For the past three years, I’ve visited tourist destinations, explored natural wonders, seen exotic animals, encountered vibrant cultures and met welcoming people. In August, I contacted the University of Maryland and volunteered to teach “downrange.” A week ago, I arrived in eastern Afghanistan. It’s time for something completely different.
Getting to Afghanistan was half the fun. The journey started in Heidelberg, Germany, which is headquarters for Maryland’s European Division, as well as the US Army. The Army and the University have been in Heidelberg since World War II. The Army chose this charming city as its headquarters because it was one of the few places in Germany that still had roads, buildings and bridges in 1945.
Heidelberg has much of its medieval structures still intact. The old city, the bridges, the castle, the taverns and the cobblestone streets are delightful places to wander. Did you know that ancestors of the Neanderthals lived in this valley between 600,000 and 400,000 years ago? Did you know that General George Patton died here in 1945, as a result of a auto accident?
To prepare for downrange assignments, everyone is required to be trained on essential survival skills, such as: How to put on IBA (Interceptor Body Armor) in 30 seconds or less, how to treat punctured lungs and arterial bleeding, what to do when one encounters a land mine or an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), and how to extract oneself from an overturned MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle. I also learned lots of military acronyms.
From Germany, I flew to Dubai. This is the third time I’ve been here in 2011. Dubai is a natural hub for air travel in the Middle East, southern Asia or southeastern Africa. But, to quote Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there. Dubai has tall, glass buildings, women dressed in burkas, shopping malls and a lot of dust. I was content to spend only one day there.
Dubai has a special airport terminal that serves destinations that aren’t on most tourist itineraries. The departures board offers destinations like Abu Dhabi, Khartoum, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Teheran, Kabul, Islamabad, Peshawar, Tashkent, and Kandahar. I flew non-stop from Dubai to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Bagram AB is about 45 kilometers north of Kabul. It’s the staging area for military operations in Afghanistan. Most personnel and equipment go through here en route to other locations in Afghanistan. I have no idea how big the base is … except that it takes an hour to drive from one side of the airfield to the other.
That night, although I had only an inflatable pillow, a thin blanket and a foam mat, I got a great night’s sleep … oblivious to the F16′s taking off and landing, the thunderstorms that blew through, the occasional slamming of doors and revving of engines, the snoring of 7 other guys in the bunkhouse, and the sounds of platoons of soldiers marching to and from their assignments. Thank goodness for earplugs.
In the morning, the air was crystal clear. The dust of the previous day was replaced by large puddles — made deeper by tanks and hummers splashing through them. Towering above Quonset huts, canvas tents and jets parked on the runway, the Hindu Kush rose like a fortress. Bagram sits in a valley, surrounded by an imposing wall of black mountains with white tops.
I had a day to look around Bagram AB. There’s free wifi at the education center. Each classroom has gun racks, where the students can lean their rifles during class. Food is available 24 hours a day, for free. The troops have reasonable supplies of fresh fruit, but there’s usually a crowd around the freezer filled with raspberry sherbet popsicles and ice cream sandwiches. On the walls of every mess hall are large flat-screen TVs which, depending on the time of day, show either a football game or a late night TV host.
Bagram AB provides lots of jobs for Afghans, who clean toilets, drive shuttle buses, empty garbage and prepare food. It’s interesting to see that the food servers must wear mesh nets over their beards, in accordance with US health standards. There are no Afghan women here. The barber shop seems to be run entirely by Filipinas.
I heard French and German being spoken by soldiers here. At the terminal, a French unit boarded a non-stop flight to Charles de Gaulle. The other language I heard a lot was Albanian. The administrative staff for the education center, the U of Maryland and Central Texas College are all from Bosnia or Kosovo. Apparently, when our military pulled out of the Balkans, they moved the folks who ran the education centers to Afghanistan.
From Bagram, I caught a space available military flight to FOB Sharana. FOB stands for Forward Operating Base. A FOB is near the front lines, where our soldiers make contact with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other similar groups.
Military air transport to Sharana reminded me of one of the scenes from the movie Avatar. About 100 soldiers were strapped into a C-130 in parallel rows of webbed seats. Everyone wore body armor and a helmet. There was no heat in the plane. I didn’t mind being geared up and squeezed between two soldiers twice my size. The armor, helmet, and body heat kept me warm.
In addition to being unheated, the plane was noisy and completely dark. The only light came from gauges and instrument panels. There was no sense of altitude or the passage of time. Needless to say, there was no in-flight food service or lavatory breaks.
Without windows, it was hard to know where we were in the air. Although our landing was very smooth, it came as something as a surprise. On exiting the plane, we all shuffled towards the rear with our weapons — except that I didn’t have any weapons. Then we descended the broad loading ramp under a starry sky and into a biting wind.
The next day, I started organizing classes, enrolling students, and preparing lesson plans. Here’s the building where classes are held.
I’ll be here at FOB Sharana for 8 weeks to teach geology, statistics and college math. This is one of the more remote places I’ve been. The high desert of eastern Afghanistan is beautiful, in a stark and desolate sort of way. I’m at about 2000 meters elevation so the skies are very clear. The people I work with are enthusiastic and hospitable. To the east, we can see the Pakistan border.
I’ll try to update this blog about twice a month or as news develops. Thanks for reading my stories and for any comments you’d like to post.