War on Terrorism

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

30 Days Through Afghanistan: Eastward Dreams – Day 23

By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan, ISAF Joint Command Public Affairs

March 3, 2010 - There is a magical place full of wonders and excitement filled with international soldiers and rich cultures… it’s known as eastern Afghanistan and I really hope to take you there someday.

I’ve been there before, and in all honesty, it’s the one regional command I’m most excited about. I’ve already spent about a month in the east bouncing between various FOBs and covering stories and to me it seems like a place on the brink of security.

In my experience, North and West are fairly secure. South has a way to go to become secure. East is still unsecure but there are a lot of advances being made there. A majority of my time there was spent with the U.S. Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. While it’s not looking good for Ken and me to be able to go back and say hi to them, I want to share with you some of my previous experiences.

I will always remember them, because they were the ones who took me outside of the wire for the very first time. I remember the moment I crawled out of the MRAP and my boots hit the ground. I pretended to be cool with it, but inside I was a little nervous. All of the infantry guys are probably snickering at me right now because it was such a big deal to me but I don’t care. It’s the truth, and that’s what I’m about.

I made a big deal of it when I stood there, I told the soldiers around me how excited I was to finally be out of the wire. They couldn’t believe that after 12-plus years in the military and five deployments, I had never been outside of the wire. During that first trip, I watched as the Afghan National Army handed out some hand crank radios and then I covered the guys searching a suspected IED emplacer’s house. It was exciting for me!

While I was nervous and excited, I wasn’t scared because I knew the soldiers around me were really good. I always thought the best thing about covering stories like that was covering the stories. I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. The best part of going out there was to be with the soldiers.

I’m going to dabble a bit in emotion because these experiences have changed my life. Yes, I’m in the military. Yes, little kids salute me sometimes when I walk into a super market. Yes, according to the Geneva Convention, I’m a combatant. But I don’t consider myself a “real” combatant. Real combatants are the marines, soldiers, infantry, artillery, armor and every other service members who put lead downrange at bad guys. I’m trained to do fight, but I mostly shoot with a camera. So for me, being out in those combat outposts, running around in MRAPs, talking with the soldiers, is really something special because I respect them so much. I’m an American to the core and I see all of them, regardless of country, as my heroes. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to not just meet them on the street somewhere, but I get to live amongst them, get to know them and see them in action.

I remember the first night I slept in a combat outpost with a bunch of soldiers. There must have been 12 of them packed in this little room on these bunk beds. It was the first time in my career I witnessed true esprit de corp. These guys were so close they just harassed each other for hours before falling asleep. One soldier would insult another and the room would erupt in laughter as other soldiers fired off more insults creating an endless stream of camaraderie. I laid awake listening not because I couldn’t fall asleep due to the noise, but because I couldn’t stop snickering quietly to myself. I must admit, I was jealous, I would love to have a group of people that I was that close with. For now though, I’m very grateful to have been a witness that night.

Another night at a different combat outpost, I remember soldiers standing around a campfire and talking about old war stories. There were no electric lights anywhere, so the dancing flames lit their faces and their welling eyes as they talked about friends lost. I sat in silence and just listened and appreciated the opportunity to be in their presence.

These are the experiences I hope to find in east so I can share them with you. I want to get out there and live with those guys and sit around campfires talking about counter insurgency and the challenges they face. I want to tell you what their lives are like and what they think about Afghanistan. It amazes me to know there is this massive international force in Afghanistan with countless generals and high ranking officials looking at every aspect, but when you boil counter insurgency down, so much is being held on the shoulders of 19-year-olds. Do they see it this way? Do they believe in counter insurgency?

I really have high hopes for the east, and I pray those hopes become reality instead of festering in my head as mere dreams.

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