I can only speculate but I’m pretty sure the biggest question on my men’s minds was whether or not we would take contact on the way back up the road. The road that we had traveled to get to Qal-e Khowsouddin was the only road we could take to get back to the ABP checkpoint. We had been at our location for more than an hour and that was plenty of time for insurgents to set up an ambush or to place an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on the road.
Throughout our training, we had been taught to “keep our heads on a swivel” meaning to constantly be aware of our surroundings. As our little group walked through the doorway and back out to the trucks, heads were moving.
The Afghan Border Police followed us through the doorway and congregated in front of a green ABP Ford Ranger that was parked nearly inside the entrance way. I pushed ahead of the group in the direction of our trucks in order to turn around and capture photos of last minute conversations between MSG Mellohn, the general, and the ABP soldiers.
The differences in security protocols and travel between the US Forces and the ABP were numerous. The ABP did not drive around in large camouflaged, up-armored vehicles equipped with counter-IED systems, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) netting, bullet-proof glass and other various safety features. They didn’t drive at convoy speeds that kept distance between vehicles allowing every truck in the convoy to maintain communication. They didn’t use GPS-enabled mapping systems to determine their location or to communicate with other vehicles or an operations center. They didn’t wear full body armor, helmets, knee pads, or elbow pads. They merely jumped into an average Ford Ranger pickup, stuck an un-vested man with a weapon in the open bed of the truck, and said, “Let’s go!” They didn’t follow speed limits or any rules of the road as we know them. They drove at excessive speeds and held on. As a matter of fact, during MSG Mellohn’s planning of the mission, he had determined the order of march for our convoy vehicles and made sure that his vehicle was first so that the ABP couldn’t drive ahead too fast, get too far ahead, and lose the rest of the convoy.
The men on the trucks had not relaxed while we had been inside speaking with the general. The gunners, with the hot sun beating directly down on them, had been sitting walled behind their metal fortresses, rotating their turrets and scanning the area in defense of our presence in the area. The junior Joint Fires Observer (JFO) had set up shop near my truck and was contending with his radio chatter to higher. The drivers and the medic had also been very vigilant in posting security as they sat in the trucks and kept a watchful eye out through the hazy, sandy windows of our up-armored vehicles.
With our senses on full alert again, we mounted our vehicles and ran through the quick routine of radio checks. SGT Anise took his place again as my gunner. Our Soldiers were harnessed in their seats and the doors were combat locked. It was time to roll out again.
Once our convoy had moved out, it was very difficult to see the road in front of us. The wind had picked up and sand was being kicked up by the vehicles on front of me. My driver kept his foot on the gas pedal despite the limited visibility and we maintained our convoy speed. Although it was dangerous to have trucks too close together in case we got hit, it was equally as dangerous to have the trucks too far apart.
There was no chatter nor any music in the truck as there had been on the journey before. Our truck, engulfed in a large dirt cloud, rumbled loudly along the straight, dirt path. The clicking of the rotating turret above and behind me could be heard over the roar of the engine. The radio was quiet and I could hear the slightest ringing in my ears inside of my headphones.
After about ten minutes of driving, the sand cloud had begun to fade a bit and I could now see a few mud homes near the road in front of us.
I heard the quietness in my headset change to a dull fuzz as if someone had queued their microphone.
“…and on the left, you will see goats on a wall,” MSG Mellohn’s voice rang out through the silence as if he was playing the role of a tour guide. He emphasized ‘goats on a wall’ as though the words were the title of a piece of art or literature or, as it were, an oddity.
The men in my truck snickered half-heartedly as someone in my truck asked, “What did he say?”
I repeated in my best MSG Mellohn impersonation, “He said ‘goats on a wall’.”
At that moment, my truck was in the location that MSG Mellohn’s truck had been in when he offered his tour-guide impression and, indeed, there were goats on a wall. To the left of the road was a mud wall that stood three or four feet tall and, on top of that wall, were maybe eight or ten brown, white, and black goats. They just stood there balancing atop their perch, not moving, not grazing. It was the most peculiar sight I had seen on a convoy yet.
As we drove by, I chuckled to myself about the goats on a wall. MSG Mellohn’s attempt at humoring us with this oddity had helped to take the edge off the tension a bit. Although we continued to stay vigilant and alert, I think everyone’s shoulder muscles loosened up slightly. MSG Mellohn’s comment was just the dose of reality that I needed to put into perspective just how simple the Afghanistan way of life was in comparison to my life as an American. A comment like that would probably never have been said by anyone I know back in the States.
The trucks picked up speed and our vision was once again clouded by the burst of dirt in front of us. Occasionally, through the dirt puff, I would catch a glimpse of a donkey grazing near the road or a farmer in his field. The silence in the truck had also returned and we continued to keep a watchful eye for the remainder of our short jaunt to the district center.
I monitored the Blue Force Tracker, watching the icon that represented my truck move toward a square marking the district center and watching the messenger for any new intel for our area.
Once again the trucks began to slow and MSG Mellohn’s voice came over the radio instructing me that we were at our destination. Like all good Soldiers do, I scouted out my new area. To my left was a thin patch of trees, a couple of fields, and a donkey tied in the tree line. To my right, a Hesco barrier surrounding the district center that we had passed earlier. There were no other buildings in the area, no vehicles on the roads, no children, no homes.
MSG Mellohn had pushed his truck to the far side of the entrance way to the checkpoint with his gunner still pointed down the road in front of us. The ABP pickup, which had been between the convoy commander’s and my truck, disappeared through the gate and into the compound. I instructed my driver to hold back to the near side of the gate and SGT Anise, without hesitation or my command, turned his turret to cover us from the rear.
I waited to hear the go-ahead from the convoy commander before opening my door. I dismounted my vehicle slowly, taking note of as many details of my surroundings as I could. Carefully I stepped down out of my vehicle as I continued to scan the area for threats.
MSG Mellohn was greeted by the ABP Colonel Akhbar and General Wadood near the front gate. The general had ridden in one of the ABP pickups from Qal-e Khowsouddin to the checkpoint.
“Salaam alaikum,” the master sergeant said with a warm smile as he shook the colonel’s hand. The two had been working together over the past few months and had formed not only a working relationship but also a friendship.
“Wa alaikum as salaam,” Colonel Akhbar quickly replied with the same warm smile as our master sergeant.
I watched the three leaders chat briefly with the help of the interpreter. The colonel pointed across the road to the patch of young trees and then the two nodded and walked toward the road followed by a handful of ABP soldiers who had come from within the compound.
MSG Mellohn motioned for me to come over to him and I moved purposefully toward him. He told me that our key leader engagement (KLE) would be taking place across the road under the shade of the trees. It was well after noon and quite hot out so Col. Akhbar felt a breezy outdoor meeting would be nice.
The master sergeant instructed me to tell the remainder of the team and then bring both JFOs to the meeting. I quickly moved back to my truck, donned my headset, and gave the update to our team over the radio. As quickly as I said it, two JFOs – one junior and one senior – were out of their respective trucks and ready to go. I flopped my headset down on my seat, jumped back off the truck, and grabbed my assault pack with one hand and my camera with the other. The three of us walked away from the trucks and across the road.
An ABP soldier had laid a dark, dusty blanket and three black pillows out on the ground for the three leaders to sit on. MSG Mellohn, showing respect to his counterparts, took off his body armor and helmet, setting it in the dirt off the side of the blanket. He rested his sunglasses on the top of his head and sat down on the blanket between the two ABP leaders. The general, keeping his patrol cap on his head, laid comfortably on his side with a pillow under his arm. The master sergeant followed suit and leaned back on his pillow. Completely comfortable in his relaxed position and with his company, he focused on the colonel and began to jot down notes as the colonel spoke.
The interpreter sat in the tall grass beside Colonel Akhbar and one ABP soldier sat on the ground next to him while another ABP soldier stood behind them. The two JFOs and another ABP soldier sat opposite the line of men creating a small walkway between the two rows of men. Behind the JFOs was a tree and on the other side of that, a few feet down an embankment, was a small pool of stagnant, murky green water.
I removed my helmet and clipped it to my assault pack, then wrapped my head with my shemaugh again. Although wrapped in Pashmina, my head seemed to feel cooler than it did when I wore my helmet.
I stood off to the side of the group for a bit in order to take photos then carefully made my way across a narrow footing of dirt to cross the swamp-like creek in order to catch a different angle. I didn’t want to get in the way of the meeting so I hovered around from one side of the group to the other, crossing the creek as I needed to and being careful on the uneven ground so that I would not to fall in.
I glanced back at the trucks once in a while and then up and down the road for any activity. I took turns photographing the KLE and then other things that were around me. The frayed donkey that was tied to the tree line looked miserable in the heat and was doing what he could to nestle himself in the trees and out of the sun. The mountains were hazy from the humidity and, at one point, there was traffic on the road. Albeit, it was a local Afghan man slowly riding by on his donkey, but it was traffic nonetheless.
The Colonel, the General, and the Master Sergeant’s business was nothing that I particularly listened to but I did pay attention enough to them to get the gist of the conversation. My role, at that moment, was to take photos of the KLE in order to document the mission not only for our security force assistance team (SFAT) but also for the ABP. They were not equipped to send a public affairs person of their own out on missions nor did they fully understand the value of having one on the mission.
The 5th Zone ABP were good at documenting the activities of the general commanding the 5th Zone. Most of the public affairs capability was nested with him and his personal bodyguard. The 5th Zone did have a Public Affairs Officer who was, to this point, vestigial. This was the reason that I had been included in this mission; to show the ABP the value of documenting their activities in the field that contributed to security and stability in northern Afghanistan. We wanted to show them that this could contribute to establishing a positive awareness of the role of the ABP and, through that, to assist in enhancing government legitimacy.
There had been insurgent activity in the area recently and Col. Akhbar was explaining to the commander of the Quick Reaction Force and to our seasoned master sergeant how the situation was being handled. MSG Mellohn’s working relationship with Col. Akhbar and the ABP was as the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) advisor. In short, although there was nothing short about his advisor duties and responsiblities, he mentored the ABP in regards to how they performed operations, training, and leadership.
At one point during the KLE, Col. Akhbar must have said something to one of the Afghan soldiers because an Afghan soldier had left the blanket session and returned with some delicious, hot tea. Yes, 100 degrees outside and I was offered hot, steaming tea. I was taught not only from the Army but also from my parents to be polite and accept hospitality when it’s offered so I put the camera down for a couple of minutes, sat on a tuft of long grass, and enjoyed a small cup of Chai.
General Wadood remained quiet throughout most of the meeting, as did MSG Mellohn. Col Akhbar would say a few sentences, gesture something with his hands, then pause for the interpreter to repeat the information in English.
The meeting adjourned as Col Akhbar invited the group of us to come inside the compound to see the checkpoint’s operating center. One by one, the group crossed the little dirt paths across the bog and made our way back up to and across the road.
Our gaggle of ABP and American Soldiers walked through the guarded opening in the Hescos that encompassed the compound. A few small trees were planted in the dry dirt in the middle of the compound. Beyond the trees was a one-story unfinished cement building with wood framed holes for windows. Despite being unfinished, the building was being used. Plastic sheeting hung over a few of the window openings and three of the larger entrance ways had been converted to drying racks for brush that was most likely going to be used for roofing. Two rows of five brick walls stood on the roof above the openings. The bricks did not match the cement walls of the building so I don’t know if they were permanently affixed there or not.
Two ABP green pickups were parked at the far end of the building and two additional vehicles were parked in front of me beside a two-story yellow painted building. The truck closest to the building had been parked in the shade. The truck’s tailgate was lowered and two stocking feet hung out the end of the bed on a dingy blue blanket. Clearly an Afghan soldier was napping or, at minimum, resting in the shade. Another ABP soldier laid on his back on the blue sleeping mat stretched out on the cement slab in front of the building. He, too, was in his stocking feet.
Our group stopped outside the door to the yellow building as we heard a “Hey! Hey!” from MSG Mellohn. A tall American Soldier with a tan ball cap and cigar limped toward us. The gentleman was a lieutenant colonel and a friend and fellow combat advisor of our master sergeant. The two had known each other back in the States and both had the role of mentor in Afghanistan. The two exchanged a friendly greeting and a brief but jovial conversation about how they had been on their deployments thus far. Aside from a few informal comments about their respective mentorships, the conversation was a ribbing about the manner in which of how the lieutenant colonel gained his limp. Apparently, the middle aged officer thought he could take on some young bucks on the basketball court. In short, the stogie smoker ended up with a broken leg that slowed his pace but not his spirit.
After a few more moments of joking and chit-chat between the two, MSG Mellohn turned to me and asked if I would take a picture of the two old friends. I took a photo consisting of our smiling master sergeant on the right with his helmet under arm and the lieutenant colonel on the left, cigar still in his mouth.
It was time to move on with the mission so we walked past the yellow building where another unfinished cement building stood. This building was a bit more constructed than the other one as it had glass windows in nearly half of the window openings.
Again, I lagged behind to get photos of the group. Our leader walked across the gravel walkway with the ABP leader ahead of the group, followed by their interpreter, then the two JFOs and myself. As we reached the door to the command building, we walked in front of a few coalition force and Afghan soldiers. The reaction was nearly the same as it had always been on missions like this. These men didn’t anticipate a woman on the trip and I could tell they were watching me. I just continued walking as if I were no different than the other men around me.
We crossed a short corridor and went into a very tall, brightly lit room. Sunlight illuminated the room through the windows that lined the perimeter near the top of the room. With the ceiling painted white and the room painted yellow, the brightness of room was actually very inviting. In the corner was a tall ladder that had been built out of stripped branches of wood.
Three Afghan soldiers sat along one wall behind two tables that were being used as desks. Contrary to the simplistic ruggedness of the compound, on the tables sat pieces of modern radio equipment, a computer, and a printer. Coaxial cables draped out of the equipment onto the floor and climbed up the wall behind the ladder like thick black vines. The vines disappeared out a window at the top of the room.
Col. Akhbar walked MSG Mellohn past a wooden divider in the middle of the room to the far end of the square command room. On the other side of the divider, that was made of sheets of particle board, hung three large maps of the area and a few sheets of paper with Dari or Farsi words written on them. The far wall of the room was decorated with more Dari-covered sheets of paper.
The two leaders migrated toward one of the maps and the Afghan colonel began showing MSG Mellohn where insurgent presence had been in the Chemtal area. There had been an ongoing joint effort, Ebtikar 4, between the Afghan Uniformed Police, the Afghan National Army, and the ABP to counter insurgent activity. The maps were just a visual affirmation of the information that Col Akhbar had shared earlier in the meeting across the road outside under the trees. By the look on MSG Mellohn’s face, one could infer that he was pleased with Col Akhbar’s handling of the situation.
A few more moments of conversation between our master sergeant and the colonel then is was time to step back outside and wrap up the day’s business.
MSG Mellohn asked me if I could get a photo of him with Col. Akhbar before we left. After seeing the bond that the two of them had, both as friends and working together toward a better Afghanistan, I was more than happy to oblige. The two stood side by side in the sunlight and I believe I caught the most genuine smiles the two of them could have had. Theirs were looks of kinship, assurance, and pride.
This moment was exactly what our presence in Afghanistan was about: helping them to help themselves – training them, supporting them, encouraging them, and reassuring them. I was there to witness it, to capture it, and to document it. I had taken photos of leaders who were making progress, one step at a time, against the war on terror.
We returned to our home post unscathed. Although ready for the fight, we never took any contact that day.
SGT Anise, despite his attempts to sabotage my position as the truck commander, did respect me throughout the day and did not cross me. He did what was expected of him and acted responsibly as the gunner of my truck. He did not, however, speak to me in a casual manner that day or any other day we were on mission together for the rest of my deployment.
My photos were sent upward to my command and distributed to many news outlets, both civilian and military. I also sent a copy to the ABP public affairs officer whom I ended up mentoring by the end of my deployment. Those photos helped to solidify the reason why public affairs was so important on those types of missions. MSG Mellohn and his Afghan counterpart were in sync in their efforts that day and I held the proof that Afghanistan was transforming and was working against the insurgency.