Thursday, July 4, 2002

The Arrival in Afghanistan

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN – - They say things don'’t change much here. Life at Bagram is a routine for some five thousand U.S. Forces. Specialist Jason Allgood, a broadcaster from Fort Lewis, Washington, says “It’'s a lot like that movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray,” referring to the comedy about how people live the same day over and over again.

Even though July 4th is a special occasion for millions of Americans, it'’s just another day on the front line of America’'s "War on Terrorism." Sure, there'’s a five kilometer “Fun Run”, a barbeque at the chow hall, and a re-enlistment ceremony at the base flagpole. But for most soldiers counting down the days in their deployment, it’s just another “x” on the calendar.

We’'re here at Bagram to talk with soldiers about what it’s like to be “at the tip of the spear” in Operation Enduring Freedom on America’'s most patriotic holiday. In the days leading up to July 4th, we spoke with dozens of soldiers, all with a unique story to tell, inspired by patriotism and called to service.

Master Sergeant Lawrence Taylor, an air traffic controller in the National Guard, was called to active duty in February. He was directing air traffic from the control tower at the San Jose International Airport on September 11th. "“Last 4th of July I was on a houseboat near my hometown,”" he says between answering radio transmissions at Bagram’'s air tower. Taylor says the most intense time during his deployment was during Operation Anaconda in March, but any day at Bagram is a busy one. The air base is the busiest flightline in Operation Enduring Freedom. Most of the Special Forces and other units fighting pockets of resistance in Afghanistan, take off from Bagram. “"After September 11th, I knew it was a matter of time before we got called up, but never in a million years did I think I would be in Afghanistan.”"

Army Captain Timothy Beninado is a Military Policeman by trade, but at Bagram, he'’s a Public Affairs Officer, in charge of running the base newspaper “"Freedom Watch.”" After receiving word his unit was deploying from Fort Lewis, Washington, he had two weeks to get ready, and prepare his wife. “"She’'s almost six months pregnant… she’s due in October,”" he says, swallowing a lump in his throat. "“She’s my best friend, and this is our first child, so it’s tough. I would much rather be home for the 4th of July.”" His deployment won’t be over by the time his wife is scheduled to give birth, but he’'s hoping he’'ll have the chance to take emergency leave to be with her. Until then, he takes his mind off the distance between them by working with his soldiers to put out a special Friday edition of “"Freedom Watch.”"

In the middle of a choking sandstorm, we make our way to the middle of the flightline, to a heavily guarded and remote radar tower helping control the skies over Bagram Air Base. Inside a dimly lit room with radar screens and radios, we find Air Force Staff Sergeant Steve Hutcherson, an Air National Guardsman from St. Joseph Missouri. His unit was called to action in December, and Hutcherson has been watching the radar scopes in Operation Enduring Freedom for almost six months. "“It was cold and snowing when I left, and it’s going to be cold and snowing when I get back.. so that makes it kind of tough.”" He started his mission in Jacobabad, Pakistan. There he remembers watching on TV a press conference with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, telling the media that there were no military forces in Pakistan. “"So I guess we weren’t there,"” he says with a grin. His unit packed up the gear and moved to Afghanistan in March, where they miraculously set up shop at Bagram in less than 36 hours. He wonders about his wife and three boys back home. "“I think my brother’s coming down to St. Joe, so he’'ll take them out for a good time.”"

It’s amazing what you can remember and why. I remember the 4th of July in Ottawa, Illinois, watching the fireworks at Ottawa High School, eating some ice cream at Tones Cones on Main Street. As we asked the same questions to these soldiers over and over again, I tried to remember what I did last 4th of July. Truth is, I can'’t remember. I think I was probably working as a reporter in West Virginia, probably covering a parade or celebration. Something that really doesn’'t stick out in my mind. There’s no reason for it to, because July 4th is a day off, a time for barbeques and fireworks. It’s a holiday that we sometimes take for granted. Not these guys. They’ll remember where they were on July 4th, 2002. Bagram Air Base Afghanistan, the “tip of the spear” helping represent, preserve, and defend the values and patriotism we celebrate on America’s day of Independence.

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