Thursday, 4 September 2008

I Belong on the Front Line!

I found this article interesting.

Even Prince Harry says he belongs on the front line of the war on terror. Here's someone with the best of everything at home, and everything in the world to live for, but he still expresses a desire to go back to Afghanistan and live in an austere, demanding environment doing a tough and dangerous job.

I had another conversation with a Army Reserve Soldier friend of mine who served with me in Afghanistan. We had not seen each other in a few months and early in the conversation he said, "I really miss Afghanistan". And like a lot of us he's looking for an opportunity to go back again.

While I was in Afghanistan the hardest thing I personally did was prepare fallen heroes for the jouney home. I did the same for many Afghan National Army Soldiers and Afghan civilians, but the toughest by far was sending a fallen US Army Soldier home.

I recently received a forwarded email on this very topic and I've cut and pasted it below.
It's tough to read, but I think it's important for the families of deployed Soldiers, Sailers, Airmen and Marines to know what happens when a servicemember falls in combat. I'll let the email below speak for itself.

Phillips, Out.

Date: 10:21 AM 7/20/2008Subject: An observation after a sad day in Afghanistan

I hope this e-mail finds each or you and your families well.

Here in southern Afghanistan it has been a sober day. We had a really bad fire fight. At this point I am not allowed to say much but our team had 18 guys vs 175-200 bad guys. They scored once; we scored many, many more. Yeah for the good guys.

Unfortunately, we held the first of several hero ceremonies, which occurs every time they move a body from one location to another. At each ceremony, every available service member will stand at attention and line the road, starting at our small morgue and eventually ending with his final flight home.

I am not sure folks back home know what happens at a small Forward Operations Base when a US kid dies in battle.

I am sure no one back home knows that this kid's commander, who is in charge of 7000 men, helped wash the blood from this kid's face and prepare him for the trip home. I bet they don't know that his buddies, all rough and tough and not a sissy among them, stand like brothers, hold hands, cry and exchange hugs. I bet they don't know that 250 people lined the walkway from our morgue to the ambulance just to salute this hero. I bet they don't know that one of my patients, who was also injured in this attack, demanded to be pushed outside in a wheel chair so he could say good bye to his brother. I bet they don't know that the command staff, all senior officers, marched behind the ambulance with tears streaming down their faces and carefully loaded his body onto the plane. I bet they don't know that people line the runway, stand at attention and salute the plane until it is out of sight. I bet they don't know that the FOB Commander orders each of the injured (who is able) to call home, so that their parents and wives, know they are OK, in an effort to ease the shock to the families when the guys in full dress uniforms show up at the family's home. I bet they don't know that tonight, these young men, far from home, will morn like a family and will then pick up their weapon, wipe the tears from their eyes and head right back to the fight.

My observation: This young man has two families. The one here is already in mourning and the one back home will soon be awaken by this sad news. There are some very good men here, who care deeply for those they command and whom love each other as brothers.

Take care and let's try to live a life worthy of his sacrifice.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

News of FOB Salerno

Almost every day the following thought crosses my mind; "I wish I was back in Afghanistan." This is particularly true when FOB Salerno is in the news, as it is again this week.

For those of you who follow the news out of Afghanistan, you know FOB Salerno was hit twice in two days with suicide bombers, rockets, mortars, small arms fire and finally insurgents planning to infiltrate the FOB and kill as many Soldiers as possible. Suicide bombers killed at least 12 Afghans in the first day's attack; That night, in an attack lasting all night, at least 10 suicide bombers attacked the base with the intention of infiltrating the base and blowing themselves up, undoubtedly in key areas such as the dining facility, hospital and airfield.

Here are just a few of the many stories about the incidents:

I know from experience that these stores are not complete, but that's the nature of the business. The "fog of war" makes it impossible to know exactly what happened so soon after the attacks, if ever. When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan I would often read about incidents I had personally witnessed and wonder where they got their information! However, I'm sure these articles capture the big picture, even if they miss small details.

I know families worry about their deployed loved ones, and when news from "down range" hits the networks they wait by the phone or the computer to make sure their special someone is okay. Since I've never had to endure the pain of wondering about a deployed family member, I'm not qualified to speak about this topic. I can, however, shed some light on what's going on down range and why those phone calls and emails don't come as quickly as the families would like.

First, although it's big news over here, in many ways it's just business as usual for those who are deployed. Over here we only hear about it when it involves Americans or an American FOB. Over there, they track every incident, whether in involves Americans or Afghans or any of our Coalition partners. And Afghanistan is a big country; an attack in eastern Afghanistan has little to no impact on operations in northern, southern or western Afghanistan. Families hear "Afghanistan" in the news and worrry, but when deployed Soldiers hear about an attack in eastern Afghanistan they just check their basic load of ammunition and get back to work.

Second, when something really big (or bad) happens in one area the Soldiers in that area are too busy dealing with the incident and the aftermath to call or email. During and immediately after an attack there is more to do than I can talk about here. I know in the hospital the workload following an attack like this goes up immediately, and stays up for days or weeks. Everyone on the FOB and in the area affected by the attack wants to call home or email to let their family know they are okay, but they are just too busy to take the time for even this simple task.

Finally, when something like this happens the Army limits communication from that specific area, if not the entire country. They do this for several reasons. Primarily, the bandwidth (on which all our phone calls and emails depend) is limited over there and what is available is needed to communicate official reports and orders and requirements to respond to and follow up on the incident. Also, if there are casualties, the Army wants to ensure families are notified of casualties (whether killed or injured) through official channels, not from a phone call from a well-meaning friend. The best way to do this is to limit the bandwidth available for phone calls and emails until they have a chance to sort things out and get the casualty notification process started, then they can increase the bandwidth again and let the unoffical process begin.

Not many days go by when I don't wish I was back in Afghanistan. The funny thing is, it's not just me. Whenever FOB Salerno is in the news I get calls from my former comrades in arms, wishing were still there, still in the fight, still taking care of patients. Time moves on and so must we, but I now understand my father and all other veterans who served and sacrificed and left a part of themselves in a far away land.

God Bless America.

Phillips, Out.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Exaggerations and misinformation

Sometimes I wonder if the "mainstream media" will ever get their coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan right, or if they even want to get it right.

After the tragic loss of nine of our brothers in Afghanistan the stories in the mainstream media concentrated on the renewed strength of the insurgents and the lack of progress in Afghanistan.
However, if you dug deeper, and looked elsewhere, you found the true story. The true story is one of bravery and heroism displayed by our Soldiers.

The Stars and Stripes ( had an excellent article about the impact of the attack on the 173rd Airborne ( and the family members back home in Italy and Germany. As they prepared for welcome home ceremonies they had to shift gears and prepare for memorial ceremonies instead.

Stars and Stripes also dug deeper and revealed the stories of bravery and heroism displayed by the Sky Soldiers in the battle at Wanat:

Finally, Stars and Stripes printed an article in which the 173rd's commander, COL Preysler, refuted exaggerations published in the media:

Despite what the name implies, the Stars and Stripes is hardly a conservative newspaper. It is an independent media outlet and frequently publishes unflattering articles about the military. But it's not just Stars and Stripes providing more in depth coverage of the good news from Afghanistan. Using almost any search engine online will reveal balanced, detailed stories of the success and challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is only the mainstream US media that highlights the negative, and moves on to other news as quickly as possible.

Even with the fight heating up in Afghanistan I talk to recently redeployed Soldiers all the time who wish they were back there now, to do their job and support their fellow Soldiers. I frequently talk to Soldiers scheduled for deployments to quiet areas of Iraq (yes, there are many!) who would rather to to Afghanistan because they want to be where they are most needed.

I apologize for getting political on this blog. I try to avoid politics and instead concentrate on my experiences and my perspective on the views of my fellow Soldiers. Sometimes the mainstream media's focus on the negative gets to me and I have to speak out.

I've been asked to comment on the differences between OIF and OEF, so I'll do that in a future post. It's tough to do for many reasons, not the least of which is that it depends on when and where you served in each operation, and what your job was when you were there. Books have been written of this topic, but sticking to my intentions in this blog I'll give a snapshot of the differences between my tour to Iraq (2003-2004) and my tour to Afghanistan (2007-2008).

Until later.

Phillips, out.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Fort Lewis, Washington

I read somewhere that Fort Lewis is the third largest post, after Fort Hood, TX and Fort
Bragg, NC.

If you want to see the Army, this is a great place to be.
With three infantry brigades, one artillery brigade, an MP brigade, and engineer brigade, a MI brigade, a Ranger Battalion and a Special Forces Group, along with various support units, Fort Lewis is a very busy place.

Here at Fort Lewis, reminders of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are never far away. Recently, the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team returned after 15 months in Iraq. The ceremony welcoming them home reminded everyone of the cost of freedom. During 15 months of combat in Iraq the brigade suffered 54 killed in action and over 300 wounded in action. Many of the wounded Soldiers, even the seriously injured Soldiers, participated in the ceremony on crutches or in wheelchairs.

For me the hardest part of being back here is reading the news from Iraq and Afghanistan. I wish I was still there, still in the fight. In Afghanistan I felt needed and in control of my own destiny. My mission was real and immediate and there was no ambiguity. Here, I have no mission, or the mission is less real and immediate, and everything is ambiguous. Here I'm not really needed and I have no control of my destiny.

I love the Army, but even with the nation at war the Army tends to be bureaucratic and slow to change. In my current job I manage the training for medical units deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even after 7 years of continous deployments and combat operations we are sometimes reinventing the wheel when we train units to deploy. Often the training does not meet the reality of the missions "downrange".

I love my family, but after being gone for 18 months I sometimes feel like I don't fit in anymore. My views have changed after seeing the dead and wounded up close and personal, after carrying a weapon 24/7, driving an armored vehicle fast and aggressively wherever I went and after living in close quarters with Soldiers for months on end. I can adjust to the changes, but I hate to give up the sense of purpose and mission and yes, the danger and thrill of being deployed.

I write these thoughts not looking for sympathy or help, but because I know I am not alone.

Recently I met a group of Soldiers with whom I was deployed to Afghanistan, and after some polite conversation we all reluctantly revealed the same thought, "I wish I was still there, in Afghanistan, doing a job I loved with people I cared about." And this thought was expressed by a group of Army Reserve Soldiers, all of whom had good civilian jobs and happy families. If they feel this way, how much more do "full-time/career" Soldiers miss their recent deployments?

In my current job I work almost exclusively with Active Duty Soldiers, most of whom have deployed recently, many of whom are preparing for their second or third, or even fourth, trip to Iraq or Afghanistan. We all tell our war stories with the same underlying theme, "Those were the days..." Life is different "over there", not better, just different.

War is hard and the separations from home and family are stressful, but Soldiers and families are tough. The media makes it sound like servicemembers deploy reluctantly, and can't wait for the war to end. From what I see, nothing could be further from the truth. Soldiers want to deploy, to do their part and then return with honor. They want the war to end, but only with victory and only after achieving our nation's objectives. I'm personally tired of seeing friends and colleagues killed and injured, but I want to see those sacrifices honored with victory and peace, not squandered by defeat and surrender.

Every day I visit a great website, Honor the Fallen, to read about the heroes who have given their lives in defense of this great nation.

Every day I see the wounded coming and going around post and at Madigan Army Medical Center, reminding me of the cost of war.

You can't live and work at Fort Lewis and not realize that war is an ugly thing, with a high cost that cannot be measured in dollars.

I'll keep blogging as long as someone is listening, and maybe beyond. Sometimes it's easier to write my thoughts than speak them, and I hope my ramblings can shed some light on the current situation, or at least reveal the view from my foxhole.

Until later,

Phillips, out.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Posting Again

Well, no one may be reading anymore, but I'm back to blogging. I hope I can shed some light on the pre and post deployment Army, both Active Duty and Army Reserve.

Of course, I'm home from Afghanistan and settled in at Fort Lewis, WA., but I'm actively working deployments and redeployments of Soldiers to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, July 4th, seems like a good day to get back into the blogging business.

So, even if it's just for my family and friends, I'll relate the view from my foxhole and try to illuminate and entertain and enlighten.

It's nice to be back in the blogging business.

Phillips, out.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Home, and Reintegrating.

Well, I've been home for over a week and I still don't know how to answer the question, "So, are you glad to be home?"
Of course I'm glad to be home. But, I also miss the sense of mission and the friends I had in Afghanistan. And even though I spent 15 months in Afghanistan, I sometimes feel guilty being home and safe while others are still serving overseas. I don't ever want to forget that I have friends and colleagues away from home and in harms way, and I'm ready to go back when necessary to do my part again.

I've often heard it said that the nation is not at war, only the military is at war. Now that I'm home I have a mixed opinion on that statement. True, there are no outward signs of war in Vancouver, Washington; No armored vehicles patrolling the streets, no bunkers, no check points. However, there is obviously a lot of support for deployed troops. In my first week back I was out to lunch with a group of Soldiers and another patron paid the bill for all of us, and didn't even stick around for us to say thank you. Everywhere I go I am thanked for my service and welcomed home. Having seen what war does to a country I'm glad we are safe at home, I'm glad it doesn't "look like we are at war" and I'd gladly go back if that is what it takes to keep us safe here at home.

And although we don't see the same level of industrial mobilization that was required during WWII, we as a nation have invented and refined dozens if not hundreds of systems to fight this current war; Up-armored HMMWVs, electronic countermeasures against IEDs, improved body armor, UAVs, as well as improved classes and training and leadership techniques. When I look back to 2003/2004 and my time in Iraq I'm reminded that in the beginning we had no UAHs, no improved body armor, no translators, no PRTs or ETTs or anthropologist assigned at the unit level. Now they have all these, and more, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now I'm not saying that someone shouldn't have anticipated these needs and prepared accordingly, but those decisions are made above my pay grade. I am saying that the military has adapted and changed and learned while still fighting and winning the war on multiple fronts; Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and Asia.

And yes, I think we are winning the war. I certainly have no insight into the "big picture" but I know that on the ground, wherever there are US troops (or British or Canadian or Polish or Romanian or any number of other countries that support us with troops on the ground) we are winning the war. Iraqis or Afghanis who work with US troops see a little bit of America, and they like what they see. We will never make them like us, and they don't want to be like us, but we can make them better, and help them make their countries better and safer.

I don't pretend to understand the politics that got us in to this war, or even the long term strategy to "win" the war, but I do know that the US military can and will do it's job whenever and wherever they are called to serve. I know that the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines with whom I have worked represent what is best about this country, they are great ambassadors around the world.

Am I glad to be home? Yes, of course. Would I do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat. In fact, I know that as long as I wear the uniform this is part of the job.

Until next time.

Phillips, out.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008


A refueling stop in Leipzig, Germay, on our way to McGuire AFB, NJ.

An empty C-17, heading home to McChord AFB. A nice ride home.

The best seat in the house: On the flight deck of the C-17.

Heading toward the sunset, and home, at 34,000 feet.

Well, the deployment has finally come to an end. After almost 15 months in Afghanistan I made it home to Washington State at 9pm on 4 April 2008.
My departure from Afghanistan came earlier than I expected, and the trip home was more exciting than I expected, but in the end everything turned out well.

Originally, I expected to depart Afghanistan with the 550th Medical Company on 6 April and, after a short stop at Manas Airbase, arrive at Pope AFB, NC on 8 April. From there I would need to make my own arrangements for traveling home to Fort Lewis, WA.

Instead, on 30 March I was offered an opportunity to depart early and take a more direct route home. Obviously, I jumped at the chance, even without a clearly defined travel plan to get all the way home.

I manifested for a flight from BAF to Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar on 31 March. The flight was delayed, and delayed, and delayed until it finally departed early in the morning on 1 April. After an uneventful 5 hour flight on a C-130 I arrived at Al Udeid AB in Qatar where I discovered that they had no idea what to do with me.
After some explaining and negotiating I was manifested for a flight to McGuire Air Force Base, NJ that departed early in the morning on 2 April. Due to the kindness of an Air Force LtCol I got a seat on the plane, and after a refueling stop in Leipzig, Germany we finally arrived at McGuire AFB, NJ where I discovered that (surprise, surprise) they had no idea what to do with me.
After some explaining and negotiating I was told to come back the next day to explain and negotiate some more. There were no planes scheduled to leave McGuire for McChord AFB, the closest base to Fort Lewis, WA, until early in the morning on 4 April so I was stuck in NJ for the time being.

With over 24 hours to kill, and no room available on McChord AFB or Fort Dix, I decided to rent a car and drive to NY to visit my son, Jeremy. It would not be a long visit, but since I had not seen him for 15 months even a few hours would be nice.

So, after a few hour's rest I rented a car and drove to NY where I had a a nice visit with Jeremy before I headed back to McGuire to manifest for my flight.
I arrived back at McGuire early in the morning of 4 April to find that my flight had been rescheduled for the morning of 5 April! So, I settled in for another long day, and another night in the passenger terminal. But, as often happens when traveling on military aircraft, the schedule changed, and this time to my advantage. The rescheduled flight departed on the afternoon of 4 April, so after a 6 hour C-17 flight across the country I finally arrived at McChord AFB at 9pm on 4 April 2008, and I was greeted by my wonderful wife, Joyce.

It was a nice surprise for Joyce. She was expecting me sometime around 10 April, but with my unexpected revised travel plan I arrived on 4 April, in time to celebrate my birthday with her and my daughters on 6 April.

So, after almost 18 months away from home, including 15 months deployed to Afghanistan, I'm finally home. It's been exciting and difficult, wonderful and terrible, but now it's over. And with the end of the deployment comes the end of this blog. I'd like to blog about the reintegration, but I think that will be too boring, or too personal, or both.

So, I think I'll just close this blog with a heartfelt thanks to all those who supported me during this deployment and those who followed the story of the 396th CSH (FWD)/Salerno Hospital. I encourage you all to keep supporting the troops, those deployed, deploying or redeploying to any of the many places our troops are these days.

As I settle back into life here in the US I'll be searching for my own ways to support the deployed Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.

Thank you, and may God bless you all.

Phillips, out.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Redeployment Continues…

Well, I finally made it to BAF, the next step in my redeployment process.
In many ways I think this long, drawn out, impersonal redeployment process is a good thing. I only have my personal experience to go on, but for me it is a nice transition from the deployed life to real life.

The process was the same when I left Iraq and now as I am leaving Afghanistan; going from my “permanent” lodging at FOB Apache to temporary, or RSOI (Reception, Staging, Onward movement and Integration) lodging at Bagram Airfield. So now I’m living in BAF, in a “VIP” tent with 50 other senior officers and NCOs, waiting for a flight to Manas AB where we will wait a few more day for a flight home.

This is a busy time in Afghanistan, with the RIP in full swing and more and more troops coming in to Theater. KAF was overcrowded, BAF is overcrowded and Manas will probably be overcrowded also. But, that is the price of the ticket home, a crowded tent and a few long, boring days. It’s worth the price to get home to my family.

I don’t have any pictures of the redeployment; there’s really not much to take pictures of except crowded tents and sleeping Soldiers. But, I do have some pictures of my last convoy from Qalat to KAF. I was using my friend’s nice camera with the telephoto lens and we passed a few camel trains close to the road.

Enjoy the pictures. I’ll keep you posted on the process of getting home.

Until later.
Phillips, out

Friday, 28 March 2008

Last Day in KAF

Today, Friday, 28 March should be my last full day in KAF. Of course, around here you just never know how the schedule will work out so it pays to remain flexible. Hopefully, I'll fly to BAF tomorrow to begin another stage of the redeployment process.

All "my" Jordanians are gone. They flew home to Jordan last night. Now I am truly out of a job. The new liaison officer for the Jordanian Armed Forces, LtCol Tom Collins, is in place at FOB Apache and doing a great job.

While I am waiting here I was thinking back over the last 18 months, from Camp Atterbury to FOB Apache. I didn't really start taking pictures until I began the trip to Afghanistan, but once I started I've managed to document the last 15 months pretty well. Here are just a few pictures of me from my time here in Afghanistan.

To me the deployment has been about the people I've met and the things we've been able to accomplish together. And as much as I've enjoyed my time here, it is time for me to get home and get reacquainted with my wife, Joyce and my daughters, Beckie and Katie and my son, Jeremy.

Until later.

Phillips, out.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The Redeployment Process

Ah, the redeployment process. Hours and hours of boredom punctuated by....hours and hours of boredom! But that is the price of freedom, enduring the redeployment process.

I can't complain, I'm stuck at KAF with a nice room and a wireless internet cafe' close by. For most Soldiers they get stuck in big "Fest" tents, a silly name for a huge circus tent full of hundreds of Soldiers (no kidding and no exaggeration). There is nothing festive about the "Fest" tent!

Soon I will be at BAF, where I can hopefully avoid the fest tent there also.

I'll try to include some pictures of my redeployment process.

Like this one of me, putting the Jordanians on a Chinook for their ride back to KAF, and then home.
Here's a unique picture, not of redeployment but around the ANA camp.
Check out the writing on the door of the truck....
Well, that's it for now. At my age I can only take so much excitement before I need to rest.

Phillips, Out.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Short Update

I apologize for the extended break. I'm back at KAF now, and I have access to real, civilian internet for the first time in months!

I'm getting ready to begin my trip home, which is really more of an odyssey, really. My journey home will look something like this: KAF to BAF to Manas AB to Pope AFB to McChord AFB and finally, home. I'll fill in the details in a future post. As always, I'd like to use my experience to shed some light on the experience of a typical Soldier deployed to OEF or OIF.

I've been on the road a lot recently,
mostly repeating the KAF run I posted
about earlier. And the sights stay the
same, but never get old. Here a few
from my most recent trip.

Now that I'm at KAF I'll
post more often, and as I travel.

Until later.

Phillips, out.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008


One of the more enjoyable aspects of my current job is the opportunity to get off the FOB and see the countryside and the people. Personally, I enjoy face-to-face and in-person. However, if that is not possible, the next best way is from the gunner’s hatch of a HMMWV. Just a simple ride from Qalat to Kandahar is full of interesting sights.
Today was typical of the sights along this road. The nomads were on the move, and we passed several caravans of kuchis, the Afghan nomadic tribes. To me it looked like something out of Biblical times; loaded donkeys, walking women and riding children. Following some distance behind were the men and boys, herding the sheep.

Of course, some kuchis commute in the “modern” way, by tractor. Here, everyone gets to ride, except the dog! You can see these tractors everywhere in Afghanistan, often pulling a trailer. Sometimes I wonder just how much they can carry on one tractor. Whatever the maximum limit, they get that and more, I’m convinced.

And continuing upward on the scale of modernity, we find the bus car-carrier. The bus makes stops along the highway, whenever necessary. I have not seen established bus stops, but I’ve seen bus passengers waiting along the highway for a bus to come along. I think the cars on top are just a way to make extra money. I’ve seen many items on top of buses: cars, bags of grain, farm supplies and just about anything you can imagine. I always wonder how they get the cars on top. Is there a ramp somewhere, just the right height for driving a car on to a bus? Do they use a crane or a forklift? And of course, how do they get them off again at the destination?

And I’ve mentioned before the ‘jingle trucks”, the decorated cargo hauling trucks that run throughout Afghanistan. They vary from plain to fancy, but almost every one I’ve seen is decorated to some degree. This first one is one of the fancier ones I’ve seen, and as you can see it is stacked high with something. The afghans decorate everything: trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and wheelbarrows…I’ve even seen “jingle” rifles!

And finally on today’s trip, not even 10 miles from Kandahar, another kuchi camp, complete with camels. Again, I can’t help but think that these nomads must live like they have for generations. I’m sure some things have changed, you can often see a motorcycle or tractor in camp, but some things are probably the same as they have always been.

And to ride around in this country you have to dress for success. SGT Streiff and I were seen off on this convoy by our friends Joe (the tall, bearded man, a contractor from South Africa) and LT Saef, an officer in the Jordanian Army. Whatever you may read in the newspapers, I think we are well equipped and supplied here in Afghanistan. We don’t have everything we want, but I think we have everything we need. Personally, for the scale of what we are trying to do, I think it’s going amazingly well, all things considered.

Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers. I’ll be going home soon, after 15 months in Afghanistan. It has been a great experience, but I am ready to go home, ready for a new adventure. I will blog until my last day here, but after that I don’t know what I will do. I think going home again after being gone for a total of almost 18 months will be another adventure, but more personal, less public.

We’ll see.
Phillips, out.

Thursday, 21 February 2008


One thing we get around here in abundance is some crazy mud. With the snow melting we have mud everywhere, and it’s not just regular, every day mud. The mud here in Qalat takes several forms; when it’s wet it’s like thick chocolate pudding, when it starts to dry it’s like chocolate pizza dough and when it finally dries completely it’s like concrete.
In it’s chocolate pudding phase it makes for great driving, if you like your vehicle coated in mud!

But watch out, I’ve already been stuck three times right here on the camp when a low spot turned out to be a deep spot. Depending on where you are driving and who did the construction the compaction of the dirt on the roads around here varies widely. It is easy to find yourself driving in an area that looks solid, but is really just un-compacted fill dirt, which can swallow a HMMWV or SUV whole.

In its chocolate pizza dough phase it sticks to the bottom of your boots layer after layer until your boots become platform shoes. And once it’s there it just won’t come off, so you track it everywhere: into your vehicle, your office and your room. When this tracked-in mud dries it becomes like concrete dust and gets into everything, and everywhere.Finally, in its concrete stage it becomes like…concrete!

As I’ve noted before, the local Afghanis use this mud, mixed with straw or hay, to build houses and walls and barns. Used properly, it is great building material. And since I have yet to see a tree here in Zabul Province I guess it is the best local option for home construction. One of my NCOs even used it to repair his HMMWV! He turned a little close in our cramped motorpool and caught the front fender of the vehicle, tearing the fiberglass. As you can see, with the application of some Afghani mud/cement it is good as new. I guess we know where they got the desert tan color for the vehicles.

Now for the good advice…

Another thing readily available on the FOB is good advice; Barracks lawyers and wanna-be Dear Abbys abound. In that tradition, I’ve decided to take a chance on dispensing some advice. I’ve received several emails and comments about my last blog, many with the same question, “How often should I expect to hear from my deployed loved ones?” At the risk of over-generalizing or setting up unrealistic expectations I thought I should address this question. I can only do so based on my own experience and observations from a previous one year deployment to Iraq and this 15-month deployment to Afghanistan.

Of course, the obvious place to start answering this question is with another question, “How often did you talk to him or her before they deployed?” I find that chatty communicators will find a way to continue; and, conversely, quiet introverts will continue in their ways as well. With a blog, a facebook account and access to email and a phone I fall in to the chatty communicator category. My wife probably hears from me more than she wants. A quiet introvert could have access to all these and still not talk much.

The next thing that affects the frequency of communication is the deployed loved one’s job. Some of us spend all day in a HMMWV, some spend all day in an office. As the first part of this blog demonstrates, sometimes things here are so boring and dull that the consistency of mud is a topic of conversation. On the opposite extreme, as some of my earlier posts from the Salerno hospital demonstrate, sometimes things are so intense and painful that they defy words, at least initially. Many of us have jobs that toggle between extremes; in an office one day, on a convoy the next; fighting boredom for days on end, then fighting fear and panic and loneliness and despair. At the end of either day, it’s sometimes hard to sit down and put your feeling into words in an email or blog post or (for those from the old school) a letter.

Finally, the other factors affecting communication are discretionary time and access to a computer. Some of us have plenty of discretionary time; some have very limited discretionary time. Discretionary time depends a lot on rank, but that cuts both ways. I know colonels who have little discretionary time, and sergeants who have plenty, and vice versa. Discretionary time is affected by your rank and your job and your position in the organization. Access to a computer is affected by location. There are some FOBs with large, well equipped MWR (morale, welfare and recreation) facilities: computers, wireless internet and phones. There are smaller FOBs with no MWR at all. Most FOBs are somewhere in between. If you are dependent upon MWR for your access to computer you are restricted to 30 minute sessions if someone else is waiting. That means staying up late or getting up early to get on a computer or phone. And since we are halfway around the world from our families it means dealing with an 8 or 10 or 12 hour time difference to connect with friends and family.

So, as you can see, the answer to the question, “How often should I expect to hear from my loved one?” is quite complicated. A lot depends on how much they communicated before they deployed, and then on rank, position, location and other factors. But the one simple part of the answer is this, if you want to hear from them more often, let them know that. Let them know what you are interested in hearing about. Give them specific ideas, or just ask questions. For my wife, she wanted to know what a “typical” day was like for me; where did I live, where did I work, what was on my FOB, who were my friends? She asked, and that gave me ideas for emails or blog posts or even letters to send home. Communication is a two-way street, and both parties can drive!

As always, thank you for reading and caring and supporting and praying.
Phillips, out.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Bloggers Among Us.

It still surprises me how many emails I get about the blog, how many comments I get on the blog and how many people come up to me on the FOB and say, “I didn’t know you had a blog.” The other comment I hear frequently is, “My son (brother, father, friend) never writes! Funny, I don’t hear that comment about daughters, sisters or mothers. I guess women are generally better about keeping in touch with family.

I don’t blog as often as I did when I was at FOB Salerno, and not often enough for some of my friends and family. The differences between my life and my job at FOB Salerno and my life and job here at FOB Apache are like night and day, and one of those differences is the subject my blog entry today.

At FOB Salerno I was in charge of a hospital with over 40 Soldiers and Airmen. I worked behind a desk with all the normal trappings of office work; phone, computer, scanner, printer and most importantly, time. And every day was different and exciting. Over the year we cared for hundreds of trauma patients, and many more routine patients. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week we tracked, received, treated and discharged US, Polish, ANA, KPF, ANP, ASG and civilian casualties and patients. It was exciting; with little down time and few quiet days.

At FOB Apache my life could not be more different. Here, I’m in charge of no one. I work with an NCO, but I’m not his boss. I am truly a “worker bee”. I have no office, no phone, a borrowed computer, printer and scanner. I often work out of the MWR! The other day I was checking the quantity of fuel in a fuel tanker. Last week I was the driver in a convoy to Kandahar (that’s where the pictures are from). One thing I have plenty of is time. Every day is the same; wake up, go to the gym, visit the Jordanians and help them deal with the crisis of the day (water, sewer, electrical, etc…), to the gym, watch a movie, go to sleep, repeat. It’s definitely NOT 24/7 and there is lots of down time and many quiet days.

I don’t give this comparison to say one job is good and the other job is bad; in fact, I enjoy both jobs about equally. I like being in charge, but I also like actually doing things myself. I give this comparison to let you know why some of you never hear from loved ones. Around here we refer to our days as “groundhog day”, after the movie of the same name where every day is the same, repeated over and over again. It’s hard to blog (or write home) when every day is the same. It’s hard to write home and tell your family, “No change; same stuff, different day.” Lots of Soldiers (and Sailors, Airmen and Marines) have jobs that keep them busy, but it’s the same every day. Lots of deployed personnel work out of up-armored HMMWVs or trucks. Many of them fly helicopters all day, or maintain them all night. Some of them pull guard duty in towers or at entry control points or at road blocks along major roads. And some of them get shot at frequently, and that’s not something you write home about.

It’s hard to blog or write home when you don’t have an office, when you have to go to the MWR to check your email and write home. I appreciate all of you who read my blog. If it can shed some light on the life of a deployed service member, if it can help a family member connect with the experiences of a loved one, if I can keep in touch with my own family then I have succeeded.

I’m getting close to the end of my 15 month deployment. I should be home soon. Within 60 days I’ll be back home, reconnecting with my wife and daughters and maybe even my son (away at college, but still my son).

That will be an adventure itself, reconnecting and reintegrating after almost 18 months away from home. Maybe I will blog when I get home after all.

Until the next post.

Phillips, out.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Update to "The Blizzard of '08"

Yesterday, (was it just yesterday?) 2 Feb 08 was a long day.Late in the evening of 1 Feb the snow started. The wind had been blowing all day, a cold, clear day. As the clouds rolled in and the snow started we all knew it would be a long night, and a long day the next day.

All night long I listened to the wind blowing, 30 to 50 miles an hours, according to reports. I could hear the snow driven against the side of my aluminum trailer, but there was nothing to do except wait until the morning to see what damage was done. I was particularly concerned for my Jordanian friends who were living in less than ideal conditions with a generator that has seen better days.

I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear the wind howling and snow still falling. I decided to peak outside to see how much snow had fallen. I could not open my door! The snow had piled so high outside my door that I could not easily open it. And as I cracked the door open, wind-driven snow came pouring in. Not wanting to deal with a room full of snow at 2am, I closed the door and went back to bed, happy to have heat and power on a night like that.

At 6am when I woke up I noticed a few things before I broke the seal on my sleeping bag. First, my breath. It was so cold in my room that I could see my breath. Then I noticed no lights, on my TV, phone or computer. Yes, my power was out. No power means no heat, since I have electric space heaters in my room. No power means no hot water, although for me that was not an issue, my hot water was out already due to a broken pipe leading from the hot water heater. No power also meant no TV, no phone and no internet. When I got up I also discovered I had no cold water due to frozen water pipes. After I got dressed I discovered that indeed, I was trapped in my room. The snow had drifted so high against my door that I could not open it. It was not long before I heard the sound of shovels and discovered my neighbors, John and Glenn, had shoveled the snow from my door, freeing me from my room.

The sights around the camp were amazing. Over a foot of snow had fallen during the night and the high winds had created drifts 6 to 10 feet high. There was no power and no water in my part of the camp. The walkways of FOB Apache were impassable without a shovel. Vehicles were buried and doors were blocked. I could only imagine the scene at the Jordanian camp.

Well, if you are hit with a blizzard it is nice to have a camp full of (relatively) young, healthy men and women in good physical condition, with lots of tools and nothing else to do except work. In record time snow shovels appeared, followed by heavy equipment. Paths were made and roads opened; vehicles were uncovered and started and readied for use. Spare generators were placed in operation and hot food was served. By 8am the footpaths were cleared By 10am roadways were open on the FOB. By noon we had power restored. Finally, we were operational and could begin to help others.

I finally made it off FOB Apache to check on the Jordanians just after noon. I found them surprisingly well. They had survived the night using their two remaining generators (one of their three was down for maintenance). Just like us they had woken up to deep snow and deeper drifts, but they immediately began to dig themselves out. Their vehicles were uncovered and started, pathways dug in the snow and doors unblocked. They still had challenges with frozen water pipes and broken water pipes, but they had survived the night, and they were getting back to normal.Of course, the day did not end at noon. The snow continued to fall, although much slower. And the wind died down and the temperatures rose. All in all, it was a pleasant winter day..... Until the fire. I was back at FOB Apache when I got a call from the Jordanians, "Do you have the phone number for the maintenance man? One of our buildings is on fire". At least they were calm. The story was a bit confusing over the phone, but when I arrived some minutes later, after advising them to "Put out the fire! then call the maintenance man!". I found that they had indeed experience an electrical fire in a breaker box in one of the barracks. The fire caused one of their two remaining generators to kick off line, resulting in no power and no heat and no light throughout the camp. Fortunately they had put out the fire before anything except the breaker box itself was damaged.

With the help of the maintenance guys and the supervisors the power was soon back on line, the breakers box was replaced and rewired and all was well...for now. So, overall it was a long day, but successful. No one was hurt and everyone is warm. Not everyone has hot water, but everyone has water.

I've been doing this Army thing for a long time and I am always reminded of how important the simple things in life are: electricity and running water are both high on the list. The snow continues to fall, but at a manageable rate. It's still cold, but not bitterly cold. And the days keep ticking by until Spring, and better weather, and a long plane ride home.

In case you are interested, here's a link to the weather in Qalat, Afghanistan:
Now I know why they don't traditionally fight in Afghanistan during the winter.

Phillips, out.

Sunday, 3 February 2008


Here are some random photos from around FOB Apache, Afghanistan after our snowstorm:

Phillips, out.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

48th CSH VOX Blog

SSG Jefferies has a blog from the 48th CSH at FOB Salerno Hospital:

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Stuck in the Mud

Here’s what a road in Afghanistan looks like:

I don’t know how many paved roads there were in Afghanistan before we arrived, but there are still not many miles of paved roads even now.

At this time of year, the unpaved roads in Afghanistan turn to mud, and the mud to quicksand.

We were out driving near the FOB one day when we saw a coworker just off the road, so we went to see what he was doing. As we got closer, we noticed he was not moving. He was stuck in the mud. Our plan was to pull him out of the mud with our tow strap on the front of our HMMWV, until we noticed that we were also sinking, and eventually stuck, in the mud. After we got out to evaluate the situation we noticed another coworker approaching in his SUV. Realizing what was about to happen, we attempted to warn him away, but our waving only served to lead him on until he, too, was stuck in the mud. So there we were, three vehicles from the same office stuck in the mud; one, two, three. And of course, no one gets stuck on a sunny day; there was a steady mix of rain/sleet/snow falling on a cold, foggy day. We were not far from the FOB, but in Afghanistan, not far from the FOB is still a dangerous place to be.

The military convoys that passed by were smarter than we were, they kept driving and called in our location and situation to the Tactical Operations Center. While we tried to extract ourselves, quite unsuccessfully, kept an eye on our surroundings and tried to keep warm. It seemed like hours, but soon our rescuers arrived. Our rescuers came out to us with a….forklift. Not your standard recovery vehicle, but it was all they had at FOB Apache for this situation. Fortunately, the rough terrain forklift is equipped with off-road balloon tires and an extendable fork. Thanks to a very skilled driver, and with a lot of hard work, he managed to free first one, then another and finally the third vehicle.

I wish I could say this was unusual, but unfortunately it is all too common. When the weather gets bad around here the mission does not stop. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are out day and night, in all weather, chasing the bad guys and rebuilding Afghanistan. And when you get stuck in Afghanistan, there’s no AAA wrecker to call. Self-recovery, your unit and your friends are all you can rely on. Fortunately, that’s usually enough.

On a side note, while I enjoy my job I often feel “stuck in the mud” trying to accomplish anything. Working with the Jordanian Army, while they mentor Afghans, can be a real challenge. I often attend meetings with two translators; one to translate from English to Arabic and another to translate from Arabic to Pashto. As you can imagine, conversations take some time and are subject to much confusion and misunderstanding. And while it’s great to have the Jordanians here to help the Afghans, they are culturally very different. The only thing they have in common is religion, but just because they all practice the Islamic faith does not mean they are the same. Finally, the Jordanians are not part of NATO or ISAF, so their status is hard for most of the bureaucracy to understand. My job as the liaison officer to the Jordanian Field Hospital is to facilitate their mission, to make sure they have what they need to teach the Afghans and what they need to live in Afghanistan, to deal with the contractors and Coalition Forces. So, although I never fail in the long run, I seem to spend much of my time “stuck in the mud”, spinning my wheels. Oh well, such is life as an LNO, Army-speak for liaison officer.

Phillips, out.