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
But 9/11 passes without incident

October 13, 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 1st Lt. Robert Thelen III
Special to the Enterprise

Looking back on September, it was by far my most productive and exciting month in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was the end of Ramadan, or the fact that we have built up enough rapport with our Afghan counterparts for them to trust us, but either way, progress is being made and my team has become stronger in the process.

We have had some interesting experiences, to say the least, but each of them has built upon one another to help us do our mission: advise and train the Afghan National Army into a self-sustaining force capable of fighting insurgents.

Below are three vignettes from this past month. Each, I hope, will show the progress and the challenges that we face in this remote Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan.

>>view slideshow of Thelen's latest pictures
from Afghanistan


EID and 9/11

0915, 9 Sept.: Ramadan is over, and the weeklong EID celebration is beginning.

Ramadan is a major event. From new moon to new moon, the faithful observed a strict fast, from sunup to sundown. The fast includes no eating or drinking; even water is forbidden.

The timing of the holiday, and most Islamic holidays, is based off of the lunar calendar, where every month begins with a new moon. This means that the date of Ramadan moves up around eight days every year compared to our solar calendar.

So, this year, it began Aug. 10 - the middle of summer. After a month of fasting during daylight hours, the Afghan army will celebrate this achievement with friends and family.

My team and I get a bunch of cheap radios together (normally distributed to local villages as a means of communication) and water and went up to the local mosque frequented by Afghan soldiers to give them a present after evening prayers. It is a cold and windy night. Fall is already in the air, and we sit outside the mosque, waiting for the service to get over.

The melodic Islamic prayers wash over us as we prepare for the mass exodus. Then, around 9:30 at night, the sky, so dark that it seems like you can see every star in the Milky Way, the service is over and 400 ANA soldiers start to flow toward us.

We let our translators go home to spend time with their families, so we use our broken Dari to make small talk as we hand out hundreds of radios and bottles of water to smiling appreciative soldiers. We see some soldiers from the unit that we advise, and we are invited over to their barracks for some chai

A few of us take them up on their offer and spend a few hours watching Afghan television, piecing together a conversation with their broken English and our broken Dari. We watch the Afghan equivalents to Sports Center and MTV; we laugh, have fun, eat grapes and bread, drink chai and find a common ground. This is a lesson I will not soon forget: sports and music transcend language and culture.

0900, 9 Sept.: Nine years ago today, America was attacked by terrorists trained in Afghanistan. It is kind of surreal to think about how long it has been since that fateful day. I still remember exactly where I was when I found out that the Twin Towers were engulfed in smoke and flames: roaming the halls of Oconomowoc High School. I remember being angry, somber and confused. Why did this happen? Who did it? How did it happen?

Now, nine years later, I sit here in Afghanistan, looking forward to the day that will be like any other.

With the proposed “International Burn a Koran Day” resonating across Afghanistan, my team and I were put in a very difficult spot. Time and time again, I was asked by members of my Afghan unit why we hated Islam so much. The conversation played itself out like this:

ANA: Why are they burning the Koran? Do you hate us that much?

Me: No, a few people in Florida are using it to protest and make a scene.

ANA: Why doesn’t your government stop it?

Me: This act of protest is protected under our Constitution. It is in our Bill of Rights.

ANA: Your constitution allows for you to hate other religions. If your government really was against this, they would stop it.

Me: Well, we allow individuals to burn the American flag, so these individuals are allowed to burn the Koran.

ANA: Do you understand how much that hurts us? I cannot even think about burning a holy book, even the Bible is sacred to us. Do you allow your people to burn Bibles too?

Me: Yes, although I think most frown on book burning in general, some people burn Bibles.

ANA: And your government does not arrest them? In Afghanistan, Karzi would put a stop to this.

At this point, I discuss the First Amendment, and, usually, the ANA soldier or officer is left with a complicated answer as to why someone would burn a book deemed holy by 1 billion people. Because of the Koran burners and 9/11, we were on heightened alert for the day, but, in the end, the day would end up being a quiet one in beautiful Gardez, Afghanistan.


Afghan national elections

18 Sept.: It is only a week after EID, and the national elections are today. It has been a busy few weeks getting everything prepared. The unit that we mentor is responsible for, among other things, supplying the entire ANA 203rd Corps logistics needs. The 18,000-soldier strong corps will conduct major operations to secure election sites and the surrounding area.

In preparation, we have to make sure that these units have everything they need In the previous few weeks, we issued 500,000 rounds of ammo, 500,000 liters of diesel and enough equipment for 100 polling sites across the region.

In addition, my unit is responsible for security of their resources. With any national event over here, comes added risks, and my unit needs to be prepared. We train them on weapons handling, marksmanship and basic defense postures.

Almost daily, we go “outside the wire” to conduct training and advise at our geographically separated entities, like the ammo supply point. Watching these soldiers grow in their understanding of military tactics is one of the highlights of my job. They are now patrolling their areas, conducting entry control point procedures and taking defense seriously.

The ANA is a proud and courageous army, and we see them glowing with pride after we teach them a new skill and they perform it satisfactorily. Thirty years of war and strife have turned every Afghan into a hardened warrior. They fear little and are willing to do just about anything to secure their nation. Basic military skills are second nature, as most have carried an AK-47 well before they joined the army.

But, the harder mission, something that I spend most of my time trying to achieve, is a robust and responsive logistics system. After decades of Soviet influence followed by anarchy and chaos, simple logistics principles are foreign and counter-intuitive to most of the population. Simple aspects like forecasting, stock levels and requesting what they need require daily advising and training.

Under the Soviet system, they were “pushed” their supplies. Under the NATO system (and most supply systems across the world), they need to “pull” their supplies by requesting them.

For the election, my team needed to be on the ball and ensure that the ANA pulled assets early and often. In the end, from a logistics and security standpoint, the election in our area of responsibility was a success. As the sun sets on election day in Afghanistan, we take a long breath, a major hurdle of my deployment is over.


The enemy is real

1215, 24 Sept.: We are sitting in our office on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Friday is our day off, and we are taking full advantage of it. I am working my masters, the other guys are shooting darts or doing paperwork. It is 75 degrees, sunny, and I just got lunch and was enjoying a burger with cheese, bacon, sautéed onions and mushrooms.

KABOOM! It is a way off, but it is not coming from the range.

KABOOM! Dat, dat, dat, dat. That is a bit closer. Maybe it is another range. We go outside to get better bearing.

Dat, dat, dat ,dat. Zing, zing, clang. That is incoming. This was the first instance that I heard a bullet.  I have heard a gunfire plenty of times; it is one of the pleasures of being in the military and from a family that prides itself as anti-squirrel, but I have never heard a bullet whiz past.

At 1215, a suicide car bomb tried to enter the ANA base of which we are a tenant, and then armed insurgents tried to breach. Quickly, we head back to our rooms, get our body armor and M-4s and head back to our b-hut. The fire fight is in full force, but it is out of our range, and we stay in a defended position. Guns on both sides are blazing. Explosions are going off, ever closer to our position. We head toward the wall, but are called off as the incoming, although sporadic and undisciplined, is coming from an inhabited area - there are civilians present.

The insurgents were shooting from a civilian location. We could not risk harming innocent civilians, so we waited. A few more minutes passed gunfire still incoming  and then the most beautiful sound in all the world , the roar of 4 Pratt-Whitney F100-220 engines. Two F-15s are here. (Three years as an aircraft maintenance officer working on F-15Es makes me nearly an expert!)

They come in low as a show of force. For a moment, all shooting stops. The silence is eerie. Then t,he Apaches arrive and begin an orbit over our location. Flares are dropping all around us; it feels like we are in a movie. The silence is broken with the occasional single shot, but the hum of the helicopters and the roar of the F-15Es seem to have scared the force away.

We think the battle is over, and after watching the Apaches for a while, we start to head back to the room. Then, out of nowhere, blaring over the loud speakers: “Defend, Defend, Defend - Get to the walls!”

My unit was tasked with defending the command center, the nerve center of the FOB. So, we rushed over to our positions and secured the site. Sporadic gunfire begins again. I go to get the latest information and find that there could be suicide bombers on the FOB. My team and I take up a defended position around the building and wait.

A few hours passed. I keep up morale by going to all of the troops and making sure they are doing well. None of us, including the Army members of my team, have been in a situation like this.  A few hours passed, the base is cleared, and we are called off from our positions.

In the end, the ANA went outside the wire and took care of the insurgents and no American or ANA was injured or killed in the attack.

This is their country and they took care of the problem; I could not have been prouder. As for us, we got lauded by the FOB colonel for our defense of the command center. It seems that the Army really does not expect much from an Air Force lieutenant and his adviser team when the fighting starts. It feels good to prove Army colonels wrong every now and then.

In the quiet that followed, we were left with time and our thoughts. This was the first time that the reality of war hit me. I have been outside the wire around 90 times since I got here, I have dismounted in the busiest street in Kabul, I have been a gunner and I have interacted with the local population, but I never saw the enemy. To me, they were invisible.

But, today, I saw them. I heard them. Several took their own lives in suicide missions. Attacking an American or ANA base is a suicide mission. There are people out there that hate me far far more than I hate them.

As the adrenalin wore off and we enjoyed a delicious meal at the dining facility, we ate in silence, not sure exactly what had just happened. My team is stronger than ever. We would discuss the attack many times over the coming days, learning from it and preparing for the next one. We now know, with absolute certainty, that the enemy is real.



Advising the ANA is a slow process. Some days, I feel like nothing gets done, but, looking at the macro level, my team has accomplished a lot in the 3 1/2 months that I have been here.

Every bullet, every gun, every vehicle, every uniform, and every bite of food the ANA eat in this area goes through my ANA unit. They are taking their security and patrols seriously, and are improving every day.

The attack was an important leveraging tool. We used to influence the ANA to increase their vigilance and work on improving their fighting positions and tactics. We are making progress on just about every front. The progress is slow, but steady.

I really cannot wait to see what challenges October brings.

Operation Outreach - Gardez update

September was also an amazing month for Operation Outreach - Gardez.

We got a total of 80 packages in (30 from Oconomowoc alone). The supplies were used for the goat herders (see last Letters from Afghanistan) and on numerous ANA missions to build up trust in the Afghan central government.

Supplies were sent to another all-girls school.

Thank you so much for you effort. With winter quickly approaching, if your heart guides you to, cold weather clothes, especially for kids, is our next priority. Knit hats, scarves, blankets, and plain jackets will be useful as winter approaches. 

Some member of the community have sent several packages. Thank you all so much. Every week, our connexes are getting more and more filled. Do not worry; we will find a needy family to give everything to.

We are also working with Operation International Children to get school supplies. They have come through in a huge way. 

Thank you all so very much for your continued support!