Thanksgiving in Afghanistan with Troops First Foundation Part 1

DECEMBER 5, 2010
It’s been almost a week since returning home from what was essentially a drive-by visitation of soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, and, hundreds of dollars into bronchial meds,  I’m still hawking the country out of my lungs.  I say drive-by because the actual time in country during the week long trip was closer to a little less than 4 days in total.  The remainder was time spent in transit and getting visa clearance in both directions through Kuwait.   The breathing issue and consequent hacking was aggravated by the fantastic levels of talcum powder fine dust and sand that was constantly in swirl on the dry desert of Afghanistan.  I know that there are parts of Afghanistan that are lush with vegetation and farming.  But we saw none of it.  We were in the desert in the Helmand province and it extended as far as the eye could see.  Flat, windy, landscape with powdery sand inches deep.  The very act of walking kicked up cloud storms.  Put a bunch of people together, it got worse.  Have some armored vehicles go by and you were looking into an endless thick fog of dust.  It was everywhere; we looked like living breathing versions of Pigpen from the Charlie Brown comics.


I started out the trip with a slight cold, a not unexpected consequence of burning the candle at both ends attempting to tie everything together, professionally and personally, before leaving.  Literally the last thing checked off the list was stopping by our attorney’s office, on the way to the airport, and updating the last will and testament- something that left Terri feeling just a bit uneasy, but not nearly as much as her finding on the notepad at home the name and number of my life insurance agent which I scribbled before exiting the door.


By the time I was boarding the plane my throat felt sore and my eyes were burning.  But both the flight to D.C. to hook up with the other traveling members of the Troops First Foundation tour as well as the thirteen and a half hour flight to Kuwait went smoothly. Rick Kell, the co-founder and executive director of TFF was waiting for us at Dulles.   “Us” included golf icon, PGA champ and Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, golf long driver and trick shooter funnyman, Dan Boever, and up and coming country singer and songwriter, Matt Snook, recently relocated to, (where else?) Nashville, Tennessee.   The one massive glitch in this tour was that the other co-founder of TFF, former golfer, CBS PGA color commentator, GOLF magazine columnist (whose columns I’ve been illustrating since the mid 90’s), crazyman and angel, and good friend, David Feherty, was not going to be with us because of emergency surgery on his ear canals.  It came out of the blue but he was strongly advised not to fly because of the potential for permanent damage to his hearing.  He was crushed.  We felt terrible for him but quickly decided that the only course of action was to rally and carry on with the show.  Sort of like a Bob Hope USO tour without Hope.  Even so, there was no option other than plowing ahead.  Adapt, improvise, overcome.


 Our statuses were bumped up to business class, thanks to Mr. Kell, so sleep was actually possible.  We landed in Kuwait early in the afternoon, worked our way through check out and baggage claim with relative ease (my memories of two years ago in the airport were of a situation more chaotic) and quickly hopped over to our first stop, Ali Al Salem Air Base- well, as quickly as you can in Kuwaiti traffic.  Pretty insane driving habits.  Seemingly no rules.  You saw no fender benders, just complete wrecks off to the side of the highway and did in fact work our way around a total wipe out that must have happened just moments ahead of us.  We spent the remainder of the day at Al Salem getting settled while our visas went through the required 24 hour waiting period.  This allowed us the opportunity to begin making the rounds meeting members from all the military services, mostly Army.   We gathered at the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) building.  Tom Lehman and Dan Boever sat down to sign autographs and shake hands.  Matt Snook soon started playing his guitar and singing songs, eventually doing some duets with an Army officer.  They sounded quite fine from my vantage point, which soon became my spot to do some drawings.  I had been walking around trying to get a feel for the place and the people while taking a tour of the facility, all the while doing some inner probing to assess if my skills were ready to be exercised.  The lighting was poor, the setting not very dynamic, even with a couple of soldiers playing pool.   In all honesty, I was just nervous.  The first drawings are the roughest.  There’s a hesitancy to put yourself on the line especially when dropped into a completely new environment.   It’s like jumping into a cold pool.  Intellectually you know your body will adjust relatively quickly; it’s just all that thinking beforehand.  Happily for me, my first portrait satisfied the doubter in me.  And Chief Warrant Officer Adam Martin seemed very pleased.  The remainder of the tour saw that sense of inner security ebb and flow.  Sometimes I felt hot, sometimes not.


I was mostly doing portraits during this tour of the various bases.  Occasionally there was an opportunity to do something more in the reportorial vein, like during a helicopter flight, or watching a demonstration of the canine unit in training at Camp Leatherneck.   I could have spent a day with the canine unit, so much potential material was there.  Everything seemed pretty fast paced during those few days.  Reviewing the photos and scanning the drawings back home at the studio I am made even more aware of how rapidly the flow of events went.  Sometimes, as you were being introduced and shaking hands and listening to descriptions of the bases and facilities and various functions of the units, often in a constant steady pace of motion with very little opportunity to stop and stay in one spot and scribble, interesting side stories were playing out of the corner of your eye, images that would tell great stories.  At one Marine base, outside the hospital tent, listening to our guide explain the capabilities of the medical unit and personnel, I noticed to my left two Afghanis standing in an open courtyard of sorts, just standing, very neat and clean looking, thick long beards, rubbing their hands, looking vaguely lost, a little edgy.  I initially thought they were family members taking a break outside, as there were civilians being treated inside for wounds.  Maybe they were waiting to use the port-a-johns in front of them.  But Army and Marine personnel were stepping in and out and the Afghanis did nothing.  Quickly, my attention was drawn to a lone soldier (Marine?) in t-shirt standing near them, his posture and attitude focused on the two men.  It occurred to me that maybe these weren’t family.  I turned to one our Marine escorts who was with us almost the entire tour, and asked, “Are these prisoners?”  He nodded in the affirmative?  I watched a little more and then turned back to him.  “They look so neat and gentle, almost biblical.”  A few seconds later I broached the question, “They’d cut your throat in a second, correct?”  Our escort was quick to answer, “Yes they would…and so would their kids.”  Before I had a chance to grab the pencils and position the pad we were off to another spot.


A number of assumptions I had prior to leaving turned out to be wrong, at least for the period of time that we spent there.   One was, considering the news reports,  imagining that we would be heading into a RESTREPO kind of situation, helicopter landings under a hail of gunfire and doing our tour dodging RPGs and bullets, not to mention digging holes in the ground to take a dump.   Wrong.   I don’t recall hearing one shot fired even in practice.  The sense of being in the middle of a surreally placid kind of Mars landscape was inescapable.  This is not to say the circumstances were all peace and quiet.  Visiting the wounded warriors in the hospital tents, seeing injured civilians being treated with equal care and concern, having a tour of the ER facility at Bastion cut short as a med-evac copter arrived with more wounded, and attending a late night ceremony at Camp Leatherneck where the casket of a fallen Marine was being loaded onto a cargo plane for transport back home were vivid reminders of the reality that is the current war.  The late night casket loading was particularly striking from a visual standpoint.  Two long formations of three rows each of Marines of all ages at silent attention, facing each other across a passageway where the casket filed past to the plane, the stark lighting on the ground and the shadows on the faces, and the clear deep blue night sky begged for some recording.  But it was all quiet and solemn.  Drawing, unfortunately, was not an option under the circumstances, at least not under the conditions of our mission.  I was not really there as a journalist.  I tried to do a quick study of the scene as soon as the ceremony was over but the Marines disbanded pretty quickly.


I was also under the impression that these bases we were visiting were going to be small outpost type of settings.  Wrong again.  The FOBs (Forward Operating Base) of Camps Bastion and Dwyer and especially Camp Leatherneck are enormous.  Staggering in size and complexity.  Airports large enough to land a fleet of C-17s.  Much of the expansion has been within the past year from what I gathered talking to the Marines.  The DFACSs (dining facility) were huge and the choice of food substantial.  After a certain point none of us could even contemplate eating another bite.   Sleeping quarters were very comfortable in comparison to what I remember from Iraq two years ago.  The latrines were first class and the showers had water pressure far better than what we can muster here at our own humble home in upstate New York (damn that well).  If you could exclude the endless desert and choking dust clouds, a person could do far worse staying at any number of other places.  All this is a way of saying that anyone who thinks that we are drawing down in some substantial manner within a year or two is dreaming.  It seems pretty obvious that we treating this struggle as a long term investment in order to have a chance at making a difference.  The bases I saw are positioned in the desert in such a way as to give the soldiers and Marines rapid response capability without being target practice for the Taliban.  This allows them to concentrate on outreach and connection with the locals, helping them build schools and creating educational opportunities for women (remember this a nation with a staggering illiteracy rate), set up wells and irrigation systems and options for farming other than raising poppy.  The outreach to the women, performed by the female units of the Marines is greatly assisted by Afghan Americans returning to provide translation services.  Talking to some of the women Marines involved with this outreach it was clear that they were truly grateful for the assistance of these former nationals returning home to help make a difference, or as they would say, “Take Afghanistan back from the Taliban”. 

I’ll end Part 1 by noting that one assumption that remained accurate, based on my previous experience in Iraq with Troops First, was in terms of the genuine gratitude these soldiers and Marines expressed for our visiting them during Thanksgiving week.   It’s quite humbling to be pulled over to the side and told by these people privately how much something as simple as showing up, saying hello, shaking hands, doing a drawing (or singing a song like Matt, or showing proper golf swing form like Tom, or just plain kidding around like Dan) means to these people stuck on Mars for eight months to a year, very far from home.  Yes, there is internet there and cell phone service, but seeing people, civilians, someone other than the masses of military personnel, from back home is a remarkable morale booster.  From the corporal to the general the thank you’s were profusive and from the heart.  I felt the onus to do the best drawing I could, sometimes feeling like I fell short.  But the reality was that it didn’t matter to them.  It was the gesture.  The professional in me has scant patience for gestures and wishes to hit every ball out of the park and we know what the statistics on that are.
I want to express my sincere gratitude to David Feherty and Rick Kell for once again inviting me on this journey.  As crappy as I was feeling by the end I wouldn't have traded it for anything.  I would like to strongly encourage anyone interested in contributing to Troops First Foundation to visit their website and get the lowdown.  They've been doing great things with wounded warriors.  http://www.troopsfirstfoundation.org/
We had an incredible team and worked as such.  I want to thank the brilliant and relentlessly funny Dan Boever for taking pictures of me in action so that I finally have a more complete documentation of what an idiot I looked like.  Mr. Tom Lehman was everything an Olypian god from the world of golf could be, a true gentleman and stand up human being.  The best part about this is that I haven't swung a golf club since 19 and I have something over my brother-in-law and his father who are golf fiends.  HAH!  Matt Snook brought a true air of low keyed gentility and generous spirit as a man and a s a musician.  There were a number of times while drawing I would hear this soulful, moving song he was singing and shout out across the room, "That was beautiful, Matt.  Who wrote that?"  and he'd answer, "I did."  Nashville is going to be a better place with him there. 
All the service men and women were true joys to be around.  I found particular comfort and pleasure with the members of the Marine Corps, first through the association via our Sergeant son and then just from the truly sincere enthusiasm and espirit de corps that flowed from them.  I was impressed with their sense of mission and purpose.  It's humbling. 
For far more detailed, and funny, accountings of our trip check out these links to GOLFWEEK via Dan Boever's Facebook page.  He's done a smash up job, and he's such a great read.

Staff Sergeant Barton, who oversaw our stay at Camp Ali Al Salem in Kuwait. A truly sweet woman with over thirty years in the military.

My first drawing on the mission. At Al Salem. Warrant Officer Martin was a perfect subject to get my bearings and start feeling some confidence.

Z's on a C-17. If you learn anything about the military, and having a son in the Corps is further confirmation, they can sleep standing up given the opportunity. One never knows when the next chance will come by.

So many of the soldiers and Marines looked like they were straight out of central casting. This Ranger quite frankly looked like Sgt. Rock. He was granite like and furrowed brow, but his expression softened and opened up like a rainbow when I explained what I was doing and asked him where he wanted the drawing sent.

Some on the C-17 made time to read.

This poor Specialist got really nervous once he realized I was drawing him. I crossed over the wide cabin to explain my mission and his face lightened up considerably and he gave me an address back home to send the original. All the originals are going to family. I keep the scans.

The team that accompanied us most of the trip in Afghanistan. I had a particular paternal-ish affection for Cpl. Megan Sindelar. I didn't understand the connection until after I returned home, was able to download the images into the puter and realized that she reminded me of my niece, Chloe, only about ten years older. She was our photographer on base at Camp Leatherneck. A funny, super young woman.

Gunnery Sergeant Christof Coleman. A very quiet, funny, intense Marine. Had some very interesting stories of growing up and boot camp. A person could feel very secure if Gunny had your back.

Sgt. Josh Lackey. Pit bull physique; warm, funny personality. This was straight attempt from across the table.

I loved Lackey's physique. He's built like a power lifter and those arms never really touched the sides. They sort of hung suspended. "Memory" in the title was how I visualized him if he were to be caricatured. You'll see later that I worked from a photo on this. My son, Ben, told me it would be to my benefit to bring along some chew. Certainly won me some brownie points with Josh that I had some Copenhagen Wintergreen chewing tobacco. Chew seemed to be very popular at the bases. My carton of American Spirits went pretty quick as well. A nice change from the crap they had to normally smoke.

Corporal Goodroe acted as our driver. A great person to just hang with and jaw. He gave me quite a detailed history of the expansion of the base and still seemed utterly awed by what had been accomplished since February.

The tables get turned. While I was doing Sgt. Lackey's portrait, he informed me across the table that he had studied art in school as well. I passed the tablet and pencils over to him and gave him his shot. He apologized for not having touched a pencil in years. I frankly was impressed by his gameness and the result. HooRAH.

Last but by no means not least, Captain Arocho. I had developed such great respect for her and her incredible blend of toughness and empathy that I never even thought of asking her her first name. Always referred to her as Captain.

I'm not drawing Captain Arocho here, but Gunny Vandentop sitting across from me who was busy scarfing down a meal and getting some fast points across the table. He was totally taken aback that I had been drawing him. Good man. Good people.

Cpl. Goodroe, Sgt. Lackey, some idiot, and Gunny Coleman. Could you feel any safer?

One of my early sketches that made me feel good.

On the bus to the air base before flying off in the C-17. Had but a few minutes in almost complete darkness to catch this Sergeant in the Army. I asked him where he hailed from; he replied that being an Army brat he never had a designated home.

The canine units alone would have provided days worth of images. If we were there, 20/25 minutes it was long, before we had to move on. I was heartbroken.

Belgian Shepherds got a big thumbs up. Pitbulls, which I thought would be an obvious choice, are considered great dogs but stubborn. Not reliable.

This picture doesn't even do justice to how far out these copter crews lean as they survey the ground thousands of feet below for trouble. Steel cable muscles.

Ocean liners that fly. That's the only way I can describe C-17s.

L to R. Dan Boever, Tom Lehman, Scruffy McDoodles, Cpl. Sindelar, Matt Snook, and Rick Kell.