Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Actions Speak Louder than Words

By Army Capt. Marc Rassler, Minnesota National Guard Operational Mentor and Liaison Team 47

GHORMACH DISTRICT, Afghanistan (Aug. 26, 2010): A weapons cache consisting of over 300, 82 mm Soviet-era mortar rounds, and more than 175 sealed, good condition 82 mm mortar fuses and propellants were found near the village of Petaw in western Afghanistan's Ghormach District.

Live mortar rounds are commonly used in manufacturing improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, and in the hands of insurgents or Taliban fighters these weapons could be used to attack local civilians as well as Afghan National Security Forces who patrol the area in unarmored vehicles.

“What's news here is not that the cache was found, but rather by who it was found and how it was disposed of,” said Maj. David Baer, commander of the Minnesota National Guard’s Operational Mentor and Liaison Team 47 stationed at Camp Mike Spann, Afghanistan.

After further discussions with the residents of Petaw, ANSF learned that they had known of the weapons cache for some time and finally felt enough confidence in the locally-based 3rd Battalion 1st Brigade of the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps to report the location of the buried munitions, which some believe may have been there for over a decade.

“ANA soldiers took the lead and exploited the cache without significant assistance from their Western army partners,” said Baer. “Local residents would never have reported the weapons cache to the ANA if they didn't feel they could not only safely dispose of the munitions but protect them against potential retaliation against the local population. This is the kind of progress that doesn't always make the evening news, but displays a crucial vote of confidence in the ANA.”

Maj. Merza Murad, executive officer of the 3rd Battalion 1st Brigade of the ANA 209th Corps, shared how the munitions were found and taken from an area near the house of a former Mujahideen fighter. Murad stated that the Mujahideen commander buried the munitions several years ago, keeping them hidden from the Taliban.

“While they were digging out the cache, civilians were watching and many of the children wanted to help,” said Murad. “Children like the ANA and say that they want to be like soldiers when they grow up. When they (the ANA) first arrived in the area people would turn their backs and not wave back to the soldiers. Now after working on roads, giving medicine and helping civilians, they trust the soldiers.”

Murad explained how important it is for civilians to see the ANA's actions for themselves as literacy rates in the Ghormach area remain low and locals are not able to read about the ANSF progress.

“The Taliban know that if the people become educated they will lose what little power that they have,” said Murad.

Helping to educate the population is one of the most effective ways to gain civilians’ trust and support of the ANSF according to Murad, and the partnership among the people and government agencies is crucial for the ANSF’s continued success.

“We are all riding in one ship together,” concluded Murad

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cool links

A couple weeks ago my blog was linked to a cool web site which I had never about before called, www.milblogging.com. From that link, someone connected with the comic strip Doonesbury contacted me about possibly reposting an entry that I had recently wrote. I had no problem with sharing. Their link is http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/. I encourage you to check out the links out as there is some interesting stuff.
My plan/goal over the next few weeks is to write some features on the individual soldiers in our unit, and then submit them to some hometown newspapers.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Just around the corner

In less than a month and half I will finally get the opportunity to take my two weeks of environmental leave from Afghanistan. Everyone who deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan, assuming they are not confined to base due to some sort of punishment is given the opportunity for 15 days of leave. The government (taxpayers) will purchase a ticket to anywhere in the world that a soldier wants to go, so long as the area meets certain safety requirements. A very large majority of soldiers simply fly to their home in the states to visit their wife, or girlfriend, or hang out with some friends. For me deciding where I want to go for my leave, has been one of the most challenging decisions I have faced since beginning my deployment.

I knew when I began this deployment that I would not come home to the states for my leave. I miss my family, and enjoy every opportunity I get to spend with them however the opportunity to do some world traveling is hard to pass up.

During my first deployment to Kosovo and Bosnia I met my parents and sister in London then we spent a week and half traveling around Europe. Three nights in London, which was great to see but very pricey. Followed by a trip on through the chunnel on the high speed train to Paris for three nights. Hit the big tourist areas of the Louve, Eiffel Tower, and lots of walking in between. Also expensive, but still not as bad as London was. We then took an all day train to Munich Germany, where I rented a car and started our stay at the military resort in Garmish. We traveled throughout much of southern Germany, spending a night in a Castle owned by the Rassler family near Stuttgart, along with night in Heidelberg. Finally finishing in Frankfurt where my parents and sister flew home.

During my second deployment I was a bit more adventurous and flew to Sidney Australia. Sidney was only my stopping and starting point, as I tried to see as much of the country as I could in my two weeks. After Sidney my first destination was the resort town to the northeast, Cairns which is also near the Great Barrier Reef. I spent a few days and took lessons to earn my Scuba endorsement. Following my time exploring the reef I then flew to Melbourne, and just walked around the city for three days with a day trip excursion along the Great Ocean Road. One of the highlights for me was travelling to the capital city of Canberra, granted it took me a day tavelling on a train and bus to get there. I really enjoyed visiting the museums and walking through parliament. After another day on the bus I made back to Sidney to wait my time out till my return flight. In the few days I had walking through the city I obviously walked through the Opera house, but also being the fruggle traveler that I am I managed to visit just about every free park or museum that the city offered. To add to my thriftyness I managed to stay only in hostels the entire time, which was a new and unique experience for me.

Deciding where I want to go for leave has been a much more difficult process. Growing up two of my biggest travel goals were to visit Europe...check, and to visit Australia...check. There is so much that I have yet to see in Europe which would make that a fun choice, however I to travel to someplace exotict or at least someplace that would not normally consider traveling to. Plus I think that when I return from my deployment next spring I'll probably take a trip to Europe to visit some of my Croatian friends.

Basically my criteria has come down to a place that I've never been to before, and chances are will never go to again. Someplace where the length of the jet flight makes me feel as though I've traveled somewhere. My choices came down to South America, Asia, and Africa. Asia, at this point really doesn't really excite me that much, mostly due to language issues. South America really interested me, especially because during my leave dates it will be spring time there. Plus a year back I met a cute girl from Columbia that I've corresponded with, and I think I would enjoy visiting. However I think that South America would be a relatively easy place for me to visit from the United States.

So my military decision making process brought me to decide upon visiting Africa, specifically South Africa. Egypt would be cool, however after spending a year in Iraq and this deployment in Afghanistan I've seen enough sand for the next 10 years or so. South Africa will allow to check the Africa block. Plus the Queen's English is spoken there, which will hopefully make my travels a bit easier. South Africa was highlighted recently with the 2010 World Cup, but I really didn't pay that much attention to the Cup. South Africa was kind of peaking my interest before the cup. I really don't know what I will see or visit while I'm there. Obviously while I am in Africa I will try and make an effort to go to one of their national parks and or go on a safari to try and see some of the Big 5 animals (elephants, rhinos, etc). I'm also hoping that I can try and go Scuba diving again. South Africa is know for the number of Great White sharks that they have off their coast. While I consider myself a bit adventerous, I have no desire to recreate one of my favorite movies (Jaws) and climb into a shark cage.

I'm hoping that in the remaining days before I begin travels to South Africa I'll be able to come up with some sort of itinerary of where I want to go. Part of the beauty of being single and travel alone is I can make up route of travel as I go. The one frustrating part of traveling single, obviously is the increased self security measures I need to take, is that I don't have anyone to share the memories with. I can take all the pictures that my camera will hold, however it is no fun to go somewhere and not be able to come home with a good story or two.

Getting to know our Terps.

When we were at Ft Polk during our mobilization training we went through 40 hours of Dari language training. It was learning a some of the basic vocabulary, numbers, and greetings, The training was intended to give us the ability understand the first 5 minutes of a the start of a conversation. So the training is useful if we only intend to walk down to our Afghans, introduce ourselves then ask “How are you?“ With the expectation that they will answer with of “I am fine how are you.” To which we would always say, “Good”. This is were our interpreters are vitally important.
So in addition to mentoring the S1 personnel section of our Kandak, my main additional duty is I am also the Terp Manager for our team. When we got here we inherited six interpreters for our team, however to try and decrease the strain of having to share interpreters amongst our team a couple days ago we were able to add an additional Terp to help.
MAJ Baer, the S3/XO mentor probably has one of the better and most experienced interpreters assigned to our team. Ken, has been working as a Terp for the past five years and has a wife a two little kids. Almost a tossup in abilities is Sam, the Terp that works with CPT Anderson the S4 mentor. Similar to Ken he has been working as an interpreter for close to five years. I give Sam a bit of grief, as he is barely into his mid-20s and is dating a girl that is seven years younger than him. He assures me that is normal for Afghanistan. The third senior member of our team of Terps is Joe, who helps our Command Sergeant Major and his mentoring of the Kandak CSM. Joe is one of the younger members of the team, but also has been interpreting for about five years. He also has a young wife and child. I started the deployment working with Sean, he as been working as a Terp for about a year now. He is unique in that he is the only one on the team that has a college degree. Also single, he sends most of the money that he earns back to his parents as they helped him out quite a bit while he was in college. After a couple months, due to a personality styles I swapped with CPT Reid the HHC mentor. CPT Reid has a very direct style and his Terp, Dale wasn’t always able to effectively convey with the force that CPT Reid needed. Dale is the youngest of our gang of Terps, my laid back style seems to work fairly well with his strengths. The last of our original six is Wally the Wise as we often call him. The smallest in stature, though perhaps is the biggest in heart. Wally is in his mid-20s, and when he gets enough free time he makes a long journey to visit his family. He relayed a story of during his last visit to his parents he purchased a small solar panel system so that they could have some power to listen to a radio. The newest edition to our gang of seven is Kelly, who was working as a interpreter for a medical training team for the past couple years. We are still getting to know Kelly, but thus far seems like he will be a good addition to our team.
They are a good bunch of guys, that make our jobs possible. In our walks to and from the Kandak we get about 10 minutes to B.S. with our Terps about their lives and families. Part of the fun of those walks is sharing stories about life in the United States, and what life is like where we have come in. We have taught them several useless, and trivial things; but stuff none-the-less that will come in handy if they ever get to the States. For example I taught Dale and Wally the art of doing a good Truffle Shuffle. They also now know what it means if someone showed up to work acting as though they rode The Little Yellow Short Bus. It has become comical as we now have most of the team able to finish the commercial jingle for Mounds and Almond Joy: ”Sometime you feel like a nut, sometime you don’t….” If our meeting time or place changes I need to tell them, the New Bat Time, and the New Bat Channel, otherwise it is assumed that we will meet tomorrow “Same Bat Time, and Same Bat Channel.” They also have started to overuse the phrase “Peace Out” whenever we part ways instead of getting a see you later they will tell me to Peace Out. Fortunately, as far as I can tell I nor any of my team members have taught any of our Terps any swear or curse words. I think though that most of them from previous American rotations had a pretty good handle on how to swear like an American.
All of my guys are hard workers, and have interesting stories to tell. The ones that are not married, part of their goal with the money that they make as interpreter is help out their families which is a big part of their culture. Many of them I also believe are saving their money to get married. Even though they may not have a girlfriend, having a proper wedding ceremony may be one of the biggest expenses in their life. A good wedding is a big deal in Afghan society, perhaps costing more than $10,000 US dollars with hundreds of friends and families from both sides of the families coming to a wedding celebration. Because their values are a bit different from ours, for some of them it may not be uncommon for one of them when they eventually do get married to marry a cousin. We have given them some good natured ribbing that is not something that you want to do, marrying your cousin.
Because they work for the US Army, after a couple years working as an interpreter they go to the front of the line in Afghanistan to apply for a visa to the United States. My three guys who have been working as interpreters the longest are pretty far along in their visa applications, and just waiting for different pieces of paperwork to come through. So quite often they will ask questions about where are the good places in the United States to live. As a quick economics lesson that many of the members of US Congress could learn about, our Terps when they go to the States want to settle in the areas that they have heard have the lowest taxes as they know that they will get to keep more of their own money. Everything in Afghanistan takes more time than things might compared to the States, however it is possible that three of my guys might make it home to the states before we will finish our deployment.
One thing that is kind of frustrating and encouraging regarding our Terps is that is obvious that they are some of the best and brightest young men in Afghanistan. Their families spent money on them to take English lessons at private schools, and for the most part they are pretty smart guys. While good for their individual futures, unfortunately for Afghanistan they want to take their talents and move to the United States. If the smartest young men of Afghanistan want to leave Afghanistan it is going to take a while for this country to even get up to a second world status.

Note: I do not feel comfortable revealing the real names of the interpeters, as Afghanistan can be a dangerous place for Afghans who work for US Forces. So for the purpose of this story I changed their names. Also in pictures that I post I try to avoid putting pictures of my Terps. I would hate to see one of them hurt because of a blog entry of mine.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Three Months Down

I have been "boots on ground in Afghanistan" almost about three months now. We flew into Kyrgyzstan on 21st of May, then the following day we flew into Marmal the Mazar-e-Sharif airport. After following around and learning from the unit that we replaced we were handed the keys to our new mission.

One thing that is always funny about Changes of Command and hand over of mission authority is the differances in the units. The outgoing unit will often leave with the opinion that the guys they are being replaced with don't know crap and are going to screw up things up. The new guys be able to hardly wait till the old group gets out of the area, because they didn't know what they we were doing and we will do much better. From my previous two deployments, and the start of this one I saw thoughts expressed that way by both sides. Part of the problem is that the old unit, has been doing their mission so long that they are just like kids in high school with a week left before summer break. They are burnt out and ready to go home, they know their job, however they probably don't have the same zeal for it that they once did. The real challenge for the new unit is to not listen too much to the "Good Idea Fairy" that will come around trying to sprinkle good ideas of ways that things can be changed. The old unit, right or wrong, had a system or method that worked for them and their mission; there often is really no need to go changing things other than the fact that you want to change things. Our unit really didn't make all that many changes when we finally did take over the mission. A couple changes on how we had our Afghans run their meetings.

From my experiences from my previous two deployments, and in discussion with others I have heard it said that it takes two or three months to learn your job when you come into theatre. If you are a truck driver, you already know how to drive a truck. It takes a couple months though to figure out where everything is on the base, and who the people are that affect you and your mission. It will take a while to get a system figured out and rythem down to a good comfort level. My first month here I was often staying in the office late each day, and working hard to get things figured out. After about a month and half I noticed that my comfort level had greatly increased, and I no longer had to work as hard to get the same amount of work accomplished. I could knock off and head back to my room earlier in the day if I wanted.

My typical day involves enjoying a quick breakfast around 0800, then walking to gate 2 of our base to meet our terps before our walk down. We are about a mile from the gate to where the offices of our Afghan Kandak are located. We often joke about it, but in reality one of the most dangerous parts of job is the walk to and from the Kandak. The streets are designed kind of like a warehouse district area, with the blocks a bit longer than the average U.S. street. The Afghans have a variety of vehicles (Hummers, Ford Rangers, International straight trucks) most of which were almost certainly purchased by the U.S. taxpayer. It seems like many of the Afghan drivers have never been taught what a speed limit sign is, so they only know two speeds Fast and Stop. So during our walks we are constantly jumping out of the way of fast moving vehicles.

Most normal weeks we like to have a BUB (Battle Update Brief), on Monday and Thursday. Which is basically a staff meeting in which we can compare notes, accomplishments, and any possible issues we may. The first month it was guaranteed that each meeting would take a good hour to complete. We all have improved since our first weeks here, however each meeting still takes at least a half hour or more to get all the information. Generally the issues for each section and company are often very similar. A variation of ‘I tried to teach my section something, however the people I needed to teach this to were gone.’ Additionally almost weekly there is an issue brought up by someone during the meeting that their Afghans kept asking that we, the mentors, provide or purchase them such things as an air conditioner, fans, GPS, bottled water, fuel, and assortment of small knick-knacks. The BUB does give good opportunities for everyone on the team to try and focus their mentoring for the next few days. Several times I have asked of the company mentors to try and work with their sections on turning in a daily personnel report, which gives them a chance to focus on an area that will help my section.

For the amount of time that we have been here, I have come to the conclusion that I am probably the luckiest of the mentors. The guys in my S1 shop seem to have their stuff down pretty well. The main thing that guys in the Afghan Army care about is getting paid, and getting paid on time. Since I have been here I have not seen any issues regarding pay from the guys that I work with. In fact my main frustration is that perhaps my guys work too many hours each day. Almost every morning I will ask them what time the reports from yesterday were turned in and how late did they work last night. It is not uncommon for them to reply reports came in around 9pm, and they worked till 10pm or later.

Since we have been here in Afghanistan we have done three overnight missions, one to Samagon, and a couple to Pol-e-Khomri as we have soldiers from our Kandak currently stationed and working there. Fortunately in the times that we have visited there was incidents of hostile fire or other issues that would have increased our danger because we were there. It is anybodies guess if we will leave Afghanistan without being engaged. About a week after Ramadan ends are some new elections, and our Kandak will likely be tasked to secure polling places. As a result we will probably go out to further mentor and assist our soldiers. Enemies of the Government of Afghanistan may try to do disrupt the attempts at a peaceful election. So it is anyone’s guess what will happen. Our Kandak has soldiers stationed and working west of Mazar-e-Sharif which will probably make an effort to visit in the future.
Now, when we are not out visit our soldiers at distant FOBs, the challenge is to keep our motivation and spirits up when we are working with our soldiers. Almost everyday that we go to visit the soldiers that we are mentoring the same issues are present and it seems like there is little to no progress. It is frustrating as we are not here to make them do our system of Army, but rather to force them to make their system work no matter how good or bad it may be. If we can keep our motivation to mentor up over the next six months like we did the first month, this will have been a successful deployment.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thanks for the chocolate

Today I received a package in the mail from a source unknown. Contained in the box was two large bags of Hershey's Miniature Chocolates, which have some of my favorite Mr. Goodbar candy bars. The only return address for the items was the fact that they were ordered and shipped from Amazon. Even though chocolate in the summer of Afghanistan doesn't usually mix to well, I am super excited about digging into them. Obviously they are more than I can eat in one setting (ha), so I hope that my friends will enjoy them also. I have found a fridge to cool them down so hopefully in a few hours they will be ready to consume.
I truly have no idea who sent them to me, but I'm guessing/hoping that the kind person(s) will read my blog and allow me to thank them through this. It is truly awesome the kindness that random folks have shown my team and I. I wish that I had a better way to respond to you more personally, to let you know that we love what you are doing for us and it does not go unappreciated.

Thanks again

Marc Rassler

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Putting Chai Boys out of Work throughout the Muslim World.

Today, and the next couple days, are somewhat unique as we essentially get a three day holiday. The Muslim holiday of Ramadan began at sunset last night. The Kandak (battalion) that we support and mentor has put their soldiers on a three day pass, as many of their soldiers like to try and spend the start of the holiday with their families. As a result, since we have no one to mentor, we have the next three days off as well. Unfortunately though because we are deployed you never truly have days off, as some task or needed training will come up. Another frustrating thing about being deployed is that even though I have no planned tasks or reasons to have to put my uniform on today, I am always on duty, which requires me to have to shave if I want to go anywhere other than the outhouse near my building. I would enjoy the opportunity to look like a bum today, however if I want to go to lunch and get anything to eat I will have to be in proper appearance and attire.

It will be interesting when we return to mentoring our soldiers on Saturday. For Ramadan, our practicing Muslim friends will be required to fast from sun-up till sun-down. There beliefs require them to abstain from all forms of food, drink (even water), during hours of sunlight; as well as give up tobacco or other vices completely during the month. They are still allowed to eat, however as part of their sacrifice they will be getting up well before sunrise to eat. By the time that we visit them in the morning, odds are it will be several hours since they had gotten up and eaten something plus some of them will be going through nicotine withdrawals. So odds are they may be a moody or cranky bunch by the time we are able to visit with them.

We have also been laughing that during Ramadan several Chai Boy's are going to be out of work. The Afghan Army has young privates that essentially work as severants to the officers in the battalion called Chai Boys (Tea Boys). For example in the S1 section that I work with Qandala, is the Chai Boy for the section and he is responsible for preparing tea when needed for the officer and NCOs in the section. Additionally he is responsible for being a running and carrying one piece of paper from one side of the camp to the other. In return for the service of the Chai boy the section will often take those particular soldiers under their wing, mentor them and help them improve their ability to read and write. However because of Ramadan the Chai Boys will have no Tea or Water to serve, so they will have nothing to do and potentially out of a job.

Our hope is that Ramadan will be a quiet time in our region, however fears are that it may be the opposite. We have been told from our intel sources that during this time of fasting and sacrifice that if a Holy Warrior is killed while trying to kill his perceived enemies of Allah, he will have a much better shot of going directly to heaven. So the fear is that throughout Afghanistan there may be more Suicide (homicide) bombers, and other Taliban fighters doing more brazen and dangerous attacks.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Oh What To Do?

This week I received an interesting surprise when I found out that my blog had been linked to and highlighted on a website called Milblog.com, a website that was completely new to me. Almost overnight I had a 100 fold increase of possible readership to my blog. Sometime ago I read that the average blog, has a readership of '1'. Which is about the readership that I had been expecting when I began writing my blog and keeping track of my deployment. However I would advertise my blog, by attaching the address to my blog when I would send emails to friends so I was receiving some occasional views and feedback. Plus it allowed me a way to post occasional pictures during my deployment, and allow for widest distribution. Mostly though I wanted to use this blog as a way to keep a journal of my thoughts, and adventures during my deployment. During my past deployments I tried to write a daily journal however I was only able to write for a month or so before I became bored. Mostly because, I found myself writing about the same thing ever day, as is often the case during deployment the days turn into Groundhogs Day. With a online journal I figured I could post about some of the more interesting thoughts and observations. One of the issues though with an open forum online blog is that there are several times in which I would like to write about my opinion about various situations, but I must always be aware that what I write about can also affect my career in the military. While I may have the freedom to write what I want, I am not free from the responsibility of what I write.
This week, for me at least, has been a refreshingly boring week. Almost all the rest of my team has been outside the wire on mission and I was one of the few to stay behind and monitor our Kandak. A couple of days several members of the Kandak that I would have worked with were also absent, so a couple days I only ended up spending 10 minutes in the Kandak area before walking back to my office. As I would not have been able to accomplish anything meaningful on those days.
One thing that was special was yesterday, 5 August, was the 15th anniversary of Croatian Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving day. Which celebrates the Croatian Independence fought for during their homeland war. Many of the Croatians that I am stationed with fought in the Croatian homeland war, so it often interesting to think about that several of my friends essentially fought in a Civil War less than a generation ago. The beauty of being stationed with Croatians, is that they love any opportunity for a barbecue and cook out. Thus far we have been able to enjoy with our Croatian brothers a cook out for every Croatian holiday, and surprisingly US holiday since our team arrived.
One problem though with the increased readers of my blog is what should I write about? There are several topics that I have been considering writing about that may make me look like nothing more than a scruffy headed nerf herder. Hopefully any folks who might happen upon my blog won't mind reading some of the random thoughts of a guy occasionally bored while deployed to Afghanistan.