Michael's Dispatches

SatComms for Soldiers


25 July 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Have been out with British forces in the area of Sangin in northern Helmand Province.  This area appears to be turning into the main effort of the current fight in Afghanistan, but this is unclear to me at the moment.  I do know that air assets are heavy.  During our mission yesterday, a B-1 could be seen overhead, though it was miles high.  On the ground, this place is loaded with IEDs and there were many firefights during yesterday’s mission.   My section of eight soldiers did not fire a single round; we did not come into direct contact, though bullets sometimes zipped overhead.  Nearly all missions are conducted on foot and the soldiers like it that way.  I am with the British battalion called 2 Rifles.  The last mission I did with 2 Rifles was in Iraq, and they killed maybe 26-27 JAM members during that fight.  Yesterday they only killed two Taliban (Predator actually made the shot), but the mission was well run, and morale here is very high.  Everybody is ready to roll again and missions are near continuous.  I’ll ask British commanders to let me stay, though that might not be necessary because there are so few helicopters.  More likely I am stuck here.  FOB Jackson is probably going to be my Hotel California, but that’s all good because these are great soldiers, in the thick of it, and I want to stay.

More broadly speaking, our forces are spread to the high winds across desolate stretches of Afghanistan, sometimes in tiny “bases” with as few as a half-dozen soldiers.  Last December, I spent some time with a group of such soldiers in Zabul Province, but hardly wrote a word about them, yet. They were deep in wild country and it took two days for us to drive out to a paved road.  Those soldiers had no access to Internet, and said that on one occasion they didn’t even get mail for three months.

Until December, I used a satellite antenna called a “Regional BGAN” (R-BGAN) HNS-9101 to transmit dispatches from remote areas.  These small, portable systems are expensive; during a fifteen-day period last year, I spent almost exactly $5,000.  (Prices based on bandwidth usage.)

During late 2008, when I saw the group of a half-dozen American soldiers, out there in the boondocks, two days from a road and once going three months without mail, I told Mrs. Frankie Mayo, who runs Operation AC.  Frankie and Operation AC had sent loads of gear to Iraq, including air conditioners and generators.  When I told Frankie about the isolated soldiers, she got to work with Hughes to send R-BGANs to Afghanistan.

Lucky for me, with the old R-BGAN no longer usable, Hughes, through Frankie, shipped a newer model, the Hughes 9201 BGAN Inmarsat Terminal.  Many of this year’s dispatches will come through the 9201.

Without such a terminal, large numbers of Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors will be without regular communications for much or most of their time in Afghanistan.  The infrastructure is Spartan to non-existent.  Life here is tougher than it was in Iraq, and the fighting will be tougher still.  Yes, there are the gigantic bases—as in Iraq—where everything is available, but little of the war is being fought from the larger bases.

Extended battlefield journalism from Afghanistan is relatively non-existent.  Broadly speaking, folks at home will not know how their loved ones are doing unless they can communicate directly.  To learn more about the effort to send satellite communications gear to troops downrange, please see Operation AC.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    DonC · 12 years ago
    We hear so much about the lack of equipment our guys (I'm a Brit) are suffering from over there. Not sure if it is true or just political point scoring... Would be interested to get your viewpoint from the front line.

    Good luck - you do a great job Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Papa Ray · 12 years ago
    I can say with absolute certainty that there are never enough "equipment", food, water, support or even kind words for those stuck out on forward positions. Nor will there ever be, just because of the nature of the position, usually right up next to the enemy or even right in the middle of them.

    But support such as choppers, ammo, weapons, water and suitable transportation (if the area allows it, which it never did for me or my buds) is always more than welcome, but most times desperately needed.

    But no country, nor any military can make the front lines (be they static or mobile) home sweet home or even remotely resembling what the grunt there would want. They can never have more weapons and ammo than they want.

    But to this day...I remember receiving a card from a kid in Texas that told me that he and the other kids -thought about me and my friends fighting the war and wished and hoped that "we would all come home OK".

    To. This. Day.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas
  • This commment is unpublished.
    toxicseagull · 12 years ago
    if only you could talk some sense into our political "leaders". you will probably not be aware as you are in the field but there has been extended talk from army officers about the lack of equipment back in the UK, with subsequent denials, or promises that are not acted apon or a twisting of figures from the politicals to try and prove to a uninformed public that they have done things. they have even tried to "smear" the head of the army for speaking out about the shortages.
    its a shame that they dont read your blogs or speak to the people on the ground, you mentioned this shortage of helicopters back in 2007, and its quite clear it is still going on.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Karen · 12 years ago
    Thanks again, Michael, for being our eyes in Afghanistan and for letting us know just what the situation is for our troops fighting the good fight. I volunteer for Soldiers' Angels so am always looking for news about the troops in Afghanistan, but there is very little, as you know. You all are in my prayers daily. Thank the Brits for me also! Keep the dispatches coming!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    epluribusunum · 12 years ago
    I adore your reporting. I brag on you any chance I get and admire you greatly. You truly put your money where your mouth is. But….

    You lose me when you start taking an active advocate role for the soldier role rather than a straight news reporter. In my humble opinion, I think firemen and policemen get far too much credit for being brave and strong, and to a lesser extent soldiers. Frankly they are coddled. Allow these brave young men and woman to “suck it up” a little and by doing so provide a great example of the old English “stiff upper lip” idiom.

    Satphones? Give me a break. You didn’t see Ernie Pyle, or the soldiers he reported on whining about satphones did you? They just sucked it up, soldiered on, and provided a strong example for all others to follow.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    F&urcirc; · 12 years ago
    How useful or welcome would some HF radio gear be to these Soldiers?

    I'm just learning how to operate such equipment, and its price beats the hell out of an Inmarsat terminal and its service. For a journo, it wouldn't be much good, but for Soldiers stuck out in the boondocks, it's radiotelegrams from home.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 12 years ago
    Ernie Pyle would have loved a Satphone had they been invented in his day. Eplurb, kick back in your recliner, turn on the tube, pop a cold one and think how easy things are for our deployed troops.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Simon · 12 years ago

    Thanks again for the dispatches. I've been following for some time now and appreciate what you’re doing. Any chance you can get a gig publishing your dispatches with a British Newspaper? Currently here it’s all kicking off about helicopters / the government trying to limit pay to wounded soldiers, and I think that the vast majority of the population here would be thankful for hearing some news directly from the front rather than from a bias source. I would hope that the weariness is with the reporting rather than the war itself. It’s important to understand what’s happening if people are to make a sensible decision as to whether they support or oppose our foreign policy.

    Best of luck. I also hope that if asked, you’d be given the opportunity of a wider audience.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Frankie Mayo · 12 years ago
    Mike - thanks so much for the mention. Keep safe and most of all Keep Reporting!!! Your reporting is the real history of this war. I've known you for years from Iraq, especially Mosul. The mission must continue and we must continue to support our warriors. I won't quit as long as American people support me and I swear I will always support you in what you do. God Bless and keep you safe my friend. - Mrs. Frankie Mayo OPAC.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gismo Fly · 12 years ago
    You are doing a great job, Mike. I see the troops have mine detectors to find those IED's but wouldn't it help if they had radio controlled six wheel robots out in front doing the snooping ahead of them? I'm talking powered by an electric motor about 4 foot long by 2 ft wide with a mans weight and TV cameras and even a short barreled LMG mounted on a turret. We invented a robot for Northern Ireland where's the equivalent for Afghanistan? Better a robot gets blown up than a man, surely?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Phillip Forrester · 12 years ago
    Our governments committed our sevices into bringing about change for the good of the Afgan peoples - they should be getting the kit they need, when they need it. Ot should be debated about - what do politicians know other than numbers and red tape? There is so much misunderstanding in the public sector about what IS actually deployed in Stan. When Mr Brown talks about troop numbers - many dont relaise that of that number only a small percentage are actually front line troops. We need more boots on the ground - training the ANA and the ANP, taking the fight to the Talib and creating a safer enviroment for the Afgani people. But alas its all about the money - shame on the government .
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Aunt of 3 ANG · 12 years ago
    Really appreciate the info u r putting out. I think it is great that you shed light on the troops. They deserve it and are every bit as much and more courageous. I marvel when I see these very young men (gals) who act with more courage and valor than any civilian I have ever met. These 18 19 20 etc year olds. I believe that no matter what nation they are from, these young people are basically the same. (not incl the Taliban) They never cease to amaze me and I just marvel at them!! I admire them all. Also, I pray alot for ALL the coalition troops. May the Lord bless them and get them home safe.

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