Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for the ‘Workup Training’ Category

Down To The Short Strokes

leave a comment »

I knew this week was going to be terrible. I don’t have a clerk working for me at the moment as he’s on a course that I’m sure will benefit us all when we leave. Thus, I had to very quickly learn how clerks work their magic in order to get my entire contingent’s files in order.

It’s a good thing I tend to be a quick study. Monday night, the S3 (Ops/Training Guy) and I “stayed after school” going through about 80 files making sure they were set to be turned in to the Orderly Room, where they then go up to be signed off by the CO to confirm the member is ready to deploy.

The file includes all sorts of different components, the key to which is the Personal Readiness Verification form, which all sorts of people have to sign off as being “Green”. If anything isn’t Green, then we can’t deploy the soldier. Turns out that a good chunk of the files aren’t all Green, and so we were trying to figure out who needed to be fixed, what they needed, and how we could go about getting it done. It was a long night, but a fairly successful one. We had our boss stop in for a while so he could sign off his component, and he made a point of commenting on how well we were working together. The mutual desire to get the hell out of there was probably the best motivator we had.

As of tonight, we’ve got most of them done and turned in, and tomorrow I’ll have the last of them done, or at least most. There’s some troops with some issues that have more complex fixes, but I’m going to sent them into the clerks with a proposed plan, and they should be good to go before the drop dead date, when the sole person who can do the final signoff gets on the plane. That should be enough time. Of course, part of the hold up was that some documents were missing and no one bothered to tell me that there was a file in the Orderly Room where they were also collecting outstanding items. A good chunk of the stuff we were waiting for was there.

My other trick is the collection of another, unrelated document. By its nature, it’s got to be handled in a specific manner, and that’s complicating things a bit. I’m done 90% of them now too, but the last few were on a memory stick that belongs to someone else, and now I’m trying to get it back from that person who’s been off on training. Should be sorted tomorrow, but it’s annoying. And normally, it’s not even the S1’s responsibility – “we” just “volunteered” because the Ops guys who normally responsible for it are working like rented mules right now trying to sort out the last of the training requirements.

Friday at 4pm I’m out of here. Friday. 4pm. The Barrack Warden will come by, make sure I cleaned my room, and kick me out. And it’ll be back to Halifax. With a stop at St-Hubert in Moncton for dinner – because I haven’t had it in a long time and it sounds really, really good. Serenity Now.

It’s not done yet, of course – so much to do. I started packing today. Problem is that I basically have the luggage I can take overseas here with me – but a lot more stuff than I will be taking and I have to try to fit it all in. I’m going to have to ask my wife to bring an extra bag with her when to finish packing. I have a system set up though – I’m trying to pack my carry on back exactly as it will be when I go (Less my Kindles. Yes, Kindles, plural. I have two.) and leave it as it. The amount of stuff that has to go in there is rather ridiculous. I was thinking I’d put my laptop in there. But it’s not going to fit, I don’t think. It’ll go in my barrack box.

I think it’ll all fit just fine – though it takes some planning. The key thing I have to take into account is that my battle rattle has to go in a duffel bag, and be packed in such a way as to ensure that when I get off the plane, I can get to it immediately and be able to throw it on for the ride to our first stop. Everything else I cram in that bag (clothes, most likely) has to go underneath my PPE so it comes out quick and easy.

I can’t tell you when I leave, exactly. Nor can I tell you how we’re getting there. I can tell you it’s going to take a long, long time traveling and that I don’t sleep well on planes so I plan to overdose on something that will knock me out until we get there. On arrival in Kabul we are heading to something of a reception centre where we’ll clear into ISAF/NTM-A and get our bearings before getting dispersed out to our actual “hometowns”. I’m not actually even sure I can say much about where, specifically, I’m going. You’ll have to forgive me for erring on the side of caution. However, I’ve got public affairs as one of my secondary duties, and I’ve already started asking about things like a social media strategy, and maybe that’ll change the way I go about this blog. ISAF does have a presence (@ISAFMedia), and they actually spar routinely with a couple of Taliban propaganda Twitter accounts. I swear, I’m not making that up. Check it out. The Taliban are @alemarahweb, and also @abalkhi. At the rate of casualties they claim, they would have had to have killed probably every single Canadian ever deployed there. It verges on the ridiculous – but the actual personal jabs are what are priceless, when they happen. In fact, it’s happening right now. See here, Taliban claims a great victory. ISAF mocks them here. Taliban jabs back here. ISAF’s telling the truth, of course. The Taliban would claim earthquakes were their doing without thinking anything of it. Welcome to modern war, ladies and gentlemen.

There’s actually a couple of guys “over there” whose job is solely to monitor social media to make sure there’s no OPSEC violations. And there have been some pretty insane ones. Some inadvertent, and some so categorically stupid I cannot believe that they happened. One of the things they just made a point of telling people about is geotagging in photos. Lots of people take pictures with smartphones blissfully unaware that the phones use their GPS to encode where exactly the photo was taken. I learned about this a few years ago after realizing I’d tweeted pictures of my home. The geotags would have made it exceptionally easy to find. I have, obviously, disabled that function on my iPhone, and most pictures you’ll see on here will come from a non-GPS equipped camera, so there’s no risk there. Why, as they said, do the enemy’s recce for him? I don’t plan to, so you’ll have to forgive any time I’m intentionally vague.

Anyhow, I can’t believe that work up is coming to an end – that I can see, as it were, the end of the tunnel. There’s a stack of DAG files between me and that end, but it’s dwindling.

Friday. 4pm. My own bed. Home cooked meals – my wife is a staggeringly awesome cook, you see. A few weeks to chase down some last minute admin and relax – I go on leave almost as soon as I get home.

A little housekeeping, by the way. I’m starting to build up some links on the sidebar for you. I’m also going to do up a “suggested reading list” for those interested in this blogs – books I’ve read and thought were of value. I’ll probably get that done during my leave.

 

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

with 5 comments

Today we got a crash course in Counterinsurgency (COIN). COIN is the nature of the kind of operation that is ongoing in Afghanistan, and based on history, it’s something that the Canadian Army will have to get better at over the next few years to be prepared for future operations. The reality is that since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, three quarters of military conflicts have been insurgencies or other low intensity conflicts. The massive global conflagrations that are what first spring to mind when one thinks of war are indeed very rare.

COIN is something that no one has really done well, in no small part, I think, because it’s hard for a conventional military to wrap its collective minds around how to deal with insurgencies. The British were probably the first to start understanding COIN during the Malaya Emergency, and it’s from that in part that we got the idea of “Hearts & Minds”.

Problem #1 is that a lot of people don’t understand, even at a fundamental level what it means.

“When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”

Well, there’s no easy way to get the balls of an insurgency that blends seamlessly into the population. There’s no battle front, there’s no Fulda Gap to stare across at your “most probable military opponent” (which is one term that the Soviet Army apparently used for Americans when teaching officers about tactics), there’s no way to actually accomplish this. And of course, it’s totally not the idea, but I’ll get back to that.

“Remember, hearts and minds, boys. Two in the chest, one in the head, that’s hearts and minds.”

Yep. I heard that on a close quarter combat range once. I can’t gloss over what we do, remember. We are trained in the art of using deadly force. We are trained to kill people. I’m in the infantry. That is our job. The Role Of The Infantry, which is taught to us and we’re constant reminded of throughout training, is bluntly this: “To close with and destroy the enemy, by day or by night, regardless of season, terrain or weather.” There’s no glossing over it. But remember that thing from ethics? I have no problem telling my mom what I do in the army. In addition to that blunt description, of course, we have the ability to harness our organizational and leadership skills to do all sorts of things. But our training necessarily revolves around that role.

So what’s the phrase actually mean? Well, the important thing in a counterinsurgency campaign is to understand how insurgencies work, what the prerequisites are, and how to counter them. Insurgencies happen because the insurgent organization is able to exploit a vacuum. When governments fail to address the needs or wants of a society, an insurgency can emerge. The Taliban, for example, rose to power by helping resolve what amounted to legal disputes, and providing law and order, which didn’t exist in most of the country. Rising in the Pashtun southern part of the country, they harnessed both religion and tribal customs and were able to become strong enough to take over the whole country. When they were routed in 2001, they resumed a highly effective insurgency.

It’s worth noting that they not only exploit the vacuum, they  essentially help create it by destabilizing the areas they still can influence. There’s a lot more complex forms of insurgency that can develop too, but I’ll be writing a university paper if I try to get into them all, and well, if I’m going to do that, I’ll write a book and sell it. Or something.

Thus, the idea of winning hearts and minds doesn’t mean winning a popularity contest. It means convincing the local national population that the Host Nation government can meet their needs. It doesn’t even need to meet them now – it just needs to gain the trust of the populace that it will be able to in the future. It means understanding the root causes beyond the surface grievances, getting to understand them, and empowering the Host Nation to address them. Winning hearts and minds means that we set conditions for both an emotional and logical conclusion that the Host Nation can address those problems. It’s not a simple matter of dumping some foreign aid on them, or fighting off insurgents when they attack. It’s about cutting the insurgency off from their base of support, making it such that the local population no longer needs or supports them, and no longer wants anything to do with them. That isolation ends their relevance.

What you’re probably coming to understand is that the military cannot do it all, but we’re definitely a significant part of the problem.

Modern COIN doctrine gives us four stages: Shape, Clear, Hold, Build. We’re basically embarking on the “Build” stage, to create the capabilities within the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the Afghan National Security Forces to operate effectively, to provide a state that meets the needs and wants of its people. That will cut the Taliban off from its support (mostly, there’s foreign interference of course, and that’s a whole other problem), and render them increasingly irrelevant. With that, hopefully, a generation of Afghan kids will grow up not knowing war, get educated, and be able to provide for themselves and their family without turning to fighting. That’s the goal at the highest level. If that doesn’t sell you on why I’m going, well, probably nothing will. I absolutely can proudly tell my mom that that’s what I’m doing for the next year or so.

The guidance we have seems almost comically simple. Drink lots of chai (Afghan tea, which is served over conversation). Treat every soldier as a sensor gathering information on the environment and the variety of factors that contribute to the nature and persistence of insurgency. And the one I love: get out of your vehicles, take off your sunglasses – sit and look counterparts in the eye and have a good discussion, find out what will work to move forward. Oakleys are a barrier to building the trust that Afghans want with us, according to the Big Boss. Makes sense to me, actually. It really does. We need to build lasting relationships so that the people we advise see a value in working with us.

COIN requires a willingness to keep up the “clear” task. A well-executed COIN campaign, which is what ISAF is working to set up, will be able to reintegrate most of the insurgents into society, to get them to see the value of working with rather than against the Host Nation government, in this case GIRoA. Some, however, will be incorrigible. They will never be able to let go, and so, we – or more specifically, the ANSF must be prepared to go out and kill them. It’s that simple. The goal is to get them to think like we do – that we can either be a solid partner, comrade, friend – or will spare no effort to root you out. We’ve got a lot to learn still, and I think COIN will be an ongoing Professional Development study topic while we’re away. But we’re getting the idea, and learning how to present ourselves to the challenge.

I am a Canadian soldier. In me you will know no better friend, and no worse enemy. That was one of the quips in the presentation we had today, and it sort of resonated.

The Wrap Up

with one comment

Finishing off the last week of training. It’s getting a little bit crazy around 2RCR because we’re now at the point where in addition to trying to meet all of our training requirements we are also trying to complete a lot of last minute administrative requirements. All those things covered in the DAG now have to get sorted out for the last time, and we’re also coming to grips with a lot of new things that have fallen out of the woodwork. For some of the contingents it’s made more complicated by the arrival of a whole lot more Reservists when we came back from Christmas leave. They have to be pushed through all the processes a lot faster than normal because of the shortened timeline. We’ve got only a couple of these guys, so it’s not so bad. That said, our camp clerk is away on course now and so I’m doing a lot of the work catching up on the paperwork – or at least getting people to do it. One of the specific things is a form we need completed for everyone which has a complicated, specific requirement, and to make it extra complicated, it is a Protected document, meaning it can’t be transmitted by email without encryption. So, I collected these all on a memory stick, and reviewed them. No good. Most of the troops hadn’t read the instructions on how to complete the last part, so I had to kick them back out to be redone.

While I’ve got all this to do, I have my own training to take care of. I’ve knocked off my first aid training, as I mentioned, and went on to Personnel Recovery, which I didn’t get to see all of because of the Unit Ethics Coordinator Course I started today. Go figure, in response to how the first serial of the PR course went it was condensed from two days into one. The UEC course is actually somewhat interesting, in no small part because I did a little bit of coursework on it in university, and one of the officers who profoundly influenced my career studied it more in detail. That would be LCol Ross Cossar, currently the Commanding Officer of the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment. Then-Major Cossar was published in the Canadian Army Journal in Fall 2008, with an article worth reading entitled Unethical Leadership And Its Relationship To Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you have an interest in military psychology I strongly recommend reading this. Further, it cites some excellent sources, including the works of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, specifically his books On Killing and On Combat, both of which are widely viewed as required reading for those in uniform.

Grappling with the impact of ethics on military service has had a profound effect on the Canadian Army. Most Canadians will be familiar with the Somalia Affair, the torture and murder of a Somali teenager by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment during a deployment in that troubled country in 1993. While that event itself was horrible, it exposed a much more deep and troubling problem in the Canadian Forces, pervasive leadership flaws which directly impact our effectiveness as an organization. It was far from the only such incident, and they’re of course not confined to Canada, but it was probably the first, most profound such incident. It was the Somalia Affair that helped drive the interest in ethics that led me to sit in the classroom in which I found myself today.

Militaries have a unusual role in society. We are charged with the responsibility to defend the national interest, including with the right to use violence to do so. As such, you might expect that we have a specific contract with the nation with respect to that responsibility. For example, in Canada and any other democratic society, the military is controlled by civilian authorities, with an emphasis on separation of the two. Canadian Forces members are barred from standing in elections or holding public office while serving (there are apparently some exceptions, but they’re rare), or from engaging in political activities where they may be seen as speaking for the CF. We are expected to hold ourselves to a high standard, perhaps a higher standard than the average member of the public because of the role we have.

What happens when the opposite happens? When militaries fail to meet that standard? The repercussions are severe. In fact, in history, the cost of such developments can be mission failure. The Vietnam War wasn’t a military defeat by the North Vietnamese in the sense that their firepower and technology allowed them to defeat the US and their South Vietnamese allies (by the way, if you want to read an amazing account of that, I’d suggest Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval). Neither was the 40th Army driven out of Afghanistan by the mujahideen because of their strategic or tactical acumen. Rather, in both cases, the national will to keep spending blood and treasure there was destroyed. Media – social media, the internet, and the conventional media – can make that process very rapid indeed. Witness reactions to the video of Marines urinating on corpses. Or the Haditha Incident, where photos came out that made clear that what had actually happened (the murder of innocent bystanders, basically) had been covered up. We risk that same problem any time we deploy. The fact that everyone has camera phones these days, that things can be spread via the internet rapidly, underscores the idea that the whole world is watching all the time.

In most cases, the right thing to do is fairly simple. It’s obvious. There’s no debate or discussion. Sometimes, however, we face choices where there isn’t an obvious palatable option, and the role of ethical training is to help soldiers understand how to apply the ethos that we have developed – and to know where to go for help should they be unable to resolve a dilemma. Not that we’ll always have all the answers, but it’s a good start. And we’re also realizing and understanding that if mistakes do indeed happen, that it’s better to be transparent and address them head on rather than hoping they go away. That applies as well to the military as it does to any industry or to anyone’s personal life. Think about it: as a child, was it ultimately better to hide or lie about what you might have done, or to work to accept responsibility? It seems so simple, doesn’t it?

The course focus, though, is on how to convey these messages to our soldiers, to get them to understand and buy into the Army Ethics Program, to be able to lead them through good discussions about issues and cases that allow them to understand and apply the values we want them to embrace. How to be a better facilitator, as it were. I think it’s a great skill to build on – it’ll help me as an advisor, it’ll help me in my civilian career, it’ll be incredibly valuable. And part of the perk of doing what I do is that I get all this training for free. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize about Reservists, but a fact to which more and more are starting to become attuned.

This is only the start of a bit of waxing poetic I think I might do – but I think it’s as important as just recounting what I’m actually doing. As always, let me know what you think.

Written by Nick

January 26, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Focusing In On The End State

with 3 comments

We’re getting toward the home stretch for sure. Combat first aid wound up well – a good, thorough, and frankly relevant and intense course was probably the best training I’ve seen so far here. Interestingly enough, one of the instructors was a young NCO I trained on his PLQ (primary leadership qualification) course a few years ago and had back the following year as an instructor. He’s doing alright for himself after leaving the Primary Reserve to join the Regular Force.

The course is taught over two days, the first day being mainly theory – the basics of paramedicine, essentially. It’s a crash course in anatomy and trauma management, essentially. It takes what you learn in Standard First Aid courses and rearranges the priorities to make dealing with trauma the primary emphasis, with the equipment that we carry. That equipment is pretty good and being constantly improved upon, but at the end of the day, like any tools, its effectiveness depends solely upon the skill of the users. We therefore got introduced to it all, and put into situations that were realistic enough to get us thinking.  With the limited time and huge audience we didn’t get the intense casualty simulation that often comes with the training, but when you’ve got people taking the material seriously, it’s going to give you the desired effect.

The only thing we cannot simulate is your own reactions to seeing first-hand the impacts of attacks. There’s a combat psychology aspect to this that we haven’t covered intensely in this workup but most people at least in the Army have either been formally introduced to in some aspect of training, or have learned about from their own study of our art. The key to dealing with this revolves around an expanded version the Cooper Colour Code – which was developed by a USMC Marine Colonel, Jeff Cooper, who is an expert on firearms training. The key is to keep yourself “out of the black” – a situation where the natural reaction to combat stress renders you unable to effectively perform anything. The great concern is that in the wake of an incident, those people who need to react and start rendering aid will be in Condition Black – heart racing, brain unable to process information properly, fine motor skills effective. We train on drills so that what you have to do is no longer a conscious thought process, but simple reactions.

Training done right will push you into the red, at which point your heart is racing, your breathing is laboured, you start to get tunnel vision on your objective, and your brain is struggling to process the information around you that you need to remain situationally aware. We train to understand this physiological reactions and to manage them. Studying this has led us to change the way we teach people to use their weapons, to teach them breathing techniques that will aid them, and so on. We don’t do that perfectly yet… and that’s a big, big pet peeve of mine, but I’m not doing this to rant about things I want to see changed. I know we’re getting there. But that’s a discussion for another time, and probably for another forum.

Today we’re working on cultural awareness training, which has been somewhat interesting, but at the same time for me it’s kind of boring, because I’ve read extensively on Afghan history and culture, and while I’m getting some insights from our advisors, the rest is kind of slow. I’ve got another day of that tomorrow, which I’m hoping will be better.

Tonight, however, was especially interesting. We got a visit from the Commander of Canadian Forces Expeditionary Command (CEFCOM), who had a lot to tell us about his insights into the mission we’re embarking on. It wasn’t a lot of blowing smoke up people’s arses. It was a realistic assessment of what we’re going to do, and that to me is good, because having a realistic context in which to work means that we’re going to have realistic objectives. Setting up to train Afghanistan’s security forces – or rather – to enable them to train and sustain themselves will make a difference there, and is what we haven’t done an effective job of for the last ten years. It seems like the overarching concept isn’t an unrealistic view.

We will face a lot of challenges. Afghans in the age bracket that the ANSF recruits from have a literacy rate of 14%. That means 86% of them are unable to read or write. These are things we take for granted in a country like Canada, but a country which has been devoid of an effective education system creates that sort of problem. Corruption is endemic, of course, and we will never eliminate it, to suppose we can is folly, so instead, we just have to try to work around it to focus on effectiveness. We have to hope that political will to support the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stays intact. The “green-on-blue” incident in which 4 French trainers were killed and 15 wounded the other day shook the French resolve. Comd CEFCOM put it best – the insurgency needs to work to break the bonds of trust that make ISAF work – between ISAF armies and their ANSF counterparts, between the Afghan civilization population and their police and army, and if that breaks the link between us, the deployed soldiers and the people at home then it is far easier to push us to give in.

I guess, then, in some way, I’m going to play a direct role in all aspects of that. My job is to help the ANA training system work better, by enabling them to do for themselves, rather than us doing for them. And more importantly, I’m going to tell you the story – the story of one contributor, but part of a broader Canadian story. The fact is, we’re not going to have the kind of media attention that operations in Kandahar ever did. When you really think about it, actually, the fact that Afghanistan isn’t splashed all over front page news right now is an indicator that something is going right, but it’s also creating a risk that the public won’t realize we are there. I want to counter that – I want people to know – to remember – that even though the intense fighting in Kandahar is over, even though hopefully we’re not going to see so many corteges traveling the Highway of Heroes, there are still 1000 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan working to make sure that that country can stand on its own and that we won’t have to worry about the costs of a failed state. We’ve paid it for 10 years.

I hope it’ll be interesting. It’s getting close to the next chapter – to “go time”.

Deeper Thoughts On Training

with one comment

First aid training is done. Well, Standard First Aid, anyhow, Combat First Aid starts tomorrow. It’s going to be a relatively relaxed course I think though, being that it’s the weekend, and the idea is to actually learn as much as possible. Some of the kit we get for our own med pouches is stuff I haven’t really used, though, so it’ll be important to pay good attention, I have a lot to learn. I’m realizing as I think about the course that while I’ve set up my SORD rig in a way that I think is mostly functional, I have my med pouch in a place that is only accessible from one side – which might actually not be the best idea from the perspective of planning for its use. I think I’m going to move it.

I feel like such a snob going to ranges and so on with non-combat arms types using the SORD. The whole reason people started using this sort of hit is that the tactical vest we normally carry has a couple of significant flaws. The main one has to do with the placement and design of the ammunition pouches. The tac vest has four single magazine pouches that carry 30 round rifle magazines. They sit high on the vest, which makes them awkward to use. Back when it was designed, the idea of carrying five magazines when going out on an operation seemed reasonable. Afghanistan showed that wasn’t enough. Most people wound up carrying at least ten. The position, in addition to being inefficient for rapid reloads, didn’t bear the weight properly.

With a chest rig, you can carry your magazines lower and more accessibly. I have them low and mainly on my left side, because I’m right handed, allowing me to grab them with my left hand, and swing them up rapidly into what we call “the workspace”. It’s ergonomically superior to the awkward motion required with the tactical vest. I have the pouch that will hold my pistol magazines mounted higher, as the workspace for it is different, and I can do everything right in front of my face that way.

I will note that the other major problem with the TV – the “one size fits all” problem that wastes lots of space for those who carry a machine gun as a personal weapon – isn’t really solved by the SORD rig we have been issued, because as yet there’s no pouches suitable for machine gun ammunition. However, other than the force protection folks, people generally aren’t carrying anything but rifles or carbines anyhow during the normal course of business.

So, why do I feel like a snob? Simple. So many of these guys I see have the mag pouches mounted high, and the problem is in fact made worse by the design of the mag pouches, which have a larger foldover flap. This is a smart compromise, because they can be closed relatively easily. I just don’t think they get why they’ve been given the kit they have, and perhaps that the fault of some people who aren’t sharing the knowledge. Normally, even “customizable” kit comes with a pretty strict set of directions about how it will be used. We’re not getting that direction, instead we’re being left to the soldier’s favourite term – “personal preference”. When that preference doesn’t have knowledge to shape it, well, people just go with what they know. I’ve shared mine with some people, but when someone who’s barely handled a rifle in their entire career blows me off, well, what I can I do? I’m not an expert by any means, nor do I have any authority to tell them what to do. Some people just don’t want friendly advice I guess.

There’s a second problem that it seems we (the combat arms types) have to try to break people of. We have had for many years something of an obsession with rifle magazines. We have created a culture so obsessed with retaining those magazines that it leads people to do things in gun fights that are dangerous. Our experts will tell you that when you need to change magazines, you just dump the empty one, get the fresh one loaded, and keep getting rounds downrange. However, we’ve all been taught to make sure that magazine doesn’t get lost, and I don’t really know why. The best explanation I’ve gotten is that they’re prohibited items – to have one other than as a military/law enforcement person at work is illegal. It seems we’re worried that one lost in a training area might wind up in the wrong hands or something. It’s certainly not a cost issue, they’re about $7 each or something like that if you lose one (which I haven’t in a long time).

There is an old, and possibly apocryphal story about a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, in the process of reloading the revolver he was carrying. Someone highlighted that the spent casings from that revolver were found in his pocket – suggesting that during his reload he had fiddled around to get the casings into the pocket because he would have been conditioned to do so on ranges, rather than simply dumping the cases to reload quickly. We’re conditioning people to do the same thing, but it’s getting weeded out I guess. It’s like our need to restructure the way we train people on their service rifles, because combat arms folks rather quickly get told “what you learned on basic is wrong”. Because it is.

What got me thinking about that was a series of events today. This morning I read about a green-on-blue incident involving French soldiers in Kapisa Province, which is near Kabul. Four were killed by an Afghan National Army soldier who was in a unit being mentored by the French Army. That as a headline was awful enough, but then I read the whole story – that 15 French soldiers were wounded in the attack. One lone ANA traitor created 19 casualties. How did that happen? One source explained it: they were unarmed. That I couldn’t believe. The idea of being unarmed at any point there is to me simply ridiculous.

The attack has prompted the French to “reconsider” their role, and suspend operations for now, mainly because of domestic political pressure I’m guessing.

The problem, the concern that I’m developing is that lots of people deploying who perhaps aren’t taking enough opportunity to train on the skills that they hopefully won’t ever need, but should have. I’m going to be surrounded by almost all combat arms types, so we’ll be out honing skills constantly, but I guess I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t do that. I guess it’s just the way that even as a Reservist to think about those skills. There is, also, the fact that I shoot recreationally, and I probably know more about firearms than at least 2/3s of my colleagues. I take the stuff seriously, because it’s my job.

I also was struck by something that happened during the trip to convoy ranges. After drawing our weapons, we were loading up into MSVS trucks to go out to the training area. SOP for us is when you’re loading a vehicle, you unload and clear your weapons. There are of course exceptions, but this wasn’t remotely close to being one. Additionally, when you’re going to a range, weapons handling is particularly important, for reasons I shouldn’t need to explain even to non-soldiers.

So, we’re on the truck. I was last in on the left, and as I tend to, I started looking around. I spotted a loaded rifle in the hands of someone sitting across from me. Incidentally, in our terminology, loaded means that a magazine is mounted on the rifle. Whether it actually contains ammunition or not is not discernable by appearance. There was almost certainly no ammunition present, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still not done. So, I said, “Hey man, what’s with the loaded rifle?” and shot him a bit of a glare.

I didn’t realize he was a Major. But hey, that should have meant he knew better.

His answer? “So, when I catch you doing it, I can use the same tone?”

What tone? I didn’t use a “tone”. I did highlight a significant safety infraction. That’s all.

And you’ll never catch me doing the same thing. Because I’m a pro. And we don’t do stupid things like that.

Or we shouldn’t. I don’t.

It’s not that I have a lack of confidence in our training or my peers. I don’t. I know that they’ll be able to do what they need to do, and that we get some of the best training around. I’ll be interested to get a lot more experience seeing how ours stacks up against our allies while I’m away, but what I’ve seen in limited experience tells me we’re well ahead of most of them.

It’s just that I sometimes wonder if people just brush it off, even when there’s lots of people who’d happily coach them.

Written by Nick

January 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Back In The Swing

with one comment

It’s been a busy week thus far – a little chaotic in some cases, because basically everyone getting ready to deploy has different stuff to do – different checks to get in their boxes. It’s been fairly well organized, actually, other than a number of last minute changes to some of the plans that were published initially.

I had a good mix of stuff booked to get done this week – convoy ranges to start off, some interesting training on TTPs for road movements that are going to be a large part of what we’re going to be doing. It wasn’t anything particularly new I learned, but it was good to review and get the latest information on how things will work over there. We did some other training specific to the mission as well. Last night we went into the night doing foreign weapons training (where I got annoyed that I know more about most of them than the “instructors”, including the difference between an RPD and RPK machine gun for example. In any case, foreign weapons training is basically a quick review of how to clear weapons you might likely find over there – Kalashnikov-type weapons being the most common.

Today I started Standard First Aid – something that we’re supposed to do constantly to stay current, but I’ve actually not done the full course in quite a while, so it’s good to get back to review CPR and those sorts of things. That will lead into this weekend, when I’m doing Combat First Aid – which is more specific to the sorts of injuries you might see in a war zone. It’s not as detailed as the Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) course, a ten day intensive course that 25% of the task force should have before we deploy. I wanted to get on that course, but I wasn’t one of the people chosen for it. Instead I’m doing the Unit Ethics Coordinator course next week. That should also be quite interesting, and I’m sure it will generate a lot of good discussion. With several recent stories in the media, we’ll certainly not be short of things to talk about.

I know my departure date now, which is cool. It gives me some ability to organize my life a bit. I was worried I’d be sitting around waiting for weeks to get on the go, and I’ve discovered that for better or worse that’s actually not really good for anyone – it’s just better to get on with things. Being in touch with the people we’re replacing and seeing how things are going there is actually getting us kind of excited about getting on with the job. Also, the chaotic feeling we’re getting as all the last minute stuff gets done is starting to become overwhelming. It’s just time to get done with being here, and get on the way.

Written by Nick

January 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm

And We’re Back…

with 2 comments

Back to Gagetown. I arrived back in the area Saturday night with my wife, she came to drop me off to resume workup training, and mainly because we wanted to go for dinner at a particular restaurant in Fredericton that we discovered on arriving no longer exists! Nevertheless we had a nice evening out with an old friend of mine from a course six years ago. She’s out of the military now, but her then-shaggy-haired boyfriend is now her Army Captain husband. We hit a wine bar for a long night of revelry before heading back to our hotel.

I got back to the shacks Sunday afternoon and set about sort of unpacking. I have a fair bit less stuff here now, because I’m trying to more or less live out of my barrack box until it’s time to leave. I’m here until February 3rd, and literally every day is booked with some sort of training activity. Tomorrow I’m off to do convoy ranges at Swan Creek Lake. I got some frostbite watching the demos today, but tomorrow should be a little warmer as I understand it. Wednesday I have… I can’t actually remember, and Thursday I start first aid training, a good refresher. Standard then combat first aid will take me through the weekend, and then we move on to some other stuff. Mostly it’s “classroom” so I shouldn’t be too bothered about things like cold.

We’ve got about an inch of snow on the ground. Kabul apparently got something like a foot over the weekend, though it won’t likely last long.

Today was also my first day wearing my CADPAT(AR) uniform – desert cam. It’s just weird seeing my reflection in it – or people milling around in it. We are also a Sergeant Major’s worst nightmare, because climactic conditions mean we have to make use of all our cold weather gear, which is all green. I don’t think this will make sense to the average civilian, but mixing different uniform components is generally a big no-no that drives those charged with enforcing dress and deportment ballistic. Alas, we carry on.

I got my departure date today (although it’s not 100%, I haven’t seen it on paper), early on in the relief-in-place, which is good. I won’t have a lot of time sitting around between the end of training and when I head off.

In addition to all the training on the schedule I’m still working at learning the language. I got my hands on some better materials and I’m starting to get a grip on the basics of things. It’s tough to learn a language that literally in no way resembles any language I know. I’m starting to wrap my head around things like basic grammar, and very slowly building up a little vocabulary. I have a lot of lessons left though, and I’m hoping that between the different tools I have and the time remaining I’ll have some better skills.

For those of you reading this regularly (or stumbling upon it – that seems to happen from time to time too!), what do you want me to tell you about? I feel like I’m not telling that great a story yet, but I’m not totally sure if there’s better directions. Use the comment feature to tell me what you might want to see.

Written by Nick

January 16, 2012 at 11:45 pm

And we’re just about done…

with 2 comments

Today started off with the chaos that is almost the norm here, the cynical side of me notes. I headed down to the Base Theatre this morning, arriving in excellent time to stand in the longest Tim Hortons line I’ve ever seen, albeit the fastest, to get a much needed extra large black. I began to settle in for some lectures collectively called ETHAR – which I think stands for Explosive Threat Hazards And Recognition. We used to call it Mine Awareness Training, but the spectrum of things that go boom in theatres like Afghanistan are much more broad than just good old-fashioned landmines (which, rest assured, are abundant there). After we sat around for a little while, we learned that the training had been moved to the LAV Barn, and so we figured out carpools to get there. Except it wasn’t actually there either, it was in a smaller vehicle hangar nearby. We did make it there.

ETHAR training is actually relatively interesting when taught by engineers with a lot of hands on experience, as our instructor had. He was a C-IED (counter-IED) specialist and EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) technician. He had a lot of stories to tell to add to the PowerPoint that we’ve all seen numerous times. It’s good to make sure we get the refreshers on the drills though, because they are important. All sorts of things that go boom exist in Afghanistan, and it’s good to stay current on how to avoid them, obviously.

At lunch I had to break from that to go deal with my UAB, which took a while to get done. Our boxes were inspected, tagged, weighed, and loaded into sea containers to start the journey to Afghanistan. Apparently, they’ll go by sea to Europe somewhere and then be flown into Kabul. We’ll see them at some point, but no one can guarantee when, meaning of course nothing that’s in there can be anything you can’t live without. I was amused to realize that one of my MOBs was slightly overweight (they didn’t worry much about it). It contains the coffee maker, coffee, and some other consumables. Declaring a coffee maker non-essential was tough, but had to be done.

Last minute running around capped the day, and tomorrow I have to finish the last thing, my passport application. It turns out the forms I had today were the wrong ones, and I had to find a guarantor for my pictures and so on, which I got done this evening. In the afternoon we get briefed on our Rules of Engagement for the tour, and then a final dismissal parade at 4pm. My ride to Halifax wants to load the car during lunchtime, and wants to be out the door not later than 4:30, as bad weather’s expected and he wants to get home before it. Fair enough!

This evening I took a look at some MilBlogs out there – official and unofficial ones, and it’s given me some ideas about how I’m going to overhaul the blog over the next few weeks (in theory!). I’m going to start using WordPress’ categories function to sort all the posts by stages of the process, and, amusingly drawn from one blog, by the attitude of the post – the good, the bad, the funny, the cynical, and so on. That’ll make things better for reading. I’m also going to try to learn about formatting and build something more interesting. Lastly, I do want to start trying to incorporate more pictures into the blog, as I’m trying to take as many as I can. It’s just a matter of making the effort to add them, instead of playing World Of Tanks or whatever else I distract myself with instead.

Things will be quiet over the holidays, because I’m planning to take a week down south next week if I can get my leave in order and find a good last minute deal, and I’ll be headed to Arizona in the new year to visit my parents for a few days. I won’t have much to say about tour plans during that time, so don’t worry, I’m not abandoning this just yet.

Long Day

leave a comment »

I can’t shake the cold, it’s driving me nuts. Hopefully getting home this weekend to start Christmas leave and sleep in my own bed will help.

Today dragged on forever, because my only really critical thing to get done was my hero pic, and it was done by about 9:30. It looks alright, says I who hates being photographed, but I’m hoping it will never be needed, obviously. I also had a picture done for my ISAF ID card at the same time.

We did get some more information though on what the plans are for where we’re going and what’s happening there. Nothing certain, and nothing I can really talk about in detail anyhow. Again, it’s all max-flex and I’m not really staking plans on anything.

My UAB is now all sorted, catalogged, manifested, and ready to be turned in. I solved the excess of crap problem by pawning my suitcase off on the S3, who has literally nothing in the boxes, but will be partaking in the coffee machine’s labours. It was a pretty fair tit-for-tat. I still don’t have much for civilian clothes in there for my leave, but I figure I’ll just order stuff closer to my leave dates and that’ll work fine, particularly when we have a feel for delivery times and so on.

We got more detailed handover briefs from the people we’re replacing, and while I’m not going to say they paint a bleak picture, they’re basically confirming my own ideas about adult education in general, as it were, and the idea of building a professional army from the ground up. We are definitely going to have a lot to do, that’s for sure. We’re still working out some of the manning. It seems that there’s not much to do on the S1 (personnel administration) side for the camp I’m at in terms of administering the Canadian personnel there, and so the current guys have split that job with the S6 (communications/IT) job. We think that I might wind up working with the S4 (logistics) guy. I don’t have a background in that, but with a Canadian logistician there as the lead advisor I will still be able to help with things. And there’s a lot of work to be done in that department it looks like. We’ll see how it goes, I guess.

The S3 was busy today working out how to cover off all the training we’re missing before we go, with the cease training date they have in mind of February 3rd. We aren’t due back to Gagetown to start training again until January 16, which doesn’t leave a lot of time. The price, it seems, of the pretty slow pace early on is going to be a ridiculously busy few weeks before we leave on embarkation leave. We’ll be working weekends and evenings it looks like to get everything done – there’s a lot of checks in the box to be had for a lot of people, myself included, and we’re going to have to shoehorn it into a relatively small space. There’s a plan a foot, at least. We generally say “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”, but this one hopefully will.

We also got an idea of when we’re leaving town, and that means my draft leave plan should work, because it doesn’t have any issues with certain time restrictions. This too makes me quite happy.

Tomorrow, more death by PowerPoint for the morning, UAB turn in in the afternoon, and I have to finish packing up to leave for the holidays. That probably needs to include a thorough cleaning of my shacks, which requires a vacuum cleaner. Which I can only get between 9-4. I’m not sure how I’m going to work that one out. But I’ll figure something. I can’t leave the place a mess when I go home, I’ll only have more to contend with when I get back.

Written by Nick

December 7, 2011 at 12:34 am

The Final Week…

leave a comment »

It’s been four weeks already of workup, and it feels like it’s raced along. This is the last week before we head back home for Christmas leave. In my case, I have to report in to my home unit for a few days before I can start burning some leave. This week is pretty light, a final DAG process, some lectures, and then the mundane administrative process of outclearance, getting off the base. That’s going to be pretty easy because we’re basically being treated like we’re staying, anyhow. I don’t have to clear out of my room, or anywhere else. I just have to pack. I’m trying to figure out how to rationalize all of the stuff I have here so that it’s easy to keep organized for when we leave. I’m going to take home a lot of stuff that will no longer be needed, ditch some kit I have that’s now obsolete, and start to adjust to living out of a barracks box for the most part.

This morning we welcomed back our boss who’s just returned from a “Tac Recce” visit to Kabul, gathering all sorts of information from our counterparts over there that will be turned into handover briefs for us. He had a lot of good information to share about how things are working there now, how they are anticipated to be working in the new year, and what impact the many changes happening in Afghanistan at the moment will have. With the Americans getting ready to pull about a third of their forces out of the country, NTM-A will certainly be doing some reorientation, and it will directly impact us. We’re not sure how just yet, though, and no one really wants to start rumours. They don’t help at all. We’re just sticking to a mantra I learned from a mentor of mine – Semper Gumby. Always flexible.

We spent the rest of the morning with the military police doing some training on detainee handling, personnel searches, and vehicle checkpoints. The likelihood of needing to know any of that stuff is relatively low, but all the same, it’s important. I hadn’t had a thorough review of it in a long time, and things have changed a lot anyhow, as they often do. The MP who taught it had lots of great stories to illustrate her points, and that made the process much better than some massive PowerPoint presentation as was the expectation.

Following that, as I’ve been tagged as a Unit Ethics Coordinator, I was tasked with delivering an ethics briefing. I had to condense a large package into something useful but brief, and I think it went pretty well, based on the feedback I got. It’s going to have to be revisited in more detail, but I don’t actually have the relevant course yet, so that will wait. I did introduce the concepts, and they are important. The CF has suffered from some failings in that area over the years, and the emphasis made on explaining why it matters is a valuable thing.

The briefing complete, I headed back to the office to catch up on email, and was prompted by the Company Sergeant Major (CSM) to go through the DAG process that was ongoing for the 2RCR folks. I was basically already DAG Green on the key points, but there were a few little things left to get checked off, so I’m now done them – and just have to get my green passport processed. Green passports are “Special” passports carried by officials of the Government of Canada, ie me when I deploy. I’ll enter Afghanistan on that passport, but keep my regular blue passport for my leave travel.

Somewhere in there, I found time to get over to the LAV barn and find my tan uniforms, which are now set to kill all manner of insects that might attempt to approach them. I have to take a combat shirt over to the office with me tomorrow for a “media handout photo”. I think I warned readers that we have a kind of bizarre, gallows humour kind of thing. The only time those photos are media handouts are when things go very, very bad. So we call them “hero pics” or more cynically, “dead guy pics”. That said, my parent brigade is making a display of all their deployed personnel that those pics will adorn, so that’s a little better use. I hate being photographed though, and blink/squint in photos constantly, so I’m not really looking forward to it. It took about ten tries to get my passport picture done this evening.

This evening – right – a trip to Costco, and $600 later, I’m back with a MOB box full of almost everything I’ll likely need for the tour in terms of consumable – everything but shampoo, to be specific, and enough coffee and tea to last… well… a couple of weeks anyhow. I picked up a nice set of fleece sheets as well, and a memory foam mattress pad, which I think I’m going to have to either persuade someone else to put in one of their MOBs, or just return. Since I have the camp coffee maker in my MOB, I think it’s only fair someone should bring the thing for me. I’ll try to sort that out tomorrow.

My UAB gets loaded into a sea container Wednesday night to start the long journey, and hopefully it’ll find me in Kabul fairly close to my arrival.

The day was busy enough that I almost forgot to observe a moment of quiet reflection for a sad anniversary. Today marked the third anniversary of the day an IED killed a good friend of mine in Senjaray, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Cpl Mark MacLaren, MMV, was 24 and joined up not long after I did. The hit that killed him and his two OMLT colleagues was quite a loss, but through the life he led he enjoys a sort of immortality few will know. RIP Chinaman.

I’m not really sure what else will fill the rest of the week, because some of the planned training has been rescheduled. Rumours abound that we’ll be sent home early, which suits me – I could use the jump on settling some other business that needs to be looked after on the home front anyhow.

Written by Nick

December 6, 2011 at 12:07 am