Sunday, August 26, 2012

"You Dropped the Bomb (near) Me, Baby"

All right. I have written two days in a row about events that occurred during the 2008 USO tour I made through the Middle East.

There are tons of stories from that trip but I'll make today's story the last one for now.

After playing "Pete's Place" in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (story here: ) we flew on a C-130 to Bagram, Afghanistan.

This trip was unusual to me. I had done a ton of flying but never in a military plane before.
The C-130 is an enormous plane. It can be arranged to carry a myriad of things. For the flight we were on, the hulking machine was about half full of crated equipment and half full of troops, (and us).
On the inside a  C-130 looks like a huge commercial airplane that has had its insides torn out. Hoses, wires, and piping are all exposed. This is a vehicle for function solely. Don't look for the fasten seatbelt sign or the Sky Mall magazine.

They direct us to the VIP seating. This is a row of seats that are made of red canvas webbing that folds down from the walls. The seats were by no means comfortable, but it was such unusual boarding process than we were used to no one had time to complain. We soon realized that there was another , more important reason not to complain.......a group of about 100 troops boarded the plane after we did.
They were dressed in full battle gear. In addition to being dressed in what looked to be hot uncomfortable uniforms (helmets, fatigues, boots) they all had their machine guns and a huge huge gunnysack. These troops had all their possessions (current possessions anyway) strapped to them.
They filed into the smallest seats (I immediately understood why our seats were called VIP). These soldiers were wedged into the seats. They were squeezed, shoulder to shoulder and their gunnysacks were in their laps (no overhead bins on a C130). So each soldier was compacted between two others and they had their gunnysack and machine gun smashed between the seat back in front of them and their face. It looked miserable.

That was a 4.5-5 hour flight too.

Again......I gained a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices the military make on a day in day out basis.

We landed in Bagram, met our liaison/new friend, Sgt. Stovall, then got some sleep.

The next day we boarded a tiny tiny 8 seater mail plane and took off for Jalalabad.

I will have to say that flying in that minuscule prop plane through almost equally minuscule gaps in icy mountain passes was one of the more Indiana Jones moments I had ever experienced. (Little did I know what lie ahead)

We had been told about tactical landings but as of that time we had not experienced one.
That was about to change.

A tactical landing is a landing in which the aircraft stays very very high to avoid small arms fire and rocket fire from enemies hiding out near the airfield, then when the aircraft is directly above the runway it noses down and basically spirals straight at the ground until the last second, it pulls up and lands.

Staring out the cockpit window directly at the runway below as it spun and spun, was a much more Indiana Jones moment than the previous moment. This trip was getting cooler and cooler.

The pilots masterfully pulled out of our "death spin" and landed softly and easily.

We got off the plane and got acquainted with Jalalabad. J-Bad (as they call it) was different than all the other bases I have been on before and since. J-Bad is located very very close to Pakistan ( we could easily see Pakistan from the base). We were informed that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was the most volatile location in the war. We were also shown the prison which is connected to our military base. This is the prison where we keep all the Taliban leaders we capture.
So we are very close to the enemy's stronghold, AND this is where their leaders are held captive.

Jalalabad sees lots of "action".

The other bases we had visited had been more strategic bases. J-Bad is in the fray.

Sgt. Stovall teamed up with our liaison on J-Bad (Sgt. Johnson) and showed us around the base and then showed us the perimeter.

Where as Manas and Bagram had lots of solid structures, J-Bad was almost exclusively tents.

They showed us to our VIP lodging. This tent was approximately 389 degrees inside. It had dirt floors (actually it had some wooden walkway over the dirt) a couple bunks and some cots. Again, none of us complained because we now knew if this was the VIP accommodations, there was some poor grunt out there sleeping on a rock with a barbed wire blanket or something.

Most of the military personnel on J-Bad were bigger, stronger, and more rugged than we had seen on other bases (where the people were actually very big, strong, and rugged). I feel like the troops on J-Bad wanted to be there. It felt like these were the warriors who planned on being career warriors if that makes any sense.

Well after meeting and becoming friends with a lot of these troops we had a visit from 3-4 young guys. These guys looked completely different than any one else on base. These guys were all around 5'10" , 160 lbs. They had floppy hair and dressed in civilian clothing.
I just assumed they must be with some civilian contractor and they were just over here to help build or maintain some structure for the base.

They said that they were looking forward to our performance and they asked if we wanted to hang with them after the show. They said, "We get more privileges than the rest of the base."

Again I took this to mean they were not under the same military rules as the rest of the troops because they were private citizens.
I said, " Sure. I'll come party with ya'll after the gig. And tell me who ya'll are with so I can give you a shout out during the show."

One of the guys calmly but sternly just said, "Don't do that."

Then he said, "See you tonight" and they left.

After that odd exchange, I looked to Sgt., Stovall and Sgt. Johnson to get some clarification as to who those guys were.

Sgt., Johnson said, "Special Forces. .......they aren't "officially" here."

This blew my mind. I had been meeting and hanging out with guys that looked like Brock Lesnar but way meaner. And yet the most dangerous people I met looked harmless and almost weak.
In retrospect I understand that it makes way more sense for the special forces to LOOK harmless and nonthreatening but at the time I was shocked.

Well after touring the base some more we went and set up for the performance.
We were playing one of the only solid structures on the base, the cafeteria.
The show went very well. The troops obviously enjoyed it. It was funny to note how much more stoic these people were as opposed to the dancing , wild crowd at Manas. On J-Bad there wasn't a lot of dancing. They were a very responsive crowd that clapped loudly after every song, but career warriors don't dance.

When the show was finished we gave out free CDs and signed them until all the troops had one. While we were signing and packing I hoped that the special forces guys hadn't forgotten us because I had been looking forward to seeing their barracks and also hoping they would tell us some crazy, combat stories. Once the signing and load out was done and the gear was secured, I looked up and .....there was the special forces guys from earlier. They loaded me and our sound guy, Bobby Harvey, in an old 4Runner and drove off across base. An interesting attribute about J-Bad is the lack of any light at night. Due to the high number of enemy attacks on the base, the U.S. chooses not to light up the base and give the enemy's a better view of our structures.

So in complete darkness we drove slowly passed our tent and a few of the other spots we had seen on our earlier tour. Then we drove passed some more. Then we drove for a while longer.

I started thinking, "Where are we going? This base isn't THAT big. We have to be reaching the perimeter"

We were.

It is at this point a gate (and two armed Afghan soldiers) comes into view.

I try to be cool but my brain realizes what is about to happen.

Me and Bobby exchange a somewhat worried look.

Our driver waves at the Afghan soldiers and the soldiers raise the gate.
We drove through.

We drove through.

We drove through the gate and enter unprotected off base roads in one of the most violent places in Afghanistan!

I had not anticipated this.

I understood that I was apparently in the hands of the military's finest. If something bad was to happen, THESE are the guys you wanna be with. However, up until that point I had been exclusively ON U.S. military installations under full military protection.

At THAT moment in that 4Runner, I was most definitely no longer ON a U.S. military installation, nor was I really under military protection.

Me and Bobby were riding in a 4Runner down the streets of Afghanistan.

Let me reiterate, I am sure these special forces guys weren't going to let harm befall us and I am sure they knew the roads we were traveling were safe. But I kept thinking........The plane we flew in on had to do a tactical landing because we are unable to fully police enemy efforts surrounding the base.

How is this 4Runner more protected than that plane?

Luckily for my sanity, this open road trip didn't last more than 5 minutes or so.

We pulled up to another gate. Again our driver waved and again armed soldiers raise the gate and waved us through.

We had arrived at the special forces compound.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected but it wasn't what I found.
We entered to find an almost perfect replica of a fraternity house. It was identical.
The hallways looked like a frat house, the rooms looked like a frat house.
They directed us to the hangout room, It looked just like a frat house.

In this room they had couches arranged in tiers so it resembled theater seating. There was about a 150" screen upon which a few of the guys were playing XBOX (They were playing Halo and then Modern Warfare. .......They were REALLLLLLLLY good.)
Behind the tiered seating there was the obligatory "frat house" bar. We gathered around and the special forces guys broke out the beers.

We had a lot of fun with them. I played a couple songs, me and one of the guys traded magic tricks, (as I had hoped) they told us some crazy combat stories, and then they invited us to see their weaponry room. Of course we jumped at the opportunity.

The weaponry room was a small 20'x10' room filled with all sorts of implements of death. There were 50 cal rifles, a bracket one of the guys had made that allows two 50 cal rifles to be fired by pulling one trigger, grenades , rockets, and somethings I had never seen.

They continued telling stories. We looked around at the arsenal and listened intently.

One of the guys began telling a story about an ambush he had encountered earlier that week. As he talked he used his hands to describe the ambush.
He got more animated and with one of his arm movements he accidentally hit the 5-6 RPGs that were to his right.

My eyes were already wide from being enthralled with his story, when I realized 5 rockets were headed to the ground I'm sure my eyes got as big as plates. I held my breath and watched these RPGs plummet.
I'm not sure how long it takes rockets to fall 4 feet, but I assure you it felt like a month. I watched with shear terror as they fell inch by inch. My mind had time to evaluate the size of the crater that would be left if these RPG's exploded inside the tinder box we were in.

Each inch in slow motion..closer...closer..closer


The sound of metal forcefully CLANGing off the concrete floor was jarring. The sound echoed a few times, then there was silence.

If I was concerned for my life on the ride TO the special forces compound, I was DEFINITELY scared for my life as I watched those rockets drop.

After the immediate terror and subsequent silence, me and Bobby nervously laughed, "Do you mind not bouncing the rockets off the floor?"

They all laughed. The guy that had been telling the story picked up 3 hand grenades and said, "Man, I'm sorry. I forget sometimes. We are around these weapons so much we don't even think about it. When we drive down the road we just throw these things across the dashboard." He then threw the grenades a couple feet and they banged and bounced all over the place. He gave us a mischievous grin.
Again they all laughed at our discomfort.

They grabbed a few more beers and we headed back to the party room.

We had a great time for the remainder of the night. Once the shock of the bouncing rockets and grenades had faded from my mind, I really felt like I was back home. It was just a typical thursday night with the guys at a frat house.
We laughed and drank until way late.

We eventually decided to call it a night.
That's when it hit me.......the only way back to our tent is back through the unprotected open roads of Afghanistan. Was there no end to the night of terror/excitement/terror/excitement.....?

However after the first trip and the experience in the weaponry room, the trip back to base was a lot less stressful.

We made it back safely.

We thanked the special forces guys for the hospitality then we went inside our tent.

I laid down on my dusty cot and tried to go to sleep.  Thoughts of the amazing night I had just lived energized and re energized me and I realized it was pointless to try and sleep tonight.

I laid there and awaited the "J-Bad alarm clock" (that's what we called the eerie sound of the 1000-2000 nearby people chanting/singing the Muslim pre-dawn call to prayer everyday about 20 minutes before sunrise ).

I heard the call to prayer, got up, and walked over to watch the sunrise over Pakistan.

It was gonna be hard for this day to compete with the last one.
Implements of scaring the bejeezus out of musicians
(Just Drop)

 Us Performing for the troops in Jalalabad

What the road out side the base looked like

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