KABUL, Afghanistan —
(The following piece is a commentary; as such, all the viewpoints, opinions, and characterizations are my own as the author. And they are from the heart!)
Having just arrived in Kabul this past week, I will say it has been an eventful and busy time already! This phase of my deployment started as I sat in a plane on the runway at Bagram Air Base last Thursday morning. We were just about to take off when the pilots got some news that there was action up at Kabul and the airport was shut down for at least a while. Back in the terminal, my fellow passengers and I looked online to get the news and saw there was an attack here. Besides hoping everyone was ok, my distant second place thought was, "Great! Another night in the transient tent at Bagram!" Don't judge me -- we all know how awesome that experience is, right??
Fast forward a day and I arrived here in Kabul. Obviously, I knew I was going to hit the ground running by helping tell the story of what happened here and how this base was attacked and yet suffered no casualties. What I didn't know was that, within just a few days of my arrival, I would have the honor and privilege of hearing some of the most inspiring and satisfying stories I've heard during a long career in public affairs in which I've conducted thousands of interviews.
Simply put, and to the point: the U.S. Air Force Security Forces Defenders, who are here to advise and train with our Afghan hosts while also defending the rest of us who advise and train, are AMAZING. Yes, AMAZING!
You may or may not already know the story. If not, in a nutshell, it goes like this. On July 17, a small group of Defenders, just a few dozen that morning, were the first to notice and respond to a pre-dawn surprise attack by an as-yet undetermined number of militants -- probably in the range of 5-12 men. These attackers came well armed. They brought along many rocket propelled grenades, plenty of ammunition for small arms fire, suicide vests, and even a vehicle-borne IED. You get the picture; they weren't coming out to the base to deliver donuts and coffee to the troops. They set up in, and on top of, a nearby building and opened fire!
What they may not have counted on was being noticed almost immediately by this group of Air Force Defenders, who were guarding the tiny FOB OQAB on the grounds of Kabul International Airport. So as the bad guys set up and began their attack, they appeared to focus mainly on the Afghan military base nearby and the airfield itself. Imagine their surprise and "delight," when they began getting lit up from the flank. Security Forces Airmen at FOB OQAB reacted extremely quickly after the bad guys' opening volley. Some were standing watch already. Others were in bed asleep. One of them was just beginning to chat with his wife back home here on Facebook! But when they all heard the indirect fire and then the small arms fire, every one of them -- no matter what they HAD been doing -- geared up and headed to the fight. Most of the off duty ones ended up fighting in shorts and t-shirts under their protective gear.
We're talking gym shorts, T-shirts, A-shirts, shoes but no socks, shoes with one sock -- even a pair of cowboy boots and blue jeans. Whatever they'd been wearing in bed or in their rooms was what they came out to fight in. Because every second counts when the lead is flying. Suppressive fire, they all knew, could save lives.
Fast forward a whopping 4-plus hours later, the first two of which were full of blistering exchanges of lead and explosives, and there was no one left in, on, or around that building to continue the fight. Those bad guys have fought their last fight. Between the Air Force Security Forces, their friends that spit hot lead, and their friends from the Afghan security forces (who performed the final clearing of that attack position to effectively end the battle), the bad guys didn't stand a chance. Add in the fact that operations center controllers were watching their every move, helping request close air support, and keeping everyone on the same page? Forget about it! Game over. And best of all, back on our side of the fenceline there were no serious injuries whatsoever. In a 4-hour battle where more than 20 incoming RPGs were fired. Wow!
Now that you have the cliff notes version of what happened, I'll get to my main point (finally!). It is simply this. After just two days of interviewing approximately half (at this point) of the Defenders who participated in the battle, I am prouder to be in the Air Force than I ever have been in over 19 years of service! And I hope by sharing a little of what I learned from them, that you might be too. And if you're not in uniform, maybe you'll be that much prouder of the folks here who are.
What I learned was the way they value their training. I heard stories of many individuals from several bases who performed smoothly as one team when it counted -- and became family. Most of all, I learned that from the youngest or newest Airman to the more battle hardened and seasoned NCOs and officers, there was a treasure trove of intriguing and impressive perspective within each.
I met an Airman who had a choice, while responding, to go to a tower that was safely out of range OR one of the two towers closest to the enemy. His mind told him to stay safe. Self preservation is a heck of a great instinct, usually. But he went, in a split second decision, to where the action was hottest. He thought there was no way he should try to stay safe, when his job was to fight and protect. And so he did!
I also met a guy who "got stuck" going to that tower that was further away and was upset about it momentarily. But he quickly found a way to help through spotting and communicating to the ones doing the shooting.
I met an NCO who really didn't much want to talk to me about his role, not only because he wanted the focus to be on his troops -- but because, to him, it's just about doing the job. The first time I spoke to him, he simply said, "I was there." Trust me, he was a whole lot more than just there. But here's a guy who's been there before, done that, and earned the T-shirt. Nothing special. (He and I disagree on that last part, but he can keep the shirt!)
Another Airman couldn't believe the audacity of the enemy to try and attack us directly, since they have in the past usually "just" lob mortars from a distance. And rather than being scared (well, just a little, she later admitted) she said (and I quote!) "I actually was happy. I knew I was going to get to do what I came into the Air Force to do!" Now, that may be true. And all of us in uniform signed up on a contract that included everything up to and including the last full measure. But running to the sound of the guns, actually HAPPY to fulfill one's promise to the nation... just two years into her service... OUT-freakin-STANDING!
Oh, there are more. Trust me. More than I have time or room to write in this particular note for Talk About It Tuesday. But I will most certainly be getting the stories out there about the numerous brave and squared away defenders young (and not so young) who were tested in a fire usually reserved for special forces, Marines, and Soldiers. They came out squeaky clean, having proved themselves and validated their training when it mattered the most. What a story... but more importantly, what AMAZING folks!
If Security Forces has been underappreciated by some folks in the past (slow gate entry, a ticket on base, the pass and ID line, etc.!), I assure you, these Defenders, at this tiny FOB, are Rock Stars right about now!
And with that, I close this Talk About It Tuesday -- my first -- by saying that I look forward to continuing to serve and sleep, as a well-known Colonel in a great movie once said, "under the very blanket of freedom (they) provide!"
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