Friday, May 29, 2009

A Special Memorial Day

For many back home, Memorial Day is the national holiday marking the beginning of summer. It’s a day off from work and school; there are sales and bargains for shoppers; families and friends gather for picnics; pools open and many make their first foray of the season to the beach. For us in Kabul, it was a poignant time of remembrance for the men and women in uniform who gave their lives fighting for our country, followed by another day at the office.

Our day began at 5:00 a.m. with a memorial run, in formation, led by outgoing Commanding General, David McKiernan. Afterward, in the General’s moving speech, we were reminded us of those who came before us in defense of the United States and were summoned to rededicate ourselves to making a difference in the lives of the people of Afghanistan.

The speech was bittersweet, knowing that General McKiernan will be replaced in a matter of weeks. I have great respect for him. He cares about the Afghan people and about the lives of his soldiers. While he may have had disagreements with those above him, including our President, he was loved by many and will be missed.

Here are some photos of our morning run led by General McKiernan.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Troops are Coming!

We have just returned from another trip to Kandahar, continuing to build our new media operations center. the pace has been feverish, trying to make sure the center is operational in time for the press to cover the influx of new troops flowing into Southern Afghanistan. More than 20,000 soldiers are in the process of arriving to protect the Afghan people, and the base is overflowing with activity. Every time I visit, it's more crowded, with construction of new facilities made of the connex boxes happening daily (see photos).

It's amazing to see the building, first hand, instead of reading about it. Each day hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of soldiers arrive via military transports. In many cases, the infrastructure is not yet built, and the troops must create their own places to sleep and work. Everyone competes for space. The word is that Kandahar Air Field will become one of the largest garrisons in the US Army anywhere in the world.

Our media operations center is our small contribution to the military effort in Kandahar. We are bringing in 20 or so personnel to manage the operation, a small fraction compared to the numbers coming to fight; however, we’re here to back them up.

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Top of the World

I have written in previous entries about the beautiful Afghan landscape. With its towering mountains and lush valleys, it has to be one of the most visually appealing nations on earth. Today I had the opportunity to see this wonderful view up close while hiking on a famous mountain on the outskirts of Kabul. Friends from Germany, Canada, Finland and the United States all joined me for the half-day event.

The mountain is on the grounds of the Kabul Military Training Center, a campus used by the Afghan National Army, and reaches a peak of nearly 9,000 feet. Luckily, we only had to climb 3,000 feet, since Kabul sits at nearly 6,000. It was still a challenging climb.

As we approached the mountain, we began to see rusted Soviet tanks on either side of us, memories of the horrific wars that the people of the nation have endured through the years. But as we began to climb, the poverty and wreckage faded into the landscape and we saw only pure beauty. From the summit, we could see the holes in the ground below where the Soviets dug in their tanks, though they looked more like interesting patterns reaching across a prairie.

Once we reached the peak, we had some snacks, took pictures (which I am showing you here) and caught our breath before the long hike down. Today was a nice escape from the stresses of working in a war zone.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friends Reunited

It's not often that one is deployed to a war alone and then have two of his best friends arrive on the same base a few months later, and one assigned to the same office! But that is what has happened to me in the last few days. After a tough week, not much could have been better than the arrival of Tommy Groves and Mark Walton, two of my closest friends in or out of the Navy.

Tommy Groves and I met two years ago when he was first commissioned in the Navy. I was assigned as his mentor to help him get situated and become familiarized with military life. We became very close friends through that experience and are now more like brothers. He is a producer for CNN's Larry King Live in his civilian job, and he brings excellent experience to our mission in Afghanistan.

Mark Walton has been a great friend since 2003, when we served together in San Diego. We hit it off immediately and became members of the social crowd that liked hit the town in San Diego on drill weekends. Mark's brother lives in DC, and whenever Mark comes to Washington, we hang out on U Street or Adams Morgan.

The tradition continues in Afghanistan. The three of us are working out together, going to social events at the embassy, and meeting for chai during the day. It makes my experience so much more meaningful to know that two of my best friends are serving right beside me. I have attached a photo from a couple days ago when the three of us met Katie Couric during her trip to Kabul to report for the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Stressful Time in Afghanistan

I apologize for not posting in the last two weeks. I know that some of you have been concerned about me. Unexpectedly, I was sent back to Washington for meetings at the Department of State. When I returned to Kabul, we faced a major crisis. As you may have read, there was an incident in the Farah Province of Western Afghanistan where many civilians have been killed. At this point, we do not know how they were killed, but demonstrations have erupted in the streets and blame is targeted in many directions.

According to the reports, the Taliban beheaded some members of the provincial government, eliciting a swift response from the Afghan National Police. When the police went to arrest the people that committed the crimes, they came under attack and called for help from American fighter jets. Munitions were dropped on the buildings occupied by the Taliban. After the smoke cleared, the Taliban claimed that U.S. forces killed dozens of civilians.

We believe that this may not be true, and that the Taliban may have slaughtered innocent people while blaming us for the tragedy. My colleagues and I have been awake for hours on end responding to media interest and working to find out what really happened. When civilians die, it's tragic, no matter how they were killed. My stress level and sadness are intense, and it’s difficult to sleep imagining how the families and loved ones of the victims must feel. I am working hard to keep perspective and think long term about why we are here. I hope our presence will help create a better life for the people of Afghanistan. They so deserve to live in peace.