Thursday, December 10, 2009

Middle East Swing

It has been over 5 years since the last time I was in the Middle East and I was looking forward to going again. My boss asked me to fulfill our Department of Defense pool obligation and travel with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Afghanistan, a country I have never been to. The weeklong trip to the war torn country comes just one week after Obama announced that he will be sending some 30,000 more troops to fight in the war.

The trip was originally scheduled to depart from Andrews Air Force base this past Sunday but ended up being changed to Monday which left me with a whole weekend in Washington DC. After a couple days of catching up with friends and taking in a few of the Smithsonian museums that were on my list of things to see, we went wheels up from Andrews at 10am on Monday morning. We are flying on Gates’ Air Force E-4B, a militarized 747 designed to serve as a mobile command post for the president and secretary of state. It is loaded with communications equipment once used to monitor the Russians during the cold war and is so hi-tech that it even has exterior paint that can resist nuclear radiation. It is also capable of mid air refueling so we were able to fly to Kabul non-stop.

There are about 20 members of the press on trip, including Today Show host Matt Lauer, who was being asked for photos an autographs by the plane’s crew. Gates came back to the 21 seat press cabin once we were airborne for a quick media briefing. At the conclusion of his face time with the press, he apologized to us for having to eat the food he likes on this flight. Our first meal was bacon cheeseburgers with a side of Cole slaw, chips and a mini Bundt cake. Very Americana.

I tried to get sleep on the flight hoping to counter the affects of a morning landing of an international flight. I should have accepted the Ambien being offered by the plane’s doctor because I couldn’t manage to get a single minute of shut eye and we had a full schedule once we touched down.
We went wheels down at Kabul at 9am on Tuesday morning. I was expecting it to be much colder than it was as we walked off the plane onto the tarmac. The sky was grey with little visibility. Gates was already descending the steps by the time we got around the plane. Myself and Gates’ photographer snapped photos of the Secretary as he made his way to the motorcade that would take us to Camp Eggers. We donned our flack jackets and Kevlar helmets before getting into vans that were retrofitted with heavy steel panels.
It took nearly twenty minutes to caravan off of the airport property, passing through several checkpoints before hitting the streets of Kabul. People on their cell phones were disappointed when their calls were cut short by jamming devices used by the military when on city streets to disrupt IED attacks which are often detonated by cell phone. We looked on through filthy one inch thick glass as people stopped to stare as we sped by the backed up traffic, piles of burning trash and crumbling shops with goat carcasses hanging in front. There was a lot to take in.
After a bumpy ride and a quick stop at the base where we would be staying, we were back on the road and headed to the Presidential Palace for a meeting with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. After going through security we were escorted to a room where a press conference would be held. The room was already filled with local media and photographers from all the wire services, including a local Getty freelancer. Some 30 video cameras lined the riser at the back of the room. Who knew that Kabul had so many TV stations. The presser was dull and we were restricted from moving around the room which made it difficult to get anything interesting. I could feel the fatigue setting in already as I jostled with the other photographers. It was only 11:30 and I was starting to fade.We were scheduled to fly to our next event aboard 4 helicopters. The trip was canceled due to low visibility so we just went back to Camp Eggers. Back at camp we waited to hear from the Secretary’s staff about a possible late afternoon movement that never came to fruition. The rest of the day was ours. I filed my pictures, browsed the PX and got comfortable in our basement room of what appear to be kid’s bunk beds. My head hit the pillow at 5:30 and I was out. I woke up a few hours later and went right back to bed. I tossed and turned a little bit as the room filled with the loud snores of 11 men which often resembled the low rumble of a fog horn accompanied by a gear grinding Yugo with no muffler. Despite the noise, I ended up sleeping almost 12 hours. My body needed it.

1 comment:

laurafezie said...

Interesting blog! I've always wondered what it was like to be a pool photographer. I look forward to more of your posts.