Sunday, April 4, 2010


The War on Terror officially started for me in November 2001 from that month until I retired from the military in 2004 I spent a total of three months at home. Those three months where not contiguous either but interrupted by various deployments and operations. My unit had been watching with great anticipation the military action that had surrounded 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. Although certain elements of our unit where involved, in a piecemeal fashion, no large groups had deployed to this conflict. It was the baby of another Special Forces Group and Special Forces types are very turf conscious.
However in early November 2001 my team was alerted to deploy to Uzbekistan under a joint-training anti-terrorism program that had been enacted after 9/11. We were to go to an area of Uzbekistan just north of the Afghanistan border and conduct joint anti-terrorism training with the Uzbek military. In the days directly after 9/11 all a third world country had to do was scream “terrorist!!” and the U.S. military came running. The Uzbeks had been experiencing some difficulties with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This organization had been formed in the late 1990’s by a former Soviet paratrooper and an Islamic hardliner, both ethnic Uzbeks, for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Uzbekistan and instituting Islamic Sharia law.
We conducted our pre-mission training and isolation back at home station and prepared to deploy in late November. Small problem with our plan was, all and I mean all, Air Force aircraft going to that theatre of operations where allocated for Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). We were not going to Afghanistan so guess what? That’s right no aircraft for you!!! Our alternate plan was to go by civilian airliner. There was a seventy pound limit on boxes to be loaded on civilian aircraft, so we organized packed and secured our gear in numerous seventy pound footlockers and hard plastic containers. We had to pack enough gear to last for an undetermined amount of time. We also had to deal with the contingency that we may have to self support our operation and furthermore there was a possibility we would roll over to a follow on mission in the immediate vicinity after our initial deployment was complete. Needless to say our hallway was lined with boxes on both sides and up to the ceiling.
On deployment day we loaded all our gear into a couple five ton trucks and then we piled on to the old Bluebird bus to take a ride to the civilian airport in Colorado Springs. Each member of my team got in line to check in with his personal gear, which included a rucksack, duffle bag or kit bag, and at least seven other assorted foot lockers and boxes. We all had orders authorizing us excess baggage. I think my total baggage bill was over five hundred dollars and that was on top of my plane ticket to Uzbekistan. This was just a few short months after 9/11 and security was very high at the airport. When my Senior Weapons Sergeant was asked if he had packed his bags himself and if he had any weapons to declare, he smiled at the counter person and said “Yep, I have 3 boxes of rifles, pistols and a machine gun right over there.” I thought the young lady behind the counter was going to have a cow.
Once we all got through checking in our baggage we moved to the screening area to be searched and scanned prior to boarding. The Senior Weapons Sergeant escorted our weapons to the hold of the plane and when he got back he was “randomly” picked to be searched more thoroughly. I think the airport personnel where having some payback for his little joke. Eventually we boarded the plane and took off for the first leg of our journey which would end in the City of Lights, Paris, France.
It was a twelve hour flight to Paris and I spent most of it sleeping and watching the movie “Kfax”, I think it had Kevin Spacey in it. When we landed in Paris we had an eight hour layover, so we drew straws over who got to guard the weapons and the rest of us took a train into Paris itself. I spent the afternoon touring the Cathedral at Notre Dame, taking pictures of things like the Eiffel Tower and drinking coffee at a cafĂ© on the Champ Elysees’, being a tourist was relaxing, been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Eventually we wandered back to Charles Degaulle Airport and hung out until we boarded an Uzbekistan Airways plane headed for the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. As we boarded I could see that they hadn’t even bothered to paint over the old Soviet Union Aeroflot airline symbol on the side of the plane. It had only been ten years since the Soviet Union collapsed what was the hurry?
After another twelve hour flight we landed in Tashkent and were picked up by Embassy personnel and taken to the Sheraton in downtown Tashkent. This was a five star hotel and catered to foreigners. It would become our home away from home and our base of operations during our weekends off from the training. The next morning we were introduced to our interpreters and we all loaded our gear into some Range Rovers and some military trucks for the 200 km trip to the military base were we would conduct training. We had three interpreters, one of them didn’t speak very good English and we couldn’t pronounce his name so we called him Chuck. He was a nice guy if a little overwhelmed trying to make sense of all our military jargon and machismo. The other two interpreters were better as far as English abilities, one was named Abram and he was a former school teacher. A really good conversationalist and over our deployment I had numerous chances to talk to him. The third and final interpreter was a young college age guy who claimed to have lived in Detroit for awhile and now was back in Uzbekistan. He spent the entire deployment talking bad about the United States polices in the area while at the same time asking us how he could get back to the States. We joyfully assigned him the crappiest jobs during the deployment. If it was a choice of standing outside in the snow all day at the range or staying inside guess which interpreter got some range time? His attitude also earned him the nickname “Al” as in Al-Qaeda, He never got the joke.
It is hard to describe the crumbling infrastructure in a place like Uzbekistan, a place that was once a feather in the cap of the USSR. The Soviets had allowed a lot of ethnic Russian scientists and engineers to emigrate to Uzbekistan and the country had two official languages Russian and Uzbek. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the country had allowed its highways, power grid, and basic infrastructure to deteriorate to the point it was totally unreliable. Once you got out of the large cities like Tashkent or large military bases it was like going back 300 years, where the main mode of transportation was the donkey and the family goats slept in the same mud hut as the rest of the family. Whenever we traveled between our training base and Tashkent, which we did almost every weekend, we went well armed because of the very real threat of armed bandits and highway robbery.
Finally we arrived at our training base after turning off the highway onto a dirt road and winding our way into the mountains, eventually fording a small river that guarded the entrance to the base, we arrived at the “Spetznaz” camp at Baxmal. It is hard to translate the Cyrillic alphabet into our Latin alphabet but Baxmal was pronounced as “Bakhmal” with the kh sound more guttural and trilling. We were ushered into an empty barracks which had electricity but no running water and intermittent heat. For the rest of the deployment we would take baths out of the sink or a bucket except for the weekends when we luxuriated at the Sheraton. We quickly organized our living area and unpacked our gear as we were to start training the next day. We had developed a training plan back in the United States which consisted of teaching patrolling techniques, marksmanship, close quarters combat, medical training and leadership/human rights training. The United States government was big on emphasizing the unacceptability of human rights abuses in these former Soviet republics.
The next morning I assigned primary instructors and we went out to meet our counter parts. It was determined we would divide into thirds which worked out well as the Uzbeks were already organized into three separate “Spetsnaz” units. The Spetsnaz were supposedly our Russian equivalents and the idea was to exchange ideas and techniques. In reality we conducted all the training and they pretty much did what we said. So for the next few weeks we would alternate between patrolling, range time, class room and physical training. I came to a few conclusions during my time there. First were these soldiers were definitely not “Special Forces” at best they were at the level of a good private in the 82nd Airborne Division. With a few exceptions they had no prior concept of some of the techniques we showed them, and we had deliberately kept the concepts pretty basic to account for the language gap. Second thing I learned was everything in the former Soviet Union was cheaply constructed and poorly made. These guys got really good at making due without the luxury of spare parts and the latest equipment such as we were used to in the United States. I guess that is why we were there to raise their level of professionalism.
This was the first opportunity I had to use my Russian language skills outside the classroom and I really was getting fairly fluent by the end of the deployment, I also ended up getting to know a few of the Uzbek soldiers. Yuri was a former member of the Soviet Spetsnaz and was truly the most professional and technically proficient of all the Uzbeks. He was an ethnic Russian whose parents had been moved to Uzbekistan by the Soviets. He was a lieutenant and spoke only Russian. He refused to speak Uzbek and treated his own guys with a little bit of disgust. I often tried my language skills out on him and we would patrol together sometimes...but more on that later.
Another soldier I got to know although he spoke very little Russian or English was Misha. Misha was the stereotypical class clown always joking around. His favorite joke was to yell at me across some open space the little English he knew. “Hey Mike!! What Misha? F**K YOU! Then he would roar with laughter. He never got tired of that joke and would repeat it several times a day. When I left Uzbekistan he presented me with the ugliest striped dog ceramic piggy bank I have ever seen, I gave him my Gerber knife. I still have that bank.
Myself and Yuri would go on two man patrols around the perimeter of the base some days and he would show me where they patrolled the mountains looking for IMU infiltration routes. Once he pointed out some foot prints in the snow heading towards the base and said “Terrorist” as he pantomimed pulling the trigger on his AK-47. I took his word for it as I really couldn’t tell the difference between these footprints and any others we had seen. Another time a dog crossed our path and Yuri once again pretended to shoot it, then he looked at me and said ”Shaslik.” Shaslik is the Uzbek version of shishkebab and I was pretty sure he had eaten dog before. Actually I was pretty sure I had eaten dog as well, as a few days before I had seen one of the Uzbek soldiers deliver some meat to the back of the kitchen and I swear it had a paw attached. Later that evening we ate stew with mystery meat included. Oh well, when in Rome.... Occasionally Yuri would take us down to the Uzbek canteen which was really just a room in one of the military housing units. This military family made extra money by turning their living room into a small restaurant that served tomato salad, stew, tea and vodka. It was simple food and it was kind of weird eating in someone’s house but after a few shots of vodka things got easier.
Eventually our training cycle ended and it came the day when we were to pack up and leave. We said good by to our Uzbek counterparts had a closing ceremony. We gave the base a plaque to commemorate the joint training and the Uzbeks gave each one of us a curved knife with the word Uzbekistan etched into the blade. We once again loaded on to military trucks but this time we drove south to “K2” or Karshi Kharnabad, the main airfield the United States was using to support operations in Afghanistan. On the way home we finally got to ride in one of Uncle Sam’s aircraft. When we got to K2 we palletized our gear and hung out for about 20 hours waiting on our flight. During this time we got to socialize with a lot of the guys coming back or going into Afghanistan. I won’t lie and say there wasn’t a little professional jealousy present. These guys had been in combat recently and were all sporting Pashtun hats and devil may care attitudes. We felt that somehow we may be left out. Remember this was still late 2001 and no one was sure what would happen next. Little did I know that within eighteen months I would be eating goat and rice in the Iraqi countryside. Eventually we boarded the plane and made our way back to the States, we were already planning our next mission as my company was to go back to Kosovo before much longer.

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