Friday, December 31, 2010

Thanks for the Memories

As I begin typing this, there is now less than an hour left in 2010 in Afghanistan. I could probably spend the next several hours sharing many of the highlights of this past year. I will however attempt to make this somewhat short.
This time last year I was with my parents in Yuma Arizona watching the ball drop from the television in their motor home. I had no clue what the good Lord would bring me in 2010. Looking back at the year that is now behind me I do not have too much to complain about. In January I was focused on taking flying lessons and earning my fixed wing instructor ratings, with the hope of finding a job in the aviation world. A few weeks into January I got a call asking me if I would deploy to Afghanistan on a short notice mission. A few short weeks later, on the 1st of March I was mobilizing with 12 other men whom I had never met before to prepare to travel to Afghanistan.
Spring found me and the rest of the guys training at Ft Polk preparing for our mission as combat advisors to the Afghan Army. One of our biggest surprises was how nice Ft Polk was. Almost everyone I had ever talked to in the Army who had been to Ft Polk felt that it was the armpit of the Army. I can't speak for the entire team, but compared to my two previous mobilization training sites it was like a mini-paradise.
After Ft Polk we flew to Camp Hohenfels, which is in Southeastern Germany to join up with our Croatian Counterparts and Fellow Mentors. In less than a month of combined training we were able to meld two different Armies with two different  native languages and make us into one team.
Arriving into Afghanistan was a whole new experience filled almost daily surprises. I still remember my surprise during my first drive from Marmal airport to Camp Mike Spann at seeing 90% of the women walking around in burqas. After going to war almost 9 years ago so that the women of Afghanistan would no long have to wear the full body vails, they still were by choice I had to assume.
Working with our Afghans I, and most all the others on the team found it mostly to be a giant exercise in patience. Their culture and way of doing things is completely different than the way that I was raised. Regardless of cultural differances the biggest challenge most of us found is the simple lack of education amongst the soldiers in our battalion. So few of them can read or write, and barely have a third grade education at best. So getting an Army to march forward into battle is going to be a challenge, when half the soldiers are tripping over their bootlaces because they haven't learned to tie them yet. While that is not literally the case, that is a good example of what we other multi-national mentors face here.
My biggest surprise and memories is all the good friends that I have gained over the past year. Not only do I expect to remain good lifelong friends with many of the US and Croatian soldiers that I've deployed with, in a couple months I will be sad to leave some of my Afghan friends behind. One of my additional duties here has been as the Terp Manager for our team, and I have been very pleased with working with these young Afghan men. Additionally through my interpreter I have shared a lot of good laughs with the Afghan soldiers I have mentored. Additionally through this blog that I have been writing I have gained several new friends. Many of whom, have sent me personal letters, emails, and care packages. All of which have been greatly appreciated.
Writing this blog has also been a real adventure as I have also been able to share pictures and experiences throughout my deployment. I know that a lot of people back home are thirsty for information of what our lives are like while we are deployed, so I hope that my writings have given some new insight for those forced to watch the Afghan war from their living room.
As this year comes to a close my team and I are anxiously awaiting the arrival of our replacements, who are now in Croatia completing their collective team training. I'm sure that when they arrive many of us will get the impression that there are no way that these guys are going to handle it here; conversely many of them will probably be thinking my team is filled with a bunch of knuckleheads and our leaving Afghanistan will help the people of Afghanistan more now that we are gone. Same impressions that I've experienced during my past deployments and our Handover Operations Movement Outbound phase.
I'm anxious to see all the surprises that the good Lord will have in store for me during 2011. Hopefully this time next year I will be able to look back as fondly to 2011 as I feel that I am able to at 2010. I guess I am most curious at where it is I will be doing my reflections. Will I be with my family, in the arms of a loved one, at a bar holding onto my favorite drink, Best of luck in 2011 to all who may read this, I hope that the Lord will bring many blessing down upon you. If you should happen to read this and it is still 2010, have a drink for me.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Afghanistan

Today I celebrated my first Christmas in Afghanistan. All in all I think that I can say that it was a pretty good holiday. In the days leading up to this holiday my team and I spent a lot time in and out of the field. Each time that we would return home we were blessed to have received several care package boxes from our friends and families, as well as random strangers wishing to spread Christmas cheer. I personally started running out of space in my room for all the great treats and gifts that I've received. One advantage about all the time that we've spent in the field recently is that we were able to consume a lot of the snacks that we've received.
The start of my Christmas holiday was something I'll be able to talk about for a while. Even though I am not Catholic I went to my first mid-night Christmas Mass. What was really unique about it though was that it was spoken in Croatian. All that is except of a reading of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to Titus, which I read out loud in English. The service lasted about 45 minutes, and I'm sure was similar to many other midnight services that were performed across the english speaking world. A lot of singing, reciting of verses, and concluded with communion. Upon conclusion of the Mass, I joined my Croatian friends and enjoyed a meal that they had prepared of small steaks, and naan bread.
This morning I rush to the Morale-Welfare-Recreation building to use one of the phones to try and call my family. Since I decided to take the morning off and not visit the Kandak, I had the time to call my family. Best of all though I knew I could call my family and they would home and awake. The SPAWAR phones that we are truthfully are kind of crap. They are a voice over internet phone, very similar to Skype, and anybodies guess if it will be a good connection or not. Because the calls would drop I had to call each of my family members about three times each in order to talk to them. Non-the-less it was my Christmas treat to be able to talk to them. My sister, Stephy, asked me if I had anything special planned for the Christmas. My response was that being able to talk to my family was my best Christmas Gift. From what I could tell everyone seemed to like the Christmas gifts that I had sent home. After almost a bit more than a half hour chatting with my parents, sisters, niece, and nephews my time on the phones was done. I then was able to find some time on one of the MWR computers to chat with a friend back in the states. Instant messaging programs are blocked on our work computers, so to chat or Skype with friends or family we also have to use an MWR computer. The past few days Skype has been working poorly, but I was able to connect with my friend and spread some Christmas cheer via a keyboard.
Upon returning to my room, I was surprised at my good fortunate as I had received several letters from friends on Christmas. Additionally I received a Christmas gift from my parents which arrived in record time, eight days. Additionally I received 28 packages from Soldier's Angels, which tomorrow I will hand out to the members of the team. If any members of Soldier's Angels should happen to read this, please know that we greatly appreciate your kindness.
I spent a portion of my day helping one of my terps work on his Visa Packet, played Farkle with my friends, and enjoyed a nice Christmas meal at our dinning facility.
While I wish that I could have been home to spend with my family, I was fortunate to spend this sacred holiday with my extended military family. I hope that everyone back home was able to enjoy all the blessings of the Christmas and Holiday season.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

the month of December thus far

The first few weeks of December for the most part, for lack of a better description, have been kind of boring. This had been one our teams longest stretches of being inside the wire and visiting our Kanadak every day. Usually, it seems, we would make some sort of trip at least once a week. Once every couple weeks it seems that we would be out in the field for at least a night or two. Stretching from Thanksgiving, we had one of our longest stretches in which we did not have a reason or need to leave the wire.

During the first few weeks of December in which we spent our time local, I spent a lot of time working on creating and sending my Christmas cards to my friends and family. I generally send out a lot of Christmas cards each year. However one of the nice additional benefits of being a soldier is that we are able to send out cards and letters for free, no postage require. So I made sure to take advantage of this benefit.

I surprisingly, as well as most of the other guys on the team, started to find myself going a bit stir crazy. At times going to the Kandak to visit our ANA soldiers can be a bit of a challenge to bring the same level of motivation compared to when first arrived. A lot of this is because we have been doing this for several months now, and we are just starting to look forward to heading home and seeing our families. Sometimes it is frustration at not seeing the giant leaps forward that we may have initially hoped for when we first arrived. Still though, every morning we head down to the Kandak to meet with our respective sections or companies and see what issues or problems we can find and ways to help them fix the issues.

This past week though many of our silent prayers were answered as we got a chance to head out to the field again. There is a big mission going on in the Chemtal & Chahar Bulak area, which is just a few short miles west of our base, to try and push out or capture the Taliban and Anti-Afghan Forces (AAF) operating in the area. Soldier from out Kandak were tasked to provide and man check points to assist the Afghan National Police, who would be the main focus of the mission.

Since it appeared that this would be a several day mission, we decided to split our team in half so that we could sustain ourselves over the duration. Our main focus was to visit on our soldiers at their check points and see if there were areas in which we could help them or encourage them. In a worst case scenario, to act as a quick reaction force should any of soldiers happen to get attacked. We set up our teams at a small ANA/ANP outpost in the area, which is often manned by Swedish soldier, to give ourselves more maneuverability and a better reaction time.

Our one of highlights, and lowlights of this small base was when we discovered that there are actual porta-john individual style latrines (bathrooms). Pooping in a wooded forest area, while not very exciting, is not that big of a deal. However having to defecate in the treeless flat, desert-like, terrain of our portion of Afghanistan is an adventure. Having to squat, keep your balance, be aware of where your pants are, all the while that someone is perhaps watching you does not make for a fun pooping experience. So when we discovered that we would not have to wonder out to field to do our business we were excited, however our excitement turned to utter disgust when we discovered the condition of the toilets we would be using.

Ever single toilet that we looked into had human excrement on the top of the toilet seat, and muddy footprints on each side. Unfortunately, squatting to your business is all most Afghans have ever known. Sitting down to use the toilet is as foreign to them as driving on the left side of the road is to people from the United States. I was willing to try and give them (Afghans who defiled the toilets) the benefit of the doubt, as I can imagine it might be tough to try and learn defecate in a completely new way. Cultural sensitivity needs to go both ways, if I am willing and make the extra effort to not purposefully look at your women or show you the bottom of the shoes for fear that it might offend; I think that the least you could do is lift the toilet seat and not leave human excrement all over the place.

After witnessing what was done to the latrines, all of us were more than happy to have to wonder out to a field to do our business.

Fortunately for us, for my team at least, the first day that we were there a pooper-picker-upper truck came to suck up the waste from the latrines. The biggest guy on our team went over to the cleanup crew and made them scrub one of the toilets, which we were going to claim for our team, and give it an extra scrubbing and cleaning. Upon the cleaning crew leaving we immediately put a lock on the latrine we claimed. However that only lasted a couple hours before someone took a hammer and broke open the lock. Fortunately the latrine wasn't completely defiled, so we found a bigger lock which could not be broken.

The rest of our time out in the field was spent trying to stay warm, at least while sleeping. Since my time in the Boy Scouts, and leaving Montana, I had forgotten how much of a pain in the butt it is to try and sleep in a tent during a wind storm. One of the nights we were in the field I was lucky to get but an hour of sleep, due to the sides of the tent slapping me on the side of my head.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Run This Way!

For a bit of comic relief I thought I would play with the minds of the inhabitants of Camp Spann, and see who would follow mindless instructions. Many gyms or athletic clubs will have indoor tracks, and generally the direction that the runners run will change from day to day. Camp Spann is about the size of one and half running tracks put together, and squared off. So to add to the feel of an indoor running track I put up the signs shown in the picture. On M, W, F, and SU runners are instructed to run --->; then on T, Th, and Sat runners should run the opposite direction.
Unfortunately due to winds the signs only lasted about 4 days or so. For the short time that they were up and from what I was able to observe I think that they had an effect and the runners on base changed their directions to correspond the signs.
A little harmless prank, but fun none-the-less.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Helping Afghan Children at Waliasr Secondary School

After weeks of planning, a major goal of many members of OMLT III was finally realized yesterday when we were able to visit and hand out school supplies to some Afghan children. Shortly after we arrived into Afghanistan we started receiving care packages from our friends and family, and from random families we have never met who simply want to show their support for troops deployed overseas. In fact we started receiving so many care packages that many of us were receiving more items than we could use for ourselves. Nobody wants to waste to throw away any items that families back home have spent time and money to send to us, so we would share our friends and other soldiers on our base. Still many of us were fortunate to continue to receive more items than we knew what to do with.

Our Command Sergeant Major, CSM Sullivan, met some folks on our base, Camp Mike Spann, who had gone to visit and distribute school supplies to local schools. They revealed to him that the process is relatively easy, and just that you should have an Afghan Army or Afghan Police force presence when visiting the school. He presented the idea of collecting supplies and toys to give out to a local school. I and a few others on the team were very excited at this idea, and jumped at the opportunity to try and help local kids. Many of us put out the word to those who have been sending us care packages, that if they want to send us something instead of sending us things of which we may already have, send us some school supplies so that we could share with local kids. In my case my mother put the word out to her church, Yoked Lutheran-Presbyterian Parish Church of White Sulphur Springs MT, and I started receiving several boxes from my mom through her church. I also put a not up on my blog in September, saying that we had a goal to distribute out supplies in mid October. A couple other websites, and the Sandbox, with much larger readership linked to my blog and soon after boxes from all across the United States started arriving to my little B Hut.

I went on leave in October, and was originally expecting that when I returned that our planned school visit would have occurred without me. Unfortunately different mission requirement and other reasons the school visit kept getting pushed back. So I was surprised to find that the school visit had not happened, but more surprised at the number of boxes I had received while I was away dedicated towards helping Afghan kids.

The supplies in all the boxes that we collected ran the gamut of notebooks, pencils, sharpeners, glue, crayons, rulers, scissors, as well as several boxes of kids toys (mostly stuffed animals).

We have been outside the wire a fair number of times, and fortunately have never been shot at, sometimes though I would return feeling as though we had not accomplished much or made much of a difference. So I when I returned from leave I was anxious to get out there and visit some kids. So it was frustrating as each week a different issue would come up pushing our school visit back. Last week it looked as though we would have an opportunity to set up and execute our school visit, however Eid which was a three day Muslim holiday began on Tuesday.

In September we spent several nights in the Chemtal district, camped out at the Chemtal Police station during the 2010 Afghan elections helping our ANA pull security in the area. We noticed that there was a school, the Waliasr Secondary School of Chemtal district, within a quarter mile of the police station. Our Afghan Army Battalion had not been operating in the area too much after that, however a Military Police unit from Nevada that has helped us on past missions had begun mentoring the Afghan National Police that are based at the police station. This past Sunday they were going out to visit and mentor their Afghan police officer, so I and two other members from my team tagged along with the goal of visiting the school to try and see if they would be willing to receive from gifts from us.

During a lull in the mentoring, I ventured over to the school along with a police officer, a couple more soldiers, and my interpreter to see what we could find out. Upon arrived the school was fairly deserted of kids, as the morning session had recently let out.

Fortunately the teachers were still at the school and the principle was gracious enough to receive us. I explained to her that our unit had collected school supplies, mostly paper and pencils as well as few toys, and we would like to donate them to her and the children of their school at a time that would be convenient to them. She explained to me that her school operated in a couple shifts with Girls in the morning till about 10am or so, and Boys in the afternoon starting around 1pm. I asked her if it would be okay if we returned tomorrow (Monday the 22nd), to my relief she said that would be great. She only asked that we arrive later in the morning as the girls would be completing some tests.

Monday morning we linked up with the MP’s again, utilizing their Max Pro MRAP which has a lot more internal cargo capacity than our M-ATVs. Due to our team being all male, I sought out to bring a female along with us as I knew that we would be at the school when the girls would be in session. Unfortunately my team was a bit short staffed as some of the guys had already arranged to work with our ANA soldiers, so I had the female Captain who would be joining us work as a vehicle commander from my vehicle. This necessitated me to ride as a gunner for my vehicle, which was unique change and a different way to see Afghanistan.

Our six vehicles arrived at the school a bit before 10am, and as I had told the principle I would be the first to greet her when we arrived. As I had promised her the day prior I arrived with several trucks of soldiers, and they were waiting patiently outside the gate of their school and were looking forward to sharing with her school the gifts that we had brought. I asked her to come out to our truck so that we could come up with an idea of how to best distribute the supplies to the kids. My goal was to find a balance between disorganized chaos and regimental discipline so that kids and soldiers could have a good time together. The principle recommended an empty room for us to bring the supplies and set up. The idea was discussed about letting the kids cycle through the room and take an item, however she kept insisting that it would be better if we distributed the items to the kids in the classrooms.

We first tried to present to the teachers items which we knew that we did not have enough for all the students, and would we felt would be better used by the teachers at their discretion; scissor, rulers, glue, etc. Surprisingly the teachers were a bit reluctant to accept our gifts to them. When our soldiers began entering the classrooms I got my biggest shock of the morning, as I was slapped in the face with the fact that Afghanistan is a totally different culture than what we are used to. The guys on my team politely entered the classroom with the boxes of supplies, along with a teacher and Afghan Police officer. For the first classroom I stayed behind and let others pass out the supplies, but I was surprised to see some of the girls in the classroom covering their faces with their head scarves or bowing their heads. I was expecting to see more smiling or excited faces, instead I think with the girls in the classrooms at least I saw more nervous faces. Granted having a bunch of strange men enter your classroom, some of whom were still wearing their body armor, and all of us wearing at least wearing our pistols was probably intimidating in itself. Add into the fact that in Afghan culture the sexes are still very separated, I could see how the young girls may have been a bit nervous.

As our soldiers went through and distributed to at least one notebook and three pencils to each girl, I took the time to try and address each class. I wanted to share with them that these items were gifts from our families in the United States and were gifts to them to help them with their education. As we feel that education is the future to Afghanistan, we hope that these gifts can help them or someone in their family in succeeding in school. I told them that we expected nothing in return from them, however if they ever did want to try and thank us the best thanks would be their smiles and waves when any of our vehicles ever drive by them.

While we were inside passing out actual school supplies, the guys who remained outside the school perhaps had the most fun of the day. All kinds of little kids started showing up to the school wondering what was going on. Those curious kids, became the lucky kids as they received stuffed animals and pieces of candy. I was relayed stories of how some of the crafty kids would get a piece of candy, put it in their pocket then run up to a different soldier asking for a piece of candy. Other kids were little helps to some of the soldiers helping to pass out the toys and candy to their friends or brother and sisters.

After we had visited each classroom and ensured that each girl had at least one notebook and several pencils, we still had a box almost full of notebooks, and over a thousand pencils in another box. We knew that we would not have enough notebooks to ensure that students in the afternoon class would all receive something. So we decided to leave the remaining boxes of items with the school staff, and hope that it would get passed along to the neediest of students.

All in all we felt that our school project was a success. Later in the day one soldier who wasn’t able to go on the mission asked how we would be able to tell if it was a success or not via some sort of military bench mark or goal. While in the back of our minds we secretly hope that giving of the supplies will help the kids and their families trust the US and other forces in the area. What it came down to whether or not that does happen, we all just wanted to give some gifts to some kids to hopefully help them with their education. Plus following the old adage that it is better to give than receive, a lot of smiles and senses of accomplishment were brought to the soldiers from the Minnesota and Nevada National Guard as passed out the various items.

As a final note we would like to say thanks to anyone who helped us out by sending boxes of school supplies, toys, and candy that we were able to share with the Afghan Children.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Adventures in Nahri-e-Shahri

Last week the Recon Company of the Battalion of ANA soldiers that we mentor was tasked to pull security and have a presence in the Nahri-e-Shahri distict, during the Afghan Regional Development Conference. I am not really sure what was discussed or happened during the conference meetings, just that Nahri-e-Shahri district is just north of Mazar-e-Sharif and we went to the field to help support a company of our soldiers.

Because of force protection requirements whenever we (the US Army) go outside the wire of our base we have to go with a minimum of three trucks. Which translates to a minimum of at least nine soldiers; each vehicle will have a driver, truck commander (TC), and a gunner. Additionally we will also have at least one interpreter, often two; as well as other US soldier from our team to fill up available seats in our trucks. The Recon company is mentored by our Croatian partners, so they also brought three fully staffed trucks. So we were mentoring a group of about 30 Afghan soldiers, yet we had almost as many mentors for this weekend excursion.

The night before we departed we got our first real rain that left visible traces of moisture since the day we arrived, the 22nd of May. I was quite tickled to finally have some rain, but like everything in life be careful of what you wish for because you just might get it. The paved roads in Afghanistan for the most part are in pretty good shape, the dirt and gravel roads are another story. Heading out to the area in which we would be operating we were slinging mud over the top of our M-ATVs from the recent rain.

Our base of operations for this mission was a school in Nahri-e-Shahri area. Because over the elections there had been some violence in the area surrounding the school we made sure to set up a good perimeter. My truck, affectionately known as The Big Lebowski, drew the unenviable task of taking the area near the school toilets. Because this is Afghanistan, and effective plumbing is sometimes hard to find we were next to a row of outhouses.

Plus compared to western outhouses, they were just little rooms with holes in the floor. In our case the pun did apply, we had the crappy job of guarding the outhouse.

Fortunately for us the enemy did not want to attack the school outhouse both nights that we were there. My truck had a fairly boring night of scanning the area around, seeing only mice and an occasional cat or dog running around. We helped ensure the ability of Afghan children to safely and securely use the toilet in the future.

Both nights that we were out in the field were for the most pretty boring nights for all the guys on the team. One team saw some men doing what they perceived to be kind of suspicious in the middle of night, a few hundred meters from their position. To be on the safe side, a team of the Afghan soldiers were awoken to go out into the field and investigate what the men were doing. By the time the soldiers were awake, a hasty plan was put together, and they started walking towards the men the sun was just starting to come up. When the investigating Afghan soldiers came upon the men, the men ran. As I think I would if armed soldiers surprised me and all I had was a shovel. It turned out that the men were in a field working on an irrigation ditch from about 0300 till sunrise. Who works out in the field in the middle of the night, let alone without a flashlight? Although I think that if you ask the guys who first saw the men in the field, they will still be convinced that they were in the early stages of planning to assault us, with their shovels and mud balls.

When morning arrived, because the school is a working school, we had to pack up everything and move off the school property and hang out in a nearby field. I don’t know who discovered it, but a few hours after we had gotten parked in the field, the senior office of our team, my Croatian Lt Colonel said that I should come with him as there was damage to the school that my truck caused. As the Truck Commander for The Big Lebowski I would be responsible for anything that my truck does. This really confused me when he said there was a problem, as we were careful in parking near the outhouse and could not think of anything that my truck might have done. The M-ATVs that we drive are like driving a 30,000 pound 4X4 semi-truck, only less maneuverable and with a lot of blind spots for the driver. In fact, so many blind spots for the driver that whenever the truck enters a restricted area the truck commander will get out and ground guide the truck. Apparently I did not do a very good job of ground guiding The Big Lebowski, as it got a bit too close to the school and due to the sheer weight of the vehicle cracked a bit of the sidewalk.

We were introduced to the headmaster of the school, and the LTC expressed our regret at causing damage to his school. He said that we correct this damage and help out, to which he basically looked at me. It suddenly became obvious to me where this was headed. I asked my interpreter to ask the headmaster how much it would cost to repair the small portion of sidewalk. In my mind I was prepared for the headmaster to tell me cost for the small portion of sidewalk, but also pad in the cost of the all of the other repairs that school might need. Much to my surprise he said only listed off repairs for the repair of the sidewalk. They would need a bag of cement, and then to pay a man to do the labor to fix the sidewalk. All of this he figured would probably come to about 1500 Afghani’s (Afghani is the Afghanistan form of currency) which translated to about $35. I did not have any Afghani’s, as me giving him US Dollars would have been useless to him.

Fortunately my terp had some Afghani’s to which he paid the man, and I later repaid my terp with dollars. So for $40 dollars I bought my first piece of real-estate in Afghanistan, about two feet of cracked sidewalk.

Even though I really didn’t want to pay for the cracked sidewalk, I knew that in the long run it was the right thing to do. I feared that it would just be a shake down, and if we were to return to the school in a couple years the sidewalk would still be cracked. In addition to it being the right thing to do because we did crack their sidewalk; it showed that the coalition forces want to protect their school and not damage it while protecting it. Much to my surprise when we returned to the school that evening someone had already set up some forms, mixed some concrete and fixed the cracked sidewalk. Seeing that was probably the biggest surprise of my day.

The next day before we called our mission complete, and departed back to our base several of us got to check the block of getting to pet a camel. In the late afternoon three or four camel trains came through on the road near where our vehicles were parked. When we saw the train of camels coming through we grabbed our terps and asked the camel drivers to stop so that we could get some pictures near their animals. We were all like a bunch of kids at a children’s petting zoo. Some were a bit nervous to get next to the large beasts, one of us was able to convince the owner to let him have a short ride on a camel. While most of us, including me, we able to get a picture next the animals. Something that I can say only in Afghanistan was I able to get my picture next some camels.


Monday, November 08, 2010

potty humor (UNCLASSIFIED)

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

I was recently reminded of an event that happened at my last job that
would be a funny story to share.
The small company that I worked for, at the time had maybe 15 employees.
Our office was in a much larger office building, and as a result we
shared common areas, and bathrooms with other companies.
One of the guys that I worked with, Mark, was kind of different chap.
Fun to chat with, always seemed to have a good story, and for some
reason things out of the ordinary happened to him. He also liked to brag
about his street credibility because he grew up in central St Paul. Part
of his street cred he claimed was by keeping his shoes clean and white
all of the time.
One afternoon he announced that he was going to go out and take a smoke
break. About ten minutes after he left, I needed to use the bathroom.
After I finished using the urinal I notice Mark's trademark white shoes
under the stall.
Seeing his shoes under the stall, and knowing how much of a jokester he
was, I thought there is no way I can leave without doing something.
While washing my hands I briefly considered just tossing the wet paper
towels I had used to dry my hands with over the top of the stall. I
decided against that simply because I am not that big of a jerk.
So I grabbed two dry paper towels and wadded them up to toss over the
stall, hoping to hit him in the head. As luck would befall me, at the
exact moment that I was wadding up the paper another guy whom I had
never seen before walked into the adjoining stall and started to close
the door. I tossed my paper wad over the top of Mark's stall, but
surprisingly didn't see or hear any sort of reaction. I thought for sure
I would hear a "what the" or see his feet shift slightly. Seeing or
hearing nothing I assumed that I most have missed him, I just quietly
exited the bathroom.
Upon returning to my desk I told one of my cube neighbors that I had
tried pulling a prank on Mark, and to play it cool when it returns.
Close to 20 or 30 minutes passed before he returned, I beginning to
wonder what took him so long.
He returned to our area upset and getting more upset. He started out by
saying, "You'll never believe what just happened to me! First of all
when I walked into the bathroom the first toilet stall that I went into
had all kinds of 'butt crumbs' on the seat, so there was no way I was
using that seat. I was sitting down doing my business when some jerk
came into the stall next to me. He proceeded to wipe off the top of the
seat and then tossed the paper over the top of the stall, and it hit me
in the head!"
I gave him a very surprised look, and proclaimed; "Wow, I can't believe
that happened to you. Who would do such a thing?"
"I know!" He stammered back. Getting madder and madder as he continued
his story. "I was so stunned at what just happened I just sat there. The
more I sat there waiting to finish my business the madder I got! I
wanted to tell the guy off, however by the time I left the stall he had
already left the bathroom."
We asked him what he was going to do about what just happened.
"Well," he started "I'll recognize his damn shoes and pants anywhere. If
I see him we are going to have some words and I would like to kick his
I could tell from his face that he was serious that if he found someone
wearing a matching pair of shoes to his imagined perpetrator and didn't
receive and instant apology he might take a swing at the guy. Part of
the reason that he took so long to return to his desk is that he stopped
at our receptionist and first told the same story to him. She was beside
herself listening to his story. More than once she asked him if it could
have been me, as she had seen me return from the bathroom a few minutes
before. He went on to tell her that it couldn't have been me, because he
had seen the other guy's shoes.
I knew that Mark's mystery perp was none of the guys in the office so I
wasn't worried that he would start anything with any of our fellow
coworkers. I did watch with much amusement as he walked by each person's
cubical to check out the shoes and pants that each guy was wearing. I
straining so hard to hold back laughing that my throat was starting to
hurt and my eyes were starting to tear up.
Mark announced, "In a couple hours I'm going to go and hang outside the
bathroom. I figure that guy eventually will have to go to the bathroom
again. When he does, I'll be there waiting and we will have this out
once and for all."
About 30 minutes had passed since he had returned to his desk, and at
this announcement I figured for the safety of some random guy I had
better confess to being his bathroom paper tosser. Also I could no
longer hold back the laughter, my sides were hurting so much from
watching him get upset at what had happened to him.
I began explaining to him what had actually and how I was the cause of
all of his raised blood pressure. As I retold the story from my
perspective it slowly sank into him, and it appeared he became a bit
sad. I think that he was starting to look forward to possibly getting
into a fight with some random guy for tossing a piece of paper towel
loaded with 'butt crumbs' and hitting him in the head.

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Great links

Below are links to my base, Camp Mike Spann, Public Affairs Team Web-site that I have worked with. Part of the inspiration for wanting to visit some local schools came from hearing that other units on our base have had success in visiting local schools. Check out the links, and enjoy the faces of the smiling kids. That is what we hope to accomplish when we visit the school we have picked out.


How You Can Help...Update

In September I put a post on my blog entitled "How you can help." Regarding how my team and I decided that we would make an effort to support an Afghan school. We put the word out our plan and said we would welcome any sort of support from back home. I have received a lot of packages from friends and families, many of whom I have never met before. It has been truly amazing at the amount of stuff that I and others have collected.

I have been back from leave a little bit more than a week now, before I departed on leave the original plan was that the school visit would occur sometime in October while I was away. I wish I could report at how well our school donation visit has gone. Unfortunately it still has not happened, which truthfully has really frustrated me. We are a small team, and supporting our Afghan soldiers and other mission take priority. I also feel that making this school visit happen does not take as high priority with other members of the team and has gotten pushed back a time or two. I really want to get out there and visit with some kids, take some pictures, and share the good news of how donations of Americans have helped people. I hope that within the next week or two I will be able report that we completed our school visit.

I have received a lot of interest over the last few weeks I have received interest from different groups that are still interested in helping out. Please know that we would be more than happy to receive your donations, and will do everything that we can to hand them out to some need children. When we finally do get out and visit our first group of kids I will be better able to report on what kids may or may not need.

In the "How you can Help" blog I mentioned how we had witnessed a bunch of children carrying small chairs to and from school. This was just something that we just witnessed for that area, and I cannot confirm that is the case with all Afghan schools. Some people have written asking if they could purchase and ship some chairs to us for the children. While very noble, there is no way that, logistically, we would be able to handle such a request. So for those who might be interested in helping out some local children just send typical school supplies.

People have asked what all do the kids here need. Once again I wish we would have completed our first school visit, so that I could give a good report on the real needs of kids here. I have told others that the back to school list that teachers will send home with elementary aged school kids each fall would be a great place to start. Some things to consider, the languages that are spoken here are read from right to left. So when children learn to write they flip over a normal spiral notebook and use it in what would be a reverse fashion for those of us from the left. I know that local stores do not sell notebooks designed for people that write from right to left, but notebooks that flip from the top might be a bit more friendly for those who want to make an extra effort to try and help out. That being said, I'm sure that children and families would appreciate any sort of donation would be greatly appreciated.

Believe it or not in our part of Afghanistan it does get cold at night. I am a little nervous about making the offer for clothes, as we would have no effective way to sort and then properly hand out kids clothes.  We might be able to pass out some hats or gloves, as I'm sure those would be appreciated also.

We are planning to do a second school visit in late December or January. So anyone is again free to send school supplies that they think that people from a less advantaged family would appreciate. Those who have questions please feel free to email me or leave a comment on my blog, and I will write back.

Again for those who would like to donate please feel free to send any supplies to me at.

CPT Marc Rassler


Camp Mike Spann

APO AE 09368

The flat rate post office boxes work great. Otherwise if you want to send a larger box, just send it Space Available Mail (SAM).

Please do not consider this a giant request for money or supplies, because poor children in Afghanistan are dying. A lot of families are poor here compared to western families, however the families do not know that they are poor unless someone comes up to them and tell them "You are Poor." Living in Afghanistan is the life that they know. I have had several people email me asking "How can I help?" This is the best way that I know how to try and help some local kids out, and hopefully improve their lives. I am really looking forward to sharing some photos and telling a story or two describing our interaction with some of the locals.  

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Election Day

I voted about a month ago to ensure that my ballot would make it back to the states in time. Hopefully my ballot is actually counted!

With today being Election Day back in the States I thought I would post a video to help get people into a good election mood.

I hope the best candidates wins, and by best candidates I mean the people that I voted for!

Best of Luck to All!

Monday, November 01, 2010

how can I properly say thanks

Yesterday I did absolutely the wrong thing, and basically yelled (via email) at a pen pal that I developed through this blog because she has been too nice to me. I got another care/package from her and I got frustrated at her for all the nice things that she has done for me. Unfortunately she was received the brunt end of my frustration at all the support that I have received from many different, and sometimes random families. What made me mad was that I have no way in which I feel that I can properly say thanks to her and others for their kindness, other than to write a card or email and say thanks. This to me just seems wrong. Perhaps most troubling is that I do not feel that I have done nothing to warrant her, for lack of a better phrase, love and affection. I have trouble seeing and accepting how me working and living in Afghanistan makes me anymore special than someone's neighbor down the street.
I for the most part, and most of the time, enjoy what I do as a soldier and enjoy being deployed. So I tell others that being deployed is easy when you enjoy what you do. I do not feel special, unique, or in need of praise because of my job here. I also am very fortunate, that while I do go outside the wire on missions, I have never gotten shot at engaged by the enemy. Nor have I ever lost a friend or associate in war. The guys who are getting shot at, or have lost friends; those are the true heroes and ones deserving of praise and gifts in the mail.
I used to really enjoy watching the TV show M.A.S.H., and still do when I happen to find it on, and a couple lines from that show I always seem to recall. Klinger to Radar, "Hey what are you so happy about, the only smiling faces I see around here are outside the latrine (toilet)." I always thought that was funny, because that often is the truth around here. The other line was from a Christmas episode in which I believe Hawkeye is narrating a letter he is writing to his father. Where he basically states, "The more they try to make it like home, the more it makes everyone homesick."
The second always really sticks out with me. Try as we may to try and fool ourselves, the fact is that we are still deployed. I have mentioned to others that while I have never been to prison, being deployed in some respect a lot like going to prison; only the guards are pointed the other direction. So I try not to get too wrapped up (no pun intended) in Christmas time. Whether it is Christmas, the 5th of May, or there is a sale at Penny's, we still have to show up and go to work every morning while we are deployed. Most offices try and rotate their soldiers so that they have at least one day a week off; if their one day a week happens to fall on a holiday then they luck out. Otherwise it is work as usually. Along those same lines, while I greatly appreciate and treasure all the care packages I receive, one of the most frustrating lines (for me at least) is a note inside stating that I hope that 'fill in the blank' can give you a little taste of home or feel more like home. The more I or others try to make it like home, the more I miss home. I think part of the reason I let my frustration out on my pen pal, was that it is almost impossible for me to do anything more than just say 'THANKS' to her and the others that have sent me care packages.
One of the things that does suck about being deployed is that I am totally removed from many normal American interactions and activities. I am the type of person that feels a bit uncomfortable about receiving gifts and not being able to properly say Thank You. So not being able to run down to a store and pick up a descent thank you card, an appropriate gift in exchange for the kindness of others has been a bit frustrating.
So for all the care packages I get, I try to send a thank you note or email to let you know that I have received your care package. I will admit though for a couple families I think that I missed sending a proper 'thanks' mostly because I may have received a couple boxes at the same time and over looked, or I returned from being in the field and in my haste to open the box I discarded or misplaced the return address. Sometimes though if my thank you note does seem a bit short, please forgive me as I am quite likely at a loss of words to say thanks for your act of kindness and generosity. Occasionally I have a tough time accepting that others would want to send me something simply because I am somewhere where they are not.
Once again to all the different friends and families who have shown me some form of support during this an my past deployments thanks for all that you do to try and make our jobs easier.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

My Holiday in Africa

Those who have read my blog in the past know that I recently returned from my two weeks of R&R leave. For my vacation holiday away from the Army I went to Southern Africa.

First why I went to Africa, the short and simple answer is because I could. One of the few benefits about being deployed for a year with the Army is that everyone, who is deployed for that long, is afforded the opportunity to take two weeks of leave. The US government will purchase for us a ticket to anywhere in the world that we want to go, so long as it meets certain safety requirements. Basically it has to be safer than Afghanistan or they won’t let you go. I would guess more than 90% of deployed soldiers go back to the United States to visit their wives and girlfriends, maybe not in that order though! During my last deployment I went to Australia and just had a blast. I was tempted to go to there again, but I wanted to see someplace new. Plus I really liked the idea of being able to check another continent off my list of places I’ve visited. When I decided to go to Africa, considered Egypt for about 2 seconds. I think it would be cool to see the ancient pyramids and such, however I have seen enough sand and heat for one year. Knowing very little about the continent of Africa I figured that South Africa would be as good of a place to visit as any. I knew that as a former British protectorate they would speak the queen’s English, so I wouldn’t have to worry about figuring out a language while I traveled around.

Before my trip I was given and purchased some southern Africa travel books. I flipped though them some, but truthfully didn’t read them as much as I could have or should have. The biggest help for my trip was that I met a contractor on my base who had traveled to southern Africa on vacation a couple years ago. He shared some pictures and gave some great ideas of things to see and do for my holiday.
For my trip to Australia a couple years back I had a couple nights in Kuwait before my flight out, so I figured the same might occur before I flew to South Africa. This would give me more time to plan for things that I wanted to see and do. Unfortunately I was wrong, and my ticket was booked the same day that I arrived to Kuwait. So I had little time to find proper lodging. When I traveled Australia I stayed exclusively at hostels, and for this trip I was completely fine with doing the same. My opinion is why spend the money on an expensive hotel room, especially if all I plan to do is sleep in the room. In the short time that I had, I emailed a couple hostels and fortunately one responded before my flight left.
After a nice flight on Emirates airlines I was picked up at lakeview backpackers, which fortunately wasn't too far from the airport, plus the host picked me up for free from the airport. My first full day in Africa was spent lounging and relaxing in the hostel. I emailed a travel agent I found on the internet and described my goals for the trip.

Per the recommendations of my friend back in Afghanistan, I wanted to visit one of the seven natural wonders of the world Victoria Falls, go on a game drive safari, go diving, and visit Cape Town. The package the agent designed for me was probably a bit more than I would have normally spent, but I figured I’m on vacation, plus I also realized for such short notice I would probably have to spend a bit more. My one bit of frustration with the agent I ended up working with was the time they took in which to get back to me when I asked questions. Magically though when it came time for payment on the package I selected, even though I was not near a computer in which to make a payment via the internet, they were calling me non-stop.

I asked my hostel hostess, Ronel, what she recommended for things to see or do in or around Johannesburg (Jo’burg for the locals). To my surprise she kept politely saying that she would just leave Johannesburg and recreate in other towns. I thought she was just jaded after growing up in an area that she felt that there was nothing to do, so I didn’t really believe. I was wrong and should have. I took a tour with a guide she set up to drive through Johannesburg and visit the Apartheid museum.

Driving through Johannesburg, and much of South Africa I witnessed a whole different world than I am used to back in the states. Basically a good sign of wealth in South Africa is how tall the fence is that someone has around their property. Every house or apartment complex has some sort of security fence around. The typical fence for middle class or better familiy is about 6.5 feet high, and made of brick or concrete. On top of the concrete fence will be one of three things, and three strand electrical fence, razor wire similar to what we have here in the military for force protection, or metal spikes. Additionally every property is protected by a security company like Brinks or ADT, except their yard signs all say “Armed Response.” Back in the states the security companies, as far as I know, only call the cops and hope you survive till the cops show up. After reading the Johannesburg newspaper detailing home invasions and carjackings, I can understand why everyone has security on their home or car. I’m generally a fairly adventurous person, however I don’t think that I would have felt comfortable walking down the streets of Johannesburg alone, at least as a wide eyed tourist. I was later told that private security is the largest source of employment throughout South Africa.

Visiting the Apartheid museum was enlightening, but also a bit frustrating. The guide that I was with had a time schedule, and that schedule didn’t include me being able to read and enjoy all the exhibits in the Apartheid museum. Much like slavery and the civil rights movement of the United States, Apartheid is a real black eye on South Africa and many of the wounds are still taking time to heal.

My first destination upon leaving Johannesburg was flying to Victoria Falls Zimbabwe. Because I booked my trip in such haste I didn’t realize that I was in the same country of Zimbabwe with the dictator Robert Mugabe. Fortunately visiting the city of Victoria Falls, there was little evidence of a country run by a corrupt individual. An entry Visa for Zimbabwe would cost $25 US dollars each time that I would cross the border. I got a little bit of a surprise on the shuttle drive from the airport to my hotel, the Kingdom Hotel, the driver recommended not walking very far off the grounds of the hotel after dark as there literally is wild animals that might not be very friendly at night.

After I checking into the hotel I wanted to walk around and check out the area. I walked to the National Park entrance to the falls, however the sign showed that it cost $30 each time to enter into the park. Since I had already arranged for a guided tour the next morning, I decided to wait to enter. The short walk back to the hotel was a bit of an adventure as I was followed and hounded by teenagers desperate to have purchase some wooden souvenirs which they were walking around. They would stand by the entrance to the park or near the hotel grounds and wait for anyone that looked like a tourist and try get them to purchase something. If that didn’t work they would resort to begging asking for money for food, additionally they would take in trade anything that I was wearing. I got several offers for the Nike shoes that I had on. On the flight I was told to avoid kids who will try and sell local currency. I was amazed to see kids’ trying to sell the local Zimbabwe currency, with 100 trillion dollar notes the highest currency that I saw. I fortunately did not purchase any of their dollars; I was carrying around enough worthless paper.

I started conversing, and then later having a meal with a couple young ladies from Pennsylvania who were also on a two week vacation holiday. I kind of had to laugh as they had found out the hard way that cash is king. They had brought a bunch of travelers checks and no businesses wanted to accept those. Worst of all they had MasterCard as their main credit card, and few places in Africa would take MasterCard. One of the gals had a Visa check card she was reluctant to use, but was forced if she wanted to use a credit card she had to use her check card. I was surprised to discover that in Zimbabwe the US Dollar is basically the only currency accepted. Throughout much of Africa, if places do take a credit card, forget about American Express and don’t count on places taking a MasterCard either.

The next morning I took my walking tour of Victoria Falls. Fortunately flying to Zimbabwe to view the falls was worth it. I also, fortunately, picked a good time of the year to actually be able to see the falls. When the summer rainy season begins on the Zambezi River so much water falls over the falls, that the mist created literally makes it almost impossible to see the actual falls. There is a reason as to why the locals called the falls The Smoke that Thunders. Walking the pathway on the Zimbabwe side I had a great view of the falls. Most of the actual falls are in the country of Zambia, however to actually see the falls a person needs to be in Zimbabwe. I was tempted to cross into Zambia to check it, however it would have been a fee to enter Zambia, plus a fee to enter the park in Zambia, followed by another fee to walk back into Zimbabwe. What was most tempting about going to the Zambia side was the chance to take a dip in the Devil’s Pool.

The evening of the same day that I took my tour of the Falls I did a very touristy thing and went for a ride on a Elephant. $100, but I figured ‘hey, I’m a tourist when am I ever going to ride an elephant.’ I think perhaps what was most interesting was literally how quiet the giant animal could be while walking. Their feet are like giant pads. If they are not stepping on an old tree, or making any noise they can sneak right up on something. On this little ride I saw my first real wild African animals, some Impalas as well as some African or Cape Buffalo. My first sighting of one the African Big 5 animals in the wild!

My second day at the Kingdom hotel found me just relaxing by the pool most of the day. In the evening I went on a sunset booze cruise along the Zambezi River. One of the highlights was getting to see my first group of Hippos. The best part though was just watching an African Sunset from the river.

After three nights in Victoria Falls my next destination was the Muchenje Safari Lodge in northern Botswana next to the Chobe National Park. It was about a three hour ride from Victoria Falls to the Lodge, with a stop at the border to get my passport stamped. In order to get to the lodge we had to drive through the national park, which reminded me a lot of driving through Yellowstone National park, only instead of buffalo near the side of the road we saw Elephants, and lots of them.

The Muchenje Lodge, and similarly for the Kingdom Lodge, I felt a bit out of place. I could tell that both catered a bit more for either newlyweds or retired couples. My chalet at Muchenje was probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in; a private building, a private bathroom, a king size bed, and a view more than worth the cost of the room. In addition the resort was all inclusive for all meals, drinks and park fees.

To try and describe the variety and multitude of animals that I saw in the Chobe National Park would not do it justice. I hope that if you haven’t already that you are able to check out the slide show on the right side of the web page showing pictures from my trip. I think that I lucked out and picked the right time of the year to visit Africa and do wildlife viewing. Because it was still a month or so before the rainy season begins vegetation is very low, and many of the water holes have dried up. As a result all the animals are forces to hang closer to the river to find their necessary water and fresh vegetation. I lucked out and was able to see, in the park, four of the five Big Five; wild elephants, cape buffalos, lions, and leopards. Unfortunately or fortunately I will have to come back to visit Africa again if I want to see a rhino. It was amazing to see the giraffes, the numerous different types of antelopes, the zebras, as well as hundreds of birds.

There were times in which the horizon was just black from all the elephants that we saw. The guide our group had shared with us that it is estimated that there are 120k to 150k elephants in the park. It is amazing to witness but the elephants destroy almost every area that they come through. Many of the trees in certain areas are no higher than six or seven feet, as elephants have broke off the tops of the trees and consumed all the leaves on the trees. Also amazingly the elephants and most of the animals in the park were not intimated by humans. Since there is no hunting in the park, the animals do not necessarily fear humans. There were times in which it seemed we were probably less than 20 feet from an elephant.

My one major regret for my time in southern Africa, especially while I was in Botswana, is that I did not have my SLR digital camera. My good camera is back in the states, and I would not have had the space in which to pack it along in my bag. There were so many photo opportunities, especially with a nice zoom lens. On one of the afternoon safari trips that I went on one of the girls that I met later admitted that her regret was she wished she had brought a sports bra. The safari vehicles are not exactly luxury cars, they essentially are one ton four wheel drive pickups with seats mounted in the box of the truck. So bouncing around along the trails of the park my but got a little sore by the end of the day also.

After my three night in Botswana and the Muchenje lodge were complete I had to make the land journey in reverse back to Victoria Falls and the Victoria Falls airport. My next major destination was to travel to Cape Town South Africa. It literally took me all day to travel from Botswana to Cape Town. One of the highlights of this day was meeting a young family Pennsylvania who now live and work in Cape Town. Their children had the South African equivalent of spring break so they also took a vacation to Zimbabwe. Waiting in the long line to check in for the airline they eventually invited me to join them for dinner one evening during my time in Cape Town.

In Cape Town I decided to stay in a hostel, and I think I lucked out and made a pretty good selection choosing Atlantic Point Backpackers in the Green Point section of Cape Town. Less than a kilometer away from the soccer stadium, it would have been the perfect place to stay and party during the world cup.

My first morning at the hostel I made friends with a young woman from Canada who had come to Cape Town simply to take a break from her job as a volunteer teacher in South Africa. Her main goal was to visit Table Mountain, and then sight see throughout Cape Town. Advice I had received from others said that the first good day in Cape Town go directly to Table Mountain, because the weather in Cape Town can change so quick and the mountain might be socked in for several days. So traveling with my new friend seemed like as good an idea as any. So we took a tourist bus to the base of the Table Mountain cable car. There was a forty minute wait to take the top of the mountain, so I presented to her that I was game to take the walk up the mountain if she was. The brochures said that it is a 2.5 hour walk to the top from the base of the cable car. The walk to the top of the mountain is not for the week of heart, or spirit. To walk to the top a person had better have good shoes, and plenty of water. I made the mistake of wearing blue jeans, not thinking that on vacation I would be ascending almost 1500ft along the side of a mountain. I can proudly say that we made it to the top in about two hours, many times pondering aloud what the heck we were thinking by wanting to walk up. While the walk up sucked, most everyone said that walk down is even worse. The view from the top of Table Mountain was truly spectacular, and I lucked out in that it was a clear day and a person could see for miles and miles in any one direction.

We decided that we had had enough physical excitement and took the cable car down off the mountain, which was also pretty cool. We decided to walk along the beach and feel how cold or hot the Atlantic Ocean was. The ocean wasn’t freezing cold, however it was nowhere near as warm as I was hoping that it would be. Earlier in the day I heard on the tourist bus that near Cape Town the ocean water gets about 10 to 15 degrees Celsius cooler in the summer than it is in the winter. The beaches and the beach front properties I felt were better than pure party atmosphere of Panama City Beach Florida, yet not as expensive or fancy as Sarasota or Ft Myers beach Florida. The area was still very nice none the less though.

Day two in Cape Town had me walking along the waterfront and checking out some of the shops of the area. I purchased a ticket to go to Robben Island in the afternoon. There is a water taxi that goes every hour to the island every couple hours, weather permitting. Because of demand people often book days in advance, I luckily was able to go in the afternoon. Robben Island was the prison home of many political prisoners of Apartheid, including former president Nelson Mandela. It is now considered a national historical site. Unfortunately many people considered it an amusement park or something. As a single man, who really enjoys culture and history I was really frustrated at the number of tourists who brought their young toddlers and babies. There are two parts to the tour of the island a short trip in a bus showing many of the different buildings and features of the island. The second half was a guided tour with a former political prisoner of the main prison. Several times there were instances in which the kids were just being kids; unfortunately it made it very difficult for the rest of us to hear what the tour guides were trying to share. None-the-less the island was very interesting, and it was cool to peak my head into the cell which Nelson Mandela called home for the 18 years that he was on the island.

My third day in Cape Town I spent walking around the heart of downtown Cape Town. Much like Johannesburg all the houses and apartment buildings had tall imposing fences. Unlike Johannesburg I had no problem walking throughout Cape Town, at least during the day. For me the one of the interesting points was walking through the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest building in South Africa. The entrance fee was about $3.50, which I felt was very affordable. I happened to luck out and enter at the same time that a free tour was beginning. After my couple hours at the Castle, I just wondered through the heart of the town, walking up Long Street (the main bar district), St George’s Market, the Natural History Museum and Planetarium. I found the Natural History Museum very average, and the Planetarium presentation kind of boring (I think I fell asleep for 5 minutes during their show). The highlight though of the day is I was able to enjoy a nice traditional American meal with the family from the states that I had met on my flight to Cape Town. Their kids are about the same age as my niece and nephews so it was fun to interact with them for a few minutes before they had to go to bed.

Day four in Cape Town had me experimenting with their public transportation. I took the train and bus from downtown Cape Town to an area called Glencairn for a SCUBA refresher course I had arranged. I lucked out when I got on the train to find a seat, otherwise for about 80% of the time on the hour long ride it was standing room only. I was fortunate that I knew that my stop was the end of the line for the train otherwise I do not think I would have found my station. There were no maps on the inside of the train, nor announcements of what the upcoming station was. Fortunately I do not think many tourists take the train as I think a lot of people would be getting off at stops in neighborhoods in which they probably don’t belong. Even though I said that I felt safe in downtown Cape Town, the train travels though a lot of poor areas and neighborhoods in which outsiders do not belong. My refresher scuba course wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped it would be. The water was quit cold, but mostly it had been a long time since my last dive (08 Australia) and I just didn’t have a high comfort level.

My last night in Cape Town found me just relaxing around the hostel, walking along the beach boardwalk, and generally taking it easy. I was invited out to a bar with some of the other guests from the hostel. The bar, Knoxville, had one of the coolest scenes for a Wednesday that I’ve seen. I don’t think I have ever seen a collection of more women wearing their Friday or Saturday night party clothes on a Wednesday.

Leaving Cape Town I flew on British Airways of South Africa. What a refreshing airline compared to the airlines back in the states. No charge to check my luggage, an actual heated meal was served, and free booze. I don’t know what foreign airlines are doing to treat their customers great, and still make a profit; but I wish they would share a few of their secrets to carriers back in the states.

Upon arriving at my hotel in Johannesburg which was near the first hostel I stayed at when arriving to Africa, I got settled and realized I had plenty of day left. I had arrived early enough in the day that I asked the hostess if she had any recommendations of things to do in the area? She set me up on a guided township tour of Soweto. I thought that it would be unique, I hate to say it though, but I have seen enough poor places throughout the world and it was nothing unique. It was a Township which is still predominately black, and was one of the areas black citizens were allowed to live in during Apartheid. The one highlight was visiting the former home of Nelson Mandela before, and after, he was imprisoned. The funniest part is I was stopped by a bunch of men from Nigeria who were also touring the small historical sight. When I said that I was from the United States they thought this was the coolest thing, so I got to have my picture taken with a half dozen different men from Nigeria. The worst part of the day was that they guide that I hired basically started doing laps around the area to try and justify the amount of money that I was paying him.

After 15 days in Southern African it was time to start my journey back to Afghanistan. I had budgeted my money such that I had about $10 dollars worth of Rand (South African currency) left to spend in the airport. It was easy for me to find some post cards and knick knacks to spend my money on. Thinking back on the different souvenirs that I purchased I think that I overspent on just about each item. I bought some items from little street shops or vendors, I would have a fun time haggling with the chaps to get a good price. Invariably though I would find the same item a few shops down, or the next day for a price cheaper than what I paid for the item had I just purchased. I figured if I can’t overpay for a ‘cheap crap’ souvenir in Africa and have a good attitude about it, then where can I? I’m glad I got the chance to visit Africa. I made a few new friends that I hope I will be able to stay in contact with. I would recommend visiting Africa to most anyone who is a bit adventurous in a second. If you go to Africa bring plenty of US dollars, and bring a Visa Credit card. I would only go through Johannesburg to use the international airport. I heard many great things in the Okavango Delta Park in Botswana, and Krueger National Park in South Africa and there are a lot of great animals to be seen there. I also wish that I would have had the time to visit the countries of Mozambique, or Kenya.

Amazingly it seemed like it took about half the time for me to get back to my base in Afghanistan compared to how long it took me to get down to Africa to start my vacation. Now if only my last few months in Afghanistan go by ask quickly as my two weeks in Africa seemed to fly by!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

traveling for leave

I recently returned from my R&R leave, and wanted to share story about my adventures in just getting to my leave destination. When we go on leave, many of us are very excited to go leave however the frustration of just traveling in order to go on leave is almost not worth the hassle. While no one ever has, many of us have discussed just turning around and going back at the frustration involved with getting home or to our leave destination.
In my case I took the nightly convoy shuttle from my base (Camp Spann) to Camp Marmal, and arrived near midnight. As I got off person at the passenger terminal told us that we needed to be back at 0200 tomorrow, 26 hours away. As you could imagine it was a little frustrating to travel the 15 or 20 miles across town, only told to have to sit around for a day before the next report time. Perhaps worst though I was put in a transient tent with beds but no heat for the tent. In the desert, this time of year especially, it may still get hot during the night however it gets down right cold at night. So I shivered for several hours in my bed till the sun came up.
Upon showing up the next day at 0200 we were put on a lock down at the terminal for the departure of the flight at 0500. The funniest and most memorable event for me leave travels when we boarded the C-130 for our flight to Baghram. We were crammed into the cargo jet, everyone wearing body armor and helmets. Because of the tight seating each man had to interlace his legs with the person across from. The load master (glorified flight attendant in this case) was giving us a safety brief before departure. The typical where to go in the event of an emergency. The best part though was that he asked everyone to turn off their iPods and MP3 players. Not because of the lie that tell on airlines, that it might interfere with aircraft communication equipment. The reason they asked everyone to turn off their individual players was because of his fear of the light given off from the small stereos. He said that he didn't want the light from iPods lighting up the cargo bay of the aircraft, allowing the enemy to see us as we took off and shoot at us. For those who have never ridden in a C-130 there are 3 small little windows, about the size of a paper plate, along each side. For enough light to escape out the windows and thereby make the plane visible to the enemy we would need to be having a disco party in the back of the plane. I just had to laugh to myself at his statement; all I could think was that if an enemy is so deaf that they weren't able to hear the plane fly over, but yet has good enough eyes to see the faint light from a iPod through the window at the mile or more that they would be away from the aircraft. My thought is that he has earned the right to try and take that shot. I still don't think he would hit the moving aircraft at night, but try and hit that faint bit of light from the iPod.
Fortunately everyone complied, turned off their personal music players, and we made it safely to Baghram around 0600 or so. Much like my arrival at Marmal, the folks at the passenger terminal essentially told us to come back at 2300 for the evening leave brief. Also like Marmal, I shivered in the transient tent for several hours till the sun heated the tent up.
The 2300 leave brief took approximately an hour, just to do attendance and tell those lucky enough to have their name called that they would be flying on the next leave flight. So we were put in another lockdown tent with a TV about 50 chairs, and dozen cots for 150 people to wait out (shiver) the night till we were called next. We were told that it probably would be around 0400, however the powers that be did not show up till around 0600. So we were moved and put in a different lockdown tent till our flight departed at 0930.
After a four hour flight along with a 1.5 hour time zone change I arrived to the gateway for leave in Kuwait around noon, I think as I was still pretty tired. Because I was going OCONUS (overseas) for my leave I was separated from the main group and processed very quickly. I was fortunate because we arrived to the travel booker before 1300 (1pm) I was told that my ticket would be booked that day and I might possibly fly out that night. I was told to turn in my body armor, changed into civilian clothes and told to return at 1500 to pick up my itinerary. Fortunately my flight wasn't till 0900 the next morning out of Kuwait City, allowing me a little chance to catch up on my sleep before departing to Johannesburg.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Thank You Video from Camp Mike Spann

A video that my friends at the base PAO office made. It highlights some areas around our small bit of home. The video is ment to go out to all the friends and families that have supported us and sent us gifts while we have been deployed. Several of the guys on my team are featured in this video. The video is very well done, and I think that you will enjoy it.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

I'm here.

I just wanted to share that I safely made it to Johannesburg South Africa this evening. Flight was long, but good. Found a nice hostel near the airport, great host. Excited to start my South African Holiday.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Today I had the day!

So this morning I, which was really awesome because I have been wanting to for like months now. I couldn't believe how quickly it all, because you rarely expect to do that either. Afterward I went which required me to put on a different pair of shoes. CPT and I just laughed our off when he saw what SSG had put in his.
When several words are missing Doesn't make much sense does it? I hope that I will not have to write my blog like that in the future. Apparently someone back in the states felt that I should edit my blog, or at least one of my entries because he or she felt that I was violating operational security (OPSEC). Just to appease that person, I did edit my blog just in case. Even though I was certain that I was not in the wrong. Strangely though that person was to scared to send me an email themselves, so they sent a message to my friend, who is also deployed with me, so that he could council me on OPSEC.
As most anyone who has read my blog knows that this is my third deployment, and for each deployment I have received OPSEC training. Additionally yearly when I am just a normal Guard, one weekend a month, soldier I am required to complete OPSEC training. In my years int he military I have become very familiar with OPSEC and it's importance for soldier safety. I do not want to get myself, or more importantly any of my fellow soldiers currently deployed or those who may be deployed in the future hurt. I am well aware of keeping things that need to be kept secret, secret. Further all officers in the military are required to have a secret security clearance and I do not want to do anything that would jeopardize my future in the military by losing my clearance.
That being said I think that deployed bloggers are very important to telling the story about the lives and missions of our deployed soldiers, as well as the status of partners in this fight. I know that I am may not be the best or smartest writer, which is part of the main reason why I write my blog. I am smart enough to know that there are some things that do not need to be talked about or shared with others. Part for team safety and OPSEC. For me a bigger part of it is just for the mental sanity of my family back home. As far as I am concerned I would just assume that my family thinks that I spend my days just hanging out with my Terps and telling them stories about the US. Fortunately for my teammates and I, that is not necessarily far from the truth. Even though we are in a country in the midst of violence we have seen no violence. I have honestly yet to be scared when I gone on a mission outside the wire, and if I ever am I will probably will wait to share that story with my family till when I get home. They do not need to be scared by events that I experience here. The most frightening part of job thus far has been walking along the road to and from our Kandak. Many Afghan are not the best drivers in the world, and they like to speed which is a frightening combination. I have said it before, and I say it again here that the deployments I have been on are several times harder on my family and anyone else who might happen to care about me back home than it is on me.
I realize, that while not very likely, that there is a chance that the enemy might read about me and the things that I post in my blog. I do not post about troop strength, troop movements, upcoming plans, strengths or major weaknesses of our team or the ANA. There are some weaknesses in the ANA that we mentor, however this blog is not an appropriate forum in which to discuss those issues. Plus that is why we are here, to help mentor and correct those issues. I would rather focus on the positive aspects, for which there are a lot of, for both our Kandak as well as our team. Additionally I would also love to post some pictures of my terps, and talk more about them in detail because they are great guys. Because they are great guys and I care for them a lot; I do not ever want to hear about them being threatened or getting hurt. All of which is why I am cautious of the things that post. I am not however going to write stories like the one that I started at the top of this post.
One aspect that allows me to keep from editing ever other word or sentence is the vast amount of open source information already in publication. Much of which directly from the manufacture, the Army or Department of Defense. Even if someone thinks that I am possibly on the edge or revealing too much information about our weapons or equipment, everything that I have talked about is quite readily available through other sources and media. I don't feel that I have revealed anything that is not already known about our equipment by the enemy. I almost want our enemies to know about it's capabilities. The more they know about how awesome the stuff is that we are rolling outside the gate with the less chance that they will attempt to engage us. I don't think that enemy would want to waste his time, or money (because even Taliban have to pay for their home made bombs or ammunition) trying to attack our vehicles; as there is little chance of success. Further the enemy is not stupid when they see our up-armored vehicles with large caliber weapons, I'm certain that they know that they can get more for their dollar by attacking a less armored vehicle.
I am not sure what the person felt that I was violating OPSEC about, once again because they did not have the personal courage to write me and share with me their concerns so I will only venture to guess. If they think that I have talked to much about the MATV, I would encourage anyone to simply type MATV into Google or Bing. Should they go to wikipedia, they will find a great deal of information about the vehicle, much more than I have ever discussed or for that matter knew about the vehicle. Other than I wish that there are cup holders for everyone, and a glove box or map pouch for the vehicle commander I think that it is an awesome vehicle. I thank the American people for purchasing for us such an awesome piece of machinery. Perhaps the person felt that I was discussing too much information about the CROWS, which also can be readily found with any Internet search. I would highly recommend someone check out the Army peopsoldier site which also has more information about our system that I even knew. Once again all I know is that we are very fortunate to have such an awesome piece of equipment give to us by the American people. Our main complaint about the CROW system is that while our gunner is inside and protected, he is not about to wave back to all the kids and families that wave at us when we drive through towns. Believe it or not, even though our vehicles are big and loud they also bring out a lot of smiles when we drive through town. Because I didn't violate OPSEC with our equipment, perhaps they might have thought I crossed the line by posting pictures of what some people might call war porn of the vehicle which had been RPG'd. I would ask them to please pick up a copy of the Stars and Stripes, the newspaper which is distributed free to deployed service members, or most any newspaper or magazine that covers the war. Almost daily it seems there is a picture of a battle damaged vehicle in their coverage. I alluded to the fact that there was a person who had been killed which we happened upon during our mission, there is no picture of that person. Because I had no picture of that person. I would not disrespect a dead person, friendly or enemy, by taking their picture let alone posting it on my blog. That is just gross.
Every day I read a lot of newspapers, and whenever I write a blog entry about something that I or my team has done, I try and think the story through like a news story. If a reporter had been with us, would a reasonable reporter asked these questions or have been smart enough to see or notice the same things that I did. Would a reasonable reporter print some of the same things that I did. If what I'm writing doesn't pass the reasonable test, then I don't post it.
I would like to assure everyone that I am familiar with the Army's current blogging policy. I am not here writing looking for trouble. I am just writing trying to tell my story of my deployment, which I think in turn will tell the story of a lot of the good soldiers that I'm deployed with, and the progress of the people of Afghanistan and the Afghan National Army. I personally think that there are not enough embedded reporters in Afghanistan and Iraq, the wars (that's right I said 'wars' plural) are no longer sexy and don't sell enough papers. If people want to find out some of the truth about what is going, they are going to start looking elsewhere. I would hope that my truth is just as credible, if not more, than someone who is sitting at a desk in the pentagon press room waiting for a good quote from a government official several thousand miles away from where the action is taking place. If anyone has issues with the things that I write or write about, I encourage them to write me so that we can correspond about what they have issue with. I certainly don't want to get in trouble. I just want to complete my time here with honor, come home next year and find a new adventure.
Here is a link to a site about soldiers blogging, and the positive aspects of soldier blogs. This next link is about a pilot who it appears did everything correct in regards to his blog, yet still found himself in trouble.
As a side note, those who have been following my blog will likely know that I will be away for a while. This will likely be my last entry for a few weeks, as I will be going on my two weeks of R&R soon. Perhaps, you might be able to tell from my style that I might be a little bit grouchy, so it will be good to get away from the Army for a little while. Hopefully I will come back relaxed, refreshed, and ready to handle the last few months of my deployment. Because I don't want to be accused of violating OPSEC, I will just share that I am going somewhere south of the equator and hope to do some scuba diving as well as see some exotic animals.