Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Out with the old, in with the...

It's RIPTOA season here at PRT Farah. A RIPTOA -- that's Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority -- happens whenever one military unit transfers out and a new one swoops in to take their place, and they've been happening around me with alarming frequency.

The Italians at PRT Farah were the first to go, with the 9th Alpini replaced by some numbered division of Lagunari, the Italian equivalent of the Marines. The Alpini, who wear awesome but kind of ridiculous feathered fedoras with their formal uniforms -- part alpine woodsman, part keebler elf -- were nice enough guys, but aside from hobnobbing with their commander (a tall and handsome Colonel with a gracious, gentlemanly manner) when we both ended up at the Governor's compound, I rarely interacted with them. The entire compound was invited to their TOA ceremony, though, and would've seemed rude not to see them off, so I went to see what sorts of pomp and circumstance they may have on offer.

I was pretty excited for it. Tragically, though, I've been toying with the idea of running an on-compound marathon and Fridays (our only day off) have by necessity become my distance day, so I ended up going more or less directly from running 20 miles in the desert heat to the TOA ceremony with only a brief shower in between. Consequently, I spent most of the ceremony sitting in the back of the tent trying not to pass out and wondering when it would end. It definitely featured a lot of exciting military parade-type things, like presenting arms and standing at attention, as well as repeated occurrences of a lot of soldiers simultaneously thundering out one word -- it sounded like "Sa! Ba! Do!", which I would translate as "Sat! ur! day!" -- but beyond that it's hard to say exactly what happened. There were a lot of speeches, but the sound system was rigged through tinny speakers that sounded not dissimilar to the drive through at any given fast food joint, and I was too busy taking deep breaths and trying not to throw up to decipher when they were speaking English vice Dari or Italian.

(I later asked an Italian what they hell they were barking out when they all shouted in unison, but he told me in rough-shod English that he hadn't shouted anything -- that only the Lagunari and not the Alpini had been shouting. I tried again -- "right, but what were the Lagunari shouting?" -- but he just thumped his chest and shook his head and said "I -- no Lagunari," and I decided it was best to just let it drop).

Given my physical duress and complete inability to pay attention, I found the Italian TOA to be unsatisfying. I was consequently excited to invite myself along when the PRT commander decided to drive up for the TOA up at RC-West headquarters in Herat, to witness the Italian General whom I'd met a few months prior RIP out and be replaced by another General whose name I never caught. (The military chain of command in my region is something I should know inside and out, and the gaping holes in my knowledge frankly make me question my own bona fides).

We left at five for the drive up to Herat. It's not easy to sleep in the back of an MRAP -- strapped into a five-point harness and wearing a heavy Kevlar helmet -- but I can sleep under any circumstances and napped through the trip, waking up only briefly to stare in rapture at the camels that I still get giddy at spotting. We had car trouble and made it into Camp Arena with only minutes to spare before the TOA, which actually turned out to be ideal because it meant less sitting around and waiting for the thing to start. We were positioned in the back with other Americans, behind the speakers, and I was determined to find out what the Italians were shouting.

But the RC-West TOA was a more staid affair than the one in Farah, with a good handful of speeches but no shouting at all. The sound system was clear, though, and I took notes on what was said, partly because I wanted a record and partly to force myself pay attention. The speakers included the departing Italian General, multiple Afghans, an American 3-star who had flown in for the event, and finally the Italian Minister of Defense, a towering, enormous man in blue pinstripes. They all covered roughly the same ground -- the commitment of the soldiers, the progress that was made, a recognition of those who died, and a nod to the task that still lies ahead. Aside from two dizzyingly fast and powerful-looking fighter jets called Tornadoes screeching by to punctuate the ceremony, it was business-like with little pomp.

(The ceremony was followed by a reception with significant quantities of food and few plates, and I and the PRT's Senior Enlisted Advisor spent the time passing a plate back and forth between us and raiding the smoked meat and Italian cheeses, and I crammed dozens of stuffed olives and fried artichoke hearts into my mouth: such things do not exist in Farah).

The back-to-back Italian TOAs are a harbinger of what's to come: the current PRT, under the command of El Comandante, will RIP out and be replaced by another PRT in just two scant weeks. Everyone here is leaving -- Captain Firepower, Lieutenant Moneybags, and all the rest of the cast of characters will be headed home or to their onward assignment. I'm dreading their departure -- as far as teams go, they're all outstandingly easy to work with, and El Comandante and I in particular have an easy, unspoken synergy that we fell into immediately upon my arrival.

Mercifully, the advance party of the new team has arrived, and they're equal parts laid back and easy to get along with, the kind of guys you'd like to go get a beer with if that were an option here. I'll be with them more or less to the end of my time in Farah, with them ripping out at about the same time that my replacement is slated to arrive.

It's hard not to be sad at grand departure, though -- everyone is busy packing, and some people have countdown calendars with only single-digits left on them. The post office has been jammed with people mailing home boxes of stuff, and I've been on the receiving end of seemingly dozens of half-used bottles of shampoo and moisturizer and the like. Two days ago I snagged a 500-pack of Q-tips that I was desperate for, and today I ended up with a bottle of Creatine powder just for having been in the right place at the right time.

Getting free stuff is always nice, but it only kind of blunts my desire to shriek out take me with you! when people start talking departure logistics in meetings. I know this feeling will pass once the new team is on the ground, but for now, I can't help but find myself pacing the conference room, wondering if there's any extra room on the C-130.


Dakota said...

There's more to be said on this. But it's 9:30! Way past my bedtime! Being old is exhausting!