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.
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
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
I am in Afghanistan.
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
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
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, 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
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
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
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
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.