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Observations from Afghanistan

Scottish American Society

One of our members is currently serving in Afghanistan...he offers the following insights into life there for an American serviceman.

Since I'm in aircraft maintenance, my duties here are pretty much limited to the location where our planes are based.  I'm at Bagram Air Field, which you may have heard about on the news occasionally.  It is a large complex that supports all four branches of the US military as well as many multinational forces.  This is my first time actually deploying to Afghanistan, and my first lengthy stay at Bagram (if 6 weeks, give or take, can be considered lengthy when compared to many people who are deployed here for a year or more at a stretch.)  I had passed through here occasionally during flights in and out of Afghanistan, while I was assigned to other bases in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan.  I was pleasantly surprised at how large and well-developed a facility it is.  We are well-provided for as far as meals go, with several facilities and a lot of meal options to pick from.  The base exchange is larger than most at other bases which are supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, so being able to do a little shopping for necessities or recreational needs is comforting.  There are local vendors selling rugs, clothing, trinkets, handicrafts, old Soviet paraphenalia and other potential souvenirs.  
We have several fitness centers scattered about the base in which to spend free time in pursuit of better health.  Housing facilities can range from large communal tents to shipping containers which are joined and finished into very liveable barracks structures.  The more austere facilities are occasionally retired to make way for better, since in the long term it seems that Bagram will be in a continual state of improvement.  
There are some paved roads which connect parts of the base, but many of the walking areas are the sand and gravel lot spaces between facilities, which end up with a consistency similar to that of a dry river bed.  On the other hand, there are some trees along certain roads, and anytime I can find mature trees at place such as this, my spirits lift because they add a bit of constancy and texture to an otherwise transient and monotone setting.
Bagram is in the eastern part of Afghanistan, north of Kabul, and sits quite dramatically in the flat bottom of a horseshoe-like bowl at about 4800 feet of altitude, almost encircled by the Hindu Kush mountains which rise to over 16,000 feet in places.  Unfortunately, seeing those mountains is not always easy as it has not been very windy much at all since I've been here, so dust, haze, fog, smog, and low cloud layers tend to hang listlessly in the air and obscure the mountain views.
When they are visible, and particularly after a cloud front has moved past, one can see the snow-caps on the peaks descending further and further down the slopes in the cold, high-altitude air.  Down here in the valley, we have gotten some rain, some fog, and regular frosty nights, but so far no snow has fallen, and it still warms up to comfortably cool daytime temperatures.
While US and foreign nation military personnel rightly receive a lot of public support for their warfighting efforts, little is said of the many, many contract workers who are essential in keeping a facility like this operating smoothly.  They often staff the dining facilities, the laundries, the barber shops, the road repair teams, the on-base fire departments, the facility construction and maintenance teams, and many more vital functions.  Many are locals and third country nationals for whom work as a contract employee for the US government might be a job which supports not only themselves but their extended family back in their home town or nation.  I certainly appreciate the work they do and I like to think that by working for or with our military forces, these same people will, I hope, leave with a favorable impression of our culture and mission.  I find it personally enriching too, as I try to find opportunities to learn and use some of the languages I've encountered such as Russian and Uzbek and to learn more about foreign histories and cultures.
As for my job in aircraft maintenance, ours is a unit comprised of several different Air National Guard organizations from across the US, who fly the C-130 cargo plane.  C-130s are versatile and rugged planes used to ferry equipment and personnel to locations further afield where bigger aircraft can't land.  They support military operations on the ground by providing air drops, troop transport, and casualty evacuation.  We usually work 12 hour shifts, but if the planes fly
without problems, then we have downtime.  We have access to e-mail, which is a real boon, as it is generally the most convenient way to keep in touch across such a distance and difference in time zones which present greater problems for snail-mail and phone calls.  At our workcenter, we are able to watch movies or listen to music, and somewhere along the way a ping-pong table and foosball were acquired. Often what we have at any particular location is a result of several years of attrition, i.e., units shipping over niceties for their personnel, individuals buying things and then leaving them behind rather than packing them home, or donations from supportive communities and businesses.  We've received packages of letters from schoolchildren and some of us have been trying to reply to those when we have an opportunity to write.  It's a treat to read the way different kids express their concern and support for us.

[Name withheld at the writer's request.]