Friday, December 31, 2010

Thanks for the Memories

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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Afghanistan

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

Saturday, December 18, 2010

the month of December thus far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Run This Way!

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