Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘army life

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

At Last, Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

October 31, 2012 at 8:01 pm

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

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.

 

What Are You Doing When You Get Home, Anyhow?

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That’s becoming a pretty common question around here as we all plan to go our separate ways – there’s a lot of organizations rotating or leaving over the coming months and everyone’s mind is inevitably turning toward home. For the Regular Force guys, it’s not that complicated. Go on leave (quite a lot of it, actually), then return to work. It’ll soon be posting season and they’re all waiting to see what will come next. Some will be going on career courses. Some will be taking new jobs within their units. Some are getting out of the military and moving on to other things. One of our drivers who recently left us got accepted to school to become a paramedic and will be starting that when he gets back and ends his military career. Reservists, regardless of what country, tend to have a different set of parameters. Some, like my friend Chris who I met up with in Prague, just decided to spend some time traveling and will then figure out what to do next. Some will go immediately back to the civilian job they had previously. Some have full-time Reserve jobs to go back to once their leave period is up.

As for me… well… I have a civilian job to go back to. I’m going to take some time off while I’m on my post-deployment leave, but I’ll reintegrate into what some people jokingly call the “real world”, but I’m looking to see what else is available within the organization I work for because I’m not sure what I was doing before is what I want to do next. To my good fortune, it’s a big company, and there should be some great opportunities. I think I have a better idea of what I want to do than I did before. We’ve also started making some plans for my wife to continue her education a bit – a worthy investment, I think. If I’m going to drop a bunch of money to buy a new motorcycle when I get home, I can’t really not spend some money on her career prospects, right?

So, the bike. That’s the first plan. With 9D’s permission (always critical), I’m planning to pick it up as soon as I return, and after a short stay at home, head south. My parents winter in Arizona and will likely have already left town so I’m going to go visit them. I’ve been planning out the route and number of riding days, along with some stops along the way to see some people. I can’t really cast anything in stone because it’s all going to depend on making a call about the weather. Late October/early November might not work. Last year I put my bike into storage on October 22 just before I left for Gagetown, and the ride to Mahone Bay was pretty chilly – though a week later it was nice and warm and bikes were still out everywhere. In fact, if I remember right, people were still riding on New Years Day in Halifax.

If it looks good, my plan is to get as far south as I can as fast as I can, to Washington DC for a day and then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and into North Carolina where one of my colleagues here who’s since departed lives. From there I’ll head to the Tail Of The Dragon across the Great Smoky Mountains (if the weather is good), into the Knoxville area, and then on into Arkansas, Texas (with a day off in San Antonio, I’m going to need it by then I’m sure), New Mexico, and finally Arizona for a week or so before I fly home.

Here’s hoping I have the frequent flyer points for a ticket home. I’m going to leave the bike in Arizona for the winter and return for it in the spring to ride back along a different route.

I’m reading through the awesome blog North American Circle to get ideas on routes and see how he found it went. He did it as a fundraiser. I’d love to do something like that too – but it’s not really original now. I’m hoping, however, that I can couchsurf lots of places to stay so I won’t have much to pay for but fuel. And I also hope my VStrom is a little more reliable than his BMW apparently was! The blog is full of good stories though, of the people me met and how people helped along the way, the kind of stuff that lets you thing that indeed people are generally good and worthy, which gets hard at times. I’m finding that there are a lot of couchsurfers in some places along the way that should be a help and I’m already starting to get in touch with them. The detail obsessed part of me is looking through Google maps and plotting distances, time, and routes. For the early days it’ll be all business on major highways until I’m far enough south that I can slow down a little and not worry about weather as much. Early November will still be sketchy in a few places.

I’ll get back from that in late November and have to see what comes of the rest. I know there’s lots of opportunities and options and so on. It’s amazing to think, however, that I’m probably more anxious about going back to work outside the army than I have been about really anything here – even that first convoy ride when I had no idea what was going on.

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.

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