Thursday, February 24, 2011

And Back Again.


This is a post I probably should have written about a week ago, as a week ago today my team and I were returned to our friends in family in Minnesota. Our year together as a team working to train and mentor Afghan soldiers. For some, I don't think the year could end soon enough, as there were some strained relationships and guys no longer talking to one another. A year living together can be tough. Hopefully next month when we return for our first reintegration event, some time apart will mend some feelings.
The 9th of February was my last chance to galavanting across the Afghan countryside. I helped our replacements, OMLT 4, on a familiarization trip to Pol-e-Khomri. Our last trip to the top of "Cement Hill" overlooking Pol-e-Khomri (PEK), and the fertile valley to the south of PEK.
Our replacements arrived in theatre just before the end of Janruary, and we set about trying to show them as much of Northern Afghanistan as we could till we were forced to leave. Fortunately for us, they were eager and excited to learn. Which was fortunate for us as we were eager and excited to teach them so that we could go home. The challenge during our hand over training was not letting any of our frustrations from the past 10 months overtake their training. We tried to teach and give them realistic expectations of their mission. However, there were some things purposefully not covered or only touched on lightly as there are some things that it would be best if they learn or experience for themselves. I am very excited though for our replacements and all the good things that they will accomplish. Our team, OMLT 3, left the mission better than we found/received it. Yet there is a lot of room left to grow or directions to take for OMLT 4 to take and plenty of opportunities to succeed.
Like having to leave summer church camp, the thing that I think many of the other on the team will miss most about Afghanistan is the people. Working with Afghans can be frustrating and challenging, however working with people was very rewarding.
The guys in the shop that I mentored, CPT Sayed Sharif, SGT Mohommed Hussain, SFC Shafiual, SGT Massioula were a fun and hard working bunch. I told my replacement several times that in my opinion he probably has one of the easiest mentoring jobs of the group simply because of the group in the S1 shop. I'm sure there was probably a dozen changes or improvements that I could tried with my guys, however what they have seems to work and more importantly work for them. To the best of their ability they keep accurate track of the soldiers in their battalion, and everyone gets paid. If soldiers were not getting paid, I am certain that daily I would have witness people would have been coming into their office complaining. The complaints I witnessed were not that different from a typical western Army; "You didn't pay me for three days, I was only gone for two days." As I left I was very encouraged as more than once the guys I mentored said that they will miss me, and they wished that I could stay longer.
The people I will wish most were the interpreters that we had working for our team. I was the interpreter manager for our team, at first I thought having that responsibility would be a burden. Now that my time in Afghanistan has ended, I feel that working as the terp manager, or the "terp whisperer" as the guys on my team called me, was a blessing. The seven young men that we had working on our team were some the brightest and future of Afghanistan. Unfortunately for us, for fortunate for him, one of guys left us as his visa came through and he was able to go the United States. As our time in Afghanistan I worked with three of the guys on my team to help sponsor them for Visas to the United States. I truly hope that someday in the future I can see most the young men that worked for me. While I would admit that I would have them visit me here in the United States, however someday in the future when Afghanistan is safe and secure (probably 10 or 20 years in the future) I would find it interesting to go there as a tourist to visit them.
One of our frustrations was how we left theatre. We were going outside the wire on missions until the last possible minute. As a result we did not take an opportunity to officially hand over the mission to our replacements, and more importantly properly say goodbye to the men that we had worked with for the past several months. I had made certificates of appreciation to the guys that I mentored, and for the interpreters that worked for me. I never got a chance to present those in person to everyone. Luckily I had gotten a nice gift for my terp, which I gave to him a few days before hand. Much to my surprise, and enjoyment, he gave me a nice gift also a Paron Tambon. A Afghan man shirt and pants. It is a fitted shirt that goes down to my knees and pants made of the same fabric. Very comfortable, and very common throughout the middle east. I was very tickled to receive one as a gift.
Since I have returned to my status as a part time soldier, and most of the time civilian I have been enjoying the leave that I earned while I was deployed. I've already started taking flying lessons again, now working to earn my mult-engine endorsement.
In a couple weeks, to celebrate my birthday I'm going to be going on my first cruise. After that I will head out ot Arizonia to help my parents as they return to Montana after another winter spent as Snowbirds down south. As I finish writing this post I am excited as I am about to go and meet a friend for the first that I gained as a result of writing this blog.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Great Falls Tribune Article on Me!

By clicking on the title you will find an article, about my team and I, in today's Great Falls tribune. I did an interview over the phone about a week and half ago. Slight insignificant error or two, and that is only because the writer is not intimately familiar with military. The trucks we ride in are closer to 12 to 13 tons, compare to the 2 tons referenced in the article. Mostly my mistake, as I should have clarified a bit when discussing some of the military stuff. Overall a well written article.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Pop open the Bubbly!

 Today was a reason to celebrate for my team and I. Our replacements arrived last night to Marmal Air Base. First thing this morning we did one of our largest convoys, 7 vehicles, to drive to Marmal and pick up the guys who will hopefully continue what we've been doing right. Hopefully they also find a way to avoid making the same mistakes and growing pains.
Something that is unique compared to my other two deployments is we did not have to move out of our rooms to make space for the new guys. They are moving into a set of connexes recently built by the Croatian contigent, here on Camp Mike Spann. Not having to live out of a duffle bag for the next two weeks while we conduct our hand over training will make life a lot easier.
It was fun, after dropping off the new guys at their rooms, observing their amazement at taking in all of their new surrounding. Kind of like getting dropped off at your first dorm in college, a good deal of excitement was on their faces. I took my counterpart and a couple other guys on a brief 'nickle tour' of our small base. At the end I gave them a couple boxes of care supplies which I had received to help get them settled in.
The next we will try and teach them everything we've learned over the past nine months. First impression is that they have a pretty descent crew, and should do fine. Several members have prior deployment experience, which should help ease their transition.

 
 

Monday, January 31, 2011

Visiting Bibi Orphanage


  This past Thursday the 27th of January, my team and I took toys and school supplies and delivered them to Bibi Fatemah Orphanage which is on the east side of Mazar-e-Sharif. Over the last few weeks we had collected a ton of school supplies and toys. So much so that we could no longer move in the one spare room we had, where we were storming all of the collected items. We originally had planned to visit another school, like we did this past November, and deliver all the collected supplies to kids that actually in school. Unfortunately we were hit with a bit of a surprise around Christmas time when we learned that all the schools in the area are closed till the Afghan new year, which around the 1st of Spring. The story we were told is that the schools do not have a way in which to heat the classrooms.
With all the supplies we had collected we need to find a place to deliver the items, as the items were starting to get in the way. Plus with our replacements due to arrive soon we needed to clear space so that new guys could move in. One challenge though is the number of toys that we collected. Some families must have gotten confused with our intent as we received as many boxes of toys as school supplies. Boxes of toys for toddlers, as well as countless stuffed animals. I think that we would have made the Marine's Toys for Tots proud with the number of toys collected. I was also surpised at some of the toy items that people had include, I know that in their heart they wanted to help however I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a little children's book on how to speak Spanish, or some games which required batteries with instructions in English. By simple luck of fate one of the guys on our team heard about an Orphanage which 10th MTN, the major unit here on Camp Spann, had visited last summer.
We contacted the director Mr. Ahmad Sultany (sp?), and asked if we could donate some toys and school supplies. He was very receptive to anything that we would bring for the children under his care. However, he said, it would be much better if we could bring coats and warm clothes for the children. We agreed, unfortunately all had to bring was toys and school supplies.
The day we arranged, due to mission requirements had to get pushed to the right a couple times. On the 27th we were finally able to put everything together and go deliver some supplies to needy kids. Without the help our Croatian Army Teammates we would have really struggled. They provided a Maxpro MRAP vehicle to carry all of the supplies and one of their crew's helped provide security for the mission. 
It was also important for us and this mission that have involvement of the Afghan Army. We asked some of the soldiers that we mentor if they would like to join us to spend time with children. Whenever we do humanitarian assistance missions we try to bring along someone in the ANA or ANP, to help put an Afghan face on the event. We would like to help instill trust and confidence in the government, military, and police. Hopefully through these actions, children and thier parents can learn that the ANA are some of the good guys, and people that can be trusted.
When we arrived to the small Orphanage, things could not have run smoother. Mr. Sultany had all the children lined up like a gauntlet, to greet us as we arrived. Several of the kids new a few words of english, and were excited to "Hi" or "Hello" to us. I sought out Mr. Sultany to listen to his concerns, and figure out the best way to distribute everything. As I was expecting he immediately started asking for the moon, of ways that we could help him. They are trying to fund raise for a new orphanage, as their old one went bankrupt. Again, he asked for coats or food. I assured him that we would listen to his concerns, unfortunately we could not promise and guarantee for future help and assistance. While he and I were discussing his situation, others on the team were carrying boxes.
When everything was set up, short speeches were made by the director and one of the Afghan soldiers represented. Together in cooperation and partnership, one US soldier, one Croatian, and one Afghan soldier gathered the toys and handed the items to the excited children. Each child got at least one notebook, several pens or pencils, as well as at least one toy. As the distribution carried on, it became obvious that there would be more than enough items for everyone to get more than one items. After they collected their notebook and pens, their little arms were filled up with as many toy items could be found.
Myself, and most all the other guys on the team who were able to come into the gate area noticed that most all the kids had smiles from all the loot that they had collected. Had the kids been looking at the soldiers in attendance they likely would have notice the large smiles upon our faces. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

2nd school visit slightly delayed

Last month I posted that after the success of our November school visit and drop off school supplies, we decided that we would do another school visit. Knowing that our replacements would be arriving before the end of month, we decided that 20th of January would be our next planned school visit. That date we figured would give our friends and families plenty of time to send items, and still leave us enough time to prepare for the arrival of our replacements.
What we didn't expect though was all of the schools in Northern Afghanistan shutting down for the winter. About Christmas time we discovered that all of the schools are closed. One of the main reasons we have heard is simply because of heating. The school we had done our first delivery of school supplies seemed pretty representative of most schools that we drive. If other schools are like it, then there is no heating or air conditioning in the building. Without heating I'm sure it would be very difficult to get children to sit still and learn while they doing all that they can to keep themselves warm.
This was a sad revelation, as we had been looking forward to doing another school visit before left. We have gladly continued to accept school supplies from families as they send them. We have been in contact with the team that will be replacing us, and they are very excited about the continuing what we have started. So will pass off the several boxes of supplies that we have collected already, and hopefully they will start informing their friends and families.
We are looking into the possibility of doing a mini-toy drive. Amongst the many boxes of school supplies, we have gotten just about as many boxes of kids' toys. Everywhere we go; there never is a shortage of kids running around. We could fill up our trucks with all of the toys we've collected, pull over to the side of road and start handing the goodies out. Within 20 or 30 or minutes we could easily have everything distributed, for the amount of kids that always seem to come out of the woodwork. One of our team members has heard about an orphanage not too far from the base, so that might have a very good possibility.
For all those who have read my blog and donated school supplies, I will take this opportunity to apologize that my team will not be able to distribute the gifts like we had originally planned. However I will assure though that gifts that you have sent will not be wasted or thrown out. In a few short months, winter will be over and the kids will be back in session. Our replacements, as soon as they get some free time, I am confident will work to distribute everything that we have collected. Assuming that they share the pictures, I will post some of those pictures on my blog.
Thanks again for everyone who has supported to me and my fellow soldiers during our deployment.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sleepy Hallow

This past week my team and I helped out a couple of other small units
and did a combined mission to Balk Province, in which the city of
Pol-e-Khomri is in. Approximately a three hour drive west of
Mazar-e-Sharif. We have soldiers on top of what is sometimes known as
cement hill, which overlooks the city of Pol-e-Khomri and the
surrounding valleys. The artillery soldiers are there manning a couple
of artillery guns to pull security and provide over watch of the valley.
I am not sure how accurate they are with their guns, as I have never
been able to watch them fire. However I have been told that hit the
ground with every shot!
The day following our visit to the top of the hill, we assisted the
NTM-A team that accompanied us. Their goal was to visit some local ANA
outposts and ensure that tax payers are getting what they have paid for.
That includes tax payers of our coalition partners, as they have funded
projects throughout Afghanistan. Recently the ANA have been building
combat outposts, to push out into areas that have recently been cleared
of Taliban and other enemies of Afghanistan. Establishing the outposts
should hopefully allow the Taliban to maintain a foothold in the areas,
provide security for the locals, and keep the enemy out. Since many of
the outposts have recently been built some with assistance and funding
from coalition members they needed to check the progress. Find out what
supplies, what supplies they may still need, and what their overall
living conditions are. 
One of the sites we visited was a combat outpost called Russian Hill.
Driving to the location felt like driving through a scene from the movie
Sleepy Hallow. All that was missing was to see a Headless Horseman pass
us as slowly travel down the small country road. It was a very overcast
day, and the small country road is lined with trees, the fields are
tended by hand. Other than our current trucks it felt like drive back in
time to early colonial America.
One of my biggest impressions as winter has sent in northern Afghanistan
is how the Afghan people are a tough and hearty bunch. Talking with some
of the Afghan soldiers I was amazed that some of them are able to walk
around with just a pair of sandals, shower shoes at best by western
standards, and light jacket. The soldiers I know have at least been
issued a pair of boots and a jacket. Many of the locals do not have much
and walk with poor shoes, and their protection from the wind and
elements appears to be nothing more than a light blanket. It is a rare
occasion when I've seen anyone wearing a pair of gloves. 
Another thing that never ceases to amaze me is no matter where we stop
children will suddenly appear out of nowhere. It is not uncommon, as we
are driving around any area, to see three or four kids out playing at
any one time. However invariably as soon as we stop, get out of our
trucks, and acknowledge the few kids with a small and a wave 30 other
kids will come out of the wood work. Some will know a couple words of
English, others will come up to us give a thumb to their mouth signaling
that they want some water, or a 'raise the roof' motion with both their
hands. They are hoping for anything that we can give them, unfortunately
for our safety and their safety we can't give them what they desire. If
we stop and toss them some of our water bottles, we would quickly be out
of water that we need for our missions as more kids would appear than we
have water on trucks. None the less though, it is always fun and
refreshing to see the smiling faces of the many youngsters of
Afghanistan. We are all amazed at how young they are forced to grow up
here. Two or Three year olds are outside playing along the edge of the
streets. Nine year olds are acting like mother's, caring for their young
siblings, holding their young infant or toddler brother or sister on
their hip. 
Every time that I am outside the wire, I am reinforced with the fact
that it takes a strong person to grow up and survive in Afghanistan.

seed mission to Ali-Azi (UNCLASSIFIED)

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
On Thursday the 6th of January, my team and I assisted men of US Aid and the USDA in delivering seeds and fertilizer to farmers of families of Ali-Azi. Below is an article that I wrote and submitted for publication. One of the highlights were all of the children who showed up. It is amazing that whenever we stop some place there may be five kids milling around. Within moments of us getting out of trucks it seems like 50 kids will often appear out of no where. As we were getting ready to leave the kids started getting more courage, and started playing a game of touch the American. I was the American that they were getting courage to touch. It was a fun day, and a good mission.

National Guard Soldiers assist in Handing out Seed and Fertilizer

U.S. Soldiers from the Minnesota and Nevada Army National Guard assisted representatives of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Aid is passing out wheat seed and fertilizer to Afghan citizens of the village of Ali-azi in the Chemtal district of Balk province, just west of the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan recently.
The USDA and US Aid had previously done a much larger aid mission to the district, however due to conflicts and tensions in the area some families missed out of the seed opportunity. On this day the goal was to attempt to help out some of the farmers and their families that did not receive the earlier push of supplies.
The National Guard soldiers, a combined force of Operational Mentor Liaison Team 47 (OMLT) of the Minnesota National Guard mentors to the 4th Kandak (battalion) 1st Brigade 209th Corp Afghan National Army and 137th Military Police of the Nevada National Guard volunteered to work together and escort the aid workers and their locally contracted truck of supplies to the remote village.
The village is approximately 30 kilometers west of Camp Spann, where both of the Guard units are based, and took almost an hour and half for the crews in their M-ATV armored vehicles to travel the distance. Much of the journey to the isolated village is on an extremely rough, bumpy and dusty road, so travel was slow.
Upon a arrival to the small collection of Afghan mud style houses, several people quickly appeared as they had been awaiting the arrival of the truck carrying the seeds and fertilizer. The Chemtal District governor had coordinated with the local farmers, and had done work preparing for the seeds; which was something that the aid workers had been hoping for.
The seeds were purchased for the Afghans with US Aid dollars, however to average farmers the appearance is that Afghan government may have purchased the bags. In order to help establish more legitimacy in the Afghan government, western aid workers are mentoring, encouraging, and excited to see local leaders lead.
As the truck was being unloaded, of the more than 180 40-pound bags of seed and fertilizer, the district governor, alongside the US Aid workers, held a Jirga with all the farmers present. The almost 30 men gathered sat in a circle, drank chai (tea) and listened to their local leader and US Aid workers speak about the need for continued hard work for progress in Afghanistan.
Nearby the National Guard soldiers pulled security to ensure safety of all in attendance, while some also played with the many curious children who had followed their fathers and were also curious. Many of the children, with the few words of English they knew, asked the soldiers for the pens or anything else that we would share.

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED