Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Fine Art of DIBS! In a Deployed Military Setting.

Authors note: I have started and stopped this blog entry several times over the last few weeks, for the fear coming off like a Pig. Please understand that this is my attempt to show that even supposed professionals can act like immature 14 year olds. Please read this for the light-hearted fun that it is intended.

When I was younger my friends and I would play version of a game called Dibs. Which basically was that if one friend showed up somewhere with more of something, generally candy, than he needed or at least we thought he needed someone would call ‘Dibs.’ Which meant that after he was done enjoying whatever the item of interest was, or if he decided to share said item the first person who made a verbal declaration of ‘Dibs’ on said item had first choice on that item. Similar to when people will call ‘shotgun’ for coveted front seat in a car. If someone else calls Dibs or Shotgun first you are honor bound to let them have that first option. It is part of an unwritten man-code, which was understood even at a young age.
A few weeks ago a new female civilian contractor arrived on our small little base. Within a couple days of noticing her, I decided that at least my small group of friends I would make a public profession of ‘Dibs’ on this young lady.
Calling ‘Dibs’ on somebody, especially in a military setting, is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. ‘Dibs’ is no way to be confused with or considered stalking. It does not give me the right to follow or generally act creepy around this young woman. The only way that I would ever be able to use my ‘Dibs’ rights were if she were to some how profess a desire for male companionship. At that point, ideally, the honor amongst men clause would be observed amongst my friends. However I know that this base is 85% male, it would be a more apt description of honor amongst thieves.
I can try and attempt to make the first strike and actually go up talk to her. It should be noted though that there is no rule that says that I have to invoke my ’Dibs’ rights, just because I have called ‘Dibs’ on someone doesn't mean that I actually have to talk to her. Getting the courage to actually talk to a Dibs girl, can be like mustering the strength to climb Mount Everest. You can’t expect to be able to climb Everest in one shot, this is something that has to be worked up and will probably have several false starts and stumbles.
If I were to try to use my ’Dibs’ rights the honor I would be given is the right to have a have conversations with her in public areas. Which basically means I could have a meal in our dinning facility, talk outside of most buildings, or if I was feeling real adventurous go for a walk in a well lit open area.
Being in the military and deployed presents additional, almost insurmountable obstacles when it comes to meeting members of the opposite sex. First there is the issue of fraternization; as an officer I can not have an improper relationship with enlisted females. An improper relationship could be interpreted as doing nothing wrong other than talking with an enlisted female more than would seem normal under work circumstances. While frowned upon in civilian life, and it would violate my own morals, an improper relationship with a married woman in the military is considered adultery and can carry a significant punishment. Additionally it is possible to have an improper relationship with a female officer, all dependant upon her rank or position of authority. So about the only persons that I could have a relationship that does not automatically qualify as being an improper relationship with an unmarried civilian contractor.
In a deployed setting there are more issues to complicate a situation. Because I am always on duty, public displays of affection are an absolute no-no. Next General Order 1A strictly prohibits males and females from cohabiting in the same building or room. Which basically says that it is violation of an order from a General Officer to be in a room together for anything other than work.
There is one small advantage for women who become ‘Dibs’ girls while in a combat zone. Behind their backs, they will have a new name. Consider the fact that most civilian contractors do wear a uniform with their name on it. At least amongst the men that I made the public ‘Dibs’ proclamation they will have a name to call her other than the blond haired girl or something. For example I was by the gym this afternoon and saw Rassler’s ’Dibs’ girl walk by.
I am also under no illusion that I am the only person on this base who as called Dibs on her. Considering once again that with a population of over 1000 people, and 85% or more of whom are male, other males not in my group of friends and co-workers have probably called ‘Dibs’ on her. I am guessing that my ‘Dibs’ code of ethics is probably higher than the average soldier her on base, so the challenge would be, if I found another Dibber on base to convince him that my ‘Dibs’ time and date stamp is earlier than his. Thus my Dibs would take precedence over his, or hers since this is about to become the post Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Army. That is a topic for another day.

Friday, July 30, 2010

I love Jesus

This past week I finally got the chance to walk down one of the streets of Mazar-e-Shariff. I was one of the few that was able to get out of the trucks because we had to leave our drivers and gunners in the vehicles as security. I attracted a big group of kids as I was talking, shaking hands, and occasionally giving out small pieces of candy or snacks that I had in my pockets. As I was walking down the street at our first stop I noticed the kid pictured next to me wearing the "I Love Jesus" hat. I got a good laugh at seeing that his hat. Fortunately one of the guys with me had a camera handy to take this picture. I'm hoping that in the future we will get the opportunity to do more meet and greets with some of the locals outside the wire, I fear though that may have been a one timre occurance. Meeting people is not part of our mission here, and I am unable to tell if our commander will ever want to do any more of those in the future.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Winning Hearts and Minds!

Yesterday was a good day! For the first time since we have been here we essentially engaged in combat tourism. For the past week we have had a reporter embedded with us, and to help him out we decided to take him outside the wire with us to view some of the sights of Mazar-e-Sharif. Previously every time that we have left the wire, we have headed directly our destination. Yesterday was a bit different as we incorporated into our travel plan to actually stop our vehicles, get out and interact with some people. Unfortunately due to security concerns not all members of our team were able to get out and interact with people as our drivers and gunners had to stay with the vehicles. I was one of the lucky few that were able to get out at each stop.
Our first stop was near a market a couple blocks north of the center of the city. With the assistance of my terp I walked through the 'farmers market', along three other guys on my team, a couple more terps, and our reporter. It was very refreshing me to get out and wave hello to the many people who were selling their wares. It seemed like kids appeared out of the woodwork when we appeared. I was more than happy to shake as many hands with as many of the kids as I could. Much to my surprise and satisfaction many of the kids could speak a few words of conversational English. One of the funniest moments of the day was while I was walking the street I noticed a kid who appeared to be about 9 or 10 who was wearing a baseball cap that said, "I Love Jesus". I doubt that he or any of the people around in the market could actually read any enough English to understand what he cap says. As an aside I don't know how many people would be truly offended as Muslims believe that there was a profit named Jesus Christ, they just don't believe that he was the son of God and savior of man.
None of the other guys in my group were making an effort to interact with any of the people in the market. I was of the opinion that just walking through and not interacting will turn into a staring contest. The locals starting at us, wondering what the heck we are doing, and we staring at them making sure that none of them are doing anything that might hurt us. I hope that I made a bunch of down payments in future good will with the smiles and the few pieces of candy I had in my pockets to hand out. I was smiling, rubbing heads, shaking hands, and even showed a couple kids what a high five is. I don't know if I or we made a difference in the lives of the group of kids, however my thought is that in our short 20 minute walk through their area we potentially reduced some fear that those citizens may have of US Soldiers.
After the farmers market we drove to the east side of town to a round about which a game of Buzkashi monument. This was just a short stop to actually take some pictures of the monument that we have driven by several times but never able to get a descent photo through the thick armored windows of our moving vehicles. Once again I took a couple minutes to toss some snacks to some young kids, who were literally covered in oil, who had been helping their father's work on vehicles.
Upon departing the Buzkashi monument we headed back to the center of town, and did a slow drive by of the historic Blue Mosque. Due to rules of engagement, that says no US soldier may enter a mosque it was not worth effort to try and a place to stop our vehicles to try and walk around the courtyard of the mosque.
Our final stop of the day had us swinging through what appeared to be a very poor village on south end of town. I got out my small plastic bag of remaining snacks and toys. Bringing my bag out at the beginning of our time there was a mistake. I stepped out of my truck, and it seemed like I was immediately surrounded my 30 little hands grabbing at the goodies in my hands. I was trying to pass out candies one at a time in an effort to try and make sure that everyone would get something. That wasn't fast enough for the kids, as some of them jumped up and grabbed at the plastic bag in my hand tearing it open. Candy and snacks fell all over the ground, and it quickly turned into a fish feeding frenzy. That quickly solved my problem of making sure that everyone got something. The quick ones got something, and the not so quick ones didn't. While our reporter spent time talking with a couple local village elders, who appeared to be in their mid to late 30s but wore those years as though they were in their 60s. During that time I spent talking with about 30 kids. Once again mostly simple pleasantries like Hello, How are you. Some of the preteen boys new a few words of English. Many of the boys told me that their names was that of WWE superstar John Cena. This gave me a good laugh. I attempted to demonstrate John Cena's signature hand waving in front of his face. As our time ended in this small village area, there was a bit of concern to make sure that no kids ran underneath our large vehicles.
The one thing that he has me confused about being here in Afghanistan, which was reinforced yesterday, is what is the force protection standard when we are outside the wire. Throughout our training at Ft Polk and Camp Hohenfels prior to coming Afghanistan, that as part of the counter insurgency effort we should be trying to would through areas and neighborhoods without our body armor on. Essentially we should be saying that if the are is safe enough for the people of Afghanistan to live there, it is also safe enough for the US Army to walk through there without body armor. I beginning to think that was just lip service by our instructors. I have yet to hear or see of anybody who was gone outside the main gates of our base not wearing body armor. RC North, where I am, is widely considered the safest region in Afghanistan. If there is anywhere in which soldiers should be able to take their body armor RC North would be the area. I don't know that if I wear a commander here that I would authorize or allow my soldiers to take their body armor off, because there is such the fear of the unknown here when it comes to safety. But it makes me wonder that if there is such an unknown about threats of violence, is the area safe. If the area still is not safe, are we winning the war in Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thanks Soldier's Angels, and other military supporters

When I first go in country I saw a box or a piece of paper with the website for Soldier's Angels on it. I went to the web-site to check it out, as I thought I would might be able to get a care package or something.

Recently though I have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of kindness and support from various American Families. Thus far I have gotten over five care packages that I've shared with my fellow soldiers. A couple from a family in California, three from different civic organizations from a small town in Michigan. I've gotten a couple cards over the past few weeks from random families, and have usually sent them a post card to write and say thanks. This past week though I have just been overwhelmed with the number of letters that I have suddenly received in the mail. So many so that I may not have time to properly send them a card in the mail to send thank you, as I have been busy recently with work.

When I was in Iraq when I would receive random 'support' letters or packages, they were generally from retired families who wanted to support the troops. A majority of the letters I have received have been from retired families, however much to my surprise some younger folks have also sent me some letters.

Since I've been here in Afghanistan, I've also receive a care package from a family in Georgia which sent me several packages when I was Iraq.

Another nice surprise was that today I received a letter from the Governor of the State of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty.

If I am unable to send a proper thank you card or email to all the folks that have sent me letters or packages, and they should happen upon my blog, I hope via the web that I express a small bit of gratitude for all the kindness. It is hard to find the words to properly say thanks for all the acts of kindness that many different random families have shown me. Heck I've sent many different post cards to my friends and family, and I can barely get any of them to send a card or email in return.

None-the-less, I again just want to say thanks for all the support that different families have shown me and my fellow soldiers during our deployment.

Soldier wounded while reportedly killing Afghan trainer who opened fire on base

UPDATE: Contractors, Afghan recruits in deadly training dispute. An article from a report that has been staying with our unit.

Camp Spann, where I live, is located inside of Camp Shaheen. A week ago there was some violence that occurred on Camp Shaheen, which is the Afghan Army Base that I and the rest of my team do our mentoring on. The facts as I know them, are also the same ones that have been released. A week ago now a group of Civilian Contractors, which I had never met, and some US Soldiers were doing some training with an Afghan Army Battalion of new recruits. Their mission was to go to the rifle range, and do some marksman training with the new recruits. Something event which is under investigation, in the end though one of the Afghans shot two civilian contractors, and injured one US Soldier before being killed.
I have never been scared or intimidated working with my Afghans. There have been several times in which I have left their area a frustrated for not being able to understand something to which would seem very simple to me. Most days though are kind of average, no forward or backward progress; but I'm still able to walk away feeling pretty good. This past Saturday though was the most uplifted I've felt since I have been walking down there each day. Mohammed Hussein, the best NCO I have in the S1 section, asked that I no longer come down to his office after hours. I have gone to his office some evenings to help him out, because of what happened earlier in the week he said that it is difficult to trust everyone on the base and to be safe I should only come during daylight.
Perhaps what was most concerning about the death of the Americans as it affected me and my fellow teammates, was concern or confusion by our friends and family members. Late that evening the first press release hit Fox news, a short two paragraph story inaccurately stating that two NATO soldiers had been killed by an ANA soldier at a base in northern Afghanistan. Shortly after that story hit, with no mention of names of those involved or the actual name of the base, people started getting worried emails from their families.
For those who have never been in the military, or do not have much knowledge I thought I would share some advice when it comes to worrying about your loved one. While it is okay to be nervous and worry about your loved one, watching the news and being concerned about everything that you read will only make you miserable. The best way think about any news about the death or injury of any soldier in battle, is that unless you have a received a visit from a couple men in uniform at your door odds are your loved one is fine. In a high percentage of times by the time that an article hits the paper or television, the family has already been notified about their soldier's death or injury. The military goes to great effort to ensure that families are notified before press releases go out, to ensure that they are not surprised and find out their loved one has been injured via the evening news. I have told my family several times that unless my parents receive a visit from a couple soldiers in uniform to their front door, always assume that I am fine. I personally feel that, even though I am in a war zone, my odds of getting killed or not much worse than living in the city. People get killed or injured everyday in traffic or other freak incidents. In the military we go to great lengths to try and eliminate or reduce residual hazards, such that the main danger we might face will be the enemy.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Trip to Pol-e-Khomri

This past week I took, what I consider, my first real trip outside the wire. In the two months that I've been here I have done several missions to the Mazar-e-Sharif airport called Marmal on the other side of town. Marmal is the main base for RC North, home to perhaps a couple thousand soldiers most of whom are Germans and other NATO countries. Mazar-e-Sharif is a fairly safe city, with some of our biggest hazards we have to deal with is traffic and pedestrians. From our base at Camp Spann to Marmal it is all of 12 miles, however the shortest we have ever been able to make the trip is an hour.

Wednesday morning I left on mission in support of our Kandak (Afghan battalion) to Baghlan province and the city of Pol-e-Khomri. The Kandak that we mentor was tasked to put two of their Howitzer guns on top of a major hill/mountain that overlooks the city of Pol-e-Khomri to the immediate east, and fertile valley to the west. While I never got to read the ultimate military plan created by the Afghan Army, I can imagine that by having our battalion set up their guns on top of the major high ground that they are planning a major mission in the area in the future.

The hill, has a name an Afghan name which I can't begin to spell or sound out is called OP West by the coalition forces, has one of the best views that I have seen in any of my three deployments. The valley to the west looks like what I imagine the Napa Valley of California look like. The problem though is that different intel sources have between 30 to 70 Taliban fighters in the area causing trouble. I know that they have been intimidating the local populace, as at night they have forced them to shut down all of their cell towers for fear that the Taliban will blow them up. During the hours of darkness it is impossible to find a cell signal in the area. Additionally I know of several times throughout the past few months in which they have engaged coalition forces driving through the area.

The problem with our Kandak putting their artillery weapons on the hilltop is that I can see it only being used for phsycological warefare, as I do not trust their firing ability with the large cannons. At least their ability to use the weapons as they are truly designed, to be used for indirect fire. I have been told that they are very adapt at using them for direct fire, which will basically turn their giant guns into extremely oversized sniper rifles.

We spent a couple nights on the hill to help them get settled in, and to help them in with assistance from our more advanced weapons. Our new MATVS with their roof mounted CROWS allows to scan the entire valley day or night for any suspicious activities. During my shift one night I was able to scan and see people moving almost 2500meters away. Around three in the morning I was able to four men doing some suspicious activies in a field near a major road. I felt their activities were suspicious simply because nothing good ever occurs at three in the morning. Unfortunately I had no way in which I could call in the good guys to go and check out what they were actually doing, nor did we have good coordination with local Afghan National Police.

In the coming days and weeks I suspect that we will be spending more time on top of the observation post helping out our Afghan soldiers.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My first scar from Afghanistan

Almost four weeks ago our team was issued brand new up-armored vehicles, called MATVs. It took a couple days to put them together, and get them to a road and combat ready situation. While assembling 'The Big Lebowski' as my team and I call my vehicle, I cut my finger installing some wire mesh which has healed and turned into a permanent scar.
It was an exciting moment to be receiving some new vehicles to replace, for lack of a better word coming to mind, our old jalopies. Our previous vehicles were some of first generation of up armored Humvees M1114s that the Army stated producing when blowing up vehicles became the in vogue thing for insurgents. Driving in the 1114s was better than driving a old un-armored Humvee, however it was by no means comfortable. Due to the IED threat adding several thousand pounds of armor to the old Humvees became a workable solution to a bad problem. Unfortunately the Humvee was not originally designed to have several thousand pounds of weight added, which has ended up casing a lot of strain on the first generation of Humvees. Our old Humvees, which we fortunately had to endure for only a month compared to our previous teams, were really hurting vehicles. To get up hills we found we occasionally had to get a running start at them. The transmissions were found would occasionally slip, or miss a gear. Most uncomfortable of all though was that on some of the vehicles the air conditioning would not work. Driving or riding in the vehicle was like sitting in hot-box from "Cool Hand Luck". With the temperatures outside, plus adding in all the individual body armor that we wear made for a miserable experience.
Our relief from these vehicles came when we were issued our new MATVs, which are basically smaller versions of MRAPs which made the news a couple years ago as they debuted throughout all of Iraq, and parts of Afghanistan. The MATV depending on the weapons configuration carries only four or five soldiers including the driver, is much lighter than the different MRAPs and as a result is more maneuverable. While I have never driven or ridden in a MRAPs I have been told that the problems that they found with them is that they are so big, that it was almost impossible to take them off road. Additionally because Iraq and Afghanistan are third world countries their road and building construction are not to the same western standards, the height of the MRAPs combined with our radio antennas would knock down different power lines or other low hanging items.
Make no mistakes though, the MATV is not a small vehicle. Painted on the sides shows that our Gross Vehicle Weight is well over 26,000 lbs. Trying to park the vehicle is next to impossible without one or two persons outside helping the driver with his many blind spots. The tires on our vehicles seem as though they could easily fit on a monster truck. The advantage though is that is it raises the floor of our vehicles higher off the ground, and with the addition the sloped armor we are hopefully more protected from buried and roadside bombs.
The weapons configurations also give us added protection. Often when up-armored Humvees would get hit by a roadside bomb the vehicle would survive, unfortunately it would get flipped over in the blast then crush and kill the gunner on the top of the vehicle. More than half of the vehicles that we were issued have Common Remotely Operated Weapons Systems, CROWS, bringing the gunner protected inside the vehicle.
I am told that the CROWS has some of the same internal hardware that the weapons systems of the M1A1 Abrams tanks has. The CROWS system allows us the ability to mount different weapons to our vehicle depending on the situation or mission that we are on.
One of the big pluses of this system over the old Humvees that we used to drive is that it has an effective air conditioning system. One problem though, much like the Humvees, is it seems like the designers forgot incorporate the size of the men and women that would be siting in the vehicle. By all accounts I am right in the middle of the bell curve of an average sized man, and wearing just my uniform I fight into the vehicle just fine. However when I put on all my body armor, helmet, magazines of 5.56 rounds, a half dozen grenade projectiles, first aid kit, and other items I now push close to 300 pounds and my chest is almost twice as large. I am one of the averaged sized guys in our small unit, and I have trouble closing my door and sitting comfortably. I feel sorry for the bigger guys, as they have a real fun time just trying to put their seat belts on.
With current technology and funds available I doubt that the Army could design the prefect vehicle for us. It would be great if they could design a vehicle that would protect us from all the different roadside bombs the enemy is using, provide good visibility, a strong defensive/offensive weapons systems, while also being quick and maneuverable, comfortable to ride in. The MATV is not perfect in all areas, however it seems to do a pretty good job, most important though is it will protect those who ride in it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I'm fine thank you

Almost every morning, along with my interpreter Shafiq, I walk down to 4th Kandak (Battalion) and spend a couple hours with the S1 Personnel section. Recently one soldier has been attending a school and the other is on leave, so there has only been two people in the office. Toran (CPT) Sharif the S1 Officer, and Muhammed Hussein the current senior S1 NCO. When I come to their office it is rare that I am able to get few minutes alone with them to try and privately work on issues that they might have. Fortunately for me, they seem to have a pretty good understanding of their job, and do not need all that much outside help compared to other sections in the Kandak that we mentor. There is almost always a constant stream of people coming into the office needing of assistance.
The S1 office, in addition to their normal duties of tracking personnel and payroll rarely a day goes by in which they must also work to put some back into the Army. In the US Army putting soldiers back into uniform would be the role of a recruitor, unfortunately they are tasked with the responsibility of processing the necessary paperwork of putting a soldier back in. Men will walk into their office wearing traditional Afghan clothes, holding a couple pieces of paper which are their version of discharge papers asking to be put back into the Army. Most will claim that they were in the Army for three years or so, got out for a few months and have been working as a farmer. As a farmer they were not making very much money so they want to come back into the Army and try to help their families out. It is a good thing that people want to come back into the Army, on any given day with an assigned strength of approximately 450 men, at any one time there are approximately 40 people AWOL (absent without leave).
The past few weeks, working with the S1 section I have spent time trying to help them improve their daily perstat that they track and submit to higher. There is only so much that I can do to help them because all of their forms, and policies have been created by the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense. There are some things that I would love to just toss out, and start with a completely new form. They have a computer that is about ten years old, with my interpreter helping me understand the words in Dari I have been able to help make the Excel program they use for the perstat work. I took time to help and make the capabilities do some of the work for them.
I hate to say it one of the biggest accomplishments, which took a few nights to explain, was showing them the ability to use the "Save As" function with the computer. I discovered that they had not been saving any of the old work on the computer that they had already created. The past week it has been almost impossible to work with them, as they have been solely focused on getting the monthly payroll done for the Kandak. In the next few weeks I hope to be able to show them the ability to create individual folders for each company.
One of the most fun parts of the day is right when I show up to their office each morning. Mohammed Hussein has learned a few words of English, and will use them all at once in one breath. Typically I will walk in and say a greating in Dari to them, to which he will say "Ahh Good Morning how are you I'm fine thank you."