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
Kyrgyzstan - Afghanistan is physically and temporally behind me,
but mentally, a part of me will always remain.
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.
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.
>>view slideshow of Thelen's
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
remember those still fighting a world away, to help individuals they
have never met have those same freedoms.