MISSION TO AFGHANISTAN: Living the good life

Day 5, a day at FOB Shank - Mid-November and dustier than hell. Dust, and the furniture is soon caked again with the fine powdery stuff.

Imagine a tent city in the middle of the Nevada desert with no paved roads. The scene could also be of one portrayed in the Old West of a mining camp with narrow dirt streets and dust flying everywhere. For others, the Burning Man site could be transformed into a civilian-type FOB on the Black Rock playa but only without rules.

Such a place for Nevada guardsmen is Forward Operating Base Shank, located in the middle of a valley southwest of Kabul. For being a moderate-sized post, Shank is important to the Army as a tactical installation positioned nearer to the action. The division or other unit above the FOB supports the installation with supplies and personnel and, in turn, the FOB supports other bases within its area of responsibility. That is a quick, simple explanation.

For example, one of the missions of Bravo Company, 189th GSB Aviation of the Nevada Army National Guard is ferrying supplies to another post.

What's life like for soldiers living at a FOB? Accommodations are not exactly the Peppermill, but they are quaint. Large tents are divided into rooms which contain a bunk bed, a small light for reading and closet. Showers and the latrine aren't too far away - some within 50 feet, others a good 300-400-feet away.

Gotta love combat showers. To save water, certain limitations have been placed on the water soldiers use for showers. Once water flows over the soldier's skin before lathering, the soldier must turn off the water, soap and then turn the water on to rinse. The entire process take about three minutes.

The combat showers at Bagram Air Field seem luxurious compared to this. There, soldiers are allowed three to five minutes for a shower.

Nevada guardsmen tell me once they return home next year, the first priority is spending time with the family. The second priority will be spending an hour in a warm shower.

I wonder if a hot tub will suffice?

Soldiers eat well while in the garrison. Several dining facilities are within walking distance and provide a warm, nutritious meal. The offerings do not rival those of Harrah's, but the meals are a better alternative than devouring MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) on a regular basis.

The military's AFN television network beams programs into Shank via satellite, and Internet capability to send a message to home can be completed at a Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) building. The facility is equipped with several phones for the soldiers to call home after purchasing minutes. Others, though, buy a calling card to place their call to the United States.

The first time I traveled overseas for a military exercise occurred in the early 1980s, and the only methods to contact home from my location in the Republic of Korea were to call on a MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) line, send a telegram or actually write a letter on paper, stuff it in an envelope, buy a stamp and mail it. What a novel idea.

Military old-timers, though, will remember MARS. Each person had to say "over" when done with a comment or two. That cued the operator to switch to the other person, so he or she could respond.

"Hello, dear. How are you and the kids? Over."

The operator makes the switch.

"Fine, but the kids miss you. Over."

The operator makes another switch. Usually, each person would try to say as much as possible during one turn to avoid the constant switch between the two parties.

Thousands of miles from home and guess who I saw department ....

At lunch today, I learned of a Civil Affairs unit from Las Vegas that has been at Shank since March. Soldiers represent several states, but the commander and executive officer live in southern Nevada. A first lieutenant formerly lived in Douglas County but moved from there to Utah in 2009.

This is another one of these "the world is small" chance encounters.

• Lahontan Valley News Editor Steve Ranson, who retired from the Nevada Army National Guard in 2009, is visiting the Silver State's soldiers in Afghanistan for the next two weeks and will be writing about their missions in the weeks ahead.


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