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U.S. troops try to fit in with locals at spartan outpost

©Associated Press
December 21, 2001

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- The soldier's beard was scruffy, his boots dirty. He wore jeans, a checkered scarf and a big, flat hat.

What he craved more than anything else was some college football news. He hadn't seen a Stars and Stripes in three weeks and wondered about the Rose Bowl. Was Nebraska in, or out?

At this outpost of the U.S. military, the nights get cold, news from the outside world is scarce, showers -- until recently -- did not exist and baby wipes are a soldier's best friend.

"We bring them in with us," said Capt. John of Auburn, N.Y. "Everybody does. They're the only way to get clean."

Stationed here since the last week in November, about a week after the Taliban abandoned Kabul, the U.S. soldiers at Bagram have transformed a bombed-out old aircraft hangar and a damaged runway outside of Kabul into a functioning air field where humanitarian aid groups can fly in food for the starving.

Light infantry troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division do the protecting, their rifles slung over their shoulders.

But it is still dangerous. On Tuesday, an Army soldier lost a foot while clearing land mines here.

The 10th Mountain soldiers wear uniforms, but a surprising number of the American troops here do not -- even regular Army soldiers, and even the brigadier general who met Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on his visit last weekend. They wear jeans, heavy sweaters and coats, Afghan scarves and the big, flat Afghan hat. Anyone who can wears a beard.

"It's what's needed here to fit in," said John, of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion based at Fort Bragg, N.C., who like all soldiers here requested that just his first name and rank be published.

In some other parts of the region, American troops fighting the war in Afghanistan have more comforts. In a neighboring country where many special operations forces are based, soldiers sleep in big tents with hard floors, heat and electricity. They watch TV news from home, call their families and receive packages of goodies in the mail.

At Bagram, there are no phones, no TV and no hope of packages. There's a rumor that a hot turkey meal -- flown in from that other base -- might arrive sometime around Christmas.

Still, "It's a big improvement to when we got here," said Capt. Wes, another officer with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion.

When American troops first landed here, the hangar was full of heavily damaged Soviet MiGs fighter planes and other junk.

First, they hired an Afghan man who lived nearby, and who spoke English, to interpret. He helped them hire some local villagers to clean out the hangar.

Next they tore apart the wooden shipping crates they brought their supplies in -- and straightened the nails -- to build windows and doors on some rooms in the hangar.

"When we first saw these guys, they were straightening nails," said Kevin, an Army major, motioning to John. Kevin isn't from the 96th, but won't give his unit.

The doors made it warmer. Soon, they had a generator and a little heat.

Showers came just a few days ago, brought in on a transport plane after three weeks without. "We were getting a little itchy," said Wes, who like John had a small beard and dirty boots.

John and Wes are tasked with helping aid groups here. They recently built a wooden platform so a German relief group could lift some land-mine victims up to the door of a tall Airbus jet. They were flown to Europe for surgery. Others here are engineers, or medics. Some are special operations troops who can speak several languages.

Kevin and his men go to the Kabul market to buy lumber and stoves.

"They're curious about us," one of Kevin's men, staff Sgt. Eliecer of California, said of the Afghans they meet. "They ask us who we are. Are we Russians?"

Eliecer and Kevin sometimes play soccer with Afghan kids. The kids bring the "ball," a small cardboard box.

"They get it through my legs," Kevin said. "But not his," he said, pointing to Eliecer, who is younger and a better soccer player.

Rumsfeld's visit brought some people to chat with for a few hours -- and finally -- some college football news. They asked about the anthrax scare, too: Had there been any more letters?

But when the defense secretary's plane lifted off, they stayed behind as the sun dropped behind the nearby mountains and the hangar grew cold.

They've been invited, occasionally, into Afghans' homes for tea. But they figure their commanding officers would draw the line at that.

"But boy, I'd be ready for it," Wes said.

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