Thursday, September 1, 2016

Valhalla Project Inspiration: Bravo, 151st Inf Rgt, Afghanistan, 2010

The Valhalla Project's 5th Anniversary Special
From Hell on Earth... to a Friendly FOB on US Soil, Built By and For Combat Vets

It was in the spring of 2010 when Chris and I landed in a Blackhawk helicopter at FOB Salerno, a large US base occupied primarily by 3rd Brigade, 101st Division (Air Assault). Salerno is located in east central Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border and its notorious tribal areas, dotted with villages and tribes that offer support and respite for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

Our mission, however, was not with the Screaming Eagles but to conduct research on Military Police units operating in Afghanistan. We were in the process of writing a book about MP actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and had been traveling throughout the country with various units. (The book, Warrior Police, was published in September 2011.)

Valhalla Project Founder Chris admiring the bougainvilleas
growing just outside of the B/151's TOC, Spring 2010. 
Because of the shortage of actual MP units in theater, a provision had been made to designate other specialized units as temporary MPs (designated in militarese as In Lieu Of or ILO) to pull the mission of training up Aghan Police. So our embed unit turned out to be an Infantry company, Bravo Company, 151st Infantry Regiment of the Indiana National Guard.

Frankly, we weren’t sure what to expect. Yet the reality exceeded any negative anxiety we may have initially had.

Bravo Company was located some distance from Salerno, out past Khost city and within view of the Hindu Kush Mountains. The infamous Khost-Gardez Pass – the only serious vehicular route between the two major cities – emptied right into B/151’s hilltop location. It sat on a long ridgeline the far end of which was occupied by an imposing 19th century British fort.

In the middle was a stone structure that could have been a visitor’s center in a small US national park. When the Bravo troopers arrived, we were told, that building, a couple of ramshackle sheds and a few port-a-johns were the only structures on the place. Soldiers lived in tents and thrown-together shelters but that clearly was unsatisfactory to all concerned.

They weren't willing to settle for living on gravel and dust
like we saw at most of the other COPs and FOBs. Instead they
decided to design and build wonderful decks, benches,
and furniture from scratch. 
Many units would have simply waited till higher headquarters sent some containerized housing. Not these guys.

With materials “liberated” and sent their way by a savvy unit supply sergeant based at Salerno for liaison, the officers and men of Bravo Company built their own special base. Materials were basic: dimension lumber, PVC piping, electrical components, and stuff that you might find at a typical big-box home supply outfit. Because most Guard units are composed of a special group of soldiers – many long time friends and relatives, and skilled trades specialists – the knowledge and motivation were already there.

When the soldiers returned from daily training missions and patrols – more often than not involving a firefight – their evening hours were spent in designing and building the most unique base we saw in either theater of war.

Staff Sgt. Ashton Girdley and his father, Lt. Colonel James
Girdley, chatting outside the "B-huts" built by the Indiana
National Guard in Khost, 2010.
They built a spacious outdoor deck around the lone tree on the site, with adjacent rooms for officers and non-commissioned officers. Each soldier was encouraged to design his own room – typically about an 8’x10’ space –  and the crews followed the plans. Some of the rooms were incredibly imaginative, with a high bunk making room for a desk beneath, for example, and clever storage and equipment racks.

Everything was wired for electricity and plumbing was installed in a comfortable shower and latrine building. Since – unlike almost all but a few Regular Army units – Bravo Company had its own cooks, they also constructed a nearby cookshack with adequate space for washing, prep, and cooking.

It was a real pleasure to stay with these excellent soldiers. Morale was sky-high, they were actively engaged with the enemy, busy training their Afghan counterparts, and able to have a fairly secure place to rest. By the way, well-sited watchtowers were built first with cleared, interlocking fields of fire and constant guard. This wasn’t amateur hour by any means.

They Will Never See It Again

Each Soldier designed their own personal spaces and
everybody pitched in to construct rooms for
themselves as well as their buddies.
A few months later when we were between embeds, we were invited by Bravo Company to join them for a weekend in Indianapolis as they were given their post-deployment briefings. The soldiers knew we were returning to Afghanistan shortly and, to a man, each asked us to check on what they had built and see how their replacement unit were caring for it.

They knew that they would never again return to the place where they had invested so much sweat, imagination, and effort to construct and in the backs of their minds they all knew that when, not if, it was ultimately turned over to the Afghans it would be looted and trashed.

For many of them you could hear the nostalgia in their voices as they reminisced about the wonderful place they had the initiative to build, and the sadness of never seeing it again, knowing it was doomed.

Bravo Company of the Indiana National Guard purposely planted
 flowers in the gravel below the Hescos that protected them at night.
It was impossible not to notice these tiny signs of beauty and life,
right in the middle of hell. This was the true inspiration for
 what has since become the Valhalla Project.
The entirety of this experience resonated deeply with us. Some soldiers miss being in a war zone, for many reasons, some of which are examined in Sebastian Junger’s recent book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It became clear that at least some combat veterans would treasure a permanent place similar to what Bravo Company had built in Khost. A special place that they could work on together, enjoy comradeship with their fellow veterans like they had downrange, build things that would last for the rest of their lives and beyond. One that they could always return to if and when they wanted to.

“A friendly FOB on US soil, built by combat vets for combat vets.” We realized that acquiring a suitable property and beginning such an enormous undertaking would take years, yet Chris was almost rabidly determined to make it happen for deeply personal reasons of her own.

Blood on the Ceiling, Brains on the Carpet

Exactly one year before our first embed when we met Bravo Company, Chris’s father had committed a bloody gunshot suicide, leaving his body for her to discover. Shocked and emotionally distraught, she reacted by reaching out to her father's family in Spain. She had met her many cousins only a few times before, yet after growing up as an only child and also being the only American on either side of her parents families, Chris desperately wanted to embrace the entire clan following the death of her father. We moved to Barcelona to be close to them.

Unfortunately within months it became obvious that the family -- one and all very arrogant Catalonians in my personal opinion -- didn't want anything to do with an American cousin who they really didn't know, and especially not one who arrived with a retired American Army Lieutenant Colonel in tow. For reasons that had little to do with Chris and everything to do with their strong disapproval over her father's marriage to an "uneducated" Swedish farm girl many decades before, one by one they politely smiled, offered traditionally appropriate condolences, then turned their backs and quickly walked away.

Chris had already survived severe childhood PTSD and now some of the old forgotten symptoms came back. Our time in Spain had turned into a nightmare in the wake of her father's horrifying death, an unexpected continuation of her very early years growing up in nearly total isolation. Her dream of ever finally connecting with a family of her own had ended in the most cruel way imaginable.

"To hell with them, let's go downrange," I eventually told her. "You'll become part of something a lot bigger than anything that these judgemental pseudo-aristocrats have to offer anyone. Soldiers will have a lot more respect than that and we need to document what's happening over there. Let's go to war!" That cheered Chris up considerably. It was the opportunity to get out of her own trip by focusing on something completely different in a potentially deadly environment.

So off we went.

And then one evening after meeting Bravo Company in Khost, Chris was walking alone to the DFAC at FOB Lightening in Gardez when a vivid memory hit her hard. She had been here before. A wonderful place just like this FOB, a somewhat safe place where the bad guys right outside were effectively locked out, a place out in the middle of nowhere, her first real home ever when she was just 15 years old. It was a boarding school where the students ran the entire facility, building cabins, cooking in the kitchens, chopping wood for the fires, growing vegetables, and working as carpenters, plumbers, janitors, electricians, and more. And here in Afghanistan soldiers also ran everything alongside various civilian contractors, all of whom were now far, far away from their own homes and families.

For just a moment that night, as she told me shortly afterward, time and space somehow dissolved: she had had the very distinct sensation of walking in the dark to dinner at Stillman Hall at Midland School when she was 15, instead of to the DFAC on FOB Lightning when she was 46.  That was the precise moment when the Valhalla Project was really born.

Chris quickly determined that her modest inheritance would be entirely used to build a real legacy for combat vets who found themselves simply wanting to "go back to the FOB" once in a while (albeit without any concerns over getting blown to pieces in the process). She couldn't go back to the relative safety of her favorite boarding school even if she wanted to; likewise, the soldiers couldn't ever return to the relative safety of their FOBs or COPs downrange even if they wanted and needed to. Thus emerged the Valhalla Project as a “Heaven on Earth” counterpoint to the hell of combat that so many veterans have endured.

Further, since Chris doesn't have family or offspring of her own, shortly thereafter she had attorneys draw up the necessary papers to ensure that the Valhalla Project will eventually be left to dedicated veterans who succeed both of us: this very special legacy that Chris created for those who want and need it will therefore continue indefinitely after we are both gone.

Forgotten Soldiers No More

When it came time to define precisely Valhalla’s mission and purpose a stark revelation came to us. As a concluding appendix to Warrior Police, we had listed all of the Military Police soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chris checked every name out via the internet and found, to her horror, that almost 10% had no obituary, no memorial service, and apparently no one who cared enough about their loss to mention them anywhere.

Consequently we decided to focus our efforts on this group of veterans who may not have supportive families, who find themselves alone, rootless, and disconnected from civilian society. This includes even those who may have families but have had difficulty in transitioning back into a peaceful family environment. In large part these are the veterans largely ignored by the system.

Those who have significant issues such as addictions, severe long term PTSD, TBI, and horrible wounds have programs and specialists focusing on them. Those veterans who return to an understanding, supportive family group are most often good to go. It is the amorphous number of veterans who fall in between these extremes who can most benefit from the Valhalla Project.

So how does this relate to our story of Bravo Company? One of the things we have enjoyed doing here at Valhalla along with our veteran participants is building in the same manner as these soldiers did when they were on the edge of the war. Using dimension lumber we constructed a beautiful three-tiered deck that many would find reminiscent of what they saw on the COPs and FOBs. We use primarily milled-on-site lumber for out many outbuildings for livestock and poultry and eventually for our off-grid cabin construction.

On this five-year anniversary it is with a sense of satisfaction that we see the Valhalla Project homestead rising from a long-neglected property to a productive, enjoyable, and meaningful entity. It also reminds us that these are only small steps toward a greater goal. A hundred-year Project involves a lot of activity, and we still have a long way to go. That’s why we need your committed help and support and the dedication and zeal of our Valhalla Participants!

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The Valhalla Project needs your help and support

The Valhalla Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity recognized by the IRS.

Nobody, including cadre or board members, draws a paycheck here, nor will they ever: we simply give everything we have to make Valhalla possible. 100% of your donation via Paypal will go directly to program expenses, period. 

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