KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (TheStreet) -- I rose bleary-eyed at Germany's Ramstein Air Base in the middle of the night, quickly gathered my belongings and staggered over the road to the shiny military passenger terminal.
The last leg of my trip was finally underway as I boarded the Boeing C-17 to Kandahar. The same friendly faces greeted me and my escort as we climbed aboard. After a day's rest, the aircrew that brought us from Dover Air Force base in Delaware were continuing their cargo-laden trip to southern Afghanistan.
This was clearly going to be something of a different journey, though. Whereas I was one of a number of civilians on the flight over to Ramstein from the U.S., now I was the only passenger not in uniform.
The C-17's loadmaster, who just a few nights ago chatted with me about how the Air Force has placed aircraft manuals onto Apple iPads, was now discussing the likelihood of donning body armor when disembarking. "There's a bit of activity lately, but it's not bad," he said, referring to the threat of rocket attack at Kandahar airfield.
Also, unlike the first leg of the trip, my request to visit the flight deck was turned down, a crewman explaining to me that "it's a bit hectic up there at the moment."
The final stages of the flight were also an experience. Even at the best of times, traveling in a C-17 is an uncomfortable few hours, a combination of freezing cold and jet engine din. As we approached Kandahar, however, it felt like we were on a roller coaster, hurtling toward the earth with engines howling while lurching from side to side. I later found out that this may have been a "tactical approach" to avoid potential ground fire.
Soon, though, we were on the tarmac, and minutes later the C-17's huge rear doors opened, the sun glinting between the huge piles of boxes stacked throughout the hold. One passenger started putting on his body armor, but a crewmember gestured that he shouldn't bother -- it seemed that it was relatively calm outside.
Shortly afterward, we made our way to a decrepit terminal known as Taliban's Last Stand. Apparently, the Taliban staged a desperate last-ditch defense of the building against American forces in 2001.
This fact, and key safety procedures, were explained in a briefing to all new arrivals. The issue of rocket attacks was quickly addressed, with the "greeter" exclaiming loudly that, "This is a war zone." On hearing a rocket alarm or an explosion, he said, you should lie face down for two minutes with hands over your face and ears and your mouth open (apparently this lessens the risk of concussion). After two minutes have passed, you then seek shelter in one of the myriad concrete bunkers dotting the base and stay put until the all-clear sounds.
The other important safety rule (which I didn't expect) requires everyone to wear a reflective belt at night, reducing the risk of accidents on the base's roads.
Armed with this information and my press accreditation, I was taken to the media center: an army tent furnished with dust-covered desks and beaten-up chairs.
"We don't get many journalists coming through these days," said one of the affable Mississippi National Guard members staffing the center. This perhaps reflects the planned drawdown of U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2014.
Next up was a quick drive around the base with the Air Force captain hosting me during my time in Afghanistan. It seemed like mile after mile of concrete blast walls and countless concrete bunkers -- a low-rise town of 30,000 people that feels strangely reminiscent of the dustbowl. Outside the perimeter wire was an expanse of featureless scrubland, with mountains looming on the horizon.
Finally, I attended a barbecue to celebrate the 70th birthday of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing, the unit I'm embedding with. The 451st provides a host of critical services in Afghanistan, from Aeromedical Evacuation missions to air drops and troop movements, as well as transporting DVs, or distinguished visitors.
Once the speeches were done, I got a chance to speak to some of the 451st's members about their deployments -- the atmosphere was friendly and surprisingly laid-back. All in all, a normal end to a thoroughly surreal day.
-- Written by James Rogers in Kandahar.
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