Today started like any other Monday in Afghanistan. The sun rose, the mullahs called, Ramazan is wrapping up and we're headed toward Eid (described by some Muslims as "just like your Christmas"), and I skipped breakfast to go meet a guy and see a project site. The guy I met is a guy I met back in the spring at a class training up to come over here. Small world again. But the project site is a site like none I've ever been to.
The helicopters were late. This is probably Karma for me blowing off our helicopter pilots last time they told me I was not only an hour late but that the Corps SOP is for me to show up on time. The only reason I won't be an hour late again is because we pay them too much money an hour. Thirty minutes late it is. But the helicopters were 2 Blackhawks and a Chinook. I had never been on a CH-47 Chinook before, but man what a ride.
We went about 45 minutes north and east to the Salma Dam. Once we landed, Tom ('cause first names are for officers) had the interpreter call the Colonel in charge of protecting the dam site. I only know his last name so I can't use it ('cause first names are for officers). He was expecting us, though he didn't know when we'd be there. And by when, I mean what day. He wasn't in his uniform but rather in a manjama shirt that wasn't buttoned, like he threw it on quickly and ran out to meet us.
He brought us to a shady porch and brought out chairs for us to sit and we started talking. This was the "man-love and chai tea" jirga I had heard about. The Indian contractors came up quickly and we began talking with them about where they were from and how long they'd been on the project. Sure enough, about that time a boy came around with the chai.
It was a surprise to see tea during Ramadan (can anyone tell me why it's pronounce RamaZan?) but I was further surprised by the fact that I love it. It was phenomenal tea. I've been drinking Spiced Chai Espresso Lattes from the Green Bean on Camp Stone, but that's different, that's tea, coffee and milk thrown into a cup with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Tastes as good as it smells. The Chai just plain tastes good.
The project managers were happy to see us. The main mission of the day was to assess the security of the dam, but I was there for the secondary mission. I was the only unarmed guy in the crowd trying to see how far along they are with the construction. This project is very important for the people of Western Afghanistan. It will supply power to cities like Obeh and on to Herat. It will reduce their independence on Iran for power and be a major step forward towards getting an Afghan power grid.
There are several super cool factors about this site. One is it is a dam. Dams are just plain fascinating civil engineering projects. Dams are a civil engineers bread and butter. We may not all get to work on one, but we are all fascinated by them. Second, it's a dam. Every dam I've ever been to is a fully built, functioning dam. Impounded water, hydroelectric plant, buzzing switchyard, cool stuff. This one is not. I stood on a point where there will be 40 meters of water. I touched the outside of the penstock tubing that will be installed, concreted in, and never touched by humans again. I witnessed the construction of a modern marvel.
Well, modern could be a stretch since it is a rock dam, but still, it's a dam.
I got to see the dam, drive over the dam, walk on the dam, cross the spillway on a rickety ladder, see the diversion tunnel including the mechanism that when the dam is finished they will close and never reopen to impound the water, I got to see the switchyard, the powerhouse, the penstock tunnel, where the penstock piping is being installed, and much more.
In all, we probably spent about 4 hours on the ground and with the exception of the jirga, I was wearing my body armor and a backpack the whole time. After the jirga I put my Kevlar in the backpack, but while my head was lighter the pack wasn't. I had food to last for a day and 3 liters of water. Of course, over the course of the next 10 hours I drank no less than 4 liters of water, but I had 3 with me. There was a great deal of walking, though they drove us some. There wasn't much vehicle time. We walked lower, and lower, and lower, until we reached the point that will be 40 meters below the level of the reservoir. Then we rode up. No one was more thankful than I.
From the get-go I knew that I was the weak link in the bunch. I'm an out of shape civilian keeping up with members of the military both American and Afghan. They didn't laugh too loudly at me except when I self-deprecatingly did.
On the way up from the bottom of the soon to be reservoir Tom suggested sneaking some water. It is offensive to eat or drink in front of Muslims during Ramadan and since they didn't have to let us onto the site. I slurped down a half liter. Inside the penstock tunnel I was handed a semi-cool soft drink unlike any I've ever seen before. I didn't drink it, but did sneak some more water after that.
The helicopters were late again picking us up. This time it wasn't Karma. But I had a tickle in my throat and needed some water. We were away from the group we had visited but I was still mostly surrounded by Afghans. I watched a guy about 5 meters away, an Afghan, sip from his CamelBack. He took several pulls, then would spit out some. So, I opened a bottle, drank 4 gulps and spit out a half a sip. When I looked at the Afghan he smiled.
Did I mention another cool fact about the dam visit? This mission was with a team other than my normal security team. At any point up to stepping onto the CH-47 I could have called no joy and canceled my involvement. The thing is, I didn't think it could be a bad idea until I stepped off the ramp onto the first piece of unprotected Afghanistan soil. We did not land in a secured landing zone. We literally flew out there, landed in a field and called up to say, "Hey, we're in the neighborhood. Mind if we poke around a bit?"
This was the closest I have ever come to being on an actual military mission in combat. Closest because my years of service were between the Gulf Wars, they didn't take me anytime someone from my unit deployed and even when the whole unit deployed they didn't take our Battery. I still didn't have a weapon, but everything else about it was spot on. I was a part of an actual combat mission. My job was to be the middle of it all, sit in the most protected position, and take notes, but I was there.
On the way back to Camp Stone I videotaped from the guy next to me, around the cabin, to the guy on the other side of me. I was in an actual flying can of whoop ass with a whizbang bag of shit at my feet. The whizbang bag was in case they needed to operate in the helicopter on the way to a hospital.
The people I was with believe that Murphy was an optimist. One soldier weighed in at 397 pounds with all his equipment. In fact the OIC got on to him while we waited for our ride out for bringing too much stuff. They never got to use the mortars and none of the guys who wore belts of ammo crisscrossed around their chest got to fire a round. It was an extremely successful example of a well-oiled machine doing a mission with a rubbernecking, out of shape, me at the middle of it all.
All in all, a very fun day of combat tourism.