By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 13, 2009 - I took my third trip off of the forward operating base here yesterday, and my third trip in a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, known as an MRAP. The provisional reconstruction team's security force has five of them, with two more expected at the end of this month. We went to Gardez City with a couple members of the Paktia PRT, including a U.S. State Department representative, to listen as they talked with the provincial leaders about courthouse and prison renovations.
Even though only three PRT team members were making the trip, as always it takes several security force personnel and vehicles. It is not simply a trip to town. It is a full-scale, down-to-the-detail military move.
As I loaded my gear and myself into the MRAP, I started looking around. This was, after all, the result of one of the largest and fastest Defense Department combat fieldings in history. It saves lives, officials have promised.
Inside the lumbering, heavily armored vehicle – with thick, ballistic windows and heavily armored walls -- you actually do feel safer. A gunner pokes through the turret with a heavy machine gun surrounded by more armor. There is not much leg room, though. I remark to the PRT team member sitting next to me that, for the billions of dollars the Defense Department is spending on these things, they could have at least put in a cup holder -- someplace to put your coffee.
The rear door weighs about 500 pounds and requires a hydraulic system to open and close. I asked one of the guys what would happen if, in an emergency, the system broke? How would we get out?
"Up there." He pointed to the closed metal hatches in the roof above us in the back.
What happens if we roll over on our top? The MRAPs are very top-heavy, and the mountain roads in Afghanistan are steep and narrow, and there are no guardrails.
Then, he told me, you have to crawl out the front windows.
"OK," I said, "as long as I know what to do."
As we traveled into town, the security forces platoon sergeant sitting across from me was fidgeting like a 4-year-old in Sunday school. I realized he was looking out of the window nervously scanning the buildings and roads and people.
As I was enjoying the scenery, joking about cup holders, he was looking for threatening vehicles and suicide bombers. It is easy for me to feel relaxed, because I was thinking about stories and pictures. He was thinking about people who want to kill us.
We chatted for a second about what he was looking for in the buildings and roads. And then he asked me, "Why doesn't Afghanistan get as much press as the war in Iraq? People die here every day."
I said something about the fact there are more media members in Iraq, and a larger force, and more who have died.
But I really didn't have an answer that satisfied him or me.
As it turned out, our trip was cut short. We were called back because suicide bombers in Kabul killed 17 people and injured 46.