I offer salutations from the famous (in AFG circles, anyways) “Green Bean Coffee House” located at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. This joint, a dilapidated plywood structure incorporated into the PX area, located just off of another famous geo-location on Bagram – Disney Street – has been serving cups of hot and cold Joe for years – probably in the realm of 15 years or so, since the early years of OEF.
As I sit at a corner table of this bustling coffee house café, in probably the very same seat and table I occupied 7 years ago this very week in late April 2010, everything seems and most likely is the same. Timelessly existing as its host, Afghanistan. The tables seem the same, the customer counter unchanged and delightful aroma of lattes and cappuccinos that fill the air smell the same.
It is early morning here and folks of all types, army, air force, marines, and contractors from many different countries enter this establishment to get their morning cup. Contractors with their signature clothing consisting of ball caps, black Sons of Anarchy or Harley Davidson printed t-shirts and 5.11 cargo pants rumble in looking tough behind their full length “300” beards. Unbeknownst to many a casual observer, these rough looking dudes will have their eyebrows waxed at the beauty salon around the corner later in the day.
I suspect, this wonderful little café offers much more to its endless flow of customers than just coffee in this war torn country. Each conversation engaged with a buddy or a loved via FaceTime over a cup of coffee at this unique establishment is the essence of a meet-up location. It is a touch point to a connection with another reality in a distant land these patrons call home.
I look across this café outpost and, in reflection, it seems as though only the faces change on the waves of camouflaged bodies that come and go, year after year. Bagram being the main entry hub for most all troops deploying to this ancient land. People eventually find their way following the rocky path leading to its welcoming doors. Boy, if only this building could talk, I wonder what it would say.
When I first arrived here in April of 2010, Green Beans Coffee House with its signature slogan “Honor First, Coffee Second” hit a chord with me and I am certain it did with the men that I had travelled to Afghanistan with back then. Of course, the US mission was different back then – combat operations were the main effort and similarly our LEP job was different back then too.
In April 2010, this place was bustling with over 30,000 people occupying every square inch of real estate. HMMWVs, Armored Personnel Carriers, MRAPs, helicopters of every variety and of course fixed wing airplanes ranging from F-18s, C-17s, to surveillance aircraft were all over the place.
I remember walking down the road in front of Camp Cunningham HQ – the old airfield tower building and the supposed Russian HQ during their 10 year stay here – one evening in April 2010 and experiencing a rush of adrenaline as I witnessed warriors with light and heavy weapons running to and from vehicles, motorcades of MRAPs commanding the small roads and Apache Helicopters hovering overhead. There was the smell of diesel fuel and gun smoke in the air, I distinctly remember saying to myself, “chaos, oh how I love this.”
Things have changed and so have I.
On my way back home, re-deploying as the Army says, after my short deployment so I decided to take a tour around Bagram to visit the stomping grounds of old.
As I walk around the PX area, I notice there are no more Hajji shops selling counterfeit wares of all types. The only three shops that remain are the PX itself, the embroidery shop and of course the Green Bean. The covered area linking all these shops together is virtually unchanged – absent the droves of people who used to hang out all hours of the day and night.
Hanging out doesn’t occur here at Bagram anymore. Thanks to the SOB Afghani “Taliban sleeper” maintenance worker who smuggled IED components in his daily lunch bag for several years, assembled a Suicide Vest, and detonated it in the early morning hours of November 12th 2016 during a Veterans Day 5K run killing 5 fine Americans and injuring 17 others.
As I walk down the sidewalk of Disney Street, I don’t have to be concerned with running into anyone because there just aren’t that many people around. I make my way to airport terminal building which is no longer a hodgepodge of plywood and sheet metal. A hardened concrete building stands there today with a drive-up area to drop off or pick-up passengers.
Progress, I guess.
Back in 2010, I remember exiting the old terminal and being told to retrieve my sea bag from a fenced gravel area nearby. The area remains but now it is paved, much like a lot of Bagram now.
I continue my trek along the same route I walked years ago, passing by Camp Cunningham and the Russian Tower and the USAF MWR, when I come to an abrupt halt.
Anticipating seeing row after row of Korean era billeting tents and B-Huts nestled together with characters similar to Hawkeye Pierce, Radar, Klinger, Trapper John and Frank Burns sitting in lawn chairs on converted pallets with USAF nurses, similar to Hot Lips” Houlihan, secretly exiting the “Swamp”, I am shocked to see sterile looking 2 story concrete barracks. Sidewalks have replaced the horrendous gravel path (I hated) leading to the historic LEP Program Office and LEP Bunk House located in the corner right next the MEDVAC apron and joint hospital.
I approach the barren parcel of land where the LEP House used to stand. Gone are the 2 buildings and the custom made deck. My fellow LEP classmates were the very first group to actually occupy the LEP Bunk House and boy was it nice. Supervised by JT and built by great cops like Craig Mc Caslin, “The Reverend” Tony, Rob, Sam T the LEP House reflected upon the great skills of these men. Carpentry skills combined with the one signature skill of most good cops – the devious ability to execute “unauthorized procurements” of needed materials – is what made this LEP House more than a just a few buildings. It was a place to commune together, converse, relax and let your hair down. It was, as JT would say, a COP fraternity house and a damn fine one!
I don’t mind saying, but that place was built with love. Conceptualized as only cops can, it was a rally point where old cops could drop their pack, stretch out and enjoy the company of their fellow partners while transiting to and from the battlefield. It was more than just 2 buildings and a deck. For the damn few LEPs who experienced the treasure of that plywood joint they know the memories it fostered.
I’ll never forget the early morning hours of May 18th 2010 when I was awoken by the sounds of explosions and gunfire. At first, I thought it was the incredibly annoying alarm of my bunkmate, Ron, who had a terrible habit of not tending to the damn thing but it wasn’t. I distinctly remember hearing the tat, tat, tat of unknown objects falling on the wooden roof. I grabbed my M-4 and ran outside only to be showered by an endless stream of 30mm brass raining down on me from the Apache helicopter hovering directly overhead.
This was the May 18th complex attack at Bagram where 12 Taliban launched an attack with RPGs, rockets, small arms and suicide bombers and ended up killing 1 contractor and injuring 9 soldiers. Welcome to the Big Show, as JT would always say.
A lot of great things came out of that deployment and others but most importantly I developed a bunch of lifelong friendships earned through the shared sacrifice. I now cherish the friendships of gentlemen like – JT, Tim Gilbert, Craig McCaslin, Craig Linzy, Crazy Abe, Sam Treadwell, Mike Davios, Bob T, Mike McCoy, Pete, Dick, Randy and many others.
So as I finish up this final deployment and return to my wonderful wife and family, I do so with a backpack filled with fond memories of crazy once in a life experiences, incredible historic places and wonderful people who blessed my life more than I could have ever imagined in my wildest dreams.
Viper One Six – Out