August 31, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 8/31/09
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

During our recent trip to the provinces we had to pass through the space/time portal known as Bagram, which has been dubbed, by some of those who operate outside the wire but have frequent brushes with it, “Pogadishu.” As many others have noted, it is a world separated from the war by a million miles of cultural and tactical vacuum. A rocket attack on the base in the recent past brought home to the denizens of this burgeoning city of tens of thousands that there is a war on -- but on a daily basis you couldn’t tell it from Disney Drive.

You can’t tell from the actions of those running the place, either.

Whether in business or in warfare, processes are developed. Processes are what are performed by bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are created to serve people, but they exist to serve processes. Once a process is developed, it becomes the goal, the purpose. The people and their needs, which the processes were developed to service most efficiently, become the pain in the system. The very need that spawned the beast becomes the fleas infesting its fur, driving the beast mad. Add some paranoia to it, and you have a beast that is not only ungainly and unproductive, but actually counterproductive and dangerous.

Pogadishu is the petri dish of fobbitry. At all times of the day you can find its denizens unconcernedly strolling the main road, Disney Drive, often in PT gear of whatever service sentenced them to their tour there. There are two PXs, movie theaters, the famous clamshell where they have Karaoke Night and Country and Western Night, two Green Beans Coffee establishments, Burger King, Dairy Queen, shops, an expensive and inefficient private internet service with charges scaling from less than $50 to over $100 depending on the bandwidth purchased, and 24-hour shuttle buses.

That’s just for starters. Sergeants Major and bored officers lurk like trap door spiders to pounce on the unwary who sport any semblance of field wear or who do not wear their reflective belt. For most, the workday is similar to that performed back home, if under more crude circumstances. Only 7% of them will ever leave the wire. Many arrive at Bagram, leave only to go on leave, and finish their tours without ever having left the wire save by air. There is no end to the fobbitry inherent to the streets of Pogadishu.

On a recent trip, one of our junior NCO’s was confronted by a Lieutenant Colonel who stopped in mid-jog to assail him for having turned the cuffs of his ACU jacket inward, a common alteration that allows more air to circulate around the arms, increasing the ability of the body to cool itself. This alteration, while I don’t believe it is specifically forbidden by the ARs*, is sometimes expressly forbidden by certain units, due to the fact that some Sergeant Major doesn’t feel that it’s a “good look” to be sporting. Also, should the street suddenly burst into flames, the Soldier so attired could suffer burns to parts of the arms that may have been retrieved less well-done than other parts of his corpse had the cuffs been tightly sealed against his wrists.

In any case, the LTC stopped in mid-stride to assail the young NCO, berating him for his wear of the uniform as well as his mustache. This young soldier, who leaves the wire every day, may wear his mustache slightly outside the bounds of ARs, but it is tolerated operationally based on the commander’s evaluation of the cost/benefit analysis. The LTC demanded that the NCO remove his mustache, apparently on the spot. The Soldier was unable to comply and so the LTC demanded that the NCO present himself to some Sergeant Major at 1400. Having been sent on a mission by a full Colonel that included drawing certain equipment and returning forthwith on a convoy that left Pogadishu at 1300, the NCO regretfully left the wire without sating the bloodlust of the LTC.

The NCO duly informed the Colonel, upon his return, of the confrontation.

“Screw him,” the Colonel replied, “If he wants to call me, I’ll tell him the same thing to his face.”

Our Colonel is not a Pirate of Pogadishu. What matters to him is getting the job done, not looking like some hackneyed recruiting poster while you do it. That’s not to say that there is no discipline, but it’s not about sweating the small stuff that has no bearing on the mission. It’s about sweating everything that does.

Instead of stopping to chew out junior NCO’s over field modifications to uniforms and moustaches that are not in direct contravention of mission accomplishment, it might be a better idea to identify when four or five teams of people are trying to accomplish a similar goal within a single organization inside his battlespace and put one person in charge of them all so that they actually work together to get it done. Then, after that’s accomplished, if the LTC still has time on his hands, perhaps chewing out random NCOs over what is NCO business might be more productive behavior.

The LTC at one point screamed at the NCO that other Soldiers were going to die because they would burn up, howling in pain because they had seen this NCO and would emulate his jacket cuff style. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Pirate of Pogadishu.

Our trip would prove to be a dozen times more challenging because of the Pirates of Pogadishu. Like many teams in this country, we are dependent upon our interpreters to accomplish our mission. They are members of our team. We travelled to Pogadishu with two terps, both combat veterans with more than three years of service. Upon arrival we were greeted with, “Oh… them. You shouldn’t have brought them.”

“No?” we queried.

“Oh, no. No, no, no. You can’t bring terps in here like that.” Three heads shook in unison.

“But we need them to do our job,” we pled. A quick conference followed. Eye patches were donned. The Underpirates talked quickly amongst themselves, the uncovered eyes darting to and fro nervously.

“You must go and see the wizard,” came the decision from what appeared to be the Chief Underpirate for Domestic Placement.

“The Wizard?” we asked. “Who and where is this wizard?”

“The Wizard is the Chief Overpirate of Fobbit Tranquility, and may be found in the Directorate of
Overpiracy, just down the way.”

“Uh……huh. Okay. And if they do not heed our cries?” we explored.

“Then your local nationals shall be banished to the vagaries of the outside world, that which is forbidden to be seen, from which you quite obviously plucked them at random just prior to your entry to Pogadishu.”

“And if the great Wizardly Overpirate deems them to be less than fatally harmful to our alien life

“Oh, well in that case, they can stay with you. But they cannot eat,” they stated in unison, which had a creepy echo effect.

“They can’t eat.” More a statement than a question at this point, all disbelief having been suspended over the course of the prior several minutes.

“No. They cannot eat. See their ID cards? They have no priveledges. They cannot eat. Not in Pogadishu, anyway.” Again with the stereo effect.

Well, we were off to see the wizard. After a brief ceremoney involving a hair from each of their heads, two ID cards, chicken bones, two separate drums and another set that were joined together, and a strange but very sweet-smelling metallic powder that burst into flame delightfully when the wizard cast it into a small fire, it was determined that if the Captain ever has children they will belong to the wizard and our terps could stay. Everyone was happy save for our deeply insulted interpreters.

“It is like being in a prison, Sir,” they told me.

“I know.”

That’s not the best part.

The best part is that after having risked their lives, finding an IED, driving through an reported ambush which did not materialize and doing a fabulous job of interpreting, our two interpreters were removed from the manifest for the return flight (which turned out to be the exact same Canadian C-130 we had flown up on,) escorted to the gates of Pogadishu and forced to ride back to Kabul in a taxi while still wearing American uniforms, thereby endangering their lives.

Without their luggage, which had already been palletized.

Our two team members were humiliated; which is one of the worst emotions in the world for an Afghan. “It is not your fault, Sir,” one of our terps told us. “It is our fault for working with you and putting ourselves in the position where someone can do this to us.”

The Pirates of Pogadishu had had their revenge.

*AR: Army Regulations


August 25, 2009

Name: K
Posting date: 8/25/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

Soldiers in combat expect other soldiers to share in the risks inherent in the job. While we might not expect the air wingers at Bagram to experience the same things that those of us in infantry units experience, we do however expect other infantry units to be taking on a somewhat similar risk load, even if those units are from a different country. The risk of death in this conflict is much lower than in conflicts from the past, but all the same everyone expects everyone else to be doing their part.

And the knowledge of this expectation is what makes it hard for me when I can’t get my ANA to do more than four or five patrols in a week. When I see the US Army here going out every day, and often more than once a day, while my Afghans play volleyball, it makes it a little hard to feel proud of the job I’m doing with them. At times I’m almost ashamed at the scheduling meetings when I tell the Army guys that the ANA are taking another day off for “religious classes." When questioned about this issue, I laugh it off and say the ANA are in it for the long haul.

Framed K Risk We do what we can here to get them to work more, but overcoming the attitude of the culture in general towards work is tough, and overcoming the Afghan military cultural problems that stand in our way is even tougher. I’ve asked myself many times how it is that I can instill in the Afghans the appreciation and sense of obligation toward working hard. And I still don’t have an answer. I asked the question of a cultural anthropologist that came to stay with us for a week. He replied that it would take a generation at least. I’m not even sure a generation would be long enough, as the Afghans have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world as compared with Americans. I suppose one might call the Afghans Stoics at heart. Whereas Americans tend to have a can-do attitude and are ready and willing to make efforts to better themselves and their situations, the Afghans are more fatalistic, and nothing sums their attitude up better than the ubiquitous phrase “Ishah Allah” (If God wills it) which they utter so often. If everything is in God’s hands and you can’t control your own future, why bother? Initiative goes right out the window.

Afghan military culture doesn’t help our cause either. Many Afghan officers don’t lead by example. Most do not go out regularly on patrols. When the Afghan officers aren’t often sharing the dangers of their men, the men aren’t going to feel that risk is fairly distributed, and thus will be less likely to believe in the mission and do a serviceable job.

Additionally, Afghan officers are afraid of making any type of non-conforming decision that might get them into trouble. The Marine Corps tries to push decision-making down to the lowest level, whereas the ANA tries to remove decision-making from as many levels of leadership as possible. For example, we have a couple of ANA artillery guns here at the base, but we can’t shoot them without calling the battalion commander 20 miles away and asking his permission. If we want to change the patrol plan on the fly due to changing conditions, or simply to make it better, we often can’t because we have to have permission from the battalion to make those kinds of decisions.

Granted, I realize the ANA will often invoke the idea of permission from the battalion in order to avoid doing work, but their hesitancy to do anything different or risky for fear of making a mistake is real. Doing the standard but ineffective job is a far better course of action for an Afghan officer than the unconventional but potentially effective course of action. If something goes wrong and you were following convention, then blame lies elsewhere. If you make a decision to do something outside of what was planned or normal and then things go wrong, you are the one to blame and the punishment here can be severe and based upon the whim of one man.

In this, Afghan military culture merely reflects the conforming, authoritarian culture of Afghanistan as a whole. The Iraqis were identical in this regard. Of course, all militaries can be seen as conforming and authoritarian culturally, but as Americans we recognize that for leaders to develop, they need to be given responsibility, and if their actions and decisions fall within an acceptable range of what we’ve been taught and trained, we’re not going to second-guess those decision-makers, at least not to the point of punishment. We respect that bit of individuality. The Afghans generally do not.

The bright spot is that the younger officers I’ve worked with are much better than the older guys. Afghan Army officers basically come in three varieties: the older officers who were Russian-trained or influenced; the former mujahideen fighters/commanders; and the new, younger, American-trained generation. The former mujahideen fighters make pretty good officers and are revered by their men, but don’t have the education or formal schooling and don’t listen to advice. The older officers, in the words of my best interpreter, a former ANA 1stSgt, “don’t ever want to leave the base” and have an excuse why they can’t do anything about their problems or act on our suggestions. The new generation of officers is much more willing to do operations, listen to our advice, and make some changes on the fly if need be, although they’re still somewhat afraid to make mistakes. Unfortunately, for now the power lies with that older group of officers. Hopefully, once the younger, American-trained generation comes of age, things will start changing rapidly for the better.


August 20, 2009

Name: SGT B.
Posting date: 8/20/09
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Rockford, WA
Milblog: The Gun Line 

I’m going to say it up front. I was a fobbit.

I was one of the Command Post guys. I had a set schedule, I didn’t go out on missions. I stayed behind when my guys went out and I manned the various communication systems that monitored them. I watched them roll, and waved to them as they headed out of the motor pool on their way to the Entry Control Point (ECP).

And I worried about them. I prayed every time they went out that when I came back on shift the next day, that there wouldn’t be anything other than the list of required checkpoints and the annotation that “BC13 RP JBB 0200 23/6, 34/33.”

Most of the times that was true, and even when there was a “significant” event, all my guys made it back inside the wire, a fact for which I praise God, the small unit leaders that motivated the men, and the men themselves.

Not bad for a bunch of “weekend warriors”, I’m thinking.

How was life over there?  Not really that bad, actually.

That isn’t to say it was a lark, or a walk in the park, but everybody stepped up to the plate and did their jobs with a minimum of angst or drama. We came to play ball, and we brought our game faces on.

I could complain about a great many things. I could gripe about the institutional food. I could bitch about the months on end where there were no days off. Sure, there were personality clashes, and there were the usual dysfunctional disconnects that you find in any unit that isn’t used to the ways of an Active duty unit, but, all in all, those memories fade as each day passes, and I prefer to concentrate on what I have seen in the “big” picture.

I saw every indication that it is getting close to the time for us to hand Iraq fully back over to the Iraqis. The “insurgents” are treated as criminals, and every day another force of Iraqis steps up to the plate to replace a CF unit walking the streets of the major towns.  I can’t tell you that they will be entirely successful, but I can say that I think that we are seeing the end of this, and it’s on a good note. America can be proud of what we have done here. I may not agree with all of the decisions made during the course, but, all in all, we have done good things, and I am proud to have been a part of it.

So, I did have an easy time of it, when my deployment experience is compared to that of many others. (I’m an old fart, my best work was done in support of the actual warfighters anyway...)

The real conflict was actually taking face in my own head, and in my life on the domestic side of the pond, and that is where the story of "Sergeant B" is found.

More later, as it settles in my brain housing group...


August 17, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 8/17/09
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds in Kapisa, and stay at FOB Morales-Frazier, the scene of many adventures. It was surprising, pleasant, poignant, encouraging and disappointing all rolled up into one big ball. First, the FOB, which was still called a Firebase when I left, a step down from a FOB in the hierarchy of combat structures, has exploded. FOB Morales-Frazier, or M-F to the local military speakers, has now become home to hundreds. When SFC O, SSG Maniac and I arrived there in late May of 2007, this large area was occupied by a Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) and a light company of ANA and their ETTs*; a few dozen people. Now the entire compound, an area of approximately 400 x 600 meters, is full of tents, structures and vehicles. It is a small town of its own.

Amazed, I climbed the tower in what used to be the ODA compound and looked over the scene. I could easily see the original structures and the original Hesco boundaries of previous fiefdoms; the Special Forces, the compound that the SF referred to as the “overflow” compound, which those of us who suffered its privations called “GITFO” for “Git The Freak Out,” and what the few American Soldiers there now call “The Alamo;” the scene of O, the Maniac and my first good shelling.

The American Provincial Police Mentor Team (PMT-P) for Kapisa occupies structures that my group had built. What was built for us to use as a kitchen/chow hall has now been divided in half and is used as offices for the PMT-P and the PRT. The Hesco compound boundary has had a hole knocked out of it, allowing a pass-through to the French area beyond where French Soldiers and Marines live, for the most part, in tents. Many tents.

The erstwhile Special Forces compound has been partially opened up as well, and at one point I walked through the old front gate, now vestigial. This was the site where, for several weeks during our time there as the Bastard Children, O, Maniac and I had to wait for the precise time of chow in order to be permitted entrance to ODA 744’s compound so that we might share in their victuals -- after most of them had eaten, of course. If we arrived a minute too early, the ODA’s hired Afghan guards would hold us in place until the appointed hour. We used to joke that we were like dogs waiting to be fed. I can still see the adhesive marks on the remnants of the gate where the ODA had posted their sign decreeing that we could have access only at those times.

I passed the place where O and I put my four ANP KIA in body bags on my worst day of the first tour. I thought about them for a moment. I can still see their torn bodies. I can still smell the scent of fresh death and torn bowels. I can still see the lifeless eyes, the shroud of death having emptied them of light, and the rendered parts. I remember my surgical-gloved hand resisting against the cloth of their clothing as I searched for identification. I remember the heartbreak of recognizing the young radio operator, who had always been near me for over a month as we operated in The Valley, from the picture on his ANP identification card. Suddenly I could see the resemblance to the grinning youth in the mask of death, eyes akimbo, missing the top of the skull. I remember seeing deeply into the young man’s head, brokenhearted and at the same time detached; a portion of my brain noting surprise at the small amount of brain matter remaining after what appeared to be a nearly surgical removal of the top rear of his skull. I found this stray, detached thought mildly shocking in its own right. How can one be so emotionally shredded and yet almost clinically detached at the same moment? I still find this dichotomy notable. The events, sensations, and even thoughts of those short hours remain embedded in my memory like few others in my life. They will never go away; and I do not wish them to.

Those men, and that place, are part of me now.

Kapisa is a part of me, and I am a tiny part of it. I am still there, the light of recognition in the eyes of ANP officers and soldiers who recognized me, revealing that my time there is still a part of the individual histories of these men’s lives. They greeted me with enthusiasm, there being no doubt that the sign of deep friendship, the handshake followed by the hug with cheeks pressed, was to be exchanged. As others who did not know me looked on curiously, the ANP would explain that I had been in many fights with them. I recognized Dari words in the rapid explanations, "jang" (fight), "Afghanya," "Tag Ab," "Ala Say," "bisyar khoobas" (very good).  I knew the general drift before our interpreter told me in English what the full interpretation was.

I felt a deep sense of pride in having reached that level with the Afghan
soldiers who I had mentored and operated with. I recall wondering if I would earn such respect from such men; men for whom the stripes on my uniform and the patch on my sleeve matter less than my actions on the dusty ground in the obscure valleys where Afghan life and death are to be found. They judge me on actions that few, if any, Americans were there to witness. Many asked also about others who had impacted them deeply; SFC O, LTC Cold, and SFC Pulvier. Absent were other names. It seems that Afghans have very little time for those who had no real regard for them. Certain things can’t be faked, regardless of the fairy tales told on forms. Some names are left for dead in the dusty past.

There were many such reunions, but none so deeply satisfying as seeing once more the constant thread in Kapisa since the time of LTC SFowski. Sam, the combat terp, dismounted from the MRAP when the team arrived at Bagram to retrieve us from that circus of fobbitry. (I will have an entire post about Bagram soon.) Seeing Sam again was like a bowl of ice cream on an Afghan summer day; so cool I couldn’t believe it. We inquired as to each other’s health, family and after old friends. Again, names were raised from what seems the long ago past, less than two years ago.

Our business at Kapisa was slightly less successful, mostly due to the changing of some leadership and the reluctance of the new leadership to really extend an effort regarding any new training. Excusing his lack of coordination with explanations about the elections and difficulties having to do with that, we were not provided access to the district and provincial leadership who could really drive new ways of organizing information. However, after seeing what we have to offer, I think that upon our return sometime in the future, we will find more cooperation.

* ETT: Embedded Training Team


August 14, 2009

Name: CAPT Benjamin Tupper
Posting date: 8/14/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Target practice is a relatively easy task for a group of soldiers to accomplish. It requires a remote and unpopulated area in which to shoot, paper targets, and wooden target stands.  In America it would take a few dollars, a quick trip to a hardware store, and a couple of hours to build the latter.
Things take a little longer in Afghanistan. We were tasked with conducting a weapons qualification training event for Afghan soldiers, but executing this simple mission took weeks.

First off, we didn’t have a Home Depot out in rural Afghanistan, so building the wooden target stands had to be contracted out to an Afghan carpenter. At our base a white-bearded elder we called “The Godfather” controlled all such contracts through a mix of threats and patronage, price-gouging and delaying any project to ensure his desired level of graft. Then there was the issue of quality control. We drew up plans for the wooden target stands and gave them to the carpenter who the Godfather had selected for the job. But when the stands arrived, they had not been built to the needed specifications.

More days passed before the proper frames were built and delivered. The final price for the wooden stands was so inflated it would have made an American defense contractor envious.  

Another obstacle was the Afghan soldiers themselves. They had a strong dislike of training of any type, and the idea of target practice left them unimpressed. We would schedule a date for the weapons qualification, and they would cancel it. The excuses for the cancellation varied; it was too cold, or there was not enough fuel in the vehicles to get them to the range location. My favorite was when the Afghan supply sergeant informed us that all the ammo was locked up, and the officer with the key was on vacation for two weeks. This really caught our attention, because we were living in a war zone, where the ability to have extra ammunition handy is about as important as having oxygen to breathe.

In time we came up with a way to get the Afghan soldiers to show up for training events. We bribed their leadership with odds and ends like printer cartridges, pens, and dry erase boards, which they would receive if they delivered their soldiers. 
Framed Tupper afghan rifle range After weeks of waiting for the stars to align, all the ingredients were in place and we conducted our weapons qualification. But as the first groups of soldiers completed their firing, the paper targets revealed very few hits. Shooting tips were given, and weapons were re-sighted, but this failed to improve results. So with limited daylight remaining, our group of American advisors decided to do the only thing left to improve scores; we moved the targets closer to the shooters. When this produced the same inadequate results, we moved the target stands even closer. 
The poor results were enough to convince the Afghans that they needed more weapons practice, and seeing as we already had the target stands built, future weapons qualifications would be easier to conduct. That is until someone came up with the bright idea to shoot higher-caliber weapons at the targets. Within minutes, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades were blazing away, and when the smoke cleared, our over-priced wooden target frames had been reduced to smoking splinters.

To complete this comedy of errors, it was only then, when we began packing up to leave our firing range, that anyone noticed the funny little red-painted stones that were peeking through what remained of the light snow that blanketed the ground. We had picked the site for our range because it was close to our base, and because it was in an area that was unlikely to be attacked by the Taliban. When we did our reconnaissance on it, the layer of snow had obscured the fact that the area had been marked as a mine field.

It was a miracle that no one stepped on a mine, as we had over one hundred soldiers on the range. Suffice to say that as we left the area we laughed out loud at our silly mistake and good fortune.
This Weapons Qualification Range experience was a pretty good metaphor for the war as a whole: lots of time and planning to accomplish a mission without fully achieving the desired results; an over-expenditure of resources and, ultimately, a loss of investment; exposure to unknown and unpredicted dangers and the luck to survive them. 


August 11, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 8/11/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

What a week it’s been. In order to become a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Academy of Bellicose Numismatists you have to study hard, know the curriculum and class materials, and you have to complete the five-day course as a student. It’s a rite of passage. Well, it’s a little more than that, but I’m simplifying it.

So that was fun.

After a day to change gears and get prepped, a couple of other instructors and I trundled off early each morning to teach a more focused, shorter course at a branch school for Afghan officers. This was an advanced course. These officers had already completed their basic course. They also had combat experience and knew a fair amount about enemy behavior. We have been teaching the Afghans classic Air Land Battle doctrine for nearly seven years now. Here we come all of a sudden with a new plan for them; COIN. One of them did ask the obvious question; “Why did you wait until now to come up with this?”

I didn’t want to tell them that the book was published two and a half years ago and we just got around to reading it. Uh… that would be some of us. We still get field grade officers in the course here who have not read the book. A significant portion of company grade officers have not read it.

Most of the Afghan officers are taking to it like a duck takes to water. There are a couple of die-hards, but most of them see the truth in what we have told them. The strange thing is that in the Afghan National Army you have a mixture of Mujaheddin and leftovers from the Najibullah regime; the Communists who the Soviets invaded to “assist.” Many of these officers were insurgents. But that was a different insurgency. Question that all you will, but I can tell you, and so can they, that it was another matter altogether.

Part of the training is, “Be the insurgent,” a take on the Caddyshack golfing philosophy of “Be the ball.” One ANA officer briefed a plan that had an ANA Colonel wondering if he needed to run a background check on the officer. It was that good. When you can think like an insurgent, you can get inside his loop and get in between him and the cookie that he strives to possess -- the acquiescence, if not active participation, of the populace.

If you don’t like the term “cookie” then insert your word of choice for something that someone wants to possess and strives for by hook or by crook. I think of the kid and the cookie jar, or in some cases the schoolkid who gets a cookie if he/she behaves. But suit yourself, by all means.

Most of the ANA officers nod their heads knowingly at the way that information is now interrelated. It makes sense to them. They understand the challenges of appealing to the people intrinsically: They are the people. They know who in the village they looked up to as children. It was usually not the Provincial Governor. No, it was an elder, a mullah, a big brother, a father, an uncle. These are the men who shape the minds and opinions in Afghanistan. The Afghans understand that some men are fighting for money, some for other grievances, and some to take over their own corner of the world.

They know that they will likely have to kill the would-be warlords. They can live without killing the part-time insurgent, the aggrieved, the threatened or the misled. They can live without killing “The Accidental Guerrilla” of Kilcullen’s writings.

There are many problems to be solved. There are more ethnic tensions in Afghanistan than when Cleavon Little wore a hood in Blazing Saddles. These guys need a Cleavon Kabuli to break the tension a little. The problem is that the direct material correlation would be a burqa, and a comic actor in a burqa just isn’t going to cut it here. No way. The ethnic tension isn’t impossible to break, but it’s like racism in the States -- it’s going to take a generation of intolerance of it before it really begins to melt. Many feel that it can never be broken, but I don’t believe that. The world is getting smaller, and Afghans will eventually be forced to bond with the folks in the other valley to deal with the pressures of the outside world.

There are other problems, like illiteracy. This is more of a problem than on the surface, because while ignorance is the devil’s playground, it has to be realized that there is an element of religious manipulation involved that is not possible among the literate. Religiosity is built into daily lives to a much greater extent here than is generally realized. It is part of greetings. It is part of institutions. Every briefing starts with, “In the name of Almighty Allah…” Islam is woven so tightly into the normal events of daily life that the religious authority has as much, if not more, sway than the local political apparatus.

So, with an illiterate,
religious mass it’s possible for an unscrupulous mullah (naaaaaaah, there aren’t any of those…) to mislead people into directions that aren’t in line with the real meaning of spiritual Islam. It’s as if some evangelist in the United States were to tell an illiterate audience that the Bible says it’s okay to abuse a group of people because God doesn’t like them. Not that such a thing would ever happen, of course. We’re much too advanced for anyone to, say, picket funerals of fallen Soldiers because of some misbegotten religious zealotry.

Lawyers are supposed to be able to read, aren’t they?

Anyway, I’m trying to draw a parallel here. The funny thing is that when I draw such parallels, I see that the Afghans really aren’t much different from us. In fact, when I look at them, I see what our great-grandparents were going through in the 1800s and early 1900s. Just add some technologies like wireless and there you have it. This country is a mix of Biblical times and the Wild West, with a hint of Mad Max.


August 07, 2009

Name: Chaplain CPT Dr. Father Tim 
Posting date: 8/7/09
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Curmudgeon: An Unlikely Army Chaplain

I was chatting online with yet another GWOT veteran whom I've never met last night. We've been corresponding for about 18 months, I'd guess. This guy is a Staff Sergeant (SSG/E-6) in the Army National Guard who served overseas shortly after the invasion of Iraq.

He's got 15 years in uniform, and went to the V.A. to get help with PTSD and mTBI (post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury) a while ago. The V.A. did what they were supposed to do, and helped this guy to see that he was having a normal reaction to an incredibly abnormal circumstance, and his issues resolved over time.

Not too long ago, during the Periodic Health Assessment (PHA) each Soldier has to complete each year, he mentioned that he'd been to the V.A. to get help.

His National Guard unit is now sending him to a medical review board in order to kick him out of the Army. He'd just gotten the paperwork from the Army on Saturday morning.

"The guys in my unit look at me as though I have the plague," he mentioned.


I am so angry I cannot see straight.

A friend of mine who's a psychiatrist at a large military medical installation here in the States where they see lots of personnel experiencing post-deployment difficulties told me that the Active Duty Army is doing a pretty good job of working to de-stigmatize a diagnosis of PTSD. "But the National Guard in many States is just way behind the power curve here, and they still effectively punish Soldiers for getting the help they deserve and need, and which can restore them to full functionality in their military mission."

Not so long ago a Lieutenant General in the Army (three stars) went public with the fact of his struggle against PTSD, an act which ought to be lauded by all concerned. But this NCO, upon being honest with his superiors about his own experience, is going to be medically discharged from the Army because his State's National Guard Bureau is living in some other century, and operating out of complete blindness and stupidity.

Instead of censuring this guy, we should be applauding him and honoring his desire to accomplish the Army's mission by ensuring that he's fully mission capable.

By this action, his State's National Guard Bureau is sending the message that it's better to pretend that nothing is wrong until such time as the Soldier either commits homicide or suicide or both.

This Soldier has fifteen good years of service, wants to continue to retirement, has had his problems resolved as the result of taking the courageous action he took to acknowledge the truth of his situation, and the National Guard is going to kick him out because of it.

Disgusting dereliction.


August 05, 2009

Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 8/5/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged

For whom does the bell toll?

The low dull thud of the rotors signals the end. For the last year that sound has meant many things -- Apaches with rockets, HIPs with food and God forbid Blackhawks for MEDEVAC. This time it’s our ride out of Bermel and the end of a year in combat.

Since the beginning we’ve known this day was coming. It’s hard to describe the want for something to come and the dread that it will actually arrive. Each day I’ve prayed that I’d reach this day safely and in the next breath cursed the onrushing dreadnought.

Today is the 4th of July and CPT Brain and I stand on the dusty LZ in Bermel. The sound of the bird slowly crescendos as it approaches low, blending with the brown, washed out landscape. Independence Day has arrived for both the U.S. and us.

As we stand waiting for our ride to the rear, the Battle Captain rides out to the LZ on a four-wheeler to inform us that a COP to the north is under heavy attack. The attack started with a VBIED and mortars. The current report is that nine Americans have been evaced, but they’re holding the position against heavy enemy fire. I realize that I’m powerless to do anything about this. My time here has ended.  It another’s chance to fight the fight.

Our departure comes at an inauspicious time. Several days ago while we were on a dismounted patrol we learned that a U.S. Soldier was missing and captured by the Taliban. Radio calls every 10 minutes to account for all our personnel were a prelude to the actual notification. The circumstances of the incident are cloudy to say the least. Since notification we’ve established check points, trying to find the soldier, and were awaiting orders to air assault to the south.

The rotors now build to a deafening fortissimo as the bird circles overhead and flares to land. The rest of Team Vampire is there to say goodbye. It’s difficult to sum up a year in the brief moments before getting on our ride. The noise is too loud to hear anything so maybe it’s for the best. Soldiers do very poorly at goodbyes.

The sand and moon dust coat everything as we move toward the screeching bird, an Afghan parting gift as it bores its way into my uniform and skin. Burdened with equipment and bags, we waddle our way out to our ride to freedom.

Part of me will stay here. Forever. Lost in the Afghan landscape, a part best left in the war torn land. How many others have done the same? Greeks, Mongols and the British, pieces of warriors left behind not needed in pleasant society. It’s best to leave it here, not try to put it away when one gets home. It has a nasty habit of escaping the box. Let it run free here where it belongs. Just walk away.

A new part though I take with me. Understanding, friendship, and things I would have never learned or experienced if I hadn’t been here. I cherish them and don’t think that I quite understand them all at this moment.

Scott Kesterson once asked me if I thought war changed me. It has. For the worse and the best. It is the paradigm of controlled chaos. Difficult to explain to those that have never experienced it, but no words are needed to explain to those that have. Take the good and leave the bad, while doing something positive with what you now know about yourself and mankind.

We reach the precipice; the door of the helicopter. Only the two of us enter, leaving the rest behind. We wave our final goodbyes and the door slams shut, with more finality than suits me at this instant. The bird slowly lifts and begins to transition to forward flight. Bermel shrinks in size but grows larger.

The bell tolls for thee…


August 03, 2009

Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 8/3/08
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: Acute Politics

I was driving late Tuesday night, heading home from seeing some friends.The lights were soundless as they came up behind me. I’d had a beer, and I pulled over and worried for a moment as the lights carried on past me into the night. Ahead of me, more lights flew by soundlessly, then more. As I pulled to the curb in front of my house, the first siren split the humid night air, and yet another set of lights burned down the road.

Let’s go back to 2006 and meet George Nickel. He’s been in the US Army a long time -- he was a private in the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry back when the Tropic Thunder division still had an Air Assault regiment. When I met him, he’d already left the Army and come back to join the Army Reserve with friends of his from his work at Idaho’s State Penitentiary.

He’s given this country of ours a lot. On February 8th, 2007, on a narrow road outside of Karma, Iraq, Staff Sergeant Nickel, USAR, very nearly gave it all. He was the lone survivor from the explosion of one of the largest IEDs ever placed in Iraq -- his 12 ton bomb-resistant vehicle was thrown above the tops of the 10-foot high reeds that lined the road. Three other good men died. The truck’s gunner, just a foot away, was blown from the turret and died before he hit the ground. The sergeant riding shotgun was even closer to George -- he too died instantly. The driver was the furthest from the point where the blast penetrated the armored hull. He lived long enough for a medevac helicopter to arrive, but died en route to the combat hospital in Fallujah. George Nickel was separated from death by mere inches. Nearly every bone on the right side of his body was broken, and shrapnel from the blast tore his flesh.

George was a private man. He was the sort to get married to a woman and only tell his best friends, the ones he had rejoined the Army with, when they noticed the ring he was wearing. Everyone who deploys overseas has a contact number on file, so if the worst happens, the military can begin the process of alerting loved ones of their service member’s death or injury. George gave the Army a number that he knew his wife wouldn’t answer, trusting his friends to tell her before the Army found her. In the end, that was exactly how it happened.

He arrived from Germany at Walter Reed Army Medical Center just after the neglect scandal broke there. There wasn’t enough room for him; the administration there wanted to send him home to continue his rehabilitation therapy. He was on canes then. His house was in the woods of Idaho, an hour from the nearest VA rehab facility, and definitely not handicap accessible. So instead he was housed in one of the old hotels that the Army had rented nearby in order to house the overflow of wounded warriors from Walter Reed. A cab took him to his temporary home. Another wounded veteran helped him carry his meager belongings upstairs. He ate from care packages rather than trust the meal service. He finally came home to stay in Boise on July 4th, 2008.

Fast forward to July 28th, 2009. Boise’s finest are running towards the sound of guns, and at the end they find George, still running toward the sound of his own guns. Towards his own demons. He’s lost his dog, and he’s searching the nearby apartments for the pup. A bullet into the lock. A boot into the door. Staff Sergeant Nickel is searching buildings, clearing rooms just like he did in Iraq. Suddenly there’re bright lights and a voice yelling “Police! Put your hands up!” He doesn’t. They start shooting, and he takes cover. Suddenly the war has come home for everyone, not just George. Trouble is, this is America and not Iraq, and in America we like to pretend that soldiers are GI Joes, like they're heroes who never need our help. George is in a new world now -- one where he is the 'perp' and not the hero -- and in this new world he needs our help more than ever.

If you haven't read the reporting on this in the Idaho Statesman, please go to the stories linked below, read them, and leave a comment. You may specifically want to address this quote from Boise police chief Mike Masterson:

"This is bizarre behavior. I don't know what would push people to that [level of] desperation."

Mystery still surrounds Iraq vet's clash with Boise police
Armed Iraq veteran charged in apartment shooting in Boise
Man shot at by Boise police Tuesday night is an Iraq war veteran

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