Michael's Dispatches Michael's Dispatches

Pixie Dust


Thursday night, 06 August 2009

I made this photo last night in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  This Landing Zone is very dangerous.  A few weeks ago, another helicopter was coming into this LZ and was shot down at the last minute, killing all passengers and crew.  Two children on the ground also were killed.  The sparks coming off the rotors occur when the helicopters land in hot, dusty conditions.  The landing itself occurs in a dangerous "brownout."  Brownout danger is compounded by the sparks which light up the dust and can confuse pilots who are wearing extremely sensitive nightvision goggles.


Common Scenes & Common Thoughts


Common Scenes & Common Thoughts


Common Days & Nights


A helicopter roars into FOB Jackson in Sangin, Afghanistan.  Medical tents are just next to the Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) so casualties can be quickly loaded.

05 August 2009

The helicopter pilot wearing night vision goggles roared in so fast it looked as though he were crashing.  The four green Cylums (Americans call them Chemlights) mark the HLS.  While the helicopter is above the dust cloud, it melts into the dark, but as it approaches the HLS, dust swirls high, setting the stage for an amazing light show.  The Chinook descends through the dry dust and the rotors glitter brightly, creating an eerie glow as if sparklers are attached to the rotors, which in reality appeared brighter to the eye than in the photo below.  If the helicopter were not so loud, the millions of static discharges might be heard crackling and popping.

Read more: Common Scenes & Common Thoughts



Spraying for bugs on FOB Jackson, Sangin.

03 August 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

The bugs are not bad in this part of Afghanistan.  The scorched terrain is biologically boring.  Mice and ferret-like creatures dash around in the evenings when sparrows and doves and a few other sorts of birds flutter through the cool air.  But even at sunrise, I cannot make out the songs or see in flight more than ten types of birds, one of which is the rooster.  There are no wading birds, not here anyway: no kingfishers, no cormorants or ducks.  The dominant hue of land and bird is desert brown.  Maybe a bird or two with black feathers, but never one with sharp, primary colors: not even a red wing tip or a white tuft.  There are no ornamental birds with glorious plumage or fancy dance, only drab designs, though the lucky ones have short golden legs.  There is not a single inspiring song among them.

Read more: Resurrection

Night Into Day


Sangin, Helmand Province

Finding the Enemy

29 July 2009

Orders are given before every operation.  The orders filter down through various unit levels involved, until each platoon finally recieves its specific mission.  The concept for this mission came down from the 2 Rifles Battlegroup (battalion) to the  companies, including elements of the Afghan National Army and their British counterparts from the Welsh Guard, and down to each 2 Rifles platoon involved.  So for any mission there might be literally dozens (or more) orders and rehearsals until each man and woman knows the perceived enemy situaton, their specific tasks, and much more.  While soldiers here at FOB Jackson received orders, undoubtedly pilots and others, stationed far away, perhaps on an aircraft carrier or even farther afield, were finalizing related plans.

Read more: Night Into Day

SatComms for Soldiers


25 July 2009
Sangin, Afghanistan

Have been out with British forces in the area of Sangin in northern Helmand Province.  This area appears to be turning into the main effort of the current fight in Afghanistan, but this is unclear to me at the moment.  I do know that air assets are heavy.  During our mission yesterday, a B-1 could be seen overhead, though it was miles high.  On the ground, this place is loaded with IEDs and there were many firefights during yesterday’s mission.   My section of eight soldiers did not fire a single round; we did not come into direct contact, though bullets sometimes zipped overhead.  Nearly all missions are conducted on foot and the soldiers like it that way.  I am with the British battalion called 2 Rifles.  The last mission I did with 2 Rifles was in Iraq, and they killed maybe 26-27 JAM members during that fight.  Yesterday they only killed two Taliban (Predator actually made the shot), but the mission was well run, and morale here is very high.  Everybody is ready to roll again and missions are near continuous.  I’ll ask British commanders to let me stay, though that might not be necessary because there are so few helicopters.  More likely I am stuck here.  FOB Jackson is probably going to be my Hotel California, but that’s all good because these are great soldiers, in the thick of it, and I want to stay.

Read more: SatComms for Soldiers

Some Photos and Captions


22 July 2009
Filed from Sangin, Afghanistan

(This dispatch is from Ghor Province, though I am now with British forces down south.)

Lithuanian soldier on Swedish C-130 from Kabul to Kandahar and finally to Chaghcharan.   On his left are Filipino workers.  Filipinos are like birds; the only place that an American has stepped that a Filipino hasn’t is the moon.  Yesterday was a special anniversary for space travel: man first landed on the moon.  I watched the launch from our family boat when I was five years-old.  Apollo 11 was bright, and loud.  Many people think that the Russians also walked on the moon, but this is untrue.

Read more: Some Photos and Captions

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.

Read more: One Giant Leap

Sangow Bar Village


Sangow Bar Village

Some Notes and Photos

16 July 2009
Ghor Province, Afghanistan

On a per capita basis, Afghanistan is becoming more dangerous for British and American troops than Iraq ever was.  For those who fought in places like Anbar, Basra, Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh, that’s saying a whole lot.  On a per capita basis, there are strong indications that Afghanistan will prove more deadly than Iraq during 2006-2007.  One can only imagine how many days and nights Secretary Robert Gates and his advisors must have agonized over troop levels here.  On the one hand, we have a fraction of the troops we need, but on the other, increasing troop levels increases hostility toward us.  Secretary Gates has made it clear to me that his biggest concern is that we will lose the goodwill of the people and they will turn against us.  This happens to be my own biggest concern.  The agony is in knowing we need more medicine and the medicine can be highly toxic here.  Many people have complained that the new restrictions on air strikes will hurt us, but from my boots, General McChrystal (the new boss here) has fulfilled the intent of his boss, and that the decision, though tough, was wise; if we lose the widespread assent of the Afghan people, it’s all over but for the bleeding.

Today our chances are not good, but there remains a real chance to succeed.  Those chances improve dramatically when we take a no-kidding inventory of the situation and refine our goals to align with reality.

Read more: Sangow Bar Village

Searching for Kuchi & Finding Lizards


Lithuanian Soldiers Prepare Humvees under the glow of the Milky Way

13 July 2009
Ghor Province, Afghanistan

The wake-up alarm sounded at 0345, and by 0430 the Lithuanian soldiers were ready to roll.  The Lithuanians had always arrived early, prepared for action before every mission, but this time we relied on an Afghan guide.  The first part of the mission was to find the Kuchi.  Normally, Lithuanian soldiers perform a reconnaissance before a mission, but they decided to skip the recon to find the Kuchi nomads because, well, they are nomads.  Even if the recon were to locate the camel caravan in a specific location, the Kuchis would likely have moved by the time we got there.  So we were relying on the local guide who had a cell phone number for the Kuchis.  He was 21 minutes late and held up the mission by 27 minutes.  One guy holding up about three dozen soldiers and a mission should be flogged.

The base at Chaghcharan sits at nearly 7,500 feet above sea level, so at night the Milky Way hovers in magnificence above the clean, dry air.  But come morning, the stars fade as the sun rises with blinding vengeance.

As we rolled to find the Kuchi nomads and their camels, the six vehicle convoy kicked up “moon dust,” which reflected the bright sun, causing instant blindness as if driving through white clouds.  The convoy had to space out, else the vehicles would be driving dangerously close through the arid fog of dust.  As we passed villages made of stone, mud, and straw, the white smoke from their cooking fires hung low, just above the villages, lightly blanketing their dwellings, as farmers were already heading to the fields.  The Afghans are a hard-working lot.  The cruel mountains must have killed off the lazy ones a long time ago.

Read more: Searching for Kuchi & Finding Lizards

Lithuanians on the Moon: Lithuanian Translation

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08 July 2009

For Lithuanian speakers, please see:

Lietuviai mėnulyje
tardamas šiuos žodžius

2009 m. liepos 1 d.

Čagčaranas, Goro provincija, Afganistanas

Lietuvis vyr. leitenantas Marius Varna palydėjo mane aplink nedidelę stovyklą ir prieš mus atsivėrė didžiulė Afganistano erdvė. Platybės, dulkės ir gniuždantis rudos spalvos pojūtis, beveik nėra gaivinančios žalumos, tik dangaus mėlynė ir spiginanti ryški saulė. Matyti vos keletas skurdžių medžių. Vienas kalnas atrodo žalsvas, tarsi jį kas būtų iš toli apipurškęs dažais. Ltn.Varna paaiškino, kad žolė ten pasirodė po prieš keletą savaičių nulijusio lietaus. 

The Village


Some of the Navy folks talked about bringing out a veterinarian.

08 July 2009

(Filed from Afghanistan)

The fight in the southern Philippines varies in intensity and technique.  Commanders in the AFP (Armed Forces Philippines) will say that the fight consists of about 80% carrot and 20% stick.  The relationship between U.S. and AFP forces seems good but there are differences of opinion.  Our folks fully understand the 80% part, but on the 20% we often know the whereabouts of the enemy and would like to see faster action.  Nevertheless, my gut instinct after having a tour about the place is that progress is being made.  A guerrilla commander told me that he had been fighting since 1976, but came out of the jungles with 34 fighters on 20 April this year.  Publicly it’s called a “surrender,” but on the ground it seemed more like a mutual agreement to stop fighting and do something constructive.

Read more: The Village

Philippines: Some Notes, Thoughts, and Observations


06 June 2009
Filed From Chaghcharan, Afghanistan


Until recently, Afghanistan was called “The Forgotten War.” The dramatic domestic, regional, and international politics of the Iraq war largely eclipsed the fact that our people were fighting just as hard in Afghanistan. Although we’re paying attention to AfPak now, off the radar screen an important and related fight has been unfolding in the Philippines.

Read more: Philippines: Some Notes, Thoughts, and Observations

Lithuanians on the Moon


Lithuanians on the Moon

Speaking the Language

Mohammad Jan Kendewalli points to ‘nearby’ villages.

01 July 2009
Chaghcharan, Ghor Province, Afghanistan

Lithuanian Lieutenant Marius Varna walked me around the perimeter of the small camp and we scanned the massive desolation of Afghanistan.  The expanses, the dust, and the overwhelming sensation of brown and near-absence of refreshing green, under blue skies and squinting-bright sun.  Only a handful of scrubby trees to be seen.   One mountain wore a tint of green, as if it had been spray-painted from too far.  Varna said it had sprouted after a rain a few weeks ago.

Read more: Lithuanians on the Moon

Lithuanians in Afghanistan


29 June 2009
Chaghcharan, Ghor Province

Kabul has changed.  In recent years the roads were often clogged with military convoys, filling the town with aggravations and dangers often caused by the mere presence of large numbers of soldiers in proximity to the dusty beehive called Kabul.  Yesterday, in a drive around the city, the only obvious presence was that of the ANA and ANP (Afghan National Army and Police).  The few U.S. or other soldiers who could be seen were driving in armored civilian SUVs.

Read more: Lithuanians in Afghanistan

Sean Pillai interviews Jeff Mellinger

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27 June 2009
Kabul, Afghanistan

The clearest sign that I am back in Afghanistan is that the electricity is out again.  Other than that, the day is bright, shiny and cool in Kabul.

While reading/listening through the morning news, this excellent interview with Command Sergeant Major Jeff Mellinger popped up.  The interview was conducted by Sean Pillai.

CSM Mellinger has spent about 37 years in the United States Army.  He was the single most knowledgeable soldier I ever met when it comes to the ground war in Iraq.  He's a walking encyclopedia who spent more time on those hot, dangerous streets than most grunts.   CSM Mellinger gained immense respect from the combat troops.  He only had two bosses in Iraq.  The first was General Casey, and the second was General Petraeus, Jeff Mellinger didn't like office life.  He liked to walk the line.

The electricity is back on, so this message can now get back to you.


The Road to Hell: Part II


27 June 2009

With so many contractors, journalists, and even tourists floating around Afghanistan, some are bound to be kidnapped.  The recent escape by David Rohde provides a happy conclusion, though these things often end up with a bullet in the head, or a head sawed off for all to see.  Kidnappings are so common in Afghanistan that most barely make the news.

The New York Times and big media outlets are being blamed for suppressing the story and thereby giving special treatment to one of their own.  It’s clear that they did give special treatment to one of their own.  In fact, when police lose an officer, they also put special emphasis on the crime, and when soldiers lose one of their own, they also put special emphasis on rescue.  Iraqi soldiers who helped us locate American soldiers were sometimes upset that we barely lifted a finger when their own were captured and brutally tortured.  That the New York Times gave special treatment to one of its own is a fact.  That the U.S. military does the same is a fact.  Maybe it’s human nature.

Read more: The Road to Hell: Part II

Michael Jackson


News of Mr. Jackson's death is sweeping around the world.  Having worked for Mr. Jackson at his Neverland Ranch, I had the feeling that he was a hostage to his success.  Finally, the King of Pop will find peace that he might never have gotten in life.

Very Respectfully,

Michael Yon

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