It’s real

There was a day last week when this trip notched a few clicks closer to becoming real. Of course the funding letter from the Foundation supporting this project put everything into motion and I’ve been planning for a few months but last week I bought airfare from Minneapolis to Atlanta to Dubai and on to Kandahar. Narrowing in on this itinerary took a lot of research. Most of the research revolved around discovering that it is not clear if the United Arab Emirates generally accepts armor through their airports. Upon finding this I looked at ways to get to Kabul and/or Kandahar with the U.N.’s World Food Program, I looked at going through Turkey, Frankfurt, and various airports in Asia. Not until I inquired about sending the armor ahead via the Colonel’s APO address did flying through Dubai become an option.

The 14 hour leg of the trip from Atlanta to Dubai will get me in at about 8pm. My next flight doesn’t leave until 6am the next day. 10 hours in an airport after 17 hours and over 7,000 miles worth of traveling?! Nice. I don’t really want to leave the airport in Dubai for I’m sure I’ll be wiped out, I’ll have a good amount of gear and I would have to secure a Visa before I left the airport only to get back in time for my early morning flight.  Two nights ago I was looking at the Dubai Airport web page and discovered they have a hotel connected to the terminal side of the airport. The price, even for this budget conscious traveler, is well worth it. For about $150 I can get a few hours of horizontal sleep. It should set me up for being able to hit the ground running when I meet the Minnesota National Guard members in Kandahar at about 9 the next morning.

I’ll be flying to Kandahar on a small Afghan-owned airline. I back timed all of my other travel plans off of their timetable, which has already changed once. If it changes again I’ll have some timing issues to resolve, but I cannot get too worked up over things completely out of my control.  I think things are set now, I reserved my seat on Ariana Air by faxing a copy of my credit card to their office in Canada. After exchanging a couple of emails with a ticket representative it seems my transaction became final.  Fax?  Really?  Okay.

Today I was working with the Minnesota National Guard public affairs team to get a start on the small mountain of paperwork I need to fill out to become an officially embedded member of the media. I need a letter of accreditation signed by a member of tpt’s executive team, I need a Visa (which I had some passport-sized photos snapped today) and I need to be approved by the ISAF.

Don't smile, don't say cheese

The neutral face only a mother could love

Sidebar: at the licensing center as I was standing against the wall waiting for the woman to snap my passport-sized Visa photo she told me not to smile, “Visa photos need to be a neutral face.” Neutral Face would be a pretty great guy for a bad featuring a skinny, whiny guy singing about the rain while strumming on an acoustic guitar.  Anyway when I saw the photo I said, “whoa, I sure look guilty of something.”  I’m pretty sure she pretended not to hear me.  Mental note, do not make jokes like that anymore.

Before I am done with the front-end planning I need to read and sign a 10-page packet document titled “ISAF Media Ground Rules” acknowledging that I understand the terms and commitments of the embed. I won’t be able to, for instance, tell you all exactly where I am until I get back home. I cannot report on the exact number of military members in any given unit. I cannot report on the exact movements of where we are going or how we are going to get there. A lot of the restrictions are put in place as common-sense security measures. Why risk information like this, “today I’m going to leave with 12 other soldiers to head to City A. I’ve been told we’ll take 3 vehicles and have a security force of 10 strong. We’ll be leaving at 5am and returning at 9pm” getting into the wrong hands?  Might as well tell the bad guys that there’s a key under the welcome mat while I’m at it.

The paperwork isn’t all that difficult to fill out, it’s just cumbersome.  The forms are repetitive and I want to be sure to use the exact phrasing on each so as not to create a potential pitfall for myself.  For instance, tpt’s address can be written as 172 East Fourth Street or 172 Fourth Street East.  I’m choosing the later and hope that I remember to be consistent whenever I jot it down.

The paperwork can be a little intimidating at times.  The accreditation letter which has the aim of, in terms of my employment at tpt, proving that I am who I say I am has some intense verbage.  “Twin Cities Public Television acknowledges and understands that the United State Government is not responsible nor is liable for any actions of Luke Heikkila which result in death, injury or declaration of missing status while embedded with NATO, ISAF, or U.S. Military Forces in a hostile combat environment.”  The letter goes on to state, “Twin Cities Public Television hereby accepts responsibility for providing notification of next of kin and any necessary arrangements that will facilitate the general welfare of Luke Heikkila.”

The risk is present.  I can only say that I appreciate the willingness of Twin Cities Public Television (and my family) to take on such a risk in order for me to tell a story that I feel strongly about.  Our Minnesota National Guard soldiers are doing great work, and it is an honor to be able to make it a little more real in the eyes of the people who will read these words and see the finished program.