From: Captain Bryan Tolar
Date: June 3, 2006
Subj: Decompression and Missed Opportunities
…As most of you know by now, these Updates are a record of my observations and experiences during my deployment to Afghanistan. This past month was unusual because I spent half of the month of May on leave with my family back in South Carolina. Getting there and back was a unique experience. The Army allows soldiers two weeks of leave during a deployment to decompress and return revitalized and ready to continue their mission. It worked for me.
Most soldiers find ways to decompress after a long day, a mission, or a deployment out to a FOB (Forward Operating Base). Most use the services of the MWR (Morale, Welfare, & Recreation) Office. We have a number of MWR activities available in Afghanistan. There is a huge tent here at the big base in Kandahar that contains a small movie room, a large TV that shows news and sports, ping-pong tables, pool tables, video game rooms, and other diversions. They have special nights when the soldiers actually entertain one another: karaoke night, salsa dance night, and magic night (scary). There are also periodic special appearances by celebrities or athletes who make a few comments to the troops, take photos with soldiers and sign autographs. The MWR is a nice distraction from time to time, but I usually just run a few miles to decompress…
Leaving did not prove to be difficult. I would miss my room and the routine I had developed. It was a dangerous area, but I had grown to enjoy the challenge and most of the people with whom I had to work. I would miss Mamare and Sadaam, my two little Afghan friends. I had grown accustomed to seeing them every morning. During off hours, we played games and they helped me around the FOB. Although they could not go with us on missions, they were always interested when we left and always there to welcome us back when we came through the wire. As I was packing Mamare announced that he wanted to go back to America with me through some hand and arm signals. He wanted to learn English in America and come back as a tajimaan (interpreter) – which is well-paid vocation in this area of the world. I demonstrated that he could fit into my bag and I would feed him MRE’s (Meals Ready To Eat) and water. He declined my offer, but said he would go someday soon. Mamare has never left his village before.
I had planned my leave four months ago with my wife, Amy. We planned on taking our children on a cruise. It’s all I thought about for the last few weeks prior to my departure. I missed my family and friends and my old routine. But during my time at Cobra I had made a list of little things that I missed and looked forward to seeing and feeling again:
Ceiling fans and afternoon naps
The sound of the ocean
Bare feet on grass
My wife’s laughter
Long, hot showers
Sounds of birds
A comfortable bed
A smooth car ride
Sounds of lawn mowers and chain saws on Saturday morning
Supper Club conversations
The smell of fresh cut pine
Wrestling with my kids
…At times I do question my effectiveness here. Many soldiers doubt themselves and their mission from time to time, but it seems to occur at our most vulnerable moments -- when we miss home so much. Ultimately we come back to the realization that this is a just cause; we are here for the right reasons. Even though we may not see the fruit of our labor and sacrifice for years or possibly decades, it doesn’t dissuade us. If I have learned one thing in Afghanistan, it’s patience. You have to have it to survive. You have to have it to work with your peers and the locals. You have to have it in the Army. You have to have it to make it through another week. It’s not something found in great abundance in the Western cultures or the United States, in particular. We have grown accustomed to fast food drive-through, tidy little 30-minute TV shows, email on an elevator with a Blackberry, and disposable wars executed in 6 months or less. This endeavor in Afghanistan is not for those seeking instant gratification; it is, however, worthy of our sacrifices.
From: Captain Bryan Tolar
Date: March 12, 2006
Subj: My little Afghan friend, Mamare
…We have a “track” at Cobra that is about 7/10ths of a mile long, the surface of which is basically worn-down desert. I run between 7 and 12 laps depending on the day. He started with me and we ran together for about a half a lap. We could not understand one another, but taunted one another during this time using gestures and facial expressions. It began with MaMare acting like he wanted to race me. In return, I acted like I was an old man and bent over like I couldn’t run another step. We laughed. He stopped and I continued. I turned around to watch him sit as another boy, Sadaam, approached him. As I made my lap, I could tell that they were both preparing to run a lap with me on the next turn.
They did and this time both made a full lap, probably the most either has run at one time in a while. They both seemed exhausted, but as Sadaam fell out, MaMare continued with me. Again, we taunted one another and had some kind of conversation. He talked for a minute or two, about what I have no idea. Even so, I kept the “conversation” going and talked about how good running is for your heart, and then how I graduated from the University of South Carolina and that I was a Gamecock. I then burst out into a loud gamecock crow and followed with “Carolina Fight Song.” We both laughed. He made the next lap and then the next 5 after that. But during the last lap, it was clear that he wanted to quit. I tried to convince him not to give in, that we were almost done. “Finish?,” he asked. I said, “woo, nazdik” (Yes, close). He grabbed my hand and wanted to run hand-in-hand the last half mile. I obliged and with that small amount of encouragement to finish the job, he completed the full distance. I was impressed. I gave both boys a Gatorade and sent them home…
…Normally when I run, I listen to my mP3 player. I have loaded a lot of music from different genres for different times of the day and for different activities. One of the questions a few of you have asked is, “what kind of music do the soldiers listen to all the time if there is no radio?” Well, I can only speak for what I have and what I have heard from a few soldiers. As I am one of the oldest here, I have a lot of 70’s and 80’s music. But when I have a fast run, I listen to Green Day, The Offspring, and Nirvana. When I have a long, slow run I like to listen to The Cars, The Police, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty. When we clean our vehicles and weapons we listen to a mix of Johnny Cash, Toby Keith, and GarthBrooks. Sometimes a guy will accidentally have a mix CD with some Reba or Faith Hill, or Shania Twain on it. Inevitably, he will be mercilessly taunted for this obvious taboo and his CD is immediately ejected and destroyed. Not that we don’t like the women country singers – just not in front of the other guys. Prior to a mission, one choice is unanimous– AC/DC…
…The obvious answer to question of “what DVDs are preferred by soldiers?” is that, yes, we do watch a lot of military or war movies. Notable standards include: Patton, Thin Red Line, We were Soldiers Once…, Blackhawk Down, Braveheart, and The Band of Brothers series. The usual testosterone-heavy favorites are in ample supply like: Die Hard, Con-Air, Lethal Weapon, Rambo, and The Matrix. Most everyone will stand to watch the Indiana Jones series again, as well as the Star Wars saga. It seems that every other guy has their own copy. Popular comedies usually include something that features Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. SouthPark is popular with everyone as well. Although, I have to say, that I have never seen the show, so I can’t appreciate its popularity. I like the TV series Scrubs and The Office, of late. We have an MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) room that includes 3 computers with internet (when they’re working), a library of about 300 books, a DVD shelf that includes about 200 movies and TV series, a 40” wide-screen TV, and a refrigerator. Because everyone’s schedule varies so much, there is always someone in the MWR watching a movie.
Other recreational activities for soldiers? Soldiers also like to receive, talk about, and look at a multitude of magazines here. Stuff, Maxim, Ralph, and FHM are most common as they have the best articles relating to subjects for the 18-26 year-old set. Sports magazines, car magazines, and hunting magazines are also on most shelves here. Young soldiers like cars, music, and women. Not so dissimilar than what must have been popular with military men 50 years ago. These magazines also have a lot of high-tech gear in there that many soldiers like to purchase. Young soldiers with no spouse, children, and no bills buy a lot of high-tech military gear to accentuate their wanna-be “Hooah Ranger-look.” But then, as it usually happens, they’ll complain about its weight when we go outside the wire where they have to wear it for a few hours going up and down hills with the ANA (Afghan National Army) that sprint up hills like cougars…so much for the high-tech advantage of the youngest soldiers with money to burn. Maturity does have its advantages.
Other recreational activities involve “creating your own diversions.” As we were out on a patrol last week, we were halted at a river trying to determine the feasibility of an alternate route. We were also confirming the condition of a local road. While the engineers assessed the road, I spent some of this “free” time with a few ANA soldiers near the river’s edge. As we talked through my interpreter, I began glancing down at the small, flat stones lining the bank. I picked up a few and began to skip them on the river. The ANA soldiers seemed amazed and immediately wanted to simulate my action. For the next few minutes, we had a brief class on the art of skipping stones. Then, of course, it evolved into competition. They got up to eight or nine skips -- excellent by most standards. As not to let the grasshopper outdo the sage instructor, I produced a phenomenal 12-skip demonstration. The competition was done. I went on to explain that I learned to skip stones from my grandfather, Pop Tolar, in the mountains of North Carolina over 30 years ago. We talked about my home and my “village” of Columbia.
The conversation soon turned to fishing, which is not just a diversion to the locals—it can provide the only protein or meat that a poor Afghan family needs to survive. At about the same time of the stone-skipping exhibition, a boy of about 12 came walking towards us with a small vine of fish strung up on his back, but lacking a rod or pole. He had “caught” ten fish in the past hour. When quizzed on his techniques, he explained his technique in detail. He used a special blue powder that he sprinkles on bread. The bread is balled up and deposited up river about 100 meters from the bottle-neck area where he was fishing. He walks to his spot and waits. Within an hour, the fish come floating down the river and he collects them in a makeshift net. Immediately I asked, “What’s in your special blue powder?” The response was translated simply as, poison. It seems he has a concoction that poisons or “disables” the fish for a brief period of time. After they are retrieved, they are boiled for an hour to remove the toxins and then cooked over a fire. Delicious!
From: Captain Bryan Tolar
Date: April 21, 2006
Subj: Batons, Women, and Clay
…Many people write to me and ask, “What is a typical day like for you there?” How to convey the experience has been on my mind. Imagine if you will that before you leave the house every morning to go to work that you had to have five other vehicles go with you. If it normally takes you 30 minutes to get to work, it would take about four hours here. You would have to wear 65-75 pounds of gear and not have the local news on the radio to pass the time or give you a traffic report for IEDs. You couldn’t drive on any real roads to get to work, only front yards, parking lots, and sidewalks. About every 5 miles you would have to get out of your car and search the ground for something that could blow you up. Your average speed is about 5-10 mph.
Along the way, many of the neighborhoods you drive through have people that want to shoot at you from their house to kill you. You can’t see them shoot initially and sometimes you are not sure which house they’re shooting from. You divert from your route to work to go and secure the house. As you enter the house where the shooting came from, you have women and children everywhere screaming and crying and asking for help. Oh, and this neighborhood speaks only Russian so you can’t understand a word anyone says.
Fortunately you have buddy in your carpool that speaks some Russian, so everything you say has to be said twice. A conversation now takes twice as long as it normally would. And even though your buddy speaks Russian, his English is not so good so you would have to repeat your questions often. During the “drive by” (a phrase here opposite of the American version - it is an ambush when you are driving and the enemy is stationary), another buddy in your carpool was shot and you have to request a helicopter from the “guys at the office.” The “guys at the office” live in a more secure office setting, so they don’t understand the same sense of urgency as you do when requesting resources. And, of course, similar home office protocol in the corporate world, they require a number of reports and paperwork before anything can happen.
Eventually you continue on to work. It’s been a few hours now and the vehicle is getting warm inside. It’s unfortunate, but you don’t have any air conditioning and you can’t roll down the window. You still have a few more bad neighborhoods to drive through. You also have a couple of rivers to cross but there aren’t any bridges crossing the rivers on the way to work, so you have to ford them. It has rained a little bit recently so the river is a bit higher. A bit is bad. The first vehicle begins to cross slowly. Every vehicle in your convoy crosses to the other side, eventually, except the last which is stuck about halfway through the river. You carefully have to back up a vehicle in the river and try to pull the stranded truck out with a tow strap. The water has washed over the bed of his truck and most of his supplies are carried off downstream. Your co-workers jump out of the disabled truck and swim to the bank. The vehicle is finally recovered, but can’t continue on the route to work. You have to call the “guys at the office” again. More reports – more paperwork. After a few hours, they send a helicopter to you to retrieve the damaged vehicle. Your co-workers that lost their ride now have to squeeze in with everyone else on the remaining vehicles. You mount up and continue to drive. Now, try to imagine getting to work like this at night with no street lights and your vehicle lights aren’t available. Not every one of these mishaps occur with each trip, but we can usually count on at least one hindrance during travel.
Often when we dismount with the ANA, we have to go in and clear compounds. As I have described in previous UPDATES, compounds are family dwellings that are about the size of one or two basketball courts. They are surrounded by 10- to 15-foot-high mud wall that is as hard as concrete. Inside the compounds are small mud rooms that divide the family by age and gender, along with a storage room, a cooking area and sometimes a small garden. The compound also houses various animals – cows, chickens, dogs, and goats. I usually stay outside of the compounds until the ANA have cleared it. If they want me to come in and take a look at something, they call me. If we are searching for a vetted target or bad guy, I usually go in to PID (positive identification) the target with the SF intel (Special Forces Intelligence) guys. Most of the men inside are separated and are removed from the compound during the search. Out of respect, we do not search women or children. They are usually huddled together in a corner of the compound with their backs to us.