Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for September 2012

The Shadow Army Run

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Today in Ottawa is the Army Run, in its fifth iteration. Across Afghanistan, various camps where Canadians are held “Shadow” runs today, and that’s how I started my Sunday. I for some reason did not sleep particularly well last night, and so I probably hit my snooze button about six times before wandering over to the track (probably the last to arrive, however, that’s something that seems to be my custom lately, particularly for Canadian events that have time changes that don’t always seem to get passed on to me – though that is improving!).

The first run was the 5K, a good turn out, and we stood around and cheered the runners on before it was time to start the 10K. Let it be known that while I’ll run when I have to, it’s by no means my favourite activity. However, the Army Run raises funds for Soldier On and the Military Families Fund, both great causes, and so I of course was happy to make my donation and head out to the run. And because of my trade, I was of course sort of pressganged into the 10K. But I’m glad – it was more of a challenge, right? So off we went, me following the theory of slow and steady wins the race. There’s more than a few gazelles among us, and a couple of them were across the line in just over 41 minutes, a respectable accomplishment, especially 2000 metres above sea level. Me, well, I didn’t finish anywhere near that fast – but the part I’m happy with is that I finished. And it felt pretty good. Enough that I’d do it again. Just not for a couple of days.

So, if you’ve been enjoying my tales and feel like a little retroactive sponsorship, please, feel free to follow the links and donate to those organizations. Or the others I’ve put links to. Or Oxfam. Or whatever you might like. There are literally hundreds of organizations doing good work for military families, for Afghans, for all sorts of people who could use a bit of help around the world. Pick a cause and become a part of it. It’s good for you. Probably in some ways better than this morning’s run was for me.

Written by Nick

September 23, 2012 at 5:51 am

Day 210. Really. And Not Counting Days To Go.

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I have to apologize for not really posting a lot of pictures. There’s a few reasons. OPSEC/PERSEC is the main one – and to be honest, I don’t have that many that are interesting. I can’t publish pictures of anyone here without their consent at the very least, and I’m just not that interested in pursuing it. But if you want to see pictures of anything, well, comment and ask and I’ll see what I can do. The other limiting factor used to be bandwidth – uploading pictures used to take forever, but it seems my ISP has upgraded speeds here quite a bit in the last little while.

It’s Friday, which means a pretty slow day. This is officially “the weekend”, so things slow down a little. I’ve spent a good chunk of it down at the shops on camp, at a little cafe run by a young Afghan named Sam. Fridays they usually have a special on for lunch and dinner, and so today I went to see what it was – today it was kofta qorma – meatballs in a qorma sauce. Simple and tasty, and a nice break from monotonous DFAC food. Sam wasn’t around when I got there, but he turned up a little while later and sat while we chatted over coffee and shisha about his future plans, about Afghan culture, about the world in general. He’s worked on our camp for about four years, and speaks excellent English, as well as some Spanish, and has taken a lot of time and initiative to learn about the culture of the people who come to the camp. He’s one of those Afghans who can tell other people in this country that we’re not what we are sometimes made out to be.

It was sitting there that I started contemplating what going home will mean. I’ve been here for about seven months now, the surroundings feel like home, there’s a community here. We play trivia together some nights. We watch movies together others. We have fitness training together. We live in pretty close confines and that doesn’t leave a lot of room to be unfriendly or not get along. Even people I didn’t especially like when we deployed here, I’ve gotten to know better and get along with a lot better. A while back, during workup training, I wrote about an exchange I had with someone on the way to the range who turned out to outrank me and who wasn’t amused by my comments to him. I then found out he was going to be on the same camp as me, and at first, he was an annoyance on a lot of issues. Fast forward a few months, and he’s one of my workout partners, turns out to be a really decent guy with a good sense of humour, you just have to get to know him a bit. That’s how things go.

In a few short weeks, I’ll have to pack everything I can (hopefully it’ll all fit – otherwise I’ll have to mail stuff) and start the process of going home. That means no more trivia nights at the Brit Club. No more movies with the contractors behind there shacks a couple of nights a week. Everything turns into Facebook contacts to try to keep in touch. I will say, though, that that works pretty well – a lot of the people I work with who’ve gone home do make a point of keeping in touch, and we’re even planning a sort of reunion trip next year.

What’s feeling really weird is that I’m now, technically, an “Afghanistan veteran”. Veteran of what I’m not really sure. I’ve always felt kind of uneasy with that term, even a few years ago when I started dealing with Veterans Affairs about an injury I got in training years ago that continues to cause me problems later in life. Anyhow, the significance of the date crossed my mind today because today I have officially been deployed 210 days, which means I will have earned a rotation bar to my General Campaign Star, the medal I will receive for this deployment.

Getting the GCS itself is a little contentious in some ways. It’s the same medal that is worn by those who were deployed to Kandahar on Op ATHENA. When we shifted to Op ATTENTION there were some who suggested a different medal should apply so “we” wouldn’t be confused with “them”, who were in the thick of the fighting in the south. However, it was dismissed, and with some good reason: most of those people weren’t out at the Sharp End either. And besides, everyone who’s been here knows what they did here, and shouldn’t feel any need to either prove it or justify it to anyone. The way I look at it, the relatively comfortable go we’ve had was made possible because of the work that those who came before us did. What “bling” I have on my uniform is mostly irrelevant.

Still, I expect in some ways it’ll feel awkward amongst friends of mine who were there. I never had to attend a ramp ceremony (on this side, anyhow – I’ve been at Trenton when a good friend was brought home to make the trip down the “Highway of Heroes” in December of 2008. I’ve been lucky here that none of the bad things that can happen have (knock on wood, I’m not gone yet). We’ve had some interesting close calls, but that’s about it. So despite the fact that there are “Afghan Vet” groups out there, I don’t think you’ll see me showing up to one – because I just don’t feel like it’s something I have much right to claim. I came, I did a job, it was nothing all that special I often think.

Written by Nick

September 21, 2012 at 9:57 am

Musings For Which I Have No Title

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It’s been a crazy few days, both in Afghanistan and around the world. This film that some clown in California made has touched off all sorts of nonsense. Last Friday we were all rather anxiously waiting to see what was going to happen after Friday prayers. That’s when religious leaders tend to offer their opinions on what the broader public should do. Fortunately, it seems, they did not endorse violence. In fact several religious leaders were basically saying that Allah would look after it. And Friday night, it turned out, was pretty quiet. There were protests yesterday on the Jalalabad Road on the other side of the city, and while they got violent with burning cars, tires, and so on, they didn’t impact much at all. This morning we learned of a bomb attack on a bus load of contractors, as well. That happened on a road I’ve traveled many times near the airport. It’s lined with wedding halls and often referred to as “The Vegas Strip” because they are brightly lit up at night. Interestingly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a thug who rubbled Kabul extensively with artillery rockets during the civil war) – or rather, his group, Hezb-i Islami (the Army Of Islam) claimed responsibility for the murder of a number of foreign contractors as well as some innocent bystanders. He’s not been involved in any recent attacks, so this is an interesting and strange development.

I’ve been working with the contractors here on writing up reports and answers to RFIs (Requests For Information) for higher formations about what the future holds for the schoolhouse when we leave. I’ll be candid. I have no idea what will happen – but I think there’s some determination among the key ANA people to keep it going, and I’m happy with that. I’m not going to get too wrapped around the axle about it. We came, we did what we could, and hopefully, some of it will stick. There’s a temptation for us to get really really wrapped up in things to the point that we’ll just frustrate ourselves. We have to work on the concept of managed expectations, I suppose. We put the best effort we could into creating the product that we are leaving, and what happens next is beyond my control, so there is no sense in stressing over it.

In better developments, I managed to fit the carpet I bought into my rucksack, and should still have enough room to fit everything else in. If I get stuck, I’ll just mail it – but it’s better to get packed with my stuff. Mail’s taking forever, anyhow.
I’m also planning out my next adventure – a cross-country (or rather, across America) motorcycle trip when I get back, weather and career situation permitting, as part of my decompression plan… lots of nice highways and byways to ride, and I’ve lined up some home-stays with generous hosts that should make it even more interesting.

Written by Nick

September 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

More Scaling Down

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Before I write much else, it seems like someone is really desperate for info on Camp Clark because I get a lot of hits referred by search terms related to it. So let me answer a few of those – with the caveat that I was there for about a week several months ago.

1. It’s hot. Like most of Afghanistan. Not as hot as Helmand or Kandahar, but not as pleasant as Kabul. Look for weather reports from Khost City (sometimes spelled Khowst City), which is very close to it.

2. There is no PX there. At least, there wasn’t. There’s a couple of Afghan shops that should get you what you need, and I got the impression that it wasn’t hard to get to FOB Salerno, which had a pretty big one, though it was destroyed in an attack not long ago. I presume it’s been rebuilt though.

3. It takes a couple of days to get there from Bagram, because by the time you fly to Salerno you’ll have missed the flights for the day. Unless they’re expecting you, anyhow. But when I went, they were expecting us and we still had to wait. By the way, the transient quarters there are terrible, make sure a flashlight and earplugs are handy when you arrive, of course, they should be anyhow.
Hopefully that takes care of all the searchers.
More progress here. I’m now going over all the fun of taking over more of the staff duties since in a very short time I will be the last Coalition advisor at my school, and I’m basically completing the closeout work. Our ANA partners won’t move to their “permanent” home until sometime next year, so I’m trying to get everything in order for them to be able to function well after I’ve gone, which is essentially a matter of trying to ensure they have contacts to get what they need to keep functioning, and finding someone who’ll take a little bit of responsibility for maintaining contact with them. It’s not enough work to justify someone replacing me, but there’s still things that need to happen after I’m gone.

I’m feeling like I have little left to do, but that I’ve accomplished something while I’ve been here. One thing I dreaded the thought of was disrupting my “normal” life to spend time here only to find I was tilting at windmills. I knew that if I expected to change the world, I was in for an unpleasant dose of reality, but if someone was to ask me “did you make any difference over there?” I think I can probably say yes. How enduring it will be I don’t know, no one really knows what will happen here post-2014 when ISAF leaves and the ANSF and GIRoA are expected to go it alone.  Afghans tell us that everyone is getting prepared for what they view as some kind of inevitable fight and fracture of the country – but whether that will happen I’m not totally sure given that there are commitments to continue economic and military aid beyond then. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, they left a government that was stable with its support, it was only when they collapsed and that support withdrew abruptly that the power vacuum that lead to the civil war was formed.

I’m not at the point of counting days, though I could. I know now when (subject to change, which is the only constant in life!) I will leave camp. I know when I’ll get on the flight out of here. I know when my flight is expected to land at Fredericton Airport. I don’t know when or how I’m getting home from there yet, but I know when I should be back in Canada and have a rough idea of when I’ll actually be home. And if things are lined up right, I have a trip plan afterward (which I think I’ll probably use to conclude this blog, as the ideal epilogue).

It’s amazing to think that in an environment where random violence is such a possibility, that things you cannot predict or anticipate can happen and change the world in a split second, that the idea of going home actually is the largest stress factor for a lot of us. I think it particularly hits reservists hard, because we’re not just going back to a nice spot of leave and then back to work with the same unit. I’m going to have to pick up almost immediately where I left off with my day job potentially, and depending on how things settle, I won’t have the time to take any real sort of break, because I’ll need to get working on making deals that will continue my income once I get home and my Army pay stops. That to me is far more stressful than really anything here and it’s what I’ve only just started to have to deal with.

I have ideas in mind of what I’d like to do career-wise, and while I’ve been deployed, suitable jobs have come and gone, now I’m waiting to see what will appears, there’s a few prospects I’m looking at, and that’s something I’m putting a fair bit of time (and a lot of satellite phone minutes) toward as I wrap things up.

This weekend, I’m planning to pack all my gear, doing a substantial initial purge of things I don’t need that I’ve accumulated, just to see how much stuff I can fit and if I have enough room for everything – otherwise, I’m going to have to get some stuff packed up to mail. I’ve discovered that in packing my UAB I sent stuff home I wish I’d mailed, and also, I managed to send two pairs of uniform pants home instead of one shirt and one pair of pants, so I can mail the surplus shirt, and be happy that laundry service turns around quickly. I’ve got all the stuff I have to turn in before leaving that I don’t use regularly sequestered away to make things easier there, and I know what luggage items I’ll have access to when so I can plan that packing accordingly. Not only will this serve the useful purpose of forcing me to clean my room, it’ll actually let me know what is left to do.

And for the next month and a bit, I’ll ponder what on earth I’m going do when I get home.

 

Mandatory 9/11 Post: I’d Rather Forget

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I might have written something about today, but this is better. Remember not only those lost on that horrible day, but the valour of those who raced toward the danger without any regard for their only safety that others may live. And remember that that was one atrocity that touched off many more that have killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Lest we forget… And may we all work hard to make a better world… One worthy of the sacrifices and the misery.

Written by Nick

September 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

What Are You Doing When You Get Home, Anyhow?

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That’s becoming a pretty common question around here as we all plan to go our separate ways – there’s a lot of organizations rotating or leaving over the coming months and everyone’s mind is inevitably turning toward home. For the Regular Force guys, it’s not that complicated. Go on leave (quite a lot of it, actually), then return to work. It’ll soon be posting season and they’re all waiting to see what will come next. Some will be going on career courses. Some will be taking new jobs within their units. Some are getting out of the military and moving on to other things. One of our drivers who recently left us got accepted to school to become a paramedic and will be starting that when he gets back and ends his military career. Reservists, regardless of what country, tend to have a different set of parameters. Some, like my friend Chris who I met up with in Prague, just decided to spend some time traveling and will then figure out what to do next. Some will go immediately back to the civilian job they had previously. Some have full-time Reserve jobs to go back to once their leave period is up.

As for me… well… I have a civilian job to go back to. I’m going to take some time off while I’m on my post-deployment leave, but I’ll reintegrate into what some people jokingly call the “real world”, but I’m looking to see what else is available within the organization I work for because I’m not sure what I was doing before is what I want to do next. To my good fortune, it’s a big company, and there should be some great opportunities. I think I have a better idea of what I want to do than I did before. We’ve also started making some plans for my wife to continue her education a bit – a worthy investment, I think. If I’m going to drop a bunch of money to buy a new motorcycle when I get home, I can’t really not spend some money on her career prospects, right?

So, the bike. That’s the first plan. With 9D’s permission (always critical), I’m planning to pick it up as soon as I return, and after a short stay at home, head south. My parents winter in Arizona and will likely have already left town so I’m going to go visit them. I’ve been planning out the route and number of riding days, along with some stops along the way to see some people. I can’t really cast anything in stone because it’s all going to depend on making a call about the weather. Late October/early November might not work. Last year I put my bike into storage on October 22 just before I left for Gagetown, and the ride to Mahone Bay was pretty chilly – though a week later it was nice and warm and bikes were still out everywhere. In fact, if I remember right, people were still riding on New Years Day in Halifax.

If it looks good, my plan is to get as far south as I can as fast as I can, to Washington DC for a day and then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and into North Carolina where one of my colleagues here who’s since departed lives. From there I’ll head to the Tail Of The Dragon across the Great Smoky Mountains (if the weather is good), into the Knoxville area, and then on into Arkansas, Texas (with a day off in San Antonio, I’m going to need it by then I’m sure), New Mexico, and finally Arizona for a week or so before I fly home.

Here’s hoping I have the frequent flyer points for a ticket home. I’m going to leave the bike in Arizona for the winter and return for it in the spring to ride back along a different route.

I’m reading through the awesome blog North American Circle to get ideas on routes and see how he found it went. He did it as a fundraiser. I’d love to do something like that too – but it’s not really original now. I’m hoping, however, that I can couchsurf lots of places to stay so I won’t have much to pay for but fuel. And I also hope my VStrom is a little more reliable than his BMW apparently was! The blog is full of good stories though, of the people me met and how people helped along the way, the kind of stuff that lets you thing that indeed people are generally good and worthy, which gets hard at times. I’m finding that there are a lot of couchsurfers in some places along the way that should be a help and I’m already starting to get in touch with them. The detail obsessed part of me is looking through Google maps and plotting distances, time, and routes. For the early days it’ll be all business on major highways until I’m far enough south that I can slow down a little and not worry about weather as much. Early November will still be sketchy in a few places.

I’ll get back from that in late November and have to see what comes of the rest. I know there’s lots of opportunities and options and so on. It’s amazing to think, however, that I’m probably more anxious about going back to work outside the army than I have been about really anything here – even that first convoy ride when I had no idea what was going on.

The Hundredth Post

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According to WordPress, this will be the 100th post I’ve put up here – but that does include the stuff I’ve reposted from other blogs. Nevertheless it’s an idea number having passed a bit of a milestone. Yesterday we held a small ceremony to mark the official transfer of responsibility for our institution to the Afghans. Normally, this is known as “1-Alpha” – or more formally, “Capability Milestone 1A”, the end of a series of milestones determined by what the ANA has gained the ability to do on their own.

However, we can’t officially declare CM1A just yet on a technicality, because the permanent location for the organization isn’t ready yet. They’re occupying a temporary facility while the Afghan National Defence University is being constructed at Qargha, just west of Kabul. So, while their NTM-A advisors are being withdrawn (I will officially be the last one), I’m charged with preparing some “handover notes” I can give to some people who will be in a position to lend support during the interim period, as our ANA friends do still have some logistical challenges of a nature probably too complex to get into here.

Essentially, my job’s almost done in the sense that I’m here for not much longer to make some final connections for our partners, and to do up some nice public affairs stuff about what we’ve accomplished. And to prepare for the trip home.

Fittingly enough that’s underway. I’ve packed up my UAB, which made me try to figure out what I wanted to keep here and what I was okay with sending home – I think I’ve gotten my stock down to the point that I won’t be stuck trying to pack everything into bags that are too small. I’ve started to segregate the stuff I have to return before I leave – or rather, to find the stuff I was issued, but don’t use, and pack it in one place so I’m not scrambling for it. Most of what I sent home was of the same nature – stuff I needed when I got here and it was 20 below zero, for example.

It’s going to be a long few weeks until I leave, I fear – but we’re all working on things to fill the time – professional development stuff, finishing off courses, looking at courses to do, I might even try to do one last shot of PD for the ANA instructors, if I can get interpreters. Ours have all been released back to the company that supplies them to get new jobs.

I’m also planning things for when I get home – doing route planning for a long motorcycle trip that I’m going to try to squeeze in before winter. Basically, heading all the way down to Arizona where my parents spent the winter. They’ll likely have left before I get home, but the plan is to head there, leave my bike there for the winter, stay a few days, and fly home, then get on with the business of returning to work. But I’m still having to research things like the weather – because that obviously will come into play at the early stages. I really want it to be possible, but we’ll see.

Written by Nick

September 4, 2012 at 9:35 am

And Then There Were Three…

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We said goodbye to the last Americans on our team last night, and our rapidly dwindling team is now just three – dropping to two shortly, and finally, it’ll just be me for a few weeks until it’s time to go home… This is a good thing though, it’s part of how things are supposed to go. While our Afghan counterparts haven’t moved into their final home and that won’t happen for a few months yet, they are functioning (more or less) independent of a great deal of mentor support. They’re running their own courses without our resources. They’re sending out training teams. They seem to be carrying out the administrative requirements necessary for the operation of the school. In short, we’ve worked our way out of jobs.

Next week we’ll hold a small ceremony to officially commemorate the transition of authority, which entails me making what may be my last mentor meeting trip to the school to coordinate, and my last job will be making sure the necessary linkages are in place for them to draw the support they need from the Afghan supply system so that things function. There was talk about me having a handover to someone who’s coming on the next rotation, but I don’t think that will happen, and there’s not going to be enough to justify a job for someone for a whole tour – rather I think the better plan is to make sure that the advisor team at the higher formation our guys belong to know who we worked with and they have a way to get in touch if they need to.

It’s going to be a very quiet few weeks for me I suspect – I’m going to be moving into a new building with the contractors we have, and I think probably doing a fair bit of reading and possibly contributing to some new doctrine work. And I’ve got some PA products to put together and other little things before it’s all finally done. I’m trying not to start counting the days until I get home.

Written by Nick

September 1, 2012 at 12:57 am