I recently traveled to Germany to train part of the incoming International Joint Command (IJC) staff who will be taking over in Afghanistan this year. The group of British, French and Italian officers and senior NCO staff that I worked with were very good participants, with some very thoughtful discussion going on.
Because of the limited return flights, I had to spend a little over a day waiting before I traveled back to Kabul. I had contacted MaryAnn Phillips, President of Soldiers’ Angels Germany and told her I would be in Germany. I knew that she’d be disappointed with me if I went there and made no effort to say hello. I have too much respect for her to just breeze in and out and not say a word about it. MaryAnn found something for me to do with my bit of extra time; visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. When she mentioned it, I was torn. I have put the bodies of friends in bags. I had to go through their pockets for ID so that I could figure out who they were. I have helped MEDEVAC soldiers, some critically wounded. The dead suffered no more and needed only to be shown dignity and respect. The wounded suffered only for a brief time while I was near them and then they were gone. I am trained as a combat lifesaver, but I am an Infantryman and not a Medic. MaryAnn wanted me to go into the den of the great beast of what comes after the bird leaves. That’s what I saw in my head.
There’s a lot more to what I was in for. I got a little of that. I got a lot more than that, though. Like stocking shelves in the basement of barracks that house outpatients.
Landstuhl isn’t just for wounded. It’s where servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan go for medical treatment and evacuation for any number of reasons. Many are ill. Some have been diagnosed with serious diseases, such as cancer. It is also the waypoint for seriously and critically wounded warriors on their way to places like Walter Reed, the burn centers and the first big step on what may be a long road of recovery. Those people never see the outpatient barracks. They are stabilized and moved again. Some others are there for lengthier stays. For them, many of whom came in with little or nothing, a change of clothes can mean the world.
Enter Soldiers’ Angels and the force that defies gravity and fatigue; MaryAnn Phillips.
I can’t describe MaryAnn as unassuming, a word often associated with people who share her trait of recoiling physically whenever any kind word is directed at her (by anyone who is not a patient, the family of a patient or a medical professional). MaryAnn is a force of nature, possessing seemingly boundless energy and a benevolently powerful presence that melts barriers. She can appear to be tired, but while some would get a charge out of a Red Bull, all you have to do to give MaryAnn a charge of energy is tell her that a patient needs something. She is suddenly on the go, tracing the long halls of Landstuhl for the millionth time, seemingly tireless.
She starts by stocking shelves. Many probably never realize that she is there, but the staff at Landstuhl know her. She is accorded great respect and deference by the staff. She flows effortlessly between organizations and is greeted warmly by all as a partner, a member of the team. Her first stop is an administrator at the barracks, a woman who helps coordinate so that patients have a smoother stay. These two women belong to different organizations, but share a common purpose. The administrator smooths the path for the injured and sick, making sure that they have their paperwork straight, their vouchers available. MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels share something with her; they love the servicemembers who are in a strange place in difficult circumstances. The administrator shows this by her work. MaryAnn and the Angels fold clothing and stock shelves with sweats, t-shirts, underwear and blankets. Many of the sick and injured never really notice her comings and goings, but there are always blankets on the shelves, many made by volunteers and donated. Servicemembers who have been separated from their belongings find clothing and other materials that bring comfort made freely available.
It isn’t until later, usually, that she moves on to the hospital proper. She stops in at Movement Control, touching base and getting an idea of what the patient flow is like and when planes are arriving. She touches base with the LNO’s from various units, senior NCO’s who track and facilitate for evacuees from their parent units in the theater. As I follow MaryAnn like a puppy, lost in an unfamiliar place, I am stunned by the atmosphere of caring and professionalism that she flies through. These professionals deal with personal tragedies and sacrifice on a daily basis with a calm sense of purpose and a sense of humor. None of the laughs are at the expense of the patients, though. I sense only respect and purpose regarding them.
We stop to see a patient whose parents are relaying messages to via MaryAnn. She is in contact with them, reassuring them with news of their son’s personal reactions. She never shares medical information, leaving that task to doctors, sometimes cajoling a busy practitioner to make that call to fill in the parents or spouse on the medical details. MaryAnn shares only the human side, like the fact that their son is expressing a sense of humor, or that she saw him up and moving around. She tells the young man that his parents have told her that someone keeps getting on his bed at home.
“That’s my dog,” he says, his face brightening.
That’s something extra. That’s something special that the doctor or nurse, busy with medical details and other patients, doesn’t have to do. There is MaryAnn, flitting in and giving the young man a smile and a specially made blanket along with a Soldiers’ Angels coin. He is busy… he has finally been allowed to get to a laptop and all he can think of is getting on Facebook. MaryAnn laughs repeatedly throughout the rest of the day that this young man, high on pain meds and walking unsteadily for the first time since being injured, the first thing he wants to do is get on Facebook. He’s behaving normally and contacting his world. It’s a good sign. He won’t remember her, she asserts. She may be right… but she was there, and she bridged that gap of thousands of miles to bring news of his parents and his dog.
And then she moved on.
It seemed like an afterthought. The CCU. “I should show you the CCU.” I am seized with dread, yet interested. I can’t say no to MaryAnn. She introduces me to some of the staff. She inquires as to the status of their supply of blankets and coins for the patients. A man lies seriously injured in a nearby room. A moth to flame. Suddenly I am alone. MaryAnn is holding his hand, talking with him, joking with him, listening to him. She sends me to get a blanket for him, and she gives him a coin. He is fixated on her. It’s as if she’s the only person in the world. In that moment, for him, she was.
I bring the blanket and hand it to MaryAnn. She shows it to him, and immediately it is the answer to all of his problems. He tells her exactly how he wants the blanket placed. She feeds him crackers and water while he struggles with the effects of powerful painkillers. We are there for well over an hour, and all he can see is her. MaryAnn later tells me that he will not remember it. He may not remember Landstuhl at all. But in that moment, she was the only one in the world for him. The next morning, as he is readied, or “packaged” for transport, there are only two things he is concerned with; his iPod and that blanket.
It was an incredible act of love, but to MaryAnn, it is just what she does. She puts the same love into organizing the stock room or folding sweatshirts. She is not the only Angel. She is not the only one who cares.
A number of patients are being moved stateside. The aircraft is on the ground, readied. The ambulatory patients are loaded and waiting. The final touches are being put on “packaging” the patients from the CCU. Every bit of equipment they need is specially affixed to their stretchers, each a mini-CCU tailored to suit their requirements. The Air Force flight medical personnel are there, getting the hand-off. An Air Force Captain notices that one patient is not completely covered. He gets a Soldiers’ Angels blanket, made by a volunteer in the States. A card is pinned to it. He puts the blanket on the wounded man and reads him the card.
He actually took the time to read the card to the recipient of the blanket.
It was an incredible day and a half watching the behind-the-scenes work of the Angels in action. This is amazing work, often with large doses of what most would call, “drudgery.” It’s not exciting. It’s mostly work. Work done with love and persistence. Many, perhaps most, will not remember their encounters with MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels of Landstuhl, but they are there. They bring comfort, they bridge the gap that sometimes opens between professional medical care and people back home. They never share details, medical information or personal information. They are exposed to tragedy and yet they persevere. They do not tell tales of the wounded except in general terms. They see dignity in sacrifice. They care for the soldiers of Coalition nations just as they care for Americans. As awed by MaryAnn as the man in the CCU was, I think that she was just as awed. All of this is done with an overdose of humility. I’ve never seen anyone refuse a compliment as vehemently.
She may actually kill me for writing this.
Personally, I am awed. MaryAnn and the Angels of Landstuhl do things that I could never do on an ongoing basis. To me, they are legend. Truly amazing. Volunteers all. You do not need to embellish their amazing work. But recently a journalist credited MaryAnn with coordinating medical care for a wounded British soldier. While I’m sure it sounded like a great story, it’s not true. The story has been corrected, but in the meantime it made it look like the very professional organizations involved weren’t doing the best they could until they were coordinated by this volunteer. This simply isn’t so. Soldiers’ Angels are truly heroes to me without having to give them superhuman multinational medical powers. They do many wonderful things, but international medical coordination isn’t one of them. Soldiers’ Angels supports soldiers and their families.
I bet at least one of them did hold his hand.
Greyhawk tells the story really well here.
The latest post, below and made only early this morning, is significant news. It is news from a small valley in Afghanistan which is both a microcosm of the Global War on Terror and a crucial battle in establishing a secure, democratic, and independent Afghanistan.
The Tag Ab Valley is relatively close to Kabul. It follows a generally north-south axis starting near the town of Surobi (sometimes spelled “Sarobi,”) and runs north to Nijrab. The districts of Kapisa Province north of the Nijrab District are peaceful and contrast strongly with the southern districts of Nijrab, Tag Ab, and Ala Say (sometimes spelled “Ala Sai” or Alah Say.”)
In the spring of 2007, the Tag Ab Valley was an area that experienced occasional encroachments by American Special Forces and Afghan National Army troops. The major operations that had been conducted in the valley to that point had been clearing operations followed by an absence of any stay-behind forces, save for a Special Forces camp at what was known at the time as Firebase Nijrab. An ANA force in approximately company strength could also be found at Firebase Nijrab, now known as Firebase Morales-Frazier.
The Taliban and HiG controlled the southern half of the Nijrab District, nearly all of Tag Ab District and all of Ala Say District. The only island of IRoA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) control in Tag Ag was a tiny area around the District Center. The Taliban would occasionally surround the District Center and besiege the local ANP for an entire day, just to show them who was boss. In May of 2007, the Taliban publicly hung an Afghan official in the town square. He was an official in the Afghan intelligence agency.
The Tag Ab Valley, with its large HiG (larger, in fact, than the Taliban) presence, was full of opium. It is an historic smuggling route, circumventing passage through Kabul by bypassing to the north at Surobi.
Surobi is a lovely little town on the Naghlu Reservoir. Nestled into the rising terrain south of the reservoir and straddling the strategic J-bad Highway which connects Kabul and Jalalabad, Surobi seems almost Mediterranean in its charm. It is also the site of last month’s ambush on French forces that left 10 dead and 21 wounded.
It’s a beautiful, strategic, dangerous little town anchoring the southern end of this historic smuggling route.
Surobi is also a key link in another kind of smuggling; the smuggling of suicide bombers into Kabul.
Suicide bombers, either wearing explosive vests or driving VBIED’s (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices,) are the biggest threat to security in Kabul. Tag Ab has been a traditional staging area for such attacks. It has been a place where attacks on Kabul can be planned, organized, and the forces marshaled.
Tag Ab is a key valley. It is the closest hardcore Taliban stronghold to Kabul, and the terminus for the infiltration of weapons, explosives, foreign fighters and money.
It is not the only key valley in Afghanistan, but it one with which I am personally intimate. To me, right now, it is the symbol of how woefully ignorant our own press is; and by extension, the American people, of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
Confirmation was released by CJTF 101 just a couple of days ago that one of the key Taliban commanders in Tag Ab was killed on August 5th near the town of Tag Ab in this strategic valley. Qari Nejat was a key thorn in our side for the entire time I was in Afghanistan. He was the most effective and active Taliban commander in the valley.
We didn’t even know what he looked like. This guy was like Pancho Villa, Geronimo, and Osama bin Ladin all wrapped up into one. He was ethereal; a vicious ghost who glided through the valley and was always a step ahead of us. Evidence of his actions against the coalition, IRoA forces (both ANA and ANP,) and the local populace was as consistent as the tides; from ambushes to burning Police checkpoints to summary beheadings, Qari Nejat was credited with a lot of violence.
He was a key player in a key battle in a key valley; and the only Americans who ever heard his name were either there or read this blog. That is patently ridiculous. I’m sure that this isn’t the only instance of this. Beyond sure, I am absolutely positive. This is part of what I wrote about in my post called “Information Operations.”
Since my return home, I’ve been stunned by the lack of knowledge, concern, and investment that many, the greatest perecentage actually, of my fellow citizens have towards the war. Because of its nature, and because the privations of the war are only acutely felt by service members, it is easy for the average Joe and Jane to continue their daily lives as if we weren’t in any kind of serious struggle. The delusion of incontrovertible safety, apparently cracked but not shattered by 9/11, has once again settled on the Land of the Free.
The war has become a bother, and it has finally caused pain for the average American, who several years in the past howled for vengeance for 9/11, demanded that the government fulfill its mandate to provide for the common defense, and cried out in near unison for the blood of not just Osama but of Saddam Hussein as well. Revise your personal history if you will, but I lived those days here in the States, surrounded by my fellow citizens, and I heard the cries and received the emails full of belligerent jokes and vitriolic cartoons. I watched in slow motion as the nation whipped itself into a frenzy and the UN agreed that Saddam had a deadline to completely submit or face action.
Now it has hurt the economy. Now it has driven (among such factors as a surging Chinese middle class with a new found ability to operate vehicles with internal combustion engines) the price of oil up. Now it has reversed the trend and piled up a significant debt.
Wars are expensive. The war became tedious on television news and the sensationalization of the American death toll became a daily litany that constantly reminded the American public that we were decisively engaged in a protracted effort. The initial love affair between the press and the military, expressed through embedded reporting, was brief. The reporting, of dubious quality in many cases, trickled off; and there were altercations. Reporters don’t like OPSEC.
What was supposed to be, in the minds of the public whose minds had been informed by their press, a brief and surgical beheading of the government of Iraq followed by a joyous resurgence of democratic principles became an insurgency. Roadside bombings fed with the artillery shells we had left laying around in our blitz to Baghdad became daily fair in the news as the soldiers struggled to stay on top of the new gun/armor spiral.
Concurrently, in Afghanistan, we began to train a new Afghan National Army. Afghanistan held their first elections and successfully negotiated the forming of a new Constitution. The Taliban and their ilk, still reeling from the loss, were still making a game of it.
The American press retired to the Green Zone and to Kabul. They hired local stringers and reported only on death and destruction. Of particular interest were the wrongs that inevitably become part of the landscape of war. Abu Ghraib, dead civilians, the overreactions of young soldiers and Marines in stressful situations all grabbed headlines.
If it bleeds, it leads. If it stinks, it’s ink.
Americans were hungry to understand what was occurring. As the most clearly articulated reason for the invasion, WMD’s, were not discovered America sat shocked and felt lied to. The hugest failure of the American government was in not backing up their reasoning with the stated policy that governments who sponsored terror were subject to being held accountable to the point of regime change; but that policy was not cited until well afterwards and weakly at that.
The efforts in Afghanistan languished in near-obscurity while the national interest was drawn to the spectacle in Iraq, and news of both amounted primarily to journalists citing stringers and editorializing on what was being presented to them.
There were rare instances of journalists who actually did their jobs. Many, like Michael Yon and Scott Kesterson were independents. Some, like Michael, had military backgrounds and reported what they saw fairly and through the glasses of understanding the military from the inside. While not sugar-coating the war or those who were fighting it, neither did he sensationalize the image of a brutal occupation of some “peace-loving country” by a bunch of jack-booted thugs or paint our soldiers as pitiful victims of imperialist desires gone horribly awry.
Michael Yon and Scott Kesterson were not published widely in mainstream outlets.
Our media has not done their job in this war. They have not been the “go-to” source for information on what has been happening, on what has been done. While they have learned to spell the word “insurgency,” and later to spell “counterinsurgency,” they have not educated themselves to any degree in what these actually are. They couldn’t recognize a decent counterinsurgent if they sat on his lap. They have had no grip on the flow of fighting nor have they had, on other than a very simplistic level, an idea of what was and was not strategically important.
All the while, they’ve been informing the average American. It would be more accurate to say that they have been misinforming, disinforming, and uninforming the average American, who has a tendency to trust powerhouses like the major networks, CNN, and the major print outlets to actually do their jobs.
It’s been pretty hit or miss. I would contend, and I will cite the example of Tag Ab, that it’s been more miss than hit. I would also contend that Americans do not understand the truth about the investment that they have been making in national security, and that perhaps if they had a feeling of sacrifice for something they could understand, the massive resentment that is currently felt would be somewhat ameliorated.
It’s not that the information isn’t available. It is. The truest picture of what’s going on in the two theaters of this war is not available on the US MSM, though. It’s not likely to be the person who reads this post who is woefully ill-informed as a citizen of the United States; it’s the millions who don’t even know it exists.
As much as I celebrate those who surf the blogosphere in search of enlightenment, I don’t blame Joe Sixpack for not doing so. Joe’s got a life, a job, a family, and concerns. He may only have time for his nightly shot of news on the MSM outlet of his choice.
I shouldn’t be a source of news. I should be where some interesting stories are told; some additional information shared. The added touch.
As near as I can tell, there are only four “outlets” in the United States who have reported on the (above detailed as significant) death of Qari Nejat. One is me and the others are The Long War Journal, Battlefield Tourist, and The Thunder Run. Four blogs.
And that, my friends, is ridiculous.
A reporter should know what is significant in the country in which he is stationed; period. For the MSM reporters in Afghanistan to not understand the significance of Tag Ab, and for them to therefore be ignorant of the significance of the death of one such as Nejat is inexcusable. It shouldn’t have necessarily been front-page news, but it should have been newsworthy.
It’s in a near-vacuum of real information that our nation’s citizens are asked to sacrifice economically to follow this effort through to completion. We view ourselves as being an information-driven nation, but Joe is being treated like a mushroom.
He’s being kept in the dark and fed shit.
Is it any surprise that the number one concern of Americans is to bring home the troops within one year? Joe doesn’t even really know what has been going on over there. What’s worse is that he thinks he does. It’s not like it doesn’t get mention; but that mention paints nothing of the real picture. Tag Ab is a perfect example.
Guess what? The French media may actually be doing their jobs. Dig this:
US-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan have killed five Taliban subcommanders in recent weeks, including a bomb-maker and two behind the August 18 attack that left 10 French soldiers dead, they said.
“Coalition forces have positively identified five Taliban subcommanders killed during operations over the past month in Kapisa province,” the Coalition said in a statement from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, and released in Washington.
Among the five were Ahmad Shah and Mullah Rohoullah, killed with six others by airstrikes in Nijrab district on August 30 after coalition forces ran into armed resistance while searching a compound.
Both were heavily involved in helping move weapons and foreign fighters into Afghanistan, the statement said, as well as facilitating Taliban operations, including the August 18 ambush on the French patrol.
Ten French soldiers were killed and another 21 injured in the attack by about 100 Taliban in Sarobi, 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Kabul.
It was the deadliest ground battle for international soldiers in the country since they toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
Coalition forces said that on August 23 they killed subcommanders Khairullah Nezami and Qari Ezmarai in Tag Ab district.
Nezami, they said, helped to arrange the making and planting of bombs and coordinated the movement of suicide bombers in the Taliban network.
A fifth subcommander, Qari Nejat, was killed together with four additional insurgents in an operation in Nijrab district on August 5.
The Coalition linked Nejat with the July 21 suicide bombing in the Tag Ab bazaar that injured six Afghans, the July 16 kidnapping of three Afghan policemen in Jalokhel, and the torture and beheading of an Afghan on June 30.
It’s not just about killing Taliban. There is so much more being done than killing. There is a deeper story behind the killing of Nejat that speaks volumes to the efficacy of what we’re doing in Afghanistan and by extension in Iraq. I’ll address this soon, as it’s a topic in its own right.
The worst thing that could possibly happen to the people of Afghanistan would be if we killed Osama bin Laden tomorrow. Joe Sixpack, thinking that this whole effort has been simply to hunt down Osama, will suddenly start wondering what the hell we’re doing in Afghanistan and in the information vacuum that is our MSM will come to the conclusion that its not much. He in his millions will demand the immediate cessation of all efforts and return to within our borders.
And the fledgling dream that is Afghanistan will surely die.
On August 5th, 2008, the people of the very strategic Tag Ab Valley in Kapisa Province got a present; their own little Osama personified in Qari Nejat went to meet his maker. On September 4th, the news of positive identification was released to all media by CJTF 101, and on September 5th it was widely reported in the French media and even the Chinese media; and by four blogs in the United States.