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Cultivating Afghanistan: A Day on FOB Salerno

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The day starts early on Forward Operating Base Salerno, a fortified post close to the Pakistan border in violent Khost Province, Afghanistan. It’s still an hour before dawn when the mullah’s call to prayer drifts from a nearby village. The C-130 Hercules supply planes that fly in at night have already rolled down the gravel runway, back to Kabul.

The sun soon climbs over the Hindu Kush mountains, tingeing the murky gray air a pale shade of orange.

The swaggering gray-and-black jackdaws caw a territorial morning greeting.

A helicopter lifts off, headed for a mission over the province. A Short-Takeoff-and-Landing Plane, or STOL, part of the Blackwater-piloted mail fleet, flits into the sky.

As some of the troops retire from their clandestine nighttime missions, others emerge sleepy-eyed from their barracks, to sit dazed on stoops and benches. Some reach for cigarettes; others their cell phones to make bedtime calls back home, where it is 8½ hours earlier.

Forward Operating Base Salerno, or the “FOB,” is one of the largest military bases in Afghanistan. It is a highly secure, highly sensitive 300-acre post for a few thousand soldiers and civilian contractors. Established in 2003 with a sandbagged perimeter on a government farm, the FOB still has orange and olive groves. Most of the initial tents are now hardened masonry structures, designed to absorb direct rocket hits. The ADT’s Major Shawn Gardner said FOB Salerno is a big improvement from his first posting to Khost in 2002, when he operated out of a walled Afghan compound called a qalat.

“Here we’ve got hot water, we have a pretty good mess hall, a nice gym and the internet works 85% of the time,” Gardner said.  “So we’re living large here in comparison to the guys who might get a cold shower once a week and are eating MREs three times a day — that’s Meals Ready to Eat, prepackaged meals — which a little bit goes a long way. So we’re doing great here.”

With its comfortable barracks, mess hall, laundry, rec. facilities, university classes, offices, hospital, church and mosque, FOB Salerno is like an odd, very exclusive, gated community, albeit one with an extraordinary amount of security.

Without an electric grid in Khost Province, the generators scattered about the FOB are critical to its many amenities, such as the 24-hour Green Bean coffee shop, where espressos are a perfect pick-me-up after a hard mission into Taliban country.

Four young women from Kyrgystan are base barbers, pruning soldiers’ hair “high and tight” to the sound of Russian pop and Kyrgy love songs.

Physical fitness is vital in this mountainous war zone. Accordingly, the sprawling gymnasium with dozens of exercise machines is open round the clock, with ESPN playing on the big-screen TVs via the Armed Forces Network.

Basketball and volleyball are popular-particularly volleyball, a favorite among soldiers and Afghans alike.

While there are distractions and ameliorations, the FOB is dedicated to war. Armored MRAPs are ubiquitous. Firing ranges are in constant use for rifle, machine gun and automatic grenade launcher training.

Because of the number of insurgent attacks, FOB Salerno has long been nicknamed  “Rocket City.” Counter-barrages from the FOB’s artillery often provide the base’s evening background music.

In our next segment, a focus on the complicated Afghan insurgency and the anthropologists trying to understand it.

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