Why would anyone volunteer to live in a tent and sleep on a cot? Well I did. I had the opportunity to work in Afghanistan for three months from November 2009 through January 2010. The company I work for is a defense contractor and we won a contract in Afghanistan; I volunteered to help with the phase-in of the program.
My assignment was to assist with the hiring of the incumbent workers employed by the current supplier as employees of my company. While this might seem like a simple task, there were many challenges – not knowing who the employees are, not being able to contact the employees at the work site during working hours, and the many different locations involved.
To prepare for my trip, I imagined the worst possible living conditions. If they weren’t as bad as I imagined, I would be pleasantly surprised. Prior to leaving for Afghanistan, I attended the required week-long orientation, which included many required government briefings. I would be living on the Bagram Air Base, which is about a 30 minute flight from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Bagram is at an elevation of 5,000 feet, surrounded by mountains, some taller than 14,000 feet. The winters are cold and snowy, and the summers are very hot. I was prepared for worse weather than Colorado Springs, where I live, and was very happy that it never snowed while I was there, and it wasn’t windy! It rained twice and it was very cold. In fact, the heaters in our work tent didn’t work too well and most mornings and evenings we worked in our coats. The best advice I was given before I left was to invest in good socks, and I’m glad I did!
Sitting on the plane in Atlanta waiting to take off for Dubai, I was excited and a bit apprehensive. I was unsure what to expect, considering I don’t have a military background. I called my husband, since this would be the last time I could talk with him for a couple of days. It’s a strange feeling to fly away on a trip knowing you’re leaving the safety of your home. I spent one night in Dubai before boarding the charter jet that would take me to Afghanistan. I did get to experience a bit of Dubai the day I arrived.
The charter flight into Afghanistan was uneventful and just like any commercial flight you might take. Flying over the country of Afghanistan, it is clear that there aren’t many trees, it’s just brown. Once we got closer to our destination, there was snow on the mountains. Looking down on the base, as we flew in, I got a look at my home for the next three months. I could see that
there was a town around the base. The homes reminded me of what homes might have looked like 2000 years ago with the mud block walls surrounding the home site. Everything was brown except for the snow on the mountains. I could see roads and vehicles, but not many people. There didn’t seem to be any organization to the town as far as the layout goes.
Arriving at Bagram Air Base, we gathered our luggage and boarded a shuttle bus to pick up our PPE (personal protective equipment – vest and helmet) and were taken to our quarters (tent) to get settled. The first sleeping tent I was assigned had civilian and military women. While I knew that the majority of the enlisted military were young, it surprised me when I saw all the young women carrying rifles! As a mom, it made me feel like I should be protecting them when they were there to protect me! I have always been very proud and supportive of our military, but being in Afghanistan with the military made me even more proud.
The noise was never ending. Jets taking off all the time – always two! Helicopters and other planes, too. Sometimes the noise was so loud you couldn’t talk until it died down. There was a range where the military practiced maneuvers and added to the noise. You got used to the noise and recognized when something was out of the norm. The first few nights I used ear plugs to sleep, but soon I didn’t need them anymore because I was so tired when I got to bed that I had no trouble sleeping! We were working seven days a week, twelve hours a day.
Nothing was easy. Getting from one location to another took more time because you couldn’t drive faster than 15 miles an hour, and to get to the other side of the base was a 30 minute trip.
Our working conditions were less than ideal. The number of people working in our work tent ranged from about 15 up to 30. We had very little space, with everyone working in the same room. Imagine a rectangle with a counter running down each side and a slightly wider counter in the middle. That’s how we worked. I could rub elbows with the two people on either side of me. My office chair was a folding chair and we had minimal storage space. No privacy at all. It dawned on me after I arrived home that while I was in Afghanistan, I was never alone!
We conducted town hall meetings so that the incumbent employees could come and learn about our company. We conducted interviews for all the incumbents and made job offers. Once the transition date for each department arrived, we provided more training in areas such as timecard completion, benefits and the company’s policies and procedures.
One highlight was meeting so many different people from all over the world. I was very curious about the reasons someone would take a job in a war zone. The reasons are as different as the people. The money is a big draw for all who agree to work in Afghanistan, but Americans have a patriotic reason; they are there to support the warfighter. Foreigners don’t have the same loyalty, which is understandable. Most foreigners are from countries where unemployment is high and the need to provide for their families brings them to Afghanistan. What I did find is that supporting their families is the biggest reason for being in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a very interesting country. The tribal system is very strong. Even though they have a President, it seems the tribal leaders have more power than the President. Whatever your view is about the war in Afghanistan, our troops are to be commended for what they are doing to protect our freedoms.
I am so glad I had the opportunity to work in Afghanistan. The experiences I had are invaluable. The first thing I did when I landed in Dubai on my way home – take a bubble bath!