With Afghans in lead, FOB Sweeney fades into memory
Lt. Col. Eric Lopez with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division speaks to the soldiers under his command before the last leg of an eight-day convoy supporting Afghan troops on a mission.
KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — You can just make out the words: “All Gave Some, Some Gave All,” engraved on a concrete wall erected as a monument to fallen U.S. soldiers at what used to be Forward Operating Base Sweeney in Zabul province.
That’s one of the few clues that the base was once home to a platoon of U.S. soldiers in this isolated corner of southern Afghanistan.
The recreation room in an ancient concrete shed where soldiers used to play video games and watch movies has become an office for Afghan soldiers from the kandak (battalion) now responsible for security in the surrounding district.
Nearby, the Afghans, who call the base Shinkay, after the district, have built a large wooden pagoda and filled it with comfortable red cushions as a place to serve VIP guests tea and nuts.
Much of the infrastructure that supported the U.S. troops at the base, such as portable latrines and showers, is still in place, but when soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division spent the night there recently while supporting Afghan troops on a mission, they had to rough it — sleeping on the ground next to their vehicles that ringed the base’s landing zone — like a wagon train from the Old West.
Trapped in translation
Interpreters, or “terps” in soldier-speak, are vital for anyone who needs to communicate with an Afghan counterpart or local residents.
But interpreters have minds of their own.
That can, occasionally, lead to exchanges where it’s clear that the interpreter is conveying something that does not reflect what was said.
Sometimes that’s a product of their tenuous grasp of the English language. Other times it can seem that the interpreter thinks he is the one governing the exchange.
The problem is compounded for embedded reporters who regularly “borrow” interpreters contracted to the U.S. military. On a recent visit to a police post in Kandahar province, an attempt to interview the local commander went something like this:
Reporter: “You say that the people have more income thanks to better production on their farms stemming from education and irrigation projects run by the international community. What are they spending the extra income on?”
Interpreter: “That is a bad question. He doesn’t ask people what they spend their money on.”
Reporter: “Is there much support for the Taliban in your district (a deeply conservative region of southern Afghanistan that has been a hotbed of the insurgency).”
Interpreter: “That is also a bad question. I am not going to ask that. Why would anyone support the Taliban?”
The singing policeman
The deep tenor of former New York police officer Daniel Rodriguez’s voice pierced the Afghan night in a place where the whirr of helicopter rotors and roar of jet engines are the norm.
The words to Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep) from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot were in Italian but seemed to hold all the emotion that can be expressed by a man who — a block-and-a-half from Ground Zero when the Twin Towers fell — was making his first journey to a different sort of war-zone, half-a-world away.
Rodriguez, 49, sang the classic aria, a favorite of Italian opera great Luciano Pavarotti, for firefighters at Kandahar Air Field earlier this month as part of a trip to promote the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
The foundation honors the memory of New York firefighter Stephen Siller, who ran 3.2 miles from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center with his gear to help with the rescue effort. He died when the South Tower collapsed.
Rodriguez was one of those who watched in horror as the buildings fell.
“It was apocalyptic,” he said. “I was living the horror just watching those things pancake down.”
After the disaster, Rodriguez, who studied under Placido Domingo and was already the New York Police Department’s official National Anthem singer, was invited to sing Prayer for America at Yankee Stadium.
In 2004 he retired from the police to become a full-time recording artist. He has sung many operatic roles with some of the genre’s leading lights and recently released his fifth solo album.
However, his singing was an unexpected bit of entertainment for the troops at Kandahar.
Army Maj. Adam Anderson, 43, of Fayetteville, Ga., who is in Afghanistan with the 335th Signal Command, said he became an opera fan after hearing Rodriguez.
“It was a great morale boost and he gave us the story in English so you knew what he was singing about beforehand,” he said.
When he wasn’t singing, Rodriguez was telling soldiers about the Tunnel To Towers Foundation, which organizes an annual run retracing Siller’s steps to Ground Zero. The first run attracted 1,500 people and last year 35,000 took part. The run will take place on Sept. 29.
Troops at Kandahar ran 3.2 miles on Sept. 14 in honor of Siller.
The pilgrimage to Afghanistan seems to have boosted the singing policeman’s morale as much as that of the troops.
“Whatever the politics are, soldiers go where they are ordered,” he said. “They make an oath to protect and serve. I’m here because of that day (9/11) and so are they.”