October 30, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 10/30/09
Returned to: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

Recently, an email came in from an officer who quoted an ANP* chief in a district in which I did some work as a mentor. The ANP chief said that he was looking forward to winter so that the leaves on the trees could no longer the Taliban and he could kill them all. Fair’s fair, after all. They’ve repeatedly tried to kill him.

He’s been wounded twice since I’ve known him.

We were getting ready to do a conference for trainers from all over the Army and some of our Coalition allies, and it was brought up how great it would be to have the ANP chief, a Colonel, come and speak to these officers and senior NCOs about his experiences. Since I knew him, I said that I could perhaps help. Through a series of communications, we were able to get through to the Colonel and schedule time for him to come and speak.

I met the Colonel just over two years ago. He had been handed a very challenging district and was struggling to turn it around. He was cheerful, soft-spoken and, I was to learn, fearless. Whenever word came of ANP troops involved in a fight, he gathered more ANP soldiers and ran towards the sound of the guns. He was wounded and nearly lost his hand in one fight. An American medic twice braved fire to run the length of the convoy to work on the wounded ANP officer. He was never recognized for his bravery, because the American officer in charge at that point put himself in for a Silver Star for the action. Recognizing the medic was not on the agenda.The ANP Colonel was medevac’ed to an American hospital and his hand was saved.

He was wounded again just over a year later, this time in the chest. Again he was flown to an American hospital and recovered. His driver was also wounded in the ambush which was set specifically for him. He hates the Taliban and they hate him back.

The Colonel has also made massive changes in his district. While certainly not entirely free of insurgency, the district is a far cry from the condition it was in during the spring and early summer of 2007. I’m going to go and revisit the district soon. The Colonel tells me that it is very different from when I last saw it. I hope so; it was viewed with considerable foreboding back then. The ANP have also improved.

In the early summer of 2007, the ANP would scarcely leave their district center for fear of attack by very strong insurgent forces. At least one officer was a Taliban spy, and two officers were running an arms trafficking ring along with a local baker. The district was a mess. The bazaar was an ugly smear running alongside the only major road. The Taliban and HIG* held sway. An NDS* officer was hanged in the village square and an order given not to cut him down. His body hung for three days as a warning to all not to aid or participate in the government. The town, and the district named for it, have changed.

Police checkpoints line the road and dot the valley. ANP move about at will, and there is a sense of hope. The road is paved now. Schools are functioning and the bazaar thrums with activity. The town has a new lease on life. Most of the ANP that were on the payroll in 2007 have been replaced. The Colonel has hired many from other areas, bypassing any tendency towards cronyism or local favoritism. He was not alone, and he thanks his American mentors and the Coalition soldiers who have assisted in the long, hard road to recovery for one district in Afghanistan.

The Colonel was delayed a full day in reaching us. He was ambushed at a spot I know well as he drove to be with us. All were okay, but he was delayed.

Although we had shared much conversation, time and a few missions, I wondered if the Colonel would recognize me. He did, and a hug was accompanied by greetings in Dari, which is much better than my atrophied Pashto. We exchanged typical Afghan greetings, inquiring into each other’s health, and the health of the family. He was curious what we wanted him to speak about. I told him, “Just share your experiences. Tell us how the district has changed. Tell us about the fight, and how it is going. Tell us about your experiences with mentors. Tell us about getting along with the ANA and the Coalition forces. Just be truthful.”

“I always tell the truth,” he said.

“Don’t spare our feelings,” I continued.

“I will tell them exactly how I feel,” he said. “We have nothing to fear from the truth.”

The Colonel is one of the most humble men I have ever met. Soft-spoken, I was concerned that he wouldn’t be an effective speaker. He spoke well, but didn’t overdo it. Always considerate, he left time at the end of the period he was allotted for questions, which he answered succinctly. Following a standing ovation, Major General Formica sought him out and presented him with his personal coin for excellence. Afterward, the Colonel stared at the coin in his hand, a distinctly U.S. Army bauble of military achievement, and discussed his experience of hearing speakers and speaking to all of the Coalition leadership he had addressed.

“This is very good, for everyone to learn from each others' experiences,” he said, “and all of this needs to get out into the provinces, or it will do nothing.”

“I know.”

“And these officers must all realize that what works in Kabul is not right for the provinces and districts, because each one is different. If they only listen to the people in Kabul, but not in a district, they will not understand the district that they are in. They need to listen to the local people, who know what they need,” he continued.

“That’s why we asked you to come here,” I said. “I hope you will come back and speak again.”

“Whenever you call, then I will be here,” he said.

I think that he is the bravest man I have ever met.

*ANP: Afghan National Police

HIG: Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin

NDS: National Directorate of Security


October 28, 2009

Name: Bouhammer, Old Blue, WOTN, Vampire 06
Posting date: 10/28/09
Milblog: Afghan Lessons Learned For Soldiers

This is one of a series of posts designed to help and inform the thousands of troops headed to Afghanistan, some of whom had expected to deploy to Iraq. Those who thought they were headed to Iraq now find themselves behind the power curve in coming up to speed on the peculiarities of Afghanistan.

The first version of the list below was published in January, 2007, and is the single most popular post ever put up on Bouhammer.com. It lists good equipment to have, based on our experiences and those of our friends.

Some of these things won’t be needed until you get in country, so you may want to set those off to the side and have them sent once you get settled.

1. Any extra Class VIII you can bring with you is good to have.

2. Wolf Hook Single Point Slings.

3. Desert Tan spray paint.

4. Space blanket(s).

5. 100 mph tape, 550 cord, TP, other expendables you think would come in handy.

6. Drop Leg Holster (BlackHawk or SERPA) and Uncle Mike’s Paddle-Holster for wearing around every day (drop leg will wear a hole in ACUs over time). I also have one for my IBA so I can have my 9mm handy when in the gun hatch going through towns.

7. Weapons lube that doesn't attract sand. (Miltech or Remington Dry Lube only).

8. Two copies of addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, etc.

9. 2 pairs of good boot insoles.

10. A good tactical flashlight (SureFire, even though you will get issued one with M4).

11. Red/white light L.E.D. headlamp.

12. Spare pair of running shoes.

13. MP3 player with estra pair of headphones.

14. Enough batteries to last you 30 days.

15. ChapStick.

16. Lotion.

17. 30 SPF or higher sunblock.

18. Bar soap -- for some reason it's almost always in short supply.

19. Small compact rolls of TP. A lot of places make travel size. Half the time you get to a Porta-Potti and the jackA$s before you yanked the TP.

20. Baby wipes -- 30 days' worth. Expect that the power and water will either go out, or the water will be contaminated, at least once a month.

21. Gold Bond Foot and Body Powder.

22. Small clip-on LED light. Clip it to your IBA. It will come in handy -- quite often.

23. Drink mix for 16- and 20-ounce bottles of water.

24. Weightlifting supplies.

25. Small photo album with pics from home.

26. Hand sanitizer (small bottles to put in ankle pockets).

27. More books/magazines than you think you will need.

28. DVDs, for you and to loan out for swapping purposes.

29. Tactical gloves -- military gloves are sort of clumsy. ( I love the $9.95 whitewater brand gloves from the clothing sales.) Also standard flight Nomex are good.

30. Lens anti-fog agent. Shaving cream works in a pinch, but you have to apply it every other day or so.

31. Good pair of shower shoes/sandals. I recommend the black Adidas -- lasted me all year.

32. Small pillow (air inflatable).

33. Cheap digital camera (at least 2.1 mp).

34. Boot knife.

35. Gerber multitool.

36. Fabreze -- sometimes the laundry opportunities are few and far between.

37. Armor Fresh.

38. Extra boot laces.

39. Stainless steel coffee cup with screw-on lid.

40. Soccer shorts/normal T-shirt to sleep in, hang out in your room in.

41. Sweatshirts for wintertime hanging around

42. A couple of poncho liners for privacy, cover for nasty mattress, etc.

43. A set of twin sheets with pillow case.

44. Good regular-size pillow.

45. One or two good civilian bath towels.

46. Buy a good set (more than $200) of winter desert boots. All they will give you is a regular summer set and a set of Gore-Tex-lined for waterproof needs. Desert is a cold place at these altitudes in the wintertime.

47. Bring a laptop. Also may want a PSP or some other handheld gaming device.

48. Get an external USB harddrive (greater than 120 GB). You will need this to back up data to, and to store movies and MP3s that you will fall in on from previous teams.

49. Get a Skype account and download the software from skype.com. This is how I talk to home 95% of the time. If you call computer-to-computer, it is totally free. You can also Skype out from your computer to a regular phone for 2.1 cents a minute. There is nothing cheaper than that.

50. Decent headset with mic for computer (Skype).

51. Webcam for video calls back home.

52. Bring a minimum of 18 each M4 magazines per person. Nine that are loaded and nine that rest. Plan to do M4 mag changeover once per month.

53. Bring 8 each 9-mm mags, for same reason above. Change these over every two weeks.

54. Order a LULA Magazine Loader & Unloader. It will be the best $14 piece of plastic you every bought. I have 12 mags loaded at all times, and when I do change over, it will do it in a fraction of the time and save your hands and save the ammo.

55. Try to get your state to get, or purchase yourself, one 12V DC to 110V AC inverter per man for your trucks. They are crucial on mission to charge personal items, cell phone, ICOMs, and especially ANA radios (they only have rechargeable batteries).

56. Dump the IBA tactical vest you get issued. Get a Tactical Tailor MAV chest rig. (Does not matter if you get  a one-piece or two-piece, as you want to keep the front open for lying in the prone. You don’t want mags pushing into your chest making it hard to breathe.)  I wish I had bought mine at the start. It makes a huge difference on the back and shoulders when carrying a loaded rig.

57. Get a comfortable pair of desert boots. I wear only the Converse eight-inch assault boots (non-zipper ones). Oakley, Bates, and several others are similar in style and comfort.

58. Bring some good snivel gear for the wintertime. Extra polypro winter hat, gloves, neck gators, etc.

59. Lock deicer for the wintertime.

60. Disposable hand and feet warmers.

61. Canned air, lots of it for electronics, weapons, etc.

62. Lens wipes for optics.

63. Screen wipes for computers.

New Updates from an ETT in 2009:

64. Firing Pin Retaining Pins. Brownells is a good source.

65. DVD ripping program for your laptop, so you can transfer all your DVDs to electrons and store on a hard drive.

66. A good assault pack. I have one from Tactical Assault Gear with aluminum stays in it for support. It's been a lifesaver several times. The one the Army issues is a P.O.S.

67. MBITR pouch from Tactical Tailor.

68. An aviator's kneeboard.

69. Personal GPS (Garmin, etc).

There are probably many other things that could go on this list, but a lot of that is personal preference. The purpose of this list is to provide some insight into things that could make anyone’s tour easier. Feel free to add your own tips via Comments.


October 26, 2009

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Posting date: 10/26/09
Stationed in: Iraq  
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

Before we deployed we all conducted a Pre-Deployment Health Assessment. This was to assess our state of health prior to deployment and to assist military healthcare providers in indentifying any present or future health care we might need. I suppose it makes sense when used as a benchmark to gauge any changes in our physical or mental health as well. After we fill out the questionnaire we also have to talk to one of our Independent Duty Corpsmen or doctors and answer a bunch of questions, especially in the event we answered something on the questionnaire that catches their attention like:

I sincerely desire to go on a five state killing spree and charge all expenses to my Government Travel Credit Card.

If you check Strongly Agree they may want to come back for a follow up.

Currently we are in the midst of the glorious Post Deployment Health Assessment. This is to assess our state of health after deployment in support of military operations and to assist military healthcare providers in identifying and providing present and future medical care we may need. The information we provide may result in a referral for additional healthcare that may include medical, dental or behavioral healthcare or diverse community support services (this is pretty much all plagiarized right off the questionnaire).

Some of the questions simply ask how you would rate your health, if you have been injured or sick during the deployment, and whether or not you have any emotional problems, etc.

As America’s 1stSgt filled out his assessment the building veritably shook with the deafening running commentary that accompanies nearly everything that goes on in the company office.

For any of the following symptoms, please indicate whether you went to see a healthcare provider, were given light/limited duty (Profile), and whether you are still bothered by the symptom now.

Fever: NO!

Cough lasting more than 3 weeks: NO! I guess that two week phlegm festival I had doesn’t rate!

Trouble breathing: NO!

Bad headaches: I’m having one right now!

Generally feeling weak: I’ve never been weak a day in my life!

Muscle aches: NO!

Swollen stiff or painful joints: Is this the geriatric test or what?

Back pain: NO!

Numbness in hands or feet: NO!

Trouble hearing: Can YOU hear me now!

Ringing in the ears: Why do you think I turn off the phone?

Watery, red eyes: Only after I watch Sands of Iwo Jima!

Dimming of vision: NO!

Dizzy, light headed: NO!

Diarrhea: Well I haven’t had a solid one in seven months!

Vomiting: I can taste it right now!

Frequent indigestion/heartburn: Have you eaten here?

Problems sleeping: Only when idiots knock on my door!

Trouble concentrating: What was the question?

Forgetful or trouble remembering things: If I didn’t write it down then it never happened!

Hard to make up your mind or make decisions: No, it’s hard to get anyone to listen!

Increased irritability: You’re kidding me!

After the entire battalion does this questionnaire on line they line up outside the Battalion Aid
Station where they shuffle past the Battalion Surgeon’s desk like POWs answering a battery of questions, the majority of which are answered with a sigh and resounding, "No Sir" or "What? Why would I want to kill myself? I’ve been eating ice cream three meals a day for the past seven months."

The only thing that could possibly be more banal is being the poor guy that has to ask these questions to over 1200 Marines and Sailors. My sit-down with the battalion surgeon went like this:

Swaggering into the office I found my doctor had begun to slump down the back of his chair in despondency and could barely be seen over his monitor.

“You ready to get this over with 1stSgt?”

“Is that one of the questions sir?”

Anything resembling humor had completely evaporated from his system 400 interviews ago. By now he had more or less degenerated into a bio-mechanical automaton whose fist had grown around the mouse on his desk, forever chaining him to the demon-possessed machine residing there.

“Do you have any medical or dental problems that have developed over the deployment?”

“I may have chipped a tooth while repeatedly head-butting the corner of my desk.” This comment completely missed his funny bone as the nerves surrounding it had turned necrotic and died.

“Over the past month have you been bothered by thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself?”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. You do realize who you’re talking to, right?” At this point I was just another social security number, the idea of America’s 1stSgt having been completely burned from his memory.

“Over the past month have you been bothered by thoughts that you would hurt someone else?” The sound of my breath hissing through clenched teeth finally got his attention. His head lolled in my direction.


“Oh! No.”

“During this deployment have you sought or do you intend to seek counseling or care for your mental health?” Having had Marines in the past with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury this issue isn’t one I normally joke about as my feelings concerning it are rather passionate.

Considering how much violence we endured this deployment though (that is to say NONE), it was the question that made me roll my eyes.

“Do you have concerns about possible exposures or events during this deployment which you feel may affect your health?”

This is the question that my medical professionals just love to ask as there are always a few Jarheads that are worried about the effects of being exposed to the Electronic Counter Measures devices on their vehicles or concerned about how many metric tons of dust they may have inhaled over the last seven months. These are usually the same ones who have no issue with having a cell phone surgically attached to their face or smoking five packs of cancer sticks a day.

The conclusion of the Post Deployment Health Assessment is by no means the end of the story. Much like sequels to bad horror films, health assessments rise again and again. Some months after we get back there will be the Post Deployment Health Re-Assessment where we will answer all the same questions again. This ends with one or two of the medical Corpsmen being staked in the heart to ensure they don’t become one of the living dead.

Then of course there is the Periodic Health Assessment which the military does with or without a deployment. At the rate we deploy nowadays I could be asked as many as five times in a year by a medical professional if I’m OK, without there ever being any sign that anything is wrong with me in the first place. A lot of times the deployment schedule is such that the Re-Assessment for the last deployment and Pre-Assessment for the next one are conducted at the same time. How’s that for mind-bending?

The next time I hear an “expert” on some news network talk about how we’re not doing enough to identify troops with medical, dental, or mental health issues I will openly wonder if he has ever had to interview an entire battalion five times in a year.

Even now there are units experiencing far more strenuous and combative deployments than we are this trip. With any luck the health assessments coupled with assertive leadership will be able to identify those who haven’t realized they need help or are too stubborn to seek it themselves. If it were a simple matter of paperwork we’d all be inoculated by now.

Semper Fidelis.


October 22, 2009

Name: K
Posting date: 10/22/09
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

Framed K firebase unframed
  Korengal Valley as seen from Firebase Vimoto.

You know it's been an interesting tour when during an hour-long layover in Alaska someone just happens to buy a Time magazine and thereby stumble across pictures of members of our team and one of our interpreters. Of course, our guys that had the pictures taken knew that eventually they might show up in the magazine, but none of the rest of us knew they'd be in there since we didn't pay attention to the fact that a reporter was with them.

It might have been a nice surprise if not for the fact that two of our guys pictured were bearded and well out of uniform. Unlike the Special Forces, we're not permitted to dress and groom ourselves how we'd like.

Of course, where we could get away with it, many of us did just what we liked regarding our uniforms and beards. But generally we had sense enough to not let pictures get taken of us in such a state. In fact, for the first half of our time we didn't let reporters embed with us at all, and pretty much just kept them away from us, primarily so something like this wouldn't happen.

At some point that changed though, and members of our team thereafter appeared or were mentioned in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time (twice), El Mundo, and some others. It wasn't until this last one though that some of us were published completely out of uniform. I'm not sure what if any repercussions our team will feel, but at any rate, I think the main pic of the story makes a helluva recruiting tool for the Marine Corps. Badass!

As for the why -- why we'd be out of uniform and unshaven at times -- well, there's more to it than simply being nasty and undisciplined. For one thing, the Afghan elders and people respect a man with a beard. In fact when we and our ANA would go to a village the ANA commander would always ask to talk to the "spin gheri" which translates as "white beard". Now I'm not sure if the literal translation in Pashtu for "village elder" is "white beard" but that's how my Afghan commanders got their point across, pretty much indicating that in the Pashtu language and culture a beard is synonymous with seniority and authority.

We certainly never once spoke to a man of any stature whatsoever that had no beard. The elders I habitually dealt with were dismayed (nearly as much as I) when I shaved a two-month beard I had going. I'm not sure being clean-shaven was any real detriment at the end of the day, but adopting a local custom is not always a bad thing, despite what our pre-deployment training told us about "not going native". I say go native sometimes where it serves you. And frankly, growing a beard makes the Marines feel like they're getting one over on the rulewriters on high and is good for morale. You just have to be sure that you've got a group that is professional enough to realize that breaking one rule doesn't mean they are not still Marines, with all the other attendant rules and regulations to follow.

As for the uniforms, most of that had to do with blending in with the ANA. Even from 600 meters away an insurgent is probably going to recognize an American by the gear he's carrying, but there's no use making it any easier for them to target the ETTs specifically by wearing a uniform that looks different.


October 19, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 10/19/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

The Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan (CTC-A) is growing, and its role in propagating the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or COIN, across many organizations is growing. Students of counterinsurgency from every branch of the United States Military, all of our NATO and Coalition allies, and most importantly Afghans from government, the Afghan Military, Afghan National Police and even non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are being trained in counterinsurgency every week. Some of this training is conducted on site at the CTC-A, while other training is carried directly to the units and organizations in the field.

The curriculum is reviewed each month in a constant process of refining the presentation of materials to keep the training relevant to the current conditions in the theater. New tools are reviewed carefully for applicability. Pathways to better integration with civilian and military organizations and capabilities are sought, examined carefully, and advice is given on implementation. Partners are discovered, encouraged, educated and assisted. Relationships are cemented and expanded to include new organizations and capabilities. Lastly, through discussion and interface during training including diverse groups, personal contacts are forged that continue to drive productive partnership development.

Innovative doctrinally-based approaches to counterinsurgency training and implementation are being developed and fielded in conjunction with other organizations. Methods for operationalizing doctrinal frameworks and concepts are being sought, developed, tested and fielded. The CTC-A is a center for COIN thought that does not depend on solutions being pushed forward by offices in the United States, with solutions tuned to the specific environment of Afghanistan. The staff at the CTC-A are constantly learning, acquiring as much knowledge as possible to drive insights into such developments.

In that spirit of continuous education and professional development, an Honorary Library has been established at the CTC-A. Donations of books are sought which will be available to students and staff alike to spur further learning about counterinsurgency, history (especially Afghan and Central Asian history) and related topics. It is very easy to donate and become a part of this learning. Simply follow this link and the name of the wish list is “COIN Library – Kabul.” Donations of used books from the wish list can be mailed to:

COIN Library
c/o Scott Kesterson
Camp Phoenix
APO AE 09320

Your contributions will help to keep the minds of the counterinsurgent trainers and students bright as they work together to resolve a very complex insurgency. This is a way that you can support forwarding counterinsurgency doctrine, training and implementation in Afghanistan and have a direct impact on the success of the mission here. Please consider making a contribution to the fight and arming counterinsurgents with knowledge. Sometimes, a counterinsurgent’s best weapons do not shoot.


October 16, 2009

Name: Edda2010
Posting date: 10/16/09
Returned from: Afghanistan

My current Battalion is at a crossroads. We are part of one of two "light" Brigade Combat Teams that I'm aware of that are on the roster to deploy to Iraq. Light, as everyone is (I'm sure) aware, means not motorized or mechanized -- hypothetically, we get around on foot, which makes us (again hypothetically) well suited for just about any environment except the desert or the plains. Cities -- good. Mountains / hills -- good. Forest -- good. And so on.

In fact, the "light" unit of which I'm a part is technically a "Mountain" unit, so that leads one to believe that we would be tasked with a deployment to Afghanistan rather than Iraq. On the other hand, there's a lot more that goes into a deployment than what appear to be the facts as stated, and the bottom line is that there's really no way to tell where we'll be six months from now. So, we train, and prepare for any eventuality.

If we were to go to Iraq, it would be under very -- to me -- strange circumstances. We're supposed to be pulling out, if I understand correctly, so our combat role will be that of mentors -- and readers of my previous-deployment blog know how that experience plays out. Meanwhile our administrative role will be to account for and ship home (or to Afghanistan) as much gear as we can get our hands on. I fully anticipate arriving at a FOB in Iraq and looking out over a motor pool of hundreds of vehicles -- Bradleys, HMMWVs, M1A2 tanks, to name a few -- and have to sign for, inventory, and ship out the lot. This will be somebody's responsibility -- whoever's the last one on the ground. Like a complicated game of musical chairs.

I'm reminded of George MacDonald Fraser's experiences with the British Army in what was then Palestine -- bizarre, unaccountable police actions mixed with administrative and logistical snarls that serve to reinforce life's absurdities, rather than fill one with the fire of combat and battle. Which, of course, was one of the reasons I signed up in the first place, being essentially no more mature, emotionally, than a 12-year-old.

I'm doing a better job of seeing old friends and family than I did last time around, in part because I understand, having gone through it before, how things like that gnaw at you when you're away, and in part because being in the United States makes visiting much easier. I still have quite a few people to see, so if you're reading this, and you're on the list -- get ready! I'm going to try to see you in October / November (unless we're changed to Afghanistan, in which case there's a little more time). I'll never forget what it was like to hear that my grandfather had passed, two months before I was supposed to see him over leave...

Besides, this will be one of the last times I get to see friends on the terms we're comfortable with -- an upward trajectory, with life still in front of us. We've all had time to realize some of our dreams, but are not so far along the path that we're locked in, or can feel that life's passed us by.


October 14, 2009

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 10/14/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Afghan Quest

GEN McChrystal’s assessment has now been “leaked.” Now what? For some time now, it has seemed that the tide of public opinion has been turning against the “Good War.” Why do you think that is?

Because suddenly everyone has realized that Afghanistan is a complex, dynamic situation. It is what analysts call a “wicked problem.” Everyone thought that Iraq was complicated and that Afghanistan was more simple. Now that people have really taken a look at Afghanistan, they realize that it is not so simple. In many ways, it is more complex than Iraq. It makes people’s heads hurt.

Not being able to make sense of the problem, they figure that nobody can, and that’s when the
pessimism of the public takes hold.

A few words of caution: First, the American public has nothing of the real story of Afghanistan presented to them. The only brave reporters in the country are busying themselves with covering combat. The rest remain in Kabul, running stringers of dubious quality and unknown affiliations. For the first time, today, I was asked by a civilian, “Why is none of the good stuff that we are doing getting told back home? Why is the press ignoring the real stories here?”

I cannot answer that question in a way that sounds even vaguely like I feel that the mainstream media has a clue. Media people are allowed to attend the Counterinsurgency Training Center. Damned few take up the offer. How can a press corps even pretend to know what they are talking about when they don’t do their best to understand the reasoning, the doctrine, the strategy behind what they are seeing? Most of them, a select few exempted, have no idea what they are looking at when they watch the military do anything beyond brushing their teeth. Not only that, but they don’t try.

What does this have to do with GEN McChrystal’s assessment? Well, the General points out a few things that are being glossed over back home. First, the Afghans want us here. He quotes General Wardak in his report as saying just that. Wardak also notes that the time is ripe for success. The raw material for a comprehensive and integrated approach to the counterinsurgency is building in Afghanistan, and for the first time, we are hearing that the American public is now tilting against this theater. Amazing. What timing. Americans, like my beloved but hapless Bengals, have a particular talent ever since the early seventies for snatching defeat from the jaws of success. It is quite possible for us to succeed in Afghanistan. The situation is far from ideal. It is serious, and that is our fault. No doubt. But it is not hopeless.

I am still digesting the report; but having seen the followup briefings, where the story unfolds further, the assessment is no surprise. I cannot discuss the briefings on where, specifically, the General plans to take this, but I can tell you that he is not tolerating among our leadership here the kind of pessimism that runs rampant in our homeland. We cannot afford to let it make our heads hurt. It is our job to handle the wicked problem. There are some very determined people involved here. Now we are seeing determined, hopeful people who don’t wear uniforms bringing their talents to bear where they should have been years ago. It is not too late, and the General states this clearly. Now is the time; not to double down just to be doubling down, but to learn, adapt and take our performance of real counterinsurgency to the next level.

President Obama has, somehow or other, wound up with the “Dream Team” on the issue of Afghanistan. Just as Al Qaeda has shifted resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, so have we. Many of the people who sharpened their claws in Iraq have been shifted over to Afghanistan, and the good war has taken on a primacy of effort that was lacking when I first arrived in April of 2007. While still sparsely resourced, people who know how to do stability and counterinsurgency operations have begun to come into the country, and they are having an impact. GEN McChrystal has got some wicked smart people working for him on projects large and small that will make a positive impact on this country.

Now the President, swayed by the possibility of an unpopular decision, begins to waffle. This is not the right time to waffle. This is the time to be decisive.

I was recently thanked by a foreign officer for something I said to a group of American officers. I told the American officers that the rest of the world views us as the big fat rich kid on the world playground. We want everyone to like us, and are heartbroken to discover that a few don’t. We are easily aroused and like to throw our weight around. We think that what we think is going to be the most important thing on everyone’s agenda. We are not afraid to fight, and we have heavy hands. God help you if we catch you with a punch; few can withstand a beating from us. But, we are clumsy. We can be hurt, and we have no stamina; no real will. If we can be made to bleed a little, and if we can be run in circles for more than a little while, we tire easily. We have the propensity, when things get tough and we get a little winded, to take our ball and go home. We are prone to quitting. We have quit before, and we are more than likely to quit again.

The Taliban know that, and the Afghan people know that. It is part of the insurgent song to the people, a message designed to keep them on the fence, unsure of which way best suits their interests. If they commit to the government being helped by the fat kid, and the fat kid runs away to mope, they can die. Many dare not commit. Many who have committed in the last eight years have paid the price with their lives as we have moved into an area, cleared it out and announced that the bad times were over. As the good-intentioned patriots emerged to help heal their communities, we have left their damaged communities with nothing to guarantee security. Our focus was on developing the Army, after all. The Police? Nobody wanted to work with them, to improve them. Yet we left those communities in their untrained, ill-led hands and scampered off in search of more Taliban to chase. The Taliban returned to those communities and killed those who had stood up in their absence. It is a phenomenon we call “mowing the grass.”

We have mowed a lot of grass. Many would-be patriots have died as a result of our inability to grasp the importance of a comprehensive, integrated approach to assisting in the rebuilding of a society damaged to its core by over thirty years of warfare and upheaval, suffering from a chronic insurgency. We are world famous for abandoning those who we had told, “We will not abandon you.”

The foreign officer thanked me for saying what all of the Coalition and Afghan partners were thinking. They were afraid to raise the point, though; because we can be an ill-tempered lot when our assumptions about ourselves are challenged. To those men, it just isn’t worth it to hold up their mirror for us to look at. It’s like when someone who really doesn’t care about you lets you walk around with spinach in your teeth.

The fat kid is wheezing now. We are faltering, cocooning, withdrawing within ourselves and our head hurts from the complexity of it all. We want to quit. We want to take our ball and go home. We will cede this area to instability and leave, like we are leaving our debt, the mortal threat for our children to handle. It’s all just too much for us to bear.

Who would have thought, four years ago, that of the two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, that the one where we would tire out and be losers would be Afghanistan? When Obama made Afghanistan the “good war,” and when he called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” you would have expected firm, decisive movement. Initially, that is what was shown. He went along with firing McKiernan and replacing him with McChrystal, whose vision and leadership has shaken the “same old, same old” sensibilities of the Afghanistan mission. GEN McChrystal promises, through his actions and initiatives, to do things that have never been done in Afghanistan. Now, the President is poised to force the resignation of this leader, which will be the political death of his administration. But he will leave the General no recourse if he fails to resource the mission properly.

In the meantime, back home, ill-informed people who knew nothing about Afghanistan at this time last year other than it wasn’t Iraq and it was where Osama was when the World Trade Center crashed to the ground, have had the chance to learn a little more about this ancient land. What they learned was that it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t so easy. It made their heads hurt. It is a wicked, dynamic problem, and it makes heads hurt. They stare and stare at the picture, but they just can’t see the damned dolphin. So, their answer is to quit. They begin to waver. President Obama, the most politically sensitive president I’ve ever seen… a veritable political weather vane, senses the wind shift… and dissembles accordingly.

The news today is that the President is considering a plan brought forth in the spring by another great military leader and strategic genius. It is certainly cheaper, and is likely to prove enormously popular with the waffles back home. It actually involves fewer troops in Afghanistan, a great reliance on drone strikes and Special Operations raids in Pakistan (boy, I bet that makes the Pakistanis happy!) That sounds as effective as lobbing 63 cruise missiles at a few mud huts. Not like that’s ever been done before.

Meanwhile, cheerleaders all over Washington and parts of the press are laying it on thick in a bid to win their agendas. They are the part of the fat kid’s mind that tells him that he is afraid, that he is tired, that nothing is worth it. I’ve watched the voices become strident. “This is a long, steep hill,” the voice in his head tells the fat kid, “You can quit any time you want. Let’s go have some ice cream. You know it’s hard, and you’re sweaty, and you’re tired. Your head hurts. This wasn’t all easy like you thought. It’s too hard. Ice cream sounds good. Let’s go get some ice cream and watch American Idol.”

We are the big, rich, fat kid. We talk a big story, but our word isn’t worth a plugged nickel. That’s what Omar means when he says, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” He knows us well enough to know that we are quitters.

For those of you who are tracking, remember that you are not even getting half of the story of what is actually happening over here. As for how to deal with the, “My Head Hurts” crowd, just tell your fellow citizens to take some Advil and stand by. The next move is Obama’s, and it will determine the immediate future of my mission in Afghanistan, my son’s future, and how long we will stay the fat, rich kid who talks big and runs away when the other kid hits back.


October 12, 2009

Name: Ian Wolfe   
Posting date: 10/12/09
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

Two years home and Iraq still haunts me. It’s like a stigma that I can’t shake and don’t ever want to forget. I did an interview for my college alumni magazine and the writer titled it “Near Normal.” At first I was a bit offended, but after thinking about it a while I realized it was pretty accurate.

Friends of mine have talked about situations where they just didn’t feel like they fit, or where people find out they are veterans and act kind of odd. I've had similar situations. My school only has about twelve vets and no clue, but the campus most of my friends I served with go to has a large veteran’s service center. They are very organized. They show up when anyone is assembling for something to do with the war. It’s nice because some days it seems the only people you can relate to are other veterans. .

This is odd to me because I don’t think what I or some of us went through was really all that bad.  Sure we saw some things that you don’t see everyday, but there are definitely people who had a worse time then I did. I think part of this perspective comes from watching a lot of movies. It is hard to see stories about service in Vietnam and World War II and compare it to ours. They had it significantly worse. Even though I think this, and I try to shake off these feelings that seem irrational, it still is there. Something is different about us. 

When people find out I am a vet and say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were in Iraq,” I have this overpowering urge to sarcastically say, "Yeah, I forgot I wasn’t wearing my gold star today.” Clearly this is extreme, and in no way do I think we compare to anything that happened to people who had to wear gold stars; it’s just odd, as if they think they should be able to tell. As if we should stand out somehow by ducking behind corners or acting “all crazy.” I often think to myself, “Am I being over-dramatic?”  Well, yes, sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. 

The world of veterans is swarming with PTSD and antidepressants. Should we really get labeled with a disorder for going through something completely alien to our world? Maybe we should all have some counseling. But do we really need the identifier? I guess for some it serves a beneficial purpose, but I think it hurts some.

I know some vets who will never shake the label of PTSD. And some who don’t want to. Yet they don’t want the help and because of that they won’t recover. Some were already gone before the service, but now they have a reason that hides the real problems. Thanks to Hollywood we get to be portrayed in all sorts of ways. What about the veterans who come home and their service only adds to their determination and success?

We all had emotional homecomings. One night I got hammered on Guinness and Jameson and this guy came over who was telling everyone he was in the navy and got shot in Iraq. I knew he was full of shit, but politely told him to stop talking and put his dog tags away. Of course by the time I was getting driven home all I could think about was soldiers and marines I had taken care of: calling home to tell their wives and mothers they were okay, but they had lost their feet; the ones who couldn’t talk because of the massive trauma that racked their bodies; the ones who needed towels under their stretchers because of the massive blood loss and whose cots got hosed down when they went back into the Operating Room. 

I thought about all this as it flashed in front of me and I broke down. What didn’t affect me when I was there was pouring out with the drunken state and the anger about the asshole that could selfishly and easily compare himself to people who went through things unimaginable. I still rarely talk about it because of the emotions it stirs up. That was the only time I ever related in detail what I had seen to my wife. Often I think I don’t deserve to have these emotions. A few other friends I have talked to have had similar breakdowns. We come home and think that since it didn’t bother us over there, it won’t bother us here. Then we get really drunk and let our guard down. 

There are lots of questions, and fortunately there is nowhere to hide in today’s world, overburdened with media. I think this is beneficial in the long run but it does have some disadvantages. It has been said many times that the military is at war, but America isn’t. While people at home were learning about Paris Hilton and others we were walking in a nonstop westward wind that was hotter than an oven on broil. We were missing birthdays and graduations, deaths and births. My unit was gone for two years, most of it in Iraq. Some days I think it wasn’t that long, others it seems like an eternity.

During your college years, two years is forever. I started in the army having just turned twenty.  Now after all my service I find myself with a family, still in college, and much older than other students.  I don’t regret anything, and thanks to the new GI bill most of us can now attend college, but often I wonder what it would have been like to have a normal college experience.

Most of the time I don’t mind any of this, but every once in a while my mind slips and I see flashes of images or hear sounds that take me back. Someone next to me complains because the handout the teacher gave us doesn’t follow her power point very well, and I want to hit him. And the thing about it is that I don’t want to change that feeling. I don’t have any desire to. Why should I fall back into the rest of society? Why should I want to forget the horrifying images that I think about everyday? Why shouldn’t I feel different? I am different.

That little bit of service, those two years, plus the year I was gone before those, changed me. Maybe I see the wastes of life and the complainers in society and since I am constantly trying to make up time it just irritates me that much more. Who knew that a label like being a veteran could become your defining status? There is nothing like being introduced as an Iraq vet, as if I have done nothing else in life. Of course when asked what I did I usually tell people I was part of a secret unit that drilled and shipped oil. Funny, no one seems to buy it, even the people who think the war was about oil.

We were apart of something huge, yet a lot of people don’t want to listen to us for fear of changing their opinions, or fear that they may be proven wrong. Or they are simply scared of what we might say. I have often, after some coaxing, told a few funny stories to people about the deployment. Mostly I get blank expressions or looks of horror. This always reminds me that I am in a different world, not with my fellow veterans. But that’s the moral of this essay. I am different, I am better and I am worse. We veterans shouldn’t be the same as anyone else; we are not. We are still in our own world trying to define what that is. 


October 08, 2009

Name: K
Posting date: 10/8/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Embedded in Afghanistan

                         "If you teach a man anything he will never know."

                                                                - Bernard Shaw

Well, it’s all over now, except the good times and celebrating together when we get home. From the very beginning it was easy to see we had a stellar group of young men in this unit, top to bottom far superior to other units I’ve been in. Today, I feel more proud than ever to have been a part of what we did.

And I’m ecstatic to say we’re taking everyone back home with us. We were not without some close calls -- the 21 members of our team were involved in over 300 separate troops in contact incidents (TICs: these incidents can range from a round of indirect fire landing on the base to firefights lasting hours) in our 270+ days in Afghanistan, which if averaging more than one TIC a day sounds like a lot, well, it is.

But we did provide a lot of targets out there since we manned seven different bases over a wide area. We will collectively receive quite a few awards, including six purple hearts, but none of those injuries were serious enough to remove anyone from duty for more than a couple weeks. Our ANA battalion likewise received a number of injuries, but no deaths during our time with them.

It’ll be good to get back to a place where things happen normally. Things in America just make sense. In the States, people act and do things that make sense to me. Perhaps I feel that way because America is my culture, or perhaps it’s this fact that makes America so great. Put a bunch of hard-working people together who make decisions rationally without letting superstition get in their way and you can get great results.

In Afghanistan, and especially so when working with the ANA, too much friction exists to get much of anything accomplished. The mountains, weather, language barrier, education level, the enemy, and above all the culture have a way of conspiring against you to prevent you from getting things done the way you think they should get done. I can remember, while at my first duty station, often thinking during my lunch break that what took me four hours to do in the morning should have only taken me two hours. Working with the ANA, what should take two hours is liable to take all week, if it gets done at all.

What we achieved other than our own survival is much tougher to measure. I’d be lying if I said the security situation in our area was much different when we left from how it was when we got there. But then, given limited resources, perhaps holding a stalemate in Kunar Province is really all anyone can hope for at this time.

We could change a few things on the tactical level (like not being so ridiculously predictable) that might help and wouldn’t involve an increase in resources, but realistically we’re not going to change the way we fight in any significant way. To kill more enemy would involve more risk to our own troops, which would in turn produce more casualties, leading to more negative public opinion, which I fear would in time end the war given our leadership at the very top. Not that I don’t want to see the war end. But I’d like to see it end for the right reasons.

With no changes coming in the tactical fight, to turn it around in Kunar we’d either need more troops -- or the right troops. Some of those valleys we were in have been insurgent havens for many years. A part of me says we should just get out of there and leave the local people to their own devices. Another part of me says we should double the manpower (and preferably bring the Marine battalions back to Kunar) and just clean house, even if really taking the fight to the enemy would increase our casualties in the short term.

Given the eight years we have invested in Afghanistan, I don’t think we should pack up and quit without giving it a really good push, something like a surge. What an original thought, right? The surge in Iraq showed the people we were serious about winning. The low turnout at the election can be taken as pretty strong evidence that the Afghan people are losing hope on this idea of democracy. And they’re losing hope because we’re eight years now in their country and we haven’t vanquished the Taliban yet, nor have we made their lives significantly better. I hold the Afghan people more responsible for this unfortunate reality than I do my fellow Americans and NATO allies, but regardless of who’s to blame for the lack of security in the south and east, the fact is an elected government in Afghanistan is in our national interest.

Now, is establishing a stable, elected government worth the mountains of money we’re spending here? Or would the money and resources be better spent in other ways, closer to home? After nine months here, my gut tells me we’re better off investing in ways to protect ourselves that don’t involve creating democracies in impoverished, war-torn, ethnically-divided nations on the other side of the planet. But after all we’ve done here already, I’d hate to see us give up without a really putting our best efforts into it for at least a couple years, keeping in mind we’ve never had anywhere near the number of troops here that were in Iraq at that war’s height.

As for the ANA, we need to give them their own battlespace and make them accountable for it. They have the ability to fight the enemy on their own now. Partnering in one area with regular line units like they’re doing now only enables them. If the ANA were operating on their own without a Coalition unit sharing the area, they’d still need ETTs* for some things like calling for fire support and medevacs and of course, all that sage advice we give them, but the absence of other regular units in the area would force them to develop or get defeated. I’m confident the ANA can rise to that challenge, but they’ll only rise to it when forced to – initiative is not a strong suit with Afghan soldiers.

As for the ETTs, well, we’re hearing rumors that the embedded training concept is going away. I’m not sure if this means the ANA are going to partner directly with the adjacent Coalition unit in the area without the benefit of an ETT to facilitate, or if this means the ANA is just going to operate independently. Either way, I’d hate to see the concept go away as I’m certain ETTs are huge force multipliers.

And lastly, for my part being an ETT was by far the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m incredibly thankful to have been given this opportunity. This was the hardest I’ve worked, with the most responsibility, and the most accomplished, of anything so far for me. I have no doubt that I’ll always look back on what we did out here with great pride. Hopefully, 20 years from now I’ll be able to return to the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan with a walking stick and a backpack and not have to worry about getting my throat slit.

Time will tell.

*ETT: Embedded Training Team


October 06, 2009

Name: America's 1st Sgt.
Posting date: 10/6/09
Stationed in: Iraq  
Milblog: Castra Praetoria
Email: [email protected]

Brows furrowed, my battalion commander angrily punched keys as he scrolled through something that was currently giving him a migraine.Casually I leaned against the door jamb of his office and sipped my coffee (Kona of course). “Sir, what are you working on there?

I had put on an air of nonchalance specifically to annoy the CO, a graduate of VMI.*  I prefer to annoy Naval Academy graduates but I take what I can get; besides, the XO was a Naval Academy guy and his office was my next stop.

As much as I’d like to say that the CO’s response was replete with colorful expletives it just wouldn’t be true. It was packed to gills with words like “darn” and “doggone” and things of that nature though. Despite this strange vocabulary I was able glean what had disturbed him that morning.

Framed AmFirst Done 1

One of our companies was manning a Point Of Entry (POE) on the border with Syria which for us is pretty much the ragged edge of the universe.

Framed AmFirst Done 2

Framed AmFirst Done 3

Their toasters had burnt their last loaf and they were asking for replacements, and also for some slow cookers. Any of you familiar with FOB life knows that the amenities there are not what the average person would call humane, and food there is only food in the sense that if you eat it you will not die.

This in and of itself was not the source of the CO’s consternation. In Iraq when we open purchase something we have to buy it through an Iraqi vendor. It’s the rules. And when we had put a request in to open purchase this stuff with battalion funds the prices were ridiculously high.

Guess how much a toaster costs us in Iraq? Are you ready? $500, no kidding. You’ve heard of Arab Traders yes?

Furious at this, our battalion commander was scrolling through prices of these things on line, making himself madder with every click of the mouse. There had to be a better way! Enter America’s 1stSgt, leaning up against the door frame with one fist on his hip and the other wrapped around his coffee mug, smirking. I knew just what to do.

“Sir, I’ve got this. We’ll get that stuff for free. How many do we want?” I waved my hand around as if to dismiss an annoying insect. This would be no problem at all. One just had to push the right buttons:

“Dear Hope,

I’ve got a favor to ask…Marines starving to death in Iraq…Would like toast with their peanut butter…Iraqi toaster costs $500...Think there are enough red blooded Americans out there to help us out?..."

Laugh maniacally and hit "send".

Yes, I have to admit I deliberately launched that missile right into the heart (quite literally) of my nearest mil support heroine. Every key stroke was simultaneously punching one of Hope’s buttons. I knew it would send her right over the top. Watching Hope operate her mil support connections is like watching a bunch of those Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots blast each other on the chin. It really was something. In the meantime I cackled like the mad scientist who had set events into inexorable motion.

I have rarely seen her that wound up.

"Why didn’t you tell me?"

"I just did."


Hope is deeply in touch with her expletives.

In the end it worked out great. Great Americans came forward and took care of their Marines and Hope orchestrated the delivery of a number of slow cookers and toasters that even now grace a couple of separate chow halls on the ragged edge of the universe.

Framed AmFirst Done 5

Framed AmFirst Done 6

Framed AmFirst Done 7

To those who were a part of making daily life out on the POEs just a little bit brighter for some Marine way out in the desert, thanks. I always say that if we take care of the Marines then they’ll take care of the mission. I appreciate you all doing your part.

And a great big electronic pat on the back for Hope, who made it happen. You also realize there would be no Castra Praetoria without her incessant nag--  I mean without her dedication. She’s not a bad piece of gear.

Now everyone, back to salt mines!!!


*VMI: Virginia Military Institute


October 02, 2009

Name: Sarah
Posting date: 10/2/09
Spouse stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: Spousebuzz   
Email: [email protected]

Because it has taken many years to get to this point, my husband and I already had first names picked out for our baby.  But we had never settled on a middle name.  Since my husband will be deployed for the entire pregnancy, we find ourselves trying to decide this by email.  It's not an easy task.

If you're in the same room, you can judge your spouse's reaction to hearing a name. "Let's make her middle name Ethel" may elicit an obvious groan or just a polite shaking of the head. You can better judge whether your spouse hates your idea or just doesn't seem to be fully convinced by it and needs more prodding.

You can't glean this via email.

I wrote my husband a long email with various suggestions, reasons why, links to famous people with that name, etc. He replied with, literally, "Well, I don't know." That's it. Did he hate my ideas, or was he just being noncommittal? I don't know! He also has said that we have "plenty of time" to figure this out, but we sure don't if he's gonna send back one-line replies!

I don't like having to do this apart.

I also cannot read another book or webpage with suggestions about what a wonderful bonding time this is for my husband and me. Letting Daddy rub your belly is a great way for him to feel close to the pregnancy. We should plan a romantic date night now because life will be hectic for the next 18 years. And, the pinnacle of my annoyance, that this is the time when my libido is at its life peak, so sex will be out of this world.

Thanks for rubbing all this in.

I can't help but feel that I'm missing out on something special -- and not just in the bedroom.

I am not in a position to complain: it is a downright miracle that I am even pregnant and having this baby. And while it would've been nice to have him here to help with morning sickness, to rub my back when it's sore, and to lug the new bag of dog food out of the trunk, I know I can handle all of that. I can suck it up and blink back tears alone when constipation gets so bad that I feel like my insides will rip apart.

But I am having a hard time appreciating the happy moments alone. I am at the point where I am waiting to feel the first kick, and I am sad that my husband will not get to experience it. I won't get to grab his hand and put it there to see if he can feel it too. He's never been to an ultrasound and it's debatable whether he will even be here for the birth.

I just wish we could be together to share the happy moments.

And pick a middle name.

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