Letters from Afghanistan 




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Airman to provide inside look at Afghanistan







Airman makes his way to base in Afghanistan
Thelen wants to establish humanitarian missions

July 8, 2010

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 Lt. Robert Thelen
Special to the Enterprise

Ba Afghanistan Khoosh Amadien (Welcome to Afghanistan)

I have been in Afghanistan for 15 days now, and it has been an eye opening experience. There are three particular adventures that I want to elaborate on: the first convoy from Kabul International Airport to Camp Phoenix, the journey to Gardez and my first days at work as a combat adviser.


Convoy from the airport

I was in Afghanistan for a few hours. I called up my chain of command, and they are sending a few MATVs (built with pride in Wisconsin) to pick me and a few others up and get us to the other side of Kabul. Over the next week, I will go out on six convoys across the city, in everything from SUVs to Hummers, but I will always remember my first convoy.

>>view slideshow of Thelen's pictures
from Afghanistan

As the MATVs drive into the airport parking area, I was pretty excited to see the city; little did I know that I was going to get a very unique look.

The convoy commander jumped down and we started loading our gear. He then asked for someone to volunteer to be the gunner (with an M-4). No one volunteered immediately, so, to set the example for the rest of the crew, I put my name forward. Being a gunner is a surreal experience, especially your first time in a hostile area. There are people who want to kill us just because of what country we are from.

As we leave the gate, fear and excitement hit me all at once. I am exposed to the elements. The soldiers and airmen below are behind two inches of glass and steel, but I am above them on the turret.

All I saw was poverty and rundown buildings, and families living in what Americans would call squalor conditions.  Children were running alongside the MATV, giving the thumbs up and waving. I wave back and get tooth-filled smiles. Garbage is everywhere, smog fills the air, buildings are crumbling, but, as I look closer, I don’t see pain or suffering in the civilians’ eyes. I see indifference.

Then, halfway to our camp, a duffle bag fell off of the MATV in front of us. We come to a stop. We were taught in training to push on, leave it behind, but, the real world is different than training.

The bag instantly attracted a swarm of Afghan teenagers. Now I am standing up, speaking in my broken Dari, for the teens to help and get the duffle in the back of our truck. With giant smiles, they try a few times to throw it in the back, and then finally succeed. The look of accomplishment on their faces is nothing I will ever forget. After coming to a halt, be surrounded by Afghans, having to stand up in the turret and speak in Dari to a crowd of teens, the rest of the trip was calm in comparison.

I am in Afghanistan.


The amazing race across eastern Afghanistan

Most soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen coming to Afghanistan are connected to a unit. They have people on the ground, transportation set-up and dedicated C-130s to get them from point to point. I am alone.

I team up with some other soldiers going to the same forward operating base, but I have no real support network to get where I have to go. Over a five-day journey, I will visit some of the most austere FOBs in southeastern Afghanistan.

The journey begins with a failed Chinook ride out of Camp Phoenix. I got bumped from the flight by a bunch of counter-IED folks; it was disappointing, yet understandable.

That was the easy way; now I would have to fly “space available.”

I hopped on a convoy back to Kabul Airport, got on a C-130 and hopped up to Baghram Air Field (BAF),  an interesting and huge place. More than 30,000 troops call this airfield home. Many of these troops will never leave the base, and strangely enough, to them, I am already an accomplished veteran. F-15Es fly overhead, and while I am here, I meet some other advisers who will help me during my tour.

After some waiting, we hopped on a mail plane (twin prop plane flown by a contractor, a bit bigger than a Cessna) over to an austere gravel airfield near Khoast. FOB Selerno, named by the Italians when they occupied the base, also has the nickname “Rocket City” because of the frequent rocket and mortar attacks. The FOB is nice and although they have frequent helicopters out, few go near Gardez, my final destination.

After another night in transient billeting and yet another dining facility, we decide to split up and try to hop on random helicopters, with the plan to ask the pilot, after we are aboard, to drop us off in Gardez. I am the first to get a ride, and the pilot agrees to take me as far as FOB Goode (about 10 miles from FOB Lightning, my destination),

Over the next hour, we weave in and out of valleys, staying low to the ground, stopping from FOB to FOB. Finally, after stopping at the very edges of Afghanistan, we set down at FOB Goode.

Now, I have to get to Lightning. I found out that there were no more convoys for the day, but at this point, after five days of sleepless travel, I am desperate to get there, so I ask some Australians if I can hitch a ride on their Columbian helicopter. They agree.

Twenty minutes later, I am airborne. My limited Spanish comes in handy when I build some rapport with the Columbian pilots.

After 12 days in Afghanistan, I have made it to my home for the next year: FOB Lightning, Gardez.


Tomorrow Inshalla

(Tomorrow, God willing)

Meeting the Afghan National Army officers and soldiers who I will be responsible for mentoring, advising and training over the next year was an experience to remember.

Afghans are, by their culture, very friendly and warm people. They want to shake your hand every time they see you; they want to know about your family, your friends, your lunch, everything.

When my Dari runs out, I rely heavily on the translators to understand what is going on around me. Every situation requires chai (tea) and a conversation about the family before business can be accomplished, and more often than not, the answer is “tomorrowinshalla” - meaning, they will get around to it tomorrow - maybe.

The average Afghan soldier works from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., takes a three-hour lunch and prayer break, and then works from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Work that can be put off is.

I can see they care about their country and their job, but they have many hurdles to overcome to have a professional military. Eighty percent of the army is illiterate; most have never had past a second-grade education. Thirty years of war has left a generation without the tools to move forward.

As I type this report, I hear a debate on Armed Forces Network about Americans pulling out of Afghanistan and this mission, the advising mission, is what will accomplish this.

Before we can leave though, we must ensure that the Afghans are self-sustainable. This is my goal. Over the next year, my goal is to help the Afghans help themselves. 

Every day, we leave FOB Lightning and travel to Camp Thunder (home of the 203rd ANA Corps and the Forward Supply Depot). Next to the FOB, there is a nomadic tribe that has little, and the surrounding villages have even less.

After seeing this, I have come to realize that my mission here is twofold.

First, I am here to grow the Afghan army, so American soldiers can start to pull out and the Afghan National Army can stand on its own two feet.

The second is to help these communities, to help the Afghan children, so America does not need to come back.

For 30 years, the world has looked the other way as Afghanistan has been torn apart by war and strife.

I am going to organize humanitarian missions, and in a few weeks, I will ask Oconomowoc to help in this cause. Soap, paper, pencils, crayons, balls and warm weather clothes are just a few of the things that are needed.

-1st Lt. Robert Thelen