Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for the ‘Homecoming’ Category

End Of Mission

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Today, March 12, 2014, marks the end of Operation ATTENTION and the end of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan.

One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers are listed on the official casualty rolls, as well as a journalist, a diplomat, and two civilian contractors. One was a close friend. One was an NCO who inspired me as a young officer by his example of leadership. One was a friend to many soldiers I had the privilege and honour of leading later in my career. One was the best friend of another of my soldiers who is now finally finding a footing in his own life after his deployment. One was such a close friend of staff on one of my officer development courses that we had to shut down training briefly when the news reached us.

They all enjoy something of an immortality that few can imagine though. Stories are told of them years later, they have become their own sort of legends. Some have had ships and buildings named after them, some will just remain the subject of stories and regimental lore for years to come. Today, I honour them all – those who set off from their homes to try to do something good in the world, something for which they were willing to make such sacrifice. I am proud to have stood in the shadows of such men and women, to have worn the same uniform as them. I will long tell the stories of those I know.

Others came home wounded, including my first Platoon 2IC who also played a formative role in my military career. What he survived was a case of dumb luck as much anything. Some have visible scars of physical wounds. Some have invisible scars and are still finding their way. They will, with time.

I will leave it to historians to assess the outcomes of our efforts there, but I am proud to have been one of those who served there. For all the cynicism I had about what we were doing and whether it would really made a difference, I learned much there and came to respect and admire the resilience of the Afghan people. While much of their culture and view of the world remains a mystery to me, there I met a great many Afghans who were proud, decent people seeking to build a future for their country. If anything that we did there helped them to do a better job of it, then we have done something noble.

The truth is, I do not see how we could have done any different. I would be far more uncomfortable with the idea that we didn’t do anything when a failed state harboured an evil so vile as Al Qaeda. I will always be skeptical of the trumpets of war and the calls to arms, as I was when the United States invaded Iraq. I will always view war as the greatest of human failings, but at the same time I will always remember that sometimes things must be fought for and over.

Years ago, I was an instructor on a leadership course for junior NCOs. We made them memorize a particular quote from John Stuart Mill. Notably, this coincided with the move of Canadian troops from Kabul to Kandahar, into the hornet’s nest as it were. Here is the quote:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”

The bold part is the most commonly cited part of the quote, but the whole passage actually gives it more context.

I’m not much of a nationalist, in fact, history teaches us that nationalism is a pernicious force in some cases, but at the same time I can say that having served in a place such as Afghanistan, I have come away with a tremendous appreciation for the good fortune I have to have been born and grown up in Canada. My own travels outside of this country give me a great respect for other cultures as well, but what I realized finally after seeing Afghanistan is that virtually everything people want to complain about here is so unbelievably trivial and pointless.

I have now been home for almost a year and a half – in fact not long ago I passed the two year mark from the day I got in the plane. I’ve gone into a new line of work which is going well, and generally returned to a normal life – but some days I actually miss being “over there”, even though rereading this blog and the more detailed journal I kept of the experience reminds me that especially toward the end I was insatiably bored and frustrated with progress, that the memories that stick out in my mind weren’t what it was always like. I’m less likely to slip into “war stories” now, more interested in hearing about how others are doing with being home.

In the summer of 2001, as an Officer Cadet, I sat in the theatre at the Infantry School and listened to our instructors tell us how much better we had it joining up at that time. All they ever had as deployment opportunities was Cyprus, Cyprus, Cyprus, they told us. Now there was Bosnia, and a smattering of other missions. It was all going to be so exciting. Then came the British exchange officer who presided over the course, a presentation I won’t soon forget. It started rather jovially, with a presentation interspersed with clips of Blackadder Goes Forth and so on. Then Major Geoff Weighell, a man I recall as being eight feet tall and as hard as Chinese algebra, switched to a much more direct, blunt, real assessment of the job, his account of serving in the Falkland Islands War.

None of us really thought much about Afghanistan. I had read about the Soviet experience there, and a university politics class I took included an excerpt of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad Vs McWorld in a reading package, and it touched on tribalized societies like Afghanistan. None of us knew then what was to come that fall or how it would change things for the whole. Will we now say to new soldiers that at least they have more to look forward to than Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan?

As a last point, I want to touch on something that’s been a good discussion point amongst us.

Much is being made in the press of recent suicides and the mental health cost of Afghanistan. While it is undeniable that an appreciable percentage of personnel who served in Afghanistan (20% or so, I’ve heard) suffer from PTSD/OSI in some form. A spate of suicides has also made news.

What I want to highlight is that these aren’t the norm. It doesn’t really help those coming out the military to get settled into a new civilian career to have people assume that they might be somehow broken, when the reality is that most are in fact fine. Most come home, and go through some period of awkward adjustment and acclimatization, but then are back to normal, productive, great lives. Even those who have come away with some scars often make successful recoveries and transitions. What these stories in the media do is create a stigma that isn’t accurate or reflective of reality. It doesn’t help us at all. It doesn’t set good conditions for us to move on with the rest of our lives.

A good read on the subject is here.

As the Afghanistan mission ends, so does mine. I’ve told the story as best I can, as I saw it. And despite the fact that the last few posts to this blog all suggest that they will end it all, I really intend to stick with it this time.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for paying attention. Thank you for persuading me to keep writing.

How Things Turn Out

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I haven’t even hardly looked at stats for this blog lately, though I notice it keeps getting hits, a few here and there, for the odd search term that turns up, or whatever else. People come, read a page or two, and leave. Such is the Internet. I didn’t write this with much regard to that, otherwise I would have promoted it a lot more than I have. And frankly, it’s as much a reminder of stories for me as anything. Even the ones I can’t tell, there are cues salted throughout the posts which remind me of them, which keep them relatively clear in my mind.

What leads me to post again is a sequence of events that directly relate to this story. And I also want to circle back on something I wrote about last year that’s come into focus again. But I’ll get to that later.

When I started this blog, just after learning I was headed to Afghanistan, I shared it with my coworkers and was part of an internal promotion about their policies about hiring military/ex-military folks. This turned into more than I expected it to be and I wound up being part of big press push, which did actually shock me because I didn’t know about the scale of it until some people pointed it out to me.

So, a couple of weeks ago, sitting at home on my couch fiddling around with my iPad I get a note through Facebook from a name I don’t recognize. A friend of a friend, it turns out, who somehow stumbled upon the story that I was featured in which also covered veterans transitioning out of the military and into civilian employment. He searched for me on Facebook and found me based on the mutual friend. This man’s story is one I have heard before. He’s spent most of his adult life as an infantry soldier, and the years of physically intense work have finally taken their toll. His body can’t do it anymore, and so he’s about to be released on a medical category.

He tells me he would be in my debt if I could help him figure out how to find a job in the financial services industry because he thinks he would be good at it – he has the people skills that are the key to sales – the special sauce that you can’t teach people.

I tell him there would be no debt, and that I consider myself obliged to help him, as I would any soldier. As others have done for me.

A wise old Sergeant Major told me once, as I was trying to cope with the death of a good friend in Afghanistan, “The life we have chosen requires us to hold each other up in times of trouble.”

Read that line again. Read it slowly and deliberately. “The life we have chosen…” We didn’t just take a job. We took on a lifestyle, not just work. Even me as a member of the Reserve Force. I became part of something much bigger than just a job. “…requires us…” This isn’t optional. It’s part of the deal. “…to hold each other up in times of trouble.” Even though I am “only” a Reservist, a part time soldier, my Regiment and the Army more broadly is like a second family. In some ways, they are closer than my actual family. That awful weekend in December 2008 when I heard that statement, I heard something else amazing. Sitting in a funeral home at the visitation for our fallen friend, one of my friends noted the number of people who turned up who we hadn’t seen in years. “Weddings and funerals, that’s the only time we seem to run into each other.” And then came the line that really stuck.

“Well, that’s family for you.”

That’s what it is. It’s family.

So, on with the story. I followed the emails with a phone call, and a long rant about Veterans Affairs greeted me, followed by an effusive if unnecessary apology. I know the experience. I fought Veterans Affairs to get an injury recognized as being service-related, and eventually threw up my hands and gave up – it was a minor claim and I just didn’t have the energy to keep at it. The system sucks though. They’ll deny your claim, then give you a lawyer to fight them. For ages. And the hope sometimes seems to be that you’ll eventually go away. Unless it’s a major, life-altering thing where you can’t afford to. But they’ll still fight as long as they can, in case you do finally break. I hate to sound cynical, and I know there are people working hard at VAC to make things better, but no one is likely to tell you it works well.

Armed with more information, I then shared the story with a military networking group I know. And within minutes, people I don’t know – and who don’t know the individual who sought me out – were already engaging. Some just tossed out ideas. Some gave contacts who might help. One offered to have his firm and connections in the industry try to help. One put me in touch with someone from Wounded Warriors who are getting their “release navigation specialist” to help my new friend – my brother whom I have never met – get what he is due and get on with his life.

So this ties into a second thing – and something I touched on ages ago in this blog – about the whole “Support The Troops” line. Last Sunday, an associate professor at Virginia Tech by the name of Steven Salaita published an article on Salon.com, a generally liberal leaning website, entitled “No, thanks: Stop saying “support the troops””. The subtitle/synopsis of the article is key: “Compulsory patriotism does nothing for soldiers who risk their lives — but props up those who profit from war”.

Predictably, right leaning websites, blogs, and so on seized on it. One, examiner.com, wasted no time attacking Salaita’s post by presenting excerpts out of context, and essentially excising what he had to say. As the internet tends to do, this elicited scads of comments. I am of the opinion that social media comments are often the best evidence of why our species is doomed, especially when they are anonymous. The responses were predictable: loads of “Internet Tough Guy” offers of violence or “Come say that to my face” statements. Loads of “Go back where you came from!”, which worked well with the photograph of Mr. Salaita included with the article, which evidences his Arab heritage. For the record, he born in Virginia. His father is from Madaba, Jordan (which is the centre of Orthodox Christianity in Jordan, I visited last year) and his morther is from Nicaragua, of Palestinian heritage. He omits any mention of religion from his bio, not that it matters. The comments get rich when they talk about how “the troops” are “defending his freedom”, while essentially attacking him for exercising his freedom of speech. That, in the words of my favourite high school English teacher from way back when, is a whole lot of cognitive dissonance.

The article – as I have linked above – is worth a read. The author suffers from what I like to call the Dawkins Syndrome, after noted atheist and scientist Dr. Richard Dawkins. Dawkins generally writes with a solid thesis in mind, and good arguments, but often falls into a trap of being unable to resist the urge to toss in some unnecessarily polemic statements which stop some from reading. In the middle of the article, you will likely spot where this happens to Salaita. I broadly agree with his premise though. “Support the troops” has become, for many but not all, a trite, vacuous, throwaway statement. It’s become a means of feeling better about not thinking critically about global events. I remember all too well when before the war in Iraq became reality that those who dared to question the wisdom of a war of choice against a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, and without evidence of the claims of WMD were told to shut up. “Why don’t you support the troops?” “Why do you hate your country?” I remember as well in those days that people said things like, “Even if you don’t agree, you have to support the President because we are at war.” It’s funny how that went out the window when President Bush left office and President Obama was inaugurated, but that’s a rant for another time and another place. What this is is precisely what Professor Salaita warns of: that “support our troops” as rote, as jingoistic patriotism in the form of slogans becomes essentially a demand upon the public that they not think, that they not ask questions, and that they not dissent.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and asking questions and demanding explanations should be the duty of citizens of a modern liberal democracy. Creating a mythical entity of “the troops”, who would take umbrage at being “unsupported” by citizens daring to ask why they are deployed where they are, is totally antithetical to that. It is repugnant to me. History is replete with examples of the horrible impact of a citizenry which stops questioning what its government does.

It is to me similarly appalling when politicians throw the phrase out, while their actions demonstrate nothing of the sort. This is not confined to any particular political party or ideology, that mythical entity of “the troops” is employed by all of them in different ways. It is fair to say that maintaining militaries is an expensive undertaking, and that it involves tradeoffs. Eisenhower long ago warned of the danger of the “military-industrial complex”, and he was right. Politicians must seek to strike a balance between maintaining such forces as are necessary to defend national interests and sovereignty, and providing any number of other social programs which are demanded by the broader public. The military must make do with the envelope it is allocated, and get on with the jobs it is given to do within reason. The problem that can arise is that politicians can easily make glib statements about how much they “support the troops” while giving them jobs to do for which they aren’t adequately resourced. Or they can make the statement while cutting the Veterans Affairs budget or overhauling benefits. Or voting against bills which seek to help veterans transition to civilian careers when their service is complete – either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often this is a matter of political necessity in trying to strike that balance I mentioned, otherwise, well, I don’t really know what drives it. I have ideas, but they’re not unique and you can read about them elsewhere from other writers.

You will perhaps note I’m not limiting my comments to what happens in Canada, and I am not about to start shilling for or attacking any politicians specifically. I can’t really, to begin with, because my position requires me not to attack government policy, and I won’t because that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. I am duty bound to serve the duly elected government and to support its decisions regardless of my personal opinion of them. Why? Because civilians control the military through the democratic process. And rightly so. I’m not going to write on specific issues because if you’re interested plenty of other sources do so. If I’ve kept you engaged this long and you’re interested I’m sure you will find them. If you get interested and get engaged, in whatever way you see fit, then I’ve done what I set out to do.

So then, is “support the troops” a universally terrible sentiment? No. Not in the context of understanding the risks of it. If you want to really, truly support the troops, then be an informed citizen. Ask questions. Demand answers that aren’t just glib throwaway statements, what in political science lectures are called “bromides” in reference to sleeping pills. Don’t just think of soldiers deployed wherever they are, but ask why they are there, whose interests are being served, and what their role is. If you want to do more, then I’ve provided links to organizations you might choose to support that make real differences in the lives of “the troops” and their families.

Do something. Don’t buy some ribbon magnet at Walmart (which literally does do nothing to support anyone but Walmart and the magnetic ribbon industry), give a donation to Soldier On or the Wounded Warrior Foundation. Look around your community and see what exists. I received some lovely packages from a couple of wonderful ladies who just wanted to make life deployed a little better and they can always use donations for those sorts of causes. Don’t have money to donate? No problem. You have time and energy and that is as valuable. Write a letter to deployed soldiers – they’re free to send generally, and if it winds up in the hands of someone like I was while I was “over there”, you’ll make someone’s day and get a response back. Write to your elected representatives and demand explanations as to why we are engaged where we are engaged, and don’t just take the answer and be gone but think it through and see if it really makes sense. Just do someting that’s more than blindly braying. Even if it makes you despise the military and its employment, I’ll feel more “supported” knowing your point of view is the product of thought and engagement than I ever will feel supported by some armchair general chickenhawk cheerleading for wars in which he would never fight.

Coming Full Circle

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I keep watching the blog stats for some reason, and it still gets a lot of hits, which is interesting. Some are from people clicking links on my former employer’s intranet site, some are from random google searches, usually people looking for information about the Tajbeg Palace, or about Camp Clark (since there’s very little on the web about it except my raving about the food there), about PXs, about all sorts of things.

I have stated I wasn’t going to add any more content, and yet, I keep feeling some sort of compulsion to do so because there really doesn’t feel like a good ending yet. I think now I can put one in, but we will see, I suppose. I don’t even know if anyone really reads this, anyhow, or if it’s an email that goes to some, or a cursory glance for others. Whatever it is to others, that’s fine. I did this mainly to keep a story for myself, something which I will eventually cap off and save for posterity… To give to whom, I’m not really sure.

I’m now sitting in my condo near Toronto, which I bought almost six years ago, my first real estate investment as it were, and probably one of my worst decisions ever. Yet, here I am. We have moved back to Ontario not because I really wanted to but because when I looked at my options for career moves and so on it simply made the most sense. So we evicted (that sounds so harsh) our tenants from the condo and packed up and moved. It’s a little weird that our old place looks a bit different to me now, but that is mainly a function of our having replaced all of our furniture when we went to Halifax. And now we have added a few things we didn’t have before anyhow.

My greatest looming battle is with my condo board about getting a barbecue. Well, maybe. I don’t actually know yet.

Part of the moving process was returning to my old army unit, the place where it all began for me. When I saw a recruiting ad in 2000 and decided to join the Reserve, I did it mainly because I dreaded the idea of only ever sitting behind a desk doing paperwork. The world was different then in a way, some time ago I saw the notes that the Personnel Selection Officer who interviewed me took, where I talked about the importance of the idea of peacekeeping, so romanticized it was then, and how where the UN failed it was important for NATO to intervene because it has the power to do so in the interests of all or something like that. Little did I know then that that idea would have me living in the suburbs of Kabul for eight months, though it was eight mostly quiet months.

Everyone I served with is now gone from Afghanistan, though I know a few people still over there or getting ready to go – dispersed around the world at least we have Facebook to keep in touch, it seems the easiest way, and not long ago we were all waxing nostalgic about those early days, and getting acquainted. There’s rough plans for a sort of reunion, mainly the idea of being able to have a beer with all these people who were the only people around us for so long, in a more relaxed setting. Next year, maybe.

When I was sworn in on January of 2001, I had no idea where things would go, if I’d do the Militia thing for a few years and get out, or go into the Regular Force, or whatever. Now I’ve qualified for the first of our “long service” medals and I can’t really see myself getting out any time soon, especially now that I’m back to my old unit and amongst many old friends. My first time seeing them was a Change Of Command Parade, where a man I have long seen as a mentor handed over the reins of his regiment to the next to take over. At some point, there’s an end of the line, I guess, but in that something new begins as well, and it’s not generally what one expects, either.

So it was with me. My plan when I left to start work up training was to go back to what I was doing before. That didn’t work. My plan when I got home from work up training but before I left for Kabul was to transfer to the Regular Force, that too didn’t happen. My plan late into my tour was to find another job within my old firm, and I thought I found a perfect one. That, as well, didn’t happen.

What I settled on as a course has also changed since I got home, but it seems, much to my mirth, to be good change, just as it was when I showed up to catch my flight and learned my job in Afghanistan was changing and I was set up to meet some of the most incredible people I’ve ever worked with. I have to wonder how things always seem to fall into place for me at the right instant, when all seems lost it all suddenly meshes in ways I could never have anticipated.

For that I am lucky. And grateful.

So, for me, I think that’s more or less everything to say. I’m now settling into a new job, with a steep learning curve and a high potential for failure, but one only ever reaps rewards by taking risks necessary to earn them.

I will head back to Nova Scotia in a few weeks to retrieve my motorcycle, the only thing I didn’t bring with me on the move, and while it’s not the road trip I had planned originally, I will be taking a bit of a trip to get back just to get the bike warmed up for the summer. I’m sure it’ll be a busy year when work starts taking off, and I have some ideas about things I want to do beyond that, specifically with some of the organizations which exist to help soldiers who didn’t have the fortunes I seem to have. There are so many little organizations trying to do so many things and overlapping, I feel like the must be some way to help tie them all together. That’ll be my next challenge, I think. To give something back.

If you’ve enjoyed the story, let me know with a comment. If you’re connecting from the intranet site of my former employer and want to get in touch, you can look me up on LinkedIn. As always if there’s questions I’ve left unanswered, then use comments to ask, and otherwise, well, that’s all she wrote.

Written by Nick

March 31, 2013 at 9:33 am

2012 In Review And The End Of The Story. For Real, This Time

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

WordPress’ form letter of sorts about stats aside, it’s interesting to see the recap and how many unique hits this blog got. I’d like to think I told a reasonable story. It’s hard to make a job that often seemed mundane really interesting, but at the same time, I wanted to tell it like it is. Neither glamorous not awful, just a year in the life as it were. This recap WP did covered most of the period the blog did so it gives something of an idea of what was accomplished.

All I can hope is that anyone that read along found it interesting. That it gave them something new to think about. That it provided some perspective on a land far from home for most, but one full of potential, or beauty, of so many stories.

Though I mused about it in a previous post, today marks the end of the story. It’s January 4, 2013, and today marks the end of my post deployment leave, and the end of my Class C contract. My deployment experience is over, for this time around at least. Today, or rather, this morning, I’m oddly restless. It’s 1:48am and I don’t know why I’m awake. Maybe it’s my subconscious realizing that this chapter really is over.

I spent my holidays mostly quietly. I traveled to Ontario and reconnected with old friends. I picked up a job offer. I have the prospect of at least two more on the horizon. This weekend I’m working with my wife to start planning to move, because our fortunes seem to lie elsewhere. Later this morning I’ll close the book on several concurrent stories in my life and start on the next one. It will begin next week when I finally turn in all my desert kit. Then I travel to Ottawa, back into the warm embrace of the army for a few weeks while I wait and see how those other job leads turn out. Finally, in February, I will get to work on something new, what it will be I am not yet sure.

This, in a way, has been the story of my life for as long as I’ve paid attention, from one journey to the next. I always seem to land on my feet in the right place at the right time, which to me is a pretty good skill to have. Or maybe, it’s more of a knack than a skill. I don’t know, and I guess it probably doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I’m pretty happy that things seem to turn out right.

Thanks for reading.

Written by Nick

January 4, 2013 at 1:58 am

More Civilized Pursuits

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I logged a lot of miles flying during the past year, most on a variety of military aircraft, with the occasional interlude of feeling like a normal person flying on a normal airline (some nice ones at that, I have to admit to being quite a fan of Emirates Airlines now!), but the last flights that stick in my memory were the flights home, not exactly a model of luxury, but functional and effective enough for the intended job, that is, getting from Point A to Point B.

Because it seems like an ideal time with little else to do, this post is again being composed on an aircraft, a much more comfortable and civilized Bombardier Q400 belonging to Porter Airlines, presently somewhere between Halifax and Montreal, traveling onward to Toronto, my destination. This is something of a business trip. At least, I hope it is. I’m headed to Toronto to do a whole bunch of networking in the hopes of returning with some solid job leads, if not an actual job offer. The latter isn’t likely given the time of year, the former is much more likely, and it’s what I am hoping for.

I nervously informed my boss at my civilian job this week of my decision to leave the firm – or rather, to leave the role I’m in and the firm if I cannot find anything else internally, and it went far better than I expected. I had figured it would be an unpleasant uncomfortable experience, rather like the last time I left a job, but it wasn’t. The writing, after all, was on the wall. I didn’t want to stay doing something I didn’t want to be doing, and it wasn’t really fair to anyone involved to do so. But it didn’t end how I expected. Rather than being shown the door immediately, my boss actually told me to push back my termination date in case any business I had closed (one deal might and will make me a few bucks), and so I could stay an internal candidate for any jobs that might appear. Definitely a better departure than I expected.

The purpose of my trip to Toronto is rather simple. I’m meeting with a couple of leads, and with a couple of organizations whose purpose is to help people transition from the military to civilian employment. It seems strange to need to do so, but the reality is that after a year away from the world of suits and ties in the world of camouflage and guns, I need the help. Old friends are helping with that which is incredible, providing me with networking leads and somewhere to sleep for a few days while I’m away. At worst, I’m seeing some people I haven’t seen in a while on this trip. Hopefully the rest will fall into place. I’ve got a week, heading back home on Christmas Eve in the late evening, which will make observance of some of our traditions complicated, but that’s the trade off. At least I’m home for the holidays, the roto that replaced as isn’t.

Written by Nick

December 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Fortune Favours The Bold

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Alright, I guess I am not quite done.

I have this thing for Latin sayings, proverbs, and the like. It’s probably the product of reading far too much history and the like, coupled with an inability to articulate my thoughts well in an original way which makes it easy to put others’ sayings to good use.

My high school had an interesting one, Palma Non Sine Pulvere, which no one ever actually explained to any of us that I know of, but I came to understand while at the Infantry School. Literally, it means “no palms without the dust”. It refers to the Gladiators, who in victory walked on a path covered in palm fronds when leaving the arena in victory. To do so meant going into the fight, getting covered in the dust and dirt of the arena. To extend it, nothing worth having comes easily. If there’s anything that can teach a person just what they’re actually capable of, of what their limits are, I submit to you that infantry officer training is probably it, and finishing the dismounted course (which is as far as reservists normally go) was the feeling of walking off like that. There were palms, and there was a whole lot of dust. And mud. And so on.

Before I sound like too much of a pseudointellectual, there’s a point to all this, and since it fits into the story, I decided to include it.

I have come to a realization. It’s time to move on career-wise, and for the past week I’ve been struggling with trying to figure out how to do it.

I have at least come up with some next steps. I tend to be a fairly deliberate, methodical, calculating person – I plan and scheme with a view to getting rid of every imaginable risk in a decision to the point that it can often be almost paralyzing. It was a habit I had to break working in the military, because as you’ve likely heard, a workable plan executed aggressively at the right time is better than a perfect plan executed too late.

As it happens, there’s actually a term for this. It’s called Kotov Syndrome, named for Russian chessmaster Alexander Kotov, who described it in a book he wrote. Specifically, he used it to describe a situation where a player in a chess game is placed in a complicated position without a clear path. After contemplating for too long, the player is then forced to make a move as they run out of time, and makes devastating mistake as a result. How do I know this useless trivia? Well, one of my favourite bands is Rise Against, who have a song called Kotov Syndrome and I had to figure out what the origin of the name was. Whatever works though, right?

So, I’ve contemplated my options and I’ve made a decision on my next steps, which are relatively bold, and involve something of a leap of faith, because I do not have everything lined up the way I want it to be but I have to accept that. It is the step into thin air, in a way. Again, when I was younger and less responsible, my friends and I had a hobby of finding things to rappel off. Bridges, buildings, whatever. It was usually an “unsanctioned activity”, but a good time. When you rappel from something like a bridge (or a helicopter skid, as I’ve also been able to do in a more legitimate capacity), that first bound is into thin air. You have a drop of at least your height when the rope anchor is below you before you get tension on the line which lets you control your speed of descent. That first step you simply have to trust that you’ve set everything up right and that it will work – that the anchor was set right, that you’ve hooked your gear up right, and that it’s going to do the job. And then you go, you free fall until everything catches and you resume control.

I’m basically doing that. I realized that I only have an illusory sense of “security” anyhow, and that I have a set up that should do the job when I step off the ledge. And I do.

There’s some organizations that exist to help with transitions – they’re mainly aimed at people leaving the Regular Force and transitioning to civilian employment, but Reservists coming back from deployments are often in the same sort of position and so they offer the same sort of help. I’m working with a couple of them, and planning to relocate, which is bit of a stressful experience on its own, but ultimately will serve me well.

I still have a backup COA, as you do – but I figure if you’re going to make one of those uprooting bold changes, this is probably a good time to do it. Fortune does favour the bold, after all.

You Would Think It Would Be Easy, Wouldn’t You?

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Someone once quipped, “You never will see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist’s office”, and I have often through they’re right. There’s something I have always found about being on a bike that is deeply therapeutic, and other than yoga, it’s my go-to stress reliever to just jump on and ride. I don’t generally have a destination in mind, I usually just wander wherever, usually just the beautiful backroads of Nova Scotia, or along the coast. I tend to stop a fair bit to take photographs, to take in the scenery, and so on.

I put 4,000 km on my bike starting the day I got home until I finally put it into storage last weekend. That is rather telling. I was out just about every single day.

I returned home and had an interview the very next day for a posting with my civilian job that I thought went well but which wound up teaching me a valuable lesson: when they ask at the end of the interview if you have any questions, there’s one you should ask: “Is there anything I haven’t covered? Anything that leaves you doubting I am a fit for this role?” Asking that might have given me a positive outcome, because (and I’m not trying to blame being jet lagged) I didn’t give enough depth on one aspect of the position which wound up making me not the strongest candidate.

I got the call after a couple of weeks of anxious anticipation. I was out on my bike at the time, I had just stopped in the village of Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia to fill up with gasoline, and was just finishing kicking myself for using a full serve pump and adding a trivial amount of extra cost to my fuel bill when I realized my phone (which I had only just gotten after a bit of a production over backorders and such) was buzzing. It was a great call, actually – I don’t think I have honestly ever gotten such great, candid feedback on an interview. In fact, most of the time, when you’re not the chosen candidate you just don’t hear anything. I guess I was a little excited when I answered the phone expecting it had to be positive.

But I had the bike. At least I had that. And a whole day to ride. It really is therapeutic. I probably actually could have taken the extra couple of hours I needed to finish the Marine Drive, one of Nova Scotia’s scenic routes, but I lingered too long over lunch in Sherbrooke and didn’t think I could make the last stretch of the route.

As you might expect, I had a few COAs (that’s “Courses Of Action” in army shorthand) with respect to returning to work. So COA 1 was out the window. COA 2 soon followed for reasons I’m not going to rant about here, because, well, I’m just not. We often joke that in training, we are supposed to develop three COAs during the estimate (planning process). Usually COA 3 is the “throwaway COA”, the plan that’s so ridiculous you only write it up in minimal detail because you know you’re not going to need it, and in all probability, it will never actually work anyhow. My last Company Commander, an extremely smart and knowledgeable officer, however, would always force us to really work through three COAs, and if you came to him when he assigned us “homework” with a true throwaway, he’d send you back to the proverbial drawing board.

My COA 3 was to return to the position I held previously. It wasn’t totally a throwaway, but one thing I realized being away is what I have what you might call a “passion” for – that is, what really interests, excites, gets me motivated and draws out the best work I can do. In fact, I knew this already, to a certain degree, from what I’d done being a normal Class A Reservist. I love training – I like teaching, I like taking material, turning it into lessons, lectures, exercises, and conveying the knowledge to others. I spent almost eight months in Afghanistan doing that most of the time – and it turns out that not only do I love it, I am apparently rather good at it. Going back to my old “day job” doesn’t harness that passion. That’s why I was looking for something else and why COA 1 was what I was really hoping for.

I had no idea how hard it’d be to try to get motivated to go back to that job I had, I really didn’t. I took a little time off but realized I had to get back as soon as possible because it’s a job that requires a long lead time for business to close, and without that, I don’t make any money. Worst still, to get things in order to get going has taken far longer than I expected. I had indicated a date I wanted to be back at it (assuming I had no other option), and it did not even come close to happening.

So, let’s recap. I came home with a plan for the road trip of a lifetime which was scuttled by Hurricane Sandy (there was no way I could get around the storm by the time my earliest possible leave date arrived), and had my career next steps not pan out the way I wanted to. And for all the excitement about coming home especially given how slow my last few weeks in theatre were, I cannot stop thinking about how much I want to go back. Suddenly that whole decompression thing makes a lot more sense. Reintegrating is not, in fact, anything like what I thought. You don’t just come back and suddenly everything makes sense, and in fact, for a Reservist, I’d argue it’s potentially even harder. Our Regular Force brethren come home, go on leave, and know when they’re going back to work and what’s going on. That isn’t to say they don’t have some upheaval, because many get new postings while they’re deployed and some have to move on short notice. One person on my chalk was hoping to get back to Canada in time for the birth of a child (I think his first) which was happening any day, after having moved his family to a new home because of a posting with immediate effect. For us, though, a lot of us come back to complete uncertainty, despite whatever steps we can take to mitigate it. It’s something I’m working through, but it isn’t anywhere near as easy as I thought it was going to be.

However, things do have a way of working out. Turns out today there was a job posting internally for another position much like the “dream job” I mentioned. So I’ve applied to that. That is giving me some lift. I’ve got my UAB back now, and I’ve packed up my desert kit to be returned so as to close that chapter. I wish I had a video of trying to jam them into my VW Tiguan, which, despite being an “SUV” doesn’t have a whole lot of space, and was already full of assorted motorcycle paraphernalia. It would be a video best run at fast forward with “Yakety Sax” playing until I got them in. I’ve finally moved some of my kit into the storage locker I keep it in after letting it explode in my dining room too long. These are small victories in a way. But they’re something.

I don’t know if I’ll add to this blog again after this post, I think it too needs to be ended as a chapter in an ongoing story, a way of moving forward. I think this might be where this story should end.

Written by Nick

December 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm

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

Posted in Homecoming

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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.