The Last Journey

Article #8 “Simply Salerno


01 August 2010, Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, Sunday evening…It is dark now and all the outside lights are off.  It’s been a very long day and I’m short on rest.  But I must write to keep the mind in good working order.  It is an exercise that must be maintained every day.  I am now at what is simply called, “Salerno”. I like it here. A lot.


Nine years ago, I picked this spot on the map of Afghanistan and determined that this would be the place to come to base out of if and when I ever came to Afghanistan.  In March of 2002, my son Jimmy, was a door gunner with B-159, a Chinook unit  deployed out of Hunter Army Airfield, in Savannah, Ga.  His unit was very involved doing troop insertion and extractions during what is known to as, “Operation Anaconda”.  I remember watching reports of what was going on at that time in the middle of the night while living in Hawaii, working at a helicopter company.  Today, as I gaze towards the mountains to the west and pinpoint on a map exactly where I am standing at the moment, I realize that I am approximately 35-miles east of where my son Jimmy was during that operation.  Looking at the map again, I realize I will be embedding with a unit approximately 35-miles due south of that same area where my son was getting his first taste of war at age 21.  That was a “hot” area then, and reports today that I hear from exactly the area I will be going to tell me that it is still a volitile area.  I also have located on the map that I will be embedded approximately 25-miles southwest of the area where Pat Tillman was killed.


Now I know approximately where I am and where I will be.  Amazing how I can take nine years to pull off a plan to come see up close and personal terrain that I only could read about intently during critical times for our family.  I knew a long time ago I had to come to see the base here at Salerno.


I had to leave the accomodations at Bagram last night at 0130 in the morning only to be told to wait in the pax terminal until 0530 when my flight was scheduled to leave.  Getting around Afghanistan via air these days is not an easy task for anyone, including all the soldiers.  The pax terminal was jam packed with mostly soldiers going here and there as well some civilians intermixed throughout the area.  In short, it was a real mess.  I should have taken a photo but I was hesitant to not upset the apple cart.  Better to ask permission for those kinds of photos.  However, I can tell you that I saw literally scores and scores of soldiers in full battle gear all crashed out on the floor sleeping with no room left in the terminal waiting area.  Then, out of nowhere, an Air Force person came over the loud speaker and blarred out, “THERE WILL BE NO SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR IN THE PASSENGER TERMINAL”, twice.  Now, I heard that, and thought to myself, “that’s ridiculous”.  These guys had been here for hours on end, just like me, we were all tired and still had a long night ahead of us to wait. 


Well, one by one, each soldier got up, rubbed his/her eyes and began gathering their things that had been turned into makeshift bedding supplies, and stood up against the walls like supports holding up the entire structure .  I will not forget the scene in Bagram that night, July 31, 2010, between the hours of 0130-0530 when a lot of people were trying to get to their locations they had been assigned to during this “surge” in Afghanistan.  Now I am no genius or war planner, but, I would think someone may order a plane or two more to handle some overload traffic of incoming soldiers into country to do battle with the enemy. I think that’s probably an Air Force thing.


Going to bed down for the evening.


02 August 2010, FOB Salerno, Afghanistan, 0920 hrs, Monday


I woke up this morning to the loud speaker blarring out, “STAY IN YOUR BUNKER, STAY IN YOUR BUNKER”.  That means from my past experiences in Iraq that somebody is or was lobbing some rockets or mortars into camp.  My entire sleeping area is surrounded by concrete blast walls and I figured it was best to just stay where I was.  Besides, I really had to pee and did not want to go wandering around looking for a porta potty and then have some rocket land on it and thus taking me out while urinating.  That would be quite embarrasing after all these miles.  I’m thankul for empty water bottles in my room which come in handy for such occassions!

After the all clear sounded, I got up, coordinated my things and went walking towards the chow hall as everybody does here in the morning.  On the way I came across the place where the incoming projectile had impacted.  I had seen this hundreds of times in the past in Balad.  I’m back in the war zone.  I think it was my own personal welcoming barrage.  “Spiri’s here!”

I ate breakfast which was fruit and a potatoe cake, and a cup of black coffee.  I’m good to go for the day now.  Yesterday, I spent a bit of time walking over to the shower area and getting a real good shower and cleaning up with no rush to it.  Then, I located the area where one can do self service laundry which I found fantastic.  I couldn’t believe it, a place where a dozen free washing machines and dryers, with some free soap lying around, all made available for people like me to get their clothes cleaned.  Never before was I so excited to do laundry.  I only hope my wife doesn’t know how much I can actually do the laundry all by myself…!  I’ve pretty much got her convinced that I would break the $1000 front end loader we have at home if I have to do it.  Probably she knows me well enough though and figures it’s just another one of my tricks to get her to do everything for me.  I admit it, I’m spoiled. But I like it.

Here in Salerno, I have friend whom I worked with for two years in Balad, Iraq on the flight line.  His name is Anthony Brown.  He’s my oldest daughter’s age and is also an Army veteran.  He’s a smart young man but always picks the wrong NFL football team to follow.  He’s originally from Philadelphia and I forever have razzed him about Donavan McNabb and his “choking” ability in the big games.  Anthony takes his sports seriously and when I razz him like that, he gives me this stern look that says, “Mr. Spiri, you know better than to say that”.  I really love seeing Anthony and talking with him about world situations.  He’s one of the most informed folks that carries on a good dialog with me about all kinds of domestic and international issues.  I’ve stayed in email contact with him over the years and had given him an heads up that I would be passing through Salerno on my way out into the mountains. 

Yesterday, I ran into him at the chow hall after sending him an email that I was on base.  It was really a good thing to spend time with him.  We ate breakfast and stayed an extra hour just catching up on things.  He’s doing well here and has hooked up with a different military contractor doing some important work in an office here at Salerno.  At 33-years-old, Anthony has done very well and has become quite prudent with his earnings and invested wisely.  I fully enjoy his company and felt quite a comradre just being with him.  Another part of this journey seeing more old friends as I pass this way.  There is no doubt that camp Salerno is the best place to be working in Afghanistan as a contractor.  It’s a small base that has everything one needs and the scenery has all the other places that I’ve seen so far in Afghanistan beat, hands down.  Anthony had told me a while back in an email that it was good here.  I knew back in 2001-02, just by looking at a map that it had the potential to be the “perfect place” to work.  I was right.  My friend Anthony convinced me of that.

In the newspaper here, (Stars and Stripes) one of the headlines indicated that the Dutch are the first nation in the coalition to decide to quit the mission here in Afghanistan.  It’s big news to me as it will surely send a signal to the rest of the coalition partners that it’s been long enough doing battle here in Afghanistan.  That’s ashame to me, however, each nation has their own set of circumstances to deal with.  Obviously, this is all part of our having neglected to a point, this area while we were busy in Iraq.  There is no doubt now around the world today, especially after such an announcement by the Dutch, that for America especially, this is the most decisive moment in time concerning our involvement here in Afghanistan.  That is why I am here.  People keep asking me,  “what on earth are you doing there in Afghanistan, Jim?”.  I get these emails constantly.  I love to receive email.  I’m going to answer this question decisively right here on this forum.  Simply put, here in Salerno, a place where all kinds of things have happened in close proximity, “ I JUST HAVE TO BE HERE”.  I feel a deep connection to this mission even though I had the luxury to just armchair it all from my own living room.  I’ve done that before, back in 2001-2002, when my own son was here for the first time as a door gunner fighting for his country after the attacks on 9-11.  As his father, I must see where my generation sent him to keep us safe and free in our own living rooms at home. 

This is what I do.  It’s simple. And I’m in Salerno.  It’s got my name written all over it.  

Jim Spiri Last Journey