Friday, March 18, 2011


Sometimes I have to go for a drive. Not a recreational, change-of-scenery drive, but from time to time my job over here requires that I get in a vehicle and pilot it to some other destination. (A few of the people in our unit are trained, qualified, and licensed to operate tactical vehicles, but I am not one of those. So unfortunately, I will not be writing a blog about driving an up-armored tactical vehicle anytime soon.) Our band typically has one or two "civilian" vehicles available, so I can drive those. The minivan we typically use is in the shop, though. (That's the vehicle in the picture above.) We recently got a small box truck, so yesterday when I had to run some errands with another supply sergeant that was our ride.

A few things about this truck: the doors in the back storage area (the "box") do not latch closed. They are supposed to, but they don't. It is a British-style truck, by which I mean the steering wheel is on what we consider the passenger's side in the US. (As is the minivan, by the way, again pictured above.) Also, the truck has manual transmission, so the driver has to be able to operate a stick-shift. I'm fine with that--my very first car was a stick-shift--but it is a bit different when you have to shift with the left hand when you're used to shifting with the right. (I felt like I adjusted pretty easily, maybe because I'm left-handed.) Also, the gear shift doesn't "slot" very well, so hitting the wrong gear is a lot easier than it should be.

So anyway, we started out. Most of the roads on KAF are not paved. Thanks to the rains last month, there are a lot of potholes in the dirt roads. As we approached our first destination, I saw something in the passenger's side mirror (remember, that's the left side of the vehicle). "Is that the back door?!" I asked. Turns out it was. The constant jarring had caused one of the doors to fling itself open. Fortunately we were about to stop anyway, so once we parked I tried to get the back doors locked. Unable to make any progress, I tried to think of something to secure the doors shut. I didn't have a roll of 550 cord handy, which is what I'd normally use. (550 cord is parachute cord; it consists of an outer tube with several inner strands that give it a great amount of strength. Supposedly one cord can hold up to 550 pounds, hence the name.) The only thing I had was the retaining strap on my sunglasses. So, I removed the strap from the earpieces and strung it through the door latch and double-knotted it. Problem solved.

On the way to our next destination, we got stuck behind a convoy of tractor trailers. They were moving very slowly over the pitted road, and eventually came to a halt. Apparently there were items being moved through a security checkpoint off to the side, so someone was directing all the traffic movement. After waiting for several minutes we finally got moving again. It's fascinating how much better it feels to move slowly when you haven't been moving at all. Still, I was glad when the trucks all turned right where we needed to turn left.

When we pulled up to our next stop, it was closed. That is, the entrance gate was blocked off. Some people waved us to keep moving, so I continued to follow the road, though both of us were a bit puzzled as to why the entrance wasn't open. The road had a nice couple of big dips in it, but fortunately I was going slow and my sunglasses retaining strap was holding the doors quite nicely. As I turned the corner, the road was totally covered in water for a ways; I was glad that it wasn't deep enough to keep the truck from moving through. Eventually we entered the yard through what was normally the exit; I don't know why but I guess that's how they're doing things now. We had to make a couple of stops inside this area, so I'm glad I had someone with me to serve as a ground guide. (The box effectively blocks the rear view, so backing up can be tricky without someone out there to direct the driver.)

After we were done there, it was time to take the truck back to the band tent. We hadn't even driven six miles, but the whole trip took about 90 minutes. Just another of the unusual things we do here at KAF.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tools For the Job

It's been nearly a month since my last post, so clearly my attempt to post more regularly has failed thus far. The last part of February and first part of March have been busy and stressful, and I haven't been in a good frame of mind to write much. Our physical training program has been changed, resulting in some much longer days, and I'll cover more about that in a future entry. I hope to start writing some reviews and commentary about some of the music, movies, books, and TV shows I watch to pass the time, much like the entries I often wrote before the deployment.

For today, I'll write a little about something that happened this afternoon, because it is a very important part of our mission here. As I have mentioned before, we spend a few a days every week working with the Afghan National Army's 205th Corps Band, a much smaller and relatively (musically) inexperienced band located near our base. One thing we realized early on is that the band is not particularly well-equipped: most of their instruments are old, poorly-made, and in disrepair. It is unfortunate that top-quality instruments simply are not easily available in this part of the world, and I'm not sure where any of these came from. Even though the Afghan soldiers have had little formal education in music, it became clear that their substandard instruments were impeding their progress. Instruments that cannot be easily tuned, cleaned, or maintained, that can't be held correctly lest they fall apart, and have frequent mechanical breakdowns are not conducive to making music to inspire Soldiers. Because funds are allocated to help the International Security Assistance Force equip and train the ANA, it was decided that we would request funds to secure new instruments and equipment for the 205th Band. (I just now realized the irony that I'm writing this after having written a post about getting myself some new mouthpieces. I guess I'm all about band equipment these days...)

As our band's Resource Management Noncommissioned Officer, it fell to me to do the legwork in getting the process started. I'll spare you the complex details, but ordering anything through official channels is a complicated process over here, largely to insure that the system isn't abused through frivolous spending. Our commanding officer played a large part in making sure that as many people as possible understood the importance of a successful military band, and how important it is for a band to have the right equipment. After determining what type of instruments, maintenance supplies, and equipment such as music stands were needed, I had to contact vendors in the US and get price quotes. I also had to write up the proposal stating how badly these items were needed. It took several weeks for our proposal to get all the way up the chain to reviewing personnel in Kabul.

Last week, we recieved official confirmation that a contract had been approved and the order was being filled. We expected it might take up to another two months for everything to arrive. But to our great surprise, we got that anticipated phone call that our order had arrived today, and could we please get our sizeable amount of boxes out of the contracting office. So most of my afternoon was spent securing a pickup truck and hauling all the new gear to our storage area. Next on the agenda, probably tomorrow afternoon, is checking all the boxes against the shipping manifest to make sure that everything is accounted for, and then inspecting the items to see that they survived the shipping process.

It may seem strange that a shipment of band instruments could be important in a war zone, but we hope that by helping this band to become stronger and seeing that they have the right tools for the job, we will have done our part to strengthen the bonds between the US and Afghan forces.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Feel the Burn

It's a little surprising to me that I haven't talked at all about fitness on this blog, since that is a major part of life in the Armed Forces. We spend time nearly everyday doing "physical training," or as we typically call it, PT. There are two reasons for doing this: 1) to stay in the best physical condition possible so that we can accomplish the missions we are given, and 2) to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) so that we don't get penalized for not passing it. (It is required that we take an APFT every year, usually two diagnostic tests, each followed by a "record" test about a month later that actually counts.) Deployment offers--in theory--a great time to work on PT, since many of the time-consuming aspects of normal life aren't over here. (In other words, you can't take a trip, you can't visit your family and friends, you can't go hang out at the mall, so you might as well go to the gym and exercise.) There are multiple gyms at KAF, two of which I've used thus far. One is the NATO Gym, which is operated under guidelines established for use by NATO forces. They require that all users change into a clean pair of shoes upon entering the building, so as to keep the facility clean from the dust (or mud this time of year) that permeates KAF. Because this is a European facility, all the weights, machines, treadmills, etc. are designed with metric measurements. Thankfully for the Americans, there is a metric conversion chart on one of the walls, but woe unto the unsuspecting US citizen who forgets that 20 kg is a LOT heavier than 20 pounds. The NATO Gym is my perferred destination for weight work because of the cleanliness and the variety of different types of equipment they offer. (I've been to a few Gold's Gym locations in the US, and the NATO facility is comparable in terms of the quality of the workout environment.) The equipment is kept in good working order, and I've been able to get a feel for what types of metric weight I can handle in various exercises. There is also a gym operated by the US military's Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department. The MWR Gym is located in a large tent, but it is considerably smaller than the NATO Gym, which is a solid building. There are no rules about the footwear, so the gym is not nearly as clean. The equipment is older and tends to break down more frequently as well. The MWR Gym is also a lot more crowded, though this is partly because people to have to buy new shoes (or clean their old ones) to go there and partly because MWR is closer to the US living area. (Because of the crowding and dirtier conditions, I sometimes walk into MWR and think, wow, this is what I will smell like in 20 minutes.) I generally only go to MWR for cardio/treadmill running, as I know how my pace feels using miles instead of kilometers and there is less waiting for treadmills at MWR than there is at NATO. One of the guys in the band also has the Beachbody "Insanity!" program, so from time to time I do that with him. Since being here, I've actually lost 6 pounds--first time that's ever happened!--and cut a good thirty seconds off my running time. We had a "record" PT test a couple of weeks ago, and the whole unit passed, so we're all happy about that, as we can spend the next few months focusing on achieving fitness goals beyond just being able to pass the test. For the record, my test results were: 71 pushups, 63 situps, and the 2-mile run in 14:28. (Total score was 276/300)