Another letter from Mark's teammate Steve - currently serving in Afghanistan:
It’s down to a couple of months left at the end of this next week, if you can imagine. While I am excited about that aspect of things, any excitement is being marred by significant events on this end. Sorry in advance for any typos.
I am continually amazed by the greatness of America and what it stands for.
Last week I went in to volunteer at the Egyptian Hospital. We also have a hospital run by the Koreans. Both exist on this base to provide health care to the local populace and they let the people----women, children, or anyone who needs medical help, into the installation to provide care. The amazing thing is that it is not the Egyptians or the Koreans that fund their operations. It is America. We pay for their doctors to come here and provide millions of dollars in assistance in medical supplies and so on. I had expected to see a modern facility where modern medicine was being practiced. Instead, the Egyptian Hospital is in a wooden hut reminiscent of some episode (if not worse) of MASH. My basement was more sterile than the operating room. When I walked in, the carnage was startling. The gurneys had women, children and the elderly on them, some of the kids with parents assisting them.
Three times a week, our Battalion Guard Force take bags of items to these people to increase their morale. Bags that include some personal hygiene items, small fleece blankets, crayons or coloring books etc. These are items people of AMERICA have donated and we bag them each week and sort according to need, sex etc. I wish I could adequately describe the look on a young boys face when he received something as basic as a coloring book and crayons. He didn’t even know what a crayon was until I took it out of the box and showed him the magic of color on a cartoon figure in the coloring book. He looked at his dad with amazement. When I went to place the crayon in his right hand, his father touched me on the arm shaking his head, “no.” Just as quickly, he pulled up his son’s sleeve to expose what appeared to be an old, improperly set compound fracture of his right wrist, rendering it useless. I acknowledged understanding and put it in his left hand.
The tragic thing about it is that the vast majority of patients in the hospital were victims of land mines. Kids, women, and the elderly with missing limbs. The kids are the hardest. I visited an older man who had his left leg blown off just below the knee. He had shrapnel so bad in his good leg from the explosion that it got infected and he was at risk for losing this leg as well. The damage done by the infection was unreal. Two big metal rods were sticking out laterally in an attempt to stabilize his leg. He was so emaciated that he looked like a skeleton with skin stretched over him. He was looking at me with eyes of “what can you do to help me?” as the physician described his wounds. The only thing I could do was to extend my hands. He grabbed them with both his and they felt like pieces of worn leather, deeply cracked and calloused. To this day, I haven’t felt anything like it. I felt helpless to do anything other than express some element of care.
The best part was bringing out the soccer balls. These people love playing soccer and when we bring the balls out, you can see a few of them hiding their morale bags underneath the bed sheets so they will also get a soccer ball. We give them to the children first, and then the young teenagers. I gave one to this 8-9 year old boy, but it was explained to me that he couldn’t see well, but nonetheless, through the sensitivity of his touch he could tell what it was and it brought a broad smile. There were young girls with diabetes, children asleep outside on wooden benches waiting for care, and the elderly, some adorned in polyester jackets that wouldn’t even be acceptable to the worse second hand stores. Shoes---you would think that we had given them gold bars and it doesn’t matter if they are dazzling colors or anything else, because they wear them as if they were a perfect match with their clothing. Needless to say I left sobered. No---guilty.
Early this last week our Entry Control Point was attacked by two suicide bombers. One with a vehicle-born IED, and the other with a suicide vest IED. When they approached the ECP, the driver got out of the vehicle and ran, after which his vehicle exploded. The insurgent with the suicide vest was to provide a secondary explosion when rescue personnel came to the scene, at which time he would detonate himself and maximize the number of people he could take with him. He successfully blew himself up, but by some miracle nobody was killed though we did take some injuries to civilian contract personnel. It was coordinated, but they couldn’t bind their anxiety to carry it out the way it was planned. We were all a bit nervous.
Two nights later would take things to a new level. At night we took four, 107mm rockets fired from the south. One struck near a guard tower about 200 meters from my hut, rocking my world. Another fell near a different tower on the base. The other two delivered direct hits on the facility where I work, blowing a hole in the concrete structure. It is miraculous that nobody was killed. Had the rocket hit in my hut complex we would have taken substantial casualties. Also, had it not been for it being late evening, there would have been more people in the facility, also increasing the chances of casualties. The Taliban spring offensive has begun!
Regardless of whether it’s a “spring offensive” or just weather that is allowing better movement etc, all of it is unnerving. These are terror weapons that keep you scared all the time since you never know where or when they will come. After a while, you have to make a decision of either going nuts worrying about getting hit, or you drive on and rationalize it away by thinking, “if it’s my turn to go, then that’s it.” I refuse to live in fear. Pilots call the air equivalent, “the golden BB”---being taken out of the air by a small projectile that just happens to take you down. People win the lottery when the odds against them are astronomical. We play the odds here too, but always assume it will be someone else.
We did a 5K run recently in honor of a young Army troop who responded to the call of duty. The Battalion needed a person to augment a team that would be at extreme risk and put the word out for volunteers. In no time, Private First Class Brandon J. Wadman was standing at Headquarters, duffle bags packed, ready for the job at hand. He answered the call but was tragically killed as a result, receiving the Bronze Star Medal posthumously. There are hundreds of young men just like him---ready to deliver when asked. Hard core.
America is truly great. I have seen it with my own eyes. However, the challenges ahead are going to be rough.