Michael's Dispatches

Common Scenes & Common Thoughts


Common Days & Nights


A helicopter roars into FOB Jackson in Sangin, Afghanistan.  Medical tents are just next to the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) so casualties can be quickly loaded.

05 August 2009

The helicopter pilot wearing night vision goggles roared in so fast it looked as though he were crashing.  The four green Cylums (Americans call them Chemlights) mark the HLS.  While the helicopter is above the dust cloud, it melts into the dark, but as it approaches the HLS, dust swirls high, setting the stage for an amazing light show.  The Chinook descends through the dry dust and the rotors glitter brightly, creating an eerie glow as if sparklers are attached to the rotors, which in reality appeared brighter to the eye than in the photo below.  If the helicopter were not so loud, the millions of static discharges might be heard crackling and popping.

Slow shutter speed causes moving helicopter to 'disappear' while the trace and sparks off the descending rotors is clear.  Heavy dust makes a sharp focus look blurred.  (ISO 1600, 50mm at f1.2, 3.2s.)

Dust begins to clear.  (ISO1600, f1.2, 2.5s.)

Air Cooler.


While walking across FOB Jackson to find Nepalese Gurkhas, this air cooler caught the lens.   After sprinkling water on the straw, evaporation cools the air.  Construction of air coolers has been taught in military survival classes, yet like much of those classes, the field craft is just part of daily life around the world.  In India, many hotels will advertise they have “air conditioners” when actually the rooms often use various sorts of air coolers which—though better than languishing and sweating through nights of Indian summers—are not the air conditioners that many people expect.

Nepalese Gurkhas took me on a mission in Sangin.

Annual recruitment for the Gurkha regiment is brutal, and I asked about the different “selections” they underwent.  One Gurkha said his selection started with 26,000 applicants, though only about 200 were chosen for the Regiment.  I have trained with Gurkhas in Brunei, and been to Nepal many times, but this was my first mission with Gurkhas that included real bullets and real enemies.

Gurkhas serving in the British Army have been rotating through Afghanistan.  They can converse with many Afghans, at least on a basic level, by speaking Hindi.  The Gurkhas also look like many Afghans (especially Hazaras), and in fact many Filipinos, Thais, Nepalese and Hazaras look very similar.  As British soldiers, Gurkhas travel the world and see many things and they also live for years in the United Kingdom and Brunei.  They travel to Africa, Central America, Europe and often America.  Add to this fact that these men tend to come from remote, rugged villages where the terrain will match or possibly even exceed any of the severe difficulties found in Afghanistan, and the insight created from this confluence of experience can be invaluable.  Gurkha impressions of Afghanistan are of particular interest to me.

ANP: Afghan National Policeman (ANP).

The young Gurkhas at FOB Jackson are working as part of a PMT, or Police Mentoring Team.  When the Afghan policeman in the photo above showed up looking pregnant I asked, “Do you have baby?” and armed man lifted his shirt to show the magazines of ammunition.  Just why he was carrying the ammo under his shirt remains a mystery.  You never know what these guys will do next.  The Gurkhas have good words for the Afghan Army here at FOB Jackson, but are wary of the police, who they say are lazy, inept, and lack initiative and professionalism.  The Police Mentoring Team works to the intent of Captain Toby Woodbridge, whose assessment of the ANP introduces context that the ANA here had roughly three years head start on the ANP.   According to Captain Woodbridge, the ANP respond favorably to consistent, long-term training.  “There is clear evidence that when you provide the ANP with adequate training, you create the conditions for development of a professional, motivated security force.  These guys have a hard life and do a difficult, dangerous job.”

The pre-mission briefing, delivered by a Gurkha soldier, was identical to what one would expect from another British soldier, or an American infantryman, only it was delivered with a heavy Nepalese accent.  Each important detail of today’s mission had been discussed in advance. So we headed into the Sangin market along with several ANP.  There was a fair chance that we would get into some sort of fight.

As we move into a dangerous area, two Gurkhas with a spotless machine gun take a roof to cover our movement forward.

Having trained with Gurkhas for a month on Brunei and reading battle citations from their tours in Afghanistan, I was confident that if there were any dramas, the Gurkhas would hammer the Taliban flat. The Gurkhas all seem to think that the Taliban are poor fighters, but Gurkhas say the home field is a crucial Taliban advantage. Many Gurkhas say the Taliban often are brave, though they perceive Taliban in Sangin as cowards because they mostly only hide and plant bombs. When the Taliban do stand and fight, the British soldiers tend to out-fight the Taliban and kill them.

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