Monday, December 19, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 11: Everything here is broken

Nate's blog: Dec 19
The last week or two has been so busy, and now here Xmas is right around the corner! Our unit has been flooded with care packages, so much so that I’ve had to expand my “morale” area with new shelves. I also received a Christmas tree, which is decorated with lights and ornaments supporters have sent. Speaking of Christmas, we FINALLY got all of the presents ordered for our family. FYI family, you might not get everything by the 25th. It’s sooo hard to order stuff out here. Also I want to thank Margaret from St James School for all the letters her students sent! The Marines here love them, and we have some of them up on the walls (pictures coming soon). Thank you!

Apparently half of the supplements we use are deadly. Nice to know. Some military study just came out, with a loooong list of supplements that cause heart attacks and all kinds of other unpleasantness. If you are taking anything with “DMAA” FYI, you are apparently living on borrowed time. And here I was excited about all the gains I’ve been making at the gym! As I’ve increased my workouts, I’ve found it’s harder and harder to keep up the running. So far I’ve been able to keep a balance with 4-6 mile runs, but I’d like to go back to long-distance runs once I get back home. Why can’t I be big AND fast???

The adventures had been going so smoothly up until a few days ago. Our first River City in like 3 weeks! So much for going a whole month without someone dying or losing limbs. You know, a lot of Marines get all gung-ho and hard core about killing terrorists, but honestly after multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, most of these guys can’t wait for 2014 to come and go so they won’t have to worry about Afghanistan anymore. Australia is going to host Marine training now, and our guys can’t wait for that! Australian women like Marines haha. I’m looking forward to submitting my Embassy Guard package soon and getting out of the desert all together!

So I was on a 2-day adventure over the weekend, expecting the same boringness that December had shown so far. It started smoothly enough. I met a Marine from New York whose job involved driving trucks. No one in his family had served in the military, but he knew since high school that he had to serve. When I asked why the Marines, he replied, “If you are going to go for something, you may as well go for the best”. Good answer. This was his first deployment, but due to his job had already seen more of the country than most people on their 2nd or 3rd. We struck up a conversation about how when the Afghan soldiers wear boots, they have them loose and untied. It was weird and seemed almost like a fashion statement. And all of the civilians wear sandals everywhere they go. He said he had never seen any of them with socks either. That must be why the boots are so loose, you kind of have to wear socks with them or you tear your feet up! The culture here is very strange. In some ways they are almost modern, but in most, it’s like going back in time a thousand years. He felt the same, and said that everything here is broken. It’s hard to argue, this whole area is kind of crappy. Crumbling walls, broken down vehicles on the side of the road, ancient mud walls and structures that look like the ruins of some ancient civilization, it looks like they just don’t care about their country, about themselves. I’m sure in some parts of the country it is different, in some parts there are lights and TV and people wear socks and go to school and talk on cell phones, but in this part of the country, they seem to be content to live in the dirt and mud. It’s too bad for them, that the bad guys want to force their beliefs on them, because none of us would have any problem leaving them to their lives.

The truck driver and I parted ways, and I continued on my adventure. I stayed in a tent with a contractor, a civilian electrician who had been hired by the US for a gazillion dollars to work here and improve the bases. He had a satellite phone, internet, and nice warm clothes. Ahh to be a civilian again… His wife had just had a baby, so they were Skyping and talking every day. He was on a one year contract, his son would probably be walking before he saw him in person again. He was pretty sad about it, but looking forward to the money the job would provide for his family. Plus, he got to miss out on those crazy sleepless nights from living with a newborn child, the worst part he says. So I learned a couple things. I learned that if Saija and I were to ever decide to have a baby, I should volunteer for a deployment right away. Unrelated, but I also learned it’s very hard to pee in combat gear. Also, I learned that it’s not a good idea to stand too close to Afghani coffee makers. One of the chaplains got soaked with hot coffee while he stood next to the machine and it exploded! I don’t think he was sleepy anymore haha.

That wasn’t the end of my lessons on my 2 day journey though! While I was out with one of the platoons, returning to my FOB, we had to pass through the local bazaar. Normally this isn’t a big deal, we do it all the time, and it’s a festive, fun place. Not today. Right before we enter it we hear on the radio that there is a suicide bomber in the area, and to be on the lookout for anyone “suspicious”. Oh, you mean like someone all wrapped up in robes that look nervous around a bunch of Marines with itchy trigger fingers? Yeah, thanks for the warning. Well Marines don’t let anything silly like a suicide bomber stand in our way, so we keep going. The bazaar was nothing like it normally is. Everyone is quiet, pensive, and won’t look at us. All of a sudden we start getting the “thumbs down” sign from people, which is NOT normal. Our hands grip our rifles a little bit tighter, the muzzles rise a little bit higher, and we move a little bit faster, on the alert for anyone “suspicious”. We made it through the bazaar unscathed, maybe we weren’t a good enough target for the bomber, or maybe he had to stop to re-tie his boots. Whatever the reason, I was happy to be back behind the walls of the FOB!

This week officially marks our halfway point to heading home! I cannot wait, and I am so happy that we have made it this far. The first Vegas trip is already planned (our late Marine Corps Ball), and we will be staying at the Paris hotel! I’m going to drink a yard long margarita and probably die. But better that way with a pretty lady, than here in the dirt alone. I won’t have another update before Christmas as I will be on a longer adventure, so Merry Xmas and happy Yule to you all!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 10: Christmas, cars, and rumor mills

Nate's blog: Dec 4
As I write this, I am all decked out in my cold weather gear and body armor, looking like some apocalyptic war hero from the future. I don’t feel like a war hero though, but a tired Marine. Just a few minutes ago I crossed through the ECP onto my FOB, trudging my way back to this computer after a day of “adventuring”. It was a nice walk though, a clear night with a bright moon and countless stars shining above me (When you are away from the city and all that urban pollution, the night is SO much brighter). It gives the landscape such an eerie, otherworldly look. In a good way. So now I am back, ready to write another post, heat up some soup for a late-night dinner, email a pretty girl, and fall asleep, where for at least a few hours I will be away from Afghanistan.

Happy December! In just a couple short weeks, we will be at our halfway point in the deployment. We’ve also received a FLOOD of care packages lately, and it looks like this is our last trip to Afghanistan. So spirits are very high. Christmas is on everyone’s mind right now, the MWR tent has been crazy busy with Marines logging onto the computers and ordering presents for their loved ones. While we all wish we could be home enjoying the holidays, we have our own sort of holiday season here. Instead of fighting traffic jams and waiting to find a parking spot in the mall, we have long MWR lines. Instead of getting gifts in wrapping paper and bows, we have care packages in the oh so creative USPS boxes. Instead of those drives through the neighborhood to look at Xmas lights and decorations, we go on convoys and patrols to look for bad guys and IED’s. We are doing what we can to make xmas on our FOB too. In many of our care packages we have gotten decorations, lights, cards and candy canes. I even have a tree being sent to me! With every day it gets a little more “Christmassy” here.

Speaking of Christmas, some of my family still has to give me their list of what they want. You know who you are! You’re going to get a sack of Afghanistan rocks if I don’t here from you. Saija has gotten almost all of her presents. It was a lot of fun ordering her stuff, haha I have such a unique and creative wife! I also ordered a couple things for myself. One was a collage picture frame, to put in some of the pictures my wife and mother-in-law sent me. Also a movie making program for my computer. In high school I was really into Broadcast Journalism; video taping events, editing and creating movies. I’d like to play around with it a little bit more.

While we all are excited about the holidays, everyone here agrees that winter at least, should be over. It’s gone from cool to feeling like we are at the North Pole! All we need now is some snow. Mountain Warfare Training in Bridgeport was colder, but then again, that was only for a month or so. I had to break out my cold weather gear for the first time today. The good news with that is we should be getting attacked less now. It’s getting to be too cold for guys who fight in robes and sandals.

The rumors are all over the place about what is going on after this deployment. Some of them are good, some bad, others are just dumb. It’s amazing what some Marines will believe. Personally, I’m hoping that my unit isn’t going anywhere for a long time. That means Saija and I might be able to leave the desert early! Going on a MEU would be better than Afghanistan, but 7 months away from your family is still 7 months, no matter where you are (Saija don’t let me forget, I have an update to this that I need to tell you about!). Now that we are approaching the turnaround point, it’s going to be time for me to start planning for life after Afghanistan. The decision I’m dreading is shopping for a new car! I sold mine right before I left (it was a POS and kept breaking). The drunk driver who crashed into it the week before I left only helped encourage me to get rid of it. But now I have to get a new one. Unless Saija wants to drive me to work every morning. What do you think Saija? Haha there are soooo many choices out there. I’m thinking of sticking with a Mustang (but maybe not a convertible). I don’t want to spend tons of money though, especially if I’m not deploying again. Haha does anyone want to buy me a car?

Deployments are so good for saving money. While I don’t want to blow it all on a car, we’ve done pretty good at saving so far. In a month or so, we’ll have max’ed out the deployed military Savings Deposit Program (10% interest!), and I have money going from each paycheck into the TSP (think military 401k). Plus all the bills are getting paid off! Being in Afghanistan sure does suck, but we will be financially a lot better off soon.

Everything has been pretty quiet lately, at least on our end. Less firefights, but more IED’s. We are still in River City a lot, but things have been noticeably slower. Hopefully as it gets colder the IED attacks will slow down as well. We have just a few months left, and we all want to get home safely. Speaking of which, I just found out later this week I will be on an “adventure” for a few days. Fingers crossed that I will be back with new pictures and new stories, or that at least I will be back.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 9: Giving Thanks

Nate's blog: Nov 24

Since 1621, Thanksgiving has been celebrated in what is now the United States. For the last 236 years, American men and women have been sacrificing their freedom, blood, and even their lives for the peace and freedom of their family, friends, loved ones, their nation. I am writing this while deployed in Afghanistan, along with thousands of other American troops, fighting not only for our country’s peace and freedom, but for that of a struggling nation that doesn’t always appreciate us. In fact some of them want nothing more than to see us dead. But rather than dwell on those that want to see us fail, we give thanks for those that support us. I am a representative for the AnyMarine program, an organization that people can join to send care packages and letters to troops deployed in harms way. Yesterday I received 20 care packages to distribute among our Marines. 20 Care packages from strangers, who have never met us and probably never will, but support us, love us, and give thanks for what we do.

We are out here in the cold, the heat, the rain and the sandstorms, fighting every day. Fighting for the people here, for our country, and for our lives. Every Marine here has a picture of their loved ones in their wallet, their pocket. When a Marine is finished with a mission, he drops his body armor, covered in dirt and sweat and blood, slumped up against a wall unwashed and unshaven, one of the first things he does is pull that picture out, see’s his or her loved one, and wishes he was there. Wishes he was there, and hopes he will make it home to see those he loves. And he gives thanks that they are there waiting for him, wishing for his return just as badly as he does. I look at the picture in my wallet that Saija gave me every day.

Last year almost everyone in my unit was back in the States, celebrating Thanksgiving with their loved ones. Those who had deployed had just returned, thankful to be home and alive. I was in California with Saija’s family, eating turkey and drinking wine, thankful to be surrounded by loved ones, and especially thankful that Saija had just recently said “Yes”. This Thanksgiving we are here in Afghanistan, and though we will probably have some form of canned turkey, it’s not quite the same. But we are thankful that we have each other, these Marines from all over the US, even from all over the world, together in this shared experience, and in this shared hardship. We are hopeful that we will return home safely, to spend our next Thanksgiving with our loved ones, sharing pictures and jokes, toasting, drinking wine and cider, eating turkey and pie, and being surrounded again by those who love us.

My family has a tradition (like many) during Thanksgiving, where everyone stands up and says something that they are thankful for. I am thankful for my wife, the woman who has changed my life in a way I never thought possible. I am thankful for my family and friends who love me, think of me, and pray for me and my return every day, thankful that I am blessed with such support and love. And I am thankful for our supporters, those strangers all across the nation that we fight and die for, who supports us without knowing us, who believe in us and look forward to the day when we are all out of harms way, back with our loved ones where we belong. Tonight when you are celebrating, out loud or in your thoughts, give thanks for your blessings, for what you are thankful for. If you have the time, think of us out here, we who are thinking of you. And have a glass of wine or a slice of pie for us. We’ll be there next year.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 8: The more things change...

Nate's blog: Nov 17

Well we’ve officially been here for over 2 months! I’m not looking forward to the rest right now; it’s the last couple weeks have gone by so slooooow. Maybe everyone else is feeling the same, or maybe it’s just the winter blues, but it seems like everyone is a little more stressed out lately. I've already been in one fight, and we aren't even halfway done yet! Being away from my family and loved ones has been really tough lately, it’s not been fun, so I can only imagine how it is for some of the other guys. The “Dear John letters” have started coming through, cheating wives, Marines getting divorces, and guys stressing out because their child was born right before they left and they are missing out on their life. It sounds bad, but this is the norm for deployments. This is my 5th deployment I think now; I would have thought I’d be used to this already! I guess not. 5 deployments in different places; the names and faces change, but the stories stay the same.

In lighter news, I got to hang out with some Afghani kids! Whenever we are around, they run to us hoping for candy or presents. One moment I’m walking along a dusty dirt road, and then all of a sudden I’m surrounded by children! I didn’t have any candy for them, but I had some chex mix my mother-in-law sent me, which they snatched up immediately (thanks Jennifer!). I got a couple pictures with them, I’ll see if I can attach them to this blog. By the way, for you parents out there, be glad your kids don’t say the things that come out of these kids mouths! Obviously they don’t know English, so their only source of learning it is from us Marines. Role models we obviously are not! One of them tried to buy my ballistic sunglasses off of me, and had some choice words for me when I refused haha.

It’s taking longer to get these updates out than I wanted, sorry! It seems like we are in “River City” just about every other day, so everything takes longer to do. At least the gym is always open. Aside from mail and phone time with loved ones, the gym is the next favorite thing for Marines here. Haha just like every deployment. I know I’ve gotten heavy into my deployment workout routine; with the pills and the powders and the protein. That’s been a positive change for me, because it doesn’t take long out here to see results! Pretty much 24-7 there are Marines in there pumping iron and getting big. Hmm maybe that’s part of why we are all stressed too.. Roid rage? No, no one takes steroids, but the warning labels on some of these testosterone boosters and creatine mixes are pretty crazy!
That’s all for now, I have to get out of here to do some laundry. The machines have been broken for the last week, and they are opening up soon. Some of you ladies might like the idea of a sweaty Marine smelling like dirt, steel and gunpowder, but we don’t want to smell that stuff on each other haha. Gotta get up there before the line starts!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 7: Blogging in the rain

Nate's blog: Nov 08
Hullo all! It’s been longer than I wanted since my last entry, but there has been so much going on, I haven’t been able to sit down long enough to update. As I write this, we are in “River City”, so I’m not sure when I’ll be able to upload this. I hope everyone back home had a great Halloween (or Samhain for those old-fashioned folks). We got a few Halloween items, and my mother-in-law sent me a box full of fun decorations and candy. No one dressed up, but there was plenty of candy corn to go around!

The weather here has been crazy lately. Winter is definitely coming. It’s gotten colder and colder, and the rain has been getting heavier and coming more frequently. A few days ago we had our first big sandstorm. Nothing like the biblical sandstorms we would get in Iraq (all you Iraq vets know EXACTLY what I’m talking about), but still pretty freaky. For anyone who hasn’t seen the big sandstorms, just go on YouTube and search for Iraq sandstorms. It will amaze you.

The weather’s not the only thing that has been crazy; the bad guys have been going wild too. Recently I was on a mission away from the FOB for a few days, and everything went nuts. IED strikes (a LOT of them), 2 hour firefights, ambushes, snipers, the bad guys were ready to party! We’ve been in River City for a while now, lots of “drama” still going on. The good news is Marines are a lot better at kicking ass than these terrorists are.

While I was out, I ran into my buddy AZ, the interpreter who inspired this whole thing. He has been busy helping out with the patrols, and translating for our guys in the city. He tells me that whenever he can, he goes to his FOB’s “morale” room and Skype’s with his family over the computer. Apparently his little boy doesn’t like to share, and will snatch up the family’s laptop, run off into another room, and talk to him about what cartoon he is watching. “Trying to talk to the rest of my family is tough”, he tells me as he laughs. He misses them, as we all miss our family. He was going to be staying past when we left, but has decided that he wants to stick with us, and will go home when we do. That will be nice to have him on that long flight home with us, to laugh and tell stories and get wasted in Ireland/Germany.

There will be at least one Marine who will be voluntarily staying here when we leave. As I was chatting with one of our guys, he told me how he was going to stay here when our replacements come, and work through their deployment. That’s a full 14+ months out here in Afghanistan! I told him that’s a lot of money he’ll be saving up, and it’s a good thing he is single (I assumed because he wasn’t wearing a ring, although most married Marines wear them on their dog tags out here), otherwise that might be rough. To which he told me he was married, but she knew it was important to him! Craziness, that’s what that is. There aren’t very many scenarios I could think of where (as a married Marine) I would volunteer to stay behind. Speaking of which, tonight I will be making some calls, it seems like a door that was shut may now be open: Embassy Guard Duty! My fingers are crossed that this may be an option for after our time in 29 Palms is up.

Well that’s all I have to add for now, its time for me to attempt to fix ANOTHER hole in my uniform. I hate our restrictions on what we can say, there is so much more I want to talk about, but that’s the way it goes. In a few days I will be going on another “adventure”, hopefully it will be much less exciting than this one. Oh and for all you Marines out there, happy birthday!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 6: Bunker Games

Nate's blog: Oct 26
This past week has gone by so quickly. Really the whole deployment has been going by fast, it’s really excited me. We have one of those deployment trackers (for anyone who’s deployed, you know what I’m talking about), and according to it, we are 20% done with the deployment! People are already talking about dates for coming home, and events after. It looks like a few weeks after we get back, we will all be going to Vegas! Of course the dates are going to change 1000 times before it happens, but nothing raises morale like talking about coming home.

Making new friends is one of the things I’ve always liked about deployments. Marines come from all walks of life, and the group of Marines you see hanging out will be more varied than any civilian group you will see. Its always fun hearing everybody’s stories about where they are from and what they did before they joined the Marines. One thing all Marines like, regardless of their background, is card games! The other night I was playing poker with a group of them in this underground bunker. It was one of the coolest things I had ever seen! This random door in the middle of the desert, with these steps that twist around deeper and deeper into the earth, till you finally get to this crazy room with cracked cement walls and a boombox. If I ever win the lottery, or when Saija becomes my sugarmomma, we are building an underground bunker in our back yard! So here I am in this bunker with a sniper, 2 truck drivers, an Afghani interpreter, a female Marine mechanic, and one of our guards, playing poker under a string of lights hanging by zip ties from the ceiling. A pretty cool experience. And I won $5! Sure that’s not a lot, but it’s better than the guy who lost $60.

I’ve had a couple more trips “outside the wire”. Most of them have been pretty smooth, although you really never know what’s going to happen. On my last one I got to experience something from home; a traffic jam! All along this street full of stores was this disjointed, disorganized collection of trucks, old cars, carts, and even tractors all honking and yelling, trying to get to their destinations. The situation was made even worse when 2 of our convoys came through. These 2 convoys full of armored vehicles and Marines with heavy machine guns and automatic grenade launchers added a lot of chaos to an already chaotic event. I felt bad for the civilians, because they obviously did not want to be in the path of these Marines and their huge armored vehicles, nor their weapons. But I also felt bad for the Marines, having to pay attention to all these people and vehicles, trying to identify threats. It turns out traffic jams are nightmares for everyone, no matter where you live.

Winter is definitely coming now. The nights have been colder and colder, and I wouldn’t even call it hot in the daytime anymore. Supposedly it rains a LOT in the winter, so we’ve been trying to lay out gravel as much as we can on our FOB, so it doesn’t turn into a giant mudhole when it rains. We’ve had a couple light sandstorms but still nothing like Iraq. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, just go on YouTube and search for Iraq sandstorms. It’s pretty crazy.

I found a camel spider! A small (so half the size of your hand) white one. I thought those were only in Iraq? It brought back a lot of fun memories from that place. Where's Sean Dustman when I need him to video tape all this?!
And that’s All I have to report for this week! We’ve gotten a lot of care packages in lately, so thank you to all the supporters who have sent us stuff to help us out. And a big thank you to my family as well. Lots of fun books from my mother-in-law, pillows, candy, supplies from my Aunt Connie and cousin Christina. And of course, the many many amazing and creative care packages from my wife. I will never go low on poptarts again, thank you soulmate. I have a few more trips to make before my next update. Hopefully they will be boring and uneventful.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 5: Happy Anniversary?

Nate's blog: Oct 19

It’s officially been over a month since I left! The time has really flown by here. Its hot and dusty and crappy here, and getting shot at is no fun (and you thought YOUR neighbors were rude), but it’s been so busy the time has just flown by. I hope the next 6 go by just as fast! Everyone is already planning for things they want to do when they get back; partying, seeing their family, vacations. Even though it’s only been a month, I’ve found I’ve been doing the same thing too. Vegas, San Diego (taking Saija to my other home, the Blarney Stone), Europe, wine tasting in Santa Barbara, and adventures in the family cabin up in NorCal. If you are in Vegas anytime next spring/summer and you see a drunk Marine walking around, it’s probably one of our guys. Pretty much everyone has decided to go there after the deployment, and 7 months sober makes anyone a lightweight!

It’s strange to me, writing about our experiences, and knowing other people are reading it. People I’ve never even met are following along, commenting, and some even email or write to me on Facebook. I originally was planning on just doing a journal, but thought this would be a fun way to do it. I’ve realized the big downside to doing a blog is watching what I say. We get briefings all the time on “OPSEC”, on not giving away any secrets/tactics/schedules that the enemy could use against us. The censorship is necessary, but it can be frustrating when you are trying to write about your experiences. For anyone who’s ever wondered why some of the things I write are vague, that’s the reason why. There’s a lot of stuff going on, things that I would like to write about, things that I’d just like to tell my wife about, but I can’t. For those of you that know me, you know that I’m a chatterbox and keeping secrets isn’t in my nature (except for Saija’s surprises), so it’s tough keeping it all in! I am excited about some of the upcoming changes that I can’t talk about, but pretty much guarantee I won’t be coming back here. I’m not coming home early, but this should be my last trip to Afghanistan. If we fight another war soon, I hope it’s somewhere nice. Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, I’m sick of fighting in all these crappy places! I enjoyed the Cayman Islands, can we fight there next?

Yesterday I went on a trip with our Sergeant Major, around all of the FOB’s and Patrol Bases (PB’s). We also checked out one of our Observation Posts (OP’s), and man, they have it ROUGH. I can’t get into details, but basically a FOB is smaller than a base, a PB is smaller than a FOB, and an OP is smaller than a PB. While traveling I got a LOT of pictures, and I was pretty amazed by the way they lived. We went away from the towns, into some of the countryside where the roads were all dirt and electricity was pretty much nonexistent. The people out there don’t live in houses. They live in huts and poor imitations of houses made completely out of mud and clay. Some of them have thatch roofs, but for most it is just all dirt. So many of them are cracked or crumbling, and there are abandoned homes everywhere. It looks like something from the past, from thousands of yeas ago. If it weren’t from the people walking around, you would think you are looking at the ruins of some long lost civilization. There are random remnants of walls in the middle of nowhere, and caves and tunnels scattered around the hills (we did not go into those!). It made me really appreciate my life back in the states.

Well that’s all for now, should have another one in a week or so!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 4: Nate tries to sew

Nate's blog: Oct 11

For those of you who don’t know, Marines are taught to sew in boot camp. It’s nothing to brag about and its not sexy AT ALL, but if we have a rip or tear and no place to go, we can do a quick fix. Well with all the wear and tear my uniform has gone through, I developed a hole where one of the buckles from my rifle strap kept rubbing. And I haven’t messed with anything related to sewing in years. Crap. Well a sewing kit is required deployment gear, and lucky for me, that wasn’t one of the things on the list that I ignored. So here I am an hour later, with bleeding fingers and a few choice words about the needle’s parents, done with my repair job. Not. Sexy. My repair job is a nice ugly ragged patch that I then sealed up with fabric glue. Fortunately I didn’t join the Marines to be a seamstress, and I hope to not deal with that again for a long time!

In other news, I went “outside the wire”, for the first time a few days ago. It was really interesting seeing the countryside around us. I’ve gone to Iraq many times, but this is the first Afghanistan vacation I’ve taken. While going through one of their towns, I noticed how different it was from the US, and even the towns in Iraq I had been to. During the Iraq invasion, as we were pushing up from Kuwait, I noticed a lot of the desert “towns” were buildings that looked like they were made of mud, but as we got towards Baghdad, the city; it was a lot more modern. I think I compared Baghdad to a crappy downtown Sacramento. Well here it is a weird mix of old and new. Cement structures mixed in with clay and mud, carts and vehicles sharing the road. If Baghdad is like Sacramento, this area would be a cross between Tijuana and Quincy. My cousin Adam will tell you that Quincy is a nice place. My cousin Adam is a liar. One thing that hasn’t changed is the kids. Just like in Iraq, kids on the street come out when we go through the area, hoping for candy or just looking at our weapons and gear.

While we’ve had some bad encounters, mine so far have been quiet. But you can see the tension on the Marines’ faces as we leave the safety of the FOB. Hands grip weapons tighter, eyes are darting around, alert and looking for any sign of danger. It reminded me of Iraq; of past battles, of how quickly things can change. In boot camp you are taught that in combat, you are in one of 2 conditions; extreme boredom or extreme chaos. And it’s true. In Iraq, everything would be quiet, even boring for such a long time, but then instantly the explosions shouts and gunshots shatter the silence, and in that fog of war there is only chaos. These things are on everyone’s mind as we move through the towns.

I found out one of my friends in the Navy is being transferred to Seattle today! For a Marine in Afghanistan, with his home station in 29 Palms, that sounds pretty appealing. But I’ve spent some time there in Seattle, and it’s not on my list of places to go anytime soon. Although I can’t wait for the chance to get out of the desert again! Travel is one of the things I love about the Marines. Every 2-4 years, moving somewhere new. Saija and I are really looking forward to our next move, and I’m curious about what will be available. Europe? Japan? Florida, New York, Colorado, New Orleans? Or maybe back to San Diego. Either way I can’t wait!

At least for the last couple of days, it hasn’t seemed THAT much like a desert. We’ve spent them enduring some thunderstorms and cold weather. Its no fun being wet, but the cool air is nice and the rain has kept this moon dust they call sand down. I love the rain. It takes me back to being a kid in Sacramento, where it rains a lot in the winter. Listening to the sound of the wind and rain, I forget for a while where I am, for those moments, the deployment is a little easier.

Lastly, the care packages have started coming through! I’ve been helping unload and sort the mail, and its CRAZY how much we’ve been getting. I set up a “morale” area, with space for books, food, and any essentials Marines might need, and it’s already looking good. I’m glad for the soap, shampoo, and baby wipes too, because some of our guys here stink!

Well that’s all for now, but I will update this in a week or so if I can!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 3: Callsign “Warden”.

Nate's blog: October 5

We haven’t been here at our FOB long, and it’s already been eventful. The sounds of gunfire, mortars and other bombs being dropped, explosions in the distance (and sometimes very NOT distant), helicopters buzzing around overhead; this isn’t a scene from your favorite war movie. This is what I wake up to every morning. At first it was unnerving to everyone, but as we have gotten used to the area we have learned that this is just business as usual in Afghanistan. The Marines here cover up their unease with jokes and teasing the junior Marines who jump at every sound, but the truth is everyone is nervous and some have already learned that “eventful” is not always a good thing.

Adapting to life in Afghanistan has been hard, but if there is one thing Marines are good at, its adapting. Every Marine here has a job to do, and some have many. In order to reduce giving away any sensitive information, we have been given “callsigns” to use over the radio. I have been giving the callsign “Warden”. It fits, and it’s pretty badass. Mail has slowly started to arrive here, giving Marines another opportunity to keep busy. For those of you that have a family or friend who is deployed, I highly encourage you to send them something! Whether it’s a care package or a simple letter, the effect mail has here is amazing. Just knowing that someone back home cares enough about them to write, well it makes this place a lot easier to deal with.

We aren’t the only ones living in this FOB though. While waiting in line at the “Chow Hall”, I discovered cats! A group of about 5 small kittens, running around and playing in the dirt. According to the Marines leaving here, there are TONS of them living here. We aren’t allowed to touch or play with them, because of fleas and disease, but they sure are cute. My wife agreed that a wild Afghanistan cat is just what our demon of a cat needs to keep him in check!

Not much else to report this week. The lines for phones are long all the time, and often are shut down, but I have been able to call my wife a couple times so far. It’s never enough, and I know everyone else feels the same way about their loved ones. I will be doing some travelling soon, so I’m not sure if I will be able to update this as frequently as I want. But I will do my best!

PS: For everyone who has left positive comments on here, thank you! For some reason it won’t let me add my own comment, but I do read them and appreciate them! Inessa, Saija and I are looking forward to hanging out with you guys again!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 2: Hurry up and wait.

Nate’s blog: September 26

That’s the title of this blog, and a pretty accurate description of the past week. Those in the military know this expression very well. Travelling to our FOB (Forward Operating Base) is a slow and measured process, and can take a week or more.  At the moment I am at a major military base in Afghanistan, waiting for my flight out. My next update (hopefully) will be from our FOB, in what has been described by many out here, as a “warzone”. Throughout the last week we’ve gone through some training, classes, and slowly adjusting to life out here. Adjusting to the climate, adjusting to the reduced living conditions, and hardest of all; adjusting to being away from our loved ones.
While uneventful, the last week certainly has been memorable. To start with, as soon as we arrived here I got sick. Wonderful. As I am asking the Corpsmen (Navy doctors) for some medicine, they tell me that I’m really probably not sick. I won’t get into the details, but TRUST me; I was down in a bad way. So I ask them in the most polite Marine-speak that I can, how they came to that conclusion. Apparently, all this travelling through different time zones and climates is hard on the body, and my system is “adjusting” to the new location. In short; I am allergic to Afghanistan.
While waiting for our flights, I have been able to talk to many people. This base is a major transportation hub, people are coming and going from different FOB’s and bases. It’s interesting, eating lunch in a giant cafeteria (or chow hall), and hearing the story of the dirty Marine across the table from you.  In general, Marines aren’t quick to open up. Every Marine I’ve talked to that is going home has lost someone in their unit. Sometimes a lot of people. They are dirty and tired, and ready to go home. They have been fighting for 7 months in an area that most people could never even find on a map; towns and cities that mean nothing to the average person, but that they fought, bled, and sometimes died for. While I sit there and talk to them, I think to myself, “In 7 months that will be me”. At least I hope so. I hope that 7 months from now, I will be able to be sitting in an air-conditioned chow hall, while some annoying new guy in a clean uniform is harassing me with questions.  I also hope, though I know it’s not likely, that we all make it back.  None of us wants to lose a fellow Marine, a buddy; a brother.  Of course when they ask me where I am headed to, they are quick to open up about what they have heard. “The most dangerous town in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan”, they all say. Hooray…
As I type this, I am sitting on a cot, in a tent with about 30 other Marines. While the living conditions aren’t great, it’s something we are all used to.  During training, Marines frequently sleep in the dirt, with nothing but a thin pad between their sleeping bag and the dirt, and the sky as their roof. Many Marines have taken the time to order things to make their lives easier at the FOBs, such as snacks, pillows, books and batteries for their electronics. The hardest adjustment is being away from our loved ones. This is my 5th deployment, but some are on their 6th or even 7th, while for others, it’s their first time. Wives and girlfriends are a common discussion among the Marines here in the tents. Marines talk about plans they have for our return, and in our own “macho” way, how we miss them. Occasionally there is a wifi signal here, and you will see Marines pulling Ipads, phones, and small computers out of their bags to talk to their loved ones. It’s not perfect, talking over Skype with a blurry screen and choppy sound, but to be able to see our loved ones and hear them, even if it s for just a few minutes before the signal is lost, means a lot to the Marines. It means a lot to our loved ones too, who also have to go through their own “adjustments”.
It’s easy to think about the troops, and how hard it is for us out here. We are fighting a war, in this far corner of the world. Marines will sometimes go for over a week without any kind of shower, a month without hearing from back home.  We are tired, hungry, and dirty while we are gone. But it’s also hard for our loved ones too. Those husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, parents and relatives. They sit at home trying to adjust, trying to live their lives while all of a sudden there is this giant void in their life. I can hear it in my wife’s voice, every time we are able to talk to each other. Many Marines (and everyone in my unit), live where they do because the military moved them there. We are stationed in the California Desert, not by choice, but by military orders. And when we moved here, we brought our wives and loved ones here as well. And now they are alone without us, and they miss us. They miss being able to see us walk through the door after a long day of work. They miss spending time with us, waking up with us, and even fighting with us over things that seem so mundane and meaningless now. Those shows that we all watched together as a family, they now watch alone. The couch, dining room table, their home, seems so much emptier now without us. And while we here have all trained for this deployment, those loved ones at home, have had no training for theirs. I am so thankful for Saija, as we are all thankful for those loved ones we left behind. We recognize the sacrifices they make for us, and we appreciate you all for staying strong and staying with us through these trying times. And of course, for doing those household chores that we are used to doing! Thank you Saija. Thank you wives and girlfriends, family and friends. We could not do this without your love and support.
I look forward to my next update, hopefully in about a week, from the FOB. Thank you all for reading, following, and for the supportive comments I’ve received through Facebook and my blog. Your support means a lot!

PS: Saija has already informed me that she will have plenty of chores for me to do when I get home. And I cannot wait to be back at home, taking out the trash.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan chapter 1: Nate's attempt at a blog

Nate's blog: September 19

Hello all. As I am typing this, I am laying in a tent in some country I can't spell. It doesn't matter, because I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed to name it anyways. Here in a bit I will hop onto a plane to Afghanistan, where my 7 month combat deployment will begin.

I was inspired to start this by a conversation I had with a translator imbedded with our unit, which I will get into later. For now though, I want to catch you up to speed on what has transpired so far.

For the last 8 months or so, I have been part of an infantry battalion in 29 Palms, preparing for a combat deployment to Afghanistan. For those who haven't been to 29 Palms, it's an absolutely amazing place, full of lush trees and the base even has a beautiful lake. On September 16 (about 3 days earlier than expected), I departed 29 Palms and by bus, plane, and helicopter, slowly made my way towards Afghanistan.

For my last week before leaving, I did my best to live life to the fullest. My wife Saija and I had just returned from part 2 of 3 of our honeymoon, a cruise through Key West, Cayman Islands, and the horrible island of Jamaica, which should be wiped clear by a hurricane. We went out, we partied, we harassed our cat Hiisi, had a great week!

But eventually our last night together passed, and my alarm went off for the last time this year. At 3am we got up, and started getting dressed and ready to head to Base. I knew it was coming but now that the day had arrived, it was so much harder on me than I thought it would be. This will be my 5th deployment, but my first with Saija. I'm man enough to admit that I broke down that morning in the bathroom while shaving, at the thought of being without her for 7 months. It was like I got hit in the chest by a sledgehammer. 4 deployments and I had never felt anything like this. But I had to go. Finally everything was packed and ready, I looked around our home for the last time, said goodbye to our cat, and headed out the door.

Once we arrived on base, I got my weapons, gear, and we joined the other Marines and their families at a field. Hundreds of Marines, wives, kids, friends and relatives filled the field, along with trucks selling food, and a bouncy castle. It looked like the saddest county fair ever. We spent our last few hours together on that field, sad but looking forward to our future reunion. As the buses arrived, so did the tears. Wives, kids, and even Marines. There's a reason why a lot of us wear sunglasses when we leave.

From there it was uneventful and boring, and time was hard to keep track of. Long bus rides, waiting at an airbase for hours, and a 30+ hour flight really messes with your sense of time. Eventually we arrived at this country, that I could never have pointed out with a map. The next 2 days were spent taking anti-malaria pills, adjusting to the time zone, and attempting to "FaceTime" with Saija on the crappy wifi connection. Boring and sad in general, although I had a very interesting conversation with one of our interpreters, "AZ", which inspired this whole project.

While eating lunch, I struck up a conversation with AZ. We had a number of interpreters with us, and I was curious about them. As it turns out, they were just as varied a group as us Marines, coming from all walks of life. This man, AZ, had a wife and 2 children, and had never deployed before. We spoke about family and deployments, and how hard it was on each of our families. His 4 year old son, according to his wife, had woken up in the middle of each night since we left, walking throughout the house looking for him. His wife was heartbroken, having never experienced this before and fearing for his safety.

Being an interpreter for US troops carries an additional danger, as he explained to me. If they are captured by the Taliban or Al Qaida, they are treated as traitors, tortured much more than one of us would be before finally being killed. I won't go into the details, but apparently it has happened before. And if they have family in the area, and they are found, the family is tortured and sometimes killed as well. It doesn't help that they are contracted there for a year; a full 5 months longer than us Marines.

He is worried, but proud of what he is doing. He believes in our cause, and is glad that he can share in our experience, for better or for worse. Like all of us, he wants to complete the mission, and get home safely to his family. He tells me that as this is his first deployment, he wants to keep a journal, and turn it into a book when he returns, detailing his experiences in Afghanistan. It reminded me of something I did during the Iraq invasion, and while I don't have such lofty goals as a book, I was inspired to start a blog as well.

I'm planning on updating this about once a week or so, depending on connectivity and how much I have to write. Hopefully I'll be able to upload some pictures, although most of them will have to wait until I return, due to security reasons. Please tell me what you think! My next post will come from Afghanistan, in a week or so. Goodbye for now!