Christmas morning. A gentle fog has settled in on the base here outside of the village of Terin Kowt. With it comes the dew, covering the gravel floor that stretches from wall to wall, as well as memories of an Oregon morning. As I walked over to check on the bread I had left to cook over night in the coal heated Dutch oven, the world back home and the world here seemed not quite so far apart. The bread had cooked to perfection. We would share it in a bit for our Christmas morning get together.
I have now been with the members of Task Force Phoenix- V for nearly 10 months. A mission composed primarily of Army National Guard men and women, supplemented by members of the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine soldiers, both regular and reserve. It's a mission that finds its roots in the attacks of 9-11; a memory that sits strong with ever person here. I came here without an agenda, other than the desire to tell the story through the eyes of the soldiers as they live each day. One of the most impressionable pieces to date has nothing to do with duty, or heroism, or sacrifice, but that these soldiers are just people, just like every one of us back home. A melting pot of personalities, races and beliefs unified around the fundamental precepts of our country... the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Back home the news is overrun with a multitude of discussions on Iraq, the ongoing debate of our purpose there, our role now and in the future. Tied to these discussions like a dog to a truck's bumper, is the forgotten war of Afghanistan. The war that had the world's support, that had just cause and reason, the war that was fought and won in days, and the efforts now to establish a foundation here that will allow a country to evolve. Sadly, Afghanistan feels as if we have lost sight of our purpose, and in so doing, we have lost touch with the soldiers that are here.
The sense of things here on Christmas day was quiet. We have all come to know each other, and consider each other like family. Yet we all share the same feelings of distance and separation from our lives back home. We laugh, and we smile, but it's the smiles that friends share, without having to speak the words we all feel deep inside. The feelings of satisfaction to be here doing what each of us does so well, yet knowing that a part of us sits State side carrying on with an empty place setting at the table and the many memories of years past. While duty reveals hidden valor, it does not deny the silent tears that well in the heart.
Life here is best defined by adaptation. Very little is predictable, always subject to change and the differences imposed by a culture that is both ancient and unfamiliar to our own. Yet, after 10 months it is the abnormality that itself becomes normal. All us here are all passengers on a convoy of change knowing that we cannot go back to the way things were. In so many ways, the greatest challenge to this deployment begins when these soldiers are finally returned home and released to their civilian roles.
Holidays like Christmas remind us of the greater values we hold dear. We seek to appreciate difference, and accept temperance for other's ways. Those aspirations are put to the test daily, for Afghanistan, as I stated above, it not simply modernizing, it is evolving. Within the span of five years, daily life that was rooted in the traditions of ancient ways, has been thrust into the the twenty-first century. The simple and often harsh ways of living from the land, in settings reminiscent of biblical times, now face integration with the common features of modern culture... iPods, computers, and the Internet. It is a mix that has no precedence, no history of it own, other than the sudden rise of open markets and commerce. The challenges it brings will not be settled in years, but in generations yet to come.
There are no easy answers here. There are no quick fixes. The process of nation building has no set manual. Yet the root of all of this rests not with those that observe from afar but from those that are actually working for a solution. A true assessment as one of the Colonels here frequently states, requires "ground truth." The soldiers here offer that, and they continue to support and believe in this mission with all of its challenges that still lie ahead. What they know, that I observe every day, is that they are making a difference.
We sat together in the morning around the tree in the main office. Under the tree were dozens of packages, all donated by citizens back home. We shared a few stories, broke bread, and sipped Colombian coffee sent by one of the soldier's wives. Then the Major spoke up... "You all need to contact you families this morning. They are part of this deployment too. They need to hear from you." No one disagreed. It was a reminder of the deeper things that hold us together, beyond the gravel, and barbed wired walls that have become home to us all her in Afghanistan.