January 22, 2013
We made it back safe and sound!! What another amazing expierence!! This was by far the most enlightening part of the trip as far as the needs of the de-mining teams. I first want to thank Bill Morse and Aki Ra for allowing us to spend the night with the team in the field. I would also like to extend much grattitude to the entire de-mining team that took us in as their own last night. What an honor it was for me to be with them for the last 40 hours or so.
We headed out in the morning yesterday around 7:30am. We had a very long ride out to the Laos border. It took close to 6 hours to get there. The last 2-2 1/2 hours were along a very bumpy and slow moving dirt road. We were all piled into a van so it wasnt so bad. We talked most of the way with Aki Ra and Bill. Heard more stories of how Aki Ra used to de-mine, and how they got established to where the CSHD is today. We also got a nap in on the ride as we were sure we wouldnt be getting to much sleep.
We arrived at the hut that the team is staying at and unloaded a few things. Then we were off to the field. It was about a mile down the road and probably less than that to a village of men, woman, and children. We suited up and got a short briefing on safety and began the long walk towards the active site. We had body armor on with helmets and shields to protect our faces. We were wearing the exact same equipment the de-miners wear. It was extremely hot and cumbersome, and probably weighed close to 10 pounds.
We entered the site and began walking the line. The teams work 25 meters apart at all times, so they are hard to pick out from a distance, and they are working in dense vegetation. They manually clear the vegetation with shears and if working, a weed whacker. Its a painstakingly slow and tedious process. Each member of the team clears roughly 100 meters a day. They work in 1 meter wide grids throughout the field all working towards the center. After they have cleared the vegetation and cleared the area with their metal detectors they burn off the field. So as we were walking around, there were fires burning all around. It really felt like a war zone. And also added to the anxiety of being in a mine field as you can imagine.
As we walked through the field, Aki Ra showed me the UXO (unexploded ordinance) that has been found so far. It was mostly cluster munitions that were American made. He also showed us a crater from a 500lb bomb that was on the site. We continued walking through the field watching the team at work. You really get a great sense of how focused each de-miner is when you see them at work. It takes great patience to do this job. They have very strict procedures to follow and I stood next to one of the de-miners as they were using their tools to probe the dirt. They had found something with the metal detector and before they can move on, they must find out what it is. I was kind of frozen as I watched. I was so focused on what they were doing that I forgot how close I was to potential disaster if it detonated. Bill whispered to me, “Steve, you probably want to move yeah?” I came out of the daze or tunnel vision I was in and we all moved on.
We headed back to the area that the UXO were and Aki Ra set them up for detonation. As he did that we moved on to a safe distance. 250 meters is the standard for all detonations. Aki Ra and Sambo came back to where we were with the remote detonation device. We were instructed to put our shields down and kneel. He gave a 3 count and then detonated the TNT. Even expecting the explosion doesnt prepare you. You could feel the pressure in your chest from the blast. It sent a could about 40 feet high. We could hear debris flying over our heads and landing behind us. It was intense. I could only imagine what it would be like if a mine had gone off. Or if I mine had gone off in close proximity to us. The devastation that would occur is something we cant comprehend. You see the pictures of people that have been injured and lost limbs, but the psychological damage that you would sustain from living through something like that……..It was something I really hadnt thought a lot about yet. Being there, for a detonation gave me a different prespective to what victims of these blast must live with everyday…… and we were 250 meters away.
We loaded the trucks back up and headed back to the camp. We set up our hammocks and unloaded all the supplies for the night. The team began cooking dinner and working on their equipment. One of the trucks had gotten a hole in the radiator, so myself and 3 of the other team members did what we could to repair it. We pulled it out and used basically JB weld to hold it till they could get someone out there with a torch. We finished working on the truck using light only from head-lamps. The rest of the team during that time was sitting behind the hut being taught how to read. They do this every night for about an hour. We all then had dinner together. We ate noodles and vegetables with rice. We sat around and chatted for a while. The sun goes down around 6:30, so by 8 most everyone is getting in their hammocks and getting some rest.
I got in my hammock and was in heaven. Even reflecting on the days events, I was so at peace. You could hear dogs howling in the distance. Crickets chirping away all night. There was a light, cool breeze. I could stay out here forever…..
We all got up around 6am, as thats about the time the sun rises. We all ate breakfast and broke down camp, loaded up the truck and headed back to the mine field. We talked more in depth about the de-mining operations throughout Cambodia as well as the site we were at. We walked through the field and again I was in awe of the work the de-miners do. The pictures do tell the story, however, without standing by and watching them, I dont know if you can get how impressive it truly is. I held one of the metal detectors and you can feel how after an extended amount of time, they get real heavy. And its only 8am and probably 80 degrees and with our equipment on, 90-95 degrees. Only to get hotter as the day goes on.
We headed back to camp after a few hours and talked some more with Aki Ra and we shared a laugh reflecting on our breakfast in Los Angeles a few months ago. We said our goodbyes and many thanks to everyone for being so amazing to us. I really felt like I was part of the team. I am extremely proud that I was able to have this expierence with these men and woman. I might even have an opportunity to fill in as their medic for a 26 day deployment in a few months, and it would be an honor to serve in that capacity for them. They are all MY HERO’S…..
Amanda and I got back to where we are staying and grabbed some dinner and headed out to get our feet massaged by fish!!!! I cant really explain it other than sticking your bare feet into a giant aquarium. It was BIZARE!!!!
Off to sleep now. We are headed out to one of the schools that the CSHD organization has built to see how its done and so we can get a better idea of what its going to take to build our own. There should be a lot of kids there so we will be taking the last of the “presents” with us..
Good night all. I love you and will be seeing you soon.