Thursday, June 27, 2002

4th on the Front - Afghanistan

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN - The first thing you notice when you step outside the tent in the morning is the sun. It's hot. Very hot. Bagram Air Base is also one of the dustiest places on the planet. But somehow each and every day thousands of soldiers survive the heat and the dirt (I'm hesitant to call it "sand") on one of the front lines of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Both the pace and quality of life is picking up here in this former Soviet stronghold just north of Afghanistan's capital Kabul. It's now occupied by allied forces from more than ten different countries. While British forces are getting ready to pull out, more U.S. troops are deploying in. Each night, U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemasters filled with equipment and soldiers make their way to Bagram's pockmarked runway.

We made our way into Afghanistan from Germany with reserve troops just activated from Pittsburgh. They're part of the 329th Combat Support Hospital going into Bagram to help set up the Army's new field hospital. It's the first deployment for most of these soldiers, and many hide the tension and uncertainty by playing video games or sleeping on the flight in.

We land at night, in complete blackness, the only light on the runway coming from the moon. This helps keep the incoming aircraft out of the sights of pro-Taliban or Al Qaeda resistance in the area.

The first stop for most soldiers once they leave the plane is the welcome center. Inside an air conditioned tent, one of the few on base, a soldier gives us a nutshell briefing on the do's and don'ts in Afghanistan.

"Avoid the media" the sergeant tells us, "and make sure you take your malaria pills."

The briefing is also filled with the mission goals here in Afghanistan. "This is a combat zone. plain and simple" the sergeant warns us. A power-point presentation explains that the mission of the CJTF, or Combined Joint Task Force, in Operation Enduring Freedom is to eliminate the terrorist threat.

Walking around Bagram a day later, it's hard to identify the terrorist threat. It seems to be far away from the base. The only explosions you hear are from the Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams blowing up captured weapons and bombs on the outskirts of the base.

Afghan locals are contracted by the U.S. Army to help rebuild the base and work along the roads. They seem to be a friendly people, most asking us to stop and take a picture or pass along a cigarette. Not far from the workers, a U.S. Army soldier keeps watch, making sure none of them stray from their work areas.

My initial impression of Afghanistan is a simple one. There's just enough here to get by, and that goes for both the Afghans that live off base and the soldiers that deploy here.

Things for the soldiers are getting better. Instead of packaged meals, hot chow is served twice a day at the Dining Facility. Workers there say they feed up to 110 mouths a minute. It's one of those quirky facts here that's bound to increase as more troops make the trip here to the Dust Bowl called Bagram Air Base.

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