Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Gagetown

Down To The Short Strokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focusing In On The End State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deeper Thoughts On Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or we shouldn’t. I don’t.

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

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

Written by Nick

January 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Back In The Swing

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

January 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm

And We’re Back…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

January 16, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Kicking Off Week Three

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Last week ended alright – got some tear gas, got my rifle qualification done, and did a rather boring machine gun familiarization shoot which culminated in standing outside freezing waiting for a ride back to camp before I headed back to Halifax for a weekend that was quite enjoyable. Joy had been shopping for a lot of “home decor” stuff, and my friend Logan and I were set to work getting it all put up, which went well. It was slightly comical, as well. We tried to hang a mirror and couldn’t get it level despite using a laser level. It was only after drilling a few holes we realized that the problem was that the hanger points on the mirror itself weren’t level.

I also bought a Keurig K-Cup coffee machine to take with us. Our TAV folks told us our camp has terrible coffee so a few of us decided to bring our own kit for it. It’s going over in one of my MOBs.

This morning we again had some fantastic weather to start off the day. I started off the day with a little PT and headed over to sign out my rifle, which turned out to be a little bit pointless. Today’s range was a familiarization with the Canadian Forces’ Gunfighter program, a combat shooting program including a lot of close quarter and instinctive shooting. It’s a good program, the problem with it is that it’s a lot of stuff we should teach new soldiers from the outset rather than having to force people to “unlearn” all the bad habits they were taught. It was a 150 round shoot, nothing too exciting really, but a good bit of practice, since all shooting is good shooting. Anyhow, drawing my own rifle was pointless because the range had rifles set up with special slings and iron sights and we didn’t use our own. It did give me a chance to clean it a little, which it desperately needed. I have never signed for such a filthy rifle, most CQ’s I’ve seen would never have accepted it back into lockup in the condition it was in when I first brought it out.

We were done on the range around 2pm, so we headed back to Battalion, where I drew my SORD Modular Fighting Rig. For a while now, the CF has accepted that the Tactical Vest which came into service a few years ago was not adequate to meet the needs of soldiers deployed in places like Afghanistan, and they’ve been trialing several replacements. As I understand it, we’re the first group to trial this particular option formally, though it’s been a popular choice for soldiers as an off-the-shelf purchase, one that is evidently begrudgingly tolerated by the powers that be. We’re also getting some other new Gucci items we haven’t seen yet.

After dropping my rifle off I headed next to Clothing Stores to get fitted for a flak vest (body armour) and a new rucksack, and then to draw my new kit. Dragging two MOB boxes behind me I left with virtually everything I’ll need for overseas. In fact, that only things I’m missing are items that won’t be issued until I get there. It’s a lot of stuff.

All the stuff...

That was my day. I was planning to do all the kit issue stuff tomorrow, thinking I wouldn’t have the chance today, but now I’m a day ahead, which is good, because I think I’ll have a chance tomorrow to get some other personal administration stuff done, things like getting new orthotics, getting a haircut (which I desperately need), and going to figure out from the clerks why I haven’t been paid. I’m also going to take a fair bit of my stuff over to clothing stores to exchange – anything old, worn, damaged, obsolete – and there’s a fair bit of that kind of thing that I have here. I’m also going to get at least one MOB ready to close up to be delivered to the traffic techs to get shipped off.

We don’t really have anything else on the schedule until Friday, a BFT and BBQ – but there’s lots that will come up I’m sure.

Written by Nick

November 21, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Some Real Training Gets Underway

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Things are getting underway, after a  slow start. Thursday morning I went was woken up pretty early by a bunch of people heading out for an early breakfast so they could go to the range. I got up and went out for a nice run through the Lindsay Valley, which is a trail system on base. Was a nice morning to watch the sunrise. The day’s agenda was pretty simple – CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear warfare) training, one of the IBTS checks in the box we have to get for whatever reason. In the morning we did some dry training, getting refreshed on how to use our kit – a “bunny suit”, overboots, and heavy rubber gloves, and of course our gas masks. I hadn’t used the one I have in a gas environment and forgot to bring it to Gagetown last week, so I didn’t get to do the Quantitative Fit Test, which confirms that the mask fits and seals properly before you actually get the gas. I was taking a bit of a chance, but it sealed alright during rehearsals so it wasn’t too bad.

Once we were done that we went off to lunch, and afterward headed out to N6, the gas hut. It’s a pretty simple one room building with a hot plate which disperses CS (tear gas). CS comes in capsules, just like you take medication in. You heat it up and the gas is formed almost immediately. So, first time you go on, you’re in Dress State Four – completely in the suit. It’s done to allow you to get familiar with the layout and get confidence in the kit – you do some exercises and moving around to see that it works. Then you head out. Next time you go in, you simulate being caught out in an attack – so you pull up a hood, cover your hands under your arms, and run for shelter – right into a room now well filled with gas. So you get a good feel for the effect, get all suited up, and then you change canisters. You take a huge breath, unscrew the canister, hand it to your buddy, and then reinstall it – which is a little tough when you don’t have peripheral vision. No issue. Last trip in, you do the full decontamination drill – using a fake version of RSDL – reactive skin decontaminating lotion – greasy, nasty stuff that gets all over you, but the real stuff works against pretty much any chemical agent.

Once we got done that, it was a done day, and a long hot shower to get all the RSDL shit off me, and we took off for wings, myself, the S3, and the S4 of my camp. We’re all around the same age so it seems a good idea to start hanging out a fair bit, we’re going to be living in close quarters for the next year or so anyhow. Good times were had by all, even me sweating away with the Thai chili sauce on the wings.

This morning was our day to get up early to go to the range, so I walked over to the MSA Warehouse where our weapons are stored to sign out my C7, and we jumped on a bus out to the training area, to the Amiens 600m rifle range. We were there to complete our PWT-3, personal weapons test level three, the infantry shooting standard. Here’s the fun part: because my camp is so small and has so few augmentees, we’re lumped in with another contingent, mostly health services people – among them dentists, orthopedic surgeons, an anesthetist, and so on.  Because they are deploying they have to shoot to the infantry standard (well, in theory, but I’ll get to that…). In fact, for this tour, they’re getting the CF’s Gunfighter supplement, which is a much more intensive course in close quarter and instinctive shooting. Should be a fun few days. I shot on the first relay, and despite a stoppage keeping me from being able to get all my rounds off I passed. Not as good as usual. My boss was one off perfect, though, pretty cool. There was a subtext to the scoring brief that 29 is a pass. And there were a few 29s, suggesting that some “miscounting” might have happened.

After cycling through the butts, we were done around 2:30 and went back into camp for a couple of hours until it got dark so we could do some shooting with Monocular Night Vision Goggles and PAQ-4C laser aiming devices. In the meantime I had my first meeting with the J1, the guy who basically I work for as part of the National Command & Support Element. Trying to explain how chains of command work on this mission is complicated, and probably boring. The 1 shop’s job is basically to look after all the people over there, and so the J1 is in charge of all of that for all the Canadians there, and S1s like me function as camp adjutants for Canadians, so I will be the CO of my camp’s aide on staff work and be looking after everything for the 40 or so Canadians there in terms of leave, adminstration, and so on.

The meeting wasn’t too detailed, just a chance to meet our peers and get an idea of what’s being worked on. There are three major things that are being dealt with – leave, performance assessments, and HLTA issues. All are a ways away from getting organized but at least we know where things are going.

I got out just in time to catch the ride back to the range for the night shoot, which went pretty quickly, and it started to rain just as we were giving the final ammunition declarations to get off the range. Buses took us back to the MSA to turn in the rifles (which we couldn’t clean because they haven’t bothered issuing us cleaning kits!) and now I’m back in the shacks. And pretty tired.

Tomorrow I’m going for a run with the S3 and S4 because we don’t have planned camp PT. The boss really doesn’t seem to have much concern about that, he just cares that we’re doing some form of PT, and it was his asking that prompted us to plan to do it together, so that was good. After that we’re back out to ranges (Vimy 600m range this time I think) for a familiarization shoot on the C6 general purpose machine gun (sometimes called “The Pig”), and the C9A2 light machine gun. Not really a big thing for me but it’ll be interesting to see the doctors with them. Should be fun. And that’s the week done, I’ll pick up my leave pass and figure out a way back to Halifax tomorrow night.

Next week, we do Gunfighter training and start combat first aid, and at some point I’ve got to get over to clothing stores to draw all of my desert pattern kit. In a bit of forward thinking, when we come back from Christmas leave, we can leave out green CADPAT at home, and tans become our dress of the day until we leave. Makes good sense.

Written by Nick

November 17, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Write Down Timings, Then Show Up Early Anyhow…

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Before I left the office Monday night I scribbled a note about when we were due in this morning for a parade which was supposed to see a large number of “while so employed” promotions being done. I had down that we were forming up at 7:30. So I made a point of being at Battalion at around 7:20. And I was one of the last to arrive. And walked down the frontage instead of just hiding in the back as I went to fall in with my camp, which was of course at the far end of the hall. Fortunately, nothing more was said, and the parade didn’t end up starting until 7:30, at which point we were told that the WSE promotions weren’t ready anyhow, and since we were all here, we were going to carry on with drug testing. Not really a surprise, and not something I’m worried about, but it was quite a production. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad in terms of organization, and I quickly went and stood in the next line of the day – to see the medics who wanted to review my needle book to make sure I got all my shots (which I was already signed off for before I left Halifax – pay attention, there’s a theme here!). Good to go. By that time I headed to the kitchen for lunch as the next line, to pick up my PRV form, was too long.

Back from lunch I got into another line, and into a conversation with some people about the idea of doing a social experiment of getting some soldiers to form a line at random, and see how many people would join without knowing what it was actually for. After I got to the counter, a flustered clerk reported he couldn’t find my paperwork. Why, you ask? Because all the Reservist files are segregated, and were in another office. With no line. Oh well. Off to mental health screening after that, a quick chat with a social worker (which again I had already done), a new signature on the PRV, and back to the office to drop it off.

I did find out that I’m getting paid tomorrow, though my contract hasn’t quite come through, it should be sorted for next pay day though.

The day ended with some notes from an OGrp (and a meeting I was supposed to attend that no one bothered to tell me about!) about what’s going on for the next few days, and we were gone. Tomorrow, I’m off to get my CBRN IBTS check in the box – which means a trip to the gas hut – a room that will be nicely filled with CS (tear gas) to confirm I know how to mask up, drink with my mask on, decontaminate myself, and all that fun stuff. following that, we’re meeting with the guy who’s come back from our camp to pick his brain a little more, which might include beer and wings at a place off base… we’ll just have to see.

Written by Nick

November 15, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Monday of Week 2

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If anyone has come up with a better way to kick off the week with lots of energy, I don’t know who it is – this morning I was over to the Base Theatre at 7:45am to sit through three and a half hours of briefings. Three and a half hours of Death By PowerPoint. There was, fortunately, a little levity in the process, delivered by the Padre while he waited to start his brief, but for the most part, it was the grinding nonsense that is part of the process of getting us out the door. It would have been a lot nicer to have had it at just about any other time, especially given that based on my insomnia last night, I timed my wake up to give me pretty much just enough time to roll out of bed into my uniform and walk down to the theatre. And while I was waiting to get in, it didn’t dawn on me to walk across the street to the Tim Hortons to get a source of caffeine. Oh well.

So the briefs… lots covered. First up was the Chief Clerk, giving the lowdown on all the allowances and benefits and so on that we get overseas – how things like HLTA, leave, and all that sort of thing work. Based on that I have pretty much an exact idea of how much I’ll be getting paid while I’m overseas, and the next step is to figure out how to divide it up. Some will stay in theatre, accruing in a pay account of sorts I can get paid out in cash for carpets and so on, the rest goes home and into the bank here.

Next up, the Deployment Support Centre – the folks who basically link our families to the military while we’re gone. I don’t expect that they’ll be necessary, but it’s good to know that they have a system in place for a lot of different contingencies. The DSC is based in Gagetown but they link in with resources everywhere so it doesn’t really that my wife is in Halifax, if something comes up they’ll help out. My home unit also has a “family rep” who is linked into the rear party and will keep in touch with her to make sure she’s doing alright.

Following them, a representative from Operational Stress Injuries Support Services spoke. Interestingly, it was Fred Doucette, who wrote a book called Empty Casing about his experiences serving in Sarajevo, and his subsequent struggles. I know two OSISS folks, both of them are basically “peer outreach” people, the other is Sgt. (Ret’d) John Tescione. Google his name, and you’ll see why dealing with OSIs is nothing foreign to him. The message from OSISS was simple, but important – a good chunk of people who deploy will experience some form of operational stress injuries – but they can be dealt with, and most people will recover completely as long as they seek the help they need. OSISS exists to try to persuade people that they can get help, and to break the stigma against seeking that help. It’s important, and the message is pretty credible when it comes from someone who suffered and took too long to get the help they needed. Fred’s book’s a great read, incidentally.

Next up: the padre (Chaplain) for the Task Force. I make no secret of being an unabashed atheist, but I generally speaking have a lot of time for Chaplains in the CF, and his rudimentary attempt at stand up comedy certainly broke the morning up a bit. Not much said there that people didn’t know – just that they’re there to listen to anyone, generally confidentially, and so on. They tend to be great for solving problems that soldiers face, they almost have a social worker function within the Forces. I don’t see why we pay clergy when we could have secular people do the job… but that’s a whole other matter I’m not going to delve into.

Then SISIP – the financial services and insurance folks, who were nice enough to point out that my insurance coverage should be reviewed, and that the limits on insurance we can get have been raised since I got mine and are going up again next fiscal year. They’re working out a way to make sure we max out. I, of course, hope that I have no need of that, but as a wise old Sergeant long ago told me, better to have and not need than need and not have. I got briefly excited at the fact that they can handle my taxes, until I realized that they won’t do mine because they’re far to complicated given the rental property I own, and the nature of my “day job” employment. I’m going to have to get everything organized before I go and get an accountant to finish it off… if it’s in my favour anyhow. If it looks like I owe, I’ll take advantage of the blanket extension we get.

Then a pretty dull discussion by the JAG about wills, powers of attorney, and so on. I have this basically looked after but not in detail so I think I’ll consult a lawyer over Christmas break just to make sure I’ve not overlooked anything. Having the background I do I’ve seen all sorts of nightmares and I don’t want to deal with that.

Last was the moment we were really waiting for – a “reverse TAV” briefing. I’m pretty sure that TAV is “theatre activation visit” – reversing it means that people from theatre came back to Canada to give us some pertinent information about what Roto 0 has experienced and learned. Most of the detail pertained to other camps, but there’s someone here from the camp I’m headed to and we plan to spend some more time with him with a list of questions it’s my job to compile. A lot of the generic information about NTM-A was interesting, not shocking really. Training the ANSF is a grinding, frustrating, slow process – and success doesn’t look like what we’d expect to see here. The lessons learned are simple: learn the language as best you can, use the interpreters wisely, prepare them well when you’re dealing with technical issues, expect that things like nepotism/tribalism/corruption will be a factor in all planning, and so on. One of the more interesting things is that the previous rotation too often “gave” them things, solved their problems for them, instead of actually forcing the Afghans to learn to do so for themselves. That’s also not productive, and it makes sense. it’s particularly important in the field of sustainment because that’s where we really need to focus on developing their capabilities by the sound of it.

After that, we briefly met with our boss, who hasn’t actually joined us on work up because he hasn’t been released from his current gig, and then dealt with some administrative issues, stuff that has to get organized and is starting to. My fellow staff officers and I fairly quickly realized there wasn’t much else we could do, so I headed back to the shacks to be more productive, and spent a couple of hours with my Dari instructional software. I got through a couple of modules, primarily focused on familiarization with Dari script (the Persian alphabet) and matching letters to sounds. A lot of it was filling in missing letters from words/phrases so that I learn to recognize phonemes. Most Dari sounds are fairly easily equated to English phonemes so it isn’t that hard. There are also exercises built around figuring out what words mean by reading the Dari script. They do this with city and country names, and loan words so that they’re somewhat familiar already. The trick to Dari is that the short values aren’t written, they’re just determined by context, so it’s hard to look at a word and get the sound unless you have some recognizable context. As I understand it, it gets easier as you start building a vocabulary. I have three months to get a foundation, and eight months to really develop it.

We’ll leave aside the question of what I’ll do with a knowledge of Dari after my tour… go on tour again, I guess? That’s not exactly the right answer, though.

Tomorrow is a big parade – lots of “WSE” (while so employed) promotions to be handed out, and things like that. Wednesday we’re off to the gas hut to get the CBRN check in the box, and Thursday and Friday I’ll be out to the ranges. Hopefully the weather cooperates all along.

That’s all for now, I suppose… more than I usually write, I think.

Written by Nick

November 14, 2011 at 10:27 pm