Afghanistan: Preparing for a big test

Mark Brunswick

Star Tribune staff writer Mark Brunswick (Star Tribune)

I am going to compare preparing for an embed in Afghanistan with being in a mode of perpetually cramming for a test that is months, well make that weeks, away. My departure date of April 5th is approaching.  The date is approaching both slowly and quickly.

A couple of days ago I had lunch with Mark Brunswick, staff writer for the Star Tribune, he covers military affairs.  Mark has, if I counted correctly, 5 embeds under his belt: Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  He has a slew of stamps in his passport and was graciously willing to share his experiences with me.

Here is a link to a video blog he recorded while in a hotel in Kabul.  Mark’s voice is calm; not sure how this can be the case for here’s a link to an article he wrote providing more in-depth context as to what he and his photographer went through just to get to where they are.  Learning of his experience makes me realize I better strap up and be ready when I land in Kandahar.

  • Among the advice Mark shared were tips on keeping gear clean by double bagging everything in plastic bags.
  • Upon landing in Kandahar, be prepared, he said, for a different world.  The Kandahar airport will be reminiscent of a Jr. High gymnasium.  In my mind it will look like a 1960s, Soviet-era Jr. High gymnasium.
  •  Be prepared for a small mob of ‘porters’ wanting to carry your bags for you.  Sometimes, Mark mentioned, it is just easier to pay them.
  • Bring newly issued American money with you.  Afghans don’t think old money is legitimate.
  • Bring multiple copies of your passport-sized photos with you.  Afghans seem to invent reasons for needing the photos.

In 2009 Brunswick spent 6 weeks in Afghanistan reporting for the Star Tribune, the length of his embed physically made my jaw drop.  In those six weeks he had experiences that I hope I won’t have.  He continued to suggest that if I am hopping from base to base, bases run different branches, for example going from an Army base to an Air Force base that I should be sure to get a letter from COL Ahlness, the commander of my host unit, the Zabul Agribusiness Development Team.  This letter should explain who I am, what I’m doing and that the Army is on-the-hook for my needs.

I’m going to continue to seek out advice from experienced travelers and reporters like Mark.  If you are, or know someone who is, a journalist who’s been out and about on an embed reach out and introduce yourself via the blog or via email at lheikkila (at) tpt (dot) org.

On top of concerning myself with everything in my control I am now monitoring news from Kabul very carefully.  The aftermath of the US Military burning copies of the Koran is, quite frankly, frightening.  In the next 7 weeks I can only trust that enough apologies and/or concessions will be made to calm matters.  The likelihood that I would get caught up in a protest is slim, I will be with a full security force during the bulk of my trip, I won’t be off on my own, I’ll be fine.  Yet reading accounts about the protests is unnerving.

I don’t feel that I’m unnerved to the point of being on edge.  I’m able to live life as I normally do so I don’t want to make it seem like I’m in the mode of pacing back and fourth, sleeping only a few hours a night, waking up to monitor news or writing  lists of things I yet need to do.  Not yet anyway.  That will come later, in about 6 weeks.

I’ve found ways to put my mind and body at ease.  My employer recently started a exercise program and I am fully participating by walking, running and lifting weights for an hour a day.  The hour of exercise provides me everything exercise is supposed to.  The other thing I’m doing is reading books.  By putting away the iPod, computer and phone I’m able to get away from my blog, my work, and the news from Afghanistan.  Recent reads include “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Hunger Games”.  Entertaining, but not exactly relaxing reads.  The content of both books is a little dark and disturbing.

Enter Jon Hassler’sGood People“.  If you’re in Minnesota you likely know of Hassler and his work.  He was born, raised and educated in Minnesota.  He ended his career as the writer in residence of a private University in north-central Minnesota.  He writes about his youth, his parents and the Good People who helped him through life.  His words are calming.

We all need the type of people Hassler had in his life.  I’m fortunate that as I prepare for this assignment, (this test if you will) I have the advice and support of colleagues, friends, family and newly found acquaintances to draw from…there are a lot of Good People in my life, too.

Heikkila is embedding the the Minnesota National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team in Zabul Province, Afghanistan and will be producing a documentary that will air on Twin Cities Public Television’s Minnesota Channel.  Subscribe to this blog to receive updates in your in-box, ‘like’ Luke on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.