Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘lessons learned

Reminders

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget where we are.

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

;

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Site Stats And So On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To Kabul – And Kabul Traffic

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While Helmand was an interesting trip, and it was good to see some different places, meet some different people, and catch up with some of the guys who were up here in Kabul with us before being dispatched out to different parts of Afghanistan, it wasn’t that productive, really. Originally, we were supposed to be bringing down some of our ANA staff to RC(SW) to validate and certify instructors there, but then word came that they couldn’t travel. So we decided we’d go down, observe their training, and basically give them the info they need to validate them. By the time we were getting ready to go, it turned out that training wasn’t even going to be running, so we conducted more of a liaison/close out visit, with a vital secondary function of delivering luggage, which I think I mentioned already.

We did meet some of the ANA staff at their training centre, and got a tour of the facilities, which was good – it was a sort of “professional development” experience to see what is working in that region, which was of value. Part of the “lessons learned” in all this is that what works in one place will not work in another, and we’re coming to realize that decentralization is the key to making things work here, that is a constant challenge with some of the culturally institutionalized structures of the ANSF. Getting leaders to delegate to their subordinates in order to achieve more efficient results can be very, very hard. We are working on it in any way we can though. Whether it will succeed though is not totally clear. I’ve appreciated the candour of some senior people who will readily say that not everything is going perfectly, that priorities weren’t always right, but we learn, we adapt, and we carry on. Overall, I think there’s a foundation for things to work the most part. And that isn’t a “toe the party line” statement, it’s sincerely my impression.

That said, we know that things aren’t perfect. Coming back from the airport yesterday, we saw some ANP who had stopped a vehicle and were, according to our interpreter, most likely shaking the driver down a bit. As we waited to get by, the cop hauled off and punched the driver through the window. And that was the second such event I’d seen just on that ride – the first one was an ANP slugging a guy at a traffic circle, though it looked like they got into some friendly banter afterward, so I don’t really know what to make of it.

That leads me into driving here. I don’t think I’ve been able to convey enough how amazed I am by convoy teams and how well they manage to get around, because Kabul is an absolute nightmare to drive in, in ways that baffle me. Most intersections in the city are set up as traffic circles. Sure, they’re not common in North America (except perhaps in Nova Scotia, where they’re being used increasingly in all new road projects and retrofits), but the concept is simple enough for anyone to grasp. Traffic in the circle moves in one direction. Want to make a left hand turn? Enter the circle going to the right (counterclockwise) like everyone else is supposed to, then exit when you get to the road you want.

Or, in Kabul, just wait until the traffic police (who are pretty close to useless!) directs you to simply turn left as though the traffic circle is just some sort of obstacle. And they wonder, one supposes, why traffic is always such a mess.

They also love going the wrong way on divided roads, which are fairly common here, because it’s too much of a hassle to turn right and proceed to the nearest spot to turn around when you can just simply go the wrong way and everyone will get out of your way. Add to this pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists all going wherever they want, and you start to really wonder how they manage not to have accidents constantly. It boggles the mind. We discussed this while stuck in traffic yesterday though, and one of the drivers had a pretty good hypothesis. Western drivers, he posited, know the rules of the road which are fairly rigid, and when they are deviated from they don’t really know what to do. Their vigilance is reduced by a perception that no one would break the rules. Kabulis, however, understand that there are no rules, and you cannot possibly anticipate what will happen at any point, so driving requires a delicate balance of the aggression necessary to get through traffic to your destination, and vigilance to protect your vehicle.

Makes some sense to me.

Written by Nick

June 21, 2012 at 1:15 am

Transition

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Transition is the big buzzword for the entirety of NTM-A – of ISAF in general, and the goal of everything we’re doing here. We’re trying to build and develop the institutions necessary for the government here to be able to function. So the international community is involved in virtually every aspect of governance – security, economic development, fighting corruption, and so on. It isn’t a small job.

In my little corner of the world, we’re trying to figure out how to enable the Afghan National Security Forces to keep delivering the specific training that is our bailiwick. I work at what we call the “Centre of Excellence”, which means we control the course curriculum and make sure it reflects current doctrine, and manage the pool of qualified instructors. The trick is that keeping it all centralized in Kabul is not an effective strategy. Transition means that “we” becomes “them” – the ANSF. We’re gradually handing over the day to day operations to our ANA partners. They have some great instructors here, and of course some not so great ones. That’s not a uniquely Afghan problem, of course – all armies have that problem. They are presently running our “flagship” course at the moment, entirely with Afghan instructors, with us monitoring and validating the material. So far, it’s going pretty well. They’re getting slowly accustomed to the idea of having to plan for running training, but we still find that there’s a lot of cases where they cannot seem to plan ahead for even basic things. One has to wonder if they just know that we’ll swoop in and save the day. Why expend effort when you know it’ll work out anyhow? I don’t know if that’s the case, but there’s a logical argument to be made that it could be possible.

However, the bigger challenge to deal with is trying to decentralize as much as possible. Right now, with our infrastructure and capabilities, we can send mobile training teams out to the various regional training centres. We can communicate by email, video teleconferencing, and so on. We can overcome the distance between Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan with relative ease. As transition happens, that won’t be so easy, because the massive amount of ISAF resources will start being withdrawn. As a result, our efforts are building around making sure that the system that will be in place when it’s time for us to go will be functional at the lowest possible level. That means we’ll have a busy few months ahead, because we want to get as much of “the knowledge” distributed to as many qualified instructors as possible throughout the country.

Tackling that challenge has several issues, firstly coming to understand the training system that the ANA uses. I think it’s derived from the US military system (which is the source of a lot of ANA doctrine). When we got my initial explanation of it, that there are five “levels” of instructors, my colleagues and I were shocked trying to understand how that could possible work, it seemed far too complicated for really anyone. Fortunately, the briefing we got on the transition concept made it a lot more clear, it actually sounds like a formalization of systems we use, to a certain extent. The top level is the Centre Of Excellence, the group that knows the most current doctrine and creates all the training products, and then the the subsequent levels have levels of instructor training that corresponds with different degrees of detail. We have the material broken down to a basic level that is what a Private needs to know, that his squad leader/section commander can teach him, then various levels of depth aimed at different command levels.

What we have to do, by the time we reach our transition deadline, is have a system in place where the outlying regions can run their own training, at the highest possible level, without much direction or management from Kabul. We have to build it to work at a level where all the communication they’ll need on routine training matters can be done by telephone. We’re also advocating to get the Ministry of Defence to mandate our training, so that anywhere that is resistant to implementing it gets on with it – but we’ve found that’s not really a big deal so far, because our Afghan partners are pretty good at selling people on it. When we travel, we’re not only trying to teach people, we’re really pushing people to build our material into their training even before they’re mandated to do it.

If everything works right, we’ll be able to hand over the entire institution to ANA control, and they’ll be self-sustaining.

If.

It’s not easy. There are a lot of challenges. Obviously, everyone knows the basic ones – illiteracy and innumeracy make even the most basic tasks complicated. That’s improving though, because literacy training is becoming a big focus of the ANSF. In fact, someone told me a while back that it was one of the draws for recruiting – join up, and you’ll be taught to read and write. That has to be a huge incentive. Another significant challenge is attributed to the original organization of the ANSF by the Soviets even before the occupation. In Soviet-style militaries, the idea of a professional, empowered corps of non-commissioned officers doesn’t really register. In Western armies, NCOs deal with most of the administration, and also have a lot of training responsibilities. They have authority to make decisions and a respected for holding these rolls. In fact, a great deal of training I as a Canadian officer received was delivered by NCOs – they taught my drill, weapons, fieldcraft, and all the basic soldier skills. The only thing officers specifically teach is tactics. ANSF NCOs do not seem to have anywhere near this responsibility – but there’s a lot of effort going into developing a professional, effective NCO corps. The ramifications of this are significant though – even Canadian NCOs here – who are as qualified as I to teach (and in some cases far more qualified) don’t get to because it’s seen as being “wrong”. So getting a lot of things done involves a lot more effort than we’re used to because officers wind up doing everything. It’s seen as prestigious to have control over everything possible, whereas from the perspective of a western military, delegating authority as low as possible makes things run more efficiently and effectively. We train even the most junior solder “two up” – meaning he knows the basics of the job of the guy directly above him, and the guy above him. We don’t expect them to be expert at it – but they have the basic tools to take over. And we expect them to be able to make decisions based on knowing the bigger picture plan in detail. We prize initiative, Afghans prize deference to rank/position/seniority and discourage initiative. A junior officer won’t likely challenge his commander, an NCO absolutely won’t, not even to present a good idea. We have to try to work on that, but it’s not something we’re likely to change.

That’s why we talk about Afghan Good or Afghan Good Enough – it’s not meant as a pejorative or a dismissive term – it’s just a realization that we can’t change everything, but if we can start inculcating some of the basic concepts that make things we do work better, then we’re making some progress. If we can harness the collaborative approach to governance that Afghans understand and apply it to military structures, we can probably approximate initiative. If we can get key people throughout the country to understand more concepts, we can make sure that the ANSF as a whole gets trained better. If that momentum keeps up, then we can see a functioning institution developing. As we withdraw our support – that piece of the puzzle of Afghanistan’s future can come together. And if all the different trainers and mentors and advisors can accomplish that within their little piece of the enigma of Afghanistan, then everything can come together for this country. Yes, it sounds very idealistic, but it’s possible.

Part of supporting that process, I went to a fairly high-level mentor conference the other day- probably over my head. It was more focused on the operational mentoring which goes on at ANA units, which Canada used to be involved in, but has since withdrawn from. It was interesting to hear the discussions about some of the challenges that are being dealt with – logistics being a major one, illiteracy, cultural complications, and so on. The fact that different people got together to discuss them, and that ideas were shared about dealing with them shows there’s potential for progress. As part of the USA’s plans to shift to more Security Force Assistance they’re building in a lot more emphasis on improving advisory capacity including these sorts of “Professional Development Days” and it seems like a good idea.

Written by Nick

April 19, 2012 at 1:21 am

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

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”.

Long Day

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I can’t shake the cold, it’s driving me nuts. Hopefully getting home this weekend to start Christmas leave and sleep in my own bed will help.

Today dragged on forever, because my only really critical thing to get done was my hero pic, and it was done by about 9:30. It looks alright, says I who hates being photographed, but I’m hoping it will never be needed, obviously. I also had a picture done for my ISAF ID card at the same time.

We did get some more information though on what the plans are for where we’re going and what’s happening there. Nothing certain, and nothing I can really talk about in detail anyhow. Again, it’s all max-flex and I’m not really staking plans on anything.

My UAB is now all sorted, catalogged, manifested, and ready to be turned in. I solved the excess of crap problem by pawning my suitcase off on the S3, who has literally nothing in the boxes, but will be partaking in the coffee machine’s labours. It was a pretty fair tit-for-tat. I still don’t have much for civilian clothes in there for my leave, but I figure I’ll just order stuff closer to my leave dates and that’ll work fine, particularly when we have a feel for delivery times and so on.

We got more detailed handover briefs from the people we’re replacing, and while I’m not going to say they paint a bleak picture, they’re basically confirming my own ideas about adult education in general, as it were, and the idea of building a professional army from the ground up. We are definitely going to have a lot to do, that’s for sure. We’re still working out some of the manning. It seems that there’s not much to do on the S1 (personnel administration) side for the camp I’m at in terms of administering the Canadian personnel there, and so the current guys have split that job with the S6 (communications/IT) job. We think that I might wind up working with the S4 (logistics) guy. I don’t have a background in that, but with a Canadian logistician there as the lead advisor I will still be able to help with things. And there’s a lot of work to be done in that department it looks like. We’ll see how it goes, I guess.

The S3 was busy today working out how to cover off all the training we’re missing before we go, with the cease training date they have in mind of February 3rd. We aren’t due back to Gagetown to start training again until January 16, which doesn’t leave a lot of time. The price, it seems, of the pretty slow pace early on is going to be a ridiculously busy few weeks before we leave on embarkation leave. We’ll be working weekends and evenings it looks like to get everything done – there’s a lot of checks in the box to be had for a lot of people, myself included, and we’re going to have to shoehorn it into a relatively small space. There’s a plan a foot, at least. We generally say “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”, but this one hopefully will.

We also got an idea of when we’re leaving town, and that means my draft leave plan should work, because it doesn’t have any issues with certain time restrictions. This too makes me quite happy.

Tomorrow, more death by PowerPoint for the morning, UAB turn in in the afternoon, and I have to finish packing up to leave for the holidays. That probably needs to include a thorough cleaning of my shacks, which requires a vacuum cleaner. Which I can only get between 9-4. I’m not sure how I’m going to work that one out. But I’ll figure something. I can’t leave the place a mess when I go home, I’ll only have more to contend with when I get back.

Written by Nick

December 7, 2011 at 12:34 am

Over The First Hurdle

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My first big job in my position as S1/Adjutant for my camp is to sort out the HLTA plan the leave schedule for the folks coming to the same camp as I am. It’s going to be a job to manage the plan as it looks like people will be shifting around a lot over the next year as ISAF shrinks dramatically in size. The US military is taking about 1/3 of its deployed forces out of Afghanistan, and several other countries are winding up their contributions. Deutsche Welle World Service reported that the German military will hand over their AO, centered around Feyzabad in northwestern Afghanistan, to the ANSF by the end of this year, for example. That is the idea, though – to work ourselves out of our jobs.

In the case of my camp, it’s converting from a regular military training centre to a literacy school, and NTM-A will likely decide that a presence there is not as necessary and we’ll be moving. So far, it sounds like we’ll be moving to Camp Julien, which was actually the original Canadian base in the Kabul area, but no one is really sure about that. We might also break up our current unit.

You can probably anticipate the problems that this will generate for managing leave plans, particularly for people I wind up no longer working with.

Today, however, I got the first draft of the plan done. I solicited everyone’s top three choices of dates (which are allocated in blocks based on logistics plans to get people out of the country), and started filling them in. I think I managed to get a good chunk of people the blocks they wanted, fortunately, and all of the people who have critical dates to hit in Canada I’ve managed to accommodate as well – we have a soldier who’s wife is pregnant and due to give birth while we’re away. An officer whose daughter will graduate from university. A soldier with a sister getting married. These sorts of things we do our best to fit in, and we’re set to manage that.

Of course, not everyone will be happy, and even though many junior soldiers chose mid tour blocks as their preferences, someone’s going to be leaving in the first block, within a couple of months of arriving, starting into an eight month tour. That’s life, though. I think I’ve got it reasonable well distributed. In my case, I chose the last block initially, but bumped it forward by one to give a Private his first choice. I would rather work though most of the tour and have less to come back to at the end. Just seems to make more sense that way.

Other than that, today was pretty slow. We were out to Wellington Range to “spectate” while a small number of people got to fire M72 rockets. The M72 is a 66mm single shot rocket which is effective against soft-skinned vehicles, light armour, simple bunkers, and so on. I laugh because since I joined the CF I’ve heard repeatedly about how it’s obsolete (it’s a modernization, basically, of the WW2 “bazooka”, and dates from the Vietnam area, though today’s NM72E5C1 model is much more advanced) and will be phased out of the system. For eleven years I’ve heard this, but apparently people found them useful in Afghanistan.

For workup, only 48 rockets were available, so only about 1 in 10 of the augmentees were able to actually fire, the rest of us just went to the range. What a day to forget my camera. That said, I didn’t get much of a view, but video might have worked well. It was a quick process, though for some reason we went with rifles again, drawing some funny looks.

We managed to get one rocket allocated for our camp, so I made sure it went to our medic, who likely wouldn’t get another change to shoot an M72. She was giddy for lack of a better term. May as well enjoy it.

Tomorrow, I will feel somewhat smug that all the stuff I had to get done before my next conference, and I’ll head off to do jungle lanes, which if the weather is good should be a bit of fun.

Written by Nick

November 29, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Racing Through Week 3

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I can’t believe how quick this week is going, I actually thought today that it was Tuesday for most of the day until I realized it was Wednesday. It’s been productive, or at least it was until today. I’ve got all my desert kit, and also got my new SORD rig, which is now set up, at least for the first iteration. I’ve got to actually trial it on the range to see how it works out. I’ve got not much left to do, and I’ve actually been able to start doing the job I’m supposed to be doing. First up is the HLTA plan, I’ve got the blocks now and I’m starting to gather the preferences from my team so I can compile the plan and get it done. I’m thinking I’m going to push my leave as late as possible within reason so I’m coming back to a short stay.

Today the augmentees were supposed to start combat first aid, but when we showed up after PT (which was a 6km run broken up with pushups, squats, and burpees) they told us that if we didn’t have Standard First Aid done in Gagetown we weren’t supposed to be there. That’s two days of full schedules gone, and now the complexity of trying to fit that course in elsewhere. The ops folks weren’t too impressed with the development. I did, however, manage to make something of the day. I started the leave plan, worked on a presentation I’ll be delivering to our team about Afghanistan’s history and the history of NTM-A and ISAF, and got a lot of professional development readings done.

One of them was http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20110228_art014.pdf –  Multiplying By Zero, a rather pessimistic view of the prospects for NTM-A, based on the cultural differences that exist, and a tendency to set the bar too high in terms of expectations. It’s a good if slightly grim read, and sadly, it seems to jive with some of the information we have gotten from the group we’re going to be relieving on arrival. It couples with a lot of information that’s emerging, really, and this particular article explains in great detail a lot of things I’ve observed in my own research about Afghanistan. I worry we’re undertaking a Sisyphean task, but it does seem that we have to try, we can’t just give up.

Today was the onset of winter in New Brunswick, as well – and the trudging over to the BARFF for dinner sucked, but at least it was a pretty good meal, and a chance to chat with my clerk about his progress on organizing all of our DAG documentation so that by the time we take off for Christmas leave we’ll be done everything hopefully. There was something bizarre about slogging through the snow in my desert boots – you can tell all of the people here on workup because we’re sporting any number of different types of tan boots as opposed to the conventional black boots we normally wear. We’ll stand out more in January. To save on managing so much kit, we’ve been told to leave our green CADPAT at home and show up for work in arid pattern.

So, I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, I’m not sure what I’ll do for PT as it’s not going to be company PT, and we don’t have anything on the schedule yet. More language training if I can, I guess. We’re apparently getting an early dismissal to let people go over to the mess to watch football (and presumably spend money). Friday morning it’s up early for our “teambuilding” BFT that is just being done as a challenge since like most people here I have the “check in the box” already, and don’t need to actually do the test. It’ll just be a good 13km walk mostly, but the arrival of large quantities of snow might have ruined our route. We’ll see I guess. Then a BBQ. Then back home. This weekend I’ve got a party at home, and I’ll be out shopping for luggage for my HLTA so I can pack my MOBs up and they’ll be set to ship. They’re going to be going over mostly empty it seems! Without the Keurig machine, actually, one would likely be empty entirely. I’m sure I’ll find things to fill it with when I am heading back, though.

Written by Nick

November 23, 2011 at 10:49 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