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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Headed for the frontline on the Afganistan/Uzbeckistan border

Headed for the frontline on the Afganistan/Uzbeckistan border

After landing in Kabul, my next stop before being embedded with United States troops fighting the Taliban was Mazar E Sharif, which was to be my temporary base before venturing out in the field.

Regional Command-North, orRC-N as it is called, is a big base withtroops from up of 16 nations stationedthere and the place is underGerman command.

There are German, American andNorwegian mess halls called DFACs,and there are also German, Americanand Scandinavian PX stores whereyou can buy everything from iPodsto desert fatigues to cases of Swedishsnus.

I was asked to meet the DeputyCommander of RC-North, General Sean Mulholland of the US Army, fora briefing on being embedded with troops. Most soldiers work 12-18hours a day, and General Mulholland was no exception.

The General’s background was special forces and he has been in actionfrom the jungles of Colombia to the deserts of Afghanistan countless times.  As to be expected from someone of his rank and command, General Mulholland is well read and educated on the history of Afghanistan.

He can go all the way back to when Alexander the Great and his army pitched camp on the other side of the Oxus River in Termez, Uzbekistan. General Mulholland spoke in sharp staccato sentences common to a man used to giving orders as he gave me an overview of the region.

For the most part, RC-N was relatively calm compared with other parts of Afghanistan, with pockets of resistance mainly in Kundez province due east of Mazar E Sharif. There had been some incidents with IEDs,or improvised explosive devices, and most recently a massacre at the UN Headquarters in Mazar-E-Sharif,but they were considered isolated incidents.

The basic mission here at PRT-MES(Provincial Reconstruction Team-Mazar E Sharif) is to provide support and strength to the Afghans so they can gradually take over the responsibilit yof continuing development in the region.

There were several development projects ongoing in RC-N and during my time with the 170th Infantry Combat Brigade, 40th Engineers, I would be allowed to see them being carried out. Just as we were about to finish up, the General introduced me to Captain Reynaldo Gonzales.

“The doctor did not know if I would ever walk again, so I took that as a positive.”

He told me his story. A graduate of West Point, Gonzalez was starting his second week of Ranger school at Fort Bening in Georgia. Standing in front of him was the “Confidence Climb”,a free standing ladder with rungs that get further apart the higher you climb.
Gonzales remembers climbing every rung, including the one where his hand slipped and he fell head-first 10metres, landing on his neck. His back and neck were broken and he was paralysed from the neck down.

“I was conscious during the fall andI felt my neck break,” recalled Captain Gonzales. “I remember the entire day, all the procedures from the time the medics stabilised my neck to the time I spoke with the doctor.

“The doctor did not know if I would ever walk again, so I took that as a positive.” It took Gonzales six months of intensive therapy and rehab before he was able to slowly place one foot in front of the other and walk out the hospital door. His journey did not end there.  

Eventually, he was offered a chance to go to Tampa, Florida, to continue getting aggressive therapy and transition back into the army. Gonzales pushed himself day and night during his therapy for several years.Steadily, he began recovering. During a special Special Ops mentoring programme, Gonzales met General Mulholland. Over the course of a fewmonths, they became close and General Mulholland asked Gonzales if he would like to come to Afghanistan and serve as his aide.

“I was not expecting such an honour,”says Gonzales. “I told the general that I needed to ask my family and I would need two days. I needed only two hours before I called him back and told him that I would be honoured to be his aide.”

Captain Gonzales is still not at full strength, but he is strong enough to not only perform his duties as the general’s aide, but also to inspire other soldiers who have been disabled.

''It many ways it reminded me of Phnom Penh and nights at Hunter’s Bar across from Wat Lanka''

There is an atrium here at Camp Marmal where all the ISAF soldiers can get a cup of coffee, use the internet, play pool or backgammon, or relax with a book.  Mostly it is full of Europeans, and they gather within their squads, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.
In the evenings, the Europeans are given rations of two beers per day, something the Americans are not allowed. And at night, Bosnians, Croats, Germans, Dutch and Danes all mix with each other, drinking their beers while recounting the day’s activities.

Listening to them it’s soon obvious how sharp their sense of humour has become. They talk about current events, sports and what they are going to do when they get back home. They make fun and mimic each other goodnaturedly and it is very interesting how well they all work together given their language and cultural differences.

It many ways it reminded me of Phnom Penh and nights at Hunter’s Bar across from Wat Lanka – except here the beer and food is free, and perhaps the service is just a little better.

Just about every base has a Morale,Welfare and Recreation office, and here is no exception. Their job is to organise activities for the soldiers in their off-duty time. With so many nationalities at Camp Marmal, athletic competitions and games are common. Also, there is a cinema, gym and a radio station that has various programmesfor the soldiers to listen too.

A special thanks must go to Petty Officer Edward Luchetti of the US Navy, who assisted with all my embed procedures and made this possible.This will be my last night here. Tomorrow I am scheduled to fly out on Molson Air (Canadian Civilian Flying Services) to Camp Mike Spann. There my embed will begin with the 170th Infantry Combat Brigade, where they are always expecting trouble.

Recommended reading on Mazar-E-Sharif:

  • Horse Soldiers, Sean Dalton
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