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
The terps: Unsung heroes
Soldier teaches basic football rules to Afghans
R&R a welcome break after suicide attack on base
Progress being made slowly, but surely, in Afghanistan







Every chapter has its end
Soldier to return home after serving year in Afghanistan

July 6, 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 Capt. Robert Thelen
Special to the Enterprise

MANAS, Kyrgyzstan - Afghanistan is physically and temporally behind me, but mentally, a part of me will always remain.

This 15-month journey, starting with training in Fort Polk, La., and ending here in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, has been a defining chapter of my life, but it is time to bring it to an end and start the next one.  But, first, I want to leave you with some parting thoughts about my experiences as a combat adviser in Afghanistan.

Looking back, a year in a combat zone doing a mission like combat advising is mostly a blur with some moments of absolute clarity.

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

1. My first day in Kabul. I can still smell the stench of the city, taste the dust in my mouth, and hear my heart pounding as I was put on top of an MATV as a gunner, through the streets of Kabul. It was my first interaction with the locals, and sensory overload was nearly absolute. It took me a week to get to Gardez, but the journey was an adventure, to say the least.

2. Defending the base. In September, our FOB was attacked. This was the first time I heard bullets actually “whiz” by. It was also the first time the relative peace of the area was disturbed, but nowhere near the last.

3. Operation Outreach Gardez - village drops. One of the highlights of the tour was getting supplies from hundreds of Americans, including the kind, generous citizens of Oconomowoc, and giving them out to the local Kuchi village children. Throughout the operation, we gave out more than 3,000 backpacks full of supplies to local children and area schools, including all girls schools in Gardez.

4. Suicide attack. December 5, 2010, will forever be seared into my consciousness. The blast, the blood, the frantic reaction and the loss. Two colleagues were lost, and many more were critically injured that fateful day when an Afghan National Army soldier blew himself up in a crowded and peaceful bazaar on our base. I can still can taste the adrenaline, smell the iron of blood and hear the frantic call of “MASSCAL” over the giant voice system. I will always equate hatred, violence and war with that day.

5. The holidays spent on the base were always a good trail marker of time. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter all had special meals that my team and I spent together. It was almost like we were somewhere else, if even for a little while. We would joke around, share stories and just kick back and relax while enjoying prime rib, turkey, lobster and a number of other delectable treats.

6. The mortars, rockets, and sirens of spring. The end of my tour was defined by an increasing multitude of indirect fire. Our base had always been immune to these attacks, but as the spring offensive started to heat up, the attacks became very frequent. Additionally, the suicide bomber threat became severe, with several caught on the ANA base a few days before I left. The thing about indirect fire and suicide bombing attacks is that it is so random. It is like being hit by lightning; the odds are in your favor, but the threat is always real.

Lessons learned

My year in Afghanistan taught me many important lessons, international human truths, something that one can only truly understand by living it. Some lessons were learned from interaction with the Afghan culture, others from the realisms of war, and still others from the complete severance with my native culture. All of them have made me stronger, wiser and a better person for having lived them. 

1. Life is short, frail, and precious. A man with a few pounds of explosives can kill so many and wound so many more. A single bullet can end a life. An IED can vaporize flesh. We only have a limited time in these bodies, and fate can take it from you in an instant. Live your lives in a way knowing that tomorrow may be your last day. A combat stress officer said it best: “Live your lives in a way that will honor those that have fallen.” I intend to do just that.

2. War is not pretty, it is not glorious, and there is always a cost. War is gritty, hot, messy, dusty and sweaty, filled with loss and separation. All soldiers sacrifice their time, their youth and some sacrifice so much more.

3. America is truly a great country. In a country like the United States, people have easy access to health care, food and education, and, war is nothing but a history lesson or a footnote on the evening news. Political differences, no matter how large, are fought not with weapons, but with words. There is rule of law, and most follow it. There is an open and transparent government. While I was deployed, I would watch news from the U.S. and laugh at how minor the differences between political opponents were. In Afghanistan, although great progress has been made, violence, widespread poverty and crippling illiteracy still remain rampant, especially in the turbulent eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan.

4. Soldiers and marines are amazing individuals. This past year, I worked for the Army. I gave up the Air Force lifestyle to live, even for a dozen months, as the biggest, baddest, fighting force on the face of the planet. Through it all, I have gained an enormous respect for these combat forces. Soldiers and marines do and see things that baffle the mind. They are the tip of the spear, keep us safe at night, and do it day in and day out. When I get back to America, I will rejoin my airmen and the posh lifestyle that follows, but the soldiers and marines will be back in harm’s way in less than a year. I had the opportunity to have several soldiers on my team, and it was an experience I will always remember and treasure. My life was saved many a time by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and to them I will always say an extra thank you. 

Everyone deserves peace

Advising the ANA was a true test of patience, mental fortitude and moral courage. Throughout the year, my team has had many trials and tribulations, but through it all, we stayed positive and got the mission done. I do not want to sound too much like a recruiter, but my few years in the military have been one adventure after another. I have done things that I never dreamed I would do. I have been in every kind of aircraft the Army and Air Force have. I have seen parts of the world that few have ever seen, and I have had jobs and opportunities few people will ever have. The happy ignorance that I once had has been washed away by the grittiness of reality.

Throughout it all, though, I had an amazing team to rely on. I was the team leader, but I would have been lost without my non-commissioned officers and soldiers. They kept me safe, gave me great advice and worked their butts off to make Afghanistan a safer country.

My team was well honored for its efforts, including three bronze stars, four Joint Service Commendation medals, two Army Commendation medals, and five Joint Service Achievement medals, plus unit awards including Joint Meritorious Unit award and the Air Force Meritorious Unit award. Three of my four interpreters were picked up for the Special US Visa Program, so they will have the opportunity to live the American dream in a few years.

Most importantly, however, no one on my team was injured or killed in action, my proudest accomplishment.

I was asked by many readers if we should be in Afghanistan, especially since the demise of Osama bin Ladin. I will answer this question by reminding everyone about the history of Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan has been at war, in one way or another, for the past 30 years. Everyone deserves to live in peace, as we do every day of our lives in America. I look into the eyes of the youths, of the interpreters, of the ANA, and I see hope. They want to make their country stronger and peaceful, but they need our help.

We are the light that keeps the darkness at bay, and let no one kid you, darkness lurks in every shadow in Afghanistan, waiting for the sun to set to creep into the homes of peace loving Afghans. I am proud to be a part of the combat advising corps, helping the Afghans stand on their own feet, but only time will tell how steady of a foundation they are standing on is.

It has been an honor writing for the Oconomowoc Enterprise and keeping my hometown informed on a unique perspective of the war effort, but I did not just do this for the populace as a whole. I did this to keep in contact with friends, family and all those from the Oconomowoc area that helped me along the way.

Thank you all for your support! On this Fourth of July, I ask that you reflect upon all of the freedoms that we have as Americans, not just the obvious ones, like those protected by the Bill of Rights, but also the freedom from war, terror and pain that so many in this world live with every day.

Also, please remember those still fighting a world away, to help individuals they have never met have those same freedoms. 

Thank you!