University of New Orleans Flag Waves in Afghanistan
Louisiana Army National Guard Sergeant First Class Norbert Dounseroux wanted a dose of home at his base in Afghanistan so he telephoned the University of New Orleans last month looking for a University flag.
The UNO International Alumni Association gladly took the soldier's call and now a UNO flag proudly hangs in a military command post north of Kabul.
"This is my fifth deployment -- four to Iraq and Kuwait and first to Afghanistan, arriving April of this year," said Dounseroux, who served several tours during the Gulf War before being redeployed in 2010 for the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dounseroux serves with the 160-member Louisiana Army and Air National Guard 1084th Transportation Company, which left Reserve, La. in late February to join 23,000 troops being deployed for service in Afghanistan. The transportation company replaced the 396th Transportation Company, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., and is now stationed at Bagram Airfield, approximately 30 miles north of Kabul.
The transport company's mission in Afghanistan is to provide convoy security to Afghan trucks and U.S. military trucks.
"We escort convoys from base to base around Afghanistan and basically hope nothing happens, but when the stuff hits the fan, we handle it," said Dounseroux, who serves as headquarters platoon sergeant.
A 50-year-old veteran with 25 years of service, Dounseroux oversees approximately 25 personnel working in four sections: security, operations, supply, armor and administration.
"If you can imagine going from New Orleans to Lafayette, it's about 130 miles. It could take two or three hours to drive, but in our reality it takes two or three days to travel that distance," the soldier said. "We follow what they call 'route clearance,' soldiers who monitor and scan the highways for explosives and stuff. They have X-rays or sensors that scan the roadways looking for bombs...If they find one, they call in EOD, the Explosive Ordnance Division, and they'll come and take care of it."
The hilly terrain makes travel and service more difficult in Afghanistan than in Iraq, said Dounseroux. He drives a Heavy Equipment Transporter (HET) vehicle and escorts convoys that include MWRAP Maxpro vehicles bearing heavy weaponry.
Dounseroux likened a military transport convoy to a float parade or funeral procession, with police guards up front and evenly spaced trucks. If anything happens, his unit is responsible for ensuring safe transportation.
Twenty-Five Years of Service
Dounseroux joined the U.S. Army in December 1985 and attended basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He spent his first seven years of active duty stationed in Mannheim, Germany, where he was assigned to the 590th Transportation Company at Turley Barracks from April 1986 to November 1993. While there, he served in the Gulf War and served assigned special humanitarian duty in both Iraq and Kuwait.
From 1993 to 1997, Dounseroux was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. During that time period, he was briefly deployed on a short mission to Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1995.
"Back then, we didn't have anywhere close to the equipment we have now. When we hit the highway, it was just us," the military transport driver said. "My safety depended on whether my co-driver or my passenger stayed awake. If we got shot at, I would need him on the look out...to see where they were and shoot back...His safety depended on how fast I could get that truck out of the area."
Though he left the Army in 1997, he still had not had enough.
Dounseroux joined the Louisiana Army National Guard 1084th Trans Co. in 1999. He made two trips to San Diego, where he supported the building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in 2003 and 2010, Dounseroux was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait.
Life on Bagram Air Field
Now Dounseroux lives on base at Bagram Airfield in a 20-foot-by-eight-foot steel housing unit fashioned from a 20-foot steel shipping container. The housing units are stacked atop one another and suites are joined with a hallway through the middle. As a senior veteran, he has one roommate. Eleven of the housing units made from shipping containers house four soldiers, the soldier said.
Most of his information comes from the Armed Forces Network (AFN) television service and the Stars and Stripes newspaper, both of which he described as "government-controlled."
During downtime, he watches "as much television as possible" to relax at the end of long days, he said. On arriving in Afghanistan, the sergeant purchased on base a 26-inch flat screen and Dish TV system, which allow him to watch television shows made in the U.S. and programmed through India.
In other words: he reads subtitles as he listens to dubbing by Indian speakers in order to watch American television.
At a local bazaar, he can buy "boot-leg movies, and other items that everyone buys to make themselves comfortable," the soldier said. The time zone is 9 1/2 hours ahead so he makes his personal calls late at night.
"Actually...we have the same basic comforts as if you were on Belle Chase," the soldier said, referring to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, La., about 20 minutes from New Orleans. The base, which sits on an airfield with a dual-runway capable of handling any size military aircraft, is one of the largest U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
"We have the PX, Popeye's, Pizza Hut and Green Bean Coffee (our version of Starbucks). And I use the AT&T phone center sometimes if I don't want to use my cell phone."
Staying Balanced In A War Zone
Recent experiences in Afghanistan have been powerful and poignant, said Dounseroux, who spoke of bonds between soldiers and the experience a 50-year-old veteran with 25 tears of service brings.
In the last two months, he has faced improvised explosive devices and rocket propelled grenade launchers, seen soldiers wounded by shrapnel, handled wounded soldiers, dealt with wrecked equipment, dodged flaming vehicles and mortar rounds -- and served on the convoy that transported Spc. Christopher Drake, a 20-year-old Tickfaw man killed one month ago today.
"All I can say is that I was just ahead of him and I will always remember his last words to me," said Dounseroux, who kept the dead soldier's words private. "...I can say that it's important to remember the last thing you say to someone might be your last."
Full of humor, Dounseroux has told his soldiers to view the mountains of Afghanistan as Denver and Salt Lake City. He described Kabul as any other inner city with "hustle-bustle traffic" and poverty -- marked in his mind through several deployments by poor and parent-less children chasing American trucks for food and candy.
The best advice he has given young soldiers, he said, is: Don't hang around the clock-watcher.
One never knows for sure when he or she will leave until on the plane home, he said. In the meantime, the best answer is to stay focused, work hard and keep occupied during free time.
Waving the Flag
Dounseroux waves his UNO flag in honor of his mother, Acquilla G. Dounseroux. The gesture is both a nod to the past and a wave to the future.
"I can remember as a child she would bring me to class with her on the days she couldn't get a sitter for me, as I was a handful. From what I remember, she was deep into school...She was school-minded," Dounseroux said of his mother, who died in February 2008.
"I believe she also may have taken a class at SUNO briefly but I have fonder memories of going to good ol' LSUNO back then."
He remembers taking the Elysian Fields or Franklin Avenue bus from uptown New Orleans to campus and being greeted by a concrete wall and white sign. The sign had black letters LSUNO and underneath that the words "Lousiana State University New Orleans."
"I remember reading it as we came up there on the bus," said Dounseroux, who at the time was a small child.
His mother worked as a substitute teacher with Orleans Parish and worked at Charity Hospital, he said. In the years before her death, she was preparing to retire from City Hall, where she worked in many departments, including the Mayor's Office. She raised five children in a shotgun double alone after her husband died.
"I've always admired UNO," said Dounseroux, who has pursued college coursework overseas but not yet completed his college education. "Although my mother was an educator, I just couldn't grasp the value of the education at the time," he said of the years following his graduation from Alcee Fortier High School.
The soldier who thought he wanted to be a teacher too now serves as a driving instructor in the military and coaches young servicemen daily.
"Hindsight 20/20 is a real butt kicker. After I returned from Iraq in 2010, I spoke with a UNO representative at a Job Fair at the Superdome. After a nice long conversation, we found I really wanted to attend UNO."
When he returns to the United States in January, he plans to return the University flag to UNO in a case made by an Afghani craftsman. A small plaque will show that the flag flew on a U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Dounseroux said.
"It has the Afghanistan dust on it," he said. "We can say: 'It's been here.'"