Afghanistan. I’ve been “in country” now for a few days. We flew into Bagram International Airport just outside Kabul, and stayed there a day and a half. From there, we convoyed out to Camp Phoenix, my current temporary lodging place.
Convoys are always a bit risky - there are IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, those hidden deathtraps responsible for most of those American military killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan) to consider anytime you travel by road. We were briefed on what route we would take, told the IED threat was low, and given ammunition for returning fire if anyone decided to attack us (it rarely happens to U.S. forces - we usually outnumber the guerrilla enemy forces, have better weapons and have body armor, which makes us much more difficult to kill). It was our first foray into the actual environment of Afghanistan, venturing outside the relative safety and easily recognizable military environment of Bagram Airbase.
Traveling along in the back of an open 5-ton truck, I looked out on a small village, filled with Afghans (the people are called Afghans, their official currency is called an Afghani). There were children waving and begging for candy (we have been told not to toss candy at children, for their own safety - unfortunately, children have been killed running after candy in the busy streets), young and old men talking, girls and boys, and an occasional woman in a traditional burqa. All stopped to look at us and study us. Some seemed pleased to see us in our body armor, weapons ready; some seemed nonplussed, some seemed annoyed. The question popped into my mind, “I wonder how many of these Afghans are taking notes on our convoy to pass information back to those we are fighting?” It would be naïve to assume our enemy was unaware or disinterested in our convoy. It was an uneasy feeling, looking out on the faces, knowing some of them were sworn enemies of ours.
The village looked extremely poor - buildings made of mud and wood, sometimes with a metal gate here or there. There were no sidewalks, no lawns, just mud everywhere. In the gathering dusk, there were no lights to be seen. There were few cars, a few bicycles, some motorbikes. Here and there, a street vendor had meat hanging from a cart - a plucked chicken or two, a side of lamb or some other unknown animal, hanging in the air, unwrapped, not refrigerated, simply hanging there. Children laughed and played, sometimes giving us a “thumbs up” sign, stopping their play to look at us while we passed.
It took two hours to get to Camp Phoenix, two long, cold hours traveling in an open truck. We got to our destination, and were herded into a warehouse which the base had converted into berthing, with bunks filling the large corrugated steel room. We were happy to have a place, and happy to have had an uneventful trip. The next day, we discovered that someone had tried to blow up a car bomb at the main gate to Camp Phoenix a couple weeks ago, but was stopped by a very brave Afghan who works as a gate guard (if he was a U.S. Soldier, he would easily have been awarded a medal for bravery). Even in relatively safe and quiet places, Afghanistan can still be a dangerous place.
We will not stay in Camp Phoenix long, but we are enjoying it here while we can. KBR is contracted for most services here, including food service, and they do an excellent job. Our biggest complaint about the food is that it’s so good we will gain weight if we stay here very long. We also have access to phones to call home and computers to e-mail back home. The gym and track are pretty good, too. Life is easy here for a few days. But this is not where our mission is, so we’ll be moving on as soon as they can get a plane for us to get us “downrange.”
Today is my wife’s birthday, so I called home and sang “Happy Birthday” to her. It seems odd to be so far away on her birthday - in years past, the kids and I would do something to celebrate her day, and I would usually take her out for dinner. I feel very disconnected from all that here, half a world away. I think of how I’m eating better than my own family, thanks to the generosity of American taxpayers.
Sometimes I get a little homesick. I miss my wife and kids at times, when I’m not busy trying to get ready for whatever comes next. I don’t have too many times that I sit around with nothing to do - today, I was in a couple training sessions on using U.S. monies for projects supporting our mission. The Army even has funds designated for improving Afghan villages, sort of “good will” funds for projects such as new wells, irrigation systems, schools, even mosques. The money available is significant. I hope we will be able to get some of these type of projects completed when we get downrange.
For now, we are trying to find out about where we will be going and what we should bring - logistical support in this country is dicey, due to both the lack of good roads and the amount of security needed to travel the few roads that exist. Supplies may take weeks to arrive where we are going, so it’s best if we can find out what we need and take it with us when we go.
Here in Camp Phoenix, there are some Afghans who work here, along with workers from other countries as well. There are Soldiers from NATO countries and other foreign military personnel, and many civilian DOD employees. Most of the people are in Army ACU’s, though. I saw an Afghan Soldier outside the post office, and smiled at him - he smiled back. It was a good feeling.
I see and hear negative comments from time to time, and there’s a lot to feel negative about. But I have chosen to remain positive and optimistic about our mission and our chances for success. I will choose to make a difference, as much as possible. Most of us feel likewise - if they don’t, I make it my business to help adjust their attitude. Negativity is infectious, and we have enough obstacles already to overcome. The Afghan people need help, even if it’s just some simple encouragement on our part. And sometimes just a smile is enough to make a difference.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.