MISSION TO AFGHANISTAN: Rolling into Kabul
KABUL — Some doubt from higher headquarters existed if tonight’s convoy (Nov. 21) would roll through Kabul from Camp Phoenix to Camp Eggers, a small NATO camp near the U.S. Embassy and the presidential palace.Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber detonated his vest, killing two Afghanistan guards and himself before stunned onlookers. The embassy area was no stranger to the danger that lurks in the nerve center of Kabul due to a situation in early September that produced similar deadly results.Since July, the Nevada Army National Guard’s 593rd Transportation Company has been conducting convoys throughout Regional Command-Capital, the area that encompasses all of Kabul and its surrounding villages. All told, the 593rd completed more than 100 successful convoys before I rode on one into Kabul with Capt. Curtis Kolvet, commander of the 593rd, a 21-year-old driver from Boulder City and a 19-year-old gunner from Starr Valley, a rich agricultural area midway between Elko and Wells in northeastern Nevada.Preparation for our early evening convoy started the day before with safety briefings and followed up on the day of the trip with more updated reports.As convoy commander, 30-year-old 2nd Lt. Yelena Yatskikh reviewed the reports and said the routes into Kabul to the embassy appeared safe, as did the route to two other bases east of Kabul that required personnel and supplies. Yatskikh initiated the final preparation for the convoy hours before departure time. Civilian passengers destined for one of the bases arrived with their luggage and checked in. Crews also arrived and began their final inspection on the MRAPs or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, distinguished by their weight and size.The lead MRAP in the convoy, the MATV, carries up to four passengers, while the RG33 holds eight passengers and the MAXXPRO, the taller MRAP, seats between four and six passengers. The MRAP’s heavy construction is designed to withstand an IED(Improvised Explosive Device).Kolvet said the run into Kabul would be a typical mission for the 593rd that his crews have accomplished many times.“A typical mission for us is days of prep work, intelligence and route assessments and customer unit coordination,” explained Kolvet. “Operating in an urban environment of 5 million people in large tactical vehicles is a difficult challenge that our drivers make seem easy every day. They maneuver roads and routes that are designed for small civilian cars in unarmored vehicles the size of semi trucks, and our guys and gals do it as well as anyone in the country.” Departure time grew closer, and the crew on every MRAP began to don their body armor and Kevlar helmets. I slipped 30 pounds of body armor over my head and adjusted the straps before placing the helmet on my head. I then stuffed my camera gear into the passenger’s back seat area that contained as much legroom as my economy-class flight accommodations between San Francisco and Frankfurt. Five minutes remained before the convoy left Phoenix. All of us climbed into the MATV, snapped on the seat and harness belts and prepared for departure. Lined up in single file, the MRAPs idled, waiting for Yatskikh to issue the command to roll out of Phoenix onto one of the major highways coming into Kabul. It was dusk, and with a moonless sky the night grew very dark, very quickly.Driver Spc. Julia Rodriguez may be one of the shortest drivers in the convoy, but the repetition of driving Kabul’s narrow streets has made her a conscientious, yet aggressive driver.Rodriguez said she likes being a driver and in control of the vehicle, especially when she is the lead vehicle. The southern Nevada soldier likes to tell people that she enjoys driving because she is a small female in control of a large MRAP. That confidence is not wasted on Kolvet. “You cannot afford to be timid driving on the streets in Kabul … you have to be aggressive yet mindful of civilian traffic and pedestrians while maintaining control of the roads and standoff distances to ensure the safety of the convoy and the Afghan drivers on the road with you,” Kolvet said. “What impresses me the most is how much we entrust and rely on very young soldiers in their late teens and early 20s to execute such difficult tasks on a daily basis, and how well they do it.”“I trust each and every one of them to know their job and execute competently and with knowledgeable deliberation, and they do just that time after time,” Kolvet said. “They exhibit a maturity and focus well beyond their years which I attribute not just to them but the great leadership they’ve received from the company’s more experienced noncommissioned officers.” Kolvet rode shotgun in the passenger seat, advising Rodriguez of oncoming vehicles or unusual circumstances.While Rodriguez maneuvered the multi-ton vehicle toward an outer base, Spc. David “Chance” Iveson clutched his machine gun through the roof portal and rotated from side to side, keeping a vigilant eye on the people and vehicles.“I enjoy being a gunner. I am focused and I have a job to do,” said Iveson.After we completed two stops, the convoy returned to Camp Phoenix to pick up passengers for the run to Eggers, a trip that depending on traffic could take as long as 30 minutes each way. Kabul’s pulse pounded that night — as did ours — with grocery stores still open, people sipping tea at patio cafes and vendors hawking their wares, most notably fruits and vegetables.Each person in the MATV, including me, focused on the activity outside the vehicle during our trip to the embassy. Once we arrived and unloaded our passengers, we returned to Camp Phoenix.Mission accomplished in less than four hours.“The drive around Kabul was a quick and efficient movement and went very well,” Kolvet said “It was a characteristic run that we’re used to seeing with that type of mission. This comes throughgood training and the experience of doing it a couple of hundred times and often times at night with limited visibility. “With that comes confidence, and in regards to specialist Rodriguez, that’s what you saw, confidence in her abilities behind the wheel and knowing she has the aid of her crew members like Spc. Iveson to assist in traversing difficult urban terrain and choke points.” Rodriguez said she was comfortable with both Kolvet and me in the vehicle.“I felt confident and honored that you were in my vehicle,” she said. “It meant that you had some trust in my abilities as a driver because you could have been in any vehicle, and you agreed to ride with me as the driver around Kabul.”With the night mission done, Rodriguez said she prefers night missions because the trucks are more concealed and also there is not as much traffic. She sometimes gets nervous when there is excessive traffic because most of the local vehicles are very small compared to the MRAPs. Also, Rodriguez said she is afraid “a child may run out into the street and get run over” because they seem to be fearless around all of the vehicles.