Kabul, Afghanistan -- "Mr. Edwards, We're not going to be able to get you to Jalalabad. Enemy activity has increased in the last few days, the troops are at it 24/7; and we don't have any televisions or audio/visual equipment at the Forward Operating Bases for you to show your film on and besides, Brigade doesn't have time to do the prep to get you down there."
Major Glynn Goldwire continued to speak, but all I heard was the first sentence. It was on a loop in my head, play rewind, play rewind, play rewind: "We're not going to be able to get you to Jalalabad."
My brain stalled and my guts twisted into painful knots. I looked out over the small room, at the enlisted lady seated at a bare, standard issue desk, who seemed to be acting as a stenographer, at Captain David Suttles, the Camp Phoenix Public Affairs Officer in the chair opposite me. My mouth was open but no words came out. I WAS STUNNED!
An onrush of thoughts suddenly freed up my mind; six months of work had been crammed into two frantic months, the soldiers' families had scrambled to help me assemble this "Surprise Christmas Present" for their troops, and all of us had been driven by the knowledge that the fun we had putting it together, was surely going to transfer directly to their loved ones, who were now fighting on the front lines of this unpredictable and irregular war near the Pakistani border. We were going to put some cheer into their Christmas, that we knew, for a fact.
My chin dropped onto my chest and I heard myself saying, "what am I going to tell the families, what am I going to say to them?" I lifted my head and looked at the three others in the room, probing for a response, something, anything. Major Goldwire, then repeated himself, with a vocal cadence that seemed overly rehearsed: "Enemy activity increase, no TV's at the Forward Operating Bases, Brigade... No time to prep you". He added, "We'd really like to take you directly the airport and put you on a plane for the states".
I shook my head to clear my thoughts, "Do what?"
"We'd really like to get you on over to the Kabul airport and get you on a plane home," the Major said for the third time. My head remained in a whir, but for a second I gathered my wits enough to pose my first question to the Major. I asked, "So, how long do I have before I need to leave post?" After what I'd just been through I expected at least some minor commiseration, and thought that he would indicate a timeframe of a couple of days or so. "Two hours," he said curtly, adding, "We'd still like to take you directly to the airport."
I had to get out of this whirlpool of military mishagoss. I felt as if I were drowning, nothing was making sense. I needed to be alone so I could THINK!
I plunked down onto my cot in the single, 8x8 foot room I'd been provided, and immediately replayed the events of the last half hour. Then it hit me: Nothing the Major had said was true!
1) We can't take you to Jalalabad because of the increase in enemy activity.
For the last three days, I had been discussing combat situations at the three FOB's (Forward Operating Bases), where the 108th was located. I wanted to know what I was getting into, especially given there had been NO increase in enemy activity. None at all.
2) You won't be able to show your film at the FOB's because there are no TV's or Audio/Visual setups
This had to be the most inane premise of all. I had been deep into the capabilities extant at the FOB's with all the various members of the Public Affairs Cadre, and a Big Screen TV setup was part of the BEQ (basic equipment list) for any FOB. Further, I had already been assigned an "aide," to a certain Sergeant Smith, who carries a reputation as a virtual whiz with a video camera, a professional unit which she had with her at the main FOB, Camp Huie. She had already been tasked to video the troops as they reacted to my project, so we could then take that back to the families as a kind of reverse Christmas present.
3) Brigade doesn't have time to prep and clear you to get you down there.
We'd been working on this project for more than two months. I had participated in dozens of meetings at the local 108 Headquarters, had communicated with Colonel Randall Simmons and with a Lt. Colonel with the 48th Brigade Public Affairs Office. Brigade didn't have time to clear me to go? Bull.
My bottom line: If they'd cared about the troops, they would have made time.
Back in late October I'd just finished a new book and was looking for something to do for a while, something other than writing. For a couple of disparate reasons I'd decided to travel to Afghanistan. I was scheduled to arrive in January and hoped to assist in organizing the provincial elections, given my background in national politics. As an international disaster relief volunteer, I also wanted to determine if there were correlations between a natural disaster and a man-made disaster.
But it was after reading a piece in one of the national papers about "troop morale in Afghanistan being at an historic nadir" that I became jolted. I had suddenly been transported back to the Thai-Laotian border 38 years earlier, when I had been a soldier with the Army branch of the National Security Agency. Being that far from home is always tough, but it can never be tougher than being so far on Christmas. I'd read and seen what our forces had been going through out in the Afghan provinces, the energy sapping terrain, the Improvised Explosive Devices that do so much of the killing and maiming, the horrid living conditions, the climate extremes... God. What a hellish war this was for our folks in uniform, I thought. Then I contemplated how relatively easy my experience was during my time in service. Nothing for ten months. Then one night, my war lasted but one night... It had cost me two months in hospital, but it was still just one night!
Now, I had just two and a half months before I was scheduled to leave, but I had a deep feeling that I really needed to do something more, that I had not served enough when it had been my time.
After a visit with the Family Liaison Officer and consulting some other soldiers at the 108th Battalion Headquarters in Calhoun, Georgia, I thought I had what might pass for an idea. We immediately began posting e-mails to the families to send us the funniest, goofiest picture(s) they had of their troop, as a baby, as a teen, anything that they knew would make that soldier laugh. And so would everyone else. And to make it even better, we'd make it a surprise. No one was to inform the troops that this was coming. I would personally deliver and "host" the film and in turn, video the laughter filled responses to take back to the families. So they could then see the results of our work, a great Christmas present that would actually give twice!
The pictures began pouring in, many prefaced with, "He's gonna kill me for sending this"... Perfect, I grinned, this is exactly what I was looking for. But what was so gratifying to me and what told me I was really doing a good thing were the e-mails that accompanied the pictures:
"Thanks for what you are doing to bring a smile to our soldiers faces. We really appreciate the support that you are giving them."
"Thanks so much for caring about our soldiers."
"Thank you so much for what you are doing and for your service in the past! I cannot wait to hear his call about this! With deep gratitude..."
"Thank you SO much, the guys will LOVE it!!
My husband will die at some of these!!"
What a wonderful and fun idea you have for this project! Yes, it will be lots of work too.
But in the end you will get to witness first hand the laughter and joy our soldiers will experience while watching it"
"I LOVE THE SONG!!!! I TRULY LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!"
"What a very nice thing for you to do. We Thank you very much for doing this I know they will love it!!"
"Thanks again for all you do! You are a great model of what an American is."
"Thanks for what you are doing for the troops! We, the families, cannot thank you enough."
"Thank you so very much for your gift to our soldiers."
"Thank you again for all that you are offering to our soldiers. My sincerest appreciation!!!"
"My husband and I truly appreciate what you are doing and know the men will be surprised and appreciative as well."
"Thank you for your thoughtful idea for our precious soldiers. They mean the world to us and to this country."
"Thank you for doing this. It is a great idea!"
"Thanks again for doing this, you will be a blessing to our troops!!! This will give them a piece of home during Christmas and maybe ease some of the pain of not being with their families.
May God Bless You!!!"
"Thank you and you are wonderful to be doing this."
"And may God Bless you abundantly for taking an interest in our soldiers."
"Thanks for your thoughtfulness in doing this project."
"I understand that you are going to Afghanistan to visit our troops. I think it is a wonderful idea and will be a great morale booster. We appreciate what you are doing and I know the troops will be surprised as well. This documentary you are going to do will hold a special place in all of our hearts."
It was those e-mails that drove me to conceptualize this project and to make it my priority to get them to their destination.
In the days that followed we composed a song, "WHOZAT," THE SOLDIERS SONG" and Randy Howard, a noted singer/songwriter took it into the studio and recorded it. I now had the major parts of the project and was only missing the segment with all photos and videos some colleagues of mine were going to shoot at the 108th's Christmas party on 5 December.
I arrived at the airport in in Kabul in the dark early evening of 4 December, expecting to be met by a set of uniforms in a trio of up-armored humvees. What I found instead, was a frenzy of jabber maintaining no reference point to my linguistic history. Finally rescued by a young Afghan M.D. who now worked as a translator (the job paid more), he quickly assisted me arranging transportation to a hotel.
The next morning I schlepped 125 lbs. of luggage and camera equipment over to the American Embassy. I parked myself in the guard shack and began running down my military connections. An hour or so later the trio of Humvees arrived and gave me a wide open, siren blasting tour of the area between the embassy and Camp Phoenix, the primary headquarters for all Army operations in the country.
For the next three days I was treated very well. They had already scheduled to fly me down to Jalalabad on the following Monday, two days away and were assisting me in downloading the Christmas footage I needed to complete the film project.
But by Sunday evening it had become clear to me that I was going to need more time to download and edit the new footage. There was so much more than I had planned for. What was taking so long was all the new pictures and footage from the Battalion Christmas party. Historically, their normal attendance had been in the 400 to 500 range. This year they had over 700 family members attend and many were there just to insure that they got their pictures included in the video. But I was continually told by the Army, no problem, no reason to get this Christmas present to them early, we can go down on the 20th, and have plenty of time to show it at all three FOB's.
I spent the next two days accumulating the remainder of the footage and photos and editing those pieces into the main film. I awoke on Wednesday ready to complete the final bits of the edit and be ready to head on down to FOB Huie on the next available flight or convoy. And I'd received some e mails from the families, relating that some of the soldiers knew something was coming, but they still didn't know what. And that was ok.
Then at 9:00 a.m., I found myself in Major Goldwire's office.
After leaving this meeting with the Major, I knew one thing. He was only the conduit. Someone at the Brigade level had decided that this little project of mine had become just too much trouble. The Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Simmons had been an energetic proponent of my idea from the onset. He knew it would be good for his troops, most of whom he knew by name and dealt with on a day to day basis. His soldiers, like all National Guard Units, are more familial in nature and conduct, for they often train together for years before deploying, unlike regular army units which are assembled piecemeal with soldiers from all corners of the U.S.. Colonel Simmons okayed this project because of his men, unlike those at Brigade who killed project in spite of them.
I later had a reporter from the Associated Press call and inquire about the situation. In the Army's official response there was no mention of "increased enemy activity", no mention of "no audio/visual setups at the FOB's" and no suggestion that "the Brigade didn't have the time to clear him". Their reply: "We didn't know he was coming".
There is one charge that I will, however, level at Major Goldwire. For not once, not once did he ever utter so much as a "thank you," or say, "I appreciate what you and the families tried to do." Nothing. Nothing but cool dismissiveness. It was an exhibition of pure callousness, the degree of which I have never before seen so profoundly manifested in military conduct.
That I had liquidated assets to finance this endeavor now seemed so trifling, compared to the Christmas hearts that were sure to be saddened when they received no responses from their loved ones on the front lines: "Honey, did you see the picture I sent of you riding your tricycle when you were three...Brother, how did you like the one I sent of you in the shower with your dog...How about that one with you with the neighbors cat on your head... We had so much fun thinking of you when we were going through all the old pictures... I hope these made your Christmas a really happy one..."
On Tuesday morning a suicide bomber detonated his Land Cruiser four blocks from me. It only rattled the windows in my little building and gave me a jostle. At ground zero it killed 15 people and injured 50 more. This is what passes for life here in Afghanistan. All we wanted to do was to bring a little joy into this madness and I sincerely hope that when all of these troops of the 108th make it back home, I will be able to personally tell them what we tried to do. It was a very simple idea, for one person, abetted by an impassioned group of military families, to try to make a small difference in the dwindling morale of our troops in Afghanistan.
But the Army brass decided it was just too much trouble.