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thedrifter
03-25-08, 09:43 AM
Much has changed at Kandahar
U.S. marine barely recognizes airfield
Matthew Fisher
Canwest News Service

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Himes has a unique perspective on what has become a terrifically busy patch of desert about 20 kilometres outside of Kandahar City.

Of the 17,000 combat troops and support staff now waging war on the Taliban and al-Qaeda from this crowded airfield, the gunner was the only one here the night in November 2001 when U.S. marines seized the airfield, causing Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden to flee into the mountains bordering Pakistan.

Elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, left the deck of USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea aboard huge CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters and landed 700 kilometres later to conquer the last piece of Afghan territory still held by the Taliban. It was, the marines boasted, the longest such helicopter assault ever.

"The first, second and third waves all came together. It was all a jumble of helicopters," Himes recalled. "A MEU is designed to be self-supporting from a ship, but to carry out a mission successfully from so far away was really amazing. We had never trained for anything like that.

"We landed somewhere in the middle of the runway, which had been badly damaged by bombs. We couldn't see anything. It was completely dark."

What Himes saw when the sun rose reminded him of Twenty Nine Palms, the notoriously inhospitable base in California's Mohave Desert, where the Marine Corps has its Air Ground Combat Centre.

Himes returned to Kandahar a few weeks ago with another North Carolina-based MEU -- the 24th. Its troops, transport and assault helicopters and Harrier jump jets are expected to be a big help to Canadian and British troops as the annual fighting season resumes this spring.

"The first thing I did when I got here again was go over to the air traffic control tower to see if it had the same graffiti -- Texas 17 -- up there. But it was painted over," said Himes, who is the radio chief for the 24th MEU's Battalion Landing Team.

"When we got here there were no showers, no electricity, no chow hall. All we ate were MREs [rations]. To wash, we had field showers with bags of water."

Since the 30-year-old from Gettysburg, Pa., spent 10 weeks here at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002, when the marines were replaced by a brigade from the 101st Airborne and a battle group from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the airfield has evolved into a small modern city.

Kandahar's runway can now handle the biggest aircraft in the world. Half a dozen cafeterias serve four meals a day, there are hundreds of decent showers, several gyms, a world-class hospital, a gaggle of fast-food emporiums, several Internet Wi-Fi zones and air-conditioned sleeping areas that stretch to the horizon.

As for the enemy, not much has changed in six years.

"There were skirmishes. They checked our lines. But they never showed themselves as a force. It was all hit and run," Himes said.

With two tours in Iraq and a tour in Liberia since he was last here, the gunnery sergeant was phlegmatic about returning to the exact spot where he first saw combat.

"It's another deployment. It is what we do. It's not Iraq. It doesn't really matter where they send me."

Ellie