Tuesday, 21 April, FOB Sharana
Hallelujah! At 3.30 am as promised, all six of us journalists got picked up by the media van for a short ride to the flight line. Two newsmen from Fox News, a young freelance photog from Action Press, a seasoned print veteran from Le Monde, a Polish writer for the Polish Army magazine and me formed the motley crew. The check-in terminal was full of very sleepy soldiers and civvies waiting for their flight out.
So, 3 hours later we were still waiting at the departure ‘gate’ wondering if the flight was ever going to take off, as the weather is anything but great. Finally our flight was called and we shuffled towards a waiting C-130 transport aircraft. A single file in and we took our seat. The flight was uneventful except when the pilot decided to pull a very sharp turn and today, I truly understood the meaning of ‘g-force’! Oh, it was a minor g-force turn but we still sank into our seats and our hearts leapt into our throats!
Soon we landed and were chaperoned into the terminal by the media rep. So it turned out that we will all be going to different places and that means another flight out… but this time in a helicopter! Hurray! I’ve always wanted to ride in a helo and now it’s a dream come true. The first sign of things to come was when the powerful downward wash from the approaching CH-47 Chinook threatened to blow me away except that I was too weighted down by my body armor and helmet.
The first 10 minutes was fun, exciting, and OMG-I’m-riding-in-helicopter thrilling! Then the cold became very noticeable. My butt started to hurt from all that weight. Then the ‘joyous’ helicopter ride became unbearable! We flew and flew and flew. Picked some soldiers up, dropped some soldiers off, out of the aircraft for refueling, back in, more pickups and finally, after two grueling hours, the crew chief told me to get off. My stop: FOB Sharana!
Sharana probably looks like most of the bigger American bases in Afghanistan filled with helipads, runways, armored vehicles, mess hall, a PX, KBR, and coffee shop, etc. I got squared away pretty quickly and then was told to get ready for a mission first thing tomorrow morning! Ok, I must confess that the ‘mission’, as far as I can gather, would be a humanitarian one so no action would be expected. Tomorrow will be a brand new day…
Wednesday, 22nd April, FOB Sharana
It was a beautiful day to go out on a mission with a clear blue and nearly cloudless sky overhead. Mission briefing was held outside PRT Paktika (Provincial Reconstruction Team) barracks which also happens to be where my room was located. The convoy was divided into 4 MRAPs, a squad of soldiers, a couple of Afghan interpreters, and two civvies including myself. MRAPs are Mine Resistance Ambush Protected Vehicles and they are designed to survive an IED attack. We would be going out to Matakhan district to inspect a school and to check out a culvert under construction. I was assigned the last vehicle with ‘Bob’, a young, polite Afghan interpreter originally hailed from Kabul, and PFC Malcolm. Climbing into the tiny cabin space of the MRAP was a real pain when you are wearing body armor, helmet, and carrying two cameras! Thank God journalists are not expected to be carrying arms and ammo too! Finally with instructions to strap in real tight and to help the turret gunner with ammo should the need arise we were off! Hmmm… that would be real interesting.
The convoy set off and we bumped and grinded our way slowly to Matakhan. The MRAP is so heavily armored that it could only crawl along on what must be the worse road in this part of Afghanistan. I must rate it as one of the most unpleasant ride I’ve ever had! We finally arrived in Matakhan and got off right outside the school. There were only boys there and some had proper classrooms while others can only sit outside in the sun while the teacher taught with a portable blackboard and chalk. They were very curious about the presence of the foreigners and although some were friendly most of them were standoffish. Some did throw rocks at PFC Malcolm (who was assigned as my escort) and me.
All went well without any incident and we went on our way to the culvert. Suddenly, our vehicle seems to tilt violently to the right. We just got ourselves stuck in a ditch and the tall MRAP is in the danger of tipping over! We froze and hang on for our dear lives while another vehicle came around to winch us out of the ditch! That was a close call!
Finally we reached our objective and the engineer, together with a civilian consultant, talked to the village elders on the problem at hand. Nothing dramatic happened there and we wrapped things up pretty soon and started back for Sharana.
‘Bob’, the terp (interpreter) and the PFC told me it was the worse road they have ever been on! A rather memorable first mission!