20 miles from bin Laden, and not knowing it

“We all have moments we look back upon and shudder because we had no idea how much danger we were in.”

That’s the start of a message I got Saturday from my friend Steve Lester. We went to Downingtown High School in eastern Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, and he joined the Army as a musician, a guitarist. We’ve stayed in touch.

In 2006, he and some 20 other members of the 10th Mountain Division Band from Fort Drum, N.Y., spent about six weeks in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. Osama bin Laden was holed up only about 20 miles away, in Abbottabad. He had reportedly been there since the year before. Last year, Navy SEALs hunted him down in his hideaway.

While Steve was still overseas, he wrote an article that was published in The Morning Call through his connection to me. It was titled “Confessions of an Army guitarist: How a musician pulled guard duty in Pakistan.”

Here is his story of how he got to Muzaffarabad, as he told it over the weekend in the emailed message from his home in Lake Placid, N.Y.:

“The first step occurred on the night of Feb. 5, 2006, when about 350 10th Mountain Division soldiers herded into the terminal at FortDrum’s expansive Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield bound for Afghanistan.

“Winter had arrived late that year to this remote outpost about 30 miles from the Canadian border above Syracuse. The day before had been another unseasonably warm one as few people wore so much as a windbreaker. On this night, however, a cold front was sweeping through, bringing the bitter wind off Lake Ontario along with the season’s first measurable snow.

“The division’s senior non-commissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Ralph Borja, gave a rousing speech speckled with threatening language about no sex or booze once you get there, or else. Then the division commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, gave a similar speech but with no threatening language.

“Within minutes all the 350 soldiers secured their M-16 rifles and personal carry-on baggage as they headed for the terminal door amid a roar of excited chatter.

“Freakley and Borja stood in the chilly vestibule and shook every soldier’s hand as they departed the terminal for that endless walk out on the cold, blustery flight line to the long stairway-on-wheels leading to the relative warmth and sanctity of the hatch near the back of the chartered civilian jumbo jet, where they would spend the next 17 to 18 hours en route to Kyrgyzstan, the plane’s final stop.

“As the guitar player for the 10th Mountain Division Band at the time, in my final full year in the Army at age 51, I was one of those soldiers. Although I was just a staff sergeant, the commanding general and command sergeant major both recognized me as we exchanged broad smiles and warm hand shakes.

“Our flight stopped in Shannon,Ireland, for fuel in the dead of night when the small terminal was virtually empty.  We left our weapons on the plane and spent about 45 minutes lounging and stretching.

“Upon being summoned to re-board, we walked down a glass-enclosed hallway to the boarding gate as a commercial flight discharged its civilian passengers into the glass-enclosed hallway next to us. I don’t know where their flight originated from, but they all cheered us through the glass walls as we passed each other.

“Our plane stopped again at a U.S.airbase in Incirlik, Turkey, for a longer stop in a much smaller terminal where the plane changed crews in addition to taking on more fuel for the final push across the Caspian Sea to Manas International Airport in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

“Our version of retrieving checked baggage in the wintry darkness took the form of roaming through piles of duffel bags that were brought to us on pallets by forklifts. Your objective after finding your duffel bags was to find a warm tent where you could lie back on a bunk bed until your final flight was called.

“I climbed into the top bunk next to the tent’s heater above the entrance where it felt good to lie back and stretch out after having spent most of the previous 18 hours in a cramped airline seat. The intermittent action of the heater had me sweating one moment and shivering the next.

“One of our sergeants first class, a percussionist, had been to drill sergeant school and conducted himself with a bluster and swagger that our battalion sergeant major liked.

“When word came down through the chain of command that the division had to send a security detail to Pakistan because of a visit by President George W. Bush, the band got the call through this sergeant major’s influence.

“Some of us shimmered with glee at the thought of walking alongside the president with M-16s locked and loaded, ready to blast anybody who threatened our commander-in-chief. We got bumped to the top of the priority list for a flight to Bagram Air Base and had to be ready to go when the call came. (The nine guys and one female who went to Islamabad to guard Air Force One did not see the president. He was only there for one or two nights.)

“As I remember it, the call came in the middle of the night to board a bus for an Army C-130 transport plane. The division command wanted to make sure there were no repeat broadcasts on CNN of anybody getting off a plane in Afghanistan carrying a pink teddy bear and otherwise looking like anything other than The World’s Most Intimidating Fighting Machine.

“So we piled up our duffel bags onto a pallet, then piled ourselves two to a seat onto a pseudo-school bus wearing full ‘battle rattle’ with helmets and flak jackets while holding weapons and carry-on luggage on our laps. The cold dark bus full of silent, weary-eyed soldiers crawled its way from the small compound through a security checkpoint and onto the flight line where it stopped and waited before turning back and saying, in effect, ‘Never mind.’

“Eventually we found our way onto a daytime flight to Bagram, where less than a week later we became the first unit in the battalion to convoy out the gate into the populace — in full battle rattle with weapons and live ammo.

“We had been told that the Pakistanis were none-too-comfortable with U.S. soldiers in their midst for fear of our turning Pakistan into another Iraq. So before we could leave for there we had to learn how to shoot a weapon small enough to stuff into the back of our pants – gangster-style — while on patrol and thus conceal them from view.

“Our convoy of armored Humvees and trucks with machine gun turrets was to take us out to a desert weapons range. We had been told to ignore the children in the outlying village because they liked to give U.S. soldiers the thumbs up, which was said to be a gesture similar to a U.S. middle finger.

“Our first sergeant, the highest ranking non-commissioned officer in the band, had an easy-going southern gentlemanly manner about him — except when he got upset. He was a known taker of antidepressants, and you never knew whether he was going to behave as if he were on his meds or off them.

“Earlier in his career, while serving as the first sergeant of The Fort Lee Army Band near Richmond, Va., he’d had the unfortunate task of looking into the residence of one of his soldiers who had mysteriously not reported for work, only to discover that the soldier had died in his home of natural causes.

“Now, as he was about to lead a convoy of soldiers out the gate of the safe confines of Bagram Air Base into the land of the Taliban, the last thing he wanted was to have to inform another family of one of his soldiers that the soldier had died. It was an off-the-meds day for the first sergeant.

“We rolled out the gate, the Afghan children lined the village street giving us a thumbs up, and the rest of the day went without incident. We shot up our 9 mm ammo supply aiming at nothing in particular.

“A few days later 20 of us boarded a transport plane bound for Islamabad. The plane took off, circled around, and came right back down. The crew said it had a problem with the hydraulics and couldn’t fly.

“A day or so later we were on another flight that made it the whole way. But instead of having a forklift carry our duffel bags from the plane on a pallet on a wintry night, we carried our duffel bags, one in each hand, along with a backpack, a 9 mm pistol and an M-16 nobody was supposed to know about some 200 yards off the flight line to a grove of trees on a summer-like day.

“At roughly 145 pounds dripping wet, I must have been hauling three-fourths of my body weight. At 51, I was definitely too old for this kind of work.

“An attractive female liaison from the embassy met us and told us to hang tight in the tree grove until our helicopters arrived, which they did in short order. And, once again, we gathered up all our gear in full battle rattle and hiked 200 yards to the choppers where, as on a C-130, you use your Army-issue ear plugs, close your eyes and zone out until you arrive.

“One member of the chopper crew, however, had to have a conversation with one of our guys, which you could only do shouting at the top of your voice.

“THE BAND,” he said, this time mimicking playing a trombone.

By this time our mission had become twofold. Pakistan had been hit by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake on Oct. 8 that killed more than 80,000 and left about 3.5 million homeless, mainly in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and parts of northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“Our first stop was in Muzaffarabad, the epicenter of the quake where the Army had set up the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) on Oct. 22. A platoon from the European command had been pulling security there and following our progress in arriving to relieve them. As our first plane took off from Bagram, they rejoiced proclaiming, ‘The 10th Mountain Division is on its way!’

“Then, after our plane turned right around and landed with its hydraulic problems, it was, ‘The 10th Mountain Division is not on its way!’

“A few days later: ‘The 10th Mountain Division is on its way again! We’d better look good and squared away for these guys because they’re supposed to be pretty hardcore!’

“Upon our arrival it was, ‘Yup, we’re the band all right.’

“Our first mission was to pull security at the MASH, where every day Pakistani earthquake victims, and even non-earthquake victims, would gather under a crude bus stop-style shelter outside the hospital gate. We would wait until about a dozen people had gathered and then file them in one at a time.

“We searched every person for weapons, including the women who were led to a tarp draped over makeshift supports off to the side where female soldiers searched them in private. From what little I could see, no women had a problem with being frisked. However, one man, the husband I presume, demonstrated considerable anxiety over his wife’s being led away to the tarp. He tried to follow and would not let her out of his sight. A male soldier had to gently stand in his way.

“I frisked my share of men before gathering up a few lines of people and, using my new two-word Urdu vocabulary, led them into the MASH. The young Pakistani boys found this all very exciting and offered me as much help as possible. After receiving treatment, each citizen received a package of food to leave with. The young boys found this very exciting also.

“The Army turned the MASH over to the Pakistanis in mid-February after it had treated more than 20,000 patients. The 212th was the last of the Army MASH units dating to World War I before the Army switched over to what it calls the Combat Support Hospital, or CASH.”

“By this time I and nine others had ridden up a narrow, partially washed-away mountain pass alongside a raging river with no guard rail to the Muzaffarabad airport with its small terminal and 3,000-foot airstrip. This would be our home for about the next five weeks. An international fleet of helicopters spent the days, weather permitting, ferrying relief supplies to Kashmir earthquake victims.

“The Pakistani military (“Pak-Mil”) lined the perimeter of the airfield with sandbagged bunkers and automatic weapons. A platoon of petroleum specialists from Fort Lee,Va., meanwhile, had set up a fuel depot for the helicopters.

“Their continued mission involved monitoring the quality of the fuel being delivered by private contractors via what we called ‘jingle trucks,’ or colorfully painted tanker trucks with coins attached to short chains dangling from the bumpers. We were brought there to provide added security for the petroleum platoon.

“In addition to patrolling on foot, we spent the next five weeks or so patrolling in three-passenger Polaris ATVs, vehicles that we soon discovered could go from zero to 40 in about three-tenths of a second.

“For the first few days, we were hell on wheels zipping up and down next to the landing strip until a very tall Pakistani soldier – very politely – asked us to ‘go slow,’ which we did from then on.”


2 responses to “20 miles from bin Laden, and not knowing it

  1. I enjoyed reliving this period of time. I was the former Drill Sergeant mentioned by Staff Sergeant Lester.


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