Soldiers Find Happiness in Afghanistan

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FORWARD OPERATING BASE MESCAL, Afghanistan - Forward Operating Base Mescal has no Morale, Welfare and Recreation facility. It has no Post Exchange, no laundry drop off and no post office.

Soldiers stationed here receive mail about once a month and the chow hall offers two choices at every meal: Take it or leave it.

Despite the spartan accommodations however, six National Guard soldiers with the 101st Expeditionary Signal Battalion from Yonkers, N.Y. call FOB Mescal home and they are perfectly happy to do so.

"I looked FOB Mescal up before we got here and it didn't look very pleasant. There was a lot of talk about the food and the bad winters, but it's not that bad," said Sgt. Sergio A. Rodriguez, a light wheeled mechanic from the Bronx, N.Y. "I guess you could say it's become home."

All of the soldiers from the unit come from densely populated urban areas in New York: Mount Vernon, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island - places where crowds are the norm and convenience is often taken for granted. Now they live on a FOB that has fewer inhabitants than an average New York City elementary school and on which money is essentially useless because there's no place to spend it.

"As far as my team is concerned, I feel like being away from the comforts of Kandahar Airfield has been beneficial to them," said Staff Sgt. Marcus A. Jones, a non commissioned officer in charge of the signal team.

The Yonkers' team was definitely not impressed when they arrived and surveyed the facilities they inherited from the outgoing signal unit.

"This place was really bad when we got here, especially the living conditions," said Rodriguez. "The tent was just a big hollow shell. It was very messy with clumps of stuff here and there - very disorganized."

But when the outgoing unit showed the New York team around, they offhandedly mentioned a pile of wood they hadn't used and were leaving behind.

"We saw the wood as gold," said Rodriguez. "Our eyes lit up and instantly there were a million ideas of what to build. Now everybody claims we have the best living conditions in the southern region because of the way that our tent is set up."

Inside the tent the team built individual rooms for each soldier. They separated the living area from the work area and created a common room where they can gather for meals or a movie. They built shelves to store and organize supplies and a workstation to set up their computers and signal equipment.

"I think in the short time that we've been here we've accomplished great things with what we had." said Rodriguez. "And that has made everything much easier."

In addition to learning construction skills, the signal team is of course, doing their job by providing both secure and unsecured radio and satellite capabilities for the entire FOB as well as boosting the networks of other nearby FOBs.

Their small number has also enabled each soldier to cross train, which in turn ensures that things to run smoothly. The network specialists have learned some transmission skills and the transmission specialists have learned some networking. They've all learned to lay cable.

"Even Rodriguez, who's a mechanic, comes in and tries to trouble shoot some issues or helps out with installing printers or Google Earth or whatever the request is," Jones said.

Without the distractions that larger bases have, Jones insisted that he and the other members of his team have been able to utilize their time better than others who might waste it on video gaming or hanging out on the boardwalk like some do on KAF.

"People on larger bases could do more constructive things, self development things like looking into schools, applying for jobs or researching what they'd like to do when they get home," Jones said. "I think everyone on our team has found their own way or what direction they'd like to travel since they've been out here."

Jones' team can also enjoy the simplicity of a FOB with little to offer but time for thought.

"This is probably the most peaceful state of mind I've been in, in a very long time," said Spc. John Martin, an information and technology specialist with the team. "Being here has made me realize all the stuff I used to take for granted back home. Whether it's something as simple as hot water or vegetables, being here has made me grateful for all the stuff I have back home and conscious of the fact that people in this country are not as fortunate as we are."

This might explain why this six-man team, despite their separation from all things urban, is quite content to remain on FOB Mescal for the duration of their deployment.

As Rodriguez explains it, "It's complicated, but to me I feel like I can learn more out here than I can at KAF. I'm actually hoping that they'll fly us home from Mescal. I don't even want to go back to KAF, not even for transition. If it was my option, that's how it would be. I really like it out here."

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