Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘Germany

Back To The Sandbox

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After a long night flight to Dubai (which I sort of managed to sleep on, but in such a way as to leave my neck aching severely afterward, and a six hour layover in the world’s most famous Fly-In Shopping Mall (which is what DXB basically is, and why Emirates offers lots of cheap flights all over the world that connect through it), I boarded my flight back to Kabul and made my way back to camp.

I spent the last few days in Germany obviously finishing off work on the course, and we managed to wrap up early after a really well done interactive demonstration of what we teach done by one of the British students who’s sort of their subject matter expert already and was just coming to deepen his knowledge. Had we known about his version of our “COIN Skit” we’d have done it earlier on. We wrapped up around lunch time and headed off to Munich to start the trip back.

First night in Munich we stayed west of the city and explored around a bit, next morning I used Hotwire to find somewhere a little more central and the remainder of my team dropped me off there and then headed to the airport. This gave me a chance to visit a camera shot and pick up a zoom lens for my new camera (a Nikon 1), and set off to explore Munich, which I did without a particularly detailed plan. I headed to Marienplatz and up the tower at the Neues Rathaus to get some pictures of the city, and then I just basically walked around until finally I got to the English Garden and decided I was tired and wanted to head back to find some dinner and sleep. Munich’s subway system, while looking a little dated, is pretty efficient once you figure out how the fares work, and it dropped me near my hotel and a convieniently located doner kebab joint.

In planning what else to do, I had been interested in visiting Dachau, which is basically a large museum. Part of the Rules of Engagement from 9D (my wife) about our trip when I go on leave is that she’s not too interested in much WW2 historical stuff – so I wanted to knock off some key points, and Munich was basically where Hitler got his start and the Nazis rose to power so what better place to do that? I decided to take a pair of tours with the fabulous Radius Tours, led by Steve, an ex-close protection guy, UK expat, and history buff.  First, we boarded a train to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich. It was a very fascinating and very sobering place to visit, and interestingly, a group of German soldiers (in uniform) were there as well. It leaves you wondering how exactly such things could ever have existed, and how, with such reminders of atrocity, human beings manage to keep visiting such horror upon others.

Three or four hours’ walking around does not really do the site justice, but it was enough to get an initial appreciation, and knowing a lot of the history already meant it was just adding to that knowledge and putting it into context. We headed back to the train station and I found some lunch before the second tour, the Third Reich walking tour. While I read up on some of the major sites in Munich, Steve actually helped me find some less known ones, and added more to the story – Hitler’s favourite nightclub, Das Kuenstlershaus, still stands on Karlsplatz. The fountain in the Botanical Gardens, a classic piece of Nazi artwork when you realize what it is, sits unassumingly behind the courthouse. And just behind it, I was amazed to see a Nazi Eagle still on a state building, its swastika removed. In fact, in Munich, you’ll notice a lot places where Nazi symbols have been removed from doorframes and buildings, once you see one, and that’s what Steve was so good at pointing out. We passed the hotel where the SA was formed, the beer hall (now closed) where Hitler often held court, and the top floor of the Hofbrauhaus, from which Hitler took control of the DAP and the Nazi Movement was born.

There’s several examples of Nazi neogothic architecture to be seen, like Haus Der Kunst, the House Of Art, a large museum that was designed by architect Paul Troost, who inspired Albert Speer’s designs for other Nazi buildings. Steve told us that when Hitler was laying the cornerstone, the hammer broke, which he perceived as a bad omen, and Troost died of pneumonia a year later, never seeing the building finished. Wouldn’t have known that without a good guide.

That, I guess, is the beauty of a good guide, you learn all the stories you’d miss walking around, even though I find it frustrating to be on someone else’s pace at times. Guides like Steve are good because they just get stories from others and build them into their tours, which makes them more fascinating, particularly in the case of Dachau where he’s met so many survivors and their families, but also the families of some of the staff of the camp who have their own perspective.

So, I’m back in country – my longest stretch to spend here now over, because my upcoming leave breaks up the remainder of my stay into smaller chunks, and I can’t complain about that in the least. We’ve got some work to do over the next little while (including, for me, getting a handle on what the other Canadian Captain here does because he’s just headed off on leave and I’ll have to take care of his responsibilities) as we prepare to transition this place over to the ANA and go home. I’ve also got to get myself moved into my new room (if only I can get a hold of the keys!), and my camp finally has laundry service, so for the first time since being here I had the luxury of simply dropping off my laundry to be done for me. Kind of nice. Except I’m out of socks apparently – I have some buried in my rucksack while I’ll pull out today when I move, I guess.

That’s my life for the moment. Oddly enough, I’m kind of glad to be back here.

 

Written by Nick

June 12, 2012 at 2:52 am

Professional Development Interlude

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I’ve taken advantage of our schedule to see a little bit of Germany while I am here. German history has fascinated me for a long time. Watching the fall of the Berlin Wall is the first memory I have of starting to pay attention to news. I was 10 when that happened.

One of my friends happened to be in Germany on a task supporting a European exercise, and so I made arrangements to meet up with him. We spent an evening telling war stories over a great feed of Bavarian food.

On the way, I found myself in Nuremberg and visited the museum at the Palace Of Justice where the Nuremberg Trials happened. I can now say I’ve stood in Courtroom 600. The museum display was excellent. I also went to Dokumentationszentrum – the former Nazi Congress Hall, site of another museum about Albert Speer’s masterworks of Nazi architecture. I could have spent a long time in Nuremberg and will definitely need to go back at some point.

It was all a happy accident when I got off the Autobahn to figure out where I was.

The other museum I went to was OP Alpha and The House On The Border, which sits at the Fulda Gap, which was considered to be the most likely axis of advance for the Red Army in an invasion of Western Europe during the Cold War. OP (Observation Post) Alpha was a small US outpost that sat just 50 metres from the Inner German Border and is now preserved as a museum.

From there you can walk along the concrete brick road used by the East German Border Police to move along the fence. The path shows the evolution of border defences from simple roadblocks to single and then double barbed wire fences, to finally the expanded steel mesh fences and watchtowers, landmines, dogs and other methods used to divide the country. Quite a sight to see and take in.

I then made my way back down to Regensburg, winding around back roads and just generally enjoying the scenery. Part of the trip wound through the former East Germany, which 21 years after reunification blends mostly into the West, but I was impressed to recognize the Soviet style apartment blocks in one town, which were identical to those found in Kabul, where they are called Macrorayons.

The course is now winding down, and soon we’ll head “home”. Strange to think of it that way, but I do. For now, it is. It’s not as posh as a hotel, but comfortable and familiar.

Written by Nick

June 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Spreading The Message

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Day four of our course and things are going pretty well. I’m realizing – well, to be honest, I’ve always known that I love teaching. Especially when the topic is something that really interests me and that I can really dig deep into. That’s the kind of person I am, I’ll do loads of research and want to get as much insight into things as I can to convey it.

The course I’m teaching on as part of three-man Mobile Training Team has just shy of 100 students, the largest audience I’ve ever taught in front of by far. We are working in a nice theatre, three big projectors, and a ridiculous audio-visual suite. I’ve never taught with monitors before, so when I ask a question the cacophony coming back through the monitors makes it challenging.

The students are great. They range from junior NCOs to senior officers, from Canada, the USA, the UK, Estonia, Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, Belgium, and Spain.

I’ve been a little ambiguous about what I do in Afghanistan, but I think I can ease up on that. I work at the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan as a COIN instructor, validation officer, and I’ll soon be taking on a staff mentor role as well. As we work on transitioning to ANA running the show, we are involved less and less in actual training. This is actually probably the last coalition training we will do, and we are basically here in Germany to train, validate, and certify counterinsurgency instructors who can then train their soldiers in preparation both to come to Afghanistan or to get involved in any sort or low intensity conflict or counterinsurgency operation. We are teaching some Afghan-specific stuff, but a lot of generic theory.

The other instructors I’m here with I haven’t taught with before but it’s working well, we have a pretty good rapport and our styles mesh well. We take lots of jabs at each other to keep the atmosphere light and encourage students to jump in – we want them to challenge us, debate us. We aren’t all-knowing experts, after all.

Being in Germany has an element of surrealism to it after being in Afghanistan three months. I rented a car and driving after three months of almost never doing it is a strange feeling indeed. I’ve not yet been out onto the Autobahn but that’s coming in a couple of days.

Being on a US base requires me to get a “ration card” to be able to shop at the PX or Commissary (supermarket) on base. It’s actually a stamp on my NATO Travel Order, which allows me to buy four cartons of cigarettes, four bottles of spirits, and 1.25 pounds of coffee (or 5 ounces of instant coffee). Quite an allowance for two weeks, none of which I have any use for. The rations restrictions are in place because these goods are tax exempt, but apparently controls on many goods exist because there’s a chance soldiers might get the idea to resell stuff into the black market – these are remnants of occupation rules really.

Last night we visited the “German Kantine” on post to mingle a bit, from the Germans I got travel advice for Berlin, from Canadians some good war stories, and there’s a British Captain who has a lot of background dealing with ANA and told some stories about defusing some of the problems we have dealing with religion – he’s a Muslim and didn’t let ten get away with shirking work to pray as I’ve seen happen. “Great, it’s prayer time. I’ll pray with you. We’ll do it tactically! Half provide security, half pray and switch.” “But we need water for wudu (ritual ablutions)!”. “No you don’t. Use dust, that’s allowed!”. This was a brilliant way to disarm them – something most of us can’t do.

As a demonstration of “Good COIN”, he offered to drive me back to my hotel in Regensburg so my colleagues could head back to the hotel early. Perfect.

We have some sightseeing planned on the little bit of downtime we have, and when that’s all done we head back. By coincidence a good friend of mine from home isn’t far away on another NATO tasking, I haven’t seen him in months, so it’ll be great to catch up when we get together on our off day.

Written by Nick

June 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Culture Shock

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Today, after three months in Kabul, I headed to the airport early in the morning to catch a plane. I mentioned in a previous post about how I was getting a chance to teach at a training centre in Germany, and today was the big day.

For the first time since getting here, I walked around outside a camp or other secure compound, and did so without wearing body armour. I wore civilian clothes for the first time in months, a pair of jeans that are significantly too large for me. I couldn’t fit my boots in my suitcase, so I had to go with wearing them rather than Sketchers, but nevertheless it was a weird feeling.

Security at Kabul International Airport, the civilian side, is pretty tight indeed. My bags were x-rayed on the way into the area. Then again before I checked in, where I got frisked in more detail than I think I’ve ever been. I then checked in without incident, and sat in the terminal. Most passengers leaving for Dubai were westerners – contractors, diplomats, NGO workers including a Finnish woman and her two sons. She’s live in Kabul for twelve years, it’s the only home her kids have know. I have to admire the dedication of someone who’d commit to trying to help such a place so long. She laughed at my frustration at not being able to walk out in the city, to meet and talk to people, but that’s the reality of my job.

Two and a half hour’s flying brought us to Dubai, and what I can only describe as an overwhelming culture shock. I’m not used to so many people, so much… normalcy? Though I’d hardly call DXB normal! So much luxury, it’s a giant mall. But a Starbucks coffee and sushi for lunch was a welcome change from DFAC “food”.

We expected we could get into one of the lounges, because the team lead is one of those ultra platinum frequent flyers, but no such luck. The expected reciprocal privileges were not offered. Such is life, however.

I’m starting this post from an Emirates Boeing 777 – probably the greatest flight I’ve ever been on, and waiting for lamb curry for dinner, watching as the screen shows us flying over Iraq toward Turkey, and onward to Germany. Tonight, I’ll sleep in a hotel, in a huge comfortable bed. I think I’ll take a ridiculously long shower – if available, a bath! Such simple pleasures after three months.

It’ll be a busy couple of weeks or so working on the course, and then it’ll be back to Kabul for my next stretch – shorter than the last. In fact, I’ve completed the single longest stretch of time I’ll spend in Afghanistan. It’s going to be two shorter spans – broken up by leave – and then home. To what, I’m not sure. More shocks, I’m sure. But good ones.

Written by Nick

May 29, 2012 at 11:20 am