Two years ago, a pilgrim shot and killed the Afghan minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism reportedly over delays and other problems in transporting people to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the traditional visit to Mecca taken by faithful Muslims.

This time around there has been far less turbulence, though there is still the matter of return trips, which began Tuesday. The hajj ended Saturday.

“The Afghans have done very well,” said Marine Maj. John Forti, who is heading up the U.S. military effort to assist the Afghan government.

Much the same could be said of U.S. personnel helping in the effort. Scores of commercial flights from four locations in Afghanistan — Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat — have been coordinated in some way or another by Air Force, Army and Marine personnel.

Forti said the number of pilgrims processed through the four sites totals 26,387, up by nearly 2,000 from 2004. Some Afghans even came from refugee camps in Pakistan. The U.S. military provided broad assistance, from security and accommodations in Kandahar to fire trucks in Herat.

The Afghan constitution

U.S. soldiers who spend time with seasoned Afghan fighters in the field often come away impressed by their tremendous stamina.

During one recent excursion, troops were looking for an anti-coalition member in eastern Afghanistan, said Maj. Eric Bloom, a spokesman for Task Force Phoenix. The mission included members of the Afghan National Army. At some point, the vehicles stopped and several U.S. and Afghan troops began to climb a hill for a better view, hoping to spot their target.

Bloom came away amazed at how easily the Afghan fighters bounced from boulder to boulder on their way to the summit, and then back down.

“It’s a real challenge sometimes for our troops to keep up with their troops,” Bloom said.

Bad news, Mr. Bear

On a recent trip to a remote base call Sweeney, a red teddy bear dangled from the end of a rope in front of a soldier’s hooch.

When a fellow soldier was asked what the bear might have done to justify such a fate, the troop shrugged his shoulders and raked a boot over the gravel before him. He was choosing his words carefully, trying to be diplomatic.

“Apparently,” the soldier said, “he got dumped by his girlfriend.”

Was the little red teddy a gift from the ex-girlfriend? In any event, the bear got caught in the crossfire.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now