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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Troops Usher In New Year in Subdued Wartime Lighting

War: At a support base in Afghanistan, personnel focus on tasks at hand and take little notice as 2002 arrives.

January 01, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The C-130 transport appeared out of the New Year's Eve darkness so quickly after its steep descent that it was touching down almost before anyone realized it had arrived. Its lights off, the plane braked hard on the pavement, dropped its rear cargo door and expelled a handful of soldiers seen only by the red and green light of the Cyalume glow sticks they carried.

The sticks swirled. Giant forklifts sped in. And the craft's massive belly was emptied and then refilled in precisely 19 minutes, its engines never stopping their howl. It then lifted back into the night.

"Pretty fast, eh," said Air Force Lt. Mike Johnson. "The longer they're on the ground, the more vulnerable they are."

It had begun two nights before when antiaircraft fire greeted the commander of the Air Force's Tanker Airlift Control Element, or TALCE. Since arriving, troops had hardly had time to notice as one of the most trying years in modern United States history drew to a close.

An Army demolition expert had lost a foot to unexploded ordnance nearby, as had a British soldier. Still, the C-130s, C-17s and Chinook helicopters were coming in fast, landing hard and racing around among pickup trucks, oversized forklifts, pallets of supplies and sentries scanning the horizon with night-vision goggles.

There was a burst of activity, and then they were gone, and then there were more--all of the craft coddled by the TALCE, an expeditionary unit that can deploy to anywhere in the world within 12 hours and take care of itself without backup for weeks. TALCE's task is to oversee or, as in this case, build nearly from scratch, an airport.

They do the weather forecasts, they do the radar, they offload and upload and guide the aircraft in and out. TALCE members know that the special operations guys, the Marines at the embassy and the Army's 10th Mountain Division across the way get more credit. They also know that all those other units would have a very hard time doing their jobs without support.

An hour outside Kabul, Bagram has quickly become the port of promise for a new Afghanistan, the landing zone for everyone from Japanese politicians coming to meet the interim prime minister to missionaries bringing Bibles and rice.

On New Year's Eve, however, it was clear that despite the defeat of the Taliban government and the flight of many of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda fighters, Bagram is still very much a military base in the middle of a war. Many of those at the base learned that 2002 had arrived when some Afghans in the hills to the west marked the occasion by firing their AK-47s into the air, the red tracer bullets arcing with dangerous beauty through the night.

There were no other fireworks to mark the beginning of 2002. The Army ordnance disposal folks offered a pre-holiday show last week, however, when they gathered together a number of unexploded shells and bombs and blew them up, sending three rockets whistling through the air, along with an eye-widening rain of shrapnel.

There were no mirror balls or light shows. The few safe paths here, one of the most heavily mined areas in this heavily mined country, are marked with Cyalumes, the modern military equivalent of the lantern, but much dimmer. No white lights are allowed at night, so troops find their way with the help of the glowing plastic rods and even dimmer red-lensed flashlights.

So many unexploded mines and cluster bombs, grenades and rockets are sprinkled throughout the area that residents, wanting to be helpful, have shown up at Air Force and Army encampments to hand over explosives they have found. (The Americans are now printing leaflets asking residents to simply report the devices, not deliver them.) An unexploded hand grenade was found just yards from the air traffic control tower--a building, like virtually every other in the area, that has been shelled, shot and rocketed almost into oblivion during 2 1/2 decades of war.

"Sir, please walk on the hardball," said 19-year-old Pfc. Andrew Kosterman of Racine, Wis., when a civilian edged close to the edge of the pavement.

They had New Year's plans, though, these airmen and soldiers.

The base here is dry, no alcohol, but Air Force Capt. Anthony Babcock, 27, of New Orleans was sending a few of his men home. "I'm in the process of trying to procure some vodka for my troops," he said with a smile.

The Army folks bought a cow and had the local rancher slaughter it. The Air Force TALCE commander, Lt. Col. Phil Bossert, had his medic go over to check on the bovine's condition before agreeing to have it grilled for 12 hours before serving it.

A native New Yorker, Bossert pulled out two photographs as the new year approached. One was of his two children. The other was of firefighters raising an American flag atop the rubble of the World Trade Center.

"To remember why we're here," he said, seemingly referring to both.

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