The Last Journey
October 1, 2010 Bagram Air Field
The Last Leg

It is Friday, October 1, 2010. I am at Bagram Air Field. It is a little after 9:30 AM in the morning. The air is cool, but warming up fast and the sky is clear. I can see the mountains surrounding this place once again. Some of them at the top are covered in snow. It is quite scenic, from a distance. I am in a room that I have been in before. The journey is ending. There is still half a world to travel through but the last leg is nearing. The previous night was long and a little complicated but things may becoming more simple if all goes as I think it will.

On Thursday, September 30, I finally asked the PAO guys what their plans were for me. A week earlier they had told me I had to stay around until the end of September before they could try to fix things up concerning my travel to Germany or wherever they decided I would go. The folks up in Bagram did not want to have another “media” person, they had been dealing with the Afghan media and that took up their time. It was decided to go over the top for the Afghans and let the American (me) just wait. In the mean time, I was not allowed to do any other embeds. The American had to yield to other Americans taking care of Afghans. This posed a problem for me, but there was nothing I could do about it. I had lost this hand in this card game that I refused to play along with any longer.

The Soldiers from the 101st, including my friend Bryan Doyle, had arrived in Kandahar staging to participate in a large scale operation. I did not know they were coming and was completely shocked to see them. I had some conversation with the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Harmon and he invited me along if I could arrange to come. The PAO folks had told me no already. I had the thought that I could just ride with the soldiers and then the PAO folks would not have to arrange any flights out to the location. However, this would pose an additional problem for me that being not having orders that coincide with my stay and basically, the embed would be one I invented and not them. It was all a mess stemming from the PAO folks in Salerno that caused a problem for me. When I ran into Capt. Watson in Kandahar, he told me he had gotten in trouble (almost as he put it) when he had come to receive his award from Gen. Petreaus. I was invited along and once in Salerno, well, that’s where all the problems began due to CBS News. I was getting worn down by the system. The hassels suck.

I began to see that the buffet of experiences ahead of me would just keep getting larger and larger and at some point in time, I just had to jump off and say, “I’m done. I went this far and that’s it.” It bothered me that it had come to this but the continual hassle of being an “outsider” so to speak and now the public affairs folks in Kandahar had made it absolutely clear to me that no matter what I wanted to do it was not going to happen. Game over is what I perceived.

In the afternoon I went over to the soldiers that I knew as more of them began arriving from Paktika province preparing for the impending large scale operation which I figured was soon to be taking place. Already the Army’s push in Kandahar province had been under way and reports of casualties were mounting. It was not going to be a pretty site. As I watched familiar faces going by me and people saying hello, I began to think about what the future held for some of these soldiers. I had talked with my friend James Butcher and had talked with my friend Bryan and both told me that this was going to be exactly what Army infantrymen are trained to do. The main worry for everyone however was the IED threat. The place is completely littered with IED’s and folks are getting blown up every day, left and right. It is treacherous.

The operation was going to be one of a “no holds barred” type. This is the surge and the pressure is on. A lot of things are weighing heavily on this and the Taliban are putting up a strong resistance and seem to be flooding in from Pakistan. At the time of this writing, Pakistan is a severe problem. In recent days, some reported incursions across the border areas have occurred and some Pakistani troops have been killed. In retaliation, Pakistan has closed a supply route road that a large amount of needed supplies flow daily to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. The ratcheting up of tensions continues as the days press on. It is good autumn weather now and the oppressive heat has gone. It is a good time for war to be waged. That’s what it looks like to me.

In the evening of the 29th word was brought to me that my flight had changed yet once again. It seems as though the more journalists that arrive at the center in Kandahar, the more my flight seems to get arranged. Bring all the others in, give them whatever they want, and get Spiri out of here and out of the country because he has forced the issue about going out through Germany. Many may dispute this, but, that’s the way it went down and I was there. So, I was told to be ready at 2300 hrs and I would be taken over to the ramp for a Space A flight to Bagram. I took a shower, cleaned up real well, got my things all packed up and was ready to go.

That evening I went across the street to listen to a church service one more time. It is with the folks I had been spending some time with in the evenings, mostly some black brothers and sisters in the Lord. There is no doubt in me that having been set up right next door to this chapel place, turned out to be a blessing and I was very happy to have that at my disposal. They meet at least four times a week, and I was able to meet with them three of those times during my week stay there. After that, I returned to my room and finalized all my getting ready to depart. One of my roommates returned from having been gone for about four days. I had asked the PAO guys if I could spend time down at the dust off unit on the flight line. They had told me nobody is allowed to do that. When my roommate from Reuters got back, he told me that is where he had been for the past four days. I figured it was just another one of those slams in my face because they can. It’s ok, I talked with the Reuters guy and he showed me his photos which were devastatingly profound and quite good to say the least. However, he got reprimanded for taking a certain photograph of a soldier whose legs were blown off on September 30th, which is today. It is a gruesome set of photos, but, it is one that perhaps many should see. When you see war up close, it is not a pretty picture. Perhaps it would speed things up if more of those types of photos were released. He was censored, and I was not. He is able to continue his embed, I have not been allowed to re-embed. It is a strange system we have in place. I don’t quite get it at times. I believe I would have taken the same photo, but I would not have published it. I would have given it to the wounded soldier, if he wanted it. And I would have given it to him for free. I have a hard time with someone making money on the backs of dead or wounded Soldiers and Marines. That I think is perhaps the worst kind of war profiteering there is. I could not do that. But I could take the picture.

I was taken to the pax terminal at around 11-PM. Once I got there, they told me I was not in the system, which is exactly what I had asked the PAO guys to be sure and avoid. They told me that I would be in the system. Now, as usual, trying to get the Army and the Air Force all on the same page was going to be a task. And, I also needed several copies of my orders. I had asked for that before, and they had told me I only needed one. Well, as usual, I needed more, so I had the “babysitter” go back to the office and bring me a few more copies of my orders because the Air Force refuses to make copies for passengers. It is all about money and budgets and in this case, it’s about the cost of paper. Go figure. Roll call for the flight was momentarily and the babysitter for me had to go back and get the orders or he knew he would have to take care of me again and he did not want to do that. After a short while, he returned and had five copies of orders in hand.

He left me there and that was the end of my time with the PAO folks in Kandahar on what was now my third visit to Kandahar. I processed through the waiting area along with ten other passengers and we were all led to the waiting area upstairs where we would wait for another two hours. Then, we were taken to a bus and loaded onto a bus, luggage and all and driven to what seemed like the other side of Afghanistan. Turns out, the C-17 we would be going on to Bagram, had parked out in what is called the “hot spot” because it was carrying ammunition. For safety reasons, those loads are unloaded in at a remote part of the flight line which in this case was half way around the world.

Now, the reason I am detailing all of this is because five years ago, I worked on the flight line with the Air Force doing exactly what these young Air Force ramp folks are doing now. Taking care of passengers. Everything they were doing and what they were saying was very familiar to me and I felt like I was back at work having turned the clock back to 2004, in Balad, Iraq. One thing I noticed was different. All passengers have luggage and if there are less than 15-passengers on a flight, a baggage pallet is not built. Therefore, the passengers have to carry their own bags, except when I was working the flight line I always made a provision to help all Soldiers and Marines, both male and female, get their bags loaded onto the bus. It is an obstacle that goes much smoother when there is help. But, what I noticed as I always notice on flight line services wherever I go, the Air Force folks doing the jobs I used to do, especially the young guys, REFUSE to assist any Soldier or Marine, but, I noticed that when there is Air Force personnel as passengers, they seem to have an inside track on pickup trucks and other nice things to get their bags loaded. A little help goes a long way. I was fine with my gear, but there were a few female soldiers that were struggling with their gear and it was all they could do to get their luggage on the bus while the young Air Force males just sat there listening to their loud music. That part bothers me all the time. This becomes that pen and sword cliché again where the pen gets to be mighter than the sword.

Due to lack of communication between the C-17 crew and ground handlers taking us, the passengers, we drove all the way out to the plane only to be told to come back in 90-minutes. I’ve seen that happen a lot. Sometimes it makes me think it is done on purpose just to prove a point. I see a lot of that in the arena out here and saw a lot of that also in Iraq. If I could wave a wand and make some things better, it would be simple things like all working together on the same page for the same mission with passion. That is the part I really like about being around the Marines. They have to stick together, there just is not so many of them. So they learn from the get-go to get things done when they need getting done and they do it together, no questions asked.

Eventually we were taken back out to the plane and loaded onto this C-17, all eleven passengers. That meant the plane was pretty much empty heading up to Bagram having dropped its load off in Kandahar coming in from what I believe was Incirlik, Turkey. It will go to Bagram for further assignment and it was made available to passengers who were in need of getting to Bagram. That is the way it is supposed to work, but forecasting that an empty plane is headed to Bagram is not something I have seen much of. The flight was pretty much uneventful, which is a good thing flying around the sky at 600-miles an hour.

We landed in Bagram and no one processed us in. That was different. I then went to the counter as I was instructed to do and told them what I needed to have happen. I had to deal with an overweight civilian who works for a company called ITT. He had it as his main goal to say to me, “NO! You cannot go to Germany.” So I just pushed it a little more and then he went to get the Air Force person, (like I had requested in the first place) and brought this E-8 fellow out who went back in the room and then came back out and told me to come back at 10:30 at night for show time. It would be a medevac flight. He also quizzed me about entering the country from Ramstein and customs and all that stuff. They soon realized they needed to put me on a flight to Germany, preferably a medevac.

At that, I found the number to the PAO offices here in Bagram and Spc. Randolph came and picked me up. He directed me to my room and we chatted small talk a bit before he headed back to his room. It was now just an hour or so before sunrise. It was October 1, 2010. I was once again, for the third time, at Bagram Air Base. I took my shoes off and fell asleep for a few hours.

Jim Spiri