A field trip like none other
My surreal memoirs from the USO tour in Afghanistan
Posted: Sunday March 9, 2008 10:50PM; Updated: Monday March 10, 2008 2:12PM
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- I talked with commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday night about my USO trip with NFL players Luis Castillo, Tommie Harris and Mike Rucker, and I probably got a little excited about our week in the middle of the war. "Sounds like a life-changing experience for you,'' Goodell said.
Not exactly, but close. More like the greatest field trip of all time. Quick story: Last Wednesday, we're flying in a C-17 cargo plane from the staging airbase for the war -- in Kyrgyzstan, 400 miles northeast of the Afghanistan border -- and as we approach the border, we're over the most beautiful snowcapped mountain peaks, with an elevation of about 15,000 feet.
Air Force pilot Matt Jarrett rose from his seat in the cockpit and put on an armored vest and combat helmet. Hmmm. I waited for an explanation. As he fetched the armor plate to put under his seat, the friendly Jarrett said in a cool monotone: "Not that anything's going to happen, but what I'd like you to do when we cross into Afghanistan is to look out your window for us as we go. If you see anything unusual down there, or anything that looks like it's tracking on the plane, in as normal a voice as you can, alert us that something's up out there, OK?''
Not that the Taliban has any armament that can shoot down a plane this big, two miles up in the sky, but I guess it's better to be safe than sorry. My exact thought at the moment: Peter, you're not in Jersey anymore.
Hope you don't mind, but I'm going to let the real world intrude on the NFL this week. But it's the real world with a football accent on it.
I didn't sleep well here, on any night. I think it was part adrenaline, part decibel levels of the planes and helicopters rattling the walls of our barracks at four bases, part not sleeping as well at 50 as one does at 25, and part not wanting to miss anything -- because this experience was like coming out of the womb and being so wide-eyed.
Everything you're seeing, you're seeing for the first time. Real barracks (as unglamorous and scented, as you'd imagine), real foul latrines (ditto), surprisingly very good food (I hear it costs the U.S. taxpayers $30 per meal), drones with lawnmower-sounding engines piloted by pilots sitting in a control center in Nevada. We also got to feel the power of a Blackhawk helicopter while riding over Bedouin encampments 20 miles from the Pakistan border, and met some seemingly fearless Army Ranger and Special Forces troops, who have the enemy shooting at them daily.
That's what this story is about. On Thursday night, after a Q&A session we did on this base in the desert of southern Afghanistan (my laptop still has Kandahar dust on the little-used top row of keys as I write this), six from our group ventured into a room shared by several members of the Army's 1st Battalion, 508th Scout Sniper Reconnaissance Platoon. Four in the platoon of 30 are highly trained Army Rangers, the others are elite soldiers. Several of them wear silver bracelets bearing the name of the late Tanner James O'Leary, a South Dakota kid and driver of their Humvee that was blown up by an IED on a mission near here last year. These guys jump out of planes and hunt Taliban soldiers for a living.
One young sergeant, Jeremiah Wagner of Simi Valley, reminded me of a skinny, chiseled Rambo, with the only attitude you can have for a man who does his job, a sort of frenetic, passionate fearlessness. Their captain, Staff Sgt. James Anderson of San Diego, could pass for the late 49er line coach, Bob McKittrick. He's bald, 32, as tough as they come -- and he doesn't have to say a word for you to know that. He just looks at you, and you look at his form-fitting T-shirt and think, Whoever messes with this man is going to die.
This platoon gets dropped in remote regions of the country for up to a month at a time, and they set up camp in the woods or the mountains and search for the enemy. One of them talked about mowing down Taliban troops as they walked into death.