Mission to Afghanistan: Final thoughts
January 6, 2013
Those who have ever seen a fallen soldier’s table know it symbolizes a missing serviceman or woman or a prisoner of war, or it can be a reminder to honor those who died in combat.Americans are ever mindful of the sacrifices others have made before them. At the main dining facility at Forward Operating Base Shank, photos of military personnel who died in the line of duty hang on both sides of a wall, overlooking the corridor from the main door to the dining room. The person’s name and a short description of the individual’s sacrifice accompanies the framed photo.Once soldiers and contractors reach the dining room, they see an empty table with place settings for each branch of the service; likewise, at the main dining facility at Camp Phoenix near Kabul, a single setting remains unoccupied. On every wall in both large rooms of the cafeteria hang photos of servicemen and women who have died in Afghanistan. Each has a story to tell and a sacrifice for each of us to remember.Stopping to read the explanation of the soldier’s table evokes a solemn response, a reflective time to think of our own mortality, especially in a war zone.Sgt. 1st Class Dionne Miller, the NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge) of the dining facility at FOB Shank, told me of the importance of the soldier’s table and the thoughts it evokes from her. She is a very graceful woman — as is her staff — in allowing me to write about such important part of military tradition. For Miller, though, the table is a sacred reminder of those who served and gave unwillingly of themselves. A subtle reminder of war’s human toll can also be spotted at the bottom of the crew assignment board at Bravo Company, 189th General Support Aviation Battalion’s command post.Flying missions over Afghanistan is risky business, and the risks involved resulted in 30 deaths in August 2011 when insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter near FOBShank. The majority of those killed were Navy SEALs, while five crew members perished along with three airmen who were on the flight.The CH-47D and its Army crew members included Chief Warrant Officer David R. Carter, Chief Warrant Officer BryanJ. Nichols, StaffSgt. Patrick D. Hamburger, Sgt. Alexander J. Bennett and Spc. Spencer C. Duncan.The young facesof deploymentThe face of war shows the youthfulness of a new generation.Although many veterans have already served two or three deployments, others are experiencing their first overseas duty. I saw their youthful faces when visiting the USS John C. Stennis and Kandahar Air Field in 2011 and now I see it again at Forward Operating Base Shank and Camp Phoenix.When I was in my 20s, I was entering my profession and trying to establish myself. I had responsibilities, but not the responsibilities our young sailors and soldiers perform day after day. During my time at Phoenix, I talked with young mothers who miss their children, yet they are focused on the mission for the 593rd Transportation Company. One such mother is Angela Palmer of Reno, who spoke fondly of her 7-year-old child, yet she knows her husband is taking excellent care of their daughter.“She sends me artwork every week, and I post it by my bed,” Palmer said, as we sat in the unit’s patio area discussing her deployment.Then, there’s Paul Gardner of Winnemucca, who graduated from high school in 2003. As a full-time soldier for the Nevada Army National Guard, he serves as the training NCO (noncommissioned officer) in Winnemucca, but in Afghanistan, he is responsible for every soldier’s administrative record.“For a career, this definitely helps out a lot,” he said, while we walked to various areas of the base.Brandon Ortiz recently celebrated his 21st birthday, yet the Reno resident is turning wrenches as a mechanic. He, too, looks at his time in this war-torn country as a stepping stone to help develop a career once he returns home.The wide ranges of Nevada is where David “Chase” Iveson calls home. Living the life is a young man who currently lives in Starr Valley, a beautiful area of Northern Nevada that hugs the Ruby Mountain foothills between Wells and Elko. Barely in his 20s, Iveson works on a ranch, but here he serves as gunner on convoys. We have been able to share some stories of people we both know in Wells and Starr Valley since I lived in the region during the late 1970s, early 1980s.He served as my gunner when I travelled into Kabul in an armed convoy.In nearby Elko, the Greener brothers, both in their 20s, have “each other’s back” in Afghanistan. Dustin, 20, and Chris, 23, are serving their first overseas deployment. Chris said they don’t see each other, but they have faith in each other to do their jobs and to be focused on the mission.Jessica Weaver now lives in Reno, but she graduated from Douglas High School in 2008. She depends on her network of friends with the 593rd and looks up to the older soldiers for their advice.While at FOB Shank, I also talked with another set of brothers who both knew my sons at Churchill County High School. Bobby Graves and Jeffrey Fiske represent a new 20s generation that is making a big impact on their unit’s missions. They both told me they worry about each other, but they know the mission comes first.Each generation wonders what the next will bring, but based on the many young men and women with whom I have interviewed this year at Shank and Phoenix, I feel proud they are serving their country as soldiers in a land half-way around the world.A rare hour of entertainmentTo pass time, most soldiers watch DVDs, listen to music or surf the Web.A bouquet of country music, however, bloomed on Afghanistan’s high desert as five country music artists performed a variety of popular songs from that genre.For an hour at FOB Shank, Armed Forces Entertainment presented its “Nashville to You Tour” to several hundred soldiers.The country music songwriters from the Nashville area performed for about an hour at the base’s gym and presented many recognizable hits. The musicians — spokesman Keni Thomas, Billy Montana, Hillary Lindsey, Ray Scott and Troy Verges — sung songs that have been aired on radio and performed on many television shows including American Idol.Montana, for example, wrote a song that became a No. 1 hit for Garth Brooks, called “More Than A Memory,” while Lindsey performed the song “Coming Home” from the movie “County Strong.” Carrie Underwood has taken five of Lindsey’s songs and turned them into No. 1 hits.The musicians flew from Tennessee to Kuwait and then into Bagram. From there, the Army shuttled the musicians to two FOBs each day aboard a helicopter.Before he began singing, Verges honored the soldiers.“This is amazing to be here and thank you in person,” he said.For Thomas, visiting the troop rekindled some memories. He spent seven years in the Army assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and received the Bronze Star for valor.“This was a chance to come out here and do some tours,” he said.Necessities and giftsServicemen rely on the post exchange for daily items in life such as shaving cream, soap, extra towels and so forth. Others buy cans of energy drinks.Each base I visited in Afghanistan has a post exchange and a few shops, something to give the troops a taste of home.At Bagram, several bazaars, one on each end of Disney Way, sells everything from jewelry to clothing to souvenirs of Afghanistan. Last year on the Boardwalk at Kandahar Air Field, bought handcrafted leather items to bring home.Likewise, at Camp Phoenix, a small area set aside for shops practically sells the same thing. Near each post exchange, vendors hawk not only the aforementioned items, but they also sell Afghan-made rugs — some that show the rich texture of the handiwork — and others that show a map of the country with each province stitched in a different color. Others specialize in DVDs and CDs.At FOBShank, a rocket propelled grenade destroyed several vendors’ buildings on the southside of the base, causing some to relocate and others to shutter their businesses.Other vendors remained open with their shops near the dining facility including Mike’s Airborne Store and Sham’s Walmart, two stores selling almost the same items such as jewelry, clothes, bags, rugs, military patches and leather jackets.The young merchant, who says his name is Sham, admit claims he has a small franchise of Sham’s Walmart at the various bases but that cannot be verified. Sham, though for being a young man, is a good hustler trying to make a sale. Veterans Day overseasFlying into Bagram Air Field made passengers temporarily forget the war on terror in Afghanistan. The jet’s banking tight turns near the mountains almost allowed the passengers to reach out the windows and pat the layer of snow on the tallest peaks. Upon our landing at the massive air field north of Kabul, however, jarred any fleeting thoughts of nature’s beauty overtaking the sights and sounds of war because of the constant roar of jet engines and the whirl of helicopter blades.For those serving in the military, Veterans Day was another day here at Bagram. No parades, no special breakfasts or lunches to remind them of their special occasion, Veterans Day.Yet, for me, coming to Bagram made the war come closer to home. While 99 percent of those deployed to Bagram have no idea of the meaning behind the naming of Disney Drive, the air field’s main drag has signs strategically placed to tell the story of Fallon’s Jason Disney, who became one of the Afghanistan war’s first casualties. I had learned of this honor last year when I stayed at Bagram before heading to another camp to visit the 485 Military Police Company. It was humbling to tell his story to those who are currently in Bagram.Veterans Day, though, has a special meaning for a special fellowship of men and women who have served or are currently donning the uniform to defend our freedom and way of life. Military men and women put in long hours for modest pay and, and on many occasions, are away from family on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. It was for that exact reason, however, that I was with a Nevada Guard unit on Thanksgiving to hear our soldiers sharing their thoughts on being separated from their loved ones on such a special holiday.Furthermore, it doesn’t make a difference if our veterans have been in a war zone on multiple tours or one because dangers face them every day, and ‚ as I previously said — the enemy doesn’t take a day off.Veterans Day had passed in Afghanistan but was being honored at home,Residents in any community should take time to know veterans better by hearing their stories of duty and sacrifice.Being a journalist has given me that opportunity to know some of our Fallon veterans better, and especially those who fought during World War II. Sadly, this is a generation of military men and women that is slowly disappearing and without many of us knowing the sacrifices they made.Cecil Quinley’s exploits during the second world war became one of my most enriching interviews. It was equally interesting to have his wife, Margaret, involved with the story telling because she shared their love story of how she missed her husband after he shipped off to Europe and how she coped when he became a prisoner of war. Their love has endured over all these years since they said their vows almost 75 years ago.Five years ago when a restored B-17 appeared at the Reno Air Show, I learned of Cecil’s time spent on the Flying Fortress. Now in his late 90s, Cecil’s mind was still vivid in describing the details of his 14 bombing missions over Germany. On the 14th, though, the Germans shot down Cecil’s plane, thus forcing the crew to parachute into the countryside. Eventually, the Germans rounded up the crew including Cecil, and they spent the final 15 months as POWs.Or the late Argus “Gus” Forbus, who passed away earlier this year. His son James provided me with a manuscript that he and his father had put together, telling about Gus’ time spent in the U.S. Marine Corps and the different battles in which he fought.Or Al Pierre, who joined the Navy in 1943 when he was 18. He initially spent time aboard three ships including an LSM (landing ship medium-transport). Shipmates, like others who have served in any branch of the military, joined their Navy brothers in Fallon in 2010 when the Western State Chapter of the USS LSM/LSMR Association met for its annual reunion.Sharing memories makes these reunions special.From that World War II generation to the generation of men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, stories still abound including how former Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center commander Vice Adm. Mark Fox was one of the first Navy aviators to fly over Baghdad in January 1991 when the United States began bombing the Iraqi capital to force the Saddam Hussein regime to pull out of Kuwait.Or the stories came from the hundreds of our local men and women representing all branches of the service, especially from Naval Air Station Fallon, who all have stories stemming their service.Thank you veterans — young and old — and thank you to the thousands who posted on social media their support for our veterans.Coming home … leaving?By mid-spring, both the aviation and transportation companies will be back home, but other units are deploying later in the year, one to Afghanistan and the other to Kuwait. One unit has informally extended an invitation for me to stay with them as they travel overseas. The invitation is very enticing. For me, it’s another chance to tell new stories of Nevada soldiers and airmen in harm’s way. It doesn’t take long for me to pack my bags.