Battling the Wind

May 21, 2002

For Afghans and American troops, 120-day wind is both blessing and curse


BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ It sweeps across Afghanistan's desert steppes and mountains at speeds that can top 100 miles (160 kilometers) an hour, pummeling the country relentlessly with sand and dust for four months every year.

Known simply as "The Wind of 120 days," the phenomenon is both blessing and curse for the millions of people who live in its path.

"We have a saying," said Bagram resident Mohammad Safa, 54. "If you eat poison little by little, eventually you'll get used to it."

The strong winds usually blow between June and September _ they have arrived early this year _ making it difficult to see and sometimes hard to breathe. But in the dry summer heat, they also ease the sweltering conditions.

In the south and west, the winds are especially brutal, reaching 110 mph (175 kph) across flat deserts, according to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative medicine, which issues a small leaflet to American troops in Afghanistan with advice on how to stay healthy _ and alive.

"High wind can turn tent pegs and loose objects into flying missiles, which may be invisible in blowing sand," the leaflet said.

Staff Sgt. Jackson Vernard, 30, of Dallas, said he suffered a concussion after he was lifted 10-15 feet (3-4 meters) into the air by one gust while trying to set up his tent.

"The tent acted like a parachute. I was holding onto it and the wind picked me up. I landed face first in the dirt," Vernard said.

Staff Sgt. David Antonelli, 35, of Hudson, New York, said another soldier broke her ankle when shoved backward by the wind while setting up a tent.

Some gusts snatch drinks and dinner trays out of the hands of soldiers and scatter them. And there is no relief at night _ the green canvas tents where some troops sleep rattle as if a hurricane is roaring at full force.

Winds over 40 knots and sandstorms can ground the coalition's fleet of large twin-rotor Chinook helicopters, used to ferry supplies, infantry and Special Forces troops.

"Somebody should invest in windmills in this country. You could make a fortune," said Capt. Jeff Pool, 32, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

In the Shomali Plain north of Kabul, Safa said some people have to yell to communicate in the howling wind. In the local Dari language, "shomali" means wind.

But Safa said the winds are a blessing.

"If there was no wind, we couldn't stay out here because it'd be too hot," he said. "And if there was no wind at night, we wouldn't be able to sleep because of all the mosquitoes."

U.S. soldiers at Bagram are learning to cope. They wear goggles to protect their eyes and use sandbags and extra ropes to keep their tents from blowing away.

As bad the winds in Bagram are, it's still more agreeable than western Afghanistan, where the winds are much worse and summer temperatures are among the country's hottest, said Chief Warrant Officer John Proctor, 38, of Albany, Georgia.

"No thanks," Proctor said, pausing to adjust a brown cloth covering his face.
"It'd be like living inside a hair dryer."

Copyright 2002 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.