Sandoval: Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan

By Governor Brian Sandoval

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan to meet with Nevada troops serving in the war zones, and our military leaders in both countries.

I wanted to share my journal from the trip to give you a first-hand look at the people I met and the places I went on the trip.

Day 1
Join Governors Herbert, Haslam and Beshear in DC. They are all friendly and as excited as I am. A lot of anticipation. None of them has visited the Middle East before.

Arrive Pentagon; receive briefing. An immense building. There are portraits of all the former secretaries of Defense hanging on the walls. We meet w Secretary Panetta in his office. I think he’s been on the job for less than a week.

Arrive Andrews Air Force Base, get on plane. Plane is phenomenal. The flight to Shannon, Ireland, is 5+ hours.

Ireland is GREEN. Wish we could have gone outside to see the countryside. After an hour, it’s time to board again. The flight to Kuwait is another 5+ hours.

Dinner w the other governors. We have a long day tomorrow so we all changed into tomorrow’s clothes to sleep. Kuwait first, then Iraq. Got to get some rest now but I can’t sleep.

Sun is coming up in the East. Looking out the window and see flashing lights. Realize it’s a fighter jet escort keeping us safe. We must be close.

Flying over Iraq. It looks just like Nevada. Expanses of desert as far as the eye can see. No mountains. Just sand. No people, buildings or roads. Might as well be Mars.

About to land in Kuwait; temperature 120 degrees. Land at Ali Al Salem base.

Arrive Kuwait. Amazing to see the massive bombed out bunkers that the US destroyed after Saddam invaded Kuwait. Greeted heartily on the tarmac. First person to say hello is from Las Vegas. She is kind and going home in 3 days. She is based at Nellis.

We then prepare to load up on the C-130 for a flight to Baghdad and Balad AFB. Before we do, we are issued our body armor and helmet. It is crowded on the plane. It’s hot, really hot. It’s packed, too. We board w 30-40 other guardsmen. This is routine for them. Men and women of all ages. So intense, quiet, determined. In full battle gear, helmets, sunglasses and body armor on. One girl doesn’t look a day older than Maddy and probably weighs 100 pounds. She is very polite and says she’s with the New Jersey National Guard. She’s carrying a machine gun.

The group has just had some R&R and is heading back to war. The plane is eerily quiet except the hum of the propellers. We are packed like sardines sitting shoulder to shoulder. It’s 120 degrees outside and probably 20 degrees hotter inside. A/C doesn’t exist. I’m told it won’t cool off until we get to 30,000 feet. As we roll down the runway, it’s loud and the plane jerks, moans and creaks its way slowly up into the air. It’s hot, sweaty and cramped. Beads of sweat run down everyone’s faces. No one cares. No one complains. It’s another day in Iraq.

It’s almost dark. The plane has few windows and they are small and set high above the seating areas. We sit across from one another with our knees almost touching; we are shoulder to shoulder and there is no back support or headrests. The cabin is at least 15 feet high and 20 feet across. Our seats are two-inch red nylon straps crisscrossed for support.

It’s intense. Everyone is focused. Not a word spoken. No laughs, smiles, not even a gesture. It’s time to think about life and death, missions, getting home alive and unhurt. One soldier has a pistol strapped to his chest, ready for immediate action in close combat. These guys are tough and mean business.

Soldiers listen to their iPods but most of them sleep. After an hour and a half we begin our descent into Baghdad. Because of the concern for safety, we wind our way down for our approach rather than coming straight down. The Kuwait approach was nothing compared to this. The high in Baghdad will be 125 degrees today—a record.

We are issued our protective body armor and helmet. The vest alone weighs 35 pounds. The vest has solid metal plates in the front, back and sides. Just like the soldiers wear every day. They aren’t messing around.

We disembark, carry our gear and immediately head to the helipad. Sitting there are two Blackhawk helicopters w 2 airmen standing outside in flight suits w helmets on and black visors down. They look like the movies but this is, of course, for real. I put on the vest and feel its weight and realize its purpose for the first time; I might get shot at. That will wake you up in the morning. Helmet on too, it’s mandatory and could be the difference between life or death.

I end up sitting in the “hurricane” seat, the back seat on the left, despite warnings. As we lift off, I learn why. You get all the hot wind in your face from the chopper blades. 125-degree wind. The entire way.

We lift off. I’m belted in, no door on the chopper. In front of me are the airmen, each one stationed to their machine gun searching the ground for threats. There are hundreds of buildings everywhere. An insurgent could hide anywhere. It’s not uncommon for someone to take a shot, they say.

We fly over Baghdad. Some parts are wasteland and abandoned. I see the Tigris river. This is where civilization began? Over rooftops, date farms and bombed out buildings. Man is it hot in this vest and helmet, but it is nothing compared to the soldiers who are in full battle gear who endure this every day.

We land at the Taji Base and are immediately whisked off to the cafeteria to meet our state soldiers. The cafeteria is huge with every type of food you can imagine. The soldiers are friendly and appreciative of the visit. They think it’s important for us to see how they live.

We leave and head to see the drones. The army has four. The “pilots” sit in a cramped, air conditioned box and guide them all over Iraq for 24 hours at a time. They conduct spy missions, drop bombs and do reconnaissance. We see them in the hangar and actually watch one taxi in. The future is now.

We leave and head for Camp Victory and a visit to one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Before that we tour a massive graveyard of destroyed trucks, tanks, personnel carriers, cannons, you name it. There are thousands of them. Acres and acres lined up together. They are graffiti-ridden and a monument to his despotism.

Saddam’s palace is as spectacular as I thought it would be. Marble everywhere. We are whisked into General Austin’s office. He is the commanding general of all the US forces in Iraq. All of his commanders in Iraq are there. It is intimidating but so impressive. To be in a room with the greatest military minds on the planet. One of them even knows that I went to Manogue. He’s from Truckee. Then we are briefed by the ambassador. A career man who has such great challenges. I then sat in the famous chair that was given to Saddam by Arafat. Amazing.

Time to leave and catch the Blackhawk. It’s getting even hotter. The wind from the blades is like a blow dryer spraying scalding air into your face. We lift off. I avoid the hurricane seat and let someone else have all the fun. Back to the main base to meet some more soldiers.

Here, there are a dozen soldiers from Nevada. One young man just graduated from high school and another is the father of a boy who went to school with Maddy. They are all friendly and engaged. We talk about Nevada, their duties and families. Most of them have machine guns at their sides.

Back to the C-130 to go back to Kuwait and Ali Al Salem. Someone tells me that this is record heat. It’s stifling. We board the plane again with another platoon of soldiers. The plane is loaded w their gear and the rear hatch closes. It has to be 140 degrees plus on that plane and the soldiers are in full gear with helmets on. I’ve never been this hot in my life.

Something’s wrong. Not all the engines are working. After waiting 15 minutes in sweltering, blistering, oppressive heat, we are informed that the plane has mechanical problems. I’ve never been so glad to get off a plane in all my life. I will never complain about Southwest Airlines again.

One bonus is that I am assigned some quarters while another plane is located. Air conditioning feels soooo good. There’s a shower. I decide to take a cold shower and rinse the dust and sweat from the day away. I turn on the cold knob waiting with anticipation of cool, clear water. For the first time in my life, no cold water. It’s hot. Really hot. Almost scalding hot. No cold water in Iraq.

Our driver asked me if I took a shower. I said yes. She laughed. I asked her why. She chuckled and asked, “How was the cold water?”

Time to get on another C-130. The soldiers have already boarded and are waiting for us. I feel bad about making them wait in this heat but find out later they had just boarded. Last time we boarded on the side, this time we board from the back where the cargo is loaded. Why is the crewman in a full flight suit w a mask? I soon find out.

I’m carrying my armor, helmet and overnight bag. We are led to the tarmac and suddenly feel the most intense heat of my life on my face and arms. The propeller wash from the four massive propellers is blasting engine heated 165 degree wind on all of us. It feels like blisters will rise on my face. My lungs burn. It’s scalding air mixed with pure exhaust fumes.

I run up the ramp. The 140 degree air inside the plane never felt so good. We are the last ones to board the plane and I get the last seat, or at least half a seat. We have to wait for the equipment pallet to be loaded. It’s getting hotter and hotter. The fuselage burns to the touch. Take-off can’t come soon enough. I’m hot and sweaty. It’s stifling. So much for the shower.

I’m sitting next to a soldier who’s a young woman. She can’t be over 25. She takes her helmet off and is wearing a camouflage bandanna. Sweat is running down her face. She’s in full battle gear and looks miserable. She has her machine gun in her right hand. She turns and looks at me. I expect a look like “look at this civilian rookie.” She smiles and says “welcome aboard.”

We sit and wait. It gets hotter and hotter. The propellers are humming and we sit on the tarmac while the crew loads the soldiers’ gear. A forklift with a pile of camouflage backpacks 15 feet high and 20 feet wide plops the load onto the back of the plane five feet away from me.

Two crewmen carefully guide it onto the hydraulic glide and guide onto the tracks. One of them has sweated completely through his flight suit. He takes his time anyway because this has to be done right or else the entire load will crush him, me and anyone else in the back of the plane. The load is wrapped with canvas straps and secured. The immense cargo door slowly closes to the sounds of whirring hydraulics and shuts with a loud hollow thud. It’s almost dark inside and the plane begins it’s long, lumbering take off down the runway.

We slowly lift off. Ear plugs in. I turn to look at the young woman. She’s already fast asleep. After 15 minutes a gust of cool air (probably 100 degrees) blows through the cabin. For the first time, I see a few smiles of relief.

Back in Kuwait and Ali Al Salem. It’s off to the cafeteria for dinner w the troops. The place is a beehive of activity. So much food. We take our time eating and then it’s time to board another helicopter to visit Camp Arifjan to talk to the media in NV via satellite.

It’s pitch black outside. It’s still hot. We travel across the base to a remote helipad where the blades hum in the darkness. Only a small blinking red light is visible. The gunners are standing like sentinels on the helipad to help us get aboard. We don’t have to put the armor on because Kuwait is secure. We still have gunners though on each side of the copter who are constantly vigilant for danger. A one-hour helicopter ride in complete darkness.

I fall asleep despite the noise and wind. We’ve been up for 30+ hours. My body doesn’t know what time it is. I’ll take whatever sleep I can get. I wake up to the bump of an abrupt landing. Where are we? I doubt I’ll ever be in a more remote place on earth. We disembark and it’s straight to the studio. We have to stay on schedule.

I go on the phone first. I feel like I’ve been gone for weeks. It’s 9 p.m. in Kuwait. It’s still morning in Nevada. It’s reassuring to hear the voices from home. I’m only 9,000 miles away. I have to be careful with my remarks. We’re forbidden from speaking about future plans for security reasons.

It’s surreal to appear on TV in a postage stamp studio inside of what amounts to a large trailer. All the press wants to talk about is the debt deal. If they could only see the country, the bases, soldiers, remoteness, equipment. If they could only feel the intense heat and the sensation of military flights they would understand why the debt issue seems so remote.

I’m beat. I’ve been up for 36 hours, flown on 3 helicopters, ridden 2 C-130s, visited 5 bases, ridden in several trucks, visited hundreds of troops and a palace, met the greatest generals on earth, spoken to an ambassador and visited Ireland all in one day.

After the interviews we drive around the base and see a Taco Bell, a Burger King and a Subway in trailers on the base. The soldier driving said it’s great for morale. It’s a taste of home away from home for them. We stop by the commissary and see the pool for the soldiers. They deserve it. God, do they deserve it.

We finally get to our room. It’s troop quarters but at this point I’ll take anything that allows me to lie horizontally. I take a shower and fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. What a day. What a day. I am certainly blessed to be on a trip like this.

Day 2

I wake up at 4:30 a.m. Kuwait time. It’s 6:30 p.m. Nevada time. Five hours of the greatest, deepest sleep I ever had. I even got to take a freezing cold shower and it felt so good. I didn’t think I’d ever say that. Hot showers are definitely no good in Kuwait or Iraq.

We depart at 5:30 a.m. and immediately board another helicopter. It’s already hot. I suppose it never cools off here. It’s exhilarating to ride in the open air through the desert. What an awesome sight to see the other helicopter gliding along through the sky with us.

It’s incredible to fly over Kuwait in the daylight. Camels everywhere. So many remote tents. I guess it is the desert. Oil fields and pipelines are common sights. What a different way of life.

We arrive back at the main base in Kuwait, board our plane and we’re bound for Kabul, Afghanistan. A four and a half hour flight. We will lose another two hours of time. I’m excited because the Nevada 422nd will be there for me to greet.

We’re flying over the Gulf of Oman and taking the long way because we can’t fly over Iranian air space. Oil tankers everywhere on the open sea.

We are approaching Dubai. A metropolis in the desert. Never thought I’d see it. The city center looks like a Manhattan in the desert. Soon we will fly over Pakistan to get to Afghanistan. More desert, all the way to the horizon.

Flying over Afghanistan. High desert, tall, jagged mountains, no flora. It looks like Nevada. Just like Nevada, eerily like Nevada, except no snow on the peaks. As if I was flying between Reno and Las Vegas. Not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.

We land in Kabul and are greeted by a small cadre of soldiers. We immediately receive a new set of body armor and are instructed to put it on. We are whisked off to a helicopter for transport to the military base in the heart of Kabul. The weather is warm, but mild compared to Iraq.

We land on a soccer field in the middle of the complex. Vehicles are waiting and we are transported to General Allen’s headquarters. He is the commander of all military forces in Afghanistan. After meeting him we take photos and enter his briefing room.

There are maps everywhere and the general methodically leads us through the status of the conflict. He treats us with respect. It is easy to see why he is the leader. The general is tough, intelligent and detail-oriented.

After the briefing, we return to the helicopters and put our body armor back on. Upon landing at the air base, we are escorted to a C-130 for transport to Kandahar. It’s amazing; riding on the C-130s seems almost routine now.

I’m excited. The 422nd Signal Battalion is waiting for me in Kandahar. I attended their deployment ceremonies in Las Vegas and Reno and it means a lot to me to visit them in theatre.

The flight to Kandahar is relatively short—an hour and a half. The pilots invite me to sit in the cockpit with them. Talk about an offer you can’t refuse. There are three of them, two young men and a woman. They are professional and go about their business. After going through their checks, they get the huge, lumbering bird up in the air. It’s exhilarating to ride up front and experience the perspectives of the pilots.

The landing in Kandahar is smooth. I didn’t expect the city to be this big. The base is huge and we are picked up and driven to the headquarters there. We are greeted by the general, who gives us a briefing on his duties as the commander for Southern Afghanistan.

In the middle of the briefing I’m removed to meet with the men and women of the 422nd. There are over 50 of them. What a greeting. They seem genuinely glad to see me and make it clear that they appreciate my traveling to Afghanistan to see them. They look great and are enthusiastic about their mission.

After answering several questions, I presented each of them with a governor’s coin and we took a picture with the Nevada flag. What a proud day for me. They presented me with a t-shirt with their logo that I promise to wear on TV that night when I talk to the Nevada media.

Time is short and I’m informed that we have to leave for Bagram. The 422nd gives me a yell of support and applause and I leave with a chest full of pride for such an incredible group. I promise to be at their return home in January.

The flight to Bagram is about two hours. The fatigue is catching up with me. I’ve probably slept a total of 6 hours in the last two days. The plane has few passengers and is loaded with supplies.

The landing in Bagram is smooth. This is the base that houses the Eastern command for Afghanistan. It’s late in the afternoon and we are taken to meet General Allyn. In his of office is the most impressive military maps I have ever seen. He takes us through a thoughtful and thorough analysis of his operations in northern and eastern Afghanistan. His responsibilities include the most lethal and riskiest missions in the country.

We are also informed that we had lost another soldier on the previous day and that there would be a “ramp ceremony” that evening. Every soldier killed in action is honored with a farewell by all his comrades as his casket is carried onto a plane for transport to the US.

After meeting with the general, I’m taken to the mess hall to have dinner with more Nevadans. There are about a dozen and I don’t know who was more glad to see whom. Most of them were from Reno, and we talked about where they lived, their families, needs and mission. There was a doctor, intelligence officer, technicians and even a lawyer. What a great, great dinner. They were very pleased to see me wearing the 422nd t-shirt. They said it made them proud. I was honored to have it.

After dinner, it was time to do media. There was a make-shift studio. After the interviews, it was time for the ramp ceremony. There were soldiers lined up in formations with a small band playing hymns. A Humvee slowly rolled across the tarmac carrying the fallen soldier’s coffin. It was tin, draped with an American flag. Eight soldiers marched in unison to the rear of the vehicle.

They carefully and reverently slid the coffin away from the truck and carried it to the rear of the plane, which was 50 yards away. Two ministers were standing in front of an American flag waiting for them. After laying the coffin to rest, the soldiers stood at attention and saluted. Then they knelt, rested their hands on the top of the coffin, prayed and said their last goodbyes.

I, along with all of the other soldiers, stood at attention and presented arms. I marched with the general and Governor Herbert in a line of four behind two other columns. We waited our turn and marched again up the ramp of the plane. We approached the coffin, stood at attention and saluted. Like the others, we knelt at the coffin and paid our respects.

I prayed for the fallen soldier and his family. He was a young Oklahoma guardsman and a father of two young daughters. He had been killed in action the previous day by an IED. War is hell, and ceremonies such as these are a grim reminder of the harsh and devastating realities of armed conflict. He has made this world a safer place for all of us and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

It’s about 11 p.m. and time to billet. I’m escorted to a small room with space for a bed and a night table. Tomorrow is another busy day and I have to wake at 0600. Even though I’m exhausted, I can’t sleep. Maybe because at home it’s 11 in the morning. More likely, my mind is humming with all of my thoughts from the day’s events. My iPad hasn’t changed its clock from EST. Crazy, but I set my alarm for 9:30 p.m. to wake me tomorrow morning.

I finally fall asleep after midnight and wake again at 3 a.m. After tossing and turning I give up and pass time by writing this journal. I know I need rest but I just can’t sleep.

While writing this, I notice something. There are birds singing. I just realized that the only animals I have seen on this trip are camels. What a welcome way to start the day. I also listen to the roars of jet engines as fighter planes take off and land. What a contrast.

Day 3

Off to breakfast w the 422nd. On the way there I borrowed a phone and called Maddy. It was such a gift to hear her voice. I met two more soldiers, one of whom was a schoolteacher. He had read my education plan and was very supportive. The group said again how grateful they were to see me.

Thereafter, we toured the hospital. We arrive at the same time as a young soldier who had been injured in action. Both his legs had been blown off below the knees. The doctor assured us that he would live. Another reminder of the inconceivable price of war. I said a quiet prayer and we moved on.

We then left the hospital and boarded the C-130 for Kunduz, which is in north central Afghanistan. Kunduz an area that previously was a Taliban stronghold that the army is developing control of after two years of intense action. I expect another large base that is like the others. I knew immediately when we arrived that I was very wrong.

Unlike the other airports, Kunduz is a remote, rundown, war-torn relic of the soviet invasion. We were also advised that it was not secure, meaning we would have to wear body armor and helmet upon exiting the plane. Also before exiting, two fully armed soldiers cleared the perimeter. We are close to the front lines.

There is devastation everywhere. Bunkers, sand bags, wrecked trucks, planes and equipment. A terminal that is barely standing. We are informed that the airport was abandoned by the Soviets after their unsuccessful invasion.

There were no trucks or buses waiting for us. Rather, six fully armed personnel carriers with gun crews welcomed us. They were massive and surrounded with special netting to ward off or lessen the impact of enemy fire.

The vehicle seats four. A driver, armed front passenger, and two rear passengers. Above is a soldier with a two-handed machine gun attached to a turret. It has full armor and is the army’s most advanced desert fighting vehicle. Impressive.

The convoy pulls out and we are in the lead. We crawl along at about 15 miles an hour. There are rusting Soviet tanks, cannons and trucks strewn everywhere on both sides of the road. For the first time, I see Afghanis walking and driving vehicles. I think about IEDs, suicide bombers and car bombs.

We arrive at the checkpoint for the base. It is unlike the other bases. It is completely surrounded with concrete, sand barriers and barbed wire. There are machine gun posts and sentries everywhere.

The soldiers in our vehicle have to “clear” their weapons before we can proceed. After passing the checkpoint, the machine gunner exits his post in the turret and walks in front of us with another machine gun. Every soldier in camp is fully armed and wearing body armor. It’s 100 degrees outside.

We reach our destination at camp. This is Eastern HQs. We are greeted by the colonel, who takes us to a structure that is made out of plywood but covered with netting and camouflage. He describes their mission and their daily action with the Afghanis and the enemy.

After the briefing I’m taken to the mess tent where there are three Nevada soldiers. From Fallon, Dayton and Las Vegas. They tell about their daily activities, challenges and what they hope to do after their service.

Lunch is basic, with a small mess hall. Fresh fruit is rare and the food is better than I expected. It’s hot here, but not nearly as hot as Iraq.

After lunch it’s time to go. I put my body armor back on. I notice a soldier whose last name is Sandoval. He’s from California. He had looked me up on the Internet and knew I was born there too. We took a picture together and I presented him with a coin. I get back in the armored vehicle and the convoy rooks out to return to the airport.

There are many Afghanis on the route. To my surprise, Kunduz is a big city, as big as Reno. It’s an agricultural area, and the Freedom Force is trying to train a local police force to protect the population when we leave.

We board the C-130 and head back to Kabul. There we greet another general who takes us through the intelligence part of the operation. I meet another Nevadan; we have a mutual friend – Sue Lowden. She gave me a gift to give Kathleen. Very thoughtful.

It’s time to leave Afghanistan. We have seen so much in so little time. Met so many people. I meant it when I told them to be safe. I can’t imagine something happening to them. I turn to look out one more time. I’m sure I won’t be back, but I hope I can help the soldiers any way possible.

Now we’re bound for Germany. I’m exhausted but exhilarated, proud of the military and glad to be an American and Nevadan.

We land at Ramstein AFB. It is huge. As soon as we touch down, we are taken to the Air Force Inn. After cleaning up, we gather and leave for a German restaurant that is tucked away in a small village 20 minutes away. Dinner is delicious enjoyed by all. We return to the hotel at 11 p.m. and get some rest for another day.

Day 4

After breakfast, we rush back to the runway to watch a C-40 unload several soldiers who have been injured in theatre. The statistics are incredible; 98 percent of all soldiers wounded in battle survive. The plane is huge and is literally a flying hospital. After being unloaded, the patients are rushed by bus to Landstuhl Hospital, the largest American hospital on foreign soil in the world.

We tour the hospital, which is like any other hospital, except many of the staff are volunteers. They all say they just want to do their part. One doctor from New York took three months from his medical practice to help out.

The most rewarding part of the morning was to visit wounded warriors. They are in remarkable spirits and, like the soldiers in theatre, ready for whatever comes next. I had the chance to meet a young man from Las Vegas who had injured his arm in Afghanistan.

The hospital also cares for allied soldiers hurt while deployed. We met three Georgian soldiers who had been wounded in action, one of whom lost a leg due to an IED. He was upbeat. He had lost his leg less than a week ago and was up in a wheelchair. His only response was that it was an honor to fight with the Americans.

After leaving the hospital, we stopped by the PX to shop for souvenirs. I’m eager to get home. I haven’t spoken with Kathleen or seen the kids in over a week. We board our plane and take off for Washington, DC. On the way, the crew surprised me with a birthday cake and cards. They are all class.

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