Jokes on the Radio

The Afghan DJ in his studio in the combat outpost Sar Howza (Photo: Heimken)

Today, we did an interesting story on an Afghan DJ who runs a radio station on camp, for the population outside the wire. The station was set up by ISAF. Interestingly Iranian music seems to be all the hype. It’s what the 20-year-old plays a lot.

Apart from playing music he also reads out news he gets from the 3-66 Battalion headquarters in Sharana and he reads out jokes every now and then. It must be hard for him living on base with all the Americans, the only company he has are the interpreters working for the unit.

Lobster and Steak

Captain Perkins and his two platoons came back inside the wire, the outpost, from their five day mission yesterday evening. The company’s cook made them a special welcome meal – lobster and steak – to greet the men that were living without showers and good food for almost a week.
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Welcome to Sar Howza

Our location an a map (Photo: Loesche)

The sun’s out. It’s a little after 9.00 a.m. Axel and I spent our first night in our new home. We slept in a wooden hut without windows, the interior divided into smaller rooms with every compartment having their own door outside. Shortly before midnight we were told off by the one of the mechanics, we weren’t supposed to have our light on because of black out rules.

The combat outpost is about as a big as three football fields. It’s guarded by four Towers. They’ve got cameras on all of them. One of the towers is unmanned and has a remote controlled machinegun on its roof. The perimeter of the compound is made of so called Hescos, huge square blocks made from wire lined with fabric filled with rocks and sand.

Heavy Metal

Soldiers chillin out in COP Sar Howza (Photo: Loesche)

They’ve got everything they need on the base. A kitchen container, a dining facility, a gym where the soldiers were working out last night to heavy metal when I was sitting just outside the exercise room, on one of the computer workstations connected to the internet. They even have a laundry facility where Axel washed his T-Shirts this morning.

Three platoons of Apache Company live here, more than 100 men in total. I haven’t seen any women, like on the bigger based in Bagram or Sharana. The company commander, Captain James Perkins left the compound with most of his men late last week. So we haven’t seen him yet. They are busy setting up check points and observation posts at a vital crossing a few kilometers from here.

When the district governor is not in the provincial capital Sharana he resides on the outpost, the district centre is located on base. So when there are shuras the town elders come to the base to hold the meetings here. We’ve been told that after more than 100 insurgents were killed by US special forces in July just North of here in the mountains they transported the bodies here for biometric screening.


A mechanic (Photo: Loesche)

The soldiers who were left behind at the COP seem pretty chilled out. None of them are wearing their flak vests or helmets. The outpost didn’t get attacked for a while. That might change after Ramadan is over since last Friday. Everybody seems surprised there haven’t been any attacks or TICs, troops in contact – fire fights with insurgents.

Where Perkins and his platoons are setting up the posts the insurgents had established check points of their own they just gave up because most fighters went home for the holy month of Ramadan. It would make sense for the insurgent fighters to now come back and fight the infidels and the Afghan National Army (ANA) to regain control of the area.

At one point it looked like we might be able to join Perkins and his men and spend the night out in the field. A convoy with fuel was going to be sent out with resupplies. They didn’t drive out after all so we stayed on base.

Axel later pointed out that this was a good thing. Before we left Kabul we were talking to a first sergeant of the US marines. He had been deployed four times and his motto was: “Don’t get killed on the first day – and don’t get killed on the last”. This wasn’t the first day of our journey, but the first of our stay in Sar Howza. We need to settle in first.

Travel Pt. IV – Sharana to Sar Howza

Veranda in the Foward Operating Base Sharana (Photo: Loesche)

We slept in. I got up at 8.30 a.m. Axel and I had breakfast and prepared for our over land travel to Sar Howza. We were driven to the headquarter barracks of 3-66 Battalion and met the commander Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Taylor from Texas in charge of the western part of Paktika province.

We were briefed on the activity in our area and how the war was going in general. The most interesting point he made was that the structure or make-up of the insurgent force was changing. Taylor said that there was a split occurring within the movement.

The older generation of fighters who had joined the mujahedin in the 1980s to fight the Russians was retiring. Incoming were young more radical fighters from Pakistan who Taylor described as a more thuggish type of insurgent who unlike the older generation had less respect for the general populous and wouldn’t care for civilian casualties.

Just after we had our chat in Taylor’s office we met Lieutenant Wolfsley who was going to take us with him to the combat outpost some 10 kilometres from Sharana. The drive would take us 30 minutes.

We were relieved to hear that the threat of an attack wasn’t that great. The road to Sar Howza was paved, which means the insurgents couldn’t bury pressure plates to set off roadside bombs. All the military vehicles also have so called jamming devices which block any attempt to detonate explosive devices via mobile phones.


Four huge Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) were waiting for us. Axel got into one, I into another. I drove in the last vehicle under the command of Staff Sergeant Travis Colter, 26, from South Carolina and three other soldiers.
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In those vehicles you feel like driving in a submarine with wheels. They are stuffed full of electronic equipment from radios to fire extinguishers. The armour that protects the passengers from anything from gun rounds, rocket propelled grenades to roadside bombs is probably more than 10 cm thick.

Beef Jerky

I handed out some beef jerky to break the ice. We rolled past a rugged semi-desert landscape. All traffic that came our way from motor cycles with men with black turbans to battered cars and colourfully painted trucks loaded with firewood stopped ahead of the convoy pulling up by the roadside to let the MRAPs pass.

Somehow the trip was less nerve racking than I thought it would be. After 35 minutes we reached Sar Howza without any incident. When we entered the home of Apache Company 2-28 we had after four days of travel reached our final destination for the trip – some 8300 feet (2700 meters) above sea level.

Travel Pt. III – Bagram to Sharana

Us filing into the C-130 at Bagram Airfield to fly to Sharana (Photo: Heimken)

We overslept, I had a headache. I hadn’t slept well. All hell broke loose in the middle of the night when jet fighters took off from the airfield. The guy who slept on the bunk beneath, a civilian IT worker on an eight month contract, had told me that Bagram Airfield quite often got “indirect fire”, meaning that insurgents shot mortar rounds into the compound.

After we packed our bags in a hurry we were lucky to catch a shuttle bus just after 7:00 a.m. that took us from Camp Warrior to the PAX Terminal for the flight to Sharana. We got there just in time for check-in. We handed the clerk our Invitational Travel Orders from ISAF and our media badges.

The Flight

We were sitting in the holding area once again with loads of Soldiers sprawled out on the floor sleeping on their kit waiting to be flown out to Kuwait, some snoring. I was pretty sure we would get booted off the flight, like yesterday.

To our relief we were called up for boarding one and a half hours later. We got on one of those school buses you see in American movies, just that this one was painted white and drove out onto the airfield where the C-130 was waiting.

All passengers were crammed into the front part of the plane. The rear half was filled with cargo on palettes. Most of the guys flying to Sharana were soldiers and contractors. Some dozed off straight away.

The guy next to me with a clean shaven head and wild eyebrows fell asleep with his mouth wide open. I plugged my ears and braced for half an hour up in the skies over Afghanistan.

The Ritz

Our personal Ritz Carlton VIP lodgigng in Sharana (Photo: Loesche)

In Sharana we were greeted by the public affairs officer of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, Major Joseph Buccino. We got our luggage off the palette and he drove us in his silver SUV to the Brigade headquarters, a one story wooden building without windows. Like all US army vehicles and buildings it was nicely air conditioned.

We were shown our quarters for the night in an adjacent building. Separate rooms, raw pine wooden walls, concrete floor with single beds and a closet. We had our own internet for the first time. After the first two nights sleeping on bunk beds crammed into tents with other people this felt like the Ritz Carlton.

The Beef

We went for food in the canteen and had beef burgers, our first meal of the day, as we had missed out on breakfast in Bagram. Major Buccino told us we were going to travel onwards to our final destination tomorrow – on road.

On the one hand we were happy we would get to the combat outpost Sar Howza the next day already. On the other hand the prospect of traveling on road  – with all the stories of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), roadside bombs, in the back of our minds – worried us slightly.

Travel Pt. II Kabul to Bagram

We boarded the C-130 Hercules at around 4.30 a.m. Our first military flight in Afghanistan. The palette with our luggage had just been loaded into the plane (Photo: Heimken)

The flight yesterday to Bagram – well, we didn’t make it. It didn’t take passengers after all – cargo only. The flight after that one – well we weren’t that lucky, they couldn’t take the usual pay load – it was too hot (I don’t know how the correlation works out). So we dropped off the low priority list for the flight: It’s all persons military first, then contractors, then journalists.

At the end of the day we were able to sign up for a 9:40 p.m. flight. We checked our luggage in and were sitting in the terminal watching the Boston Red Sox play on a flat screen. The lady from behind the check-in desk came into the waiting area and announced that due to maintenance work on the runway the flight was going to be delayed six hours.

We grabbed our sleeping bags out of our luggage which already had been put on a pallet ready for transport. Although this is a military airfield the terminal works in principle like any other airport, everybody still has to put their luggage through scanning, which seems a bit strange, because most soldiers travel with their guns at their side.

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Travel Pt. I Frankfurt to Kabul

Pretending to work at Kabul International Airport. Relieved to have reached the first base (Foto: Heimken)

It has only just sunk in: I’m in Afghanistan and I’m with the military, going on an embed. It hit me hard whilst sitting on a bunk bed in an air conditioned tent full of US marines, US army and British soldiers and their gear. This is real, and Axel, the photographer, and I are complete rookies in this biz. Glad to have him with me though, may I say.

We touched down at Kabul International at 06:40, landing with the Afghan carrier Safi Air on a misty morning. I hadn’t slept at all since we left Frankfurt at 15:20 with Emirates flying to Dubai and landing there close to midnight – getting hit by 38 degrees Celsius leaving the aircraft.

The malls in the terminal were nicely air conditioned though. We sipped on a café latte from Costa, talking about our plans of what we might be able to cover in the three weeks in Afghanistan. To be honest we didn’t really have a clue what we were in for.

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