Home from Kandahar

March 14, 2002 12:00 am
Television news about Afghanistan quickly drew Olmsteds attention during an interview about his involvement in the war. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Television news about Afghanistan quickly drew Olmsteds attention during an interview about his involvement in the war. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

When Dallas Olmsted stepped onto his parents porch at 1 a.m., the dust of Afghanistan still fresh on his camouflage clothing, his father was so shocked he patted down his son, like a policeman searching a suspect for weapons.

Wayne Olmsted thought only a wound could have brought his boy back to Baker City, back from Americas battle against terrorists half a world away.

But Dallas was perfectly healthy.

His commander in the U.S. Armys legendary 101st Airborne Division had approved emergency leave after learning that Dallas grandfather, Herman Bott Sr., died March 3.

It was a decision that surprised Dallas almost as much as his own arrival in Baker City stunned his dad and his mom, Laurel.

As much as I love to come home, it just didnt seem possible at the time, said Dallas, 24, a specialist E-4 who had been serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan, since late January.

Im very fortunate to be home.

He didnt tell his parents he was coming, making the surprise even sweeter.

Leave, of course, doesnt last forever.

Dallas will return to Kandahar March 19.

Back to the supply truck he drives, delivering ammunition and whatever else troops need on the front lines.

Back to the desert with its dust storms and 75-degree afternoons and chilly nights.

Back to where, sometimes, the bullets whizz by.

How close Dallas wont say.

Theres a war on, and like soldiers in any war Dallas will have to wait until its over to tell his tales.

But as he sits on a futon in his parents front room, his flak jacket and helmet stacked beside him on the floor, Dallas will admit this much about those bullets:

Close enough, Ill tell you that.

Dallas was three years into his Army career when terrorists flew a pair of airliners into the World Trade Center towers, and a third into the Pentagon.

He was at his home base, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on that Tuesday morning, Sept. 11.

There was just chaos, Dallas remembers. A lot of MPs going back and worth. We were all just in awe, like everybody else, about what happened.

But unlike most everybody else, Dallas is a member of the 101st Airborne.

The deadliest attack ever on American soil outraged citizens everywhere, but it meant something more for soldiers.

It meant they might have to fight.

Dallas never doubted.

I knew we would be involved, he said.

When his orders came through in January, just a few days before he was to leave for Kandahar, Dallas said he was eager.

The majority of us wanted to go, he said.

His sense of anticipation soared as he flew first to Germany, then 10 hours more to Afghanistan.

But as the C-17 plane approached the Kandahar airport the reality of the situation, the truth of war, stark and imminent, rose to meet Dallas as rapidly as the huge plane descended toward the ground.

Suddenly anticipation goes to a real nervous type feeling, he said. If somebody said they werent nervous, they were lying.

Even the most realistic training exercises can only simulate combat.

None can equal it.

Dallas learned this the first time someone fired bullets in the direction of his truck.

The first thing I thought of was our training, he said. Did we listen when we were trained?

Dallas was pleased when he realized that he had listened, that he had learned.

He was ready. He knew what to do, and so did his comrades.

I felt real confident that Id had the right training, Dallas said. But of course its all different when youre right there.

The dangers around Kandahar are subtle, he said, sometimes even invisible.

Like buried land mines.

Tons of mines, Dallas said. They mark them, but there are some that are always missed.

And bullets fired by men he never sees, but who see him as a target and a trophy.

None of them like confrontations, Dallas said of the al-Quaida and Taliban soldiers. Its mainly shoot-and-run type actions.

Airports in wealthy countries are miniature cities, places where a traveler can buy everything from a cold beer to a hot shower.

Afghanistan is not a wealthy country.

And the Kandahar airport, Dallas said, reflects the countrys lack of affluence.

After just a couple of months of living in a tent, he revels in the most basic of amenities.

I hugged a toilet when I came back, actually, Dallas said. We dont, he continues with a certain delicacy, have the same kinds of facilities.

Other than traditional mail (with a 10-day wait between replies), a single short phone call was Dallas only contact with his family during his first stint at Kandahar.

Phones lines are free frequently, but his schedule is not.

Our job doesnt really allow for phone calls, he said. We never known when a mission will come up. Youre on call all the time.

Dallas knows his family worries a little more with every day that passes without a letter or a call.

He tries to quell their fears, knowing, even as he tries, that he will fail.

The Armys taking care of us, he said. I dont want (my family) to worry more than they should. Were professionals with a job.

Even before he enlisted Dallas knew that whatever career he chose he wanted his work to be important.

I always wanted to be part of something big, he said.

The Army gave him that chance.

And the war in Afghanistan multiplied every aspect the need for his skills, the pride he feels in finishing his missions, the danger.

This gave me a chance to be part of something, a team, he said. One fight, one goal is our motto.

Im a part of a great group of soldiers.

Dallas also is preserving his familys military tradition.

Both his father and grandfather served in the army, and Dallas said their experiences motivated him to enlist just before his parents moved to Baker City from Rupert, Idaho, in 1998.

His brother, Dean, is a soldier, too. Dean also is a member of the 101st Airborne Division, although he has stayed stateside during the war on terrorism.

Dallas already has filled out his re-enlistment papers. He wants to attend airborne school in Italy.

There, he said, he will learn how to jump out of airplanes. He already has mastered rappelling from helicopters.

Dallas said his experience in Afghanistan has reinforced his belief that his work is important, and worth risking his life for.

He knows this is true because the Afghans themselves have told him.

Theyre pleased that we are there, he said.

Dallas said he even met the Afghan soldier who is leading the fight against Taliban forces.

He has talked with soldiers from several other countries, as well, exchanging coins and trinkets with Germans and Britons.

Food is a favorite item for barter, Dallas said.

American soldiers like to trade their infamous MREs Meals, Ready to Eat and discover whether the rations other nations issue their fighting men and women are any more (or less) edible.

Occasionally even an unexpected delicacy appears.

Dallas turned 24 while he was at Kandahar, and his friends surprised him with a muffin. There was even a birthday candle sticking out of its moist middle.

No, wait, he said, quickly correcting himself. Actually it was a match.

Dallas doesnt know how long he will be in Afghanistan.

No one knows.

But as long as he is there he does know this: he will be busy.

Rare is the army that ever has too much of anything, and when soldiers run short its usually a truck that delivers the fresh supplies.

I guess you could say the jobs never done, Dallas said.

He doesnt mind, though.

Protecting his country, avenging the heinous attack on its soil and its citizens, is more than a job.

Ive really become aware of how important this country is, and how very fortunate we are to live here, he said. Every time you see a flag, it gives you a chill.

Although he serves in a division that distinguished itself in many of Americas wars, Dallas is not fond of fighting.

He doesnt want war, but he feels this one is necessary.

Its to prove a point, Dallas said. We are a peaceful nation, and our country was really hurt by these terrorists.

We need to let them know, we dont fall easy. Were definitely going to prove our point.