Editor’s note: Lt.
Robert Thelen of Oconomowoc is serving a one-year tour of duty in
Afghanistan. On a monthly basis, he will update the Oconomowoc
community on his actions and the happenings in Afghanistan. You can
read his letters exclusively in the Oconomowoc Enterprise.
By 1st Lt. Robert Thelen III
Special to the Enterprise
Argentina - Hola! As I type, I am sitting in an overnight bus on my
way back to Buenos Aires, Argentina, after visiting Iguazu Falls,
one of the new natural wonders of the world.
You may be
wondering, “Why is he in South America, not in Afghanistan?”
Well, I am on my
R&R. For those that deploy a year or more to Afghanistan or Iraq, we
get 15 days of free leave, with a plane ticket anywhere in the
world. I chose to visit South America with a fellow captain that I
work with in Gardez (mostly because it is summer down here, and it
is so very cold and snowy up there).
So far, my trip
has been amazing! My high school Spanish is coming back to me, I
have seen some amazing sites, got to watch the Super Bowl with some
expats (awesome win, Packers!) and am enjoying some time away from
the stress of the job.
Over the past few
articles, I have been focusing on the combat adviser mission, but
for this article, I will focus on the time between advising - how we
live, how we relax, and how we try to “get away” mentally from the
tension of being in a combat zone.
>>view page of Thelen's
Life away from
One thing the U.S.
Army does extremely well is provide a well-rounded Morale, Welfare
and Recreation (MWR) service.
My team and I are
on a very small forward operating base, but the services that are
provided to us are pretty great. We have a fully functioning gym,
which I go to daily. From a cardio room to a full weight room, we
have the ability to stay fit and relieve some stress. The facility
is open 24/7, is stocked with water and has a local national staff
that works it.
In addition to a
great gym, we have a movie rental area (lovingly called “rock
buster”), where soldiers can check out movies, free of charge. It is
stocked with well over a thousand titles. We also have an Internet
cafŽ with a few dozen computers, and we now have the ability to call
home, which is pretty important as well.
The crown jewel of
the FOB, though, is our Dining Facility (DFAC). It is simply
amazing. It is open 24 hours a day with sandwiches, soup and snacks,
and serves three hot meals a day. The staff does a great job in
changing up the menu, and Fridays are a very special day: steak day!
They grill steak, and we either have lobster or crab legs. It is
quite the affair. I eat better here than I do back in Idaho!
The key to
relaxing is to for any amount of time, take your mind off of what is
right outside the razor wire: the enemy and the Army MWR staff does
that day in and day out.
The living and
working accommodations have definitely become “home.” We live in a
“B-hut,” a small plywood building with a tin rough that sleeps six
individuals. We have plywood “walls” for privacy and even have
doors. It is much more solitude than is expected in a war zone, and
we do not complain. It is kept cold by an air conditioner in the
summer and warm by a gas-powered heater in the winter.
In addition, we
acquired a satellite dish and get private Internet from a British
company and wired the B-hut with a file sharing computer that has
hundreds of movies and TV series on it. When we are not advising
the ANA or sleeping, we are in our office, responding to e-mails,
making phone calls or planning our next leadership engagement.
Our office has
also been made into the ultimate hangout. Being in the Air Force has
its perks, and I have exploited most of them. We have a TV, with
Armed Forces Network (shows sporting events live and shows from
stateside), a screen with a projector hooked up to a DVD player for
movie night, microwave for popcorn popping, a dart board, a fridge
to keep the sodas cold and shelves filled with junk food from kind
well-wishers back home.
One of the things
that makes this war so very different than any other is how
connected American soldiers are to home. The line between the
battlefield and the home front has become blurred. Even the most far
flung Combat Outpost has Internet connections that allow soldiers to
e-mail and update their Facebook profiles. One of the more amazing
things I have seen while I was here is a new father got to see his
son being born over Skype. Even though we are thousands of miles
away, our virtual selves are as close and alive as ever and it
literally brings parts of the war home.
The bazaar was one
of the best ways to distract from work. Every week, local vendors
would come to the FOB and try to sell their wares. It was always a
blast; we could haggle with the locals, have some chai with them,
practice our Dari and Pashtun, and just enjoy some casual shopping.
You could buy
anything at the bazaar, from bootleg movies to Afghan clothing, to
precious stones, and it was always fun to see how far you could
stretch a dollar. It was a place that you could go, hang out and try
to feel normal again.
As a matter of
fact, the early afternoon of 6 December was no different. My team
and I ate lunch and went over to the bazaar to buy Christmas
presents for our family and friends. It went well. I bought a bunch
of blankets, knives and hats for a bargain price.
As we made our way
back to our B-hut, he were almost knocked down by an earth-shacking
boom. Gravel fell from the sky a few seconds later. It took a moment
before the alarm would go out: “Bunker, Bunker, Bunker,” then a few
more seconds before the most dreaded words you can hear: “MASCAL,
A MASCAL is a mass
causality ... there were wounded, and the smoke was rising from the
It would be
discovered a few days later that an Afghan soldier detonated a
suicide vest in the bazaar, killing two U.S. soldiers, two Afghans
and critically wounding many more.
FOB Lighting is
very small; we are like a big family. Everyone knew the victims the
second rumors started to spread, and it hit the FOB hard. We all
responded to the attack, did what we had to do, but the mental
recovery was far more grueling than the physical defense of the FOB.
Many of us had to deal with the “what ifs” and the realization that
fellow combat advisors were forever gone.
week, there was a memorial service for the fallen, and, once again,
the Army showed its experience in loss by having combat stress
councilors and chaplains on the ground within hours of the attack,
and they were available for weeks afterwards. The FOB has been shot
at, it has been attacked, but this was the first attack inside the
FOB, on our home, and it was by rouge ANA soldiers nonetheless. No
matter how much we try to work out, chat on the computer or watch
movies, we are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our guns
are ready, our minds alert, and we are ready to defend our fellow
FOB mates - our family. This is why R&R is so important those of us
who are here for a year.
As I sit here on
the bus, nearing Buenos Aires, I realize how safe the rest of the
world is in comparison to Afghanistan.
It hit me the
first day I was here. My friend and I found ourselves starring
people down on the streets, following their movement, looking for
hate on their face, a look that we know all too well, and we felt
naked without our weapons on us. The weapons that we carried every
day for the past eight months we now felt helpless without. It took
us a few days to get over this near paranoia.
The very next day,
I ran for an hour and a half through the streets of Buenos Aires,
just to feel what freedom felt like again, and it was awesome. The
one thing that I think we take for granted in America the most is
freedom. Not the freedom to do certain things; we celebrate that all
the time. No, we must understand and celebrate the freedom from
terror, from fear, from constant danger.
Americans can go
to the store and not fear suicide bombers. Americans can go for a
walk without the fear of a sniper. Americans can drive down the
highway without the fear of an ambush. Americans can go to a movie
without fear of a IED. American girls can go to school without fear
that acid will be thrown in their faces. Americans can worship
anywhere they want without fear of reprisal, and, most significant
to me, Americans can vote without fear of having their figures cut
off in retribution.
freedom and pray for how fortunate we are where we are so free from
so many of the terrors that some places of the world have had to
deal with for many years.
Life is tough in
Afghanistan, but I look forward to getting back to work and trying
to make them a little more free from danger. My team and I have a
lot of work left to do in the short time I have left. It has been a
very busy few months, to say the least, and I was the last member of
my team to take leave, so we will be in it to the end at full
In the coming
months, I will discuss the progress and growth of Operation Outreach
- Gardez, discuss some of the more interesting cultural stories out
of Afghanistan, and get some interviews from some ANA soldiers and
officers to put the advising job into context.
Questions or comments for Capt. Thelen? He can be
reached at email@example.com.