One Giant Leap

20 July 2009

Yesterday, a helicopter crashed on base at Kandahar Airfield, killing sixteen. Later that night we had a minor rocket attack which caused me to roll out of bed onto the floor, while this morning, I got up to the great pleasure of watching Neil Armstrong on the BBC, talking about this historic anniversary, when man first stepped on the moon. I remember that launch as it roared so brightly into space. It remains perhaps the most spectacular day in the history of man. Every worthy endeavor comes with a cost.

Around the same time Mr. Armstrong was speaking this morning, roars from war jets rumbled through base as they rushed down the nearby runway. A British Tornado lifted off but did not get far before it crashed and burned. The two crew members successfully escaped and are recovering from ejection trauma. The cause of the Mi-26 crash last Tuesday that killed five is unclear, but a military source mentioned that the helicopter was shot down by an RPG. At least six aircraft—two jets and four helicopters—have gone down this month. Two Americans were lost in a jet crash.

My flight from Kandahar Airfield to Camp Bastion was less eventful, and shortly after landing, I was given a tour of the trauma facility that I had heard and read so much about. I’m not a medical professional and so cannot make a professional assessment of the facility, but can say that it seemed like an A++ facility. If I were a soldier, it would be very good to know that such a high-tech place is waiting, with plenty of extra beds, and a relatively massive staff including 43 British, 45 Americans, and 97 Danes. The place is crawling with trauma expertise. The Danes just took over operation of the hospital today at noon, and will run it for three months. This writer is plenty upset with some countries for not devoting enough resources to this war, but at least with medical facilities they are primo. (This is also true in Iraq. Every U.S. soldier who got shot or blown up [who could still talk] would tell me that their treatment from the battle zone back to the United States was exemplary, but when they got back to Texas or wherever, their treatment was often terrible.) In any case, as someone who might also get shot or blown up in Afghanistan, my grunt-level assessment of this facility at Camp Bastion is very positive. On medical care, we can rest assured. The biggest problem they have to treat are heat casualties, which can occur by the dozens.

The U.S. Marines are flooding in, and you might think that every Marine helicopter in our arsenal is here. I’ll not give numbers and types other than to say the line of aircraft is long and formidable.

The U.S. Marines are a spectacle for the U.S. Army and also the British Army. The Marines will come in and live like pure animals, and build a base around themselves, whereas the British and American Armies will tend to build at least part of the base before coming in. One Marine commander told me that during the early part of this war, his men didn’t even shower for three months. We talked for a couple of hours and he was proud that his Marines didn’t need a shower for three months, and that his Marines killed a lot of Taliban and managed to lose only one good man. That’s the Marines. They’ll show up in force with no warning, and their reputation with U.S. Army and Brits who have fought alongside them is stellar. A NPR photographer who just spent more than three weeks with the Marines could not praise them enough, saying he’d been with them in Iraq, too, and that when Marines take casualties, their reaction is to continue to attack. They try to stay in contact until they finish the enemy, no matter how long it takes. Truly they are animals when it comes to the fight. Other than that, great guys. Tonight at dinner, a young Marine Lance Corporal sat in front of me at the crowded dining facility. “Good evening, Sir,” he said. I asked, “Are you living like animals out there?” “Livin’ the dream, Sir!” They are fantastic.

In any case, tomorrow I go back into combat with the British infantry soldiers of 2 Rifles. The last mission I did with this excellent “Battle Group” (British for “Battalion”) was in Iraq, and they killed maybe 26-27 enemy during that mission. The platoon I had accompanied fired about 4,000 rounds. It had been a rather loud day. The battle group is sustaining serious casualties here in Afghanistan, and I look forward to joining them right where we left off: in combat.