The Last Journey
September 29, 2010 KAF
Crossing Borders

It is Wednesday, September 29, 2010. I have been stuck in Kandahar now for six days with no light at the end of the tunnel. I have tried to make the best of a lousy situation. All I can think of is that I would rather be back at COP Turbett pouring cold water over my head to get clean and living a rougher lifestyle with people that care about me rather than have the all the comforts of life that Kandahar Air Field offers and put up with the folks here that really don’t like me. I don’t want to deal with the “city life” again in the middle of the war zone. Basically, I am ruined from here on out. Just the way things play out from time to time.

I never liked clicks and fraternities. That is what the public affairs set up here has turned into for me. I have always told people that I just don’t play well with others and that is for sure coming true currently, again. Such is life. Everyone will get over it at some point in time and as my mother would say, “ a hundred years from now no one is going to remember it anyway.”

Two nights this week, I visited the chapel that is right next door to where I am saying. On the first night there was quire practice and it was absolutely remarkable. I stayed listening to perhaps the best practice session of gospel singers I have yet to hear in person. They were very good and it lifted me up for sure. Even today, I still can hear the singing that I heard that evening two nights ago in my mind. Last night, the same group of folks had a Bible study and once again I enjoyed it thoroughly. During the end part of the study, we had all gathered around in a large circle, joining hands and praying for certain requests from some of those present. At that time, during the prayers, an alarm went off indicating that we had incoming and we all laid on the floor as instructed to. That is the procedure here at KAF and as the prayer continued we all lay there on the ground as the alarms kept blaring. Then, we heard a “boom” and somewhere closer than we thought, the projectile landed. Our prayers continued for the petitions we had mentioned and while this was going on, I just looked around at all these folks, about 40-50 in all, laying on the floor still praying, as I was also doing, and just had a good sense that this was a scene I will not forget. I wanted to have my camera with me but I had left it in my room because I am not allowed to take any photos without someone from the public affairs office escorting me around. It has pretty much taken my motivation away. That has been difficult for me to overcome.

There is no hiding it, I really can’t stand being here. I thought I was coming early to avoid a problem and all I’ve done is run into a problem. I just should have stayed where I was and waited and came later. Once again the logistics of moving around this country is ridiculous at best. But on this one, it is because the folks up in Bagram do not want me around. There has been some bad remarks made towards me from the PAO guys up there and it has spread like leprosy and I am now one of the “untouchables.” I hate it when this type of thing happens but today I found out why.

I’ll get to that later.

Last night, after having been out and about around this place all day and into the early evening, I came back to find three Homeland Security personnel at my doorstep and a female Captain from here at the PAO. Now in all fairness to this female Captain, her name being Capt. LeMountain, she has been the only one that has been willing to give me the time of day among the folks that operate here. Somewhere along the line she heard me and realized (outside the box) that I had a valid point and that it should be a no-brainer to get me on a flight to Germany. But that’s not how the system works and the system does everything it can to make life hell for you because they can and you can do nothing about it. It is a power play and a pissing contest. While in country, they will always win. But, out of country, the pen is mightier than the sword.

Anyway, the three Homeland Security folks along with this Captain were waiting for me to come back to my room. I figured by the looks of things, something was a problem and I had to be somewhere in the middle of it. Turns out on this one I was wrong. Oh, they wanted to see me, but they had requested that I take some photos and audios of some of the 80 or so Soldiers and Marines that were going to gather in the morning over at the boardwalk. Turns out that on Friday, October 1, all these Soldiers and Marines will be receiving their US citizenship on that day and it is a big event. All of these Soldiers and Marines have been working towards this upcoming day since joining up in the US military. The Military makes a huge effort to process these folks’ request for citizenship while they are deployed. It is a big deal. And all of those present have been willingly serving a nation, (USA) that up until this coming October 1, they were not a citizen of.

When these folks from Homeland Security came to the PAO offices to inquire if there was anyone who would be interested in doing this photo op and subsequent audio interviews, the female Captain immediately thought of me. None of the other “media” folks staying here would want to do this because during this time they are being given little assignments here and there that are much more interesting to them than this little assignment about immigration. So, basically, they gave me this “bone” to cover their asses so I can’t say that I had nothing to do. Turns out, little did they know that I actually wanted to do this and there is a special reason behind it all, none of which the folks here know about, or would even care to inquire about.

I am the son of an immigrant on my father’s side. I am also the grandson of a man (on my mother’s side) that came to the USA in 1915 and did exactly what all these other Soldiers and Marines are doing this Friday. I am named after my grandfather. His name was James Joseph Hurley, from Ireland. My son, who is in the Army currently flying helicopters, is also named James Joseph (Spiri). And he has triplet boys, and the third one born is named James Joseph Spiri III. I felt that having the opportunity to do this story and take the photos of current immigrants about to receive their US citizenship in exactly the same manner that my grandfather did, nearly 100-years earlier, would be an honor. So, I agreed to be at the boardwalk area at the prescribed time of 0845 hours the following morning. The only thing was that I had to coordinate to have my “minder” present so I could “legally” take photos and obtain audios while here on KAF. It’s a stupid ass rule, but it is the rule. It is a way to control one. However, they let others go do what they want, whenever they want, but when you have made them angry, by making them actually do the “support” in the media support center title, well, you are now at their mercy and they know it and they love to shove it down your throat.

The problem that I would have this morning would be with the young specialist who was now tasked with “babysitting” me. He did not want to go there at the time I wanted to be there. So, I told him, “oh, I’ll just go over there and wait for you, and if you show up, you show up, if not, I’ll take photos with the Homeland Security guy escorting me…” That statement got his attention and now we would see if he showed up late, or early like I was going to be. I hate it when people mess with me, it brings the worst out in me. But usually it gets people off my back. We’ll see if that happens here in Afghanistan in the days ahead.

While all this is going on, during the past two days, I have had some interesting turn of events take place regarding running into people I know. The odds of all this happening is astronomical, but it has been happening a lot and in one particular case, it is happening because something else is going to happen. Firstly, I ran into some folks I came to know while passing through camp Dwyer on two occasions. Captain Murphy, (US Army) and my friend Mr. McEnery who works with the HST folks, whom I did an audio interview on the night before I left Dwyer. If that wasn’t enough, then came along some of the soldiers I had been embedded with earlier. This really surprised me and I inquired as to the whereabouts of some of the soldiers I knew, in particular, one I had seen in Mosul in 2007 and had come to see him here in Afghanistan in 2010. I had seen him in August. Bryan is his name. I was told where I could find him and after the mornings’ photos and audios, I would make my way over to where he was staying. It’s not too long of a walk and for all practical purposes it is relatively short compared to how big this place actually is.

I would go look up Bryan after the morning photos and audios.

In the morning, I rose early and took a real shower while no one else was awake. After getting all cleaned up, which actually was not all that hard because clean here at KAF is not the same as what I would call being clean at COP Turbett is, I walked over to the chow hall across the street and had a small breakfast and cup of coffee. After that, I read a while in the Word and then wound my way over to the boardwalk area at 0845 only to see the place was already teeming with folks and many were already gathered about. I did not have my “babysitter” with me so I immediately went up to the three Homeland Security guys and began a conversation with them. I decided I would do an audio interview on the official who was heading this up who happens to be one of the guys that showed up on my doorstep last night. I told him that I would like to get some audio of him explaining to the audience what was happening and at the same time I would learn what was happening as well (which that part I did not tell him about).

He asked me what angle I was shooting for and I told him, “no angle, no agenda, just answer the questions I ask, and I will carry you along, not to worry.” I told him that this was not my first rodeo but that I make it up every time. He was lost and before he could figure anything else out, I turned on the audio recorder and began asking his name before he had any more time to think. That is the best way to do these things. Off the cuff.

The crowd of Soldiers and Marines gathered below was right at about 75. I began to mill around a bit and then started taking photos. By now the minders were present and I had clued in the Homeland Security guys that if there was any trouble with me taking photos before the PAO guy got there, that they, (Homeland Security) had better have my back. They assured me they did and I proceeded to take photos of the faces of all those who would be receiving their citizenship in the next two days. As I looked at the faces of those through my view finder, I saw faces of people from all over the world. Everyone of them was in uniform, except for one female, who “forgot” hers. She is actually from Afghanistan and works in Kabul.

I ended up speaking with folks from Nigeria, El Salvador, Jamaica, Honduras, Afghanistan, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Bosnia, Micronesia, Philippines, Mexico and so many other countries too numerous to name. All of these immigrants are and have been serving this nation, which is not yet their nation. All are the same when in uniform. All joined the military voluntarily. I thought about this for a moment. I have been to many countries on this planet. Except for Australia, not one of them did I ever consider joining their military to become a citizen of their country. I did not want to give up calling America my home. However, all the Soldiers and Marines I saw today had freely given up their rights from their home country and joined the military of my country and actually got deployed to the war zone here, long before they even had the opportunity to become a citizen. And as we all know, nothing is a guarantee.

After I completed the interviews on the audio recorder and took a couple more photographs, I pretty much was done with what I wanted to do there. I told my “babysitter” that I would be leaving now and that I would go back to my room like a good boy and not bring my camera out any more today. They smiled and said good bye to me and I was on my way.

Later that afternoon, I happened to go and visit with some Army folks that I had met earlier in this journey in another province. It was amazing that they were here and we chatted for quite some time. I ran into one man whom I had flown down to Salerno with back in August. He had mentioned to me briefly that some folks were not so happy about me having been along when Gen. Petreaus was in town and I happened to be there at the same time. I did not plan it, it just happened to be that way. One of the PAO guys in Salerno thought I had let the cat out of the bag and started a rumor to that effect which now has cast me in the most negative light possible. Therein lies the problem I currently have at the moment. The man I flew with is fine and has no problem with me and had invited me to tag along on anything he may be doing in the future. I told him I would get back with him and that I would let him know how things turn out for me here. In the mean time, I just have to go through stupid little mind games played by very small minded public affairs soldiers who for the most part refuse to do any work involving the word, “support”. One day they will be called on the carpet. Until then, I’m stuck here at lovely Kandahar Air Field along with 30,000 other of my closest friends and neighbors. Got to love the system.

While out on my daily walk about around KAF, I happened upon a place called “Hotel Kandahar” right here on base. Now, much to my surprise, it really is a hotel, but it is made out of the same thing all the other accommodations are and that is shipping containers that have been fabricated into living accommodations. Now, this place looked pretty good from the outside and I decided to walk around the premises not having seen this kind of set up before on a base in the war zone. Much to my surprise the place was rather immaculate especially for having been made of shipping containers. It looked very nice. There were picnic tables around the place on concrete slaps and the design of the place was in such a way that it utilized limited space in an efficient manner. There were actually guests sipping fresh coffee and reading the Stars and Stripes newspapers. All the guests were obviously business people and all looked and smelled of very much money. I decided I would go and find the lobby area and inquire about this place.

I found the lobby, hidden next to a very well placed small PX of sorts that also seemed to be on the hotel premises but was open to the public, unlike the rest of the hotel. In the lobby I ran into a man who was a bit older than me by about 8-years who was from the former country called “Rhodesia”. It is now called something else, but he still calls it by its former name. According to this man who offered me a coffee, he maintains a place in the Canary Islands and works over here doing something, what that is, I surely don’t know. But, the cost of room at this place turns out to be $240 a night. Now, that absolutely astounded me and who would pay those prices is another big question but apparently, a whole lot of people are doing just that and someone is making a fair bit of money. Following that money trail would be a challenge one which I am not up for at the moment. But, if I was younger, that is something I would surely look into and find no doubt, some interesting stuff. But that’s for the younger generation now. I will leave that one alone.

After sipping my coffee in the “Marriott” hotel on Kandahar Air Field, I walked the next 40-minutes back to my room and got out the lap top and began to write for the first time in a few days. I have not been so motivated to do so and it was good to get into the groove again. Later that night, I went over the MWR place and tried to get onto the computers there and check emails. While there a young Spc in the Army stopped me and inquired as to what I was doing earlier in the day at the immigration rehearsal. He said he saw me there and was also one of the ones receiving his citizenship.

When I spoke to this soldier he shocked me a bit because he had a very typical NY accent and I had no idea he would not be a citizen. However, upon looking at his name tag, it was obvious he had an unusual name and upon further inquiry, I found out he was originally from Bosnia and came to this country when he was seven years old, fourteen years ago. We began talking about his experiences where is currently assigned that being at a COP called Najil. He tells me that they take IDF and small arms fire all the time. When we talked further, I learned that being from Bosnia, he was also a Muslim. I knew the history of Bosnia and had suspected that he may be a Muslim but I decided to go deeper with him into his experience. I am glad I did.

We spoke a long time about his being a soldier in Afghanistan, becoming a citizen and him being a Muslim and combining all the variables into one very good conversation. I told him that I wanted to know what it is like being a Caucasian looking Muslim in the US Army, deployed to Afghanistan with many other young men and hearing slurs regarding “typical Muslims” in a general way. He knew exactly what I was asking about and he proceeded to tell me that many of his fellow soldiers didn’t even know he was a Muslim until recently. He is a member of the Connecticut National Guard and very much wants to put his Warrant Officer packet in and learn to fly helicopters for the Army. He has such a spark in his eye mingled with a typical NY style accent and personality about things that speaking with him was a real eye opener in a down to earth manner. After speaking with this Spc I came to realize that all of us have some preconceived notions or opinions about many things. This young man, who will become a citizen of the USA on Friday, October 1, opened my eyes to what even I have in my heart without knowing all aspects of someone’s life history. All of us are guilty at one time or another of grouping all people of a certain this or that into one lump sum and not coming out with the correct answer. I learned a lot from a 21-year old specialist who came to this country at the age of 7 and many years later joined the Connecticut National Guard and wound up deployed to Afghanistan fighting for my freedom long before he even becomes a citizen. That is an interesting twist to my day that will keep me pondering certain things long after I leave this place.

I came back to my room and got ready for bed for it was now close to midnight. I would get up early the next day and follow up on a couple more interviews of immigrants that were rehearsing for the ceremony that will be held in Friday. This is how my day ended at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan on September 29, 2010.

Jim Spiri