Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘morale

You Would Think It Would Be Easy, Wouldn’t You?

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Someone once quipped, “You never will see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist’s office”, and I have often through they’re right. There’s something I have always found about being on a bike that is deeply therapeutic, and other than yoga, it’s my go-to stress reliever to just jump on and ride. I don’t generally have a destination in mind, I usually just wander wherever, usually just the beautiful backroads of Nova Scotia, or along the coast. I tend to stop a fair bit to take photographs, to take in the scenery, and so on.

I put 4,000 km on my bike starting the day I got home until I finally put it into storage last weekend. That is rather telling. I was out just about every single day.

I returned home and had an interview the very next day for a posting with my civilian job that I thought went well but which wound up teaching me a valuable lesson: when they ask at the end of the interview if you have any questions, there’s one you should ask: “Is there anything I haven’t covered? Anything that leaves you doubting I am a fit for this role?” Asking that might have given me a positive outcome, because (and I’m not trying to blame being jet lagged) I didn’t give enough depth on one aspect of the position which wound up making me not the strongest candidate.

I got the call after a couple of weeks of anxious anticipation. I was out on my bike at the time, I had just stopped in the village of Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia to fill up with gasoline, and was just finishing kicking myself for using a full serve pump and adding a trivial amount of extra cost to my fuel bill when I realized my phone (which I had only just gotten after a bit of a production over backorders and such) was buzzing. It was a great call, actually – I don’t think I have honestly ever gotten such great, candid feedback on an interview. In fact, most of the time, when you’re not the chosen candidate you just don’t hear anything. I guess I was a little excited when I answered the phone expecting it had to be positive.

But I had the bike. At least I had that. And a whole day to ride. It really is therapeutic. I probably actually could have taken the extra couple of hours I needed to finish the Marine Drive, one of Nova Scotia’s scenic routes, but I lingered too long over lunch in Sherbrooke and didn’t think I could make the last stretch of the route.

As you might expect, I had a few COAs (that’s “Courses Of Action” in army shorthand) with respect to returning to work. So COA 1 was out the window. COA 2 soon followed for reasons I’m not going to rant about here, because, well, I’m just not. We often joke that in training, we are supposed to develop three COAs during the estimate (planning process). Usually COA 3 is the “throwaway COA”, the plan that’s so ridiculous you only write it up in minimal detail because you know you’re not going to need it, and in all probability, it will never actually work anyhow. My last Company Commander, an extremely smart and knowledgeable officer, however, would always force us to really work through three COAs, and if you came to him when he assigned us “homework” with a true throwaway, he’d send you back to the proverbial drawing board.

My COA 3 was to return to the position I held previously. It wasn’t totally a throwaway, but one thing I realized being away is what I have what you might call a “passion” for – that is, what really interests, excites, gets me motivated and draws out the best work I can do. In fact, I knew this already, to a certain degree, from what I’d done being a normal Class A Reservist. I love training – I like teaching, I like taking material, turning it into lessons, lectures, exercises, and conveying the knowledge to others. I spent almost eight months in Afghanistan doing that most of the time – and it turns out that not only do I love it, I am apparently rather good at it. Going back to my old “day job” doesn’t harness that passion. That’s why I was looking for something else and why COA 1 was what I was really hoping for.

I had no idea how hard it’d be to try to get motivated to go back to that job I had, I really didn’t. I took a little time off but realized I had to get back as soon as possible because it’s a job that requires a long lead time for business to close, and without that, I don’t make any money. Worst still, to get things in order to get going has taken far longer than I expected. I had indicated a date I wanted to be back at it (assuming I had no other option), and it did not even come close to happening.

So, let’s recap. I came home with a plan for the road trip of a lifetime which was scuttled by Hurricane Sandy (there was no way I could get around the storm by the time my earliest possible leave date arrived), and had my career next steps not pan out the way I wanted to. And for all the excitement about coming home especially given how slow my last few weeks in theatre were, I cannot stop thinking about how much I want to go back. Suddenly that whole decompression thing makes a lot more sense. Reintegrating is not, in fact, anything like what I thought. You don’t just come back and suddenly everything makes sense, and in fact, for a Reservist, I’d argue it’s potentially even harder. Our Regular Force brethren come home, go on leave, and know when they’re going back to work and what’s going on. That isn’t to say they don’t have some upheaval, because many get new postings while they’re deployed and some have to move on short notice. One person on my chalk was hoping to get back to Canada in time for the birth of a child (I think his first) which was happening any day, after having moved his family to a new home because of a posting with immediate effect. For us, though, a lot of us come back to complete uncertainty, despite whatever steps we can take to mitigate it. It’s something I’m working through, but it isn’t anywhere near as easy as I thought it was going to be.

However, things do have a way of working out. Turns out today there was a job posting internally for another position much like the “dream job” I mentioned. So I’ve applied to that. That is giving me some lift. I’ve got my UAB back now, and I’ve packed up my desert kit to be returned so as to close that chapter. I wish I had a video of trying to jam them into my VW Tiguan, which, despite being an “SUV” doesn’t have a whole lot of space, and was already full of assorted motorcycle paraphernalia. It would be a video best run at fast forward with “Yakety Sax” playing until I got them in. I’ve finally moved some of my kit into the storage locker I keep it in after letting it explode in my dining room too long. These are small victories in a way. But they’re something.

I don’t know if I’ll add to this blog again after this post, I think it too needs to be ended as a chapter in an ongoing story, a way of moving forward. I think this might be where this story should end.

Written by Nick

December 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm

Into The Last Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow Army Run

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Today in Ottawa is the Army Run, in its fifth iteration. Across Afghanistan, various camps where Canadians are held “Shadow” runs today, and that’s how I started my Sunday. I for some reason did not sleep particularly well last night, and so I probably hit my snooze button about six times before wandering over to the track (probably the last to arrive, however, that’s something that seems to be my custom lately, particularly for Canadian events that have time changes that don’t always seem to get passed on to me – though that is improving!).

The first run was the 5K, a good turn out, and we stood around and cheered the runners on before it was time to start the 10K. Let it be known that while I’ll run when I have to, it’s by no means my favourite activity. However, the Army Run raises funds for Soldier On and the Military Families Fund, both great causes, and so I of course was happy to make my donation and head out to the run. And because of my trade, I was of course sort of pressganged into the 10K. But I’m glad – it was more of a challenge, right? So off we went, me following the theory of slow and steady wins the race. There’s more than a few gazelles among us, and a couple of them were across the line in just over 41 minutes, a respectable accomplishment, especially 2000 metres above sea level. Me, well, I didn’t finish anywhere near that fast – but the part I’m happy with is that I finished. And it felt pretty good. Enough that I’d do it again. Just not for a couple of days.

So, if you’ve been enjoying my tales and feel like a little retroactive sponsorship, please, feel free to follow the links and donate to those organizations. Or the others I’ve put links to. Or Oxfam. Or whatever you might like. There are literally hundreds of organizations doing good work for military families, for Afghans, for all sorts of people who could use a bit of help around the world. Pick a cause and become a part of it. It’s good for you. Probably in some ways better than this morning’s run was for me.

Written by Nick

September 23, 2012 at 5:51 am

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.

Four Feet Of F*** All

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I decided not to use the full word in the title here, I’m not sure why because while I’m pretty good about moderating my idioms (doesn’t that sound smarter?), sometimes the slip out. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, I guess. The title is written on the “current operations” board in our S3 (Operations) shop, I think it’s a naval term as it’s a US Navy guy who put it there. He just started his journey home, as did our S2 (Intelligence)/Movement Operations/Public Affairs/Signals/IT officer, who also in response to a sexist comment by me about sandwiches and her being the only female here, made me an absolutely wonderful sandwich with a nice note. She played along with my sense of humour, and did a fantastic job here on everything. It was particularly cool because she’s a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, someone who’s normally on a warship, and she volunteered to come here, learned the language, got stuck right into the culture, and lamented on Facebook as she was leaving about leaving a city she has grown to love. She certainly spent a lot of time exploring it on convoys, and her efforts to build relationship with the locals were amazing. She’ll be missed.

That’s the way things are going here, though – the cast is dwindling, and it’s a bit sad as voices your used to hearing in the office gradually go silent. There’s no one new coming, we’re all headed out of here over the next few months.

A few days into Ramazan things are very quiet for the most part. We had a brief period where we couldn’t go down to see our ANA partners so things really slowed down. They did run a very successful course with a substantially larger number of students than normal, though it was a bit hectic for me. When we first got here, we had the tailors make us some “Catherder” morale patches, and I felt like replacing my unit patch with it for a while, to see if anyone noticed, and because it was apt. It took literally the entire staff here to manage getting the students on to camp for lunch and then back off, but it seems my diplomacy skills both with them and with our security people (who are generally a great bunch of people) helped.

Normally the students are from the Kabul area so we didn’t think there’d be much demand for them to stay at the school while they were on course, but a few of them came from further afield – one from Kunduz, one from Mazar-e Sharif, one from Baghlan, and one from Parwan. We had arranged transient accommodation inside our camp for them, but then learned that having an ANA escort for them wasn’t enough – we had to have a coalition person escort them everywhere and monitor them even overnight. So I put my diplomacy skills to work to persuade them to sleep on the ANA side, and with blankets and pillows they eventually agreed to do so. And were actually happier to do it since it meant they could go up the road in the morning to get naan and so on.

I did have to bring them to supper each night, but it was an interesting experience, and my basic Dari (aided by a little dictionary I picked up at Camp Phoenix before I went to Germany) and their rudimentary English went a long way. Generally conversations with Afghans revolve around where you are from, your family, and what you think of Afghanistan. They can conceive of Canada as a country far away somewhere but really that’s all they know. They tend to think it’s some part of America (which I guess, in the sense of North America, is true). They are eager to know where in Afghanistan you’ve been what you think of the place. My universal response is listing off some of the places I’ve gone and I always tell them that I am eager to return some day as a tourist, to actually see the rest of the country – hell, I’d like to just be able to explore more of Kabul, other than through the windows of a vehicle.

They’ll always ask if I’m married, and I learned that the concept of a wedding ring doesn’t make sense to them (in fact, they’ll often ask what the ring is), and of course, how many sons I have. Being married for as long as I have been and not having kids isn’t an acceptable answer particularly, so I’ve learned to a) understate how long I’ve been married and b) dodge the question with one of the great catch-all phrases in Islamic cultures – mashallah. It basically means “God’s will be done” – more specifically, it can mean “because that’s the way it is.” Very useful. Similarly, just about any commitment can be ducked with “inshallah” – “if God wills it”. It’s the best “maybe” ever.

Walking back to the gate one night, one of the students said, “You should come to Kunduz to visit it. You will stay with my family in my home, and I will show you my part of this country.” These offers are common. And they’re actually quite serious. In fact, we were all invited to one of the ANA instructors’ homes for dinner one night. When we said we regrettably weren’t allowed to go, he lamented that it was too bad, but he understood. He then pointed out that the Russians did that all the time and didn’t see why were so cautious. The reality is, most of us would love to accept such hospitality, but we are barred from levels well above us.

I was pretty happy that the course feedback was good, though the ANA wanted us to help them with the practical exercises which we use on coalition courses so they can adapt them. The school director in our last meeting jokingly said “You’re lucky it’s Ramazan and I’m obligated to be well-behaved, because otherwise I might want to fight you” over not running this training previously, which we had talked about. I realized he was clearly joking so I didn’t get wound up over it. I explained that while we were happy to help, they needed to plan the training and we’d help make it happen, so all was well. We did hash out a plan to run some advanced training for their instructors before I go on leave, which started today. Basically, our products are modularized in three levels – Mod 1 and 2 are the basis of all ANSF training, and realistically, almost all coalition/NATO training. Mod 3 is fairly advanced set of classes which the ANSF aren’t ever going to need to teach, however, it seemed that there would be some value in giving them exposure to the concepts so they could improve their depth of knowledge. It’s good to be able to do that to deal with what we call “sharpshooters”, people who ask more difficult, on-the-spot questions requiring more knowledge. We know that the ANSF know the lectures they teach inside-out but rarely go beyond that.

This morning I met them at the gate and brought them in to the office while we set up, and as usual you have to go through the barrage of questions, how are you, how’s your family, how’s your health, how is work, how are your spirits, etc. I say “barrage”, but don’t get the idea that it’s in any way inconvenient or unpleasant. It’s how Afghans are, and it’s part of any meeting. In fact, it’ll probably rub off on me quite a bit, just as the custom of placing my right hand over my heart after saying hello to people is now something of a reflex we do even amongst the coalition folks here. We set up the lecture and I started to teach. Normally, I keep either a coffee cup or a bottle of water close by, but as it’s Ramazan, I decided not to. I was mainly worried about my interpreter, Faisal, because I was making him talk a lot. He was fine however. Halfway though the class, the senior instructor says, “why don’t you have some water?” I replied, “It’s Ramazan, I’m not going to drink in front of you!” They all laughed. “We know you’re not fasting, just us. We won’t be offended.” All I could say was, “Well, I may be an infidel, but I respect the custom and I will not do that. I appreciate your consideration, though.” This elicited more laughter, but aptly tied in to a concept I was in the middle of teaching, about how to get to understand and win the trust and respect of people. It worked brilliantly.

For now, I’m basically counting down the days until I go on leave, as it’ll be very quiet here for the next little while. I’ve got pretty much everything I need – some more camera accessories came the other day and I’ve been playing with them all and learning how to take better pictures. I did find out that I paid way too much for my camera (damn you, AAFES!), but realistically, the better deals I found couldn’t reasonably have been accessible – the vendors don’t ship to APO addresses or to Canada. So I can’t really whinge. I also got a nice huge box from Mountain Equipment Co-op – a backpack, clothes, and shoes – all stuff I’ll need for the trip that I didn’t have with me. I had to get one pair of pants hemmed here, for $4. It wasn’t the best job, but I don’t really care that much I guess.

I’ve also been patronizing the tailor here a bit – I’ve bought a new suit, a couple of sports jackets, and a tuxedo, all for ridiculously good prices, and the quality is pretty excellent. I think I will likely get myself a couple more suits before I go home, but it’s funny seeing how much some people are spending there. I was looking at carpets and jewelry as well. My colleague got himself a triple loop and other jewelers’ tools to evaluate the stones on offer and has decided they’re not worth much though. I do want some lapis lazuli though, it’s beautiful.

I got a massive care package (well, four of them) today from an organization back in Canada which has been awesome to me, it actually came in yesterday but I wasn’t around to collect it. The Canadians across the street saw the contents list and openly mused about simply “forgetting” to tell me about them and just helping themselves, but one of our drivers thwarted them. I did share the spoils though, I have enough junk food to last a while, and some school supplies and trinkets to hand out when we see kids around – which doesn’t happen as much now as it had previously – but we’re looking to find a school to take them, or the local nationals who work here as they all have children.

When I return from leave, there will be very little left to do other than the transition to Afghans – after that, I’ll still have quite a bit of time left here, and I don’t really know what I’ll wind up doing. One of the Canadians here has already been moved to another job, one more is likely to be moved shortly, and our leadership is actively seeking new jobs for us as we work ourselves out of where we are. I have no doubt that something will be found for me to round out my time. I have an idea of when I’m going home too, the first draft of our RIP (relief in place) plan is done, and I don’t think my position will change in it. I do think I’ll be in for a new job though before I leave – hopefully something interesting. I don’t want to have to move camps especially, but these things happen.

For now, I’ll just stay flexible, and see what I can do to help make our transition a success. Boredom is a real enemy, so I’m trying to find ways to fight it – to stay motivated. We’re working on studying for the LSAT as my colleague and I are both musing about going to law school and as such will need to sit the admissions test in December. That’s helping keep the boredom at bay when there aren’t things going on. We’re also working on cleaning up the office, packing up things we don’t need, and that sort of thing.

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Spem Reduxit

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Hope restored – that’s actually the motto of the Royal New Brunswick Regiment, which I don’t actually have anything to do with, but it seemed a fitting title for today’s post. Things are looking up, actually. After the meeting we had the other day I wrote about, which went all sorts of wrong, we started working with various levels to try to figure out a way forward and to understand what happened and why, and it was productive. Various advisors conferred with various ANA personnel to discuss the situation and it appears to be somewhat resolved. We actually got what one advisor called “the closest thing to an apology you’re likely to get here, the closest he’s ever seen” for the way our meeting went. It turns out that there was some “lost in translation” and cultural disconnects in play. What the General who came was getting at was that in his view there was a long way to go before transition, and he wanted to make sure that we knew that he expected a lot from the ANA staff and from us to help make that happen. Or something like that.

So we’re going to just carry on as before. Mostly. We’ve also embarked on a good project to keep us going for a while, to review all the “final” course material to make sure it is good to go for transition. Part of the frustration that the Canadian team has found is that the Americans don’t do lesson plans like we do. Canadian military lesson plans are very detailed, to the point that theoretically someone who’s not even that well versed in a subject can read the plan over and be in a position to teach the material reasonably well. That, personally, annoys me because it does happen – people are pegged to teach stuff they don’t really know much about – but it’s worse when you get a “lesson plan” that consists of what the material to be taught is, and a PowerPoint slide deck that has some notes. That’s it, that’s all. It’s not something that you can easily pick up and study and be set to teach.

What we’re embarking on is a task to take all the “finalized” lessons and flesh out the speakers notes into much more detail to make it so instructors have a little more to go on. Afghans, we’re told, generally will get a lesson and master it by memorizing the material (including having people read it all to them repeatedly if they’re illiterate, which happens), but won’t always go the extra step to get the depth we’d like. Again, to be fair, we do this too sometimes! The point, however, is to make it so there’s a lot more knowledge built into the material they’re using so that they’ll have more to work with, which I think is good.

That gives me a bit of a renewed sense of purpose, because at times I was getting to wonder how I was going to keep busy with everything that happened last week.

Written by Nick

June 27, 2012 at 5:14 am

Been A While

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It’s been over two weeks, apparently, since I put up a post – I can’t believe it’s been that long, because BAF still seems almost like yesterday – it’s been busy here, a bit of a blur. We’ve moved offices, which was a bit of a gong show, because it left us with no access to our computer networks for a couple of days (despite assurances it’d be nothing more than a couple of hours… yeah right!).

We’ve been busy working on transition plans, adjusting to surprises about manning, and some other things that have cropped up. One of the Australians here came back reporting that he had received a rather prestigious posting, which means his tour will be cut short, as his new battalion will be deploying to Tarin Kowt before too long – he’s got to go home, move his family to the new posting, and then get set to come back.

Funny story though. He’s a bit of a Diet Coke addict (or, Coca Cola Light as it’s called in most of the world outside North America!), and has been known to vociferously complain when the DFAC runs out. So when he left, we began to accumulate as much of it as we could – taking a couple of cans out of the DFAC a day and piling them up on his desk. We had 225 cans for him. Which we had to move when we moved offices. But it was a good laugh for all. He brought back some souvenirs from Australia (including stuffed koalas, for the joke he’s been poking at Canadians about travel), and I’m going to miss having him around.

That’s the bizarre part of being in the military in general  – and here especially. We become family. We call each other brother not to be trite, but because that’s really what it’s like. The Army became my second family when I signed up. In many cases, they were closer and more important at propping me up during some of the most difficult and darkest moments of my life. But we do it because we have to. During one of those experiences, when a close friend of mine was killed over here in 2008, it was my brothers that help me up – and I did the same. Even people newly posted in to my unit who I barely knew did their part. We had just gotten a new Sergeant Major. The day we got the news and converged at work, he came up to me, among others, and simply said “I’m sorry about your friend.” There was no pretense to it – no faking that he knew him, as he didn’t – but those words were just right. Later, a mutual friend I told about that put it even better: “The life we have chosen requires us to hold each other up in times of trouble.” I bolded it for a reason. It’s not an option.

We don’t really have much of that trouble here – we’re lucky. But we still have to keep an eye on each other, make sure morale stays high, crack jokes as needed, work to break the monotony. And when it’s time for people to rip out and go home, you have to wonder how that void will be filled. In our case, with transition, we’ll see more of it – we’re joking that the last one out has to remember to turn out the lights, and it will be a Canadian, we’ll be the last ones here.

We keep coming up with things to do. We’ve started a running club, which I’ve joined even though I despise running, which includes regular trips to a couple of grueling routes – one which is a 5km out and back – sounds simple right? Oh, wait: You climb about 500 ft over the 2.5km – actually, over a lot less than that, because the first kilometre is flat. But the view at the top of the hill is worth it. There’s another route up and down four hills – I haven’t tried it yet but might soon enough. And by the way, we’re 6000 ft above sea level. The air’s a little thin. I can’t wait to get down to somewhere low and see what it feels like.

Oh, and I’ll get to soon.

So, I have this nickname – Captain Good Go. I’ve earned it by getting to go on some pretty gucci trips – but one coming up is pretty much the gucciest of all.

Basically, I’m going to teach in Germany for a couple of weeks, as part of a three-man training team going to run some train-the-trainer courses. Pretty awesome, really. I’m honoured to have been selected to teach – the audience is comes from all across the NATO alliance.

It’s just a matter of sorting out how to get me there and back that has to be worked out – so I’m sure there are clerks all over the place cursing my name – but that’s fine. A wise man once said, “HATERS GON’ HATE”, after all. Let ’em. There’s also the small issue that I have basically no civilian clothes here – because my brilliant plan was to order some stuff online closer to my leave since I need new clothes anyhow – so I’ll be sporting some 5.11 stuff from the PX probably. Oh well, everyone will think I’m some kind of contractor. That’s their unofficial uniform. Or I’ll have to do a little shopping in Germany and look like some Eurotrash clown.

What else to include? A few days ago, I was up to Camp Phoenix on some personal business (that involved getting angry over pay issues, and sorting out details of my leave trip, which incidentally will be awesome), and our drivers decided to drop by the post office to see if we had any mail we could bring back to our camp. No small supply, but in it was three huge boxes of goodies from a group in Buckhorn, Ontario, who got my name and address from some friends. Awesome. Lots of good stuff – though we’re at the point of almost saying “we don’t really need anything else!”. I sent an email back to say thanks – pretty awesome that people do stuff like this, especially considering so many people don’t even know we’re here.

For now, all is well – my biggest frustration lately has been traffic – two and a half hours today to travel about 15km, but we went through a part of Kabul I’ve never seen before, which is kind of neat – at least I got to see something else new.

A Week’s Trip To Bagram

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I’ve had a busy week or so – it seems a lot longer, though – time sometimes moves in bizarre ways here.

The greatest part of the job I do is getting to be on mobile training teams, though they’re not all that common. It’s even better when they’re MTTs I actually get to teach on, which is exceedingly rare given that my organization’s focus is on building ANA training capability.

I’ve just come back from a few days at Bagram Airfield (BAF in common speak), doing some training for some coalition folks – from Colonels down to Sergeants. They were really interested in having us come and present material to them, even though it’s not totally relevant to their jobs, but we figure the more people we talk to about our part of the world, the better. Counterinsurgency theory sometimes talks about the “oil spot” strategy – concentrating your resources where they’ll have the most impact at first, but knowing that if things work right, it’ll spread from there – so anyone we can talk to is probably going to be an asset because they might just get talking to some other people and our little spot will spread out.

I’d been there twice, technically – on the way out to Khost – but I hadn’t really spent any time there except to quickly find the DFAC, the PX, and the Green Beans. This time we were sticking around a while.

BAF is a sprawling airfield complex. It’s the USA’s logistics and air movements hub. Interestingly, it was originally built by the Americans many years ago (in the 1950s) at the height of the Cold War. It was then a major base for the Soviets after they invaded in 1979. Pictures hung in one of the offices we were visiting of what BAF looked like in 2001, mostly ruins, but now it’s grown to a hive of activity. Along the apron on any given day site cargo aircraft of all descriptions, military and civilian, unloading supplies for the campaign here. There’s also a lot of warplanes and helicopters based there. It’s a loud, active airfield 24/7. Most Americans who serve in Afghanistan enter and leave through BAF as well, so there’s always people coming and going. Suffice it to say that it is a much busier place than anywhere I’m normally to be found.

BAF was captured early in the invasion by Royal Marines, my boss (who is, of course, a Royal Marine) likes to point out, just as a little trivia.

Our course ran three days – and we include a day on either end for travel, because it can be… well… unpredictable. We had bookings to fly up there by helicopter and fortunately, they went relatively according to plan. I say relatively because we got bumped off our first flight out and put on another one, and our flight back was delayed significantly – more to that though, but I’ll get to the end of the story at the end of the story.

We were met at the passenger terminal by a young Captain who brought us to our lodgings – bunk beds in a massive transient tent – where people come and go constantly. It was also, just for added luxury, about 200 metres from the flightline. And featured no lockable storage. We made the mistake in hindsight of traveling with our rifles, which we came to regret having to drag them everywhere and learning they were not allowed in the gym at all. And really, there was no need to have them with us at all.

Things did start on a bit of a high note, by chance I noticed a poster in the PX for a Toby Keith USO show. I’m not a huge fan of the guy, but he does have some pretty funny songs that one of my colleagues plays in the office a lot, and so off we went. My Royal Marine boss, having no exposure to this “cultural icon” was particularly entertaining throughout. We struck up a conversation with some folks in the line and had quite a good time standing out on the apron while Toby and his band jammed in a hangar. I have to say I have a fair bit of respect for people that will make the trip to do shows for the USO, for not a lot of money I’m sure. Canada doesn’t really have an equivalent to the USO, but fortunately they open their events to all. They’ve even got lounges in a lot of airports in the USA I’ve taken great advantage of. I can’t say enough good stuff about them or their volunteers from my experiences, suffice it to say.

We left the show on a high note, bid good night to our “hosts”, and headed for the tent. The first night was loud, hot, and not particularly comfortable, but we managed to get enough sleep to be ready to deliver our material the next morning, and the audience was excellent – attentive, asked good questions, and so on.

The following night we cunningly disabled the heating in the tent, thinking it’d make things more pleasant to sleep. Wrong. Instead, we froze. Well, I did anyhow. I just took my ranger blanket (a super light sleeping bag/poncho liner/blanket) and it wasn’t enough at all –  wound up even using my towel as a supplementary blanket to no avail. Once I realized it was no win with sleeping, I think I felt a little better – resigned, as it were, to my fate.

Training wrapped up a little early which was alright, we had some time to stroll around the camp bazaar (where I looked at some more carpets – especially Herati silk ones, and some other styles I like, I think I’ll come home with at least a couple of carpets), haggled for some pashminas for our wives (and daughters, in the boss’ case), and so on. Our hosts worked in the same building as the Red Cross, so they suggested we go there to relax, unwind, and watch some movies. Sounded good enough to us, so we did. They had one of those Sharper Image massage chairs there, the kind they sell in SkyMall books on planes, and so I gave it a go – not as good as a real massage (which I got later), but quite awesome – I might even think about getting one of those some day, but I think the cost is ridiculous.

While there, we got a visit from Captain Christine Beck and Major Timmy. Timmy is a combat stress therapy dog, Capt. Beck is an occupational therapist. I’ll let you read the article that talks more about therapy dogs, but we were impressed to learn the impact Timmy has. He’s soon going to be leaving Afghanistan to go back to the USA, and Capt. Beck is hoping he will wind up at her base stateside so they can keep working together. I can understand why Timmy has a lot of success getting soldiers to open up about their stresses and mental health issues. The big problem you might read about with people who suffer from PTSD/OSIs is that there’s a stigma against getting help. Dogs like Timmy are apparently incredibly effective at getting people to talk, which is the first step of getting them help.

We also learned of the attack on Green Village in Kabul, which we’d been unaware of because of being away from “home” – and that President Obama had passed through BAF while we were there, we had absolutely no idea. We expected this might cause some disruption to our return travel, and whether it was the cause of not, we don’t know. But here’s how things work sometimes. We got told to be at the terminal at 6am to get our helo back “home”. We called the night before to confirm everything was good, but during the night some things happened that changed stuff. 5am I woke up, packed my gear, and started the hike to the terminal (it’s not a short walk!), only to learn on arrival that showtime was pushed back to 9:30. So I dropped my stuff, found the rest of my party, and we decided at least we could go for breakfast, check out the MWR, get some Green Beans Coffee (I’d go broke if we had one at my camp!) and we’d carry on from there.

No big deal.

But 9:30 became 10:30 became noon before we finally got on a chopper. I spent most of the afternoon in bed trying to catch up on my sleep. And I slept about 12 hours last night too.

I’m glad I fly with a Kindle and an iPhone with Angry Birds on it.

Mail Call

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I returned from a little trip to discover a huge amount of mail waiting for me – two unexpected boxes.

One came from the Halifax MFRC, a box with some Easter Candy and some other goodies, and a couple of cards from school kids in Nova Scotia, so I’m going to have to send a letter back to their school at some point soon. I almost wish I had a photo printer, but what I think I’ll do is add some pictures to flickr and send them a link to see them. Or something like that. They apparently send along a box every season, which is great. It had some copies of The Coast and some other stuff. They also apparently had Tourism Nova Scotia send another copy of the NS travel guide, because I got one already and had another arrive. It’s just nice to see pictures of home. And maybe entice some of my colleagues to plan a trip there.

I got an expected box from my folks with some beef jerky and some Mexican candy (Pulparindo – whoever combined tamarind and chili is a genius) that they get down in Arizona for me – and also a Toblerone that I’ve hidden away for a “rainy day”. I also got a package from my lovely wife including some awesome fudge and some other things I asked for from home. It actually arrived in pretty good time, though the box of pashminas and other goodies I sent here hasn’t made it there yet. I’m still also waiting on my Keurig replacement, which as of last week was in Kuwait or something, but who knows when it’ll turn up. It’s just going to go back into my MOB because we have a functioning machine.

The funniest package, however, came from a friend of mine who’s a brother officer and my most common partner in crime before he moved to Ottawa. On packages, you have to list on the outside what is in the box, and his list was hilarious.

In the CF, for some reason, we choose a bizarre way of labeling/describing items. For example, the tunic/shirt I usually wear is officially known as “Converged Coat, Combat, CADPAT AR.” On my feet, I wear “Boots, Hot Weather”. We stretch these descriptions to ridiculous ends at times. Things like “Pencil, Mechanical, 0.5mm, High Speed Low Drag Type”. To these descriptions on our EIS (Equipment Issue Scale) the number you get is added. So it’s “Converged Coat, Combat, CADPAT AR, 4 each”.

So, among the items listed were “Coffee, freeze dried, hipster, 16 ea.”, “Mix, drink, sports, assorted, 20 ea.” and “Book, Reference, 1 ea.”. Maybe it’s not so funny to the average flat-faced civvie, but it got a good chuckle from everyone here. He also sent along some spices I’ll need to figure out good uses for, but if I don’t they’ll serve me well at home anyhow.

The funny thing is I’ve gotten so many offers for getting things sent over, but in reality, there’s not much I really need – we have so much of almost everything available, and I’m pretty comfortably situated to get anything else. If the shops here don’t have something, I can just ask and they’ll find it. Even that’s not a big issue. I have an allowance for myself of spending money (based on what I have to keep here) and I don’t get anywhere near it normally.

Written by Nick

April 7, 2012 at 2:38 am

On Morale

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I can’t make any real complaints about how things are running over here. Morale is pretty good.

If you recall, I sent a Keurig machine and a lifetime supply of coffee over in my UAB which has yet to arrive, but we’ve been doing okay even without it. We have ourselves quite a nice little set up, actually, our own coffee bar.

 

Where there is no coffee, there is misery.

There’s a pretty staggering amount of stuff here, to the point that we’ve had to basically start getting rid of things. There’s been a ridiculous amount of “care packages” arrive here, which is awesome, but some really, really bizarre things show up in them too, apparently. We had a bunch of canned asparagus that has been here for so long no one can remember when it arrived. Canned asparagus. Really. I appreciate that people are amazing and want to support us, but I have to wonder who thinks “I bet those guys want them some canned asparagus…”

I actually keep getting offers of such packages, with “Tell me what you want/need, and I’ll send it over!”. I get constantly stumped when asked what people can send me, because in truth, I don’t really want for much of anything. I had a burning desire for PC Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookies the other day, but other than that, I can get basically anything I can normally think of wanting here, or I have it coming already. Most of what comes is junk food, and frankly, I’m trying to avoid that, because I want to get in better shape while I’m here, not be desk jockey gorging on junk food from various corners of the world sent by well meaning and awesome people.

Written by Nick

March 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm