BOOK 2- Afghanistan
Part 4 - Forward Operating Base Waza Khwa / Site W June and July, 2008
Chapter 82 — Bagram And Waza Khwa C-17 description. Tactical landing. Bagram AFB. Tillman USO. Hindu Kush Range. Disney Drive. Don Teaff. Flight to Waza Khwa. Chinook gun placement. Shomali Plain. Deforestation. First look at the site. I could have gone back. The flight from Kuwait to Bagram was on a C-17, an airplane I hadn’t flown in before. The cabin is eighteen feet wide and the height aft of the wing is almost fifteen feet. I learned how to fly in four and two-place Cessnas® and Pipers®. As I boarded the C-17 and looked around those smaller spaces came to mind. The comparison is quantifiable and I can see how the increase in scientific and engineering knowledge led to the increase in volume. On the other hand when I see massive C-17s and the much larger C-5s and Russian Antanovs and the jumbo passenger jets suspended in air it’s hard to believe. I guess because the force that produces hundreds of tons of lift is invisible. Wilbur Wright himself would be amazed. When we got over Bagram in the pre-dawn hours of May 30th the plane began a rapid descent, like the C-130 did whenever we flew into Baghdad. A long final approach to the runway puts the airplane over hostile ground at low altitude so they don’t do that. Over the coming months I’d fly in C-17s several more times. All the final descents into Bagram and Kabul were pretty steep. On one occasion the pilot warned us to “prepare for a tactical landing”. I thought it would be like the others with the only difference being the announcement. One of the Air Force crew members followed up the pilot’s notice with urgent commands for people to sit and buckle-up. Others knew to stow loose items and it was a good thing that almost everyone responded quickly because there was little time between the announcement and the initial dive, which was a free fall. A few things, one or two back packs and helmets, were snatched out of the air as they rose up in front of their owners, but everyone had buckled their seat belts so there were no weightless people floating about the cabin. At the end of the dive we pulled up. Judging from how hard it was to lift my head off my chest we must have been near or over the G load limit. Then we dropped into free fall again but this time when we exited the dive and all my organs seemed to flow into my pelvis we were in a hard turn. There are no windows and vertigo had completely overcome me so I had no idea the direction of the turn. The same sequence recurred two or three more times. When it was over and we were finally on final approach it was clear that many of the others were fighting nausea just as I was. Many were rubbing their necks too.
C-17 Configured For Passengers Once out of the aircraft we were led to one of the many hangers / warehouses adjacent to the ramps where our arrival was recorded and orders checked. The air was cool, which reminded me that I wasn’t in Baghdad, and it included a quality that was new to me. Twice, on the way from the airplane to the terminal we passed through spots where the temperature changed enough to notice. If felt like it does while swimming from warm into cooler water that has welled up from below. It was probably because of the field elevation and lower air density which was also something I’d had little experience with. All of my former homes were at or near sea level. In the warehouse I handed over my CAC Card and “orders”, documents that you must never be without. (The list of things not to forget is pretty long and every time I gathered my possessions I checked and double-checked that I had everything I needed, the CAC Card, orders and passport being the most important.) Mike Proudfoot told me that I was needed at Site W to help inflate their aerostat. He had also said that I could ship my helmet and vest to Bagram from Iraq so those two items were in the crate that was supposed to have already arrived. That was a mistake because the crate hadn’t arrived and although at that time you could fly into Bagram without wearing ballistic protection it was strictly forbidden to fly elsewhere in the country without it. So that morning, Mike sent someone over from the program office on the other side of the base to the rotary wing terminal with his helmet and vest for me to use for the flight. Mike took a chance doing that because without them he couldn’t travel but he wasn’t scheduled to go anywhere. My flight landed around 3 AM and the guy from Mike’s office wouldn’t be there with the vest and helmet until six or seven so I went to the Pat Tillman USO Center to wait. The NFL contributed $250,000 for the construction of the center named after one of its players and it’s a nice building; sort of a Swiss chalet. It’s well
furnished too so it has couches and other comfortable seating. I watched TV, e-mailed Judi and tried to sleep but couldn’t. When the DFAC opened I went there for breakfast and found it to be essentially identical to every other DFAC and meal I’d had in Iraq, except for one big difference. They had real eggs. With daylight the mountains became visible. The Hindu Kush range is north of Bagram and distant peaks ten-thousand feet high and higher are clearly visible. The air is so clean the peaks seem much closer than they are. In places where the more fertile ground meets the barren mountainsides there are villages and they provide the scale needed to judge distance. Without them ten and even twenty miles could be mistaken for five.
Disney Drive And Mountains Outside Bagram AFB Disney Drive, named after Spc. Jason Disney, who died on the base in 2002, is the main road and the one the PX and the main DFACs are on. It wasn’t crowded then, in fact it was closed to traffic for the joggers when I was walking to breakfast. Sullen faces like I’d seen on every other base abounded but there were others with purpose. You see them everywhere too. There was a much greater variety of uniforms. Most had ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) patches on the sleeve but in addition to American Army, Navy and Air Force there were troops from Italy, France, Poland and Germany. Don Teaff brought Mike’s gear and helped me get manifested on the flight to Site W. I’d get to know him better later in my tour when we would work together at his site in Ghazni, Site Two. By the time I boarded the Chinook for the nearly two-hundred-mile flight to Waza Khwa in Paktika Province I had been awake for twenty-six hours. Getting out of Bagram to a small, isolated and distant FOB on the same morning I arrived was even more unusual than getting out of Ali Al Salem as quickly. I was glad to be on my way and I was needed at the site, that’s what I was told anyway, so rather than stop in Bagram and get some sleep I pushed myself. There were about a dozen troops on board with me and a lot of baggage and supplies but we were only about half full. I learned as a sport parachutist to board the aircraft last if I wanted to be near the aft door during the flight so I held back as the others got in. They fly with the loading ramp down for the aft gunner and his M60 machine gun. The two other pintle mounts, one at the right side crew access door and the other on the left hand side at the first window aft of the pilot carried M60s too. Gunners were at these stations as well. Going south from Bagram we flew at a thousand feet over the Shomali plain. In earlier times this plateau north of Kabul was a garden and the capital’s source of fruits and vegetables and where city dwellers would picnic on the weekends. There are more land mines there now than anywhere else in the world so picnics are pretty uncommon and most of the twenty-mile-wide plateau is desert. There’s much less growing going on there now
and the trees that could have provided cover for combatants or lumber or firewood for residents have been cut down. Deforestation is a huge problem throughout the country. Kabul is twenty-five miles south of Bagram. Our first stop was about thirty minutes into the flight so it was at one of the first FOBs south of the capitol which was a little east of our route. Plywood buildings, towers and a few tents surrounded by Hesco® walls was all there was at the FOB. Most of it disappeared in the dust kicked up by the rotor blades. A couple guys got out and as they left to resume or start their tours at this featureless outpost we handed some crates and boxes to those who came out to receive them. With no papers signed or words exchanged we were back in the air in just a couple minutes. By then I was extremely tired and wishing the trip was over but I was glad the remote and dreary place we’d just left wasn’t my destination.
CH-47 Crewmember Watching For Enemy Through Domed Window
We did it again at four or five other FOBs. When we left Bagram I knew that Waza Khwa would be the sixth and last stop but at some point I lost count. Eventually I was the last passenger and the only gear left was mine. It was mid-afternoon and I had been awake for thirty-two hours. The terrain hadn’t changed for the last hour so there was no point in any more sight-seeing. I had to lay down so I stretched out on the seats which were webbing rivetted to aluminum tubing. They’re uncomfortable for sitting but lying on them is worse. It occurred to me that I didn’t have to get off the flight when we got there. I’d seen nothing but dessert, dry river beds and low, utterly barren mountains for many miles and each outpost was worse than the last. At each I dreaded someone in the flight crew would mouth the words, “Waza Khwa”, or “This is you” and I would have to get out to stay at one of these extremely unappealing locations. When we finally got there we passed the FOB and turned back to land into the wind. What I saw produced the same dread I’d felt at the other stops. I didn’t want to be here either and I wished again that this wasn’t the end of the flight. But as we flew over the perimeter wall on the south side of the landing zone I saw the mooring platform. The balloon site was adjacent to the landing zone.
. By then I really felt like shit and the thoughts of what I’d done and where I was had become dark. When I saw the mooring platform and the site from the air my mood darkened more. Things weren’t right here. Proudfoot told me that they were ready to inflate the balloon, which was why I pushed so hard to get there, but they weren’t ready. The tower wasn’t up, the mooring cone wasn’t attached to it and there was no one on the platform working even though it was the middle of the day. The site wasn’t even finished. Piles of stone were on the ground still to be spread and what was really disturbing was that there was no blast protection around three sides of the GCS and TMOS and neither had overhead protection, no detonation screen or even sand bags. The two shelters we would occupy twenty-four hours a day were exposed, and the site was in one corner of the FOB on the perimeter wall which was just one Hesco® tall, or about six feet. If the site had been graded for Force Protection it would have gotten an “F”. It thought again that I could just stay on board and go back to Bagram and then home. I even hesitated when they told me to get off but then I put on my back pack, picked up my two duffels and walked down the ramp.
Sample chapter from Rob Crimmins' memoir, "Balloon Wars: An ISR* Operators Account Of The Wars In Iraq And Afghanistan" * ISR - Intelligenc...