'We are winning the hearts and minds of the Afghani people," enthuses Lou Mellini, borrowing a phrase from the Vietnam era.
Mellini is a radio man, vice president and general manager of KILO-FM 94.3 and KRXP-FM 103.9. As he's also an honorary member of the Army's 1st Brigade Combat Team.
Earlier this year, he was invited to go to Afghanistan (on his dime) to see the clean-up mission after coalition forces drove out the Taliban. In short, the mission goes like this: Push the Taliban out of a region, and then engage with the local community to rebuild.
What does that look like?
Mellini, who returned at the end of April, says he saw children swimming in a river that nobody could swim in when the Taliban was in charge. He saw the solar-powered streetlights that our forces installed where there had never been any before. He saw wells drilled for fresh water, a critical resource in the arid country.
Mellini, who's in his 60s, had never been to the Middle East. After his trip was cleared by the United Nations, he got a visa from the Afghan government and flew first to Dubai. With an overnight layover before his connecting flight to Afghanistan, he took a cab ride through the city and spent the rest of the night in the airport.
On his commercial flight into Kabul, he sat next to an Afghan doctor.
"He talked about his town, and how he gets threatened by the Taliban," Mellini says. "How they tell him that they are going to come back and get him if he sides with the Americans, the infidels. And how there is no health care, so he charges $2 for a visit. He's very tired of the war and he wants it to end, but he's appreciative for what we're doing."
Once in Kabul, Mellini was immediately slapped into a 40-pound vest, given a helmet and hustled onto a Chinook helicopter. He rode side-by-side with 20 coalition soldiers in full gear. Headed to his home base for the next five days, Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City, his Chinook was accompanied by a gunship.
"Remember," he says, "it's a war zone."
A year earlier, a Chinook making the same trip had been shot down and lost.
The helicopter had two gunners that he could see, one in the back and one on the left side. He needed assistance in fastening the unusual seat belt — which helped as the Chinook flew swoops from side to side. You never want to be an easy target.
Afghanistan's terrain reminded him of Colorado, especially Colorado Springs and Piñon Canyon. You can see why they train here, he says: "You go through fertile areas, desert, mountains."
Flying over a desert area, the side gunner shot off a round. Then the tail gunner let loose.
"I said, 'Oh my God, we're in a battle!'" Mellini says. Later, he found out the gunners were just checking their weapons.
Four of the days in Afghanistan, he tagged along on missions, spending two nights sleeping in combat outposts — fighting positions fortified by concrete walls, topped with concertina, or razor wire.
"It's literally razor blades," he says. "If the bad guys want to come over that, good luck."
One night, Mellini stayed in the most remote outpost in the Arghandab Valley, which a year before, was controlled by the Taliban. Now, the 1st Brigade Combat Team is fighting there to create partners within the Afghan society.
"You have a war of bullets," he says. "You have a war of diplomacy."
During his stay, he traveled to various checkpoints and police substations. At one substation, Mellini saw a 40-foot-tall rig drilling for water. "It happened to be Air Force guys drilling the well," he says. "They were drilling to supply water to the little town nearby."
He visited the first mosque in Afghanistan, and the mosque that supposedly housed the Prophet of Islam Muhammad's cloak. He accompanied American soldiers as they met with generals in the Afghan National Army, and saw our intelligence officers and Afghan intelligence working side-by-side in the governor's mansion. One day he met Haji Usted Halim, former commander of the Mujahideen in Kandahar City. Halim once had 25,000 soldiers under his command. One of them was Osama bin Laden, who would be killed only days later across the border in Pakistan.
The commander's compound was heavily fortified by his troops. When the U.S. lieutenant colonel and the commander meet, Mellini says, they embrace warmly, "like brothers." They have dinners once or twice a month.
Mellini asked the commander what he would like to see for the future of Afghanistan. Halim, who cannot read or write himself, told him that it was education.
The war in Afghanistan has been bloody and costly. To date, since 2001, there have been more than 2,400 coalition deaths. According to the United Nations, 2,700 Afghan civilians died in 2010 alone. In one day, the war in Afghanistan costs roughly $300 million, according to the Pentagon — 30 percent more than the total 2010 budget for Colorado Springs School District 11.
But according to Mellini, the war in the Arghandab Valley exemplifies the complexity of the mission. His days in Afghanistan were filled with meetings with American and Afghan officials: National Army, National Police, local police, tribal elders, governors. "To discuss needs, what was needed to be successful," he says. "We are working in concert with all of our counterparts in the Afghan country with one common focus — defeat the Taliban."
From that effort, he says, schools get rebuilt. Streets are made safer. Roadside bombings were down 90 percent from last year in this valley, he says, adding that it's because of the help we're getting from the Afghans. The Afghan forces, and civilians, are helping the coalition track down weapons and explosives.
"Our soldiers are not just great warriors. They're diplomats, they're educators," he says. "When we rolled up to a school one day, all the kids ran out."
"All the kids" means 12 boys from an area the size of Manitou Springs.
They asked the soldiers for pens, he says, "so all the guys carry pens. And one kid opened a box and he had like, 50 pens. And the kids held their hands. The kids took the soldiers' hands. Walked hand-in-hand."