Dispatch from Downrange, Final Destination (sort of)
The flight was blacked out most of the way and the pilot and crew all wore night vision goggles to operate. The flight was full, noisy and armed to the teeth. Jack and I were the last to board and would be the first off the flight once it set down. As we prepared for departure we all squeezed in a little tighter as the last of the cargo was loaded. Two skids of cargo, backpacks, supplies and a whole bunch of soldiers were packed into the waiting and already running C-130. The crew checked the load and went through their preflight checklists. The troops I was traveling with were a mix of young and not so young faces. Some were apprehensive, some were asleep as soon as they settled in the webbing seats, most were checking equipment and trying to get as comfortable as possible. Just before boarding the Platoon Sergeant made sure his troops were ready. Ammo was passed out and equipment checks, headcounts, checklists were run without a hitch. He turned to the young 1st Lieutenant and signaled with a thumbs up that they were good to go.
This flight was clearly different than the other flights I had been on while in country here in Afghanistan. All the other flights had really been pretty laid back. The crew joked and everyone was pretty relaxed. Not this one. Everyone was all business going through memorized checks that had been practiced time and time again. I personally felt a little twinge of anxiousness. It was different than being scared, it was more a mental trip to a time years ago when I would have been going through the same thoughts and checks these young soldiers were. Anxious is probably the wrong word. Exhilaration is closer to the mark. There is a poster that I have seen titled ďRare View of the Inside of an Actual Can of Woop-AssĒ. Well, let me tell you. Here I was, standing in the middle of that very can. I feel sorry for whoever was going up against this group because this whole can was about to be opened.
Jack was nervous. This was only my second flight with him and he was clearly bothered by the vibrations, noise, and all the activity going on around him. Being a fairly young dog, he clearly was not the old hat at flying my last dog had been. That would change more than we both knew.
The rear cargo hatch closed with a loud hissing noise that startled Jack. He kept trying to pinpoint the location of the noise. With a dogs acute hearing, sense of smell and all he was clearly on sensory overload. I did what I could to keep him calm and pretty much talked softly to him and stroked his head. The big engines powered up and it felt like the plane just jumped into the air. Two of the soldiers closet to us grabbed their rucksacks, stacked in between us, to keep them from falling on Jack as the plane pushed us all toward the rear as it climbed into the night sky.
I noticed two crewmen intensely watching out the side windows located at their positions in the plane. They too were wearing NVGs. I asked the one closest to me what he was looking for.
ďBad people shooting at us,Ē he answered in a rather matter of fact manner.
His answer drove home the difference in this flight over the others I had been on.
As we leveled off the flight settled into a steady drone from the engines. The Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant were leaning close to each other talking about something and going over lists the young officer had in his hand. They were reading the papers by the red lenses of the lights attached to their helmets. Jack finally laid down but never stopped leaning against my legs the entire flight.
We arrived at 23:30 (11:30 pm) Christmas Eve and landed at a remote runway somewhere in the Paktika Province of Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border. The landing was just as abrupt as the takeoff. Totally dark inside and out. There would be no bright landing lights tonight. The crewmen were again staring out the windows with their NVGs as we made a sharp turn and descended through the dark and toward the ground. You could hear loud noises and popping as the wheels and flaps went down. There was a general alertness now of everyone on board as we contacted the runway and the engines went into full reverse to stop the big aircraft rolling down the dark pavement. Within minutes we were stopped and the rear cargo hatch opened with that same hiss and a blast of 18 degree air. A forklift quickly unloaded the two skids of gear and cargo and was replaced by an airman with a red headlamp on. She motioned with hand signals for us to stand up and follow her, as the engines of the C-130 were still running, and hearing anything was impossible. As she turned around I saw she had her rifle slung across her back. We made our way to the passenger terminal and were ushered into the building through two sets of doors. Entering through the second set you was greeted with a fully lit room that was totally blacked out from outside view. Our ID cards were collected and checked, the method and system I canít mention due to OPSEC. I was cleared along with Jack and waited for my ride. After about an hour I was loading our gear in a truck and taken to our new home. We have an 8 x 10 room. Basically it is a box but it is clean and more importantly, heated.
Iíve been sleeping in a sleeping bag since July and this was my first night that my back would see a bed, not a great one but a bed just the same.
The next morning, or really later that morning, I was awaken by the kennel master and we walked to the showers. It was 05:00 in the morning and still about 18 degrees outside. The showers and restrooms are about one half mile away as is the dining facility.
The kennel master was an old friend of mine and I found out he had requested me to be sent to his location. He had retired as a senior NCO in the Special Forces. He was a sort of funny sight with his full white beard and bright red sweater he had on. I mentioned all he needed was a reindeer and he could be Santa Claus. He heard that a lot. I do need to correct something though. This Santa Claus worked out at the gym and looked like he could kick the stuffing out of anyone that did not like the presents he brought.
Christmas day I got settled in and made my box as homey as possible. I built some shelves out of a wooden pallet I dissembled for the wood as well as other things. I got a rug for the floor to keep the dust down and saw the Vet. Jack had a mandatory vet check which is normal when you bring a K-9 to a new post.
I was given several briefings on procedures and then turned loose to do a lot of walking to find the lay of the land so to speak. Internet was on top of the list so I spend a good portion of Christmas getting that resolved. I was able to speak to my family in Harwood via Skype. It was great to hear them and talk to my son who is an Army Officer at Ft Hood.
After the calls and several emails I was informed I had a meeting with the area Provost Marshall. A Provost Marshall is the chief law enforcement officer in the region. My location fell under US Army command so this was a US Army Officer. Pleasantries were passed all around and he let me know of my new assignment. I had been expecting a position searching vehicles are an Entry Control Point. This is the normal position for a dog handler over here whether it is searching for narcotics or explosives. This is what most if not all of the handlers I worked with did.
The Provost Marshall let me know very quickly that this assignment would be somewhat out of the ordinary. I was to be tasked to his office as would be doing unannounced searches region wide, not just on the FOB I was staying at. In fact I would not be doing searches here at all. I will be roving all over eastern Afghanistan. Iíll have a security team assigned to me and we will fly into the Forward Operating Bases, Combat Operating Bases, Outposts, and anywhere else the need is to do surprise searches on vehicles, buildings, barracks, unit equipment, mail, luggage and all local national ( Afghan) facilities. We will be busy. Jack has already been issued extra equipment for ear and eye protection as we will be on Blackhawks and Chinook helicopters most of the time. Pop in, do our thing and then get the heck out of Dodge.
Itís going to be cool!
From somewhere close to the Pakistani border, at least tonight.
This has been a Dispatch from Downrange
ISAF Explosive/Narcotics Detection Dog Handler
Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan