Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan

More Scaling Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And Then There Were Three…

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

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

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

Written by Nick

September 1, 2012 at 12:57 am

Back To Work

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My leave is over and I’m back in country. It was an amazing three weeks.

I was a little apprehensive about how things might go meeting up with my wife – and parting ways at the end, but it actually went just fine. After I spend a couple of days in France and Belgium visiting Vimy Ridge, the Menin Gate, and various military historical sites, we met up in Frankfurt and carried on to spend the next two weeks in Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Budapest and Vienna. From Vienna she went back to Canada and I proceeded on to Jordan, seeing the incredible wonder of the world that is Petra, as well as Jerash, Ajloun Castle, the Amman Citadel, Madaba, Mount Nemo, Wadi Mujib, and Wadi Rum. I fittingly spent my last night in a Bedouin camp in the desert, and went out in a jeep to sit on top of a big rocky hill to watch the sun go down and contemplate. Later, after a feast of maqlouba, an awesome Jordanian dish, the generators went off and I saw stars like I’ve never seen them before. I barely slept before we headed back north for a dip in the Dead Sea and a trip to a Turkish bath then back to Afghanistan. I spent a lot more money on the trip than I had planned originally, but I don’t have any regrets – it was probably the most amazing trip I’ve ever taken and will be hard to top.

I arrived early in the morning and was rather disappointed to find out that I was going to be sleeping in a transient tent for a few days before I could get a ride back to my camp. With one uniform and a rucksack full of dirty laundry. To my good fortune, I didn’t get any objection to trying to catch a helicopter flight back, and quickly headed to the air movements office to find out if I could get a Space A flight back. The next morning I dragged my gear to the helipad to learn that my flight was cancelled – but again fortune smiled and it was put on later and I got a seat.

Things have changed a lot here. The staff has been rapidly shrinking, and I came back to find out the seven Canadians who were here when I left on leave, there’s two of us now. And the other one will likely leave next week to be reassigned. So in a few days, it’ll be me and the director, who leaves mid-September. I’m literally the guy turning the lights off at the schoolhouse, when we call transition complete. I might wind up with a replacement after all, another officer who will work with the higher command’s advisory team to act as point of contact for the ANA’s COIN Training Center until they move to their permanent home, the Afghan National Defence University being built at Qargha, just west of Kabul.

I’m now having to start making plans for returning home. In a couple of weeks I have to turn in my UAB (the stuff I’m sending back to Canada in advance) to be shipped home, which means thinning out a lot of stuff, though that will make my room a little more organized than the disaster it currently is – I’ll send home all the cold weather kit I brought with me and don’t need to go back, the suits I bought here, and things like that. I’d like to get my holdings down to just what I actually need for the last stretch and to get going after I get home.

Once that’s done, it will remain to be seen what the flight plans are for going home – which chalk I fly on and so on. I know which one I’m slated for now, but depending on what’s decided about whether I have a replacement, I might actually see that change. And plans change anyhow from time to time, that’s just the nature of the beast.

The real variable I’m trying to wrap my head around though is what happens when I get home. Not just the “when will I actually get home”, because I know I’ll land in Fredericton and head to Gagetown and have things to do there before I get released to go back to Halifax, but what happens then. I’ll have about a month and a half to two months of leave (I haven’t quite figured out the formula yet) where I will still be getting paid by the army, but after that, my contract ends and I revert to being a Class A Reservist, and I will need to make sure that income is flowing in.

This is something of a quandary, though I think it stresses me more than it needs to. My civilian employer granted me a military leave of absence, meaning that I am good to go to return to my “day job” when I get back. The trick is, I don’t want to go back to what I was doing before, not that specific job. I do have the luxury of working for a very large company with all sorts of options, and I’ve started looking at postings to see what grabs my interest, but as of this moment, nothing really has where I live – and I’m not sure I want to move either. Quite a predicament, isn’t it? I guess we’ll see, a lot does change in a few months. They recently posted jobs that were really of interest to me and I’ve been in touch with a few of their recruiters/HR folks to get an idea of what’s coming up.

There’s also a prospect of returning to Germany to teach on another course like the one I did in June, which I’m following up on though that’s only a couple of weeks, and a couple of career courses that might be doable if I play my cards right and follow them directly after the tour. There’s generally an unwritten proscription on such things for Regular Force folks, but in my case, I’m only too happy to knock some of this stuff off while I have the chance.

What I really want to do is go back to school. Without waxing philosophical about it – I shouldn’t have left school when I did. I was sick of being in class at the time and wanted to start making money, so I quit with an undergraduate degree when I should have gone to law school or something. I’m actually looking into the prospect of trying to do school part time. I just need one of those patrons. Or maybe I should write a book about my experience here and the bigger picture from the perspective of someone who’s seen what’s happening. I’d probably sell … well … maybe 100 copies. I don’t think that will do it.

It’s interesting watching things wind down. When I got here and the staff was much bigger, our schedule was pretty full of training events we were attending, of upcoming courses, meetings, writing material for courses, getting translations done. We occupied a large building that we’ve progressively given up parts up to others. My days used to start with planning toward the next training trip I had. Then it was toward going on leave. Now I’m back, and there’s just a few loose ends to tie up and no trips to plan for. In fact, a couple of days ago we went up to a couple of other camps to get some business done – first to Camp Phoenix so that my American colleagues could mail home their excess baggage (they don’t get UAB shipped like us) and then to Camp Eggers for the director to go to some meetings on the future of our organization. I had nothing really to do with any of this, so was a bit surprised when I got told I was going. Because they needed a Truck Commander. That’s how small the staff has gotten – it took all but one of us to have the people we needed for the convoy to go off. I also got to drive (which was funny in a way, my colleague Tim The Battle Bear acted like some combination of my dad when he taught me to drive and a driving examiner critiquing me as I weaved expertly through the insanity of Kabul traffic. It ended just fine though.

So that’s the current situation here. I’m trying to figure out how to fill my next few weeks mostly.

Reminders

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget where we are.

Then something like this shows up on Facebook from a friend:

;

That’s a locker in a transient tent at an American base my friend was at recently for a course (one of the guys I went to Germany with, I mentioned the story about his friend who was killed in a rocket attack in Iraq I think).

While he was asleep ten feet from that locker, a mortar impacted and hit it. It was probably a Chinese or Russian 82mm. Had it detonated, it would have had a lethal blast radius of around 25 metres or 75 feet. Luckily for everyone in the tent, it didn’t. Either the fuze failed (which isn’t uncommon given that often the ammo is ancient and has been buried or otherwise poorly stored), or as sometimes happens, the idiots firing it forgot to pull the pin on the round. Regardless, that’s how random things can be, and how lucky.

And you know what he had to say? After they returned to the tent and saw the gaping hole? Referring to the brilliant cartoon series Archer we’re all fans of, he simply groaned “THIS IS HOW WE GET ANTS, PEOPLE.”

This kind of thing happens. A friend of mine deployed to Kandahar a few years ago forgot to pick up his laundry as he was returning to his shacks. He turned to return to the laundry facility and minutes later a Chinese 107mm rocket slammed into the building he lived in. Another rocket hit the bedspace of someone who’d gotten up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. It’s possible to get complacent, to forget where we are, to forget that things like this happen.

But as best as we can, we laugh about it. It’s kind of a warped gallows humour thing, but it takes the edge off.

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Four Feet Of F*** All

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I decided not to use the full word in the title here, I’m not sure why because while I’m pretty good about moderating my idioms (doesn’t that sound smarter?), sometimes the slip out. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, I guess. The title is written on the “current operations” board in our S3 (Operations) shop, I think it’s a naval term as it’s a US Navy guy who put it there. He just started his journey home, as did our S2 (Intelligence)/Movement Operations/Public Affairs/Signals/IT officer, who also in response to a sexist comment by me about sandwiches and her being the only female here, made me an absolutely wonderful sandwich with a nice note. She played along with my sense of humour, and did a fantastic job here on everything. It was particularly cool because she’s a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, someone who’s normally on a warship, and she volunteered to come here, learned the language, got stuck right into the culture, and lamented on Facebook as she was leaving about leaving a city she has grown to love. She certainly spent a lot of time exploring it on convoys, and her efforts to build relationship with the locals were amazing. She’ll be missed.

That’s the way things are going here, though – the cast is dwindling, and it’s a bit sad as voices your used to hearing in the office gradually go silent. There’s no one new coming, we’re all headed out of here over the next few months.

A few days into Ramazan things are very quiet for the most part. We had a brief period where we couldn’t go down to see our ANA partners so things really slowed down. They did run a very successful course with a substantially larger number of students than normal, though it was a bit hectic for me. When we first got here, we had the tailors make us some “Catherder” morale patches, and I felt like replacing my unit patch with it for a while, to see if anyone noticed, and because it was apt. It took literally the entire staff here to manage getting the students on to camp for lunch and then back off, but it seems my diplomacy skills both with them and with our security people (who are generally a great bunch of people) helped.

Normally the students are from the Kabul area so we didn’t think there’d be much demand for them to stay at the school while they were on course, but a few of them came from further afield – one from Kunduz, one from Mazar-e Sharif, one from Baghlan, and one from Parwan. We had arranged transient accommodation inside our camp for them, but then learned that having an ANA escort for them wasn’t enough – we had to have a coalition person escort them everywhere and monitor them even overnight. So I put my diplomacy skills to work to persuade them to sleep on the ANA side, and with blankets and pillows they eventually agreed to do so. And were actually happier to do it since it meant they could go up the road in the morning to get naan and so on.

I did have to bring them to supper each night, but it was an interesting experience, and my basic Dari (aided by a little dictionary I picked up at Camp Phoenix before I went to Germany) and their rudimentary English went a long way. Generally conversations with Afghans revolve around where you are from, your family, and what you think of Afghanistan. They can conceive of Canada as a country far away somewhere but really that’s all they know. They tend to think it’s some part of America (which I guess, in the sense of North America, is true). They are eager to know where in Afghanistan you’ve been what you think of the place. My universal response is listing off some of the places I’ve gone and I always tell them that I am eager to return some day as a tourist, to actually see the rest of the country – hell, I’d like to just be able to explore more of Kabul, other than through the windows of a vehicle.

They’ll always ask if I’m married, and I learned that the concept of a wedding ring doesn’t make sense to them (in fact, they’ll often ask what the ring is), and of course, how many sons I have. Being married for as long as I have been and not having kids isn’t an acceptable answer particularly, so I’ve learned to a) understate how long I’ve been married and b) dodge the question with one of the great catch-all phrases in Islamic cultures – mashallah. It basically means “God’s will be done” – more specifically, it can mean “because that’s the way it is.” Very useful. Similarly, just about any commitment can be ducked with “inshallah” – “if God wills it”. It’s the best “maybe” ever.

Walking back to the gate one night, one of the students said, “You should come to Kunduz to visit it. You will stay with my family in my home, and I will show you my part of this country.” These offers are common. And they’re actually quite serious. In fact, we were all invited to one of the ANA instructors’ homes for dinner one night. When we said we regrettably weren’t allowed to go, he lamented that it was too bad, but he understood. He then pointed out that the Russians did that all the time and didn’t see why were so cautious. The reality is, most of us would love to accept such hospitality, but we are barred from levels well above us.

I was pretty happy that the course feedback was good, though the ANA wanted us to help them with the practical exercises which we use on coalition courses so they can adapt them. The school director in our last meeting jokingly said “You’re lucky it’s Ramazan and I’m obligated to be well-behaved, because otherwise I might want to fight you” over not running this training previously, which we had talked about. I realized he was clearly joking so I didn’t get wound up over it. I explained that while we were happy to help, they needed to plan the training and we’d help make it happen, so all was well. We did hash out a plan to run some advanced training for their instructors before I go on leave, which started today. Basically, our products are modularized in three levels – Mod 1 and 2 are the basis of all ANSF training, and realistically, almost all coalition/NATO training. Mod 3 is fairly advanced set of classes which the ANSF aren’t ever going to need to teach, however, it seemed that there would be some value in giving them exposure to the concepts so they could improve their depth of knowledge. It’s good to be able to do that to deal with what we call “sharpshooters”, people who ask more difficult, on-the-spot questions requiring more knowledge. We know that the ANSF know the lectures they teach inside-out but rarely go beyond that.

This morning I met them at the gate and brought them in to the office while we set up, and as usual you have to go through the barrage of questions, how are you, how’s your family, how’s your health, how is work, how are your spirits, etc. I say “barrage”, but don’t get the idea that it’s in any way inconvenient or unpleasant. It’s how Afghans are, and it’s part of any meeting. In fact, it’ll probably rub off on me quite a bit, just as the custom of placing my right hand over my heart after saying hello to people is now something of a reflex we do even amongst the coalition folks here. We set up the lecture and I started to teach. Normally, I keep either a coffee cup or a bottle of water close by, but as it’s Ramazan, I decided not to. I was mainly worried about my interpreter, Faisal, because I was making him talk a lot. He was fine however. Halfway though the class, the senior instructor says, “why don’t you have some water?” I replied, “It’s Ramazan, I’m not going to drink in front of you!” They all laughed. “We know you’re not fasting, just us. We won’t be offended.” All I could say was, “Well, I may be an infidel, but I respect the custom and I will not do that. I appreciate your consideration, though.” This elicited more laughter, but aptly tied in to a concept I was in the middle of teaching, about how to get to understand and win the trust and respect of people. It worked brilliantly.

For now, I’m basically counting down the days until I go on leave, as it’ll be very quiet here for the next little while. I’ve got pretty much everything I need – some more camera accessories came the other day and I’ve been playing with them all and learning how to take better pictures. I did find out that I paid way too much for my camera (damn you, AAFES!), but realistically, the better deals I found couldn’t reasonably have been accessible – the vendors don’t ship to APO addresses or to Canada. So I can’t really whinge. I also got a nice huge box from Mountain Equipment Co-op – a backpack, clothes, and shoes – all stuff I’ll need for the trip that I didn’t have with me. I had to get one pair of pants hemmed here, for $4. It wasn’t the best job, but I don’t really care that much I guess.

I’ve also been patronizing the tailor here a bit – I’ve bought a new suit, a couple of sports jackets, and a tuxedo, all for ridiculously good prices, and the quality is pretty excellent. I think I will likely get myself a couple more suits before I go home, but it’s funny seeing how much some people are spending there. I was looking at carpets and jewelry as well. My colleague got himself a triple loop and other jewelers’ tools to evaluate the stones on offer and has decided they’re not worth much though. I do want some lapis lazuli though, it’s beautiful.

I got a massive care package (well, four of them) today from an organization back in Canada which has been awesome to me, it actually came in yesterday but I wasn’t around to collect it. The Canadians across the street saw the contents list and openly mused about simply “forgetting” to tell me about them and just helping themselves, but one of our drivers thwarted them. I did share the spoils though, I have enough junk food to last a while, and some school supplies and trinkets to hand out when we see kids around – which doesn’t happen as much now as it had previously – but we’re looking to find a school to take them, or the local nationals who work here as they all have children.

When I return from leave, there will be very little left to do other than the transition to Afghans – after that, I’ll still have quite a bit of time left here, and I don’t really know what I’ll wind up doing. One of the Canadians here has already been moved to another job, one more is likely to be moved shortly, and our leadership is actively seeking new jobs for us as we work ourselves out of where we are. I have no doubt that something will be found for me to round out my time. I have an idea of when I’m going home too, the first draft of our RIP (relief in place) plan is done, and I don’t think my position will change in it. I do think I’ll be in for a new job though before I leave – hopefully something interesting. I don’t want to have to move camps especially, but these things happen.

For now, I’ll just stay flexible, and see what I can do to help make our transition a success. Boredom is a real enemy, so I’m trying to find ways to fight it – to stay motivated. We’re working on studying for the LSAT as my colleague and I are both musing about going to law school and as such will need to sit the admissions test in December. That’s helping keep the boredom at bay when there aren’t things going on. We’re also working on cleaning up the office, packing up things we don’t need, and that sort of thing.

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Site Stats And So On

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WordPress, which hosts this little blog, is pretty neat in that it offers me a bit of a “statistical analysis” of where hits come from – what countries, what sites refer, and even what people type in to Google or other search engines that gets them here. Some of the Google terms are bizarre, I must admit. Some of them make me laugh, and some are totally random. What’s interesting is that a lot of them are questions that I could actually probably answer if someone posted comments to ask the question rather than just realizing that the search terms haven’t gotten them to where they want to be.

Some of them are pretty simple: How long is the flight from Leatherneck to Kabul? About an hour and a half. Add half an our or so on each side while they load and unload kit. Oh, and in that 30 minutes, expect to be sitting in stifling heat with no airflow. Hydrate before you go.

Is there a PX at Camp Clark? Not when I was there. There were Afghan shops that sell everything anyhow.

What’s the daily routine of a soldier in Afghanistan? There isn’t one – everyone has different jobs, different demands, different op tempos. Someone wanting to know for themselves if they’re deploying would have to ask the people they’re replacing.

Why don’t Afghans get along? Actual search term the other day. Complex question, not one I’ve got the scope to answer, but reading Afghan history will help.

Where is the massage place at BAF? Near the PX off Disney Drive. It’s inside the barber shop which is around the corner from the Harley-Davidson dealership and more or less behind the Pizza Hut. One hour is $30. Make sure you bring PT shorts.

How can I convince my Afghan mom to let me use tampons? Wow. Er, well, I got nothing for that, you’re on your own there, anonymous Google person. That is probably the most bizarre one of bunch so far.

Lots of questions about care packages. All I can say is ask the person you’re sending them to if they want anything specific, because it varies. We get all sorts of strange and bizarre stuff.  Popular things around our way are freezies and microwave popcorn, but for people living on more austere FOBs, well, those aren’t so useful. Universally useful things are those little drink crystal pouches, the single serving ones, Starbucks VIA coffee packs, beef jerky, candies that don’t melt, and things like that. But really, if you’re sending one to someone specific, just ask them what they want.

It’s interesting to see where all these hits come from, because it’s not as though I actually make any effort to “promote” this, and it’s as much for me to remember stuff as anything else, while telling stories a bit.

Happy Pachino Day

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Today is Pachino Day, the 69th anniversary of the invasion of Sicily. The first Canadian Army unit I joined, as well as The Royal Canadian Regiment I’m deployed with now, were both involved in Operation HUSKY. Without getting into a pedantic history lesson, The D-Day Dodgers as they were known were the first force to really start making inroads into Hitler’s Europe, a year before the D-Day Normandy Landings.

It is customarily celebrated with a feed of spaghetti and the cheapest, most vile Italian red wine that can be found. We had the pasta, no luck on the wine tonight though as usual.

Otherwise there’s not a whole lot of exciting things to write about right now. Relations with our ANA partners have improved greatly, after a tense meeting we’ve gotten back more or less to normal, and they’re getting ready to run their next course which will be the last one we support them directly for – so that’s been most of my workload, making sure they have the stuff they need for the course, arranging facilities and so on, and trying to figure out how to get them prepared to take over everything.

I also spent most of the last week with the dreaded “gastro” –  some awful stomach bug that basically laid me out flat for a few miserable days, but it’s moved along. A couple of us got it after a trip to one of the local restaurants. Unfortunate. But over now, and hopefully that’ll be my only such experience. It happens to pretty much everyone at some point, so I can’t get too worked up over it. Being up all night came in handy when I got some Facebook messages from my former roommate (turned next door neighbour) at 4am who missed his flight back into theatre from leave, having dropped his passport in the airport and being denied borrowing. I managed to make some phone calls to help him sort himself out. Silver linings or something like that. He’s actually the second person who I had to bail out of a jam with their leave – friend of mine from my home unit left town without his visa for his destination, a bunch of calls and text messages finally got someone able to email a scan of it to him, and that was enough to get him on his way.

As I said, not all that much to say, really – life ticks on, there’s plenty of stuff I’d love to bitch and moan about, but this just ain’t the place to do that – and even then, they’re all pretty petty, minor things anyhow. Life’s pretty alright overall.

Written by Nick

July 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

Culminating Points

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The challenge of being on the final rotation through an organization is trying to make sure that you ensure that all the of the mandated milestones are hit, and that what you leave is sustainable, organized, and set for someone to take over. Ideally, every rotation should involve such a process, but in the real world it doesn’t always work that way. So the closing shift gets the job of trying to cover off all of those handover requirements in one shot.

Over the years that our schoolhouse has been in existence, it’s been staffed by a large number of people, all of whom brought their own takes on the subject matter, their teaching styles, and their ideas to the table. When training the coalition was a major part of the effort, the instructors all added to and changed around lesson plans and materials to suit their taste.

What that leaves us with is a tremendous number of PowerPoint slide decks, lessons, multimedia materials, and so on. Thousands of files. And that’s what we’re sorting through, cleaning up, updating, writing speakers notes (as close as I’ll get to doing lesson plans), and so on.

To make transition successful we’re having to work on an archive of products – the best of the lot – a full set of lessons in English, Dari, and Pashtu, as well as all the multimedia that’s useful. We have, to augment that, videos of some of the classes being taught here that are getting Dari and Pashtu voiceovers. All this will stay with the higher levels of the ANSF’s training system, while the Centre of Excellence will have the material they need to teach courses here, and we think that in the regions we’ve made a pretty good effort. What our predecessors did well was create training that was scalable – everything from the video/PowerPoint based lectures that western armies are only too used to, do simple skits that actually very effectively display the basics of the material, that you can use to instruct soldiers in the field without electricity or any other “luxuries”. This stuff works. There’s nothing more amazing I’ve experienced than seeing when students “get” material, and I’ve seen that happen. My first experience watching the ANA COIN instructors training their own (which seems like forever and a day ago…), I saw this – they grasped the concepts being taught, and more importantly, they were able to contextualize them in their own experience, religion, and culture. That means they really were getting it. That’s all we need – to get them all to think about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with the populace, how they represent the government to the people, how they win people’s support.

We know, thus, that we’ve got some good instructors on the ANA side. Several that I’ve accompanied to training events have really impressed me, though often they’re apt to make controversial statements that brew into full-bore heated arguments. That said, while one such argument was going on, my counterpart and I, with our interpreter trying to keep up with everything being said, realized that the argument was actually showing that not only were the students paying attention, but they were set to challenge the instructor. That’s something I was told generally didn’t happen in Afghan culture! That is progress! The following day, as the argument came pretty much at the end of the day’s training, the “belligerents” had a more thoughtful discussion over tea, and all was well.

The emphasis then for us is three-fold. First, we have to work on getting those products for the archive standardized which provides continuity for the place – a repository of “the knowlege”. Second, we need to keep working with our partners on instructor development – both working with them on their rehearsal process for courses, and by encouraging them to send their instructors on to further training. One of the options there is the Master Skills Instructor Course (MSIC, pronounced “missic” – I think that’s what the acronym is, anyhow!), a longer course that actually awards a badge that those who complete it can wear on their uniform, and allegedly some sort of specialist pay. However, we’re trying to understand why they’re not making full use of their access to the course, that might change when one runs closer to their workplace this fall though. The other option is what we call teaching mutuals, where one instructor teaches a class to the other instructors who can then provide a peer critique, while the senior instructor gives a more formal assessment. This is part of their official instructor validation process (and it’s the same process we use for certifying instructors on the CF side), and it works well, though it’s not really happened lately, we plan to reinvigorate it before Ramadan arrives. Third thing is getting the staff side of the schoolhouse worked out – the staff officers they have seem to be pretty smart and willing to work, so if we can use advisors along the chain to help them forge the links they need, then they should have an easier time doing the job.

All these are things we can accomplish.

Written by Nick

July 3, 2012 at 3:02 am

Happy Canada Day!

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July 1st was a beautiful day in Kabul.

The Canadian contingent at my office (of which I’m nominally in charge of, as the senior mentor is on leave) and I booked the day off for, ahem, “nationally mandated training”, which was actually a sports day.

The morning started with a ball hockey tournament on the helipad. There were scheduled flights coming in, but none appeared during the tournament. Actually, it as a little unfortunate, because we were all looking forward to yelling “chopper” and clearing off when the bird landed, and “game on!” after it was done… In the afternoon we played beach volleyball (very Top Gun-esque) and had a tug-of-war competition, which greatly amused a large group of ANP (Afghan National Police) who were leaving after some training on our camp. Tragically, my team didn’t win a single thing… but good times were had by all.

The piece de resistance of the day, however, was a massive feed of barbecued lamb, grilled tomatoes, and naan prepared by the LCA (language and cultural advisor) from the largest Canadian organization on camp. And an issue of two cans of Molson Canadian for all Canadians on camp. Probably tied for best meal I’ve had in Afghanistan with the kebabs we got a few weeks ago while out on a MTT, which our interpreter picked up for us out in the city.

Fun thing: sun + lots of physical exertion + two beer = pretty much set to pass out shortly after. I did, however, manage to watch a movie with one of the Americans I worked with before I shut ‘er down for the night. I’m also now experiencing the fun of sunburn, which I normally never get, and it’s my own fault for rather arrogantly dismissing offers of sunscreen because I don’t normally need it. Self-inflicted misery, I suppose, though it isn’t actually that bad at all.

I’m now realizing I’m “over the hump” of this deployment, not that I can suggest it’s anywhere near a stressful experience – but I’m now past the projected half-way point. Before much longer I’ll be on leave (which consumes almost a month of my remaining time), and when I get back we’ll basically be set on closing down shop and gliding toward the end. There’s still a lot of uncertainty to what will happen to the end, because of dates not lining up and such things, but I have as solid an idea of when I’m going home as ever, being gradually confirmed as we get info about the plans for redeployment.

As that date gets closer, though, there’s a whole lot things I have to start thinking about with respect to going home, actually. It’s not as simple as just going back as though nothing’s changed, of course. There’s the matter of having to actually decide what to do when I get back, and I expect there will be some shock of getting home as well. I have an idea of what I actually want to do fairly quickly after getting home (weather dependent) – which is a motorcycle trip from my home in Halifax to my parents’ winter home in Arizona, leaving the bike there for the winter for a return trip next spring on a different route. The thing is, after living and working in close quarters with the same people for eight months or so, I’d like some time away from everyone – after a few days with my wife of course, but I also know that it’ll be a disruptor for her, because she’s been used to having the run of the house for so long. We experienced that when I got back from workup training before I actually deployed.

I also have to then jump back into a career. This is an interesting variable for me – I’m on leave from my civilian employer and will return to them after my post-deployment leave period, but my challenge is to figure out what role I want, because I’m not sure I want to do the same thing as I was doing before – I have ideas of what I want to actually do – and have seen some internal job postings that tie into it well – but how it’ll all time I’m not really sure. It’s not something I worry about per se, but it’s something I have to start thinking about – eventually what I do here will come to an end and I have to have a plan for that…

Written by Nick

July 2, 2012 at 5:04 am

Spem Reduxit

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Hope restored – that’s actually the motto of the Royal New Brunswick Regiment, which I don’t actually have anything to do with, but it seemed a fitting title for today’s post. Things are looking up, actually. After the meeting we had the other day I wrote about, which went all sorts of wrong, we started working with various levels to try to figure out a way forward and to understand what happened and why, and it was productive. Various advisors conferred with various ANA personnel to discuss the situation and it appears to be somewhat resolved. We actually got what one advisor called “the closest thing to an apology you’re likely to get here, the closest he’s ever seen” for the way our meeting went. It turns out that there was some “lost in translation” and cultural disconnects in play. What the General who came was getting at was that in his view there was a long way to go before transition, and he wanted to make sure that we knew that he expected a lot from the ANA staff and from us to help make that happen. Or something like that.

So we’re going to just carry on as before. Mostly. We’ve also embarked on a good project to keep us going for a while, to review all the “final” course material to make sure it is good to go for transition. Part of the frustration that the Canadian team has found is that the Americans don’t do lesson plans like we do. Canadian military lesson plans are very detailed, to the point that theoretically someone who’s not even that well versed in a subject can read the plan over and be in a position to teach the material reasonably well. That, personally, annoys me because it does happen – people are pegged to teach stuff they don’t really know much about – but it’s worse when you get a “lesson plan” that consists of what the material to be taught is, and a PowerPoint slide deck that has some notes. That’s it, that’s all. It’s not something that you can easily pick up and study and be set to teach.

What we’re embarking on is a task to take all the “finalized” lessons and flesh out the speakers notes into much more detail to make it so instructors have a little more to go on. Afghans, we’re told, generally will get a lesson and master it by memorizing the material (including having people read it all to them repeatedly if they’re illiterate, which happens), but won’t always go the extra step to get the depth we’d like. Again, to be fair, we do this too sometimes! The point, however, is to make it so there’s a lot more knowledge built into the material they’re using so that they’ll have more to work with, which I think is good.

That gives me a bit of a renewed sense of purpose, because at times I was getting to wonder how I was going to keep busy with everything that happened last week.

Written by Nick

June 27, 2012 at 5:14 am