Photo courtesy of Cpl. Tim Lenzo, USMC. Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan
On 5 December, I embarked out east on a self-fulfilling journey to record the drawdown of U.S. forces in war-torn Afghanistan. This wasn't your typical embed. Most media who visit the region are seasoned photo journalists, staff writers, and news reporters. I went as a free-lance combat artist. A valid argument can be made that what I do is journalistic; after all, pictures also tell a story. My goal was to document the passing-of-the-torch between U.S. and Afghan troops in such a way rarely done in contemporary reporting. Whenever I was asked about my media badge and purpose in country, I'd respond with "I'm a combat artist". The looks that I garnered were quite interesting, as if a giant throbbing member was protruding from my forehead.
We are a small community of illustrators dedicated to keeping alive the rich tradition of combat art. I've been groomed by some of the best, and had shared gallery space with some of the nation's finest: Michael D. Fay, Kristopher Battles, Victor Juhasz, Richard Johnson, Roman Genn, and Steve Mumford just to name a few.
I'm reporting on behalf of The Story with Dick Gordon, a syndicated radio segment hosted by WUNC and co-hosted by American Public Media. I was a guest on the show twice before [Jul 10 & Dec 12 (20:40 mark)] and, even though my art can't be seen through the airwaves, this will give me the opportunity to debrief my experiences from an artist's perspective on national radio. The art that I create will find nice homes, as I plan to donate portions of my work to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, the Smithsonian Museum of American History's Military and Diplomatic Collection, and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Here is my story, broken up into parts. Much of it mirrors the daily entries made in my moleskine journal in theater.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 @0737
Washington-Dulles International Airport, Washington, DC., USA
Just checked into Dulles Airport. I have roughly three hours to kill before I fly out to Dubai, UAE enroute to Kabul, Afghanistan.
I met a number of interesting people earlier this morning. After my wife dropped me off at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, I was lured in conversation with who I assume are a couple headed to Hawaii (the gentleman was much older). Looking at my giant rucksack sitting next to my feet, the lady asked me where I was headed to. When I told her Afghanistan, she began candidly voicing about her brother's tragic death while serving in the Army. She went into great detail about how he had suffered complications from a nerve agent during the push into Baghdad. Then she asked me if I was ever issued "the blue pill". My response was no, as the only pill I ever had to take while deployed was the anti-malaria pill mefloquine and the pill we got for sea sickness. According to her account, her brother was issued speed and was forced to kill a lot of people, even children.
I wasn't entirely sold on her story but, for the sake of keeping the conversation brief and for the fact that I "wasn't there", I nodded my head in sympathy and wished her well.
Thursday, December 6, 2012 @ 0910
Dubai International Airport, Dubai, UAE
Made it to Dubai, and the time-change is already taking a toll on my body. My boarding pass to Kabul didn't have a gate number so, after asking around for several minutes, I was eventually guided in the right direction. The walk to gate C4 was a long one. I was told to go straight and keep going. Once I get to the end, take the esculator up and continue to go until I reach another esculator and take that one down. Keep going straight and gate C4 will be on my left. Luckly I had a few hours to kill, as the walk took me nearly a half hour. The airport in Dubai is huge. It's also very nice, until you get near terminal 1 concourse C.
With one whiff, I knew I arrived. Several Afghan/Pakistan nationals, outfitted in their man dresses, slept on the ground underneath and behind the benches. As I strolled past the gates enroute to mine, I quickly noticed that I was the only westerner in a 500 foot radius. The smell brought me back to my days as a warfighter. The stench was pungent---a violent concoction of body odor and human excrement mixed into a single fragrance. Despite the horrible aroma, I still took a seat on one of the benches. I did this to A) get a reaction, and B) to do some warm up sketches. I was greeted with stares. They were piercing and uninviting. Not thinking much of it, I took out my small moleskine journal and pencils and began to draw the gentleman sitting to my left (pictured above). He turned to me and shook his head "no". That was my que to leave.
Friday, December 7, 2012 @ 0951
KAIA Kabul Airfield, Kabul, Afghanistan
I arrived into Kabul International Airport at around 1500 yesterday. Before that, I was washed over in panic on whether my checked bag containing my body armor would make it into Kabul. It did.
Before planning for this trip, I never knew one could fly commercially into Afghanistan. I took Safi airlines into Kabul, which was an interesting experience. After flying 12 hours from DC to Dubai, my tolerance for airline food was at an alarming low. I couldn't stomach another meal.
Upon arrival into Kabul, I had to go through Immigrations. After getting my visa stamped, I proceeded over to baggage claim. Once I collected my bag, several Afghans approached me offering to carry my things. I politely refused the help as I was more than capable of carrying my own gear. I was also being careful with how I spent my money, as Victor warned me how the locals tried to take advantage of his generosity while he was there last year. Many simple "no thank you's" sufficed and I was on my way to parking lot C to meet my driver.
Map 1 courtesy of Mohammad
Map 2 Courtesy of Mohammad
My driver's name is Mohammad, whom I met through Victor, whom he met through Roman, whom he met through . . .
Mohommad and I took into account that it would take an hour after I arrive before I would make it to the rendezvous point. My flight rolled in at 1500, one half hour earlier than expected, and since immigrations and baggage collection went unusually fast, I ended up waiting for Mohammad. Getting to parking lot C was no short walk. Luckly, there were several Afghan Police checkpoints to help me get to where I needed to go. Once I found the place, I noticed there were several other westerners waiting for their rides. Afghan cab drivers saturated the lot, begging for our business. It's been strongly encouraged that westerners do not hop into random cabs, as kidnappings by the Taliban in Kabul are on the rise. Fortunately for me and the others waiting, we had rides. While watching out for our cabbies, I befriended a British contractor (can't remember his name) also waiting for his ride. We ended up bullshitting to pass the time. About 45 minutes later our guys had arrived. We shook hands and parted ways.
Man, was I glad to see Mohammad. Recognizing each other was a cinch (thank you facebook). Once aquainted, I threw my stuff in the cab and slipped a wad of cash underneath his car stereo for his troubles. Mohammad is a former U.S. Army interpreter who, in all actuality, possesses a better command of the english language than most do in the states. What Mohammad does is risky business, as helping Americans isn't the safest of things for a local to do in Afghanistan. Victor had given me $50 to give to him, as he refused to accept payment the last go around. I slipped in a $20 to make it $70.
As seen in the map above, the base literally neighbors the airport. Given that, we were still forced to detour south and head back east to Abby Gate. Traffic was insane. Lanes and stop lights seemed more suggestive than law. I was perplexed as to how we didn't get into an accident during the 10 minute transit. Once we arrived at the gate, Mohammad loaned me his phone to make a call to my Public Affairs Officer (PAO) so he can come let me in. I exited the vehicle, reminded Mohammad that I needed to be picked up at this spot on the 21st at 1400, shook hands, and then went our separate ways.