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Every Day Challenging for U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Dec. 17, 2001 – "We are parked in a minefield. When you get out of the aircraft do not leave the concrete."

That was "Welcome to Afghanistan" for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his party Dec. 16.

It might be stating the obvious to say that Afghanistan is a dangerous place, but it is. There is no such thing as "normal" in Afghanistan. Every day is a challenge for U.S. military personnel in the country.

The C-17 Rumsfeld flew in on parked on a concrete apron right next to a minefield at Bagram Air Base about 20 miles from the capital of Kabul. While no one is casual about the presence of minefields -- explosive ordnance disposal teams are working on the problem -- there seems to be a certain amount of acceptance of these difficulties.

The airman who gave the warning was just being truthful -- there has been a lot of fighting in the country over the last 30 years, and landmines and unexploded ordnance litter the area. "There used to be a lot of souvenir hunting here until a Brit got his foot blown off here a couple of weeks ago," an Army reservist pulling duty at the base said.

The Brit stepped on a "toe-popper." This particularly vicious mine is designed to maim -- not kill -- and to be virtually undetectable. It is a wooden or plastic box filled with plastic explosive. There is a small triggering device that sets it off. No one knows how many thousands of these mines are in Afghanistan. Other pieces of ordnance -- fired, dropped or planted -- remain in the country, and service members assigned there must be careful.

Bagram is the temporary home of 10th Mountain Division soldiers supporting Army units and Air Force tactical airlift control element personnel. It is not a charming place. The air base sustained heavy damage in fighting between Afghan warlords in the early and mid 1990s.

It was once the main base in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Most of the structures and facilities date from that time. Bagram was not particularly damaged during the current campaign against Al Qaeda. Still, the Taliban government, in power in the area from 1997 until November, does not appear to have been too handy. "This is your classic fixer-upper," said an Army engineer construction supervisor.

Bullets and shrapnel pockmarked all of the buildings on base. There doesn't seem to be an unbroken window on the base. The best hanger still has holes in the roof from where it was hit by mortar fire.

Right outside the hanger is the "aircraft petting zoo," as one American called it. These destroyed jets line a taxiway. MiG-17s and other dated Soviet-era aircraft are the stars of this zoo, and American service members found burnt out hulks in the hangars years after they were damaged.

It is important to clean up this air base because it is going to be a major hub in the humanitarian rescue mission for Afghanistan, American officials have said. Hundreds of thousands of people in the country are in danger of starvation. "This is a very poor country," said an aid to Hamid Karsai, soon to be the interim prime minister of Afghanistan. "We need much food."

Getting the food to cities is not going to be a problem, U.S. defense officials said. But the distribution set-up outside the cities is broken, and it will be very difficult to get relief supplies to those who need it most.

So American service members are in Bagram, and they are coping with life Afghan style. "There's a certain wild West attitude," said Sgt. Wayne, a civil affairs specialist. Ground rules for media on the trip forbid fully identifying service members for security reasons. "This is certainly reinforced by the fact that everyone here carries a weapon of some sort," Wayne said.

The Americans live in former Soviet barracks that were fought over for years. They call it "the Crack House" because the inside has been totally gutted. There are no walls, windows, doors, shelves, plumbing, or roofs. When the soldiers and airmen first arrived, they had to scavenge to make the building shells even remotely livable. What they couldn't scavenge on base, they had to buy in town. "The Afghans really don't like foreigners in their country," Wayne said. "We try to blend in as best as an American can."

To that end, the sergeant and many of his compatriots dress in civilian clothes, have gown beards and wear Afghan accoutrements. Many Army and Air Force personnel have bought traditional Northern Afghan hats called pakols. "Oh, I guarantee this will be the latest style in another month," said a young Army captain. "But it makes sense. Americans stick out like sore thumbs usually."

There was no running water on the base when the personnel first arrived. "We went 18 days without a shower," said an Army officer. "We tried using those (pre-moistened wipes), but they don't work real well."

Another officer held out his hands. "Look at that," he said, showing ingrained dirt. "This is what happens here. Even if you do get clean, you won't stay that way for long." That's because of the drought the country has been going through for the last four years. It is so dry that the dust has become super fine and is stirred by even the smallest wind. "This will take a scrub brush to get off when we get back," the officer said.

Supplies are another worry for the personnel at Bagram. "The secretary's C-17 was the first one to come in during daytime," said Specialist Jerry. "We're hoping this means the Air Force will fly in supply missions via C-17. The C- 130 is good, but the ones they use are half full of electronic gear, so there's not a lot of room for supplies."

Chow for these troops is still pre-packaged field rations until regular re-supply runs are established.

Given the difficulties, you might expect low morale. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The American service members are proud and excited about their mission. "If folks in the Air Force saw how we live, they'd pee their pants," said an Air Force security policeman. He was giving voice to an oft-repeated stereotype that airmen generally live in better conditions than their Army counterparts.

"But we know this is important to the United States, and we know we're doing a good job," the airmen said. "No one here would trade the experience, believe me."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe "aircraft petting zoo" as some Americans call it lines the taxiway at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNorthern Alliance troops are careful to stay on the concrete of the runway at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, Dec. 16 as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrives in the embattled country. The hangers and rubble in the background are all that is left of the once thriving airport. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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