The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

HOW YOU CAN HELP |

September 28, 2010

 Name: CAPT Marc Rassler
Posting date: 9/28/10
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Livingston, MT
Milblog: To Afghanistan and Back

Almost weekly I get an email or card from a friend or family member asking if there is anything that I need or want while I am here in Afghanistan. I normally just say thanks, as I have been really blessed while here and have received a lot of care packages, and the Army provides most everything I need.
 
But I thought I would share an idea with folks who might be willing to send something. It is something that I would like share with some kids in Afghanistan. The Sergeant Major in my unit has found a team on our base that occasionally visits local schools, and in October our small team will spend a day visiting a school or two. We would like to receive school supplies to give to local Afghan children. We will take anything that you think a kid from 1st grade up through 12th grade might need or use -- paper, pens, pencils, crayons, markers, glue, scissors, etc.

Additionally I'm sure we could find a way to send out any small toys that might be included. Believe it or not, flying kites is something we often see kids doing around here, so small kites or kite accessories I'm sure would be appreciated. 

Keep in mind that while some of the kids may know a couple words of English, for the most part kids younger than high school age won't be able to recognize English writing. Additionally the one thing that I ask, for any who might be tempted, is to not send any religious-themed materials. Feel free to send God's love with the package you make, but I think that it will cause more problems than it would help if were to share anything Christian-related with them.
 
It was interesting and exciting to see a bunch of children, mostly girls, walking down the street the other day as we passed by in our vehicles. What was interesting was that the young girls were all carrying small plastic chairs, for what appeared to be a good distance. Our Terps said that some schools, especially girls’ schools, are so poor that if the children want to sit down they have to bring their own chairs. So in addition to any books or supplies, they also carry a chair to and from school.
 
Education is the hope and future of this country. When children and later adults are able to read and write they will be able to understand the corruption or perversion of the groups like the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.
 
We plan to do a school visit sometime in October. The only bad part is that I may be on leave during that time period, enjoying my vacation. Should you decide you want to send a school supplies package please put somewhere on the address a notation indicating that it is school supplies. I will tell my friends that it is okay to open any box of mine labeled that way. Obviously I will certainly write about and share pictures of any donations we hand out.

Please send supplies to me at:

CPT Marc Rassler
MN CS OMLT
Camp Mike Spann
APO AE 09368

P.S. A SHOUTOUT TO THE FOLKS BACK HOME

A couple weeks ago I came up with the idea for the video below. I wrote the script for it, and with the help of the PAO on Camp Mike Spann we shot it. I thought that it would be cool to send a "Go Vikes" message from Afghanistan for the team's first game of the season. The public affairs folks did all of the work putting it together and publishing it. We were just the pretty faces in front of the camera. Unfortunately one of our guys, Joe Christenson, was home on leave and wasn't able to be in the video.

For those that have never been to a Vikings game before, the cheer we yell at the end of the video is “Skol Vikes!”

 

 

RIOTS, ROCKETS AND AN ELECTION |

September 22, 2010

Name: Major Dan
Posting date: 9/22/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan

That's the name of the game here lately. An important nationwide election looms today (Saturday, September 18th), in which all seats of Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga (or lower house of parliament) are up for sale -- oops, I mean grabs! Framing the election season, which features more than 2500 candidates jockeying for just 249 seats, was the fallout from Quran burnings in the U.S., even though that pastor in Florida never went through with it. Whether there were imitation burnings in the States (I don't even know), or old footage was aired as if it was new, or rumors simply gained traction that it happened anyway, there were a number of highly-charged demonstrations the past few days. 

Some turned into deadly riots, which isn't hard to see coming when you factor in the ingredients: A "grave insult to all of Islam" is reported across the media, and sometimes in such a way as to suggest that large numbers of Americans are taking part in the desecration; word of mouth spreads fast and furious that it is sanctioned by the U.S. Government, by NATO, by ISAF, and that we're probably burning copies behind our blast walls; insurgent groups and criminal gangs always looking for an opportunity stoke the flames however they can; and oh yes, an election said to be fraudulent already -- by those who want no democracy here and by quite a few ordinary Afghans -- rapidly approaches as all this unfolds.

Just one of the many incidents of the past few days...
Two killed in Afghan protest over Quran burning plan

The polls open in just 6 hours, as of this writing. And for the third time in just the last few months, most of the country is on edge, hopeful for a collective step forward (usually defined as "no major attacks") while fearful that instability will rule the day. Or just as likely, and more troublesome, perhaps most are resigned to the idea that their votes don't much matter, and that neither really does the national assembly. That's the sentiment I hear most often expressed in conversation with Afghans. The people are pretty disgruntled with rampant corruption in their government, for the most part -- though exactly how many want to do something about that remains highly in question, as there is still a great deal of often-puzzling loyalty to the heavyweights in charge. 

Some cool photographs here...
Perspectives on Afghanistan's parliamentary elections

Still, the election season has been incredibly interesting. For months, the signs along roadsides have taken over, as more than 600 candidates are running for seats in Kabul alone. Ranging from placards to billboards, and in some cases giant banners overhanging main thoroughfares, there are hundreds of plastered faces staring out at you in a stern manner at any given time. Facial recognition is important, as are the symbols associated with various candidates (Vote for the three lions! -- seriously), since the population is somewhere around 20% literate. Television commercials, and there have been tons, generally feature a version of the hand-out card on the screen with a voice-over urging you to vote for the good candidate in question.

Check out the photo on this link -- it's like some of mine, which I am unable to post.
Afghan election: Taliban not the only culprits of campaign violence

So who are these candidates? They range from former(?) warlords to sons/daughters of past heroes, some clearly going for the traditional vote -- and looking like village elders in Kunar -- while some seek the more Western-minded youth on their side. There are ethnic party hardliners, there are grandmothers, there are probably hundreds of candidates secretly backed by their local insurgents (who officially oppose elections) -- and there are patriots who truly want to take out the trash and start with a fresh legislature. Allegations abound already of fixing by incumbents, particularly those close to President Karzai, but there's still a giant sense of the unknown. It should be an interesting day. Here's one of the more interesting candidates...

Trust me, this is an exception to the usual appearance!  She's garnered quite a bit of attention, as you might guess...
Sisters, sprinters run for the elections

My feeling is that like the Kabul Conference in July, and the Peace Jirga before it, the election will be pulled off with only relatively minor disruptions -- at least in the large cities. Both of those were anticipated events with high international profiles, inviting a statement of some sort by insurgents looking to de-legitimize the government. But the outlying districts will likely be another story. The army and police have given the assurances they can, confident that a strong security presence will encourage voting.

Caption I'd like to attach the link's top photo: One American wonders what's going on, as one Afghan gives the press hell ("And another thing...!"), my man Azimi gives the evil eye (or the stinkeye?), and the dude on the end thinks, "Do I smell lamb? Yep, I smell lamb. Time for lunch, boys."

(This is a blatant plug of my own story.)
Election security will be adequate, say Afghan generals

* Just before I began writing this, a slight earthquake shook Kabul, about two hours ago.  I was running at the time in the darkened city camp and barely felt it -- I thought more likely that a detonation had happened somewhere -- but hordes of people staggered sleepy-eyed out of their rooms. The real notification for me came in the form of little birds, who pack the trees by the thousands and chatter away all evening and half the night. They came pouring out of their trees, making such a crazy racket that I thought to myself, (no foolin'), clearly something just happened. It wasn't until I ran by someone who asked, "Did you feel the earthquake?", that I knew what happened. As my director just posted on Facebook a few moments ago, let's hope it's not some kind of election day omen...

No damage reported after moderate earthquake jolts Afghanistan

* Follow-on note: I did actually hear the rocket, an hour or so after posting this. Now that is a greater concern than a deep tremor of the earth. But the fact that it gets reported as news, and that I am posting about it, just goes to demonstrate how safe Kabul is. The last time I was deployed I didn't even bother writing about rockets landing in bases in the East. Here it's big news if one strikes anywhere in the vast capital. But that's the juxtaposition of safety in this city vs that which passes for it in the rest of the country, the byproduct of super-tight security on all approaches and beefed-up policing inside. The upside is a relative oasis of calm apart from the dangers of other provinces.  The downside is a return to the "Kingdom of Kabul," where government and commerce hold sway here, but everything beyond gets further unstable all the time.

Afghan voting off to rocky start

(Note to Ms. Vogt: I'd hardly characterize one rocket, in a city that has been besieged by storms of rockets, as a "rocky start." Silly media, always super-concerned if it's their safe zone of Kabul...)

UPDATE: ELECTION DURING WARTIME

With the election over and the midnight oil still burning hours past, I thought it only fair to follow up my pessimistic diatribe with a bit of euphoria. My team returned a few hours ago from an election night joint press conference, where some of Afghanistan's most powerful leaders discussed the eventful day and the period of time which led up to it. Since the 'principles' of ours were the ones coordinating and preparing their bosses (the Ministers of Defense and Interior, respectively) for the big conference, we got to take pride in a job well done by the entire departments we advise.

Afghanistan's Tolo News on the day...
IEC calls the elections a success

The greatest feeling comes from the news that millions of Afghans voted today for their chosen representatives, with turnout higher than anticipated in most of the country. The other good vibes flow from a few key things my boss pointed out; the knowledge that Afghans provided effective security against long odds, that their ministries conducted a highly effective information engagement on their own, that the police and army acknowledged the growth of their force and its increased professionalism as major factors in their success, and that we got to report the good news back to those who've worked hard for results on this end.

(Yep, I'm plugging myself again...had a hand in this one.)
Afghan forces secure election

Besides the conference itself which capped the night, a number of things stood out on this cool-weather, earthquake-aftershock-afflicted, blue-sky day. The drive to the somewhat-secret press hall was a good reminder that there's no better way to travel than in the convoy of the Interior Minister, who by the way is in charge of all the police in the land. Anyone who thinks that Afghans can't manage outstanding command and control needs to ride in one of these convoys. With no notice, the minister says "go" and the convoy takes off, with the entire route blocked off from traffic and guarded with extra arms because the word went out. So you may find yourself (hey, Talking Heads again!) in a large automobile, zipping through main avenues and circles and through zig-zag barriers that would normally suffer you long delays.

Before that, though, was the thoughtful time spent gazing out from the rooftop of the ministry prior to sunset over Kabul, as we waited for the show to get on its way. Here it is, election day, with so much fear about what would transpire -- and what do we get but a kite show. Everywhere we looked, four or eight or a dozen kites were up. It was a magnificent scene, really. And a reassuring sight.

Here is the link to some photos from today, some by me and the good ones by Ms. Pam Smith.
Flickr: Election Day Afghanistan

GETTING TO KNOW OUR TERPS |

September 20, 2010

Name: CAPT Marc Rassler
Posting date: 9/20/10
Deployed to: Afghanistan
Hometown: Livingston, MT
Milblog: To Afghanistan and Back

When we were at Ft. Polk during our mobilization training we went through 40 hours of Dari language training, learning some of the basic vocabulary, numbers, and greetings. The training was intended to give us the ability understand the first five minutes of a conversation. So it is useful if we only intend to introduce ourselves to Afghans then ask “How are you?“ with the expectation that they will answer “I am fine how are you?” To which we will always say, “Good." Thus our interpreters are vitally important.

In addition to mentoring the S1 personnel section of our Kandak, my main other duty is serving as Terp Manager for our team. When we got here we inherited six interpreters. In order to try and decrease the strain of having to share interpreters amongst our team, a couple days ago we were able to add an additional Terp to help.

MAJ Baer, the S3/XO mentor, probably has one of the better and most experienced interpreters assigned to our team. Ken has been working as a Terp for the past five years and has a wife and two little kids. Almost a tossup in abilities is Sam, the Terp that works with CPT Anderson, the S4 mentor. Like Ken, he has been working as an interpreter for close to five years. I give Sam a bit of grief, as he is barely into his mid-20s and is dating a girl that is seven years younger than him. He assures me that is normal for Afghanistan.

The third senior member of our team of Terps is Joe, who helps our Command Sergeant Major with his mentoring of the Kandak CSM. Joe is one of the younger members of the team, but he too has been interpreting for about five years. He also has a young wife and child.

I started the deployment working with Sean, who has been a Terp for about a year now. He is unique in that he is the only one on the team that has a college degree. Also single, he sends most of the money that he earns back to his parents, who helped him out quite a bit while he was in college. After a couple months, due to differences of personality, I swapped terps with CPT Reid, the HHC mentor. CPT Reid has a very direct style, and his Terp, Dale, wasn’t always able to effectively convey with the force that CPT Reid needed. Dale is the youngest of our gang of Terps, and my laid-back style seems to work fairly well with his strengths.

The last of our original six is Wally the Wise, as we often call him. The smallest in stature, though perhaps the biggest in heart, Wally is in his mid-20s, and when he gets enough free time he makes a long journey to visit his family. He told us that during his last visit to his parents he purchased a small solar panel system so that they could have some power in order to listen to a radio.

The newest addition to our gang of seven is Kelly, who worked as a interpreter for a medical training team for the past couple years. We are still getting to know Kelly, but thus far it seems like he will be a good addition.

They are a good bunch of guys and make our jobs possible. In our walks to and from the Kandak we get about 10 minutes to BS with our Terps about their lives and families. Part of the fun of those walks is sharing stories about life in the United States. We have taught them several useless and trivial things, stuff that will nonetheless come in handy if they ever get to the States.

For example, I taught Dale and Wally the art of doing a good Truffle Shuffle. They also now know what it means if someone shows up to work acting as though they rode The Little Yellow Short Bus. We now have most of the team able to finish the commercial jingle for Mounds and Almond Joy: ”Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t….”

If our meeting time or place changes I need to tell them the New Bat Time, and the New Bat Channel. Otherwise it is assumed that we will meet “Same Bat Time, and Same Bat Channel.” They also have started to overuse the phrase “Peace Out” whenever we part ways; instead of getting a "See you later" they will tell me to "Peace Out." Fortunately, as far as I can tell, neither I nor any of my team members have taught our Terps any swear or curse words, although I think that most of them, from previous American rotations, already had a pretty good handle on how to swear like an American.

All of my guys are hard workers and have interesting stories to tell. For the ones that are not married, part of their goal with the money they make as interpreter is to help out their families, which is a big part of their culture. Many of them I also believe are saving their money to get married. Even though they may not yet have a girlfriend, a proper wedding ceremony may eventually be one of the biggest expenses in their life. A good wedding is a big deal in Afghan society, perhaps costing more than $10,000 US dollars, with hundreds of friends and family from both sides coming to the celebration. Because their values are a bit different from ours, for some of them it may not be uncommon when they eventually do get married to marry a cousin. We have given them some good-natured ribbing that that is not something that you want to do.

Because they work for the US Army, after a couple years as an interpreter they go to the front of the line in Afghanistan to apply for a visa to the United States. My three guys who have been working as interpreters the longest are pretty far along in their visa applications, and just waiting for different pieces of paperwork to come through. So quite often they will ask questions about where the good places are to live in the United States. Members of US Congress might take note of the fact that our Terps want to settle in the areas that they have heard have the lowest taxes, as they know that they will get to keep more of their own money. Everything in Afghanistan takes more time compared to in the States, but it is possible that three of my guys might make it home to the states before we will finish our deployment.

One thing that is both frustrating and encouraging regarding our Terps is that it is obvious that they are some of the best and brightest young men in Afghanistan. Their families spent money on them to take English lessons at private schools, and for the most part they are pretty smart guys. While good for their individual futures, it is unfortunate for Afghanistan that they want to take their talents and move to the United States. If the smartest young men of Afghanistan want to leave Afghanistan it is going to take a while for this country to even get up to Second World status.

Note: Afghanistan can be a dangerous place for Afghans who work for US Forces, so for this story I changed their names. Also, in pictures that I post I avoid including my Terps. I would hate to see one of them hurt because of a blog entry.

THE FINAL SPRINT |

September 14, 2010

Name: Air Force Wife
Posting date: 9/14/10
Spouse deployed: Overseas
Milblog: SpouseBuzz

Air Force Guy's current deployment is rapidly coming to a close -- although it seems like the days are moving more slowly than my kids when I call bedtime, the time altogether seems to be hurtling like a freight train towards homecoming day.

What this means to me, of course, is that the last two weeks have been filled with stress and upset about all the things that I didn't get done, the things I should have started, the fact that my house isn't clean enough, and my rear end isn't small enough.  In fact, I have christened the mad sprint I am going through right now (which centers around nine boxing/kickboxing workouts a week and the most boring -- albeit healthy -- eating plan ever devised by a professional dietitian) "Operation Make My A** Smaller".

This is far from our first deployment or homecoming.  I should know better by now, but it seems I never truly learn.  And it probably doesn't help that I have a competitive streak the size of a politician's ego -- I made a goal for myself and I'm going to reach it, so help me, if it's the last thing I do.  The floor will be scrubbed, the beds will be made, my hair will be perfect, and I will fit into that next size down jeans or I will kick and punch and bob and weave until I fall over dead in the ring.  Then I won't need the jeans, so it all works out in my mind.

The very first SpouseBUZZ Live was the first time I ever heard armywifetoddlermom talk about her husband's homecoming and the feelings that it brought out.  I vividly remember her telling about the stress that culminated in her, exhausted, trying to iron a duvet so things would be perfect.

Because that's what we all want.  We want the perfect picture -- the perfectly scrubbed kids that clap and jump and hug (but know when to stop and don't get overwhelmed with emotion), the perfect welcome home kiss, the sparkling house that knocks him for a loop when he walks in, and the body that makes him want to stop at a hotel on the way home.  We want the storybook memory that we take out and refer to again and again as life goes on.  We want this beautiful outward proof that everything we did, and managed, and held in emotionally was worth it.  And somehow, that proof often becomes wrapped up in appearances and behavior we really can't control (especially the kids -- I'm the meanest mom I know and just today my kids felt that it would be socially acceptable for them to start throwing punches at each other over who would win a Chuck Norris/Bruce Lee match up while we were in Red Hot and Blue.  BTW, Bruce Lee won, historical fact).

And I know by now that the perfect day I plan is going to have hitches.  There are always hitches, no matter how often I hit the gym.  Life is a hitch.  And I'm going to feel let down when that hitch happens, because I always do.  And there is nothing I can do to stop this -- it's like that Nicholas Cage movie where he knows what's going to happen right before it happens.  I know, but I can't stop it.

I've gotten advice from several of my friends, "AFW -- he's not going to care if you have one eye, a case of laryngitis, and a hump on your back when he gets home, as long as you've shaved your legs.  He'll just be so happy to be home and with you all that nothing else matters."  And intellectually I know this is true.  I've lived it multiple times now, I know how it goes.  I've even said this to people I see stressing out as homecoming time looms ever more near.

But emotionally, it never registers.  Never.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that it never will.

So, I'm going to keep it up -- the workouts, the boring food, the manic cleaning sessions.  And a few months after he gets home I'm going to wonder why on earth I was so obsessive, when it was clearly not necessary.  I'll chastise myself and vow that I will never get so obsessive and blinded by tunnel vision again.  I know this.

And then next time I'll start the same cycle over.

TWO WORLDS |

September 09, 2010

Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Posting date: 9/9/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Keeping An Eye on Afghanistan

Prologue: I kind of wandered into this blog posting as I wrote it. I have not written like this since I was last here in 2007. It is what it is.

I am stuck in Bagram for goodness sake, the largest base in Afghanistan, so it not like there is a lot of excitement here. While on this trip I decided to catch up on some reading I have wanted to do. I get lots of books, movies, and documentaries to read and watch and maybe do reviews on. I get them free of charge and 99% of the time without asking. I have two book reviews in draft status that I need to finish, but I need the books and my notes with me to do that, and I didn’t bring them, in order to pack light.

What I did bring with me was two books I have had for the longest time but have never gotten around to reading. They are very special, because they are both written by good friends of mine. One is The Blogs of War by Matt Burden of Blackfive.net fame, and the other is House to House by David Bellavia.

David has been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor and both are still pending. He has already been awarded the Bronze Star and the Silver Star. He and I have spent hours (and I mean hours) on the phone talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, combat in general and leaders (both political and military). His book, like Matt’s, has been on the nightstand next to my bed for way too long. As I was packing for this trip, I knew those were the ones I wanted to bring.

I am half-way through Matt’s, but the other day it was not where I thought I had put it, so as I was leaving my room I grabbed David’s and figured I would at least start that. That was three days ago. I just finished its 312 pages today. I could not put it down. I will eventually do a review of it.

But this posting is about where I was, why I am here, and what I was reading -- and how all of those came together. Without giving away too much about the book, let me just say that David writes about going back to Iraq, having been there as a soldier. He returned mainly to bring closure. I was reading a part near the end of the book about how he had to do this trip, how he had to return, etc. while I myself was sitting in Afghanistan for the first time since I left here as a soldier. Like David, who was not a soldier anymore when he returned to Iraq, I am no longer in (having retired). Like David, I felt a little out of place here as a guy in tactical cargo pants, not ACUs. I don’t “fit in” with the soldiers here. I do with the many contractors, but not the soldiers.

So I was reading how David had to bring closure at the expense of his little boy’s trust and emotions. How his son was angry with him for going back, and how he scolded David upon his return. And a wave of emotions overtook me. As I sat at a picnic table in the middle of a secured compound full of A-type personality warriors, I desperately tried to keep reading even though the words were getting blurred from the tears pooling up on the inside of my Oakleys.

I used every muscle to hide the fact that I was crying as I sat there. I read how his son Evan told David that he was not allowed to go back, and that the reason that David had made it through this second trip to Iraq was because Evan “saved” him. Yes, words like that just kept the tears coming.

My situation is not 100% similar to David’s, but I felt many of the same emotions that he did and I can relate to others. I didn’t really come back here for closure. I am here doing my job. However the feeling of a need for closure sort of comes with being here. On this trip certain actions, smells, and sights have brought back memories or flashbacks. I am not sure if that is really closure, but it is something. I would have loved to get down to my old stomping grounds in Paktika and Ghazni provinces. I would have loved to see where I used to live, and I guess that is a desire for closure. However my job here this time does not warrant me going out into bad guy country.

If you ask my wife she may tell you that I am still in Afghanistan sometimes in my heart. She knows I was I was excited about this trip. She knows that I have a bond that is tighter than blood and marriage sometimes with the guys I served with. On the night of my retirement party I told several of them that I would be there for them anytime, anywhere. Now, I may have been slightly intoxicated at that moment, but they know I meant it. I did then, and I still do now. A part of me lived, flourished and died in Afghanistan. And those guys were with me every step of the way. That is normal for someone in combat, I believe. I will always have a connection with this country regardless of how it turns out in the future.

So as I finished up David’s very awesome book, the tears started to dry up and I just sat there. I wondered what kind of emotional event I had just gone through. What brought all that on? I was not sure at the time, but what I was sure of was that I had to write this blog post. As I started writing, a realization came to me. I think I know why I cried. I cried for what I believe are some of the same reasons that David did in the book. The bond with warriors in warfare is tighter than anything. Once we go through it with comrades we are closer than anyone can comprehend. We want to be with those guys, again, all the time, back in the hell of combat. But we have lives, we have families, we have dreams, plans and passions that are not compatible with war.

I believe it is the tearing apart of our souls by those two worlds which bring grown, tough men to tears. I so bad want to be with Puss, Prophet, Mouse, Rog-O, Bid D, Face, Smoke, The Dude and others again. Standing together, side by side in the shit. However I also want to be at home coaching my youngest’s hockey team, and going on date-nights with my wife, and helping my middle son pick out a college, and all the other things we do in normal life.

One man cannot do both over a sustained stretch of time. It is either one or the other. The adrenaline, the “high” we get from combat, cannot be had on a regular basis if you want to be a father and a husband. Those times in the past with people trying to kill me and me trying to kill them are just that -- in the past. They are memories now, and stories around the campfire once a year when my team reunites for our annual reunion camping trip. So yes, that is why I think you see warriors and ex-warriors cry sometimes. We want both worlds, yet we can’t have them both. So we are sad to be away from one, but cry tears of joy that we have survived to be with the other.

 

 

OF UNDUE INFLUENCE AND ACCESS |

September 07, 2010

Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 9/7/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan

Last deployment, I had the pleasure of working with two excellent interpreters, both of whom ended up losing their jobs over charges stemming from documented cases of corruption and nefarious double dealings. "Doc" was a portly, German-educated Afghan who understood the value of a good party, and also the value of gathering as much power as possible for himself in his nebulous role as "District Advisor." I have no idea how well he was able to increase his personal prestige due to the status of his position. He understood Afghan law and was a gifted public speaker, so I never had any problems empowering him.

"Dhost" was a clever and capable interpreter-turned-contractor who may or may not have used his influence to capture a near-monopoly on contracting in our portion of RC-East while I was there, but, again, my take on the situation was that he was reliable (he was) and his work was excellent, and he was on call 24-7; it didn't really occur to me to care whether or not contracting was being fulfilled in a perfectly democratic manner, especially given that, at the time, it seemed like most of the contractors who were willing to execute projects were either incompotent, hopelessly corrupt (in the bad, non-productive way), or actively working with the Taliban. Acceptable levels of corruption. I'm probably going to hell.

I had an opportunity to revisit this phenomenon recently, when I went down to the Provincial coordination center, and lasso'd a terp (we'll call him "Dan") into the process. He had not had body armor, and there was none available, so he had to forgo his contract to only depart the wire wearing body armor (on a totally secure mission that our allies run daily with two unarmored vehicles), and leave in the clothes he was wearing. I appreciated his willingness to sacrifice what he perceived to be security in order to help me accomplish my mission, and I told him so.

He immediately began pumping me about projects in his home town. Not surprisingly, he already had an idea for a community-run project (led by him, naturally) to supply his village with electricity. I listened to his idea -- the least I could do, given the sacrifice he'd made on my behalf -- and it actually sounded pretty good, and happened to be in an area where we needed to do projects. I took his project proposal, examined it, found it to fit suitibility, feasibility, and the financial constraints by which we're bound, and brought him to our S-9 for a sitdown chat.

The meeting started out well enough, considering the circumstances. He reiterated his idea to have a generator in the village, operated by himself, and charge the residents money only for fuel to run the generator, based on electricity consumption. We agreed that it was a good idea, and said that we'd forward the project idea on to the Platoon Leader responsible for the area.

He was disappointed. He wanted action immediately. We said that the most we could do for him, really, was to give the project to the battle space owner, and if it was as suitible as Dan claimed, he could expect to see a generator in the near future. He chewed this over, and said it was acceptable (of course it was, it was the only possible course of action). Then he asked about solar panels instead of a generator, saying that it would be better if individual homes could have solar panels; it would not require any action on his part.

This did seem like another possibility, and we said that we'd pass the idea along to the Platoon Leader. He said that he knew someone in Kabul who could get the solar panels, and that the money should go through him. Inside, I began to cringe, seeing now how this was likely to go. After he talked about the wisdom of using him as the purchasing agent -- impossible, of course -- he added that the village could really use a mosque, too.

I stood up, apologized to the S-9 for the imposition, and thanked Dan for interpreting for me when he did not have to. He didn't seem to understand that the meeting was over so he continued talking about the mosque. I put my hand on his shoulder. "That's enough, Dan. We're done here." He looked disappointed.

There's this bottomless greed that you see opening up when a man gets hold of an idea out here. I wish I got to see more of the "Let's build up the country!" and "Afghanistan is great" idea, but for whatever reason it seems to be "I'm going to get as much as I can out of this situation, be it power, money, or prestige, for me." It's either ridiculous or depressing, depending on one's perspective. Personally, now that I have an XO, I'm fairly well insulated from it all. The only time I have to interact with people asking about things is when I talk with my partners about where to build a well. I'm comfortable with that, I've already had to barter too much of my scruples away over the years in exchange for questionable activity in the name of progress.

COMMANDO |

September 03, 2010

 Name: Major Dan
Posting date: 9/3/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan

(No, not that kind of "commando" -- you sick people, you!)

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 1
Headquarters building, Commando Brigade.

Back on July 4, I arranged a site visit with the Afghan army's Commando Brigade, located a bit outside the city (there were no hot dogs or fireworks -- thankfully, in this case).  Reminding me of this visit recently was a press conference in which the Defense Ministry's spokesman extolled recent successes of the units which receive a level of training unlike any other in the ANA.  And while I won't go sans drawers if I don't have to (ugh, is he still on "commando" references?), I will go sans captions for a bit. (Okay, one caption...) These are a few from the drive out there.  Can you tell how excited this city boy was to be in the country?

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 2a

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 2b

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 2C

Framed Afghanidan COMMANDO 2d

Who says you can't take a siesta in mid-morning?

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 3a

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDA 3b


One fast and bumpy hour-long ride, which began in Kabul traffic jams and concluded past herds of sheep and deserted villages, got us into the badlands of Logar province and the home base of the commandos.  The billboard above challenges young men to see if they've got what it takes to join the Kung-fu SEAL Ninja Marines known as Commando -- or something to that effect.

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 4
Three pals from the late 70's...and a yank who was four at the time.


The commanding general is not a colonel but a brid genral, or brigadier (wait -- a brigadier general commanding a brigade...hmmm...why didn't we think of that?).  More importantly, he is said to be highly appreciated, respected, even loved by his troops.  My colleagues passed on a couple of anecdotes supporting that. What struck me the most was his lack of aloofness (his loofness, then?), rare in my albeit limited experience of palling around with Afghan general officers.

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO five

The guard among display-cased flags is mandatory for garrison HQs. The other guy is standing there for fun.


One of the greatest challenges we face in trying to build a meritocratic army is the entrenched model preferred by too many current senior leaders, a model that will take many years to alter.  The prevailing mindset within the military and other security forces here is that a general is lord and master, to be catered to and tiptoed around, and all others are unworthy of opinion and incapable of independent thought.  It's not confined to just the Afghan army, of course. Anyone who has spent enough time in the military has surely seen it exhibited somewhere.  When soldiers and young officers of any nationality see servitude below and excess (or worse, corruption) above, demoralization sets in quickly.  But in the race to train a lasting force, capable and dynamic leaders who earn the respect of their troops must be given the chance to take the helm.

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO six

This bridmal was positively excited to see a Marine on deck -- he had attended a USMC drill instructor course.

The mentality of patronage and absolute rule when in positions of authority extends further down the ranks in various forms, and can be exhibited by a dagarwal (colonel) or dagarman (lieutenant colonel) or lower, depending on the situation.  Surely the same turan (captain) or bridman (lieutenant) who is treated like dirt by his superiors on a daily basis learns just one thing -- that he should exhibit the same behavior towards his own bridmalaan (sergeants).

It's an overly hierarchical structure that the trainers of NATO are working tirelessly to break.  Afghan systems are too often centralized to the max in the old Soviet style, rendering junior leaders powerless and concentrating all decision making in the hands of the most senior.  All of this makes it all the more admirable that good soldiers and officers still sign up and still stick around, out of love for their country and a desire to shape the way its armed forces develop.

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO seven
"Sorry buddy - I'll run the obstacle course with you next time."


A few more scenes from the drive back out, and this brief travelogue will come to a close.  Hopefully I'll have a mission excuse to return and witness some training here. Advisory positions at the Ministry of Defense may be important for development of the services, but riding a desk all day is no substitute for training a proud new force at the action level in the field.

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 8a

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO 8b

Framed AfghaniDan COMMANDO eight

"Dang it, AfghaniDan, you were told to beat it!"


Plug time, of sorts; for more on the commandos, see this recent story by an outstanding military journalist from NATO.

RETURN TO AFGHANISTAN |

September 01, 2010

RETURN TO AFGHANISTAN
Name: 1SGT (retired) Troy Steward
Posting date: 9/1/10
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Keeping An Eye on Afghanistan

As you read this blog entry I will already be on my way back to Afghanistan. It has been a little over three years since I left the country and now I return. Granted it is only for a short stint compared to my last time in country, that lasted a year, but I am still going back.

This time I am also going as a civilian rather than a soldier. The journey I have taken to get this far has been a long and frustrating one. Going over as a civilian is much tougher. When you go as a soldier, the military has people waiting to check off every box. You go through a process called “Soldiers Readiness Checks” which is usually a big room full of tables with people behind them that handle every step; legal, dental, medical, etc. You also go to “classes” to ensure that you have all the latest information.

As a contractor working for the Department of the Army, I pretty much had to do all those things that are handled in the readiness checks and the mobilization training myself. I have been working towards this trip trying to complete everything since April. Granted, not full time, but as I got closer and closer, more hours every week were committed to getting ready to go.

I will miss my family very much and they have made it clear they will miss me. In fact, as I was packing and getting gear ready last night my youngest son looked at me and said, “Daddy I don’t want you to go” and I told him I would be back soon and explained that the amount of time that I would be gone would be very, very short compared to last time. He seemed okay with that, or maybe he just realized his desire was not to be.

Speaking of gear, the task of packing brought back some flashbacks and memories. As I went through old military gear that would be needed on this trip back to the ‘Stan; the smells, the handling of it, even the sight of some of it that has been packed away in several footlockers all made me remember things. Not necessarily bad things; some were funny or neutral memories. Heck, as I handled it some gear even released the Afghan dust and dirt that was still embedded in it.

So as I packed the duffel bag, sorted through what I would need and what would not be carried on this mission (different than any other I have ever done), I reminisced. Most of the time I was by myself in the basement with the music playing.

But now the duffel is in the belly of this Delta Airlines jet instead of strapped to a pallet on the back ramp of a C-130. My personal bag is no longer camouflaged and issued by the Army, but is instead made of soft black leather. The meal on the flight was not an MRE, but instead a meal from the airline, which kind of made me wish I had an MRE...

***

So now the trip has started. A trip that I think really started 11 months ago when I left my career in Information Technology for this new one where I support the warfighter. The warfighter that I can no longer support directly since I have retired from the Army, but one I can support now in what I do. I may no longer be a First Sergeant for soldiers anymore, but I can make sure that I am doing all I can to help save their lives and take lives of the enemy.

Some have asked me “why” I am going back. They have said things like “Your war is over” or “What do you need to prove” or “Why can’t you just stay in the US?" The short answer to all of that is, "Because it is my job." If not me then whom? Just because I may no longer be a leader of troops doesn’t mean that I have to walk away from them. The military is my DNA, plain and simple. Those who know me, know that. Some may not like it, but hey -- it is what it is.

The most important thing to me is what my wife and boys think, not anyone else. Does my youngest son want me to stay at home? Sure he does, but I also know he is proud of what I do and admires my service. He may not totally grasp what I do right now or why I do it, but he will.

I know this to be a fact because I have seen it happen twice already. My oldest son, who at one time sat in the unit parking area on the hood of the car wearing my helmet minutes before I boarded a bus to go somewhere, did what was in his heart and followed me in the Army. He served honorably as medic for six years, including a year in combat saving lives and even trying to take a few while he was at it. My military service shaped his youth and now his own experiences have made an impact on the rest of his life.

My middle son, who was born in a military hospital and “grew up” as a true military brat, has witnessed everything from a bad parachute jump to me rendering honors to my fallen soldiers. He has also made his own decision to join the military and is hoping to be accepted into West Point or at least get into a ROTC program at a university. Both of them did this without motivation by me or my wife, just like I made my own decision to join and came home to tell my parents when I was in high school.

My lovely wife who will be postponing the celebration of our 19th wedding anniversary until I get back has stood by my side since day one. When we got married I was in uniform so there was no doubt what she was getting into. She has been the rock for me on many occasions and she is the central pillar that holds the house up all the time, especially when I am gone...

***

The closer I get to Afghanistan, the more the memories come back. Walking through the moon dust of Kuwait, the smell of Diesel generators, the smell of the handwashing area before you go into the chow hall, the Chuck Norris jokes on the bathroom walls, oh and the heat.

I thought it would take a couple of days to get used to the weather here, but it seems it only took 24 hours. Last night when I was walking around I thought the heat was intense. I was sweating like a pig. I went to bed about the time that the sun came up and slept until noon. I needed to get some decent chow plus I had to pick up my SAPI plates for my body armor and check on flights. When I awoke I looked at the thermostat for the AC to my the tent, which happens to be near my bunk, and thought someone had turned it up since it was showing 83 degrees. I went to turn it down and saw it was set to 71 degrees. So I figured it was failing and I would need to move, but then I went outside and quickly realized why it said 83 degrees.

It was about 115-120 outside and very humid. The heat was so intense it almost took your breath, mostly because of the humidity. Luckily I also have a decent tan built up from my recent vacation, otherwise I think I would have burned up in the 30-40 minutes I spent walking around outside today. I tried to stay in the shade as much as possible and pretty much had a bottle of water in my hand whenever I could. There is no shortage of bottled water here, the trick is finding the cold ones in the coolers.

So as the sun fell tonight (since I am still here after getting bumped off my first flight) I went outside and felt very comfortable. I was pretty surprised at how good it felt outside. The temp is pretty much the same, but after walking around today when it felt like God himself was chasing me with a hair dryer set on high, this evening feels good. I might even go have a coffee at the Grean Bean after this.

Well my time on the internet is winding down, with just a few minutes left. I hope this is my last blog post from Kuwait and that my next one will be from Afghanistan. I am all ready for there, I even picked up a new reflective belt last night at the PX, so I am totally equipped for the land of the Fobbits...

 

 

 


Search Doonesbury Sandbox Blog

LINKS



About

My Photo

FEATURED BOOK