Meeting in Khan Neshin
Friday, December 14, 2012 @ 2020
Combat Outpost Castle, Helmand Prov., Afghanistan
Continued from pt5 . . .
Departure from Payne was at 1330 and we arrived at COP Castle just 45 minutes later. The small base is called Castle because, well, it sort of is. Several rumors exist about the origin of the mud-clay fortress. The most popular one pertains to Alexander the Great's failed campaign to conquer Afghanistan. Most Marines choose to stick with the Alexander story because, in all actuality, it sounds way cooler than the others. Besides, who's to prove otherwise?
The scenery is amazing. Artists, and Art Historians alike, would pay to come out here if it wasn't for the possibility of getting shot or blown up. I took a trip to post 4 to scope out the landscape and, perhaps to sketch a few Marines on watch. Unlike the FOB's, Marines actually stand post here.
Just before sunset, I quickly pieced together a sketch that depicts what Marines actually see while pulling guard duty. The small camp is divided up between U.S. Marines and the Afghan Uniform Police. One can see in both sides of the base from where I was standing. In the middle of sketching, an off duty Afghan Police Officer approached the front of the post, looked up at us, and just stood there staring. I'm still unaware of what exactly it was that he wanted, but it was quite obvious that he needed an interpreter. Lucky for him, we had a linguist nearby to assist.
From what I was told, in order for anyone to gain entry into the Afghan side of the house, they have to have their body armor on and roll at least four deep. These security measures have been laid in place in part to the rise of Green-on-Blue attacks. A doodle diagramming the sketch is shown below:
I'll be sitting in on tomorrow's shura, or meeting, between the command element and the Afghan locals. This will be a great time for me to come up with some good sketches and reference photos. It will also act as a wonderful opportunity for me to employ my audio recorder and, perhaps, gain more insight as to what the locals are thinking. Once the shura concludes, we are to conduct a small foot patrol to one of the Afghan police stations to have lunch with the District Governor of Khan Nehshin.
Saturday, December 15, 2012 @ 2140
Forward Operating Base Payne, Helmand Prov., Afghanistan
It's been a few hours since our arrival back to Payne. Reflecting back, I feel that today was fairly productive, inspite of not getting to sit in on the early morning shura. Before the shura began, Lenzo and I made our way into the Afghan side (where the shura was being held) in search of new material. However, when we gained entry into the meeting room, the company CO said due to the nature of the meeting, he strongly discouraged any note taking, sketching, photography, and the use of any audio devices while the shura was in session. Lenzo and I beat feet back the the Marine side and went our respective ways.
Disappointed and, perhaps, pissed, I took a walk around the outpost to see what else there was to do for the next two hours. After regaining focus, I found myself mesmerized when I stumbled upon one of the fighting positions. I thought to myself: "Wow. I have to draw this."
So, there I stood, with book in hand, in the freezing cold, sketching this post encompassed by a mammoth-sized wall made of mud and clay. I found it quite intriguing.
It began to rain 30 minutes into the drawing. Knowing from recent experience how water destroys moleskine paper, I quickly shut the book, grabbed my drawing utensils, and hurried over to the stairs leading into the post. Manning the position was Cpl. Barrett. We exchanged greetings, I told him who I was, opened my up pad, and began to draw him too. Barrett turned around to ask if I would like for him to stand still while I drew him. I told him no, as I encourage everyone that I sketch to go about their business as if I wasn't there. I have a policy: it's not to get in the way.
Once the rain died down, I shook Mr. Barrett's hand and left. With the meeting still in session, I needed to kill more time, so I went back to post 4 to see who was there. The post was occupied by three people: two Marines and one linguist. I can only remember one name out of the three, and that name was none other than LCpl. Biggerstaff. I told him who I was and what I did, and asked if he was willing to have his portrait drawn. He offered zero resistance so I promptly went to work while the other Marine kept focus down range.
I asked Biggerstaff about troop morale.
"Moral here is fantastic, and the only complaint we have is that we're bored."
He spends most of his waking hours standing watch and working out. Once I saw that the shura had ended, I thanked Biggerstaff for his time and walked back to my quarters to get my gear ready for the patrol.
Instead of going foot mobile, we decided to ride in trucks. Enroute to the base, we received chatter over the radio that a few Wpns Co Marines from Taghaz were involved in an IED strike. When the names were read of those associated with the blast, it dawned on me: "I know that guy."
Fortunately, the MRAP absorbed the force of the blast and everyone inside was fine.
Minutes later, we arrived at one of the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP) bases near Castle. Most of the Marines either had to sit in the trucks, or stand security within the AUP station, while myself, the Weapons Company CO, an advisor, his linguist, Cpl. Lenzo, and I think two more Marines were invited to mingle and have lunch with the District Governer of Khan Neshin. We stripped off our gear and stepped into the District Governor's room--this was a clear sign of trust between them and us, as everybody was now vulnerable.
Some of us sat on couches, while others made space on the floor. The District Governor, his finance officer, the AUP executive officer, and maybe another high ranking official sat at the back end of the room, while the Marines sat toward the front. I asked the linguist to ask the District Governor if it was okay for me to record the conversation. Permission was granted, and I placed the device on one of the coffee tables and hit record. Four minutes into it, our CO tells the District Governor what just happened with the IED incident outside of Taghaz. At that time, I began to draw what was taking place in the meeting. The Afghans were marveled at the fact that somebody was drawing them.
Soon after, I began snapping pictures to use as reference material. Below is a large pastel-chalk piece that I did at home from one of those photos. The portrait is of a high ranking Afghan Police officer.
The gathering lasted about an hour and, afterwards, the District Governor invited us for lunch. We left our gear inside the meeting room and headed over to the building next door. Standing at the entrance was an Afghan Soldier whose job was to wash the hands of those entering the dining area. The room was nice. Directly in front of us was a long table cloth laid out on the floor with several large bowls of rice, lamb in meat sauce, and bread. It was a feast. Without missing a beat, we all took our seats and began to eat.
After we "wined and dined", we mounted up and headed west to check on another AUP station. Somewhere along our route was a bridge that wasn't drivable, so we had to dismount. Only 11 of us went, while the rest stayed back to provide security. At this point, the station was 600-800 meters away. I stuck next to the Advisor, Major Martin, a former enlisted Marine and one of the most down-to-earth people. We patrolled on a dirt road that lead straight to our destination, passing several mud huts occupied by rural Afghan families. Little children with blank stares stood outside their compounds as we strolled on by. From time to time, we would spot motorcyclists passing the patrol.
We spent 15-20 minutes at the AUP station, where Major Martin had to copy down a serial number from one of their generators. We then patrolled to the trucks and retrograded back to Payne.
Once in Payne, I called Lt. Haviland, the Adjutant, to see if he could lock a flight on for me into Leatherneck on the 18th. Bad weather had just grounded the majority of the flights in the area for the next two days, and taking the chance to get on a bird to Hanson and then back to Leatherneck by the the deadline date of the 18th was looking improbable by the minute. Lt. Haviland assured me it would all be taken care of.