I took my first helicopter flight today – I flew from Do China to Salerno, an airbase outside of Khowst, Afghanistan. The flight took a little less than an hour; if we had to drive here in a convoy, it would have taken at least three days.
Unfortunately, the helicopter arrived to take a Soldier home to a sick daughter – the Red Cross sent us a message stating the girl had been taken to the hospital, so the command released him to go home for emergency leave. Since the flight was coming anyway, I got on it as well. (Of course, as I expected, the regular flight which was supposed to arrive a day ago was cancelled – go figure!).
Since I hadn’t left on the 14th, as scheduled, yesterday I went out on a mission: I was the driver for our vehicle, and we went to an Afghan National Police station northwest of us. We had a meeting with the police chief, who was finalizing plans to build a new station. After the meeting, we went further north to explore a village; the ANP had received information indicating there were Taliban in the village. Of course, as usual, when we asked the villagers if there had been any Taliban, they said no. Nobody ever sees any Taliban in our area. We know they are somewhere around, but no one will admit it and tell us about it – it violates their cultural norms. To give information to us about the Taliban would be to surrender them to non-Muslims, which to these people would be bad. Even though the Taliban is their enemy, and they hate them, they will not give them up to us. It’s ridiculous, but we encounter this all the time.
So I spent 12 hours sitting in the front seat of our HMMWV. My butt and my back were numb at the end of the mission. “Captain Kirk,” our team chief, told me I could get a back massage when I get to Bagram before I go on leave. I quipped back, “I hope I can get a butt massage instead!” He shot back a joke about how I would probably get a gay guy to give me one, and I replied I didn’t care about the massager’s sexual preference, as long as I could get some relief for my dead butt. Army humor is usually pretty sardonic.
My butt was still sore when I got on the helicopter, and I quickly discovered that Blackhawk helicopter seats aren’t built for comfort – they are made like cots, with fabric suspended over a tube frame. I mentally prepared myself for more butt and back pain.
The flight itself was surprisingly smooth, like flying in a small plane. We stayed pretty level for most of the flight, occasionally rising to clear a mountain, then coming back down to zoom along several hundred feet above the plains below. I was surprised to see I had actually been higher when I was on some of the mountains we had climbed than we were flying. But I was able to look down directly into villages and courtyards, seeing what their walls were build to prevent being seen. Herds of goats would race to group together as we passed overhead, their herd instinct directing them to gather in a bunch for safety from a strange enemy above them. I saw the rough roads passing through the desert, and thought how difficult it was for us to navigate them, and how easy it was for us to travel above them. It grew dark as we went on. Finally, we saw the simple lights of the city of Khowst.
I’m not used to seeing lights inside an Afghan home, so this was something new to me. The lights looked identical – at first I couldn’t tell if they were street lights or lights inside kolats (the Afghan home courtyard). As we got directly above the houses, I saw that they were fluorescent lights, hanging vertically inside almost every courtyard, a single light source for the entire house. I saw an occasional light in a window, but for the most part, these Afghans seemed to have only the one light.
I had heard about Khowst: this is a city where the Taliban had been quite active. It’s close to the Pakistan border, and it’s one of the largest cities in Afghanistan. Still, it’s nothing like an American city – there are no skyscrapers, no city blocks, and much, much less traffic than one would find even in a very small American city. Still, compared to Do China, it was urbane.
We landed at FOB Salerno, and I found a tent with a cot for transient Soldiers like myself. I was surprised to find some of the Soldiers from the Air Cavalry unit who had been with us in Do China a few months ago – a couple of them were here in Salerno because they were undergoing physical therapy for injuries they sustained when they hit an IED. They had been assigned to an area of Afghanistan that was pretty “hot” (i.e., full of enemy activity) – they had been in a three-hour firefight one day, and had hit three IED’s in less than a month. Still, their injuries were not serious, and they had killed several Taliban, thanks partially to having night vision capabilities.
So we reminisced about the times we had at Do China, and caught each other up on news about each of our battles. It sounds almost morbid to say we talked about being shot at, but it’s what Soldiers do, and I suppose it’s something we share, in an odd way. We joked about how every story starts with the words, “There I was, no shit!” as if those words make the story more factual (we laughed about how usually that’s when we’re listening to a whopper of a tale).
Salerno has some of the nicest amenities of any FOB in Afghanistan, including and excellent chow hall, good shower facilities, a huge gym, Internet and phone service, and to my surprise, one of the best chapels to be found anywhere. I am going to have several days ahead of me before I can fly home, so I decided I would remain here in Salerno until this coming Sunday, so I can hear a church service in the chapel, look at the stained glass, and feel something other than the sadness I have had lingering in the back of my head.
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.