The Last Journey

Article #10 “A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures”


04 August 2010, Forward Operating Base Salerno, AfghanistanIt’s Wednesday, August 4, 2010. I’ve been on the go since July 21st and I’m still not at my final, first destination.  Weather has played a major role in this part of the delay.  It has been raining off and on for three days and the area I’m trying to get to is not accessible via helicopter in such inclement weather.  Word is that clearing may be on the horizon.  It cleared up here for a while, partly, but then clouded up a bit again.  It is very muggy here with high humidity which I was not counting on prior to leaving stateside.  For some reason I thought it would be more arid.  Maybe later it will be.  FOB Salerno itself is kind of in a bowl and when weather like this hits, it creates its’ own kind of circumstances.  It’s a very good chance that where I need to get to is crystal clear, but getting to it is another story.  The weather here reminds me very much of the conditions on the Big Island of Hawaii where I used to work at the helipad for Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.  But nobody in those days was trying to lob rockets at the pad.


I’ve been busy while being stuck here at Salerno.  Like I’ve said before, it’s not a bad place to be stuck.  I like it here, it’s just not where I’m supposed to be at this point in time.  I decided to inquire about doing some stories on some things I’m familiar with.  The requests have been sent up the chain and in the mean time, I was able to speak with some soldiers who are doing their parts to assist the war fighters.  My first group I spoke with were men from the 82nd Airborne who were artilery men. Sgt. Mabry walked me through their operation and detailed exactly what is involved with their job when the call comes. There were seven soldiers including Sgt. Mabry on a team, all hard of hearing, (not) and they gave me a quick run through of how the big gun works.  These guys run a tight ship and are ready at the drop of a hat to do their thing and launch their package all within a 30-second time frame.  It was fun talking with them and I recorded the interview on audio recorder. 


My next folks that I spoke with were Army reservists from Georgia that were manning the Ammo Supply Point. SSGT Sascha Haaf and SGT Chris J. Dilday, both with the 802nd Ord Co (Ammo) sat down with me and told me for some time about their work here. These guys handle all the ammo that comes into here at Salerno and distribute it to outlying FOB’s in this area.  They told me they have noticed a big increase in the workload and it’s attributed to the current build up for the surge of troops dispatched to Afghanistan.  I interviewed these guys as well with the audio recorder and have it available. 


After the ASP guys, I was taken over to the EOD folks with CJTF Paladin, the guys who take care of IED’s.  This was an interesting conversation and it was related to my friend Rob back in Bagram.  He’s very involved with this topic.  SSGT Ryan Williams is who I spoke with here, as was getting ready to go on R and R soon and spent time telling me a bit about his job.  He told me lots of comparisons between this deployment and a previous one here in Afghanistan.  Things are worse now.  These guys are busy.  I also recorded this interview on the digital audio machine I carry with me now at all times. 


In the evening, I received word that a helicopter rescue mission had taken place for Afghan locals here in Khost province.  After it was over I went and talked to Lt. Col. Musiol, an Apache pilot and Captain Cal, a Blackhawk pilot.  Both explained to me how with all the rains the past couple days, especially today, the wash areas from the rivers swelled rapidly like flash flooding and several dozen locals got trapped.  The Blackhawks coordinated with the Apaches for escorts as well as the Kiowas scouting the area, and proceeded to rescue nearly 50-people stranded in rapidly rising waters and got them to dry land.  I also recorded all of this interview with my digital audio recorder.


All the audios are available for anyone who wants to hear them.


During my time here, figuring out what I can and cannot do, I befriended some locals here.  I had “chi” or tea with some the other night and this evening I went over to their area and took a few photos just to get them to warm up to me.  It worked and if I’m here longer, I will keep going over to them and get some more photos.  So, I’ve now made friend over at the Bazzar, over at the place where the locals that work on base live, and I’ve made a very important good friend.  He is educating me greatly about his country.  He is by far one of “sharpest” people I’ve met on any journey I’ve taken.  His name in his native tongue means, “Sword of God”.  Meeting this person has itrigued me to the uttermost.


He is 27-years-old and one of eight children.  His job here is what is termed, “cultural advisor”.  His family owns the local media station in Khost. I have spent hours speaking with him.  He works here at the office where I stay and manages five other people, all men from town.  He has told me so many things about this country and it’s history and what is going on currently, that I just cannot assimilate all of it.  What I do know is that never before have I been so impressed with such a one whose dialog keeps me fully interested in wanting to understand this place called Afghanistan.  I told him I knew nothing of his country prior to the events of 9-11-01.  He understood.  We talked much about the time frame that he was born which was 1983.  His father had told him what it was like when the Russians came.  Is a matter of fact, the base that I am on right now, Salerno, was built by the Russians during that time. 


“Sword”, as I will call him, told me that in those days, many thought that things would be wonderful under the Russians.  No one ever thought they would leave and no one ever thought they could be defeated, being such a big powerful country in those days.  But then the Mujahadeen overcame the Russians, with a huge amount of help from the Americans compliments of Congressman Charlie Wilson, and by 1988, the Russians exited in defeat. 


But then, no one stepped in to fill the void and by the latter 90’s the Taliban had taken over.  Then came the events of 9/11 and the Americans came in force and defeated the Taliban.  They were pushed out fast and decisively.  But once again, a slack time occurred and the Americans were very busy with Iraq.  Corruption filled the ranks of the Afghan government. Pakistan continued to stir up the Taliban.  Pakistan seems to be the real trouble maker in this complicated equation.  “Sword” explained to me late one night how his people, the Pashtun, have been used by so many entities and agencies that now they are looking to protect themselves.  The Pashtun are the majority, but much of the Army now in Afghanistan is made up of non Pashtun folks.  The ethnic breakdown in this country is way too complicated to explain in this forum.  But one does begin to see how it is just by listening. 


There is no doubt that tribal loyalties run deep and wide in this country.  It would take nearly forever to learn it all, but I believe it must be learned.  My friend “Sword” has stayed up late at night educating me better than anything I’ve ever heard on PBS or some other documentary.  “Sword” has been fiercely loyal to the Amerian “guests” in his country.  He has ambitions to travel outside of his homeland.  If I could, I would take him with me and  take him all around my country and have people listen to this man.  He is the next generation who is rapidly aging beyond his years.  He has seen nothing but war and stife his entire life, yet has maintained a high level of sophistication and understanding of how things truly are.  He tells me how much he enjoys political science.  I tell him how I think he should be an ambassador or something of that nature.  He tells me that now, the Taliban have returned for a variety of reasons.  Many ask now, “what will the Americans do now?”  Will they stay or will they leave a job unfinished.  He gives me a look that much depends on what is going on right now.  It is a critical time in Afghanistan.


Talking with my friend “Sword” these past few days has made me feel that being stuck in Salerno has been a very good thing for me.  I do not think I would have had such an understanding as I have now this early on during this journey to Afghanistan.  Although I am extremely tired and quite worn out and anxious about going to my next stop to fulfill my plans, I am quite happy to have been stuck here in Salerno meeting and conversing with my friend “Sword”.


I am sure Afghanistan will become even more intriguing and more captivating as each day goes on.  However if my journey ended tomorrow, I would have been fully satisfied just to have met this man who is what Afghanistan is all about.  I am a photographer, but this man’s wise and experienced filled words conveyed thousands of pictures for me about Afghanistan, more than I could ever take with a camera. It has become a photographic memory in my being. 


Jim Spiri Last Journey