The view from one of the few windows in the C-17
One of the things that the U.S. Military and the USO take seriously on these tours is security, so we were not informed of any of our actual destinations until we were ready to depart. Therefore none of us knew until the tour commenced that we were headed to Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan (after Kabul) and the location of the Kandahar Airfielf (KAF) the largest military base in the southern part of the country and second largest in Afghanistan after Bagram. It’s also a NATO base, with 27 nations represented there as part of the International Security Assitance Force (ISAF). Of course we never saw the actual city of Kandahar… we were on either the base or on route to/from or at nearby forward operating bases.
Afghanistan from the air
Our C-17 landed just before noon local time at KAF, and we were met by our local liaisons/guides, DOD civilian contractors Tammie Van Diest and Joe Pettoni from the base in Bagram and Sgt. Deb Valdez and Capt. Charri Leonard who were stationed at KAF. They escorted us to our lodgings, a square of one story fiberglass buildings containing 15 or so rooms each and bathroom facilities. While austere they were quite comfortable and clean, and we bunked three to a room. These lodgings are for VIPs, and we were told they are like 5 star resorts compared to typical soldier accommodations. The bathrooms had real toilets, sinks and showers with plenty of hot water… something you don’t see a lot of on the bases in Afghanistan, especially the plumbing. Lacking any kind of real sewage system or infrastructure, most of the toilets there are porta-potties or “honeypots” as they are known there.
Speaking of sewage, one of the most famous (or infamous) landmarks in KAF is the “Poo Pond” or “Stinky Pond” or in less delicate terminology, the “Shit Pond”. KAF has no septic or water treatment facility, so all the human waste is dumped into one large, man-made central “pond” which serves both as a gigantic DNA record of anyone and everyone who has ever visited KAF and the source of one mother of an enormous, eye-watering stench. I got a few souvenirs while in Afghanistan, and one of them was this t-shirt:
Sunbathing on the beach and swimming there is discouraged.
Supposedly in June of 2001 the Stinky Pond will be replaced by a new water treatment facility. I say “supposedly” because few of the soldiers that mentioned this say they will believe it until they see it. In the meantime the popular saying there is “I love the smell of Poo Pond in the morning”.
Some of the gang outside our lodging
We had a few hours to get settled in before out first drawing session, so after getting our gear stowed we went to grab some lunch. While we were cleared to use the base’s dining facilities (D-FACS) we elected to visit another of the landmarks of KAF: The Boardwalk.
The KAF Boardwalk
The Boardwalk is a a half square mile of covered, raised decking that surrounds a large dirt courtyard and is lined with shops, restaurants and food stands a little like an outdoor mall. It’s an oasis of home in the middle of the Afghan wilderness.
It is pretty surreal to be having lunch at a TGIFridays in Afghanistan, but that’s what we did. We could have opted for KFC, or italian at Mama Mia’s, or New York Style Pizza or a few other food stands. Some of us were looking forward to trying authentic kabobs from one of the food stands but rumor of the establishment’s nickname of “Protezoa House” caused us to second guess that idea.
Some of the vendors on the Boardwalk
The Boardwalk also contained a telephone center and internet cafe, coffee shop, several store with local goods and souvenirs, a few PX stores from some of the countries of soldiers stationed there like Germany, France and the Netherlands, a stage where visiting musical acts perform and a hockey rink, of all things. Construction was going on for a concrete running track along the perimeter of the courtyard.
The stage for USO concerts
The Boardwalk was also like a mirage, in that it was a thin veneer over the reality of being in a very desolate land. The restaurants are often out of this and that, and when they are out of something that’s it. There was no creamer for the coffee at “Green Beans”, the local coffee stand. That is hardly a big deal, but it does drive home how isolated you really are in that place. Back home, if you want to get creamer for your coffee and a place is out of it you just go to the next place. If you want a Diet Coke you are only a short trip away from somewhere that you can get one as long as you have a buck or two. Here, if they don’t have what you are looking for it doesn’t matter how much money you have… you aren’t getting it. Standing at the crossroads sign in the corner of the Boardwalk you see and understand you are some 11,000 miles away from home, where creamer and Diet Coke are plentiful and you are not hitting the deck when the air raid siren goes off signaling a possible rocket attack on the base. It’s no wonder these soldiers are so appreciative when we do our silly little drawings for them… it’s just another piece of home they can grab ahold of.
A long way from anywhere
The Rocket Attack
Note to self- the next time I go on one of these USO tours to a war zone, DO NOT tell The Lovely Anna if there is a rocket attack on our base until AFTER I get home.
Yes, the sirens went off about two hours after we arrived at KAF signaling that everyone should take cover due to a possible rocket attack. I was fast asleep in my bunk taking a nap while my roommates Garry “Doonesbury” Trudeau and Mike “Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist” Luckovich were out on the boardwalk. We had been briefed before that while there was a bunker just outside the entrance to our lodgings, our building was in fact a bunker itself being surrounded on all sides by 12 foot tall concrete “T-Walls”, so it was not necessary to head for the bunker unless you really wanted to. We were, however, supposed to get on our IBAs (body armor) and lay flat on the ground. I was flat on my bunk about 2 feet from the ground so I thought that was close enough. Guide Joe, Jeff “The Family Circus” Keane and Stephan “Pearls Before Swine” Pastis left me for dead and headed to the bunkers to save their own skins… I’ll remember that the next time I consider throwing myself on a live cup of spilling McDonald’s coffee to save them being scalded. Anyway we never even found out if a rocket landed anywhere on the base, which is so huge a dozen rockets could land there and we’d never even hear them. No cartoonists were injured in the attack, but Stephan may have soiled his underwear.
Drawing at KAF
Later that afternoon we did a drawing session on the base. One of the unfortunate but necessary things about the tour was that we split into two groups for most of our time in Afghanistan… it’s better that way so we see more soldiers and can cover more ground, but it’s a lot more fun to all be together. My group consisted of myself, Jeff Keane and Stephan Pastis aka the “A team”, since we were clearly the better drawing, appealing and looking team than those slouches Trudeau, Luckovich and Rick “Baby Blues” Kirkman. we drew at the Moral, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) center while Team Bravo aka the “Junior Varsity” went to the brand new USO center.
The A Team at the MWR Center
Myself, Jeff and Stephan doing our thing
Most of the soldiers we drew were stationed at KAF or in transit to or from FOBs in the south of Afghanistan. It is always incredibly interesting to hear the stories of the people we meet… where they are from, what their job is and what they think of their tour of duty. I drew an artillery supplier, several mechanics that worked on helicopters and F-18 fighters, communications specialists, convoy security escorts and a number of civilian contractors there doing things like building bunkers and shelters, translating the local dialects of Pashto and Dari and other jobs. One of the ones that stood out was K-9 unit Jason and Isaac, a black lab that sniffs out IEDs. They had just completed a mission where Isaac had found an IED factory, causing the shut down of the face;lit and saving the live and limbs of who knows how many soldiers. There guys are heroes.
Jason and Isaac
Drawing at the KAF MWR Center
Busy drawing the troops
After our drawing session our team had dinner at a Dutch restaurant called Echoes, adjacent to the Boardwalk. I call these places “restaurants” but they are really places where you can get a small selection of foods different from the D-Facs for which you pay. The base takes American dollars by the way. I had a giant plate o’meat called the “mixed Grill” and it wasn’t too bad. Like Iraq and Kuwait, there is no alcohol for US forces anywhere in Afghanistan so I order a “near beer” which was definitely NOT good. Ah, the realities of war.
Me, Stephan, Garry and Mike and an M-WRAP
Thursday: Part three- The FOBs