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Etcetera

Well, I’m back in North America.  I will complete my debrief tomorrow at the USACE office in Winchester, VA, which means I’ll be home tomorrow night!  I would like to take this opportunity to thank the USACE team that I traveled with and the Bentley team back home in the US for greatly helping me make this a successful deployment.  

Amit and Joyce

Amit Barman is an IM Specialist with USACE.  Amit has more Information Technology certifications than I have letters in my last name.  Amit provided invaluable expertise with my effort and to the USACE IM personnel in both Kabul and Kandahar.  He was also an outstanding roommate.  

Joyce Rudy is the CAD Manager with USACE in Winchester.  Joyce is easily the biggest proponent of ProjectWise that I have worked with since I joined Bentley 4 years ago.  While in Afghanistan, Joyce worked tirelessly to coordinate the USACE teams in the north and south districts and ensured they understood the USACE vision.  She was and will remain a crucial first point of contact for both regions.  

Within Bentley, I would like to thank Gary Scerni for overseeing the ProjectWise effort, making certain we were moving down the right path and Bob Mullenax for his excellent work in setting up the initial configuration on the ProjectWise servers.  Bob certainly my life easier on the ground in Afghanistan!  

In closing, I think I can speak for everyone above by saying that we dedicate this assignment to Rich Putz, a USACE IM Technician who passed away suddenly this past February at age 39.  Rich was responsible for getting all of the ProjectWise servers online and ready, while also performing his many other responsibilities.  His infectious passion for working with people will always remain an inspiration.  

I would like to thank everyone for their blog comments and well wishes.  They were appreciated.  

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Dubai in Pictures… I had some downtime in Dubai before traveling home, so I took the opportunity to see what I could.  Dubai is a clean and beautiful city.  Below are some of the sites that I was able to enjoy.  

Burj Al Arab

1. Burj Al Arab – The worlds only 7-star hotel.  You may remember that Tiger Woods famously hit golf balls from the helicopter pad.  

Burj Khalifa

2. Burj Khalifa – The worlds tallest free-standing structure.  

Atlantis Resort

3. Altantis Resort – Located on the tip of the Palm Islands.  

Bugatti Veyron

4. Bugatti Veyron – I’m not a car enthusiast, but even I knew about this one.  I can’t believe it was parked outside of the Dubai Mall.  If you have never heard of it, here is a quick google post:  

“Bugatti Veryon is by far the most expensive street legal car ($1,700,000 US) available on the market today. It is the fastest accelerating car reaching 0-60 in 2.6 seconds. It claims to be the fastest car with a top speed of 253 mph+.”  

Ski Dubai

5. Indoor Skiing at the Mall of Emirates.  Tough to photograph unless you’re inside, but you can only go inside if you pay for the skiing.  A little pricy for me, so…  

Dubai Mall Skating

 6. Skating at the Dubai Mall – …I ice skated instead.

Did we really think that we would leave Afghanistan without experiencing some semblance of warfare?  Well, our last night in Kandahar featured the first weapon exchange during our stay in Afghanistan.  It occurred in the middle of the night (approximately 2:00am-ish) and there was no mistaking it.  Judging by the sound (like I have a trained ear for this stuff?), it seemed like rapid gun fire and several rocket launches.  It lasted for maybe 30 minutes and you could hear the rockets landing, but it was definitely in the distance.  The sound was actually mesmerizing; much like the way we all run to the window and watch in awe a good lightning storm.   

So I lay in my bunk wondering what exactly to do.  Part of me wanted to go outside and see for myself what was going on (albeit a SMALL part).  The rest of me said to stay put and not get in the way.  Our UDC training taught us that if were in imminent danger, we would have been instructed to head for the nearest bunker via some kind of intercom system.  Judging by the sound, I assumed (I know, I know) that it was mainly artillery fire going out, which was confirmed in the morning.  Fortunately, there were no strikes reported on the base.   

The USACE assignment in Afghanistan is wrapping up on Tuesday.  Our travel calls for us to a return to the US through Dubai.  We will be departing from the TLS hanger at Kandahar Airfield (don’t you just love the inviting welcome sign?).  By the way, any guess as to what TLS stands for?  Todays history lesson is this hanger is where the Taliban made their Last Stand, back in 2002 I believe.  As I heard, there were around 400 Taliban killed in the hangar during the final conflict.  The hangar itself is still being renovated today.  As I walk around it, I would swear that some of the holes in the wall are bullet holes.  Unfortunately, there were no pictures allowed inside the hangar (or near the flight line).   

Welcome...??

 Technology at the hangar is not very sophisticated.  When we arrived, we lined up outside, single file.  We were given a “boarding pass”, which was essentially a business card size piece of plastic that said…get this…”boarding pass”.  No flight information, seat number or airline name.  After our bags were scanned, we had to pass customs, which consisted of one women sitting at a cafeteria style table and confirming that the name on our passport matched the name on her Excel spreadsheet printout.  Immediately to her left was another folding table with a handmade sign that read “Chaplains Corner”.  Very comforting.   

Flight announcements were periodically made by a man walking around yelling “Anyone on the flight to Bagram (or Kuwait, etc.) please line up now.”  After our flight was called, we all lined up and walked out onto the tarmac and toward the plane.  As we boarded, we merely had to hand in our “boarding pass”.  There was no further identification required.  As we made our way passed the flight attendant, I was instructed to “please take any empty seat”.  As I passed through a half-filled first class section, I really wanted to grab one of those seats.  But I thought this might be the last place to make any waves, so I just took the first coach seat available.  

I’ll write my final wrap up post when I return to the USACE office in Virginia.

No, not for that reason :-).

Monday in Afghanistan certainly ended on a fun note.  The USO was in town for the evening.  When I was younger, I can still remember Bob Hope visiting the troops.  Well, tonight we had a nice surprise as the USO featured James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico, aka “Tony Soprano” and “Paulie Walnuts”!

"Tony" and "Paulie"

Me and "Tony"

 Being a big fan of the show (anyone who is will immediately understand the title of this post), it was very exciting.  Both were great; talking, poking fun and signing autographs for everyone.  I asked Tony Sirico if there was any chance of the cast getting back together.  He said that a Sopranos movie was “on, then off, but now looks like it might be back on”.  When I asked him if he thought it would happen, Tony said with his “Paulie Walnuts” accent, “I hope so, I need the $#@*! money”.  Spoken in true Soprano-ese.

Camp Cupcake

During my UDC training, that’s all our Master Sargeant kept saying.  “Once you get to Kandahar, Qalaa House will seem like Camp Cupcake.”  He was right.  The conditions here are very different.  Qalaa House was primarily used for USACE personnel and featured a 24 hour mess hall and gym, some mature trees, sidewalks and paved paths.  It was also much smaller and surrounded by at least 15 foot high walls.  Even though you were in Kabul, you felt safe.   

Kandahar, on the other hand, is sort of what I imagined a military base would be like.  It’s at least 8 times the size, with thousands of NATO troops.  The base itself is part of the Kandahar Airfield and once you pass the airfield gates, it’s all dust, dirt and military business.  There are no walls surrounding the base.  Only a fenceline.  All branches of the military are represented here and the variety of military vehicles and aircrafts that come and go all day and night (apparently, there is no flight curfew) is an interesting site.   

Most of the roads are dirt and gravel.  I’ve been told it hasn’t rained in months and I believe it.  Walk to the mess hall or PX and back and you’re covered in dirt.  All over your shoes, pants, mouth, eyes…you get the picture.  There is also the stench of sewage.  It’s not apparent all the time, but it is in air.  The smell is worse in certain areas and it is almost impossible to predict when and were you will get a whiff.   

As for the food, there are more places to eat including a Pizza Hut, Gyro’s, Subway, and, for all the Canadians out there, a Tim Hortons (see picture below – it’s an institution in Canada).    

Tim Horton's

 But that doesn’t mean the food is good.  And then there is the issue of availability.  For example, I wanted to get a sandwich at Subway, but it was closed because they had no meat.  So I stopped by Pizza Hut to get a vegetable pizza, but the only veggie they had were green olives.  So I settled for a chicken gyro…at least it was supposed to be chicken.  

 My living quarters went from a small room with two beds at Qalaa House to a tent (more like a covered shed) with 12 other guys.  We share 6 bunk beds and, of course, I’m on top.  Lights are out at 10:00, but we’re usually still working at that time, so I have to wander in the dark – quietly – and try to navigate up the ladder to my bed.   

Our Tent

My Bunk (on top)

 To make matters worse, our tent has no bathroom.  The nearest one is in the building next door, which is about 100 feet away.  Try navigating out of an upper bunk at 5:00am, get shoes on and make your way through the dark when you have to go to the bathroom.  It makes for some anxious moments!  

 It has certainly been an adventure.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

Welcome to Kandahar.   

It was about a two and a half hour flight south of Kabul to the Kandahar Airfield.  It certainly was a life experiencing trip.  We started out at 9:00am Thursday from Qalaa House.  Since this was a military flight, we had to wear our protective gear.  That included a flame retardant flight suit, helmet and the nearly 40lbs. body armor.  And let us not forget the armed guards who traveled with us to the Kabul Airport.     

Preparing to Travel

 We again rode in a bullet proof SUV to the airport.  I cannot emphasize enough the conditions in the city of Kabul.  Cars “sharing” the road with carts pulled by donkeys and men cycling with large wagons in tow.  Buildings either decaying, abandoned or severely damaged by war.  There were several boys who would wave as we went by.  One even saluted (not that one; the real salute), which made me feel proud to be an American, even if he was not saluting me.     

We were dropped off at the airfield tarmac (gotta love a military flight; no security lines!).  We had to wait approximately 30 minutes for the pilot to arrive.  We were hoping to fly via a hilo (like the cool one shown below) but, unfortunately, we rode a small fixed wing plane (approximately 15 seats).  As we waited to board, we were told about an incident that happened last week to a similar helicopter.  It was shot as it descended towards an airfield in Kunduz.  No was injured, but it’s another reminder of where we are.     

Hilo

When the pilot arrived , he instructed us that we were not flying directly to Kandahar.  Instead, we needed to stop at the Bastion Airfield to pickup a couple of  USACE passengers.  Bastion Airfield is a major staging area for British Forces in the province of Helmand, where there is currently many conflicts.  We were told that the flight from Kabul to Bastion was about 2 hours.

Once airborne, the scenery was extreme.  Early in the flight, as we got outside of Kabul, all you could see were rugged, snow-capped mountains (click image below).     

View departing Kabul

 But as we approached Bastion Airfield, the landscape drastically changed from mountainous terrain to the desert.  In fact, I had to look twice because at a first glance it almost appeared like we were over water (zoom in a bit on the image below).    

View approaching Bastion Airfield

Landing at Bastion Airfield, the pilot pulled off the runway and parked.  While waiting for the other passengers, we were allowed to deplane and walk around.  The airfield landing area is basically two runways and little else.  The ground is hard clay and rock.  It is so dry that weeds can’t grow.  But it was a true military base, with huge C-30 and C-117 cargo planes landing in front of us, along with MA-8 helicopters.  And, in the distance we could see several Chinook helicopters, with cargo hanging from them, flying toward us (I don’t know much about this stuff, so it helps to be standing next to the pilot :-)).  

The USACE passengers arrived within 15 minutes, so we loaded up the plane with their gear and it was off to Kandahar.  That was a quick flight; probably about 30 minutes.  All in all, both flights were fine.  At first glance, the base in Kandahar is in stark contrast to the one in Kabul.

More about this next time.

Quick Hit…

We finished late yesterday with a ProjectWise presentation or, as the CORP calls it, an “outbrief”.  Lead by Joyce, the USACE CAD Manager from Winchester, the outbrief was given to CORP engineering and construction personnel.  I followed Joyce with a demonstration.

While ProjectWise appears to be widely anticipated here in Afghanistan, there is always some apprehension and reluctance to change.  Therefore, we felt it was important to provide high a level presentation with the hope that everyone will be looking forward to using Projectwise.  It short, Joyce nailed the presentation.  The engineering individuals left the meeting wondering when they could have access to ProjectWise.

Did you know…The outbrief was held in Qalaa House, which was the former Iraqi embassy.  As I was told, the conference room used for the outbrief was the same room that the former Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, participated in several meetings when visiting Afghanistan.  Huh.

Circling the Bases

Yesterday I gave my ProjectWise training, which wasn’t quite your typical class (I guess nothing about this assignment is typical).  It was a condensed class (3 days into 1) held in a small building, not far from the engineering office we are working from.  The morning session was briefly interrupted by an incredibly loud boom, slightly rattling the little office building.  One of the USACE guys in the training immediately yelled “bomb – get to the shelter”.   My heart stopped for split second as we hustled (5 users and me) out to the nearest bunker (there are at least 5 of them that I have seen).  We stayed inside the bunker for just a few seconds when someone came over and told us that wasn’t a bomb.  It was a piece of equipment being installed on the roof near the training room that fell to the ground.  We all had a laugh and felt a little silly, but we were told that that was what a bomb would sound like.  Anyway, training went well.
 
I have mentioned in other posts that we sometimes travel between bases to visit the PX.  There are two sites here in Kabul.  The site I am at, where we work and sleep at, which is called ‘Qalaa House’.  It is what used to be the Iraqi Embassy and has become the offices and home of the Corps of Engineers’ Afghanistan Engineer District.  The name Qalaa House means “fortress house”.
 
Across the street from Qalaa House is Camp Eggers.  It is a military base located near the US Embassy and is home to over 1600 military and civilians.  The camp is named after Capt. Daniel W. Eggers, a US soldier who was killed by an IED in May, 2004 near Kandahar.  Qalaa House and Camp Eggers are separated by a road that is open to Afghan traffic, both vehicle and pedestrian.  So if we want to move between the two sites, we must don our full body amor (which weighs close to 40lbs.) and helmet and require armed escorts to cross the street.  I am not allowed to take pictures of the gates crossing the street, but once across, you can see how the camp walls are reinforced (click photos below – BTW, it has been recommended that I distort faces).

Walkway next to road, inside Camp Eggers

Afghan Nationals

W leave tomorrow for Kandahar Airfield, which is large Air Force base home to 20,000 US and NATO forces.  At first it was mainly occupied by the US armed forces, but since 2006 the airfield has been maintained by the Canadian forces  (it allegedly has its own ice rink…I should have brought my hockey gear!).  I am told that Kandahar Airfield is much larger and more open than either Qalaa House and Camp Eggers, which are surrounded by high concrete walls, giving you a bit of a claustrophobic feeling.  In fact, the only real ‘view’ I have found is from atop the engineering building that I am working from.  Click the photo below for an indication of the living conditions in Kabul. 

View from Engineering Building

Yet, Afghanistan can be somewhat picturesque. Click on the photo below, which is taken from the same spot as the one above, only looking west (above photo is looking north).

Snowcapped Mountain

My next post should be from Kandahar, assuming that our military flight out of Kabul does not get bumped. 

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