Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘last stretches

Last Week In Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

October 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

Into The Last Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Hundredth Post

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According to WordPress, this will be the 100th post I’ve put up here – but that does include the stuff I’ve reposted from other blogs. Nevertheless it’s an idea number having passed a bit of a milestone. Yesterday we held a small ceremony to mark the official transfer of responsibility for our institution to the Afghans. Normally, this is known as “1-Alpha” – or more formally, “Capability Milestone 1A”, the end of a series of milestones determined by what the ANA has gained the ability to do on their own.

However, we can’t officially declare CM1A just yet on a technicality, because the permanent location for the organization isn’t ready yet. They’re occupying a temporary facility while the Afghan National Defence University is being constructed at Qargha, just west of Kabul. So, while their NTM-A advisors are being withdrawn (I will officially be the last one), I’m charged with preparing some “handover notes” I can give to some people who will be in a position to lend support during the interim period, as our ANA friends do still have some logistical challenges of a nature probably too complex to get into here.

Essentially, my job’s almost done in the sense that I’m here for not much longer to make some final connections for our partners, and to do up some nice public affairs stuff about what we’ve accomplished. And to prepare for the trip home.

Fittingly enough that’s underway. I’ve packed up my UAB, which made me try to figure out what I wanted to keep here and what I was okay with sending home – I think I’ve gotten my stock down to the point that I won’t be stuck trying to pack everything into bags that are too small. I’ve started to segregate the stuff I have to return before I leave – or rather, to find the stuff I was issued, but don’t use, and pack it in one place so I’m not scrambling for it. Most of what I sent home was of the same nature – stuff I needed when I got here and it was 20 below zero, for example.

It’s going to be a long few weeks until I leave, I fear – but we’re all working on things to fill the time – professional development stuff, finishing off courses, looking at courses to do, I might even try to do one last shot of PD for the ANA instructors, if I can get interpreters. Ours have all been released back to the company that supplies them to get new jobs.

I’m also planning things for when I get home – doing route planning for a long motorcycle trip that I’m going to try to squeeze in before winter. Basically, heading all the way down to Arizona where my parents spent the winter. They’ll likely have left before I get home, but the plan is to head there, leave my bike there for the winter, stay a few days, and fly home, then get on with the business of returning to work. But I’m still having to research things like the weather – because that obviously will come into play at the early stages. I really want it to be possible, but we’ll see.

Written by Nick

September 4, 2012 at 9:35 am

And Then There Were Three…

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

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

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

Written by Nick

September 1, 2012 at 12:57 am

Things On My Mind Before I Go

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The day is getting so close now that I’m trying to review in my head all the things I need to get done, and it’s complicated. I wanted to get my tax return sorted out for the year before I left, and I managed to do that last night. I made a typo in my tax software that made me think I was getting back a pretty sizable return, but when I was going over everything I discovered the mistake. It turns out I owe this year – though nothing overwhelming. One of the tricks being a Reservist is that I have to try to get it so that the tax withheld on my army pay is enough to actually cover what I owe. I’ve gotten better at this over time, but it’s not perfect. I think I’ll just use a small RRSP loan to cover off the balance, and pay it off when I get over there, which shouldn’t be an issue.

I have the option to defer filing until after my tour, but I’m not going to do that for one simple reason: the nature of my civilian job is such that it’s much easier to file electronically, rather than assemble a massive tax package – being paid by commissions means you have a lot of deductions to submit receipts etc for. If I defer, I’ll miss the window on NetFile, and that’s more hassle than it’s worth. I have almost  everything I need now anyhow – just waiting on one last T4 slip to make sure I have all the numbers right, and I’m good to go.

The family dynamic is what’s really interesting, challenging. I have been in the army 11 years, all of them as a reservist. That means I’ve been away from home a fair bit, but usually in very short spurts – a weekend here, a week there, the odd longer stint doing courses and so on. The longest so far was about 14 weeks while I was on one my officer training courses at the Infantry School. Being three hours from my parents and able to talk to my wife whenever I felt like it more or less made that pretty simple. When I went back in January, I wasn’t home for three weeks, and that’s a first in a while, since 2008 actually. In the first stage of workup I was home every weekend as it’s a relatively short drive and I could always find someone to bring me here.

That seems like forever ago, incidentally – this whole process seems like it has been a whole lot longer than it actually has.

This is going to be different, and it won’t be easy I suspect. From when I leave to get on the plane in a few days, it’ll be something like seven months before I see my wife again, when we meet during my leave. That actually makes me think my dates might have to change, since they don’t match up with our projected RIP dates – must look into that… We haven’t yet decided where we’re going, we’ve discussed Greece, Turkey, the Czech Republic (and a Eurail Pass), Morocco (well, I have), Russia, so many ideas. I’ll see her for a couple of weeks, and then head back for the last little stretch beforee it’s time to come home.

There’s an interesting effect though, I’ve noticed. Being home actually creates disruption for now – she’s so used to the idea of me being gone that my being here disrupts the routines, the structures she’s gotten in place to be ready for the next little while. It’s not just me that’s got a lot to contend with – in fact, it’s families that do a lot more. I’ve always admired military families, I’ve always heard from senior leaders how important they are to the team’s effort, how vital they are to the CF being able to do anything, but it’s going from abstraction to reality.

They don’t do it alone, fortunately.

Unlike the last time I had my name in for a tour, we have something of a luxury in that we live in a military town. Halifax is the home port of the Royal Canadian Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, so there’s lots of people in uniform here, and a great Military Family Resource Centre, which provides all sorts of services to our families. My wife was out to a briefing on how everything works, everything from why you always answer the phone when call display comes up “Government of Canada” (bad news is never delivered by phone), to what actually does happen in the event of casualties. I remember during my infantry officer course that it was important to include in your plan and your orders what the medevac plan is, how you’ll deal with casualties, because those you lead need to know that there is a plan. So they got the same briefing we did, what the medical resources are there, what happens when the worst happens, and all that.

One of my peers – actually two of them – also took it upon themselves to make sure that my wife has people to call if she needs anything. We refer to the Army as being family, and it really is. We look out for each other, we look out for everyone’s family. It’s not something they have to tell us to do, it just happens. I’m glad to know that is the case. I know that if I’m not around and something does happen she’s got people to call on. That said, the marvels of modern technology mean that I’m going to be able to stay in touch pretty well – I don’t think we’ll be that out of touch. Between Skype, Facebook, satellite phones, my biggest worry is having something to talk about most of the time.

This is going to lead right into what I wanted to talk about. I hear so many people going on about “supporting the troops”. It’s become a political statement in some cases, a means of separating one group from another in debates, all sorts of things. I see all sorts of people with those little yellow ribbon stickers on cars, or making the statements, or whatever. But what does that actually mean? So you bought a ribbon from Wal-Mart and stuck it on your car. You’re supporting the business that makes them, in most case, but does that actually do anything for soldiers? Probably not. So, if you want to really “support the troops” more than making an increasingly empty statement, I’ve got some suggestions. I added some links to organizations you can donate to that make tangible efforts to improve the lives of military families and soldiers. I’m going to keep adding other organizations that do good in the world that hopefully will help us build a world where eventually soldiers are almost unnecessary. Our boss on this tour has charged us with the responsibility to work ourselves out of a job – if only to be handed another one – but imagine if that was what could be done for our communities on a grand scale?

I don’t want to sound ranty, but it’s important stuff. Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2 has a motto that encapsulates it well: Facta non verba. Deeds, not words. Actions, not stickers. There’s nothing wrong with those stickers, by the way, if you buy them from an organization like CFPSA, where the proceeds go directly to programs for soldiers and their families. If I can impress anything upon anyone reading this though, it’s just go do something. Someone asked what she could do to support me, and I just said go do something that makes her community better. You can donate to organizations that do good work, but if that’s not something you can do, time is often as valuable, or more so. One of the things the unit I used to belong to did every year was help pack Christmas hampers for the local Salvation Army. All the donated money in the world doesn’t do that manual labour required, but we went out, worked hard for a few hours, and contributed to a lot of people in our community having a more enjoyable holiday. I got more of a sense of personal satisfaction out of that few hours of work than I have ever gotten from getting any gifts or anything else.

It’s something I have to get better at myself, even. It’s something I don’t think I can ever let myself think I’ve done well enough. In fact, it’s something I’m going to try to focus more on when I get home. If I’ve taken away anything from my friends who’ve deployed before me, it’s that you come back with a renewed appreciation for just how good things are here – how lucky we were to have been born in (or ended up in) a country like Canada. But it is the way it is because people put in effort to make it this way, and often it’s selfless effort, with no hope or thought of reward or personal gain. Everyone can do better, so if you want to do something to support me or anyone else in uniform, I’ve just told you a myriad of ways. Deeds. Not Words.

Written by Nick

February 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm

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.

The Wrap Up

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Finishing off the last week of training. It’s getting a little bit crazy around 2RCR because we’re now at the point where in addition to trying to meet all of our training requirements we are also trying to complete a lot of last minute administrative requirements. All those things covered in the DAG now have to get sorted out for the last time, and we’re also coming to grips with a lot of new things that have fallen out of the woodwork. For some of the contingents it’s made more complicated by the arrival of a whole lot more Reservists when we came back from Christmas leave. They have to be pushed through all the processes a lot faster than normal because of the shortened timeline. We’ve got only a couple of these guys, so it’s not so bad. That said, our camp clerk is away on course now and so I’m doing a lot of the work catching up on the paperwork – or at least getting people to do it. One of the specific things is a form we need completed for everyone which has a complicated, specific requirement, and to make it extra complicated, it is a Protected document, meaning it can’t be transmitted by email without encryption. So, I collected these all on a memory stick, and reviewed them. No good. Most of the troops hadn’t read the instructions on how to complete the last part, so I had to kick them back out to be redone.

While I’ve got all this to do, I have my own training to take care of. I’ve knocked off my first aid training, as I mentioned, and went on to Personnel Recovery, which I didn’t get to see all of because of the Unit Ethics Coordinator Course I started today. Go figure, in response to how the first serial of the PR course went it was condensed from two days into one. The UEC course is actually somewhat interesting, in no small part because I did a little bit of coursework on it in university, and one of the officers who profoundly influenced my career studied it more in detail. That would be LCol Ross Cossar, currently the Commanding Officer of the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment. Then-Major Cossar was published in the Canadian Army Journal in Fall 2008, with an article worth reading entitled Unethical Leadership And Its Relationship To Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you have an interest in military psychology I strongly recommend reading this. Further, it cites some excellent sources, including the works of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, specifically his books On Killing and On Combat, both of which are widely viewed as required reading for those in uniform.

Grappling with the impact of ethics on military service has had a profound effect on the Canadian Army. Most Canadians will be familiar with the Somalia Affair, the torture and murder of a Somali teenager by members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment during a deployment in that troubled country in 1993. While that event itself was horrible, it exposed a much more deep and troubling problem in the Canadian Forces, pervasive leadership flaws which directly impact our effectiveness as an organization. It was far from the only such incident, and they’re of course not confined to Canada, but it was probably the first, most profound such incident. It was the Somalia Affair that helped drive the interest in ethics that led me to sit in the classroom in which I found myself today.

Militaries have a unusual role in society. We are charged with the responsibility to defend the national interest, including with the right to use violence to do so. As such, you might expect that we have a specific contract with the nation with respect to that responsibility. For example, in Canada and any other democratic society, the military is controlled by civilian authorities, with an emphasis on separation of the two. Canadian Forces members are barred from standing in elections or holding public office while serving (there are apparently some exceptions, but they’re rare), or from engaging in political activities where they may be seen as speaking for the CF. We are expected to hold ourselves to a high standard, perhaps a higher standard than the average member of the public because of the role we have.

What happens when the opposite happens? When militaries fail to meet that standard? The repercussions are severe. In fact, in history, the cost of such developments can be mission failure. The Vietnam War wasn’t a military defeat by the North Vietnamese in the sense that their firepower and technology allowed them to defeat the US and their South Vietnamese allies (by the way, if you want to read an amazing account of that, I’d suggest Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval). Neither was the 40th Army driven out of Afghanistan by the mujahideen because of their strategic or tactical acumen. Rather, in both cases, the national will to keep spending blood and treasure there was destroyed. Media – social media, the internet, and the conventional media – can make that process very rapid indeed. Witness reactions to the video of Marines urinating on corpses. Or the Haditha Incident, where photos came out that made clear that what had actually happened (the murder of innocent bystanders, basically) had been covered up. We risk that same problem any time we deploy. The fact that everyone has camera phones these days, that things can be spread via the internet rapidly, underscores the idea that the whole world is watching all the time.

In most cases, the right thing to do is fairly simple. It’s obvious. There’s no debate or discussion. Sometimes, however, we face choices where there isn’t an obvious palatable option, and the role of ethical training is to help soldiers understand how to apply the ethos that we have developed – and to know where to go for help should they be unable to resolve a dilemma. Not that we’ll always have all the answers, but it’s a good start. And we’re also realizing and understanding that if mistakes do indeed happen, that it’s better to be transparent and address them head on rather than hoping they go away. That applies as well to the military as it does to any industry or to anyone’s personal life. Think about it: as a child, was it ultimately better to hide or lie about what you might have done, or to work to accept responsibility? It seems so simple, doesn’t it?

The course focus, though, is on how to convey these messages to our soldiers, to get them to understand and buy into the Army Ethics Program, to be able to lead them through good discussions about issues and cases that allow them to understand and apply the values we want them to embrace. How to be a better facilitator, as it were. I think it’s a great skill to build on – it’ll help me as an advisor, it’ll help me in my civilian career, it’ll be incredibly valuable. And part of the perk of doing what I do is that I get all this training for free. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize about Reservists, but a fact to which more and more are starting to become attuned.

This is only the start of a bit of waxing poetic I think I might do – but I think it’s as important as just recounting what I’m actually doing. As always, let me know what you think.

Written by Nick

January 26, 2012 at 10:19 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