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Dispatch from The War

“If anyone slays a person, it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” Qur’an 5:32

I make this, my first dispatch, from the war zone. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen; I’m smack-dab in the middle of it! Well, not really. I’m in Bagram, Afghanistan, a massive sprawling base almost 5,000 feet above sea level, in a valley surrounded by some pretty intimidating mountains. Yes, we get attacked every so often; but, trust me, folks, this here is not the war.

Before I get into my Afghanistan experience, though, I want to take a minute to talk about some of the pretty interesting things going on in my hometown (in part for my own personal recollections years from now when I come back to these BLOGs)…

1. A few weeks ago a Russian spy ring was uncovered operating in New York. This, in itself, isn’t all that surprising. NYC is, after all, quite possibly the most spy-infested city in the world. What really made this interesting for me is the fact that the Russian hottie everyone is talking about used the Starbucks across the street from where I work for her intel drop! Is that awesome or what?

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Yankee Stadium: The greatest closer of all time lays two crosses at home plate for two members of the family who passed this month.

2. Two Yankee Legends, Bob Sheppard and Big Stein, passed away this month. I have a great deal of respect for these men. What they did for the Yankees, for NYC, and for me will never be forgotten, for in my case they gave me something to smile about when I didn’t have anything to smile about.

3. At the World Hot Dog Eating Championship in Brooklyn, pandemonium erupted on the Coney Island Boardwalk as 6-time champ Takero Kobayashi got himself arrested as the crowd chanted “Let Him Eat, Let Him Eat.” High drama on the 4th of July in the world’s most colorful town! LOL

4. Also in Brooklyn, the mafia continues to be a part of the social fabric as one of the coaches at my old high school got hauled off to jail, while a father-son combo had an encounter of their own with the law; fuggedaboudit!

5. And finally, at the hallowed grounds of Lower Manhattan, a ship from the 1700s was unearthed at the WTC site, no doubt buried there a good 200 hundred years ago as part of an effort to create more land down there. How amazing is that?

That having been said, I suppose I will now talk about what many of you want to hear about, my experience thus far in “beautiful” Afghanistan…

Getting Here

The flight here was, to say the least, long. We were in the air for almost an entire day. Flying over Central Asia, though, was eerie to say the least. Central Asia is a vast expanse of nothing, a barren landscape of jagged mountains and rugged desert. It was at that point that I somewhat sympathized with the terrorists: I’d be angry too if I came from here!

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Sabanci Mosque – I saw this bad boy from the sky (at night) as we took off from Turkey.

A contracted civilian 7-47 took us from the East Coast of the United States all the way to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.

It was a strange feeling as we left the United States behind. As I looked out the window over the Chesapeake I said goodbye to my homeland, fully intending on coming back… but not sure if I would. We made a few stops along the way, dropping off military personnel at a few bases in Europe. Things started to get serious when we got to within 60 miles of Iraq (right about the time we passed the Sabanci Mosque – which I saw from the plane). A strange silence fell over the plane. Most of the people on the bird seemed lost in thought, no doubt thinking about their families and home (as was I). Looking out the window didn’t help much, for as we flew over the Caucasus Mountains (with some of the oldest settlements in the world), The Caspian Sea (the largest enclosed body of water on Earth), and then onto the Steppes of Central Asia (across which once upon a time the Mongol Horde – led by one Genghis Khan – built the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world back in the 13th century), one got the distinct feeling that we were no longer in Kansas.

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About to take my first steps onto Afghan soil – 24 June 2010, 1107 Hours Local Time – after being delivered into the war zone on an Air Force C-17 Globe Master 3 (strategic air-lifter).

The landscape was, to say the least, pretty nightmarish. I don’t think I saw a single town for a good 1,000 miles at one point. We went from barren, mountainous terrain to a dry, crater-filled desert, to even higher mountains that were poking up through the clouds. The emptiness of it all was just eerie. We finally landed in Manas and, as we prepared to deplane the civilian stewardesses – most of which I am sure were mothers – had this really solemn look of concern on their faces. They looked like they wanted to cry, actually. I smiled and waved at one of them. She didn’t wave back.

Our final leg from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan was on an Air Force C-17 Globe Master III (strategic air-lifter). Because we were flying over enemy territory, we were required to fly in “full battle-rattle” (body armor, weapons, ballistic goggles, etc), the idea being that we step off the plane ready to fight. It was a 2-hour flight (or something like that); most of us slept the entire time. (This is pretty standard, actually; in a combat environment you try to catch as much sleep as you can because you never know when you’ll be in a shootout for 40+ hours. You want to be well-rested! Well, that and we were also pretty tired.)

Life at Bagram

I have my own desk with 4 computer systems (2 of which are classified) and 2 flat-screen monitors. On my wall I have some classified maps up, along with a number of other items I can’t really talk about. Whereas most soldiers only have visibility across a small town or district, I have visibility across all of Afghanistan. (I see the big picture.)

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The French Army is a significant, respected, and valued ally; they fight and die right alongside us!

I help plan large-scale operations of strategic significance. (Let’s just say that you’ll be reading about these operations over the course of the coming year in the newspapers of the world.) I spend a few hours every day in classified high-level meetings. A problem is presented to us. We brainstorm and throw ideas around. We talk about how best to break the backs of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Terror Network, etc. We talk about how to win the civilian populace, which in an insurgency is the COG (the Center of Gravity). Win the people, and you win the war.

We start developing a plan.

Where should we hold engagement meetings with religious and tribal leaders? How can we place the Afghan Army in the front to put an Afghan face on these efforts and set them up for success (so we can start pulling out of here)? Who should go on the kill list, the capture list? When will certain critical milestones be achieved? How can we deceive the enemy into doing something we want him to do? What will be the decisive point of our operation? What shaping operation(s) will set up the decisive operation? How will we nest our mission objectives within those of our higher headquarters and the Presidential Administration? Can we have one of our deep agents convince the enemy leadership to hold a meeting at a certain place and time so that we can kill them all in one shot? How should we engage “negative influencers” (people who don’t like us but don’t want to kill us either)? How can our stability (Civil Affairs) forces assist in getting local businesses up and running and stimulate economic growth? What can we do to encourage these people to engage in commerce instead of conflict?

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This was literally my last meal in NYC – at Trattoria Spaghetto in Greenwich Village. We’re not eating like this in Afghanistan, that’s for sure!

We plan, and we plan. The plan gets tweaked several times until the Commanding General approves it and disseminates it to our forces in the region.

The work does appeal to me. I do enjoy it. But I want to be clear that I am not constantly getting shot at every day. My hat goes off to those who are out there doing that stuff on a daily basis. Pretty much all of our dead and wounded come through my base; they hold special ceremonies for the dead before they are shipped back to America. I have yet to go to one but I plan to do so soon and then make it a periodic thing. Our Commanding General told us recently that he went to the hospital to visit our wounded, one of which was a triple-amputee. If our wounded are allowed random visitors; then I would like to visit them, although the truth of the matter is that they get moved to our medical facilities in Germany and the United States pretty quickly. That stuff can stress you out though; I don’t like hearing about dead or wounded soldiers but, it is part of the job.

I will eventually be going out as well in what is referred to as a “battlefield rotation” to gain “situational awareness” (SA); but, the truth of the matter is that I will spend a good 95% of my time in the safe and (relatively) cozy confines of Bagram Air Base. Keep your fingers crossed for the other 5%!

A typical day here for me is about a good 14 hours in length. It’s not so bad, though. I can pretty much step out as I please; as long as I am where I am supposed to be when they need me (meetings, for example) and take care of my responsibilities, I’m good. My room is practically right next door to where I work; it is air-conditioned and I have high-speed internet there (well, close to high-speed – although it sometimes goes down for a few hours at a time). It’s small (I have sticky hooks which I use to hang clothes on the wall) but I really can’t complain because most other soldiers live in much worse conditions; I’m lucky to have this room.

I go back to my room maybe 4 times a day. I might go to the NY1 website, leave a video news clip uploading, then come back and watch it once it’s been uploaded. (I do the same with You Tube videos.) I check my Facebook there as it’s blocked in the building where I work. I might sit there and type for a little bit, listen to music, read (reading a leisure book at the office is a huge no-no), watch a few minutes of a movie or program (I have a massive collection of stuff on my external hard drives), etc. Occasionally, when I’m really tired, I might grab a quick nap (although never more than 40 minutes – and that was more the case when I first got here and needed to get over my jet lag).

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These are the books I am currently reading; great books… although I have little time to read out here.

Working out is strongly encouraged; as long as you’re up on all your work you can slip out to the gym for a few hours. The gym is also located right by the building in which I work, it is 2 levels and is super-cool (open 24 hours a day). We also have a chow hall on the first floor of the building in which I work; the food isn’t great but it isn’t bad, either. I try to maintain a healthy diet; I make sure to eat my fruits and vegetables! LOL (I’m basically eating exactly 3 times a day – with no snacks – which I think should really benefit me.)

There are huge television screens throughout the building showing live feeds from ESPN, CNN, Fox News, ABC (it’s weird going to dinner and watching “Good Morning America”), and a few others. They also have religious services in one of the conference rooms of the building in which I work, which also makes things convenient. (Sunday is our sleep-in day.)

Every so often, for the sake of getting out, I will walk to the shopping center. You have Afghan merchants there along with a military department store which has a half-decent selection of magazines, DVDs, CDs, electronics, military clothing, civilian clothing, cleaning supplies, etc. It’s basically like a really small Wal-Mart. There’s also a place called “Green Beans” which is kind of like a Starbucks with wireless internet and everything. I get my haircut at the barbershop by a guy named “Aminullah”; he grew up on the mean streets of Bagram and used to run with a rough crowd (I presume), which is why I let the fact that he uses pink clippers on me slide. He does give good haircuts, though; I just hope he’s not a spy for the Taliban. You never know…

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These are the first 6 albums I listened to in Afghanistan. Rusty Juxx and Roc Marciano are from Brooklyn… and the Avett Brothers have a love song about Brooklyn called “I and Love and You.” That song really touches me…

There are other places to walk to as well, although I try not to go too far because (a) it’s a war zone and (b) there are actually Soviet mine fields on the base – which they simply decided to cordon off. (An American Soldier chased a Taliban insurgent into one of these minefields during an attack a few months ago and got his leg blown off. I think that the reason we haven’t bothered clearing them is because they otherwise provide a convenient buffer.)

My living quarters is right near the airfield. Planes land and take off all day. There’s an Air Force bombing range not too far away, and you get the occasional bomb which rattles my living quarters (although sometimes it’s just an earthquake). The noise reminds me of NYC! LOL

As for what I watch out here, I have my own personal supply of videos, a rather massive collection of DIVX and MP4 files I’ve compiled on my external hard drives over the course of the past few years. (I have them on 2 external hard drives, which are coming in very useful out here.)

I find that I am watching a lot more Romantic Comedies than I normally do. I guess it kind of keeps me connected to another aspect of life which I don’t really get to experience out here. I recently, for example, saw the movies “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Whatever Works” (my second Woody Allen movie ever, my first being Hannah and Her Sisters), both of which I really liked (and both of which are set in NYC). I also saw “13 Going on 30”, which was a little too girly for me but didn’t exactly suck, either. I also watch “Sex & the City” a lot more than usual; other shows which remind me of NYC (Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Law & Order, Gangster Movies, etc) and all sorts of other items as well.

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These are first 3 movies I saw in Afghanistan. All are Romantic Comedies set in NYC. And the middle one was produced by legendary Brooklyn Director Woody Allen. ;-)

So you see, I’m pretty much okay out here, and it’s not like I’m dodging bullets or whatever. (As a matter of fact, if you click here you can check out a video that accurately depicts what the war is like for many of our servicemen and women.) It does suck to be away from my family and my hometown – the greatest city on the face of the earth; but, like I said, I’m okay out here. Plus I also like that I am out here doing something noble, doing my part to protect the homeland and preserve our way of life from those who want to kill our families and destroy our way of life. I think about the (few) people who over the course of my life have accused me of being a horrible person, and I think “How bad can I really be?” I don’t think I’m so bad. Oh, and did I mention that I’m making really good money out here? It’s all tax-free too! :-)

Okay, well, I’m tempted to write a little more; but, for the time being I think I’m going to wrap it up here so that I can start the process of getting all these pictures and links squared away. If you wish to leave feedback, that’s fine. You can drop a comment here or on the Facebook link that directed some of you here. If you comment on here, though, I simply ask that you leave your name or something so that I know who you are. Also: People have been asking me for my address so that they can send me stuff. If you would like my address out here just ask and I will send it to you in a private message.

Thanks for making it this far and have a great day!

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This is my home, where I was born. I feel most like myself when I am walking the streets of this town. And I am determined to walk them again!

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0 Votes  - +
Ivette Ramirez by Anonymous

Hi John!! Be safe out there! I read your blog, you’re very descriptive, almost felt like I was there. Definitely sendme your address.
It’s awesome you’re in that role, great experience.

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Good luck by Occams

Take care John. We are grateful to you for sharing your initial experience with us on Omninerd, but now that you are here you may find that we can be rather demanding. I would like you to please share with us your views about the value of the war, not only to America, but to Afghanistan, to the human condition generally, and to you personally.

I am interested to hear how your views on that evolve with your experience of war. Is there really a net gain the balance sheet of the totality of human suffering and benefit coming from the allied military efforts? In your opinion what would happen (in both the short and long term) if this effort were to be rapidly wound down.

Is the enemy really modern Islamic fanaticism, or is there something even more fundamental that has been preventing peace and stability in that land since the Bronze age? Think about the mentality of the people who have always lived in those hills, and how much they are still tied to feudalism and war lords. Are they capable of achieving the kind of democracy that we enjoy in the west? Do they even want that? What do we really expect them to demonstrate to us in terms of our exit strategy? It must surely be more than basic law enforcement. What parallels do you see with the experience of the Russians there in the 20th century and the British in the19th. Have those lessons been learned.

Be careful though, because the Army probably does not want soldiers to express their opinions freely on such subjects, especially those who have access to classified information.

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John! by Anonymous

Are you really that surprised that Starbucks was the drop off point for the Spy? I mean literally there’s a Starbucks on every corner!
Not so much to say at the moment, besides I hope you’re doing well on this Saturday afternoon, based on my clock it’s nearing 1300.
Have a great afternoon! I’m sure I’ll talk to you soon doll

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OPSEC and Blogging by VnutZ

Well – I thought I’d finally drop my two cents into the pile. Needless to say, I was incredibly surprised by the personal attacks I saw one morning this weekend. At first, I was thinking, “Sweet! Some good dialogue and banter” until I had a chance to read them. All right guys – let’s back away for a bit, take some deep breaths and get back to the honest Q&A and dispelling of media hype where provable and unclassified.

Five years ago when I wrote Photographs of OIF III and Iraqi Referendum: Photographing 15 October 2005 I remember being pretty concerned about making sure I didn’t cross any lines. And I was worried about it especially with the photographs showing the burnt vehicle and the compromised body armor which was borderline un-postable. There was certainly an entire swath of subjects and material I never included because it was just too sensitive at the time concerning what I thought was contract fraud, jammer performance, radiation exposure, etc. Anyway, the Army’s always gone back and forth with its support for soldier’s writing – at times it has retro-actively looked back at it as good PR but then turned its face and completely clamped down on everything, once even mandating to-the-soldier-scrutiny of where they post publicly.

Occams is right in that there are definitely OPSEC implications to writing anywhere on-line. OmniNerd itself was once publicly the target of Army of the Mujahideen propaganda meaning they had recognized our content and user base as military enough to be worth their time. The only smart thing to assume is that they’re still reading us on an intermittent basis (very easy to pick and choose our content with RSS after all).

To Salzone1, you know I’m amongst the most non-rigid folks from the unit. After all, I intentionally don’t read regulations to avoid having “what I can’t do” not box in my thinking. Just FYI, a good portion of the OmniNerd crowd came from old-school military or intel-community (70’s, 80’s and early 90’s) where it was completely taboo to even mention that you knew something classified. I wanted to throw that in so you’d know where they were coming from. The common parlance has definitely lightened up since then and begun to throw around references to it; now that the wink wink bona fides card was played I’m hoping everyone can take your accounts (both present and future) for what they are without having to play it again.

To Occams and others, he really is posted within an IO cell at that “stratospheric strategic level” with the visibility over theater operations and policy that he alludes to. I had asked him to post his observations of that theater here before he deployed because it’s been nearly half a decade since many of the OmniNerd’s were deployed and the environment has certainly changed plus he’d have a unique vantage point to open our eyes from. I remember never being impressed by the coverage from Fox News et al as they hid in the Green Zone and figured we were getting equally poor coverage of the latest changes in Afghanistan. I was hoping through Salzone1 that we’d get a little firsthand, non-media spin with some Brooklyn-ese anecdotal amusement thrown in for some new perspective without it being a “this sucks, where’s my playstation?” account that a lot of junior soldiers tend to write.

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Report by Occams

Hey John,

I hope you made it home to NYC safely. I think we nerds would be interested to hear now how your war experience has changed your world view and whether you see your home town differently now.

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