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.