Another of our special boots on the ground - a warrior/writer - has given me full permission to share this with you. READ IT ALL! And then give thanks that we have such heroes standing for us. Thank YOU, LTC Osterholzer.
A Birthday Like No Other –September 21st, 2009
Wardak and Logar Province, Central Afghanistan
By Lt. Col. Steve Osterholzer
So yesterday was my 42nd birthday, a birthday like no other. Far from family and the woods and streams and mountains that I so dearly love, being here in a desert of sand dunes and camels and the roar of helicopters overhead. It definitely was “different” from any other birthday I have ever had or any that I hope to experience in the future. Some people have asked me if I had a “good” birthday; my reply was “well, it was different.” So this difference is what I want to talk about a bit.
First off, what was my day like? My morning here was rather “normal” in the sense that I did a bunch of coordination via email and phone, worked on getting some Afghan media down here to embed with my guys, and I participated in the weekly PAWG (Public Affairs Working Group) over the Breeze computer system on the SIPR system (that’s the classified secret computer system). I deliberately did not eat anything but a strawberry pop tart because I wanted to be “properly starved” for my birthday treat to myself: A Whopper from Burger King up at Bagram!!!
I climbed aboard a Blackhawk helicopter at about 1400 hours, sweating profusely like I always do when I wear my body armor and helmet. Man I can’t wait for snow! We were a flight of 2, the Blackhawk and a Chinook, with me having the seat right on the door of the Blackhawk. On the way up I said the Rosary to pass the time as we sped over the countryside, me taking it all in. So much to think about.
First off, I thought how “natural” it felt for me, on my birthday, to be screaming over the dunes with the doors open on a Blackhawk, hot and sweaty in my tore-up boots and dusty ACUs. To have my 9mm pistol on my chest, sunglasses protecting my eyes from the glaring sun, as I casually dangled my foot over the edge. Being a soldier. Man, I can’t really picture myself being anything else at this point in my life! I pictured what it would be like on my birthday if I was “working in an office, with a suit and tie, in a cubicle working on a computer for a company that exists to make money.” NO WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!! Life is very, very hard here, for all of us, but I can’t picture myself being anything else but a soldier. I thought about how important it is to me to feel like I am making a difference in the world, how important it is for me to not just work at a “job” but to be serving others in a profession. So many professions in this world, people making this world a better place…mine just happens to involve heavy machine guns and roaring around in helicopters. I thought a bit about what it felt like working in the glass palace of US Northern Command…how, while that was very important work, it didn’t feel like soldier work. Well, I most definitely felt like a soldier yesterday. Doing my duty on the far side of the globe. I actually pulled out the small flag that I keep tucked inside my patrol cap and rubbed my fingers over it a bit.
As we flew over the small villages that dot this arid landscape, I was struck again how biblical this country is. And I don’t mean in a religious sense. It really does seem like this country is stuck in the 3rd century. The houses and huts are all made out of mud bricks, many without roofs. The smoke from hundreds of cooking fires spiral up like rope into the harsh desert sky, camels and sheep and goats just EVERYWHERE! Being tended to by old men and young boys wrapped in shepherd robes, prodding the animals with long poles to get from one place to another (though I have no idea why they do that, as “that place over the next hill” looks as barren and desolate as that place they currently are at). I must have flown over hundreds of square miles and I saw virtually no water. Just endless wadi after wadi, stretching out to the horizon, mountains stacked upon mountains in the shimmering heat.
I pulled out my Rosary and said it as we flew. It slipped from my hand and the soldier across from me got these HUGE eyes when he saw me, an aviator, flying in a helicopter and praying the Rosary! That was kinda funny.
I thought a bit about, “what if I had been born an Afghan?” The average life expectancy of a man is 48 years old! I would be approaching my deathbed! How strange a feeling to look down and trying to imagine myself as part of that culture. My language, my clothes, my food, my job, and most importantly, my God. Being Muslim. All so radically different. So radically different that my brain could not stretch itself enough to wrap around it…so I left it as initially “thanking God” for me being me and not “them.” And then I started thinking, “what makes me think that it would not be better to be them?” Hmmm….so very interesting a world we live in. The 42 year old illiterate Afghan shepherd tending his camels below with a stick, the 42 year old United States Army Lieutenant Colonel flying over him in an engineering marvel of a helicopter. Yet whose life is better? Certainly not for me to judge. And especially at this point in my life.
Several times I marveled at, “how the HECK did I ever get here?” NEVER, while I was singing, “Proud Mary” in Mr. Koval’s 5th grade class as he played his guitar at Holy Rosary, did I EVER think that I would one day be a 42 year old United States Army Lieutenant Colonel “celebrating” his birthday by roaring around in a Blackhawk country in one of the most rugged and desolate and poor places on the planet! I actually shook my head and smiled a couple of times.
We flew pretty low over Kabul to thwart any attempts at a surface to air missile shot and that was interesting. Flying over a Middle Eastern city, everybody so crowded together, hundreds of thousands of mud houses clinging to the sides of the hills. It was an undulating carpet of drab, mud-colored blocks of houses, like brown waves on an angry ocean. I could feel the heat and hear the voices of millions of people all jammed together, like the houses they lived in. I would go nuts living down there. Of course, if I was born in Kabul as an Afghan, I wouldn’t know any different, now would I? Eh…I’ll still take the Rocky Mountains in the Fall.
And then…we hit a kite. Yep. I remember looking out the window and seeing these red kites dancing and I thought, “oh look! Pretty kites!” And then we hit one. When you are roaring along at 150 mph it’s kinda hard to see a kite. Ran right through the string and as it was slapping on the side of the helicopter I thought, “ummm…that’s not supposed to be there.” Wasn’t worried about it cuz kite string is not going to bring down a Blackhawk (that just would NOT make for a good war story. “Hey Steve, what brought down your blackhawk? Surface to air missile? RPG?” It would be hard to casually say, “no man, we were brought down out of the sky by a kite. Scary as hell.” That just does not have a high cool factor at all. I just like to picture what the reaction was of the kid who was flying the kite! I picture this kid about Adam’s age, happily flying his kite with his friends, and suddenly this very loud machine roars out of the sky and eats his kite! Poor kid. I just picture the kiteless string fluttering to the ground, the kid picking up the end where his kite used to be, looking skyward and saying, “What the heck was THAT all about? My brother Mohammad who owns the kite is NEVER going to believe me!” (In Pastun, of course).
After a few stops to pick up soldiers at FOB Airborne, FOB Hunter, and a couple of French soldiers at Derulamand, we landed at Bagram. As the Blackhawk was taxiing in a Predator UAV was there…pretty cool. Those things are HUGE! Dad sure would have fun with his R/C gear at the flying field with one of those things. And as everybody got off the Chinook next to me I saw Governor Lodin coming off…along with an insurgent that we had captured. He was blindfolded and flex-cuffed. Part of me initially felt pity for him but then I remembered that he had been captured yesterday while trying to plant an IED in the road to kill my brothers and sisters. No more pity.
I then walked over to the Central Issuing Facility where I exchanged out my desert boots (ripped down the side) and my ACU top (shredded down the sleeve from some sharp rocks). AND THEN I WENT TO BURGER KING!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ah…the Whopper. There’s a “Burger King” at Bagram but it’s not like the nice, sit-down air-conditioned Burger Kings in the states. It’s basically a metal box that they’ve turned into a Burger King. You sit outside on benches and dust is everywhere. You have to eat fast so you don’t get a lot of dirt in your burger but I didn’t care. I have seen soldiers sitting there in a full-blown sandstorm, happily eating their Whoppers, hunkered down with their burgers inside their Gortex to keep the worst of the sand out of it.
OH MY GOSH THAT BURGER TASTED INCREDIBLE!!! I had not eaten at Burger King in 9 months and I was practically drooling as I took my Double Whopper with cheese, lettuce, tomato, lettuce, and king size fries over to the table. I closed my eyes as I took the first bite: never has a burger tasted so good!
The flight back was pretty uneventful, as it was dark as we flew over the countryside. I marveled at the nearly complete lack of electricity in this country, something that us Americans take so much for granted. We flew over thousands of houses with not a single electric light. It was like a black hole below us, sucking in the light. I actually dozed off, as I usually do when fly at night.
When I came back into my plywood office my soldiers had made me a paper crown that says, “LIEUTENANT COLONEL O!” on it, made with bright yellow construction paper and stickers all over it. It’s perched on my helmet right now as I type this. So that was neat. SGT R**** wrote me a very nice note, saying that, “I can’t really express how great it’s been having you as a boss, Sir. I just wanted to tell you how great you are on your special day.” SO that made me feel good too.
Called Mom and Dad and had a nice talk with them. I called the kids this morning and they sang me Happy Birthday. Damn but I miss them so very much that my heart physically aches.
I went to my hooch about midnight or so…feeling pretty tired from the long day. Even though it was probably the least stressful day I have had here in months I still felt tired. Not old – I feel the same energy and drive and motivation and passion and excitement that I did when I was 32 years old. And I can still outrun a lot of the soldiers half my age (just pass me the Motrin afterwards!). Age really is an attitude. I then opened my cards from Megan and Adam (Brian’s is still coming so that’s cool), my card from Susan and Jack and Joe (made me LAUGH! It was a musical card about eating cake and I had to quickly shut the card and take it outside by flashlight so I wouldn’t wake up the other officers in my hut!), and one from good old Aunt Pat and Uncle Gasper. Darn but if they aren’t the best people: every year, on my birthday, no matter where in the world I’m at, I always get a card from them as my godparents. Really made me smile. I then opened up Mom and Dad’s card and the neat little plaque they got me about placing my Hope in God. I definitely have been doing that the last few months. I hung it up on a nail above my bed and it made me smile. Read a little bit of the bible (working on the Gospels: have read John, Matthew, Mark and am working on Luke) and then wrote in my spiritual journal a bit before I turned off the light.
Gosh I miss my kids so dearly. I miss all my loved ones back home so dearly. I miss the lakes and streams and mountains so dearly. Truth be told I miss the taste of a cold beer so dearly. I miss having people sing me Happy Birthday and blowing out the candles pretty dearly too. But you know what? Being here as a soldier fighting in Afghanistan, that make it a very “good” birthday in its own way. Not “good” as in “relaxing and enjoyable,” perhaps…yet “good” in a very meaningful way.
I’ll sure as heck NEVER forget this birthday!