Letters from Afghanistan 




Past Letters

Airman to provide inside look at Afghanistan
Airman makes his way to base in Afghanistan
Seven tips on living and working in Afghanistan
The finer points of goat herding: An update from a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan
Soldier’s base comes under attack in suicide mission







R&R a welcome break after suicide attack on base
Soldier says Americans should relish their freedoms

February 23, 2011

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

Puerto Iguazu, 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 latest pictures
from Afghanistan


Life away from the States

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.


Suicide attack

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, MASCAL, MASCAL.”

A MASCAL is a mass causality ... there were wounded, and the smoke was rising from the bazaar.

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.

The following 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.


Celebrate your freedom

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.

Celebrate your 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 strength.

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.

Hasta Luego!

Questions or comments for Capt. Thelen? He can be reached at rgthelen@gmail.com.