Monday, September 27, 2010

Lessons Learned in a War Zone

I’ve finally left the war zone. Over the past week I thought I would never get out. According to my military orders, I was supposed to leave by September 14th. September 14th came and there was still no word of departure. I began to wonder if they would extend me another four months given the recent tempo of the war. Fortunately, a couple of days later, I rejoiced to learn we would be leaving on September 18th. However, on the 17th, they told us our departure was moved back to the 20th. This wasn’t so bad, what were 2 more days in a war zone when I had been there for 126 days already? The 20th finally arrived and we had checked out of our tents and had everything packed and ready to go only to find out we did not have seats reserved for the flight that evening. We would probably be leaving on the 23rd. As you can imagine at this point I was a bit frustrated. My frustration ended however, when a couple of hours later we were told our leadership were able to pull some strings to get seats for most of us to leave on the 20th. That evening we got on the plane with battle gear and all and our plane even took off earlier than expected which is a rarity in the military. I breathed a sigh of relief when there were no attempts to shoot down our plane. Finally, I could say that I made it out safely, or could I. As we approached our destination airfield in Kyrgyzstan, we learned that because the Kyrgyz people were burning trash near the airport, poor visibility prevented us from landing. The pilot told us we would have to go back to Bagram and that hopefully we would be able to leave a couple of hours later if the visibility improved. At first I thought he was joking, but I quickly learned otherwise as I felt the plane turn around. Needless to say I was devastated. I began to imagine the worst case scenario of having to stay in Bagram for several more days or weeks. Now that we were going to land and take off from Bagram again, our chances of getting shot at had increased. Would I still make it out alive? After complaining and worrying for a few minutes, I did what I had learned to do throughout my deployment, not worry about what I could not control and get back to reading my book about Mormons and Muslims. Many others coped with the frustration by laughing and telling jokes about the whole situation. I had to chuckle when one military member remarked, “Well, at least we get one more day of combat pay.” Thankfully, within a couple of hours of landing again at Bagram, visibility in Kyrgyzstan had improved, and we were on our way home again.

I have definitely learned a lot and experienced a lot over the past four months in Afghanistan, but I think among the more important lessons I learned was to not worry about what I can’t control and get on with life. You almost have to do this as a military member in a war zone or you will go crazy. After leaving Bagram, I’m beginning to realize just how confined I was on that congested, dusty, military base. I don’t think I would do well on a small island. I’m the kind of person that loves cross-country drives and long runs along a mountain trail. In spite of being so confined, I decided to run around the base and not worry too much about breathing in the dust and exhaust that probably took a few years off my life. I’m reminded of an incident that happened on the morning of September 11, I was scheduled to run a Patriots Day 10K around the base. However, early that morning I was woken by a huge explosion right outside my front door. A few minutes later I learned that we were being hit by mortar attacks and two of them had hit less than 50 feet from my barracks. It all became very eerie when I learned that the shrapnel from the mortars chopped the American flag pole in half sending our beloved red, white, and blue to the ground (I remind you that this was on September 11 of all days). The flagpole to the left of the US flag was still standing with the Afghan flag waving in the wind. As I got into my battle armor, I wondered whether they would cancel the run, or whether I would show up if they still held it. I had arrived to my barracks late from work the night before, and after being woken up by the attack, I would be running on less than 3 hours of sleep. When the time came closer for the race to start, I decided I would not let the attacks keep me from running. In a way, I felt like running the race was the least I could do to honor those who had died on September 11, 2001 and those who had died in Afghanistan over the past nine years. When I arrived at the starting line, I was truly inspired by the hundreds, if not a thousand people who made the decision to come run the race in spite of the circumstances. They had to change the course route a bit because of the attacks, but they were still going to hold the race. This was by far the largest turnout of any of the races I attended on Bagram. It was also inspiring to see that just a few hours after the attacks they had already hoisted Old Glory back to its spot atop the pole. This taught me a lot about the resolve of the American spirit which I hope I have come to resemble a bit more after this deployment.

Another thing I learned was a new respect and understanding of the Islam religion. I am grateful for this as many in America seem to be ignorant or confused about Islam and what it teaches its followers. Religion or should I say Islam plays a role in every aspect of the lives of the Afghan people. I noticed that in many ways the Muslims in Afghanistan seemed to be more committed than those I met from Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and America. During the month of Ramadan, every Afghan I met strictly followed the fast of not eating or drinking from sun up to sun down, even when they worked in the hot sun for most of the day. The Muslims I met from other countries either chose not to fast because of work demands or they would limit their fasting. Of course part of the Afghan’s ability to fast all day might be because they generally eat only one small meal a day or sometimes walk for large periods of time in the sun without food or water. I was also impressed by the fact that even the Afghans as poor as many of them are tried to give whatever they saved from not eating to those less fortunate than themselves. I immediately appreciated this principle since as Mormons we also fast at least one day a month and donate the money we would have spent on food to those in need.

I also respected the fact that the Muslims I met in Afghanistan were not afraid to talk about and share their faith. Almost every conversation I had with the locals, inevitably turned to religion. I think religion or Islam is such a part of their lives that they can’t help but talk about it. When I taught English to the locals we had a conversation circle where each of us discussed what we do each day, it was interesting to note that each of the young men had exactly the same schedule. They wake up at 5:00 am to go to Mosque to pray. Next, they eat breakfast and leave for school. After school they go to Mosque to pray. Each of them explained how they pray five times a day (and they aren’t afraid to pray in front of each other in between class periods). Each of them uses their shemagh (Afghan scarf) as their rug to kneel on and pray while facing Mecca in between class periods. They all told me about the activities they engage in on Friday, their holy day. Their conversation was fascinating to me because I didn’t ask them about religion at all. I asked them about their daily lives, but Islam is such a part of their lives that it’s impossible for them to talk about their daily lives without talking about Islam. I think this was so fascinating to me because of how secular America has become. I think we are afraid to bring up our religion in conversation. Our lives, or at least our conversations are centered on our careers and worldly tasks we perform each day and religion is mentioned as a side note if it’s mentioned at all.

On another occasion I was eating breakfast with the locals and they asked me how many times I pray. I tried to explain to them that I don’t really pray a set number of times, but that I prayed as often as I could or as often as needed. They told me that Muslims pray five times a day and that I should do the same. When I saw these men again they would ask me how many times I prayed that day. As I was leaving the dining facility one day, one of the locals asked me, “Why aren’t you Muslim?” It was almost like he couldn’t understand how someone else who believes in God could not be Muslim. This interaction showed me that the Afghan Muslims are eager to share their faith with others. Many of them also lack knowledge about other faiths which I attribute more to the state and culture of Afghansistan which strictly enforces Islam as the one true religion.

I realize that I cannot make a representative statement about Islam as a whole since my interactions have been mostly with Afghan Muslims and Islam is much more diverse and complex than what I have learned from a few Muslims from one country. Nevertheless, after my experiences and reading I have done, I'm convinced that Islam as a whole teaches man to do good, to love God and his fellowman. I believe that Muhammad was inspired of God and deserves respect from people of all religions and backgrounds. However, just like in most religions, there seem to be those few who use scripture out of context to justify their evil agenda.

Another lesson I learned in the war zone is an appreciation for the simple blessings I have in my life. As we left Afghanistan and arrived back to the base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan (the holding station for military members on their way to and from Afghanistan) I was amazed at how what seemed like an ugly and uncomfortable place on our way to Afghanistan had become like a luxurious resort after being in Afghanistan for four months. After breathing in the dust and exhaust at Bagram, I thoroughly enjoyed the first fresh breath of air I took when I stepped off the plane in Kyrgyzstan. The sky was clear and I could see the stars, we passed dozens of wood poles with green foliage on them (I believe you call these trees). After being here for a just a few days my allergies which had all but tortured me to death in Afghanistan, are virtually non-existent here. While the food in Kyrgyzstan didn’t seem that great before, it is like eating at a gourmet restaurant after eating the same food at Bagram every day. One of the first things I did the morning after my arrival to Kyrgyzstan was go for a run along the nature trails on base. I felt like a free man, I can’t describe the freedom I felt as I was able to run in open area with no people, vehicles, weapons or dust around. I marveled at the beauties of nature and felt so grateful that God made trees and the sky and the clouds so beautiful for us to enjoy.

Also, I think I have slept better the last few nights than any of my nights at Bagram and even recovered some of my hearing since there are no jets flying constantly overhead. Furthermore, I appreciate the peace and calm that comes from not having to constantly worry about being attacked. This is a stress that I had gotten used to at Bagram that I didn’t think much about until we landed in Kyrgyzstan. As I stepped off the plane it was as if a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders to know that I was now relatively safe soil.

Most importantly, my experience in Afghanistan taught me to appreciate the gift of life. I will never forget the feelings of sadness, respect, and gratitude I experienced as countless coffins draped in flags came across our flight line as July and August were some of the bloodiest months since the war has begun. Many of the marines I have talked to in Kyrgyzstan are returning home with significantly smaller platoons than what they left with. I feel that the least I can do to honor those who have given their lives is to try my best to appreciate the freedoms they have sacrificed for by living righteously and taking advantages of the opportunities this freedom provides.

The final and probably most important lesson I learned in a war zone is how Heavenly Father is always there for us. Although these were some of the most difficult circumstances of my life, I was able to experience more peace and joy than any time I can remember as I sought to draw near to my Heavenly Father. Part of this was probably because I was much more humble and needed His guidance and comfort more than usual, but I think a huge part of it was how many people prayed for me and the military. I know I have never had so many people send me mail and emails telling me they supported me and prayed for me. It seemed like every time I started to get discouraged or fearful, I would receive a letter or an email that comforted me and buoyed me up. As a result of the prayers of the righteous, I believe the Lord takes special care of the military. Of course he doesn’t protect us from all injury and death, for doing so would take away the agency of man, but I believe He does everything He can. I was amazed at how the mortar attacks on September 11 were within just 10 feet of hitting buildings with people in them but hit vacant buildings instead. I certainly felt protected and thanked the Lord earnestly that morning for watching over and protecting me as well as my fellow comrades.

One thing I will miss is going to church at a chapel filled with service members singing hymns. On one of my last Sundays there we sang the words from “I am a Child of God”:

I am a child of God and He has sent me here,
Has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear,
Lead me guide me walk beside me help me find the way,
Teach me all that I must do to live with Him some day.

As we sang these words I was overwhelmed by the love of God and the reminder that we are all His children. It is sometimes easy to forget this in a war zone and military members as well as innocent people are being killed almost every day. It can be tempting to ask whether there really is a God in all this mess. However, during church that morning and countless other Sunday mornings like it, there was no doubt in my mind that God exists, that He loves us, that He is our Father and that we are all His children. How grateful I am for the opportunity of feeling God’s love and concern for me and my fellow comrades even in some of the most difficult of circumstances man can find Himself.

I could probably fill pages with all of the little lessons I learned from my deployment, but at this time these are the lessons I feel have made the biggest impact on me. I am proud to have served my country and the country of Afghanistan over the past four months. I feel privileged to have played just a tiny part in defending freedom in our world. I hope and pray that I will not forget these lessons. God bless America!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Alive and Well in Afghanistan

I’m still alive and well in Afghanistan. Working twelve hour days, six days a week, the days seem to blend into each other and I’m often amazed at how quickly a week passes by. The operations here in Afghanistan never cease to amaze me. From the day I arrived here, I’ve been surprised by the number of planes that fly in and out of Bagram. It boggles my mind to think about the daily organization that goes into getting food, water, and electricity to the 32,000 people who live and work on Bagram. I don’t even like to think about disposing of the waste of so many people. There is no plumbing system in this part of Afghanistan so clean water has to be trucked in, while sewer water (what they call black water) has to be trucked out every day. While living conditions are certainly not worthy of being displayed on “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” (especially since they have crammed so many people into this base), I’m pretty certain that even at Bagram, we enjoy comforts that most Afghans have only heard of or read about. I’ve been able to take a hot shower every day since I’ve been here, every room I have worked or been in has air conditioning, I've not had a problem getting internet or phone access, and as a single male college student I'm actually eating better here than I do at home.

Providing water and electricity to Bagram is just one aspect of the planning. The movement of 135,000 US and NATO troops and cargo come through Bagram since it is the major hub in Afghanistan, most everything and everyone is processed through here. Because of this, Bagram never sleeps. When you go out at night, there are almost as many people out working and walking as during the day. It sometimes gives me a headache to constantly be surrounded by people and machines at work. At times, I have wondered whether all of this working and busyness is for a purpose. If there is a purpose, isn't the main purpose of war to destroy and kill? Recent newspaper articles about the war Afghanistan have not helped either. However, amidst all my doubts, I have had several experiences that continue to give me hope about our efforts here and the future of Afghanistan.

I had been looking for opportunities to interact with and serve the locals since I’ve been here. This opportunity came in the unlikely form of teaching the Afghans English. South Korea recently built a Vocational School on Bagram which provides a year of free training (to include food and transportation) to young men who have recently graduated from high school. They are selected by their high school principals to come here and if they pass all requirements to include an interview with the South Korean staff, they are admitted. For the past month I have been teaching English to the locals for two hours every week. It has been an extremely rewarding experience. I am by no means an English teacher, but the young men are so eager to learn that it makes it easy. When we break into groups to converse with them, I hardly have to say anything, because they have a million questions to ask me. I was humbled when they asked me why I was here in Afghanistan. I was a little ashamed to say that I was here because my country sent me. I think they were hoping I would say that I came here to help them and their country. The longer I am here though, my motivations for being here are changing. Each of them expressed their desire to rebuild Afghanistan. I was impressed that not one of them said they wanted to develop their skills and their English so they could come to America where life would be easier. Each of them desires to stay in Afghanistan to help establish stability. I come away from our weekly English lessons always feeling like they have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them.

Every year 85 students are admitted to this vocational school. This may seem like a small number compared to all of the Afghans who lack skills and education, but I believe it is a promising start. This is not the only school which has been established to help Afghanistan. I was glad to read in a recent article in The New York Times that the US military is investing in education for the Afghans to help fight the Taliban. (See New York Times, Sunday, July 18, 2010, “Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice). The article explains how the military is listening to Greg Mortensen, a climber from Montana who has built over 150 schools in Afghanistan, mostly for girls. (If you haven't read it yet, I highly reccomend "Three Cups of Tea" which is about Greg Mortensen and his efforts here. Truly an amazing story). I truly believe that one of the best ways to fight evil is through dispelling ignorance and teaching the truth about the world to the youth.

Another experience I recently had not only strengthened my hope for Afghanistan, but for the world in general. The South Korean staff of the vocational center invited all the volunteer English teachers to a luncheon. I thoroughly enjoyed the Korean food, but even more, I enjoyed the company. I was impressed with how committed the South Koreans are to teaching the young Afghan men. They were so appreciative to us for helping them teach English that they presented us with a gift – a really nice manicure set which is actually a dire necessity in this environment. After lunch, the head of the school gave a small speech telling us about their commitment to help the young men achieve their dreams. He also emphasized how important it is for us to work together as Americans and South Koreans to help the Afghan people. At the end, he asked one of the US chaplains to pray. The chaplain prayed for the school, the staff, the students, and the country of Afghanistan. As I pondered the scene, I was overcome with a feeling of peace and hope. Here were representatives of two better-off nations coming together to pray for a less-fortunate nation. Although I don’t believe we will see world peace tomorrow, it is experiences like these and meeting people from other nations like this that give me great hope about the future of our world.

The other day, my mom asked me what the people in Afghanistan think about America being here. I didn't really have an answer for her, so I decided to ask some of the locals I've become friends with. One of my friends who manages the cleaning of our dorms said before we came he could not visit his family because the Taliban would stop him when he traveled to take his money or shoot at him. He also said he could not attend school before we came here. Another of my friends who manages the workers at the dining facility said he believes most people are grateful the Americans are here because things have become safer and freer. He said he hopes we are here to stay to continue to help them establish stability. I was grateful to hear this directly from the locals because it dispelled many of my doubts that we are achieving success here in Afghanistan. In fact, the more I interact with the locals that work on base, the more optimistic I become about the future of Afghanistan and America’s presence here. Their happiness and optimism about the future is contagious. I realize that I am speaking to locals who work on an American base and who are in a safer region of Afghanistan, but it helps me to know that our efforts here are at least helping some people.

If you keep up with the news, you know that there is credible evidence that the Pakistan harboring the Taliban to some extent. Just as the media was criticizing the US for continuing to give aid to Pakistan, terrible monsoon rains hit Pakistan killing as many as 1,600 and displacing hundreds of thousands of others. Over this past weekend and throughout this week I was amazed as I watched tons of food aid being delivered to our flight line to help Pakistan during this disaster. I felt privileged to help load the food onto the aircraft that were making special flights into the flood stricken areas of Pakistan. This experience increased my hope once again for our world. In spite of a war that is taxing the US military like never before, in spite of hard feelings the US might have toward Pakistan for harboring the Taliban, the US did not hesitate to provide food aid to a country we still call our ally, Pakistan.

As you can see, after the experiences I have had over the past month I can't help but be positive about our efforts here and the future of Afghanistan. I don't believe war is ever a desirable course of action, there is always going to be death and destruction, but I am convinced this is not one of those traditional wars of destroying and tearing down. There is much building up going on, at least from my standpoint.

My recent interactions with the Afghans have also helped me develop a deep respect for the Muslim religion. Many of my biases toward the Islam religion have changed dramatically. My next blog will be devoted to what I have learned about Muslims and their religion. Most of the locals will be celebrating Ramadan from August 11 – September 12. Ramadan is a celebration of the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad. This is a month of fasting from sun up to sun down, repentance, increased prayer, and increased charity. I am excited to learn and experience a little bit of the Ramadan celebration over the next month.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Happy Independence Day!

(I'm sorry there are still no pictures, I'm having trouble uploading them. I'll keep tyring)

I’ve struggled to get back to writing in my blog, partly because I have been so busy, but more so because the things that were so new and exciting to me about living in a war zone have become mundane and in some ways burdensome rather than exciting. I have become so used to seeing armored vehicles, carrying a weapon, wearing battle armor, and experiencing attacks or threats of attacks that I’m not sure what to share at this time. In spite of the difficulties of deployment, my thoughts are turned to the blessings I experience as a citizen of a free nation as we celebrate the independence of the United States of America.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been humbled and sobered as convoys of hummers carrying coffins wrapped in U.S. flags have passed me while working on the flight line. Often this occurs when I am so wrapped up in my duties that I forget there are those from our country giving the ultimate sacrifice every day. It is a constant reminder to me that freedom comes with a price. As the coffins pass by, I often feel that I am standing on hallowed ground. I think about the families and friends of my fallen comrades and how their lives have been changed forever. I am quickly brought to the realization that I too have made an oath to defend my country to my death.

My duties here mainly entail uploading and downloading the aircraft that land at Bagram Air Field. We download everything from pallets of supplies and ammo to armored vehicles. The work often becomes so routine that I don't realize what each pallet or vehicle I download or upload actually means to the war effort. I was reminded of the importance of my duties the other day when I was asked to pick up a pallet for an upload. As I approached the pallet I realized it was a little different than others. When I looked at the contents I realized it was the personal property of a soldier who had given his life in defense of freedom. We were uploading it onto a plane to send to the family members of this deceased soldier. I made a special effort to I handle this pallet with much more care than the other pallets I had picked up that day. I made sure I didn’t let the contents bang around and I took extra time loading it onto the loader. Somehow my job seemed much more meaningful than it was just a few minutes earlier. As I reflected on this experience, I realized that every other pallet I upload or download may be crucial in preventing the deaths of future soldiers.

I have been especially fascinated with how much the United States and other countries are doing here to help the Afghan people establish stability. The base has an American and a Korean hospital which offer medical care to the local people. I have a friend at church who is here to help develop the agriculture throughout Afghanistan. Other friends (military members) do dental work and clean the prison cells for approximately 800 detainees held here at Bagram. I have even made friends with Russians and Azerbaijanis who transport cargo and vehicles to our flight line. I have also developed a love for the local Afghans as they work hard to feed us in the dining facility, clean our barracks and even do our laundry. I would like to share just a few of the meaningful interactions I have had with the people who are fulfilling various missions.

My friend who does dental work on the detainees said that when he heard he was being deployed to Afghanistan he was filled with a sense of patriotism for the opportunity he thought he would have of giving dental care to his fellow service memberr. However, when he arrived to Bagram his heart sank when he was assigned to do dental work on our enemies, those who had either already taken American lives or who had tried to do so. He said that at first it wasn’t so bad as the detainees seemed appreciative. However, as he got to know the detainees they started calling him names and complaining about not getting the care they felt they deserved. Some of them even spit in dentists’ faces or throw feces at them. My other friend who cleans the prison cells said that he went in to clean a cell the other day and a prisoner had left a note with scribbling in English that said, “I killed an American soldier”. My friends say it has been extremely difficult to hold back feelings of anger and revenge. They say it is even more difficult to give care and service to those who wish harm on them. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been extremely helpful in their efforts. They say they are learning to become more like Christ as they serve in this difficult capacity. It was Christ himself who taught, “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you.” I know this almost seems impossible in such circumstances as my friends find themselves. I think Christ is the only one who can really give this counsel since he truly loved his enemies. He was the epitome of this when he prayed to his father while being nailed to the cross “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” As I have thought about my friends experience in working with the detainees, I am filled with gratitude to serve in the military of a country that seeks to treat our enemies with respect even when we are not treated the same way. I realize that we have not been perfect in this, but I believe that as a whole our country and the military are ultimately trying to do what’s right. The end goal of the detention center is to help those detainees who are exhibiting good behavior to leave the Taliban and integrate back into society.

Some of my choicest moments over the past couple of months have been my interactions with the local Afghan people. They are such a humble and accepting people. I am trying to learn some basic Farsi. When I speak with them, they laugh at me, but seem to appreciate that I am trying to speak their language. It is evident to me that most Afghanis are just seeking relief and stability. You can almost see it in their eyes as they have suffered through the wars and violence that have plagued their country for years. I have tried to make friends with the locals that clean our dorms. The other day, one of the cleaners told me that he couldn’t enroll in school because of the war. He told me that he couldn’t even visit his family in Kabul (just over the mountains from us) beacause he might get shot at. As he told me these hardships from the war I could feel the his longing for peace and freedom. It made me realize how blessed I am to have so many opportunities to gain an education and to be able to freely visit my family whenever I want. The locals who are working on base are seen by the Taliban as supporters of the NATO operations here and hence they are targeted as much if not more so than the military members stationed here. I marvel that in spite of this, the locals continue to come here to work. It probably takes great courage for them to just come to work every day. Some of them are supporting the efforts strictly to take a stand against the Taliban. However, I think most don’t have much of a choice. They just come here because it is the best way they can provide for themselves and their families. How grateful I am to live in a country where we can go to work without fear of being attacked by a terrorist group.

As I mentioned, I have also made friends with the Russians who work on the airplanes we download. The other day I was speaking with one of the Russians on the plane about the war in Afghanistan. (I have enjoyed speaking in Russian since it helps me practice the Russian I learned on a two year mission for my church a few years ago. In fact, before coming here I prayed that I would somehow be able to use my Russian to serve my country. I am amazed out how eager the Lord is to answer our prayers when we sincerely ask him for blessings). Anyway, the Russian crew member had some interesting things to say about Afghanistan. He was a bit pessimistic about the future of the country. He said that many years ago the British occupied Afghanistan in attempt to establish stability, they bit off their piece of the bread, found it be bitter and spit it out. A few decades later the Soviets came in and tried a piece of the bread and again found it be bitter and spit it out. He believes that we will learn the same lesson. For the sake of the Afghan people I hope that he is not right. There is some truth in what he is saying, but I believe things will get better for these wonderful people through time. They definitely deserve for things to get better.

The other day I had a conversation with some of my friends from church about the situation here. Their outlook on the future of Afghanistan was a bit more optimistic than the Russian I spoke with. I was grateful for their optimism especially since several of them have been off base and have had more interaction with the locals than I have had. One of my friends works with the local government to help them develop agriculture other than opium. He said that he believes there is much hope in the rising generation. He said that the older generation seems set in their ways and can’t believe that anyone would do anything just out of the goodness of their hearts. They think that we are all here because we want something (oil, minerals, control over this region in the world). They have a hard time trusting us because they have been led corrupt individuals their entire lives. However, he said he sees something different in the youth and the children. When he goes to visit the villages they jump all over him so much that he has a hard time getting into his vehicle. He said they do this not because they want candy that the Americans often try to give them. What he said they really just want paper and pens and pencils to write with. He says they are so eager to learn. My hope is that in 10 or 15 years, having seen some of the blessings that a free democracy provides us, the rising generation will do all they can to establish freedom in their own country.

As one troubled country, Afghanistan, struggles for independence and freedom, I hope those of us who enjoy freedom can appreciate what we have. While I am not able to spend this independence day with family and friends I recognize that this is a small sacrifice to make considering the sacrifices many of the Afghan people and a large portion of the people on this planet have made throughout their lives. I am grateful that I am able to be here to have a tiny part in helping preserve our freedoms and to help establish freedom in Afghanistan. I am grateful to be a citizen of a country that is willing to spend its time and blood to extend some of the blessings we enjoy to other nations. Happy Independence Day!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Happy Memorial Day

(I tried to upload pictures, but the connection is really slow here. I'll keep trying.)

I received an interesting welcome to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan when I woke up a few days after my arrival to the sound of choppers and machine guns right outside my barracks. I looked down the hall to see people rushing to get their weapons and put on their bullet proof vests and Kevlar helmets. My heart began beating rapidly and I began to panic a bit as I donned my vest and helmet and grabbed my weapon. I later learned that suicide bombers had stormed the fenceline and had attempted to get on base. The experience was all very surreal. I felt like I was in an action movie and it would have been kind of exciting if I didn’t know it was actually playing out in real life. The airman next to me was in denial. He was convinced that this was just an exercise. Over the next several hours, I did a lot of praying for my family and friends and for the personnel who were defending the base. Never have I been more grateful for the army as they represent the bulk of those defending us at the gate.

Since the attack a couple of weeks ago, I have been able to get into a better routine. However, I go to bed every night not knowing whether the base will be attacked again. I am reminded daily that I am living in a war zone and that means that there is a chance I could be shot at and even killed. The other day, we downloaded a pallet from a plane that contained the personal items of soldiers who were killed in a roadside bomb recently in Kabul. Their items were being sent back to their families in the states. Even at church on Sunday, we were informed that members of our district (similar to a diocese in the catholic church) had been killed in the recent attacks. I’ve found that it’s easy to focus on the negative or to be overcome by fear, but I’m choosing to press forward in faith and live life. I have found that when I pray often and study the scriptures I am able to face each day with courage. When I am proactive in my duties on the flight line, I feel that I am part of a greater cause and the fear dissipates.

It is amazing the things you learn to appreciate in a war zone. On the afternoon of the attack, I was doing guard duty on the flight line. As I looked at the sun setting over the Hindu Kush, the western continuation of the Himalayas, I was amazed by the contrast of emotions I had felt throughout the day. Just that morning, I felt intense fear, anxiety and darkness, but as I looked at the beautiful sunset, I felt peace, hope and a sense of wonder. This was a reminder to me that God is still there, and that He is ultimately in charge of everything. A few days after the attack a rainbow appeared in the sky after a rainstorm. This is something that most of us would take for granted at home, but in a war zone, everyone cherished the moment.

On a lighter note, Bagram Air Base is a very busy place. The base is extremely crowded and we are only half way through the surge (30,000 additional troops deployed to Afghanistan ordered by President Obama). The living conditions are extremely tight. Let me just say I get to know my three roommates a little too well. When I first arrived to the base and walked out of the passenger terminal onto the base I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. The streets were crowded with people of Arabic, Indian, and Afghan descent. Of course there were also hoards of military personnel, mostly army since Bagram is an army base. Never have I seen so many armored vehicles. I have even been able to drive several of these armored vehicles since my job entails downloading them from aircraft. Many locals have been given jobs on the base to help them feel a sense of ownership in this whole operation and to help the Afghan people to take control when the military presence finally leaves here. I have tried to speak with some of the Afghan people if they speak English. One thing they just can't comprehend about me is how I could be 31 and not married. They seem to think this is a very bad thing. I’m guessing that it is uncommon for men to not be married at my age. Overall, the Afghans seem like a very accepting and humble people. This week the President of Aghanistan (Hamid Karzai) will hold a Peace Jirga (conference) with the intent to bring together tribal elders, officials and local power brokers from around the country, to discuss peace and the end of the Taliban insurgency. Please pray for this process that the Afghan people might be able to establish peace and stability in their country.

Besides working, sleeping, and eating, I have also been able to attend church on Sundays. I don’t know that I have ever appreciated attending church as much as I did the Sunday after the attack. I felt an amazing peace and comfort as we sang the words to the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”. It was as if the Lord was there speaking the words to us as we sang:

Fear not, I am with thee oh be not dismayed,

For I am thy God and will still give thee aid

I’ll strengthen thee help thee and cause thee to stand

Upheld by my righteous, upheld by my righteous, upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand

It was especially humbling to hear the voices of the service men and women in our congregation sing these words. There was a humility and purity in their voices that I have rarely experienced.

We had an LDS chaplain speak of his experiences visiting wounded soldiers and those who were on there way out of this life. He said that every time he enters the hosptal room of such a soldier he feels he is walking on hallowed ground. He said that when he visits these soldiers he nevers knows much about the acclamations, degrees, or material possessions of each soldier. However, he said he always knows something about the person's faith, family, and friends. I hope that this Memorial Day we can all remember that this is what really matters in the end, faith, family and friends.

For the closing hymn of our meeting on Sunday we sang the hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints” The last verse stood out to me in particular:

And should we die before our journey's through, happy day, all is well

We then are free from toil and sorrow too, with the just we shall dwell

Although I have sung these words countless times before, they seemed so much more pertinent to my situation and especially to those who are out fighting on the front lines. How greatful I am to have a knowledge through the gospel of Jesus Christ that this life is not the end. How greatful I am to know that death is but a transition from this life to the next. Given the nature of my duties here, I don't believe I am at as high a risk to die as those fighting on the frontlines. However, I was reminded by the attack the other day, that we can never be sure when will leave this life. I just pray that I might live and appreciate life each day, each minute that I have it.

The last few words of the hymn “Come Come Ye Saints" also gave me great hope:

But if our lives are spared again to see the saints there rest obtain.

Oh how we'll make this chorus swell, all is well, all is well!

I pray that I might return home with honor so I can sing these words once again with family and friends.

Happy Memorial Day!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Deployment Week 1

As of May 13, 2010: I’m staying at the Transit Center at Manas, a transit area for troops (both US and international) coming and going to Afghanistan in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

I’ve served in the Air Force now for about 8 years (4 years active duty, 4 years Reserve). However, this is my first deployment. I didn’t quite volunteer for this deployment since I’m trying to finish graduate school back in the states, but since I’m in the reserves I’ve always known that it was a possibility. Leading up to deployment I’ve had a mixture of thoughts and feelings from frustration, anxiety, fear, and excitement to thoughts of “why did I sign up for the Reserves”, and “what if I don’t make it back alive?” Even though I’ve been gone for less than a week and I’ve yet to arrive at my destination spot, I’ve already learned a lot. I’d like to share a little about what I’ve learned so far.
The flight to Manas took almost two days. I flew on an international airline that was filled solely with Air Force servicemen in uniform. I tried to stay positive, but I found myself easily returning to wallow in thoughts of self-pity, the “why me” type of thinking. However, as I spoke to the airman in the seat next to me, I realized that most o f the servicemen also did not really want to be deploying. The airman sitting next to me was leaving his wife and daughter for a third time. He worked in the hospital at Bagram on his last deployment. I won’t go into details, but he told me graphic stories of treating injured soldiers (lots of blood, screaming, and shrapnel involved). At first I was bit shocked and horrified hearing firsthand the things the news only gives a brief blip of. However, I’ve been extremely humbled and since hearing these and other battle stories. I have begun to view each of the soldiers, marines, and airmen I’ve come in contact with a bit differently. I realize that many of them already have sacrificed much or will sacrifice much (possibly even their lives) over the next four to 18 months. Suddenly the sacrifice I’m making and will continue to make has become a little easier as I realize that I am not alone in my sacrifice, nor can my sacrifice come close to comparing to that of so many other service men and women.

In my two days at the transit base in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve also learned a lot from the locals who live on base. The country of Kyrgyzstan seems to have had a rough history. They were under Soviet rule until the fall of the Soviet Union. Their current government has suffered from two recent coups (one of them just a little over a month ago). They all seem to be uncertain as to what will happen next. The workers I spoke with on base are extremely appreciative for the opportunity to work on an American base and receive much better pay than they would in most jobs off base. Those who work on air conditioning and heating had to be completely trained since they don’t have central heating nor air conditioning in their country. I hope that they can use the skills they’ve learned to help their country once we leave. One of the locals also commented on the American attitude. I was eating with this local in the dining facility and he said he couldn’t believe how much food we wasted. He also commented on our “we are the center of the world” mentality. I admitted to him that we tend to not appreciate all that we have and the can sometimes be bit arrogant. In any case, in speaking to the locals I am reminded of how much we do have. Many of my fellow servicemen are complaining that the food is bad on the base. In reality, even in a warzone we are probably eating better, and have better living quarters than most of the world. We may be living in tents, but at least these tents have AC and heating and even Wireless internet, things that most Kyrgyzstanians probably only dream about.

I’d be lying if I didn't say I haven’t been scared about what the next four months holds for me. The reality of being in a war zone has set in as I’ve been issued battle gear, heard battle stories from returning soldiers, and seen hoards of soldiers and marines carrying M-16s (I too will have to carry an M16 when I arrive to Afghanistan). I’m grateful that my job doesn’t entail going off base and being on the front lines, but you still never know what to expect when you are going to “enemy territory”. The greatest source of strength and comfort for me has been prayer and the Book of Mormon. I have found myself turning to the Lord more than ever, and in many ways I feel like he has been there for me more than ever. Last night, I spoke with one of my fellow airmen who was expressing some of his anxieties about this deployment. I was able to express to him my belief that the Lord truly watches over those who serve in the military. I told him of the many people that pray for the military and that I believe the Lord listens to those prayers. One of the scriptures that has brought me great comfort is about a group of 2,000 young men in the Book of Mormon who never had fought before, but when they were asked to fight they exercised great faith: “Therefore what say ye, my sons, will ye go against them to battle? And now I say unto you, my beloved brother Moroni, that never had I seen so great courage nay, not amongst all the Nephites. For as I had ever called them my sons (for they were all of them very young) even so they said unto me: Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; then let us go forth; we would not slay our brethren if they would let us alone; therefore let us go, lest they should overpower the army of Antipus. Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it. “ (Alma 56: 44-46).
The chapters that follow these verses tell of the battles these young men fought. None of them were killed, yet at the same time there was not one that did not suffer injuries. It brings me great comfort to know that just like myself, there were men who entered into battle never having fought before. Yet, because of their faith in God, they were successful. The fact that they all were injured to some extent, however, also tells me that it won’t be easy.
Until next time!
Peace out!