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Afghanistan duty, Christmas spirit

Bay State guardsmen, residents hope to win hearts

Children kept First Lieutenant Alan Molin Jr. of Hardwick company while he was on foot patrol yesterday near Camp Phoenix. Children kept First Lieutenant Alan Molin Jr. of Hardwick company while he was on foot patrol yesterday near Camp Phoenix. (Jason P. Howe for The Boston Globe)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / December 25, 2010

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CAMP PHOENIX, Afghanistan — The Afghan driver of an oil tanker truck squints nervously through the dust as soldiers frisk him. Then they search inside his vehicle.

“What’s this?’’ asks First Lieutenant Alan Molin Jr. of Hardwick, pulling out a rusty canister of white powder.

“Sugar,’’ his translator replies.

“Taste it,’’ Molin tells the driver.

Here at Camp Phoenix, a sprawling, razor-wire-wrapped compound on the outskirts of Kabul that is home to some 2,500 US and NATO soldiers, Molin is one of 170 members of the Massachusetts National Guard, part of the largest deployment of Bay State guardsmen since World War II. Inside the dusty base, it is Christmas. A decorated tree stands on the porch of the chapel. American soldiers sing “Silent Night’’ outside the mess hall. Santa poses for pictures. As their families back home mark the holidays without them, the soldiers try to find small ways to acknowledge Christmas while doing their job.

But the tension is always evident. The Massachusetts soldiers are warned the enemy might like nothing better than to strike Americans on the Christian holiday. The base has been on high alert since last week, when a suicide bomber struck an Afghan National Army convoy nearby. The explosion shook the guard towers and sent up plumes of black smoke. Local children have told soldiers a new suicide bomber might be lurking.

Following Molin’s instruction, the tanker truck driver scoops the white substance into his mouth. He smiles. A crowd of Afghan men in woolen shawls watch from a nearby earthen doorway, murmuring in a language the soldiers don’t understand.

Molin lets the driver and his precious cargo inside the camp.

Across Afghanistan, 689 soldiers from the First Battalion of the 181st Infantry Regiment, including those in the Massachusetts National Guard, man the first line of defense on a dozen bases.

They inspect fuel trucks that arrive each morning, take foot patrols each afternoon, and man the towers 24 hours a day. The war has lasted nine years, and it is easy to forget the everyday mission of thousands of soldiers. A Christmastime view, seen through the eyes of Molin and his fellow soldiers, brings the experience more closely into focus.

It is a view not just of soldiers and guns, but of a gift — many gifts, really — from people across Massachusetts.

Here to help
One day earlier this week, Molin wakes before dawn, as he always does to head down to the fuel depot to inspect the trucks. Half a dozen soldiers are already there.

Specialist Stephen Leon of Chelsea jokes that he would rather be watching his favorite soap opera. He hardly gets a laugh out of Molin, who grabs his clipboard as the squad fans out into the street with their weapons, ready to inspect the first truck.

Molin, a lean, serious 26-year-old, is used to early mornings. He grew up on his family farm in the small town of Hardwick in Western Massachusetts, where his parents still sell fresh meat and eggs out of the front door of the country home that his father built by hand.

Molin commanded his high school Junior ROTC program and received a bachelor’s degree and his officer’s commission at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. He grew up with a belief that the military should help people, said his mother, Diane Molin. When his unit was deployed during an ice storm two years ago, he threw himself into rescuing the elderly who had no heat. As for Afghanistan, she said, her son expressed bitterness at the Sept. 11 attackers, who were directed by Al Qaeda leaders who used the country as their base. But he felt empathy for typical Afghans. “He wanted to go over there and help those people,’’ she said.

This year, at Easter dinner, Molin told his mother he was going to Afghanistan. She burst into tears.

“Just remember when you are over there that you don’t have to be a hero,’’ his father Alan Molin told him. “The cemetery is full of heroes.’’

Molin, who works as facilities engineer at Equity Office Properties, a Boston-based firm, embraced the mission. He arrived here in October with the rest of his battalion, in his first deployment to Afghanistan.

At Camp Phoenix, he is the company’s executive officer, organizing translators, logistics, and fuel contracts. He also volunteers to help other soldiers collect used clothes from the United States for Operation Outreach Afghanistan, a soldier-run program that distributes hats, sweaters, and mittens to Afghan communities around the base.

A month ago, when his parents were wondering what to send him for Christmas, Molin asked them to send used clothing for Afghans. He sent letters to his friends and colleagues back in Massachusetts with the same request.

At first, the response was slow, his father said. But, more recently, boxes have started pouring in. One from a local elementary school in Hardwick, another from Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Then his mother, a part-time mail carrier, set up a drop-off at a Hardwick post office. Soon, boxes started pouring into Camp Phoenix, helping to fill four 20-foot metal storage containers with some 5,000 pounds of clothes, more than Molin imagined he would muster.

Such humanitarian efforts can be humbling, with success hard to quantify, and far removed from the victory in combat that so many infantrymen dream about.

But Molin thinks efforts like Operation Outreach could make the difference in the long, hard battle for allegiances in Afghanistan.

“You help them, first, because you are human,’’ he says. “But you are also trying to win the war, and the best way to do that is to earn their trust. I feel good, because it shows that people back home care. Let’s be honest: How often does the average person back home think about the war?’’

Yanks meet Yankees fan
After finishing his duty at the fuel depot, Molin heads out with eight other soldiers to walk the perimeter of the base and ask villagers about rumors of a suicide bomber.

The soldiers fan out, two walking backward to protect their flank. Molin waves to two men washing their hands outside a mosque. One waves back. The other just stares. A little girl in a purple scarf with a baby on her hip runs up to them with her hand out. “Dollar,’’ she says, and then adds: “Chocolate.’’ But none of the soldiers brought chocolate with them because village elders have asked them to stop handing out goods to the children in the street.

Giving gifts in a war-torn nation can cause fights and even riots, so the soldiers have planned more formal missions to give away the donated clothes through schools. This week, Molin has been trying to arrange a clothing delivery to a school for autistic children that a carpet salesman told him about on one of his patrols.

But that project is on hold, because the base is on high alert, so he hasn’t been given permission to do reconnaissance on the school to make sure the soldiers can’t be ambushed when they bring the clothes.

So for now, Molin focuses on the children tagging along in the road behind him, some of whom have been given hats and gloves by previous patrols.

A 14-year-old boy who introduces himself as Johnny Troublemaker wears a black puffy coat that soldiers have given, along with his nickname.

“Happy day to you, guys,’’ he says, giving high-fives all around.

Johnny says he wants to be a US military interpreter when he grows up, a lucrative job in this knot of poor villages.

An old man in a white turban approaches, carrying a sick child on his back. The soldiers try to arrange for a medic. Villagers swarm around them. There is nothing to the rumors of a suicide bomber, they say.

The soldiers walk on, like Pied Pipers, collecting some 50 children who followed behind, who all demand pens, chocolate, money, and attention. Some pick up rocks to throw at the Americans when they are told they won’t receive more gifts. But Johnny Troublemaker shoos them away.

Around a corner, in a desolate industrial area where dust from a marble tile factory covers the streets, the soldiers find an Afghan man sitting alone on a lawn chair, wearing traditional billowy pants and shirt and a black ski hat embroidered with a Yankees logo.

Sergeant Ron Dennison of Waltham stares in disbelief.

“I like New York,’’ the man says, pumping his fists in the air.

“The Red Sox,’’ Dennison barks, and then moves on.

Watching, over them
The soldiers return to the base in good spirits. Maybe there was no big threat after all. But the towers still had to be manned at all times, even on Christmas Eve. After all, the Pentagon said 34 soldiers from Massachusetts have died in Afghanistan in hostile and nonhostile circumstances since the war began in 2001. Three Massachusetts men have died in Afghanistan this month.

So Molin bypasses the mess hall, where Santa is giving out hot chocolate and hugs, and doesn’t linger long at the Christmas carols. Instead, he heads to Tower 12, to see Sergeant Gregory McAvoy, a sniper from Ware, who is working a double shift.

Several times a week, McAvoy stares down at the Afghans who occupy the fields beyond Camp Phoenix’s walls. He has never exchanged a word with them, but he has memorized the rhythm of their daily lives. The youth who congregate at the pool hall. The children who play cricket. The farmers who come to pull up their carrots. The old man who relieves himself every day against the walls of the US military base.

Tonight is no different. McAvoy will eat turkey from a foam plate and sit for 16 hours without a radio or a book, waiting for an enemy that might never come. “It’s just a normal night,’’ he said.

But on Christmas Day, when his shift is over, he will return to the barracks, which are decorated with letters that his mother, Bobbie McAvoy, sent in giant care packages from home. She organized 130 neighbors from Ware and other friends to send the missives, Christmas cards, and finger-painted wreaths to the soldiers from Massachusetts. Alongside the letters on the plywood walls are stockings, colored lights, two tiny Christmas trees bulging with ornaments, and a snowman hat.

Soon, the squad will have time to share a meal, open gifts, and celebrate for a short while, before it is time to go back to work.

For now, Molin nods at McAvoy and checks his watch. Molin goes back to his office and turns on a computer. An e-mail crosses the screen. People across Massachusetts are sending another dozen boxes of clothing, for the people of Afghanistan.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.

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