Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan

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.

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

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

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.

Last Week In Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

October 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

Into The Last Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow Army Run

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

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

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

Written by Nick

September 23, 2012 at 5:51 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

September 21, 2012 at 9:57 am

Musings For Which I Have No Title

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

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

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

Written by Nick

September 18, 2012 at 11:36 am