Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for October 2012

At Last, Home

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We landed Fredericton in the early evening on a bright, sunny day, with fall colours still very much in evidence, and started doing what we do best – hurrying up and waiting. Starting in line to pass through the customs. While it was a slow process standing around, it was a fairly smooth process. I somehow managed to actually pick up all my gear and drag it to waiting trucks which took us back to Gagetown and the LAV Barn where a well-organized DAG awaited us. The only thing they really did wrong was not having food and water laid on for us, though I think that was probably changed for the next chalk that came through. We then formed up and marched through the connecting hall into the Battalion building where families were awaiting their loved ones as soon as we were dismissed. I said goodbye to a number of people who were getting set to leave, and then we played Kit Tetris shoving four people’s gear into a van the came from Halifax to pick us up, and at 1am I was met by my wife and my unit Adjutant in Halifax… and headed straight to bed.

My first order of business Monday was heading to pick up my new motorcycle. My plan was to get it broken in and head straight to Arizona. I wasn’t quite so lucky, unfortunately, because Hurricane Sandy put quite a damper on things. But I’ll come to that later. Maybe.

Getting on a motorcycle again was probably the greatest feeling of getting home – besides, of course, the hug I got on seeing my wife for the first time in months, and sleeping in my own bed again. There’s something about it, and having such a wonderful day to be out, that made things perfect. We stopped on the way home at one of my favourite cafes for lunch as well. Monday night ended pretty early, I was exhausted by about 9pm and went to bed, only to wake up very early, which was good as I had an interview for a job on Tuesday. I took advantage of the time to ride out to Peggy’s Cove as the sun rose. I’d never been there in the fall that early in the morning and I can say that it’s absolutely breathtaking, so much that I got home much later than I planned and was forced to scramble a little to make the interview timing. It went well, though, and I’m waiting to hear but I think I know what I’m going to be doing as far as a civilian job now.

Tuesday I’d hoped to go play trivia at one of the pubs in town as I did before going away, but again, I pretty much collapsed in the early evening.

Wednesday to Friday were three half-days at the unit, basically, to get some of my claims paperwork finished, to get the lay of the land on what’s going on with the unit, to catch up with everyone, and to vent some war stories with people who actually understand them. The one thing that can happen to people coming back is having a bundle of stories to share but no one who cares to hear them – or worse, to want to talk but not be able to because they’re not for public consumption. It’s funny, one thing that came up constantly is “deployments are addictive”, and that’s actually quite true. The other truism was that it’s important to actually have some space before you go back to work… That said, I’m feeling pretty bored and frustrated waiting for clarity on my job situation and just having nothing really to do.

I went up to see my folks for dinner as well, before they left for their winter home. Nice to get some time with them before they leave.

I had planned to set off for Arizona Saturday, but with Sandy rolling in, it just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I decided to ride to New Brunswick to meet some friends, and then to Prince Edward Island, a long weekend as it were. I didn’t even get that lucky, because the storm sped up and I had to hightail it back to Nova Scotia. I stashed my bike at my parents’ house in their garage, and I’ll either pull it out for some more rides, or grudgingly accept that winter is here and it’s got to get stored until next season. I guess we’ll see. I keep reworking plans to try to leave a week later, but of course, I can’t really seriously believe it will be possible.

Being home is strange – as expected. It’s a combination of feelings – of awkwardness, not fitting into things, of just not being sure what to do with myself – that’s going on now. All what I expected. If the trip had gone off, I think it probably would have helped, but that’s how things go, isn’t it? We’ll see over the coming weeks how things smooth out, but I expect they’ll be fine. In January I’ll be off leave and I’ll return to my unit, wearing a green uniform, and being a Class A Reservist again. And in a few weeks, I’ll be wearing a suit again and back to working like a regular civilian again.  We’ll see.

Oh, and in a positive development, it seems my wife’s cats like my Afghan carpet, and don’t have any inclination to scratch at it – which means, I think I’ll get a hold of my friends still over there and see about getting another one sent over. I was regretting not getting another one, might as well sort that out.

Written by Nick

October 31, 2012 at 8:01 pm

The Long Journey Home

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Another post from an aircraft. This time an RCAF CC-150 Polaris, or Airbus 310 in the rest of the world, our “strategic airlift”. The actual plane we are on is the one used by the Prime Minister for official travel, so it has a lounge and office area up front while us plebes are jammed in the back. It’s not uncomfortable though. We were up early this morning at the resort where we did our decompression to get cleared out and to the airport. Being the first group to leave it didn’t go totally smoothly, but we managed to leave almost on schedule, and the flight crew is over the opinion that between the stop on the way and good flying conditions they will still get us home at the planned time. This works for me.

The better news is that instead of staying overnight in Gagetown, we apparently will have transport laid on to take us to Halifax tonight, which means I will be in my own bed tonight, when I post this most likely unless the airport we stop at has wifi.

Decompression was excellent. I wanted to skip it and just go straight home, but it turns out that it was worth it. On landing in Cyprus we were whisked off by bus to the resort and ushered into a large reception hall to get the lowdown on how things worked, what the rules were and what was happening. It’s weird to get a brief where it’s stressed that the main role of the military police contingent is to keep you out of trouble rather than making it. They actually stayed downtown, and kept an eye on people, brining back those who’d had enough fun, and rounding up those who were in danger of straying into the many places in Cyprus that are best avoided. It was fitting for them, a proper interpretation of their radio arm identifier: Watchdog.

We started in on the mandatory mental health and reintegration briefings almost immediately, with just a bit of time to change clothes, shower, and grab lunch. Great plan, because we were thus done the morning of day two. The first night, we had a good dinner, and booze flowed liberally, helped in part by some €1400 ponied up by everyone from my camp who had been promoted during the tour. People got thrown in pools, there was some roughhousing and so on, but all under the watchful eye of the TLD staff. This was part of the process, after all. Better to have people vent and hit the bottle in a relatively controlled environment where you can figure out who needs more attention. I went to bed relatively early and other than a minor bit of trouble when my roommate finally came back, I slept well. I’ll spare you any details.

Day two, up early for an awesome breakfast and the second session we had to attend, then it was off to go karting, or as the hilarious women who worked with TLD called it, “drinking & driving”. My first heat was good, the second less so. Good times though. We had a whole range of options for things to do organized by PSP. When I came back I spent most of the afternoon in the pool.

Day three I took easy, just strolled around, read my book poolside, didn’t do much, as I probably needed a bit of a recovery. I did have an amazing dinner though with one of the other Captains, and our LCA, a hot stone grilling joint with all sorts of meats to cook up, finished with nice desserts, Cypriot coffee, and cigars.

Day four I went to Limassol, Kourion, and Omados, a little village in the mountains. Ate some food, drank some wine, took some pictures, slept on the bus back.

Our final day – an extra bonus due to something with Air Force schedules, I went to visit the Tombs Of The Kings, forgetting my extra camera batteries, and thus grateful I had my iPad with the guide to the site on it to get some pictures. When I got back, thoroughly sunfucked after being oblivious to the 38°C temperature and humidex much higher, I packed all my kit up and went off for Thai for dinner before an early night as we were up at 5 this morning to head out. Which brings me to the present.

So, what the hell am I going to do tomorrow? I’ll actually be home. It’ll be strange. Step one is arrange insurance for my motorcycle and go pick it up after taking a leisurely drive down the south shore of Nova Scotia I think. My wife wanted to know if I wanted anything special for dinner and I think was frustrated by me saying I didn’t, or couldn’t think of anything. Maybe some yoga, I’m anxious to see how bad my flexibility has suffered, even if I’m fitter than when I left generally.

The reality of it is, there isn’t anything special I want to do when I get home, other than just be there for a while and just relax. And unpack, I’ll have to do that. That will entail trying to get rid of as much of my operational kit as fast as I can, I have enough army stuff as it is around. I’ll need to find a green uniform to wear this week to work, because I have to go in for three half days before I go on leave.

I also have a job interview on Tuesday, an internal posting which interests me greatly. It’s some kind of panel interview via telepresence, so it could only run that day, I had to warn them off that I’ll likely be all sorts of jet lagged, hopefully it won’t be a negative impact! The job picks up on training and development skills I got from the army but have never really been able to leverage in my civilian job before now. Should be interesting. It requires a move, which is not ideal, but that is life.

I can only think of the adjustment period I had when I arrived in Kabul, I’m sure it’ll be more or less the same coming back. It wasn’t hard then, shouldn’t be now. I’m resolved not to stress much about anything that does not really matter, which is nearly everything. I think my wife’s actually more stressed out, which is normal – about having the place cleaned up, not having me turn up annoyed about anything like that, and so on. I can’t see that being a big problem, I doubt I’ll notice by the time I get in the door anyhow, I suspect it’ll be straight to bed as I figure I’ll have been mostly awake for 24 hours by the point I get home. And tomorrow, I’ll wake up just happy to be home.

Flying back we did the post-deployment overall survey. I can’t remember the name of it, HDO is the acronym, but we did one before leaving about how well prepared we felt, how suitable our work up training was, what we experienced in terms of stress, how we are feeling and so on. Part if it is assessing the job you did and how you felt about the mission. Hard to answer to be honest. Another part was mainly about leadership, my answers less relevant since my leaders weren’t Canadian once I got in theatre, except for the administrative connection back to Canada, and I can’t really assess that.

I’ll write more a post review later, but for now, I’ll say it was hard to answer. Like many surveys, they asked the question in numerous forms to try to get a more accurate assessment. I’m not even sure how my aggregate rating would read.

Written by Nick

October 21, 2012 at 9:05 pm

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On The Way Out

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Today’s post comes from a jump seat on a CC-177 Globemaster (why Canada doesn’t just call them C-17s is beyond me), somewhere in the air on the way to Paphos, Cyprus. We are headed to the Third Location Decompression Centre, which is basically a pretty nice hotel/resort on the Mediterranean Sea where we will stop for a few days before returning to Canada. Getting out of Kabul was relatively painless, and pretty well organized. We got into the airport with time for last minute shopping for those who needed to, and went through the process of getting cleared to fly, which was mainly traffic techs inspecting our luggage and palletizing it to be loaded onto the C-17. After that we sat in the terminal before heading out to the aircraft which was rather amazingly early.

The cargo pallets were loaded, which was funny to watch from my seat, because the loadmasters, after shoving and heaving a massive pallet with about 50 rucksacks on it realized that they had not flipped over the floorboards to the rollers, and were heaving against an anti-slip surface (basically, grip tape like you’d find on a skateboard). “Did we really just do this?”, one of them quipped. “Yeah, we did.”

Lesson learned: when flying on a C-17 when it’s cold, don’t sit toward the rear, especially if you sent all your warm kit home. Turns out it doesn’t heat that evenly, and the rear section actually exposes you to cold air being blown on you. That, my shivering mass discovered on the first leg of the flight, is suboptimal. Fortunately after a refueling stop, a crew change, and breakfast, it has warmed up enough that it’s more comfortable back here. Other than the seats, which are just jump seats and not something I’d want to spend more than a few hours in.

So, what’s TLD all about? Well, basically, the idea is to get us out of theatre, but somewhere not yet home to do some of our screening. So, it’s briefings from mental health folks, classes on reintegration and so on, and a chance to unwind. We get an allowance while deployed that can go toward a variety of excursions, so assuming I’m still conscious this afternoon, I’m going to go on a winery tour that includes dinner. My other plans involve checking out some of the historical sites (Greek and Roman) on the island, maybe renting a motorcycle to explore more.

After a bit of time at TLD we’ll head for home, back to Gagetown at first and then on to Halifax for me, where I’ll have a few days of work and administration before my post-deployment leave begins. During that time I’ll figure out what my way forward with my civilian employer is. While I’m on leave from the army for quite a while, I’ll likely start back to work fairly soon, because other than the trip I’ve gone on about before a few times, I don’t have any other plans, and the idea of sitting around the house for days on end – especially in November/December – does not really appeal to me. One of the prospects for a job is actually quite interesting. Building on the experience I’ve built up in the army both at home and on tour, it’s a training gig, training people in the last two jobs I held. Seems like a perfect, rather natural fit.

Beyond that, it’s simple things I’m most looking forward to. Being able to cook my own meals. You’ll never really appreciate actual silverware until you’ve not touched it for most of eight months, we noticed over a very civilized breakfast. I’m looking forward to non-DFAC and non-Afghan cafe meals. To beer and scotch, in moderation of course. To not being confined to a compound you can walk the perimeter of in ten minutes. To my bed. To seeing my wife. I only didn’t mention that first because it really is simple things that first come to mind oddly enough.

The strange thing to consider is that the people I’ve spent the last eight months with are all dispersed now, all over the world. We have plans to try to arrange a reunion of sorts next year, and I hope it happens, but it’s bizarre. And some I have no idea if I’ll ever see again… Afghans I worked with – both the staff of the school, but also Habib and Mustafa, who ran the shop that could get damned near anything, and Hassan and Samad, who ran the cafe where I spent most of my off time on rich conversation over chai, coffee, and meals. And our interpreters, who made my stay much more comfortable and interesting. They all have plans to emigrate at the earliest opportunity fearing reprisals should GIRoA not get a grip on security. What that will mean I don’t know – they have lofty ideas of going abroad, but the reality is that most of them lack much education and the prospects for them outside Afghanistan are not what I’d call outstanding. There’s the broader consideration of the impact of multilingual, well-educated Afghans fleeing as ISAF leaves, and how that will disrupt development. These people are our best ambassadors, because they came to know us, and understand that we aren’t the kind of monsters or crusaders that the Taliban and other groups want Afghans to believe we are.

And then I start to ponder the future of Afghanistan more broadly. As I felt our aircraft leave the ground and the landing gear retract, I had to wonder if I’d set foot on Afghan soil again, and under what circumstances. I’d like to return, not as a soldier, not carrying a weapon, and not confined to a compound ringed with Hesco Bastion and totally disconnected from the surrounding country. I’d like to go back and walk the markets in Kabul, to visit the lake at Qargha, to go to Bamiyan where the Buddhas stood and to Band-e Amir’s lakes. I want to visit other cities too, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, homes of exquisite architecture and yet more history. Any thought of the future of Afghanistan is rooted in the hope that before too long I’ll be able to go back to see the country for real, not through the prism of force protection and war.

I suspect that many on this plane – and waiting to leave – and who’ve been and returned – have similar pondering about what they accomplished. In a lot of cases it’s hard not to be cynical, really, because in a lot of cases progress was hard to see, and some of the things people have seen make the future look rather bleak. However, what we have set out to accomplish is a monumental task, and expecting to see results in a few months is not realistic. Only a long view will let us really assess whether we managed to make a significant difference. As I leave, I accept that there may have been things I could have done better, but I think I did a pretty good job, and it is really only hindsight that makes me wonder otherwise.

The World’s Most Hellish Easter Egg Hunt

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When I whined about how much of an annoying process getting out of here is on Facebook, a friend of mine described outclearing as “The World’s Most Hellish Easter Egg Hunt”, and so I naturally stole that as a title for this post. Yesterday I left my home for the last few months and headed to another camp, which is where most of the Canadian staff are based, to start the process of leaving the country. Much as when we were getting set to leave Canada, we have PRV checklists to get signed off by all sorts of people, briefings to attend, kit to return, and all sorts of tedium in order to be ready to get out of here.

So I’m back in the K-Span in which I spent my first day or so in Afghanistan. A massive building full of uncomfortable bunk beds and people coming and going constantly. And I arrived early so I have more time than some to spend here. The prize, I must remember, is that before very long I will travel to the airport and then onto a plane out of Afghanistan. This tedious running around getting signatures and ditching kit and so on is just the price of that.

Packing was a load of fun. I doubt I could have fit much more into my bags, and this morning, it dawned on me that I have to rearrange them because when I get to decompression, I’ll only have access to one of them – my barrack box, and the carry on bag I have for the flight. And I didn’t have my shoes in there. So I’ll shift around stuff. I have one extra bag stashed that I’ll use if I have to, so it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t all go back together the way I expected.

In the meantime I’ve finished up my road trip plan mostly, and gotten some of the other things I was worried about taken care of, I only need to hope that the weather is all good, and then it’ll be fine. The job picture for when I get is looking good too, I have a pretty good idea of what might happen, so I can’t complain about anything right now except for being bored and not sleeping well in this building.

Last minute souvenirs and possibly a carpet for a friend of mine are all I have to get done now, so really, it’s all done here. In fact, I think this will likely be the last post I put up from Afghanistan, and just about the end of the blog. I will add some stuff about the “epilogue”, but that’s really probably all I’ll do with it. Amazing to think that it was just less than a year ago that I first headed to Gagetown to start the journey, and now it’s almost done.

Written by Nick

October 13, 2012 at 5:02 am

Last Week In Camp

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Less than a week remains for me here now, before I start the long(ish) trek home.

It seems very strange, despite the fact that there is nothing really left to do. I went up to visit the Afghans I work with this weekend for the first time in a while, because I hadn’t been able to without an interpreter and security people to come with me. I was in the company of some Turkish officers from the Afghan National Defence University who are tasked with getting them to their final destination next year. I’m going to try to make one more trip up before I go, but for now, I’m basically marking time until it is done. There’s just nothing left  can do.

The trip home will be, to an extent, long and quite possibly frustrating – but that’s “endex” for anything – when you finish a course or whatever else there’s always a couple of days or administration that isn’t really any fun. We have gotten something of a headstart on it at least, with processing things like claims for allowances and so on. For example, get a $75/month allowance toward communications, basically. That works out pretty well, because internet service here costs $20/week. With the times I’ve been away from this camp, I didn’t actually have enough left over scratch cards for that, but I did have the receipts for my cell phone top ups, which allowed me to get the maximum claim back. We also get an allowance toward “morale/welfare expenses”, I think that’s what it’s called – basically, a couple of bucks a day for coffee, restaurant meals, massages, whatever else. For most people it is what they use to claim expenses for resort excursions when we go on Third Location Decompression – the stop on the way home, essentially. I had enough receipts to claim most of my allowance already, so I won’t have to wait for it when I get back home, which is nice.

Clerks also came by to help us understand what happens with our pay when we get home – because all the allowances we get here obviously stop, and we return to paying taxes on our income. I think I’ve wrapped my head around the balance in my pay account that I get to send home, or something remotely close to it. I am mainly concerned about having enough cash on hand to pay for my motorcycle when I get back. I’ll be able to check in on this some more when I get to the place where we start the process of clearing out.

Next major undertaking is to pack. I think I’ll have more than enough space, because I sent so much stuff home when I had the opportunity a few weeks ago. I’ve separated out all the stuff I have to turn in before I leave theatre to make it easier, in a nice big bag that I got from the Americans I taught at Bagram. I still have a few things I need to pick up before I go, too, but they’re mainly small and simple souvenirs, nothing that will really put me out. I’m leaving some things here for the next guy coming in too – things that will be of use to him, but of none to me. And I’ll sell my coffee maker to someone in the next day or two. Or give it away, whatever. It’s not as though I need to make anything off it. It just needs to get to a good home.

My last stress factor is about jobs when I get back – and that’s improving too. Recently an internal posting with my civilian employer appeared that I could almost swear was written for me. It has one major drawback – the position is based in Toronto – about the last place I’d want to go. Been there, done that, didn’t really like it. I grew up there more or less, and I find that living in the Maritimes agrees with me much more. That said, I have to think bigger than that. Really, the biggest annoyance is the suburban sprawl and utter lack of ability to drive out into the countryside easily, or to beaches, or whatever. That’s the great thing about Halifax I’m looking forward to getting home to – being ten minutes from downtown, but out into the country almost as quick.

I guess we’ll see what happens. I have the option to return to what I was doing before I went on this adventure, but that isn’t nearly as appealing to me at this point.

I have to wonder what it’s going to be like to be at home for the first time in eight months – it will be almost eight months to the day from when I walked out my front door to when I’ll walk back through it. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal, but it’s going to feel awkward. It’s also going to be strange to go back to a work environment where taking off for an hour mid-afternoon for PT isn’t the norm. Reintegrating with that sort of lifestyle will be strange. I remember when I finished me infantry officer training, when I spent most of the final days in the field in full battle rattle, I was happy not to have to wear that for a while – until the first day back to work when I had to wear a tie, and I just couldn’t get used to it… I guess there are always transition issues, right?

Written by Nick

October 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

Into The Last Month

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It’s actually less than that, because I will be home before October is done – I have very little time left here, actually. It’s just as well, I suppose. While I’d love to stay longer if I had a productive role, my job is basically done, and it’s time to go.

We ended September in a fitting way, with an early morning photograph of the Canadian contingent here to start it off. Rather amusingly, after the whole camp contingent got a picture, the two main organizations then split off to do their own – then there was me, because I’m the last man in mine. Not a big deal, it’s not like I like being photographed in the first place in general.

Later on in the day, some high priced help arrived for our medals parade. Anyone who serves 30 cumulative days in theatre is awarded the General Campaign Star – South West Asia. Beyond that a series of bars recognize subsequent lengths of time. At the time the medals were ordered, we were not over the required 210 days to have our rotation bars awarded as well, but I will get mine when I get home, it’s apparently already being delivered to my unit to be presented to me, possibly to coincide with my Canadian Forces Decoration (CD) (a long service medal, marking 12 years of service in the CF – which I’ll be due for in January). I think that’s probably wishful thinking because most CDs aren’t awarded until long after the milestone, but who knows.

So in preparation we were sized (the process for forming up a parade so that it looks “even”) – but eight months of doing no drill meant that it was more of a gong show than anything precise looking. It was good for a laugh, and went to the lecture hall on camp, when the Task Force Commander, his Sergeant Major, and the Deputy Commander and his Sergeant Major arrived. They got right on to business, stopping to chat with us as they presented us our medals about how things had gone, what we were going back to, and so on. It was nothing particularly major.

Then, however, something unexpected happened. There were two Task Force Commander Commendations to be presented, the first went to an NCO here who distinguished himself during an incident that happened a few months ago, well deserved. The second… was me. I was caught totally by surprise.

The organization I worked for was American run. It has long been a source of laughs to us the sheer number of awards handed out by the United States Military. Canadians get awards for doing exceptional things, generally. Americans, it often seems, get something for showing up. However, I was made aware that the staff of the unit had put forward our names for awards. We were led to believe, however, that since Canada does not – how did they put this in the TSO I read – accept awards simply for doing your job, they were turned off by the Honours & Awards Committee. I thought nothing of it. What actually happened, through means I’m not familiar with, is that my US award nomination was turned into a TF Comd Commendation. It’s a pretty neat recognition I suppose, something only about 10% of the Task Force got.

As is the custom, I got handshakes and congratulations immediately after, as we headed off to a barbecue prepared by Khan, our amazing Language & Cultural Advisor. And, as is the custom, it was less than 24 hours before that turned into a fair bit of ribbing. But all in good fun. Being a little proud of it, I shared a picture of the presentation and the wording of the citation on Facebook – which elicited a tirade from the other Canadians here this morning. Later in the day, I got tasked to deliver an ethics brief for everyone, which was humoured as “my effort to get another commendation”. I smirked and asked if I got three TF Comd ones, could I trade them up for the next level up, which comes with some bling? Like how it works at a fair on the midway? That’s how things generally work though, we get a bit of a laugh at anything we can. At the end of the day, I got a bit of recognition for what I did, and that’s pretty cool.

The next couple of weeks, I’ll start packing up, organizing things like my claims package to get all the reimbursements I can get, and so on. And I’ve got some idea of what’s going on with work, which is making me quite happy, I think everything will come together nicely. There’s very little else I can do for now, really. Things are really winding down, and I can’t believe it’s flown by as it has.