I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
And all I’ve got, I had to steal
Least I don’t need to beg or borrow
Yes I’m livin’ at a pace that kills
Runnin’ with the Devil
I found the simple life ain’t so simple
When I jumped out on that road
I got no love, no love you’d call real
Ain’t got nobody waiting at home
“Runnin with the Devil” Van Halen
In April of 2003 I walked off the aircraft at Bagram Airfield. I was met with the same omnipresent odor of feces and urine that I remembered from September 2002. Nothing much had changed. It was Groundhog Day.
This time around the 10th Mountain Division Staff formed the basis of JTF 180, the Joint Task Force that provided command and control for all military operations in Afghanistan. The XVIII Airborne Corps commander would be the JTF Commander but for all intense purposes it was a 10th Mountain Division show. We still only had 1 Brigade of combat troop in theater and there was a Task Force that had the purpose of assisting with rebuilding Afghanistan…or more accurately re building Afghanistan in our image, the Combined Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force or more simply stated CJCMOTF.
I felt better this time due to the simple fact that I deployed with people I knew. I did not need to build relationships with subordinates, I knew who they were. More complicated was my level of responsibility. I found myself doing a job normally given to a full Colonel and I was a Lieutenant Colonel. Some of the people I needed to work with were a little put off by my rank; that I was not a full Colonel. I learned that being obnoxious is often a valuable skill and one that I honed in the next months.
The stress I felt from the work was compounded by the communications from home. Again, focused more on herself, the daily “get your ass out of there” message started soon after I arrived in theater. It became a thing of dread. E-mail is a blessing and a curse and the e-mails I received did nothing to reduce my stress. I was always glad to talk to my boy and once again his mail with pictures he drew for me became a highlight. He also sent a couple of action figures to keep me company.
As for the work, this time was more lethal than before. We did not have the combat forces to really take offensive action beyond small-scale raid. What we did have was air support. The JTF owned its own half squadron of A10’s and a half squadron of AV8’s (Harriers). We had our own air force. In addition we had AC130’s at our disposal which quickly became my favorite airplane. The A10’s and AV8’s were awesome but at night, striking individual targets, the tool of choice was AC130. In fact it became an evening ritual. After dinner I would get the JTF Commander and we’d go get the days target folder and strike a target. The targets had all been researched and vetted through the lawyers so they met intelligence and legal standards. The fascinating thing about AC130 is you could talk to the pilot during the engagement and get essentially a narrative of the strike. The people on the list as targets were the most fanatical Taliban leaders.
I learned an important lesson in 2003. Don’t go where you are not supposed to go. In my job direct combat was not part of my job description. But in order to do my job effectively I had to be on the road, between camps or bases or Kabul pretty regularly. It was on one of these trips where I got to feel the fear, uncertainly and anger of an ambush. I survived the experience but it brought home to me the idea that life is uncertain, sometimes short and in the whoosh of an RPG7 it can all go away.
In my duties one of my recurring tasks was to visit with the UN in Kabul. The drive to Kabul could be a little nerve-wracking but the UN compound was pretty comfortable and they always had good coffee. In war or a combat zone people often talk of sex as a weapon. Well the UN understood this idea so the UN representative that the JTF had to work through was an absolutely beautiful blonde from the UK. When we would meet up with her she always made sure to be backlit and she wore linen sundresses which when backlit revealed a lot, like she never wore underwear. It was hard to tell her no if the UN folks wanted something from the JTF. Somehow we were able to. I always wondered how far she would go to achieve UN requests?
On the subject of sex as a weapon the Taliban and Afghans in general were not shy about using rape as a weapon. If a village cooperated with the coalition the Taliban would go in and rape every female in the village. If any western female was found alone she would be raped in order to impregnate her with a jihadist. On one occasion a young female working for an NGO was raped while out scouting for a good place to put in wells to provide water for a village. The Taliban went too far and she died in the act. Small justice for this young woman is we found them and they died like cowards…all caught on video.
Violent death was not uncommon. A blinding flash of the obvious but to experience it..or at least watch it is life changing. On a hilltop in Zabol province I held the hand of a young soldier as he breathed his last. There is no way to express the impotence I felt as this young man of 19 at first struggled, then resigned himself to his fate. His wounds were too severe to dress adequately. He told me his regrets and so many had direct connections to mine. In that short time he talked of relationships, of wrongs he’d done and how he’d been wronged and in the last moments I held him to keep him warm. Enough of that.
By November I’d had enough. An officer had volunteered to take my position. The constant calls from home to get home, the stress of the job and experiences led me to tap out. I let that guy take over and to this day it is a decision I regret. I should have stayed. I let Church Lady brow beat me into abdicating my responsibility.
This trip home was almost comical. On the day the JTF released me I walked over to the airfield and spoke to an Air Force Loadmaster. I asked if any aircraft were scheduled to leave for the east coast of the US. He said yes so I walked into the admin building and got my name on the manifest. I was hitchhiking home.
My destination was Fort Bragg North Carolina. I had a brother stationed there and he was going to meet me at the airfield. A night on the plane, a night at Ft Bragg and I would be home.
Arriving in Syracuse I was met by my family. My son had hints of facial hair and he was eager to see me. Church Lady greeted me warmly but..it was another homecoming that was just a series of tasks that I had not completed because I was deployed. We went to dinner in Syracuse. After my experiences in the previous years I had an aversion to sitting with my back to people. Church Lady chaffed at my request for a seat by a wall but she gave in. As I sat in the restaurant an intense melancholy kept building. Two days prior I had been in Afghanistan, the most foul place I can think of and here I was in a restaurant and people were laughing, clean, and clueless. Thousands of miles away Americans were eating a meal out of a brown plastic bag in a perpetual sandstorm. In Syracuse people complained because a vent was blowing air on them. At the end of the meal the melancholy and guilt got the best of me. Church Lady wanted to leave but I needed to sit still and quiet for a moment. She kept tugging on me saying “let’s go” and my only response was..give me a minute..just a minute. Then we drove home.
For the next several months I did garrison type duties at Fort Drum. Nothing stirring. I was involved in security for a visit from the junior Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton. All I can say is she is an evil self servile human.
One day out of the blue I was offered battalion command. The General in Command of INSCOM called and offered me command of 201st MI Bn. I was elated at the opportunity. When I told Church Lady she was less than enthused. I had to convince her this was that last job, the last duty and I’d be satisfied to retire from the Army. Eventually she gave in, on the condition that this would be the last move. So, in June 2004 it was goodbye upstate New York and hello to Fort Gordon GA and The Little Task Force that could.