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Assignment Afghanistan: Comforts of Colo. 7,322.39 miles away from home

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Theirs is a hectic job.  Colorado medics from the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, flying in and out of the battle field in Afghanistan.

They’ve been deployed here to pick up war wounded, and treat them in a make-shift flying emergency room that’s been cobbled together in the belly of a cargo plane.  Talk about stress.

So what do they do with their time off?  What exactly do you do on a weekend in Afghanistan?  Surprisingly, some of the same things you do exactly 7,322.39 miles back home in Colorado.

A sign with that exact mileage hangs outside a metal building on the edge of the tarmac at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, where those medics from the 34th AES spend much of their down time.  They watch TV and hang out.

“On a day like this, when we’re off, we spend a lot of time together.  We’ve kind of built a family here,” said Senior Airman Erin Smith, a nursing student from Parker, CO.

Inside this building, the walls are covered with reminders of Colorado, like team pennants from the Broncos, Nuggets and Avalanche.  There’s even a poster with Peyton Manning on it.  There are lots of comforts of home.  And just a few buildings over?  The comfort foods of home.

“The Popeye’s and the Pizza Hut is pretty new.  Just a place to feel like home,” said Senior Airman Samantha Gonzalez.

That’s right, there’s fast food in the battle zone.  There’s even a coffee shop, serving everything from espresso to white chocolate mochas.  If not for all the uniforms, this place might pass for a mall food court in Denver.

“When you’re on alert, you try to kind of find things to keep you busy so this is always a nice place to hang out,” said Gonzalez.

But just about the time the crew looks outside and sees those snowy mountains, just like the ones back home, and they forget, for just one moment where they really are, reality sets back in.

For Senior Airman Chris Basham, 21, of Fountain, CO, reality is a tiny plywood room that’s barely big enough for a bed.

“This is where I sleep, and Skype with the family, and wind down,” Basham told FOX 31 Denver.

He decorates the place with reminders of home.  Mostly pictures of his girlfriend, who he Skypes with all the time, and can’t wait to see again.  He often retreats here for solitude- while all those women in his unit hang out together.

On this day, they take us shopping at a marketplace manned by local villagers who are eager to make a buck off Americans with little else to spend their military pay on.  And it’s here that we meet a most unexpected merchant – a young man who looks like he’s been watching some American reality TV.  We tell him he looks very American.

“I’ve heard that.  I’ve heard sometimes they call me ‘Jersey Shore,’” he replies.

The western influence is pretty clear on Jawed, 24.  From the spikey hairdo to the designer clothes.  He looks like Afghanistan’s answer to “The Situation.”

He was just 13 years old when this war started.  He worked as a translator, and quickly embraced the American troops.

When he opened a shop at the Bagram Airfield bazaar, selling blankets and scarves, those Americans became his friends and most generous customers.

On a good day at the bazaar, Jawed clears the equivalent of about $400 in American dollars.  Compare that to the average Afghan who makes just $7 to $10 a day.  Easy to understand why he’s not eager for the Americans to leave.

“We are happy. People make money off (the American forces).  Everyone’s happy, people hate you guys leave Afghanistan,” Jawed said.

But like it or not – they will be leaving – almost every American service member – by the end of 2014, as President Obama announced in his State of the Union address earlier this week.

And this crew from Colorado Springs will be leaving even sooner.

At the time of our visit with them, their deployment is just days from being over.  So they’ve come to the bazaar to buy souvenirs, and stock up on reminders of a place that’s been a nice home away from home.  But  nowhere as good as the real thing.

“I’m just a Colorado girl,” said Smith, as she walked away from the bazaar.

Coming up tomorrow night on FOX 31 Denver News at 9:00, our week-long “Assignment Afghanistan” series continues.  Spending your honeymoon in Afghanistan doesn’t exactly sound ideal, does it?  We’ll introduce you to a helicopter pilot from Golden who is spending some of the first few months of his married life in the war zone.  And how do all those Colorado service members stay in touch with their loved ones back home?  Some of them are able to talk and text with their spouses throughout the day.  We’ll take a look at how wifi has changed the war.