My Three Days in Afghanistan

By: Steven A. Castleton

   
         
   

I am sure you have heard the saying: "are we there yet". Well after a long and arduous plane flight, with only one refueling stop along the way, we made it. I have to say, we did not have any flight attendants drinking beer, but if we did I would have had a few.

To prepare for the 110 degree (in the shade) temperatures, the Lieutenant told me to drink plenty of fluids beginning the week prior. Well I drank more Gatorade during this experience then I have in my entire life. However, all the Gatorade and the bumps on the Afghan Highway were not a good mix. I now know that I have very, very strong kidneys.

My guide Anne was easily bribed with chocolate. You would have thought each bar of chocolate was really worth $100,000.00. I came to learn she is one of the most courageous and  politically knowledgeable people I have had the pleasure to have known. She actually has me rethinking some of my political views. With the way she guided us around, I plan on getting her to be my advisor for my European vacation.

On day one, which began for me at 0430, we were met by the Escort Officer prior to meeting with the 1st ID TAC. You may remember the 1st ID which was made famous for many of us by Lee Marvin in the movie The Big Red 1.

The Division’s history begins in 1917 when General John “Blackjack” Pershing arrived in France with the First American Expeditionary Force.  The “Fighting First” led the way for American troops in World War I.  Names like Cantigny, Soissons, St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest tell the story of the gallantry of the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, now wearing the famous “Big Red One” patch on their left shoulder.

During World War II, the 1st Infantry Division was the first to reach England, the first to fight the enemy in North Africa and Sicily, the first on the beaches of Normandy in D-Day and the first to capture a major German City – Aachen.

The D-Day landings on June 6, 1944 provided the supreme test.  In five days, the division drove inland and cleared a beachhead for supplies and troops.  Driving eastward across France against fanatical resistance, the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division spent nearly six months in continuous action with the enemy.

Once at our first stop I then experienced my first adventure on the Afghan Highway. To me it brought back memories of Neil Armstrong when he landed at Tranquility Base. Totally desolation, a land devoid of trees and life except for the scorpions.

 After our NTC Command brief, we convoyed to the regimental DFAC (dining facilities). It's amazing the high quality of the MRE's. In talking to many of the soldiers they all commented about the variety and quality of the meals and the various ways they have found to heat them. From using the heater packs that come with the means to putting them on top of the engine to ways I cannot repeat they were like kids trading baseball cards for the meal they liked the best. We were told to finish our entire MRE kit as we were about to travel and receive a ACOE (Army Corps Of Engineers) briefing about IED's.

The briefing we received was both amazing and chilling. The ways in which human beings have devised to maim and kill one another is beyond comprehension. The things I saw, and the things I was told will forever remain ingrained in my consciousness.

We were then brought into a search facility before receiving a Terrorist Explosive Network briefing.

The sergeant  brought us over to a cargo container that Al Quida had turned into a bomb making facility.  As I approached the container, about 150 yards from the bomb factory there were several explosions as a Humvee returning to the base set off two IED's. Thankfully the only damage was to our eardrums.

Inside the container, which was the about size of a studio apartment, was all that a terrorist would need to make many, many deadly bombs. At one end of the container was a mini shrine to Osama bin Laden. Not far from that was a "death to the infidels poster" which said many unflattering things about President George W. Bush.

Day  two started at 0600 (yea, we got to sleep in) as we began our convoy to FOB Denver for briefings before traveling to the town of  Ertebat Shar. Our local guide, a shy woman, that I will call Jackie, joined us for a great cup of coffee. I learned from yesterday that a big breakfast before going on the Afgan highway was a bad idea.

Jackie also regaled us about her prior adventures in Ertebat Shar. We arrived at the town moments before a multi- vehicle combat patrol arrived. Once the patrol arrived the streets started to empty as if it were some ghost town. Moments after the patrol dismounted a Humvee exploded (we could not determine at the time if it was from an IED or RPG (rocket propelled grenade). When one of the soldiers miraculously got out of the vehicle and tried to get to safety he was hit by continuous fire and had his leg blown off with blood splatter covering what looked like a 20 foot circle.

As the injured soldier lay mortally wounded, still under constant small arms fire, the rest of the convoy moved in to attempt his extraction. With bullets flying all around us and an ever increasing crowd of Afghans' moving closer and closer towards the injured soldier. The frightening aspect was that no-one knew if these were "friendly's" or insurgents.

With a show of American might and determination, the injured soldiers were extracted.

We then got the hell out of there, seeing and experiencing what our heroic men and women live through on a daily basis,  and quickly headed for Shar-e Tiefort.

Shar-e Tiefort was a "friendly" town in the middle of no-where. Even Chevy Chase would not put this on his vacation itinerary.

this town in many ways could have been a small town in New York or even Kentucky. Merchants selling their wares, a meat market that sold real "dirty water dogs" for dinner. walking through the town we were told by our escorts not to buy anything from the villagers and to stay close (they did not have to tell me that twice).

After going inside the towns hotel (they did not accept any reward programs), we went to an Army observation post.

Once at the observation post, in the distance, we saw a large convoy or US Army vehicles approaching the town. My thoughts were if we could see this, so could the insurgents. Man oh man do I wish I was wrong.

Once inside the towns perimeter, the convoy was attacked by numerous RPG's and automatic weapons fire. One vehicle was disabled. The combat team quickly set up a perimeter and searched out the insurgents.

After what seemed like an hour of heavy fighting (it was only 14 minutes), the insurgents were found and the convoy left town with minor injuries'.

We left town shortly after they did.

We returned to FOB Denver and later that evening we ate dinner with the leaders and soldiers of 3/1 ID.

Breaking bread with these heroes was an experience I will never forget. An experience that I was honored to have.

Guess what, this all took place at The National Training Center (NTC) in the California Desert at Fort Irwin.

The insurgents and Afghan villagers were all actors and Black Horse Regiment Soldiers alike.The soldiers that were injured were all actors.

The National Training Center (NTC)at Fort Irwin was designed to eliminate the mistakes of the past.

NTC trains the transformed Army by conducting force-on-force and live-fire training for ground and aviation brigades in a joint scenario across the spectrum of conflict, using a live-virtual-constructive training model, as portrayed by a highly lethal and capable Opposing Force and controlled by an expert and experienced Operations Group.  The brigade and its joint partners use the full complement of its combat, combat support and combat service support systems in an expanded NTC maneuver area that has multiple urban operations sites and portrays the complexity and human dimension of the modern battlefield. 

NTC is as real as it can get. The training our Heroes receive at NTC helps to both equip and desensitize them before they are deployed.

As the father of two sons and a daughter-in-law whom are all proudly serving in the US Army, I am thankful for the job the folks, my new extended family members, at Fort Irwin do in preparing our men and women who are defending our freedom all over the world.

To the soldiers and civilians that keep Fort Irwin running, I salute you!