[Originally posted on the National American Red Cross blog]
Editor’s note: Below is a collection of blurbs written by Sybilla Green Dorros, an Assistant Station Manager Reserve with Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces. Sybilla was recently deployed to Afghanistan, at the Red Cross station in Bagram Air Field. She works to bring some comfort to the service members and also connect soldiers with their families during emergencies.
Greetings from Afghanistan!
Our four-member team arrived safely on March 23. Our plane from DC Dulles to Atlanta was hit by lightning and diverted to Chattanooga, but thankfully the rest of the trip was uneventful. After clearing Fort Benning, we flew to Kuwait on a chartered R&R flight via Leipzig and then boarded a C-17 cargo plane – donned in flax jackets and helmets – for the final leg to Bagram Air Field. President Obama’s visit on Sunday evening was undoubtedly the highlight of our first week, but I missed it since, for security reasons, it was billed as a nondescript USO event. I’m going to have to learn to read between the lines!
On a clear day…
Afghanistan is gorgeous, at least what I can see through the concertino wire. We’re in a valley, at 4,895 feet, in an area that used to be renowned for its vineyards and wineries. We have a 360-degree panoramic view of mountains, with the far ranges snow-capped. [Afghanistan’s highest peak is 24,580 feet.] Outside the perimeter fence, poppies bloom, children play, and goatherds tend their flocks. One day, maybe, I’ll get to visit the real Afghanistan!
Bagram Air Field
In contrast to the beautiful landscape surrounding the base, Bagram Air Field is a desolate wasteland. It’s flat as a pancake and small – only 5,000 acres, many of them inaccessible because of land mines. There’s one main two-lane road, Disney Drive (named after a deceased service member, not Disney World, but it has the same surreal atmosphere). The road goes in an 8-mile loop around the base; the outskirts, where I do my 3.5-mile walk every day, are littered with rusted carcasses of old Soviet vehicles and tanks. The base was never intended to house 30,000 residents (24,000 civilians and 6,000 military), so it’s extremely overcrowded with long lines everywhere, especially at the mess halls. Right now, most of the base looks like a gigantic construction site as the military prepares for the surge that’s already begun and will continue through the summer.
People at Bagram
The base’s population, a mix of civilians and military (ratio 5 to1), is a virtual United Nations. There’s an Egyptian hospital, a Korean training facility, Polish and UAE compounds, just to name a few, plus NATO soldiers from all over the world. The mess hall staff is from Eastern Europe and the hairdressers and masseurs are from Russia. Hundreds of Afghan men (no women) are brought in by bus every day to do the menial labor, like cleaning the latrines and filling sand bags. They’re dressed mostly in shalwar kamiz (baggy pajama-like pants with a long tunic top) and one of three types of head covering, lunghi (a wraparound turban), pakul (a woolen beret-like hat) and kufi (white skullcap). Some of their faces and outfits are worthy of a National Geographic magazine cover and offer a bit of local flavor in an otherwise drab environment.
Working at Bagram
The American Red Cross here, housed in a single B-hut, is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The work is essentially the same as what I did in Baghdad, relaying emergency messages (most often illnesses and deaths) to military authorities on behalf of families in the States. We also offer morale-boosting amenities for the troops, such as a large screen in our lounge for watching TV and movies. The biggest differences from Baghdad are (1) here we do not have an Internet café attached to our office, and (2) Bagram has a hospital. I go over to the hospital a few times a week to visit wounded service members, taking comfort kits and telephone calling cards. These visits can be heart-wrenching; most of the wounds are horrendous, such as head traumas and amputations.
My new digs
Like most Bagram residents, our team is billeted in B-huts, which are flimsy, semi-permanent wooden structures with no concrete foundation. They’re one step above a tent, but really rough living conditions. Ours is divided into four cubicles with the windows nailed closed (no natural light). As the plywood walls are less than 6 feet high and do not reach the ceiling, there is zero privacy and lots of noise – two night sleepers and two day sleepers. My fourth of the B-hut is about 6 x 9 with a bed and desk – no dresser, no bedside table, no locker, no closet. Luckily I’ve always been somewhat of a minimalist!
Springtime at Bagram
When we arrived, the weather was very similar to San Diego’s when I left: low 70s during the day, dipping down to the low 40s at night. The temperatures have slowly risen to the low 80s; we should be sweltering soon! The skies are usually blue with lovely cloud formations (we had not a single cloud for months in Baghdad). Of late, we’ve had some spring showers and thundershowers, turning the entire base into one big field of muck. April showers bring lots of poppies.
Easter at Bagram
The military goes all out for the holidays and Easter was no exception. The mess hall was festooned with painted Styrofoam bunnies and mobiles of colored eggs. The food was atrocious, as usual, but more variety, including both ham and turkey. My new faith community, St. Michael the Archangel, also went all out with beautiful services during Holy Week. We had three baptisms and nine confirmations at the Easter Vigil! Later that evening, we had our first mortar attack that sent us scurrying to our bunkers. As I had to work on Easter day itself, I attended an ecumenical sunrise service on the tarmac of the air field, led by five chaplains from different faith communities.
A Day in the Life of…
For the first half of my deployment, I worked the day shift (8:00 am to 4:00 pm), so I had my evenings free. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I used to attend yoga classes. On Fridays, I participated in a Bible Study and on Saturdays, I went to church. At the end of May, I was switched to the swing shift (4:00 pm to midnight), so I had to give up the things I enjoyed the most. I still walk 3.5 miles every day out along the perimeter, dodging Humvees and other vehicles. The combination of diesel fumes, smoke from the burn pits and the swirling dust probably negates any health benefits of walking, but I keep at it. I haven’t missed a day yet!
In the past, all deployed Red Crossers wore phased-out tri-color military desert camouflage uniforms. Ours teams going to Kuwait and Iraq last year were the first not to, hence our khaki slacks and Bimini blue polo shirts. Now I wear desert camies every day. While it’s nice not to think about what to wear, the uniform is not particularly comfortable, especially the boots. And most of you know how much I hate to wear anything on my head!
Danger: Land Mines
Afghanistan is one of the three most heavily mined countries in the world. Millions of land mines are still buried here, mostly in and around the former Soviet bases, like Bagram AF. The last time I saw land mine amputees was in Cambodia in 2001. Now I see them every time I visit the hospital. Three de-mining companies are currently clearing the mines on and around Bagram AF – mines that can stay active for up to 20 years. In the meantime, rest assured that I’m keeping strictly to the straight and narrow.
I guess the name Bagram AIR Field should have been a dead giveaway that it would be noisy. I expected air traffic, but I didn’t realize that my B-hut would be about 400 yards from the main runway, right at the point where the planes accelerate as they take off. It feels like I’m sleeping on the tarmac! In Baghdad, I was awakened every day by Black Hawk helicopters. Here it’s every conceivable type of aircraft: commercial charters (you can fly direct from Bagram to Dubai, a three-hour flight, for $1,000 one way!), corporate cargo (FedEx, DHL), military cargo, Apache helicopters, Predator drones and the noisiest of all, pairs of screaming F-16 fighter jets. I’ve seen few actual birds – only a few magpies, sparrows and doves.