March 29, 2012
Mentoring can be a hoot. The incidents of the past few weeks, little helpful things done by my fellow Soldiers, have made life a bit more… interesting. I mean that in the Confucian sense. That being said, my mentee is a Hajji, having returned from the obligatory pilgrimage only a few months ago. He is a literate, committed Muslim. His viewpoint on the Quran burning was summed up with, “We have illiterate people in our society, too.” He assumed that such ignorance of Afghan values could only come from illiteracy. I didn’t burst his bubble.
Part of mentoring is going where your mentee goes. COL Shiripir and I were having a conversation about going about his normal business while I am with him. I was beginning to feel like he felt that he had to treat me as a special guest and that this perception was keeping him from doing what he would like to do. I told him that my job is to go wherever he goes when I am able to be with him. The Colonel tested this statement immediately.
“Good. I am going on Saturday to check on the Tulai (Company) I have out at the checkpoint as part of the operation,” he stated, observing me for my reaction.
“That sounds great. I’d love to go with you.”
I arranged for a medic, PV2 Hernandez, and a JFO (Joint Fires Observer), SPC Simon, to come with us, and offered my boss the opportunity to get out and about as well. I let the Colonel know about the force protection requirements that I had to meet in order to make the trip with him. He agreed to provide the requisite four trucks (Rangers). The medic is self-explanatory. The JFO was taken as much for his communications ability as for his specialty of calling for things that go boom. The medic can treat wounds, but we were going to be outside of radio range and he can use other means to get a bird in the air if we needed a MEDEVAC for any reason.
On Saturday we were told to hang tight in the parking lot and that the Rangers would be pulling up soon and would stage near us. I went over the procedures in case of emergency with those who were going out (turned out to be four Americans). Backbriefs (tell me what I just said) successfully done, we were ready to mount up when the ABP brought the trucks up.
LTC Grass and I hopped in COL Shiripir’s truck with our linguist, Walid, while the two younger soldiers rode in the vehicle directly behind us. With little fanfare, we were on our way. Walid, the Afghan-born American interpreter, rode between the LTC and myself in the back seat of the Ranger, and it was a tight fit with the weapons and the unforgiving body armor. Quickly, we were on the main road (the Ring Road), headed towards the checkpoint.
We got a few surprised looks when someone noticed us in the Rangers, but to a great extent we were nearly invisible due to the fact that few people pay attention to such a common occurrence as an ABP truck rolling by. Being back at street level gave a different perspective.
Sometimes a new perspective can be a good thing.
We rolled out of the city and into open farm land. The farmers in Balkh Province do something I’ve not seen elsewhere, tenting rows with neat plastic mini-greenhouses to get an early start on some crops. I don’t know yet what’s under the tentage, but if I find out, I’ll let you know.
As we worked our way west into the next district, we got off of the main road and passed through villages on our way to the checkpoint. The Rangers easily handled the rutted dirt roads. We passed through brief moments of normal village life, getting the briefest of glimpses of people, places and interactions. We passed through a Hazara village, a Pashtun village and a village populated by what the locals call “Arabs,” in succession. Seeing the subtle differences in dress was interesting.
As we neared our destination, the Colonel transmitted on the radio and one of the green ABP Rangers rushed forward, disappearing around a bend. He told us that he had sent a truck ahead to establish security. We nodded, thinking this was a good idea. Several minutes later, he told us that he had sent the truck with our two junior soldiers forward, apologizing for any inconvenience and saying that he hoped that this was not a problem.
It turned out well, but the two younger soldiers got a little concerned when they lost sight of us. They told us this later when we pulled up to the Khalat, formerly owned by a now-deceased Taliban commander, that the ABP was using as a patrol base.
As two of the trucks set up outside, our two trucks pulled into the gate of the compound and we dismounted. A small contingent of the Tulai (company) assembled into a formation and the contingent was presented to the Colonel by the Tulai commander with a salute and a formal greeting. The Colonel then spoke to the assembly and introduced me as his mentor and asked if I had anything to say.
I spoke briefly about how good it was see them, and how good it was to see that they all seemed to be in good form even in the spartan conditions. I then shook each of their hands. The formation was dismissed and we were ushered into the commander’s quarters for chai. The floors were covered in rugs, and there were traditional sleeping mats arranged around the perimeter of the small room. We were each bid to sit, and we dropped our body armor and weapons and sat down.
An ABP gun truck provides overwatch with a PKM.
There were some introductions to be made, and we enjoyed some pleasant conversation for a while while we waited for the chai, which was extremely hot when it arrived. We were informed that we would be staying for lunch. The Lieutenant who commands the Tulai briefed us on his patrol plan and showed us the limited but effective graphics of the operation.
It took very little time to grasp the concept of what they were doing. These men were organized and conducting daily operations, not just squatting in a khalat. I captured their graphics with my camera so that we would be able to share them with the rest of the team back at Marmal.
After discussing the joint operations that were being conducted with other branches of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces), the Police and Army, it was time for lunch. A soldier came in with a pitcher of water and a large stainless steel bowl. I explained to my compatriots what was occurring, that it was time to wash our hands. Starting with Colonel Shiripir, the bowl was held under his hands and water was poured so that he could wash his hands. Each of us then washed our hands in similar fashion and we were treated to one of the best Afghan meals that I’ve ever had.
Afghans are extremely hospitable hosts, and will try their best to over-feed you. Being hospitable, once you start refusing more food they ask if it didn’t taste good. I told the commander that the food was so good that he must give his cook my compliments. He summoned the cook and had me thank him myself. I think that made his day. After a lunch of pillau, beef, the obligatory nan, tangerines and chai, there was more conversation and pictures.
Lunch completed, it was time for a walkabout to see the ABP and what they were doing. More pictures. We saw where the ANA who were part of the operation were staying. Finally, it was time to leave.
The drive back to Marmal was long, but we drove right through the center of Mazar-e Sharif and within sight of the famous Blue Mosque. The ABP drove us right to the gate of Marmal and dropped us off, where we parted with handshakes and hugs under the amazed gazes of the Germans and the Armenian gate guards. We strolled in, our mission complete, and enjoyed a feeling of satisfaction after a day spent with our Afghan counterparts. Overall, it was a bonding experience for us, and showed the Afghans that we trusted them and were not afraid to go where they go in the same conditions they travel in. We also gained insight into their operations and found that this particular Kandak is capable of conducting ongoing operations at the Tulai level and provide their own logistical support.
It was a good day.