Sunday, October 10, 2010

Middleboro Jones visits FOB Apache in February 2010

I've posted several items today....I'll be traveling on business this week and might not be able to post for a few days - so I thought I'd post some extra stuff today.....Enclosed is a copy of my notes from a visit to FOB Apache, near Qalat, Afghanistan. I was reviewing my files and came across this from earlier in 2010.... I thought I would share this as it was written while I was experiencing it....and tells you about how I was feeling at the time.

FOB APACHE – February 2010

Got the word that Middleboro Jones would need to be part of a transition team heading out to a place called FOB APACHE near the City of Qalat in Eastern Afghanistan. The base is one of the ones they want to switch over from the old company to my company.

Gear up and head out to the chopper pad known as Stallion Ramp…along with 10 of my colleagues, we are all getting on board the “white birds” a.k.a the Russian Helicopters, MI-8s that we lease for transportation around the AOR. Lotsa gear to load as half of the group was going out there for permanent assignment, I was only going for a 4-5 day FOB hop….

We loaded up & got on the bird, and after a good warm up of the Russian engines, off we go….flying at about 3000 ft, you get to see quite a bit of the Afghanistan countryside….villages & mud huts with compound walls….looks like the flood we had four days ago reeked some havoc as the roads & rivers around some of the villages appear to have been enlarged, significantly.

Fly into the landing zone as we land next door to FOB Apache at the ANA camp (Afghan National Army). The location is clean and the camp appears well maintained. The other features of note are two old Soviet Tanks parked out on the perimeter. They look like they have been there for some time and have likely rusted in place. The chopper takes off and we are there on the pad with Sgt. Seelig. He is a good sort and I send along greetings from a mutual friend in KAF….He is glad to see us and share a cigar.

We ride on the back of a MRAP which is the basic replacement vehicle for the old fashioned stake back trucks that we use to have in the Seabees. A bumpy ride from the ANA side of the camp to FOB Apache….a outpost here in the mountains around Qalat. About 300 soldiers here along with some troops from Romania – good guys & ladies all.

We get dropped off at the tent camp to find that the tent that was reserved for us is occupied by soldiers….they came in late the night before and the tent is now no longer available…..wouldn’t be too bad but it is frickin’ cold out here with wind blowing & cloudy skies…We spend the better part of the day wandering around camp, meet n ‘greet, seeing the sights (DFAC, MWR, PX, etc., etc.).

We get to walk around a bit and I find a small group of soldiers inventorying their gear including all their weapons….

I make small talk and take some pictures (yes, I get paid to do this as getting to know the people we are serving is part of my job) – Soldiers ask what I do, I tell them and they are polite about things…they know I am making more money than they are and they are out there risking their necks…sometimes it is tough as I understand their side of things….I joke with them and they laugh at my lame jokes…camaraderie here is universal and all on camp are considered what we would consider in the Navy “Shipmates” – One Team, One Fight as we would say.

As the sun starts to set, we are still w/o power or lights at our hooch…..ugh! Sgt Seelig tries to get a spare generator running but it is no-go so we wind up sleeping in a spare building which is destined to be a new DFAC in the near future….Cots in a big empty room…wonderful. Guess it beats sleeping out in a dusty tent somewhere with no heat.

Wake up at 4 a.m. (some habits die hard from the Navy side of my life) – I head out to the shower trailer (which takes almost as much coordination as a Moon Landing, as you have to get dressed, take everything you need with you and hike a good distance to get there) – Think of it this way, you get to take a shower in your neighbor’s backyard shed which is about 300-500 yards across the other side of a gravel pit, with no lights to show you the way, and the gravel pit is full of large pieces of equipment and lots of muddy spots.

Get the Shower, dress and head down to the MWR….the one saving grace is that the computers there are available at 4:30 a.m. as most on camp are still sleeping….I get some internet time and after getting all my gear wrapped back up, I lug it back to the tent where lights are still out but we are storing our gear.

Day 2 starts off good as the SUN comes out and warms the place a little more than yesterday. We spend most of the morning working to get info we need and try to figure out what else is needed….kinda like sending you to a neighborhood across town where you don’t know anyone, having some people there who want your help and a lot of others who are indifferent to your presence. Now find how to keep the normal services operating like lights, sewer & general maintenance BUT there is NO Home Depot to get supplies or any other stores for miles around. AND even if there was, you can’t drive there as the locals are very unfriendly and have no problem perforating you and your vehicle while you drive around….Sounds like fun, eh?

The rest of the morning is spent talking with workers here and trying to figure out what we need to do to transition the camp over….lotsa little details (like finding out who the Army types are and where they are, etc.) and lotsa large details (like figuring out how we supply water, power, HVAC, laundry, DFAC and quality of life…) Not your average day working in the corporate cube farm….your company might be a pressure cooker on a day-to-day basis BUT it is unlikely that you will have people shivering in the cold if the mission doesn’t get done on any given day. If we fail, we could have people (Army & civilians) wind up shivering in the cold with no food or a place to shower or go to the bathroom.

On the 2nd day’s evening we hold a “Town Hall Meeting” which involves getting together with all the workers who are here and seeing if they are interested in coming over to our company. The issues usually revolve around MONEY, JOB & LOCATION in that order….What’s the pay – What will I be doing & Where will I work. Once people get to a place like here, they want to stay as they make a home out of it. I understand that also as you get to know all the people you work with and also get to know the military who are based there. It is kinda important as these are the ones you will be relying on for your protection and out here, that can be very, very important.

Town Hall meeting goes off as planned – 35 or so employees all asking about pay & other stuff….some good questions and some that are “Why is this different??” – Contracts control the situation so it goes back to “ It is what it is.”

Day Three begins much as Day 2 with walking to the shower trailer, getting some internet time with home and then Breakfast ( best meal of the day here in AFGHN). I get together with our crew and we prepare for the people who will speak with our recruiter this morning….The morning is spent between trying to get e-mail time at the MWR (only computer we have for getting in touch with Kandahar), talking with more folks and trying to keep warm as it was cold again. The day also brings frustration as the Site Manager here is in need of people & equipment ASAP and like Captain Kirk, he is being promised that the photon torpedoes will be in on Tuesday….yeah, right.

Day Three and I haven’t written any FSAs yet as no one has signed any offer letters…the recruiter is new and had not handled a transition….I give him my best advice but he is working on his own and that also generates frustration….I took a break to walk around the camp and see what else is out there….we walk up a set of stairs to an observation platform where you can see over the valley and also see a portion of the city of Qalat. There is also a Special Forces camp about 5 kilometers away that we can see on the horizon. The area is wide open and we even observe an Afghan civilian walking two of his sheep…..peaceful looking but likely not some place you would just want to wander around….likely not good for your long-term health if you know what I mean…

We also get word that we are scheduled for our return to KAF on Tuesday AM. I get together with Sgt Seelig and make sure he knows our schedule as the last thing you want to have happen is to miss your ride…..oh no no no …can’t afford to miss the bird when it comes….get on the Bird & go……back to KAF….but that is 2 ½ days away….luckily, I have more cigars to smoke….I need ‘em.

I share a few cigars with the senior enlisted leaders as they are the guys you want to endear yourself to….never know when you will need their help…..First Sgt. Hanshaw gladly accepts the offer of one of my JR Cigars. I’ll have to see what he thinks when I see him next….Supper time tonight was a treat – Grilled Steaks, Fried Shrimps, Clam Chowder and finished off with a bowl of Baskin Robbins Vanilla Ice Cream…..yes – sometimes things go just right out here….

Sunday Morning – early start as I wake up at 04:00 and that is good as you can get to the showers early and make sure you get some hot water. Sunday is usually a day of rest for the military and most, not all military get to sleep in a bit. I make my hike across the 500 years of gravel to the shower trailer and also get a glimpse of the stars as this is a “dark camp” which mean no external lights….the sky is full of stars and it is one of the sights that we get over here that really stays with you. Back home, between street lights and all the other light pollution, you don’t get to see the sky like this unless you go well out into the wilderness……here, it is an everyday thing as soon as the sun goes down.

Breakfast here is too much – literally. You get your choice of eggs, bacon, waffles, toast, cereal, fresh fruit etc. etc. – I am glad I don’t stay here permanently as I would be as large as a horse…..breakfast is good and I get enough to make me almost regret eating…..I leave with a large steaming cup of tea and that is always the BEST way to start the day….

Only internet connection we have here is at the MWR…our systems aren’t installed yet & the satellite rig is down….bummer. The MWR is OK as long as you don’t mind waiting and getting only 30 minutes of internet at a whack….then you have to get off the computer and put your name on the list again if you want to reup…wonderful. Not like back at KAF where I have my own laptop and I am connected 24/7….here it is handed out like samples at the supermarket – just enough to make you want more, but not enough to satisfy your appetite.

More conversations with workers and trying to see who will accept offers. The other companies are making offers to them to take them to other sites and the offers are lucrative, including signing bonuses. Our company doesn’t offer signing bonuses as that wasn’t part of what we set up when we bid the contracts. If it comes down to $$, many workers will go where the $$ is as it will be better for them.

I can understand that aspect but it makes it difficult for us to compete…Oh well, than we will likely bring in new workers that we have back at Kandahar….Plan A was to recruit those here but if that is a no-go, than we move on to Plan B….SEMPER GUMBY as the Marines say…”Always Flexible ”.

Today is Valentine’s Day and like all dutiful husbands, I have sent along my gift way ahead of time to make sure it got to the homefront….I also sent along a Valentine’s Day E-mail to my Mrs. and one to my Daughter…can’t forget the ladies on Valentine’s Day…it would be akin to driving down the road to Qalat in a convertible….probably a high likelihood that it would an unwise choice.
Now I only have to figure out what to do with the rest of the two days I am stuck here until the Choppers come & pick us up……I could find ways to get into trouble but that is also likely unadvisable.

Weather has kicked up and the winds are howling out there…sand is blowing around and reducing visibility….yuck….cold & sandy….not a desired version of what I would like to see going on out there. Weather forecast for Tuesday is good and that is the BEST news I could get so far….Don’t want anything to throw off the helicopters from coming over here to get us….being stuck here for several extra days waiting on the next flight opportunity would really suck. Travel over here is a lot tougher than back home…here, if you miss your connection ( your fault, their fault, no one’s fault), the next one might be along in a week….until then, you’re basically staying where you are… other choice offered.

Finished off day with a call via DSN (Defense Systems Network) to home & my Dad on Cape Cod. DSN is designed for military and you can only call other military BUT if you tell them you need a “Morale Call” and give them an 800 Number, they will connect you. From there, you jut use your calling card like you were calling from inside the United States….pretty damn cool. I got to talk with my Dad and make sure he is OK and call my wife to wish her a Happy Valentine’s Day….also pretty damn cool….

Supper was first rate and another day at Camp Apache is all but done….just need to finalize a few things and then it is off to the tent for another night’s sleep….righteous.

Day 5- Day starts out just like the others – cold hike to shower trailer, shower, cold hike back to tent to get dressed… to MWR for internet, breakfast and then off to see what kind oiff stuff we will have to deal with today… big issues but enough stuff to keep us occupied …ready to head back to KAF….only need to wait until Tomorrow morning….then it will be all good….

Tuesday- Woke up at 03:30 a.m. and it was cold…..cold….cold…did I mention it was COLD….20 degrees and a steady 15 mph breeze that dropped the wind chill into the single digits…went to the MWR to do a bit of internet before the crowd shows up and I won’t be able to get near the computer…DFAC is open early for cereal & tea and for my breakfast….packed stacked & ready to fly….

The Army sends us a MRAP to get us over to the helipad at the ANA camp… is COOLLLLD out there and we wait for the helicopter … about an hour later….it lands – we board and the next thing we are flying over the AFGHN landscape to KAF……land at KAF and I am greeted warmly once I get back to my office…..It is a weird experience that when you arrive back at Kandahar, you have feeling of homecoming…..totally weird but it is good to be back at KAF….for now…

60 days until my R&R……and it can’t come soon enough…really.

(And that's the way it was back in Feb 2010 - Glad it is in the past as i am not interested in doing that excursion ever again....had enough of the dusty side of the planet, thank you very much)

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