe. There were no worries. I had seen the security teams in action and they are good at what they do. One time I woke up and saw the largest herd of goats that any in the vehicle had ever seen, even our Afghan driver. There must have been 300 goats just mosying across the road. We had to stop because they paid us no mind. In their world, we were the intruder. We were the thing not like everything else. We were the part that didn't belong.