The Last Journey

Article #12 “Bandit Country”

07 August 2010, Forward Operating Base Boris, Afghanistan



I have arrived at my final, first destination.  It is simply amazing that I made it after all this time.  Let me say from the onset in this writing, it was well worth the waiting.  The moment I stepped onto land here at FOB Boris, I knew this is where I’m supposed to be.  This is “Bandit Country”.  I am with very good people here.  This is the infantry.  This is 1-187.  These are Rakkasans.  They have been sent to one of the most volatile areas in the fight.  It is because they are good that they have been sent here. I asked specifically to be among them.  I knew one soldier here.  His name is Sgt. Bryan Doyle, a typical Irish bloke that is a typical first class Rakkasan.  He is my friend.  He helped me get here.  He knows I care about the soldiers and can tell some of their story.  Now begins my time at forward operating base Boris, along the mountains and hills that border Pakistan and where the bad guys launch rockets from all the time.  This is where America’s finest are working to keep us all safe at home. 

The day started early in Salerno as I got up and found the shower area.  I had been putting that off until the day I was for sure leaving.  It’s quite a chore just to get a shower and stay organized as well as produce a story each day and monitor travel arrangements.  It is a logistics feat, one I’m getting somewhat accustomed to .  By 0945, I was taken down to the pax terminal in Salerno by Pvt McKenna.  He had been pretty much tasked with taking care of me and making sure I did the right thing while on Salerno.  There are rules to follow and McKenna made sure I followed them.  He too is an Irish kid originally from Chicago area but hails now from Kentucky.  After dropping me off at the pax terminal I was to wait for about a couple hours or so until my flight came.  The problem is that during this time of year, weather plays a very significant role in getting from point A to point B around these parts.  It’s pretty much monsoon season and by the time the afternoon heats things up, the clouds obscure the passes in and out of this region.  That causes lots of delays. 


While waiting on the flight line at Salerno for our flight to come, a CH47 Chinook helicopter landed doing a sideways maneauver that was really a good site to see.  All I could do was think of how proud I am of my son Jimmy for being able to fly these big birds.  As the wind from the rotors blew everyone around, they all turned their backs away from it, except me.  I knew what to expect and I wasn’t going to miss this view.  As I said, all I could think of was my son Jimmy.  I knew now that what I was embarking upon was about to happen after so long a wait.  I’m connected to this war simply by my son and the rest of America’s sons and daughters in the battle here in Afghanistan.  I felt good seeing the Chinook.

A short time later, my bird came and it was a welcomed site to see.  I’m not exactly sure what it was and I’m not sure who is operating it.  I’ve been told different things by different folks.  Some say Russians, some say American contractors, some have no idea.  All I knew is I had not been in this aircraft before and I was about to add another helicopter to my list of travels over the years.  It landed, we all loaded up our gear and were shown where to sit.  The first impression I had of this particular aircraft was good.  I liked it from the first steps I took to get inside it.  The ramp was excellent and well designed. It had what appeared to be Russian language written on it as well as English.  It was quite easy to get into, which is not always the case in helicopters.  It’s a single rotor bird, but kind of big.  It looks like a cross between an older CH46 that the USMC flies and a Huey that the Army flew.  It seats about a dozen people in seats with the cargo area pretty much in the rear of the bird.  It’s very practical and I had plenty of room.  I flat out liked the bird and think it’s now one of my favorite helicopters to fly in.  It had two pilots, a crew chief and another crew member who was wearing an Afghan uniform.  I could not see the two pilots but the crew chief in the back was wearing a USMC flight suit.  He spoke English and I believe he was American, but don’t really know.  He was very helpful getting my gear on board and I assisted him loading other luggage. I like his job, it is the one I would have wanted.

As we took off, I right away felt like this was a “cool” aircraft.  It looks old and some say ugly, but quite frankly, it’s a good bird.  I had been watching the weather and thought that we might get cancelled due the clouding up situation that was developing.  But, that was not to be the case.  We gained altitude and soon we were pretty high skimming the clouds.  And there were lots and lots of clouds.  I’ve flown literally hundreds of flights in helicopters over the years, mostly in Hawaii and always kept an eye on the weather.  On this flight, I was watching the clouds the whole time.  Whoever was flying this bird knew exactly what they were doing.  But I kept watching the clouds.  We landed at our first stop and some of the folks got out.  Two new passengers got on and after a very brief time, we were soon airborne again heading to FOB Boris.  At this time I began taking some photos out the window of the terrain below which looked quite green in some parts.  It wouldn’t be too long now before we touched down in Boris. 


Prior to landing I could see a bit of the area where the FOB is situated, but mostly was getting ready to disembark the aircraft, they do not stay on the ground any longer than is necessary.  There is a reason for that.  We landed and three soldiers and myself got out.  We unloaded our gear and the bird took off and raced against the weather to get back home to their destination.  Two soldiers from the FOB greeted us and coordinated a gator to pick our belongings up.  Santiago and Jenkins were the first names I learned here at Boris.  I liked them both right from the get go.  Jenkins offered me a ride in the gator and I accepted. Once in he looked at me and said, “best we get out of the kill zone”.  I knew what that meant.  Rockets come here, often.  That is the  first thing I learn here at Boris.  Rockets come in more often than not.  Everywhere there are sings of past hits and there are bunkers all over the place.  It’s a good idea to learn where they are and it is the first thing I was shown.  I’ve been through this a lot in the past in Balad, Iraq.  But this base is small, very small, when a rocket hits, it has a good chance of doing damage to life or limb.  I learned right away where to take cover.  The rockets come from the hills that surround us.  Especially from the hills on the Pakistan border. 


After getting my things collected I was taken to “guest lodging”.  It is very good accommodations and has it’s own private toilet, outside.  I’m in a room that has 14 bunk beds in it as well as some cots.  There is no one else at this time staying in this room.  It looks like a building that my friend who is a Mennonite used to build and sell for sheds, only this is about twice that size.  It is just fine and has air conditioning.  It also does not leak.  It is a fine place to stay especially this far out in the sticks.  After getting my things put up I was taken over to the TOC and introduced to Captain Watson the company commander and Captain Corbett, the XO.  I sat and talked with them for quite some time.  I immediately decided that I would not go any further than FOB Boris.  These guys are whom I want to be among.  They just have it together and figured out right away who I am and why I am here.  It did not take long. 


They summoned for Sgt. Doyle and in a short while later he appeared.  It had happened.  I found Bryan Doyle in Afghanistan.  It only took me 16-days, half a world, 2-commercial flights, (United Air Lines and Luftansa) one C-5 flight, one C-130 flight, one Dash 8 flight and one helicopter flight to pull it off.  As I said earlier, it would not take me long to realize it was worth every step. 


I soon spent some hours talking with Sgt. Bryan Doyle and getting my own personal brief on things in this area.  No one could ask for a better person to be briefed by.  We talked on the east end of the FOB looking at the mountains that lead to Pakistan.  I took some pictures of Bryan as we talked, but mostly I listened and listened and listened.  This young man is squared away.  I am in good company.  I don’t think there are many people that get to have their own personal soldier tell them what’s going on and how to survive.  It is impossible to convey what we talked about, it’s just too lengthy.  Suffice it to say that a soldier that comes here learns a lot, and learns rather quickly what’s going on. 


After a long while, Bryan took me around camp and introduced me to everyone he ran into.  Everyone here knows each other.  It is a small place, but big enough to take a bit of time to walk around.  I was shown the DFAC and the MWR facility.  Both are small but functional and get the job done.  I did some emails, tried calling on the phones that are working intermittently these days.  I went to chow at 1700 hrs and spent more time over a cup of coffee with Bryan.  I learned more about this man, this soldier and his family. 


I asked him to come by later on in the evening to where I am staying so I could do an audio interview on him.  He agreed and later that night we sat down and talked a bit about some things.  It was a fun interview and we touched on some light things and some serious things.  Bryan is scheduled to go on leave at this very time but is at the mercy of the weather at the moment.  He has been cancelled already once this morning.  It is possible he will get cancelled again but eventually he will get out of here for his mid tour leave, or R and R as it is called.  At the same time, his brother Tommy, also a Rakkasan stationed in the area, is scheduled to go on leave.  It is quite amazing that both brothers can be hooked up for leave at the same time.  It’s even more amazing that they are in the same battalion and in the same AO during this deployment.  It is a typical Irish brothers story.  I know for sure their parents are very, very proud of such fine sons.


Sgt Doyle recently encountered an IED while traveling in an RG31, more commonly known as an MWRAP.  He and four others got tossed around quite a bit and were medevaced out to another FOB for treatment.  All are ok, this time.  But it was a serious incident.  This is what happens out here.  It seems to me to be a bit more important news-wise than whether Lindsy Lohan is getting in or out of jail these days.  Sometimes I cringe at what our priorities are back home.


I spent the rest of the late afternoon and into the early evening mingling around camp and getting to know folks.  I had chi with some of the cultural advisors that work here and other soldiers and civilians joined us up high on a platform overlooking the FOB and the surrounding area.  This is a good place to be at moments like this.  I knew it would be like this here.  I just had to get here. 


Late in the evening Bryan came over and we did the audio interview.  Then after that was done we talked for a long, long time.  It’s just one of those times that cannot be explained.  I got to know him a bit better and I told him my story about my life.  I am glad I came to see Sgt. Bryan Doyle.  It was our mutual friend, former Sgt. Thoma DeCarlo who initially hooked me up.  Both of these warriors are good friends of mine.  I can only try to tell the stories of such men, such friends.  I can snap a few photos and try to capture one that will convey even more about them.  But in all  honesty, one just has to make the journey and see for themselves. 


That is what I had to do.  It is hard to explain, but I’m trying my best to do so, for this is, “The Last Journey”. 


Jim Spiri Last Journey