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Embed update: Sucking sand in Kuwait

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on March 16, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
March 19, 2012 7:34 am

ALI AL SALEM, KUWAIT – News Tribune photographer Peter Haley and I have been at this air base about a day too long.

Can’t complain. That’s better than we expected.

Soldiers passing through here are on their way to R&R or coming back from the states to rejoin their units in Afghanistan or Kuwait.

It’s not hard to pick up conversations about last weekend’s mass killings in Afghanistan’s Panjwai District. You overhear soldiers and contractors questioning whether suspect Staff Sgt. Robert Bales really will face the death penalty. Murder is a capital offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In other cases, soldiers are wondering if Bales “snapped,” or if he was reacting to persistent attacks at his small outpost in Kandahar Province. It’s much too early to know for sure.

We’ve been introducing ourselves to Lewis-McChord soldiers and asking about what we should expect to see when we slip out of here and carry out our reporting plan. We look for the “Indianhead” patches of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division and explain, no really, we planned this trip well before Bales’ alleged rampage. I think we’re going to be explaining that a lot in the weeks ahead.

Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade’s 1st Squadron, 14th Calvary Regiment say they’re doing good work with Afghan partners in relatively stable Zabul Province.

We’ve met a couple soldiers from the 3rd Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. They’re mostly operating in Kandahar Province, where the weather is warmed and soldiers face more persistent attacks.

We said hello to one soldier from the 3rd Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. That group is working with Special Forces, and troops from that battalion are more tight-lipped. That was Bales’ battalion and secrecy is important because of the nature of their mission.

We’re learning that soldiers are experiencing very different security situations from district to district in southern Afghanistan. That’s one reason why the soldiers we’ve met can’t say for sure if last weekend’s killings will have a big impact on the work they’re expected to do for the rest of their deployments.

“I don’t know what it will do,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Noel, a veteran from Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade who is now serving in Kandahar Province with the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.

Noel’s troops from Fort Carson have taken a number of casualties from land mines since they hit the ground in Kandahar last year. But he said they have good relationships with their counterparts in Afghan security forces. Those ties helped them overcome widespread outrage over last month’s accidental burnings of copies of the Quran at Bagram Air Base last month.

The Afghans “understood (the soldiers) were following orders and they made a mistake. We’re going to have people who will make mistakes, but it’s no one else’s fault,” Noel said.

Noel, 34, fought with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade on its first deployment to Iraq in 2003-04. We’ve been near Noel and other Fort Carson troops since we left the states Wednesday. They’re close to the end of their deployments, and they seem to be in good spirits about the last few months of their tours.

So far, Peter and I have been “bewildered, together” with John Simpson of The Ranger. John’s embed plans happened to coincide with ours. He’s embedded with Lewis-McChord soldiers eight times, and this is his second trip to Afghanistan. He’s planning to cover the 5-20, while Peter and I have an outline for a trip to Zabul with the 1-14 and the 3rd Brigade’s headquarters unit.

Our small pack makes it easier to convince gatekeepers that we belong here. At past embeds, each of us has had trouble getting on flights or even getting a meal in a dining facility. (As past Olympian Iraq embedder Tony Overman joked: Yes, we flew all the way to Baghdad, got this media credential and spent a week with the Army just to sneak into your D-Fac for a stolen meal.)

We’ve had smooth sailing up till now, and we’ll tip our hats to Maj. Chris Ophardt of Lewis-McChord’s I Corps for helping us get this far.

Last night we were on a C-17 (not a McChord tail) and headed into Kandahar Air Field. We sat on the tarmac for four hours before the flight was cancelled because of a maintenance issue. We’ll try again tonight, as long as today’s sandstorm passes.


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