Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The New Guys

Though we have been preparing to depart, that hasn't been the only activity recently for the 10th Mountain Division Band. We've also been preparing things for the band that is replacing us, the 82nd Airborne Division Band from Ft. Bragg, NC. They began arriving in late August, with most of their personnel coming in September. The transition is interesting partly because they are bringing a larger group, over thirty people, while we had just over twenty.

Part of the transition is turning over vehicles, ammuntion, and other equipment for them to use. We also have to find our "job counterparts" for the various additional duties that we perform and train up those people on how the system works here at Kandahar Air Field. During this time we've gotten to know the members of the 82nd, and so far the transition seems to be going smoothly. They are already taking over our partnership missions with the Afghan National Army's 205th Corps Band and have been rehearsing daily in their various small ensembles to prepare for performances. Their intent was to hit the ground running, so to speak, and they seem to have accomplished that goal.

I've been glad that they arrived when they did, since I mentioned in a previous post that all of 10th Mountain's instruments were sealed up after our September 11 performance. The members of the 82nd have been gracious to let me borrow a trombone and get some face time on the instrument! This has been a wonderful opportunity to not lose whatever improvements I've made as a musician recently, and I'd like to publicly thank them for their generosity. Sure, I can "buzz" on my mouthpiece, but nothing compares to actually playing the horn.

The members of the 82nd seem to be excited to take over the mission here, and I have no doubt they will do great things. Having been able to listen to some of their rehearsals, I can say that they have some great performers and they will represent the proud heritage of the 82nd Airborne Division quite well during their time here. Our commander talks about how the whole Army Band field is like a large family, and he's right--already after a few days, I've gotten to know many members of this group and I hope I have a chance to serve with them down the road. I've also gotten to talk with a few people I've served with previously, and also of note is that my instructor at the Armed Forces School of Music and the band liason who held my entrance audition are in the 82nd, so it is fascinating to get to spend some of my last deployment time with two people who played a large part in my entry into the active Army. Airborne all the way!

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Power to Move You, Part 4

Last Sunday, September 18, we moved again. Moving is always annoying in this type of situation, but this time the reason for moving was different. We moved out of the modular housing, or "mods," into the transient tent in preparation for leaving Afghanistan. By "we," I mean "virtually everyone in the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters regardless of departure date." They wanted to clear out the mods so that the members of the incoming 82nd Airborne Division could move in. (Note: as of this writing, they still have not moved the members of the 82nd Airborne Division into the mods.)

We were originally told that we would move approximately five days before leaving, but they decided to shelve that idea and just move everyone out at the same time, so we now have considerably more time in the tent. The tent is not like what you would take camping; it is very large and spacious, with lights, air conditioning, and a concrete floor. And bunk beds. Lots and lots of bunk beds, virtually all of which are occupied by either people or luggage.

I actually claimed my bed, an upper bunk near a power outlet, on Saturday when I was told that people were already moving in. I got a couple of my bags that were packed and placed them on the best bed I could find to reserve my spot, though I didn't move the rest of my stuff and turn in my room key until Sunday afternoon. I also spent a good chunk of Sunday afternoon mailing some of my things, including my guitar and a lot of care package items, extra bedsheets, etc. in a large box I constructed out of three smaller cardboard boxes. I sent them off to New York, where I hope they will be waiting for me when I arrive, or at least show up a few days afterward. This not only saves space, but means I had a lot less stuff to either carry or throw away.

Meanwhile, I spent much of this afternoon reorganizing my things, and I think I may actually have plenty of room for the remaining things I need to carry with me. Waiting for the order to get on the airplane...that's the hard part!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Patriot's Day

I'm down to my last few days in Afghanistan, and I have limited computer time, which is going to make writing a blog even more difficult than normal. But I'm going to try to keep some daily updates here the next few days as we prepare to ramp out of here. Let's see if I can actually do it!

A couple of weeks ago was September 11, the tenth anniversary of the attacks that resulted in our invasion of Afghanistan and the conflict we're currently fighting over here. There was a commemorative ceremony here at Kandahar Air Field, with speeches by various people giving their thoughts on the occasion. One of the officers in our battalion spoke about his memories of that day--at the time, he was assigned to the Pentagon and was inside the building when it was hit. Naturally, we all thought about where we were and how the news of that day has impacted our lives. (Perhaps I'll write about that in a future entry.)

The band was part of the ceremony as well, and our small group of remaining instruments (2 trombones, trumpet, clarinet, tuba, saxophone, and drums) made for an electic but effective ensemble. This also marked the final performance of the 10th Mountain Division Band for this deployment, as we had to pack up our instruments the next day to prepare them for shipping back to the United States. It brought a sense of closure to play our final performance in Afghanistan on the anniversary of the attacks that had led us all to be here. Now we could start getting ready to go home!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Beginning of the End

As the last weeks of this deployment roll by, I find it increasingly difficult to focus on writing a blog. The psychological toll of being in a deployed environment, and the physical toll of changing work hours, lack of quality sleep, and an increasingly dusty atmosphere that is treating my respiratory system like Rocky pounding sides of meat have dampened my desire to write about what's going on. Combined with the cooler-but-still-draining heat of the day and my down time is increasingly consumed with an urge to be as inactive as possible, not counting time spent working out in the gym or practicing.

The focus of this all-too-delayed entry is the final job of my primary group, the "Bunker Brass" Quintet. Our quintet was the first functioning ensemble to arrive at Kandahar Air Field back in October, with only our commander and two "unit movement officers" arriving before us. (The UMO's are responsible for coordinating the shipping and placement of the containers holding our equipment, and as such had to be among the first people on the ground. Had they not been effective, our quintet would have arrived with no instruments to play!) We performed our first mission just a few days after our arrival, and performed numerous morale and ceremonial jobs afterwards, sometimes traveling to other Forward Operating Bases and even once into Kandahar City. The Bunker Brass performed its final mission in Afghanistan on August 25, 2011 for the Role 3 Medical Clinic (the hospital on KAF), which was holding a "transfer of authority" ceremony to mark the transition from one commanding officer to another. Because the hospital is located next to the actual airport runway to facilitate quick movement of incoming casualties to the hospital, the ceremony was interrupted several times by the roar of incoming or outgoing aircraft. In fact, the ceremony was delayed slightly by a medical team rushing from the airfield to the ER with patients in tow, a sobering reminder that a lot of people over here have much tougher jobs than I do.

In terms of the performance, it was a by-the-book mission like many others we have done: some light "fun" pre-music, the National Anthem, the service songs of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. But as the final performance of our "original" music group, it felt a bit different. Since then, three members of the quintet have already returned home to their families while a couple of us have remained with a skeleton crew of bandsmen to pack up everything else and assist with the transition for the 82nd Airborne Division Band that will be taking on our job here. But it is a good feeling to know that the next time we all perform together again, we'll be back home in the US!

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Above: Preparing to clean the central section of the former rehearsal tent.
It's a new month, and with the turning of the calendar I am now measuring my remaining time in Afghanistan in weeks rather than months. Much has happened in the past several days since my last post so I'll try and catch up quickly, but today I'll focus on a milestone event in the 10th Mountain Division Band's deployment--the deconstruction of the tent. Not long after we arrived here, we set up a tent to use as our rehearsal facility. It also became our meeting area and instrument storage space. It wasn't perfect--the air conditioner frequently broke down in the stifling heat of the Afghan summer, the acoustics were nothing special and did nothing to keep the sound of loud rehearsals from "bleeding"into the outside world, and keeping it dust-free was a fantasy--but it was our space, and we were happy to have something that kept us out of the bunkers for practice time.
We began the process of disassembling the tent in early August by packing up nonessential equipment or moving it to our office in the Headquarters compound. We then had to take down the storage locker for the instruments that had been built out of some spare wood. Then came the process of taking down the lights, disconnecting the power generator, and removing all the interior support struts before actually taking the various sections of the tent apart. Spreading this out over several days allowed us to not only do our other jobs, but also avoid overexposure to the triple-degree heat.
I actually missed the day that the tent was finally finished because I was elsewhere on the base inspecting some equipment before it was packed up to ship back to Ft. Drum. I'm not complaining about that, though; I don't envy the people who had to figure out how to get that thing back on the trailer. (The trailer also contains the power generator; when disassembled the whole thing-except for the wooden floor-fits into a single unit that can be towed anywhere by truck.)
Of course, that isn't the end of the process. Once disassembled, the tent must be cleaned. Anything, indoors or out, that spends any length of time at Kandahar Air Field gets dirty. There are copious amounts of dust in this region, and the tent's various components were saturated by it despite our best efforts to keep them clean. This was especially true for the outside of the tent, which received less attention over the past year than the inside. So we spent the next Saturday at the motor pool using a pressure washer to clean the tent. Every single piece of it. We started about 6 am, and were not done until after 5 pm. Long, long, day. And also hot. But the tent was cleaned, and the parts actually dried off very quickly in the sun. I was glad to have my sunscreen with me. I don't burst into flames anymore when I walk outside like I did when I was younger, but I still burn easily and I'm sure the Coppertone SPF 30+ saved me some very sore moments later on. It is a bit odd to think of our place of work being folded up on a trailer now, and we are again having to improvise places to practice and rehearse (yes, we still have a few performing jobs left to do!). I'm glad I have a Best Brass practice mute for my trombone; it allows me to practice in my room occasionally without disturbing the roommates, or neighbors, too much. Of course, we still have the wooden floor just sitting there all by itself. Not sure what we're going to do with that....