Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Trip to Injun Country

I took wee side trip to Injun country out west near the Iranian border at Herat the past couple days. Getting there is half the fun. On the plus side, you don’t have to take off your shoes or go through metal detectors to get on a military flight. Sort of won’t work, what with everyone armed to the teeth anyway. But the wait is just as long.

I got to the ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) airfield at about 6:15 in the morning on Saturday. Check-in, known as manifesting in the military, didn’t start until 7:05. Now this part was very quick. No worries on bag weight either, no extra charges for overweight…hell, everyone is overweight when you are wearing body armor, Kevlar and carrying ammo and weapons.

All twelve passengers on my flight were checked in by 7:15; Swedes, Turks, Germans, Gringos and some Italians – me being one of the Gringos. Then we waited. Just before 9:00 we finally get the call to head to the gate – as in gap in the fence on the tarmac where the C-160 waited. The French, Germans and Turks use the C-160. Our aircraft and crew were German.

A Transall C-160.
The aircraft pictured here is Turkish Air Force.

We handed over our boarding cards and climbed up the back ramp to select our seats in the cavernous belly. The fight attendant loadmaster gave us our safety briefing: “Take a seat, fasten your seatbelt, do not get up for the duration of the flight, which is one hour and thirty minutes. Any questions?” As he was about 6-foot 4, and probably a good 240 pounds, no one wanted to argue with his delivery, even though we had him outgunned, but a few asked if he had earplugs. “No, we don’t carry extra earplugs. Too much extra weight.” Now that was a typical German response. A big box of about 500 pairs of disposable earplugs must weigh all of eight ounces, but that might tip the scales on this virtually empty aircraft. The Germans probably want to account for every set of earplugs and the loadmaster just didn’t want to deal with paperwork.

The cargo ramp and bay before closing.

Yeah, about the earplugs. As military aircraft are made for function and not comfort, there is little between the skin of the aircraft and where one sits. Therefore the engine noise is substantial particularly if you are sitting from the wings back. About that comfort…or lack thereof, the first thing you notice on boarding a typical military cargo plane apart from an apparent lack of seats is the smell which will be with you for the duration of the flight. That lovely medley of hydraulic fluid, aviation fuel and oil fills your nostrils.

Back to the seating arrangements. Aircraft like these are the ones paratroopers jump out of. Therefore, a nice comfortable airline seat is simply not functional. Yes, I said comfortable airline seat. I guarantee that sitting in coach on a typical airline even if wedged between two 300-pound porkers is more comfortable than sitting for an hour and a half sideways on what amounts to little more than a lawn chair without arms. Perhaps a better analogy is to think of a bench, canvas-covered instead of solid, with a straight canvas back. The only plus – leg room, but only because we didn’t have a full load.

The comfy seats.
If there are passengers on the opposite side, your knees almost touch.

As the plane takes off, there is no thought to passenger comfort – all of whom are desperately clinging to the bench frame for fear of being dumped into the tail of the aircraft. Then again, it was for our safety. Military aircraft are targets and the goal is to get off the ground as quickly as possible and out of range of any anti-aircraft missiles or small arms fire.

So, then begins the long flight. Heaven help you if you have a weak bladder or didn’t take care of business before going through the gate. Besides the fact that this loadmaster did not want us to get up anyway, there is no lavatory worth speaking of on a C-160. The “lavatory” is a tube, essentially a urinal and privacy is not guaranteed. On my two flights one tube had a curtain, the other did not. Females may prefer to take a different flight.

In-flight entertainment consists of sleeping and trying to stay warm.
An occassional stout-heart reads.
Conversation is impossible since you would need to shout.

The cold air blowing up your arse during the flight only makes matters worse. Those of us who have spent our lives on such flights know the trick – EDSW (Evacuate, Dehydrate and Stay Warm). Even in summer, take a jacket on a military aircraft. It gets friggin’ cold in the cargo bay, but it is made worse by the fact that since it is summer, the crew runs the AC.

The descent is almost as interesting as the climb. Only on the way down, everyone is trying to stay out of the cockpit. At least for the final approach the aircraft has to level so that it can land using the landing gear instead of the nose.

Having landed safely in Injun country, we await transport to the Army base which is several miles away. Transport arrives: Two armored HUMVEES and an MRAP (Mine-Resistant-Ambush-Protected vehicle). One HUMVEE tows a trailer for our bags. The convoy commander gives a mission briefing consisting of who does what if we are hit, where to find aid bags and the latest intel on enemy activity in the area. We fasten chinstraps and mount up.

After a brief pause at the gate where weapons are given a final check, we head out. Now this is only about a ten minute drive, but lately the bad guys have been attempting to pick fights. Our ride was uneventful with the exception of one suspicious vehicle shadowing us, but he was warned off by the .50cal machinegun on the trail vehicle and wisely thought better of getting too close. Among insurgents, our venerable old M2 (Ma-Deuce) .50cal is one of the most feared weapons we have. It will shoot through mud brick walls, cars and trucks as if they are not even there, so it does almost no good to hide. The fire from a skilled gunner is deadly accurate and can reach out over a thousand meters. Getting hit by .50 cal rounds tends to make one sort of fly apart. It is nice to have such a fearsome reputation that simply pointing the weapon draws respect from the other guy.

Cramped confines of an up-armored HUMVEE.
This one equiped with toy monkey, Holy Grail and a green-haired troll.

The MRAP leads the way.
These vehicles fare better in an IED blast and provide
protection from small arms fire.
The boat-shape of the vehicle hull "vents" the explosive force
around the vehicle providing better survivability to the crew.
However, they are a large target.
RPG's (Rocket Propelled Grenades) are a threat.

Goat herd around a village.

Tree-lined road.
The roads around Herat were once famous for the way the trees lined both sides of the road.
Most were cut down by the Soviets.

Typical desert terrain with mountains to the east.

Boy watching the flock.

The forward camp where I spent the last couple days has come under attack a few times lately. For most of the past three years the place has been “Sleepy Hollow,” but the bad guys are trying to find a suitable target. The camps in the east and south have been hit more often, but the bad guys get whacked hard there so they are looking for a camp that is more complacent or soft. So they probe. Keeping with the intent of staying light, I’ll say no more about that.

Sunday morning, round about 05:00, I got to meet the cigar-chomping, backwoods folksy, could probably cuss a blue streak FEMALE chaplain. She’s a mommy to boot! That was an interesting meeting. I can just picture her in her old age up some holler in West-by-God-Virginia, rocking on her porch and smoking her corncob pipe, or chewing tobacco and spitting off the porch. I kid you not! The guys say, "yup, her sermons are backwoods folksy too."

Sunday evening I was informed that my flight out on Monday has been cancelled. Well, I got to spend another day in Injun country. Fine by me, here like Kabul is not as bad as the press makes it to be. The biggest problems are the drug-running and corruption among key government officials. While the Taliban make some profit from the drugs, via various extortion rackets, the drug business is not Taliban business per se. As usual, the situation is more Gordian than people on both sides of the aisle back in the U.S. realize, or are willing to admit.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Visits to the Locals

I did not take these pictures, a couple folks I work with did on a visit to locals a couple weeks ago. One of the things you don't hear enough of back home is when soldiers go out and distribute food and toys for the kids. So here are some views of a "humanitarian patrol" into Injun country. We do this far more than you are hearing about via the media and sometimes these can be the most dangerous missions. The Taliban does not want the locals to view us as anything but the "evil infidels." Missions like this show the locals that we are indeed, friendly.

Toys and gifts break the ice. See? The Gringos aren't all that bad.

Showing off for the camera.

New construction rises above the existing mud houses.

The backyard.

Big sister isn't too shy.

The little ones aren't entirely certain, but they also aren't letting go of their new toys.

Who is this strange person?

Old granny in the middle is blind, daughter not far behind.

You frequently see henna-stained hands and feet on the women here.
They are showing the young female captain how it is done.
I emphasized female because men do not visit indoors with women who are not family.

Smiles all around.