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.