A SOLDIER'S JOURNAL RYAN MALTBA: CLOVER TO AFGHANISTAN. Pain: Deaths far and near, and nonstop work, too

There is always the strong threat of attack by the ACM (anti-coalition militia), land mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).This very road that we are working on has a bit of history. It was attempted by the Russians during their occupation and failed. It was again attempted by the British and again failed. Now it's our turn and we will not fail.


About 130 soldiers of York-based Company B, 391st Engineer Battalion, of the Army Reserve left in April for Afghanistan. Ryan Maltba, 20, who grew up in Clover, was among them. Maltba has agreed to share his experiences and feelings with Observer readers as he and his company spend a year there.

We have been in Orgun-E for almost three months. At times it seems more like three weeks. Time is something that we do not have a firm grasp on anymore. We rarely know the date and are often shocked to learn what it is. As my two-week leave in November approaches, my mind focuses more and more on those dates.

We experience things here every day that just seem normal now. There are things other than the lack of communication with family, the restroom facilities being far from sanitary (you would be amazed), the chow hall randomly running out of food, random flooding, etc.

Before I begin describing the rest of our time spent here in Orgun-E, I want to give my condolences to those who are dealing with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina. The condition we as soldiers find ourselves in overseas does not compare to the devastation caused by the recent natural disasters. Our thoughts and prayers are with you daily.

Recently my family has suffered a tragedy of its own. My older brother, C.J., 23, and his wife, Gina, are the proud parents of two beautiful children, Kierstyn (two years) and Michael (3 months). Michael was born after my arrival to Afghanistan, so I have not met him, and I never will. A few days ago, I received a Red Cross message stating that Michael had cardiac arrest and the prognosis was not good. After attempting to reach someone at home, I finally got in touch with my father, who, like the rest of my family, was on their way to my brother's house in O'Fallen, Ill.

My father explained the situation with the calmest of tones. He told me that Michael was brain-dead, and they were going to take him off life support in a matter of hours. I was shocked. It was so surreal. Even now the mixed emotions that I am feeling are suppressed by worry of my brother's condition and his wife. My mother told me that he was handling it as to be expected. I finally got in touch with him this morning. Whew. ... I cannot even imagine what he is feeling. He told me that the autopsy showed that the perfectly healthy Michael died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

I know that these next few days, weeks and months are going to be extremely hard for him. The hardest part for me is knowing that I cannot be there for him as a brother should be. But unfortunately we as soldiers are not afforded that sort of luxury. Please pray for them.

With all that I have on my mind, the situation we are in is not the most desirable, but someone always has it worse than you.

Our mission here has proved to be difficult. We are building a road from here to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) Sharona. There was hardly anything resembling a road from here to Sharona. The locals traveled on trails and makeshift roads that run along waddies (dried up creekbeds). This area is also very mountainous.

Carving a road in mountains

Erosion is also a huge problem. It seems this whole country is eroding away into the ever-present moon-dust. The lack of vegetation allows greater damage when it rains. When it rains, the waddies fill up and flash floods are inevitable, so water runoff is a No. 1 concern when building a road through the mountains. Then there is always the strong threat of attack by the ACM (anti-coalition militia), land mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).This very road that we are working on has a bit of history. It was attempted by the Russians during their occupation and failed. It was again attempted by the British and again failed. Now it's our turn and we will not fail.

Why the road failed

The reason this road was attempted twice before and the reason those who opposed it fought so hard to end the project is the huge implications that it carries for this province.

It creates an excellent supply route for faster delivery of goods to Orgun-E. Last winter the makeshift roads were impassable, thus cutting this base off from supplies. The soldiers suffered greatly. It also provides faster travel time for missions and convoys. This road will allow trade and commerce to grow, thus changing the area. No longer will agriculture be the No. 1 occupation.

The Taliban is against modernization. The people will not need them any more or be influenced by their radical views any longer.

The Paktika province seems to be more conservative and traditional than other provinces. Residents live a very strict Muslim lifestyle. This is the countryside. There are no major cities, very few travelers, and the people seem unaware of the goings on in the rest of the world until we came.

We immediately made an impact on the people. We established an interim non-Taliban government, which these people have never seen. Now they get the opportunity to choose who they want to lead them. .

We try to keep all that in mind, but for us the road is a job. Putting in the hours in the conditions that we are in takes a toll.

When we first began working on the road, time went by fast. Due to frequent flash flooding, the part of the road that ran alongside the waddies was useless. So we had to choose a route that would least be affected by erosion. That meant through the mountains. But after two months of the same routine, we began to grow more fatigued

We wake relatively early and get an early start on the road. We then work until it begins to get dark. Once we get back to our hooches, I head to the gym. By the time I finish, dinner chow is over. So I eat leftovers. If I have time, I try to check my e-mail but usually most people are heading to bed so I hurry up and take a shower and go to sleep. Since I choose to go to the gym every day, I have very little time to take care of anything else.

Between the demanding schedule and fatigue, my downtime is spent asleep. Every time I sit down to write, I fall asleep. I try to listen to music as much as possible. I get lost in the sounds and begin to daydream. I listen to all types of music, but lately I've been listening to more mellow music like Jimmy Buffet, Bob Marley, Jack Johnson, a lot of country, and classical at night.

As November slowly approaches, all my thoughts are centered on my two-week leave. It started getting to me, thinking of home constantly. Now that football season has begun and the baseball playoffs are approaching, we all have new things to talk about and debate.

Being a student at USC, I am naturally a Gamecocks fan, and I hate that I have to miss Steve Spurrier's first season. The Panthers seem to have an extremely talented team and it will be exciting to see what they can do with it. And the White Sox have put together a great season and I cannot wait to find out how they will perform in the playoffs. The only thing that bothers us is that due to the time difference we cannot watch any of the games. They all come on in the middle of the night.

All these things we experience over here would shock anyone back home who spent a day with us. But we are so used to it all that we don't even realize how bad it is.

Cutting an anti-tank mine

For example, a few weeks ago I was operating a D7g bulldozer. While making a cut on a mountainside I noticed something unusual in my spoils. I had just cut an Italian anti-tank mine in half without detonating it. I guess that I just got lucky, but when it happened, it did not faze me in any way. It seems like once a week, someone from our company finds IEDs along the route or more land mines.Last night we had a rocket or mortar attack. In the middle of the night, we had to rush to the bunkers. No one was hurt, thanks to the inaccuracy of the attacks. We have all grown to expect things like that. Plus, worrying does not make us any safer so we just drive on.

Hand-signal haircut

The locals play a larger role than most would expect. Locals have been hired to run our laundry services, help in the chow hall, clean our restrooms, build and improve the FOB and even cut our hair. It's pretty wild. You kind of have to give hand signals as to the way that you want your hair to be cut and just hope he gets it because he speaks little to no English.

We also work hand-in-hand with the ANA (Afghan National Army) on missions and they even have their own section of the FOB that they live in. We often see them in the gym working out with us and some of the locals also help run the gym and keep it clean.

I am sure that you have all heard that we lost a soldier in our battalion recently. Sgt. Haselton, 24, was part of a convoy from Orgun-E to Sharona (on the road we work on every day) when they came under attack. The threat was eliminated but not before claiming his life. He was from Greenville, S.C., and is survived by his wife and daughter who is 1 year old. (They remain in our prayers).

It was quite the wake-up call for many of us. Convoys leave from here all the time along that same route. I have been on many of them. We all know that it could have been any of us.

Throughout all of this, I have learned how great the misconceptions and lack of concern for and about the war in Afghanistan is. Iraq is all over the media for numerous reasons, but it seems that people have forgotten about this war. For the most part we have received great support from those back home and we thank you for that.

With all that we have to deal with here, we all still have lives at home, and that at times presents its own issues. The loss of my nephew has been hard to deal with mainly because I know that my brother needs me and I cannot be there for him. Others have had similar or worse situations to deal with.

We all lean on each other when times get rough. We find ourselves laughing all the time at things that probably aren't that funny. Sometimes I think we are going crazy. But, if going crazy helps the time to pass then so be it.

I want to thank you all for your tremendous support. Just know that we are doing our best and representing America to the fullest. It is the greatest nation on Earth and not because of military might, and not because of our economic power, but because of its people. Being here in Afghanistan and learning from these experiences has made me more patriotic than ever before. To all my family and friends, I love you all and will see you soon. God Bless America.

Von: 19 October 2005, http://www.charlotte.com

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