Letter from Afghanistan

One of our friends' son Josh was recently in Afghanistan and he has agreed that we can share the email from Josh on that experience which you will find very interesting.

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Family & Friends,

As most of ya'll know, I just got back after spending a little over a week in Afghanistan in support of the Vice President's recent surprise trip to the region. I found out about the trip only a few days before we left, but had to keep it in the strictest of confidence due to the incredible amount of secrecy and security that surrounded the visit. I apologize in advance for what should be a pretty long email, but I wanted to put it all down on paper, per se, to help me remember this incredible experience for years to come, and thought I'd share with all of you.

As you now know, the Vice President traveled to Oman, Pakistan and Afghanistan in complete secrecy after spending a little over a week in Japan and Australia. The advance teams for these 3 visits left the DC via commercial air on Monday February 19th in route to Muscat, Oman. We arrived in Muscat on Tuesday evening, and bunked up at a nice hotel for 1 night. After saying our goodbyes to Team Oman, we left Muscat around noon on Wednesday the 21st on a C-17 bound for Islamabad, Pakistan and Bagram AFB, Afghanistan.

After about a 3 hour flight riding on benches on the huge Air Force C-17, we landed at Islamabad International Airport and dropped off 4 advance staffers, Secret Service, White House Communications, and 2 pallets of equipment. After a quick 30 minute unloading, the small team bound for Afghanistan lifted off again for the short 1 hour flight to Bagram Air Force Base. We flew at about 25,000 feet until we were within a few miles of the base, at which time the pilot announced that we were going into "combat mode" in a few minutes. This gave the dozen or so Secret Service agents just enough time to pull out their arsenal of weapons and strap in for the rapid decent into Bagram. 5 minutes later, the pilot came on the com and announced "we are now in combat mode," and switched off all lights in the airplane. Several red floodlights turned on signifying our decent into an active hot (war) zone, and we quickly descended from 17,000 feet to landing in a matter of minutes. It was quite an exhilarating experience, to say the least.

We touched down at Bagram AFB shortly before 8pm local time, 11:30am in Washington on Wednesday, 21 Feb. Words really can't explain the size and magnitude of Bagram Air Force Base. It truly is its own functioning city, complete with power plants, sewage facilities, and shopping (PX). We were taken to our "hooches," essentially wood shacks with 6-10 bunk beds with no sheets, pillows, or blankets. It was really cold outside (had snowed the night before), so we were happy to have a semi-working heater in our hooch. We dropped off our gear and went to a meeting at the JOC (Joint Operations Command). The JOC is a building within a building - a completely "clean" building, completely impenetrable to foreign intelligence listening devices and satellite monitoring. We got our security briefing that consisted of an explanation on what to do in case of an attack, were issued Individual Body Armor (IBA - consists of helmet and vest), and quickly went to grab a snack at a Popeyes Chicken before we'd have a full dinner at the mess hall for late night chow around midnight. After dinner with the troops, we headed off to bed for a few hours sleep. Thanks to the quick thinking of one of the girls traveling with us, we had each kept a blanket from the airplane over the day before, so at least we had a little warmth.

It was hard to sleep that night, partly because of the cold, but mainly because of the constant sound of jets screaming over our head. I woke up at least twice to fighter jets taking off and passing over the base at supersonic speeds. I have always been obsessed with fighter pilots and the planes they fly - have been to dozens of air shows in my life. I can't explain the pride you feel when you hear these guys taking off not for practice, but for real life missions to kill the enemy that threatens our peace and security. Every time I saw or heard them I got goose bumps. We all woke up shortly before dawn the next morning, still in the same clothes from the day before. I went with a buddy to the gym for a quick work out, hit the shower hooch, had breakfast, and suited up for our flight to Kabul. Kabul is located about 35 miles Southeast of Bagram, but the road connecting the two places is arguably one of the most dangerous roads in the world. There have literally been hundreds of attacks on coalition troops driving the short distance, both by suicide & car bombers, as well as IEDs. So in the interest of safety, we loaded up on 2 Blackhawk helicopters for a 20 minute flight to Kabul. I know many of you have been on chopper rides before, but flying through enemy territory is a hell of an experience. We each were sporting full body armor, and we rode with guys packing more heat than I've ever seen. We had two gunners hanging out the window, ready to take shots at anyone who dared to fire at us.

As we've all seen in the news, Afghanistan is not an easy place to fight a war. Until you see it first hand, it's quite hard to fully appreciate that fact. You are completely surrounded by mountains covered in snow, with peaks that rise to over 12,000 feet. There are no towns or cities along the way, only communities of several mud huts. There are no buildings, roads, lights, dams - the only sign of life are mud compounds with laundry hanging out. These people truly live in the 10th century. The 35 mile territory between Bagram and Kabul is littered with hundreds of bomb craters and rusted Russian tanks and other hardware from past wars, as well as thousands upon thousands of land mines.

We landed at Kabul International Airport (KIA - ironic, I know) at 2:00pm local time on Thursday 22 Feb, boarded several heavily armored Suburbans, and began the short drive to the embassy in a convoy that drove down what the Americans have properly labeled, "Ambush Alley." A suicide bomber killed 2 Americans in September of '06 right on the road we were traveling on, and what would eventually be the Vice President's motorcade route in a few days. Driving down that road gives you the unsettling feeling that you are being hunted - I must say it was one of the worst feelings a person can feel. Blackwater is the security company that has been contracted to provide security to Americans in country - let me just say that these guys don't F- around. Leaning out their doors waiving sub machine guns at cars, bikes and people who dare to venture into our convoy, they don't take any chances. They are former special ops guys who have 2 missions - kill the enemy, protect Americans.

The next 4 nights we lived and worked out of trailers (again called hooches), confined to the heavily fortified American Embassy compound a few short but dangerous blocks from President Karzai's palace. The compound is quite impressive - large apartment complexes for the 400+ staff that lives and works there, great work out facilities, a hospital, several cafeterias, swimming pool, tennis courts, a volleyball pit, and a small liquor and grocery store. Again, it's almost surreal to imagine folks swimming in a pool just a few hundred feet from the enemy. We ate in the cafeterias, took a couple trips to the palace to meet with the Afghans, and a couple trips back to KIA to coordinate the VP's arrival, scheduled for 6:30pm on Monday, 26 Feb. The Afghans we worked with were very cooperative, friendly, and sincerely loved America for helping to free their country. The palace is nothing like what I've seen in most Arab countries I've visited. Very small, old, and worn down - still peppered with bullet holes from the many wars that have been fought at its gate.

On 9 September 2001, an Afghan leader named Massoud was assassinated by a would-be interviewer who had a bomb in his video camera. Massoud was looked upon as a hero by both anti-Taliban forces and Western governments, and his loss was a grim foreshadowing of the 9/11 attacks on our country just a few days later. Needless to say, the Afghans are very weary of the press, and were visibly worried about those that would be coming to cover the event. But during the few days we were in country, we worked out the details, and on Monday morning half of our 4-person staff flew back to Bagram to prepare for the VP's arrival.

It was snowing heavily throughout the day on Monday, and by the time we got in our convoys to head to the airport, there was a fear that the Vice President wouldn't be able to leave Bagram (where he was meeting with commanding officers in a classified security briefing) and make it to Kabul for his meeting with President Karzai. After sitting outside in the elements for 4 hours, soaking wet, freezing, and unable to communicate with our team at Bagram, we got word through the Afghan contingency that the meeting was getting scrubbed for the night. The Vice President, his staff, and the press would be forced to spend the night at Bagram, short of toothbrushes, deodorant, or a change of clothes. The press would file their stories, announcing the Vice President's visit to Afghanistan and the fact that he had to spend the night in country. In Kabul, we scrambled the group together, motorcaded back to the embassy, and convened an impromptu meeting with all who were still in Kabul. We reached out to the palace, and agreed on a lunch meeting the next day. We stayed up most of the night to prepare, and got ready to do it one more time the next day. We all somberly watched the news, announcing that the Vice President of the United States was in Afghanistan, all realizing that the bull's eye on each of us just got 10 times bigger.

We woke up to 4 inches of snow on the ground but relatively clear skies. Still wet from the night before, I put on the same clothes I'd taken for game day, and headed to the airport to await arrival. 30 minutes before the VP's scheduled departure, we got word that a suicide bomber had detonated a bomb at one of the gates at Bagram AFB. The Vice President was never in any danger, but was rushed to a bunker out of fear of a larger attack. Our advance lead and the official photographer for the VP were locked in a bunker for about 20 minutes - talk about being part of history. The Vice President insisted on meeting face to face with Karzai, and even though there was strong intelligence that a car bomber would attack our motorcade driving in Kabul from the airport, he made the decision to go. He arrived around noon on Tuesday, 27 Feb., and we made our way to the palace. The VP had a great meeting and lunch with President Karzai, and the rest of the staff were fed wonderful Afghan food in a hold room on the first floor of the palace. After 1 hours, we motorcaded back to the airport, loaded the VP up on his C-17, and jumped on the support C-17 for the 3 hour flight back to Oman. At about 20,000 feet (5 minutes after a steep take-off), a loud cheer went out throughout the airplane - a successful mission accomplished, we were all finally safe.

Every day we read and hear about the brave men and women who are serving in Afghanistan. It is a God-forsaken, dangerous, unpleasant place to be, yet our soldiers and airmen go through their daily jobs without a complaint. A piece of the World Trade Center is buried at the US Embassy in Kabul - a stark reminder of why we are there and the importance of our mission. I was proud to have gotten to know many of the young men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis to bring peace and security to a suffering people, and justice to a ruthless enemy who have no regard for the value of life. I will never forget my experience in Afghanistan, and will forever think and pray for our men and women who are over there, defending the freedoms and liberty we all take for granted.