Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks in Kandahar

L-R: SSG Erik Winters, horn; SPC Jesse Holmes, tuba; SPC James Leggett and SPC Joshua Rux, trumpets; SSG David Proctor, trombone
Today the United States observes its Thanksgiving holiday, and for the American Soldiers at Kandahar Air Field the holiday was a welcome change from the normal workday. For those of us in the 10th Mountain Division Band, it was a great opportunity to use our skills to boost the morale of the troops. My brass quintet (informally dubbed "The Bunker Brass") started the day by playing at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service at one of the chapels. Though not a formal "church service," this event involved several American chaplains (and, surprisingly, a couple of British chaplains too!) speaking, reading scriptures, and leading songs about being thankful.

As soon as the service was over, we threw our instruments, music, and stands into a truck and headed over to the nearby Niagara Dining Facility, which typically serves "American" food and displays American programming on the TV screens (usually sports, which to my interest included a Pre-Season NIT basketball game between Virginia Commonwealth University and my alma mater, the 24th-ranked University of Tennessee). The building was set aside for Thanksgiving lunch, and already a very, very long line was waiting to get in. We walked in through an exit--the easiest way to get in--and set up along the back wall so we could play some music to entertain the lunch crowd. Our set this time consisted of a wide variety of selections, with an emphasis on fun, upbeat music: "Ain't Misbehavin," "The Pink Panther," "Satin Doll," "The Colonel Bogey March," "The Beer-Barrel Polka," and "Cartoon Symphony," a collection of themes from shows like "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "Animaniacs," "The Flintstones," and "The Jetsons." Even though we like to classify these types of performances as "music to be ignored by," or perhaps "innocuous enough to not be annoying," many in the crowd seemed to appreciate having some live music to make the day a little more festive. Many also stopped by to get pictures of the group. We made sure to have our pictures taken by the ice sculptures that were placed in the center of the hall as decoration.

Between sets, we were able to get lunch. The food line today was not manned by the typical facility employees, but by members of the US Navy, and rather than the normal menu, they had traditional Thanksgiving food: turkey, dressing, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, etc. And it was delicious! I decided that oversleeping a little and thus having only a couple of strawberry Pop-Tarts (courtesy of a care package!) for breakfast was a good thing, as I had plenty of room to eat a lot for lunch. It wasn't like being home with family, but it was certainly more enjoyable than a typical lunch here. Afterward, as we were loading the truck, a somewhat elderly civilian in a red plaid shirt and with a grey-ish beard walked out and thanked us for playing, prompting SPC Holmes to comment, "Hey, that's nice, we play for Thanksgiving and get thanked by Santa Claus!"

As one of our other band members who joined us for lunch mentioned, the band is our family right now, and even when we get on each other's nerves we can still sit back and enjoy a meal and be thankful that we have each other and that we have a mission of bringing music to other members of the Armed Forces. And I am thankful that I have so many friends and family members back home who have been so supportive during these first weeks of our deployment here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Q and A, Part 4

I've received a few more questions, so here goes....

What do you think about the new uniforms?

We were issued new uniforms a few weeks before we left. The new pattern, Multi-Cam, was designed to blend better in the rugged environment of Afghanistan than the current standard issue, the digital-patterned Army Combat Uniform. The new pattern is similar to the old Battle Dress Uniform they had when I joined, but is not as dark and has more brown and no black. The cut of the uniform is similar, but they've redesigned the collar to lay flat a bit better, the "hook and loop" fasteners (a non-copyrighted way of referring to Velcro) down the front are a bit smaller, and they've replaced the fasteners on the pants cargo pockets with buttons. The material is also coated with materials to make them flame-retardant and insect-repellant. So far, I like them--they look better, they're stitched a bit better, and the material feels a bit more comfortable. They're sized a bit differently, but I was able to get the right size so they fit well. I'd prefer for them to make this the standard issue uniform. They also have new "mountain boots" that are supposed to go with these, but due to a supply shortage they weren't able to issue them to non-combat troops, so we're still using the tan desert boots. That's also fine by me; I have not heard good things about the wear or durability of the new boots.

Do you always have to wear your glasses?

Yes, I do. If you know me well, you know that I'm quite near-sighted. (I didn't inherit my paternal grandfather's military-pilot-perfect vision...and neither did any of his other grandchildren!) Most of the time I prefer to wear contact lenses, unless I'm sleeping. However, military policy prohibits the wear of contact lenses in combat zones and with the amount of dust here, that's most likely for the best. Most of the time I wear normal eyeglasses, but during the day when I'm outdoors I wear polarized, dark ballistic protective lenses that have prescription inserts attached. They're large enough that they completely cover my eyes from the very bright sunlight. (Low humidity=very few cloudy days)

What provisions are made for worship services?

There are services and classes all through the week at the two main chapels on the post. Catholic services are held just about everyday, and Sundays are booked solid with services such as Traditional Protestant, Contemporary Protestant, Latter-Day Saints, church of Christ, as well as services for other faiths like Judaism and Islam. Many of the services are run by chaplains, but there are Soldiers and civilians who are involved as well. There's a Wednesday night class that I want to check out as well sometime. Also, from time to time we can hear the Muslim prayers over the loudspeakers from the Afghan section of the base. (I presume they're in Arabic, not Dari or Pashto, which are the main languages in Afghanistan.)

Do you have access to beverages like sweet tea and Coca-Cola?

I have not yet found sweet iced tea, though there is a military-focused coffee company called Green Beans that has a couple of shops here. (LOVE the chocolate smoothies!) They have iced tea that I have yet to try but I hear it's the best thing on the menu. I'll take the plunge soon. We do have soft drinks at the dining facilities, usually Coke, Sprite, Fanta orange, and "Coke light," which is the equivalent of diet. They come from a distributor in Kabul, and because they aren't subject to the dietary squeamishness of the US, they still use sugar rather than corn syrup in the recipe. The facility closest to where I now live is the most "American" dining hall, and up until a few days ago they also had regular A&W root beer, shipped straight from Texas. I guess their supply ran out and they have yet to get more. A real shame, as root beer is my favorite soft drink.

That's all for this installment. Thanks for reading, and please continue to send any questions you have!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Power To Move You, Part 2

Maybe I'll get to stay here for a little while longer. I, and four other people in the band, moved out of the temporary tents we had been staying in and moved into the "mods," modular housing that is more permanent and has a few more creature comforts. The walls are sturdier, there is air conditioning and heating, the bathrooms are in the same building and contain a 50-gallon water heater (consistently warm showers!), and instead of a large open room with who knows how many other people, these rooms can comfortably hold four. Of course, there are six of us in here (one of whom is not in the band but was placed here with us) but we're learning how to make it work. There are two single beds, one of which is mine, and two sets of bunk beds, and some limited closet space. There is also a small refrigerator which just so happens to be next to my bed. I can use it as a bed-side table too.
There is also internet available here; it isn't great but I'm typing this from my room instead of the USO or an internet cafe. I hope to be able to post photos now as well.
I didn't sleep all that well last night, but I think that was more just getting used to the new environment than anything about the room. It was nice not waking up to the "alarm clock symphony" that resulted from having about 80 different people trying to wake up at about the same time in the tents. (Or worse, waking up a couple of hours earlier than I had to!) We are closer to the Morale area, the Boardwalk, the main laundry facility, and the gyms, so even though we might not get quite as much exercise, getting things done should be a bit easier. Now we just have to hope they don't decide to move us all from one mod to another....

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Q and A, part 3

How do your instruments react to all the dust?
So far, it hasn't been too hard on them. It remains to be seen, of course, how they will do over the coming months, but so far I haven't had to do much beyond normal maintenance on the trombone. The outside of the case, however, is absolutely filthy.

Do you drink tap water or bottled water?
All of the drinking water here is bottled. They ship in truckloads of the stuff everyday. Sometimes it might be bottled by a subsidiary of Coca-Cola in Kabul, or it might be from Dibba, a company in Fujaira, UAE. In fact, all of the water we use here is brought in by truck, including the water we use for showers and sinks. It's considered "non-potable:" clean enough to shower or brush your teeth, but not for drinking. The bottled water is available all over the post at no charge--just find a stash and grab one.

Do you have time to practice?
Most days we do. Almost everyday I've been here we've had a quintet rehearsal, a larger group rehearsal (like the ceremonial band or brass ensemble), or individual practice time. While we do have to take time to do the various office jobs that help the band run, we've been fortunate that once things got established, we've had a few hours nearly everyday to focus on the musical mission. The biggest drawback is that Kandahar has no dedicated "band facility," so we have been using classroom tents, the Fest Tent, protective bunkers, and an abandoned meat locker as practice facilities, and we have to keep our instruments locked in a big protective container to keep them secure when they aren't in use.

Are the facilities for military only, or do civilians use them too?
Almost everything here is open to military and civilians, though there are restricted areas. Even so, those may be open to certain contractors who have the proper clearance. Also, there are very few areas that aren't open to people from the various nations that are represented here.

That's all for today, so keep asking and I'll write another Q and A installment soon!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Patch

Today is Veteran's Day, and we celebrated in an unusual way at Kandahar Air Field. We had a ceremony during which the members of the 10th Mountain Division were officially awarded their wartime service patch, or as it's commonly called, the "combat patch." Normally, a Soldier wears the patch representing the unit to which he/she is assigned on the left shoulder. After serving with that unit in a combat zone, the Soldier is authorized to wear that unit's patch on the right shoulder for the remainder of th Soldier's career. Thus, wearing a patch on the right shoulder is the sign that a Soldier is a combat veteran. The Army is the only US military service that observes this tradition.
The official patch of the 10th Mountain Division is displayed to the right. The red, white, and blue colors reflect the national colors of the USA. The shape of a patch is meant to evoke a powder keg, which symbolizes the explosiveness of the division's soldiers. The crossed bayonets symbolize the Infantry, the core fighting element of the division, and the shape of the bayonets forms an X, also representing the Roman numeral for 10. And the main patch is paired with a "MOUNTAIN" tab, denoting it as the only such division in the Army.
My brass quintet was providing music for the ceremony, and we played a couple of marches as introductory music. (This also served as an attempt to prevent the Division Command Sergeant Major from another rendition of "Friends In Low Places." Don't ask me what prompted that!) After playing the NATO Hymn, we waited while the Division Commander, MG Terry, gave a speech about the significance of the occasion. We then began playing "America the Beautiful" while combat patches were placed on the youngest officer, warrant officer, NCO, and enlisted soldier, and a Canadian soldier who represented the international force. Then leaders of various units began moving to give patches to the other Soldiers in their units. To our surprise, the Division and HQ Battalion command staff moved to give patches to the members of the quintet--while we were playing! (We weren't expecting that to happen!) I had my spare patch in my right sleeve pocket, so as my presenter (I think it was Battalion Commander LTC Bennett, but I can't be sure) approached, I waited until there was a spot in the music where I wasn't playing anything critical, quickly pulled the patch out of my pocket, handed it to him, and continued playing, trying hard not to move my upper right arm while manipulating the slide as he placed the patch on my shoulder. At least now I'll always remember getting my "combat patch" while playing "America the Beautiful."
And to any Veterans who happen to be reading this, many thanks for the sacrifices you made, and I am proud to be among your ranks!

The Power To Move You

Yesterday was a great snapshot of what life can be like when you're deployed in a combat zone. Our brass quintet had a rehearsal in the morning, and after lunch and a quick unit meeting to iron out the rest of the day's schedule, I had a little bit of free time. I went back to our tent to change clothes and go do a quick workout at the gym. (By the way, this was my first time trying out the NATO-operated gym, which is a very nice facility with fairly new weights and equipment. The trick is that all the weight measurements are in kilos rather than pounds, which takes a bit of an adjustment.) My plan was to shower and then go to a briefing we had at 1600 (4 pm) about emergency medical procedures, but it was not to be.
Upon returning to the tent, I was informed that we had to move. Not to our eventual permanent door into another tent. Apparently they are planning to close down the place we had been staying, and we had until that night to move out. So those of us who were there quickly packed our things together and hauled them next door, hoping to quickly claim a good bunk. I managed to succeed, getting one with a firm mattress and close access to a plug that I can use for my computer and 1 TB hard drive. Oddly enough, the day before I had moved to another bunk in the old tent because another person had moved out and I wanted to have the plugs he'd been using. I figured that moving bunks would almost certainly ensure that we'd be leaving the tent soon. I just hadn't counted on making such a short move or doing so with such little notice. With the help of some of the other guys, I managed to make it to the briefing more or less on time.
If you like living where even your sleeping location can change suddenly, Kandahar Air Field is the place for you!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Q and A, part 2

Some more questions from my Facebook page:
How's the weather?
Kandahar is in the southern part of Afghanistan, sandwiched between Pakistan and Iran. The conditions here are mostly desert: very dry, and very, very dusty. When we first arrived, a front was actually bringing in a lot of dust, and the air was thick with the stuff. Week before last we had a little rain and that helped clean things up a bit, and the air is much clearer now. During the summer the temperatures can get into the low 100's F, but right now we're hitting high 70's-low 80's during the day. Also, because of the dry air, nighttime cools off quickly, and temperatures can get down to the 40's. I think some nights we've actually made it to the 30's! Needless to say, the conditions can be a bit harsh on the sinuses. But if you like sunshine, this is a place you should check out!

Are facilities staffed by Americans, or locals?
It depends. While there are American civilians here, most of them are contractors who are doing other work. Most of the people in the shops and restaurants are not American, though I'm not always certain that they are Afghans. It can be difficult to tell as Afghanistan has several ethnic groups which may speak different languages, though most of the people who work around here know at least basic English. I think some of the workers may be immigrants from Pakistan or India.

What other allied countries are represented at Kandahar?
There are several, and I'll almost certainly leave some out, but the ones I have seen include: Bulgaria, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Romania, Australia, Slovakia, Turkey, New Zealand, and of course Afghanistan. I haven't had much interaction with those from non-English-speaking countries, though I'm sure I'll have a chance to practice my rudimentary French, or to inform the Romanians that the only sentence I know in Romanian is "I don't speak Romanian."

Do the locals ever request "Free Bird"?
Not to my knowledge, but I'll try and learn the Dari and Pashto (both forms of Persian that are spoken here) for "Free Bird" just to be sure!

Keep asking, and there's more to come!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Q and A, part 1

I recently posted a notice on Facebook inviting people to ask any questions they had about my experience in Afghanistan, so here's the first installment of my answers! Keep the questions coming!

What's the culture like in Afghanistan?
Unfortunately I've spent almost all my time on Kandahar Air Field, so I haven't yet personally experienced much of the Afghan culture. I do expect that to change the longer I'm here, so I'll try and write more about it when it happens. At our first performance a couple of weeks ago, we did have an opportunity to interact with some of the Afghan soldiers, and they seemed very warm, friendly, and interested in learning more about how we do things.

What's it like living on the base?
It's usually pretty relaxed. We are required to carry our weapons (in my case, an M-16 rifle) with us unless we are doing "physical training" (i.e. exercise) but we don't have to wear helmets unless riding in "tactical vehicles" and we don't wear body armor unless we leave the base. There are several dining facilities, as well as a USO lounge, internet cafe, multiple gyms, and restaurants like TGI Friday's, KFC, and a European place called Echoes. There is a game room, college education center, and classes like Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University and salsa dancing are offered. All of this, of course, is for when we have free time and are not doing office work, rehearsal, or performing/otherwise involved in a "mission."

Can you travel off the base?
Generally not, unless we are on official business.

That's all I have time for now, but more to come later! Again, feel free to ask anything!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Playing For the Brass

"Brass," in this sense, being "very high-ranking people." Today was the big Transfer of Authority ceremony, in which Major General Terry, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, took command of military operations in the southern region of Afghanistan. This is the first time this part of the country has been overseen by the US Military. My brass quintet was there to participate in the festivities, mainly to provide music prior to the start of the ceremony and to play the Afghan national anthem (which sounds very much like a remnant of the days of Soviet occupation, very heavy and imposing), the NATO hymn (representing the nations of the International Security Assistance Force), and the 10th Mountain Division song, "Climb To Glory."
Interestingly, one Air Force person (don't remember his rank!) asked if we took requests and wondered if we could do "the Monty Python theme." We were able to oblige, as "Monty Python's Flying Circus" used John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March" as its theme music, and that march was a couple of slots away in our rotation.
The ceremony was held in the "Fest Tent," which is basically a large concrete slab with a "skin" stretched over a metal frame, with a big wooden stage and lots of folding chairs. Surprisingly, this environment provided very good acoustics for our quintet, helping us to sound "big" without overpowering the rest of the room. It was easy for us to get comfortable and we had one of our better performances. When several Generals, including the man in charge of Afghan military operations (GEN Petraeus), regional governors, and other dignitaries are present, it's good to play well! After we played honors for the General, prayers were offered by a local Muslim cleric and a (Christian) US Army Chaplain, and there were speeches, including the outgoing British General Carter and MG Terry. Then the 10th MTN DIV flag was unfurled, symbolically displaying the Division's "arrival." The only big letdown was that after the ceremony, we found out our transportation had technical problems and we had to walk back to our storage area, hauling our instruments with us. That's life in a deployed environment--always unpredictable!