The lower level of the Carolina Coliseum is not the best place to receive a phone call from Afghanistan.
I was sitting near the door of a seminar room in the Journalism school there, waiting for Jack Bass to finish his presentation before I spoke to Charles Bierbauer‘s class, looking at my Treo trying to remember what I was supposed to be there to talk about, when the thing started buzzing.
I lunged out into the hall to answer it, and got nothing but an occasional blip of sound. One of the blips said "Smith," so I got out of the building as quickly as I can. With Assembly Street traffic in the background, I stuck a finger in my other ear and talked for about 15 minutes with Capt. James Smith, who was calling on his satellite phone from Kandahar Airfield. (What, if anything, is going through the brains of people who deliberately gun their motorcycles to max volume on city streets?)
I had nothing to write on — I lost connection with him a couple more times as it was, and didn’t want to lose the contact completely, so I was loathe to run back down and get something from my coat pocket. But the gist is that he’s finally in place at the base where he and a handful of others will be embedded with Afghan Army units opposing the Taliban in that region. They were supposed to do this in two-man teams (he would work with the noncom who underwent the special training with him at Fort Riley, Kansas), but that mission profile has been expanded to eight-man teams, which seems like a smart move to me.
Of course, he said, every time he turns around there, he is reminded that Afghanistan is not the "main event" in terms of U.S. military priorities right now, so he and his immediate comrades don’t always get what they need right away. For instance, the C-130 that was supposed to take him from Camp Phoenix, where the main body of the 218th is, to Kandahar was taken away for another mission several days back, delaying his arrival.
He’s eager and pumped about getting started, but sober about the challenges. As for his initial impressions of his surroundings, my memory is at least good enough to quote him as calling Afghanistan "a beautiful country… a tragically beautiful country." He’s very aware of the hundreds — he corrects me and says "thousands" — of years of suffering by the Afghan people, and he’s committed to doing what he can to improve their lot.