Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘training

The Afghans Take The Lead

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I’ve been busier than normal in the last few days. I’m actually quite happy with that, though it’s been a bit hectic, I’ve been pretty close to in the black a couple of times though!

Our ANA partners are currently running their main course, the Counterinsurgency Leaders Course. They run one iteration per month, and normally they have 15 candidates. This month, however, they got around 50! This is making out life a little bit crazy.

We moved the ANA from our camp onto the ANA Garrison a few weeks ago, but they haven’t had access to a DFAC of their own, nor to they have accommodations for students there. Fortunately, most of their students are from the Kabul area so they just go home at night.

Previously, we had duty interpreters with escort privileges who could look after all of the ANA students while they were on our camp, because they can’t go anywhere on their own for security reasons. Now, however, we’ve got a lot fewer interpreters, and only one can handle escort duties. So we’ve got three times the number of students who come onto our camp for lunch, and we’ve had three or four of us trying to control their movements to the DFAC to get lunch, a separate dining room we have for them, and then back off the camp afterward. More complicated, the first day we found that there were a few students from out of town who needed accommodations, we fortunately were able to give them enough supplies to be able to sleep on the ANA camp, sparing us trying to manage an overnight escort duty.

I’m running around trying to balance this and make sure that the Mayor doesn’t get worked up about the crowds. Some of our coalition friends feel the need to complain about the lines for lunch and the ANA being there, but it’s easy enough to tell them to go away. (I use a little firmer terminology) The DFAC is open for three hours for lunch, so I’ve got no sympathy over it being crowded for half an hour. And any other complaints simply require a reminder that training and supporting the ANA is our primary mission here, and so having them around isn’t an inconvenience, it’s why we are here in the first place.

At the end of this course, Ramazan (Ramadan is the Arabic work – Ramazan is the Persian) starts and the ANA will no longer have access passes for the camp – we’re basically finishing off the final handover to them and they will be a standalone organization. We will be here for a while longer to help with some final mentoring pieces, but we are more or less done in the next few weeks.

For the most part, I think it will work out. Their instructor staff are excellent, and they’ve got the ability to get the students here and teach them. There are some things that have to be sorted out – most specifically R&Q – rations and quarters – how the students are housed and fed, because this course is the last one that our camp facilities will be available, but that will be what we’ll try to help sort out over the next few weeks.

Ramazan will be an interesting time around here. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it basically is a month of fasting – Muslims fast totally between sunrise and sunset. No food, no water. How they do so in a desert environment is beyond me. They’ll wake up super early, have a huge breakfast and go to morning prayers, and then after evening prayers have a massive feast called iftar to break the fast. Still, even with the reduced working hours I can’t imagine how they manage to do it. I’m curious to try it for a day, we’ll see. I’m still trying to recover from being sick for a few days, which means I’m not optimally hydrated. We’ll see. No sooner than I got over the bug, a couple others at the office are now hit with it – just wonderful, I must say.

Written by Nick

July 17, 2012 at 7:12 am

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.

Happy Pachino Day

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Today is Pachino Day, the 69th anniversary of the invasion of Sicily. The first Canadian Army unit I joined, as well as The Royal Canadian Regiment I’m deployed with now, were both involved in Operation HUSKY. Without getting into a pedantic history lesson, The D-Day Dodgers as they were known were the first force to really start making inroads into Hitler’s Europe, a year before the D-Day Normandy Landings.

It is customarily celebrated with a feed of spaghetti and the cheapest, most vile Italian red wine that can be found. We had the pasta, no luck on the wine tonight though as usual.

Otherwise there’s not a whole lot of exciting things to write about right now. Relations with our ANA partners have improved greatly, after a tense meeting we’ve gotten back more or less to normal, and they’re getting ready to run their next course which will be the last one we support them directly for – so that’s been most of my workload, making sure they have the stuff they need for the course, arranging facilities and so on, and trying to figure out how to get them prepared to take over everything.

I also spent most of the last week with the dreaded “gastro” –  some awful stomach bug that basically laid me out flat for a few miserable days, but it’s moved along. A couple of us got it after a trip to one of the local restaurants. Unfortunate. But over now, and hopefully that’ll be my only such experience. It happens to pretty much everyone at some point, so I can’t get too worked up over it. Being up all night came in handy when I got some Facebook messages from my former roommate (turned next door neighbour) at 4am who missed his flight back into theatre from leave, having dropped his passport in the airport and being denied borrowing. I managed to make some phone calls to help him sort himself out. Silver linings or something like that. He’s actually the second person who I had to bail out of a jam with their leave – friend of mine from my home unit left town without his visa for his destination, a bunch of calls and text messages finally got someone able to email a scan of it to him, and that was enough to get him on his way.

As I said, not all that much to say, really – life ticks on, there’s plenty of stuff I’d love to bitch and moan about, but this just ain’t the place to do that – and even then, they’re all pretty petty, minor things anyhow. Life’s pretty alright overall.

Written by Nick

July 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

Culminating Points

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The challenge of being on the final rotation through an organization is trying to make sure that you ensure that all the of the mandated milestones are hit, and that what you leave is sustainable, organized, and set for someone to take over. Ideally, every rotation should involve such a process, but in the real world it doesn’t always work that way. So the closing shift gets the job of trying to cover off all of those handover requirements in one shot.

Over the years that our schoolhouse has been in existence, it’s been staffed by a large number of people, all of whom brought their own takes on the subject matter, their teaching styles, and their ideas to the table. When training the coalition was a major part of the effort, the instructors all added to and changed around lesson plans and materials to suit their taste.

What that leaves us with is a tremendous number of PowerPoint slide decks, lessons, multimedia materials, and so on. Thousands of files. And that’s what we’re sorting through, cleaning up, updating, writing speakers notes (as close as I’ll get to doing lesson plans), and so on.

To make transition successful we’re having to work on an archive of products – the best of the lot – a full set of lessons in English, Dari, and Pashtu, as well as all the multimedia that’s useful. We have, to augment that, videos of some of the classes being taught here that are getting Dari and Pashtu voiceovers. All this will stay with the higher levels of the ANSF’s training system, while the Centre of Excellence will have the material they need to teach courses here, and we think that in the regions we’ve made a pretty good effort. What our predecessors did well was create training that was scalable – everything from the video/PowerPoint based lectures that western armies are only too used to, do simple skits that actually very effectively display the basics of the material, that you can use to instruct soldiers in the field without electricity or any other “luxuries”. This stuff works. There’s nothing more amazing I’ve experienced than seeing when students “get” material, and I’ve seen that happen. My first experience watching the ANA COIN instructors training their own (which seems like forever and a day ago…), I saw this – they grasped the concepts being taught, and more importantly, they were able to contextualize them in their own experience, religion, and culture. That means they really were getting it. That’s all we need – to get them all to think about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with the populace, how they represent the government to the people, how they win people’s support.

We know, thus, that we’ve got some good instructors on the ANA side. Several that I’ve accompanied to training events have really impressed me, though often they’re apt to make controversial statements that brew into full-bore heated arguments. That said, while one such argument was going on, my counterpart and I, with our interpreter trying to keep up with everything being said, realized that the argument was actually showing that not only were the students paying attention, but they were set to challenge the instructor. That’s something I was told generally didn’t happen in Afghan culture! That is progress! The following day, as the argument came pretty much at the end of the day’s training, the “belligerents” had a more thoughtful discussion over tea, and all was well.

The emphasis then for us is three-fold. First, we have to work on getting those products for the archive standardized which provides continuity for the place – a repository of “the knowlege”. Second, we need to keep working with our partners on instructor development – both working with them on their rehearsal process for courses, and by encouraging them to send their instructors on to further training. One of the options there is the Master Skills Instructor Course (MSIC, pronounced “missic” – I think that’s what the acronym is, anyhow!), a longer course that actually awards a badge that those who complete it can wear on their uniform, and allegedly some sort of specialist pay. However, we’re trying to understand why they’re not making full use of their access to the course, that might change when one runs closer to their workplace this fall though. The other option is what we call teaching mutuals, where one instructor teaches a class to the other instructors who can then provide a peer critique, while the senior instructor gives a more formal assessment. This is part of their official instructor validation process (and it’s the same process we use for certifying instructors on the CF side), and it works well, though it’s not really happened lately, we plan to reinvigorate it before Ramadan arrives. Third thing is getting the staff side of the schoolhouse worked out – the staff officers they have seem to be pretty smart and willing to work, so if we can use advisors along the chain to help them forge the links they need, then they should have an easier time doing the job.

All these are things we can accomplish.

Written by Nick

July 3, 2012 at 3:02 am

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

Hitting The Wall

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I’ve done my best, through some 85 posts or so, to tell a good story, and an accurate story. I’ve tried not to sound too cynical on days I do, but likewise, not to sound like I’m just churning out some feel-good propaganda either. I’d like to think I’ve kept a pretty good balance – because what matters more than anything else is telling the truth. And it’s not always rosy.

As is clear, and I’ve written about before, we’re not going to be staying here forever. There has to be a transition plan to hand over responsibility both for security and for the operations of the Afghan National Security Forces to the Afghans, and when NTM-A got going, there was a complex set of criteria established to measure their capabilities and establish milestones at which point advisory support could be withdrawn. Those have changed because of a lot of forces (a change in direction on how to do it – starting with sharp drawdowns of coalition advisors first, so that critical fracture points can be seen early and addressed for example), but in concept they’re good.

I’ve seen a lot of good acknowledgements from ISAF (which is why I’ll include them) that some things could have/should have been done better – there was so much early emphasis on churning out ANA triggerpullers (i.e. infantry soldiers who could be posted into kandaks and immediately deployed to restive areas in the south) that developing all the Combat Service Support structures for them was neglected, so the ANSF has a minimally functioning logistics system that is now being addressed. A good argument could be made that in hindsight, we should have built those structures first, and then started churning out combat arms soldiers.

We shifted out mindset from “Afghan Good Enough”, which could sound dismissive to “Afghan Right”, a term which better represents what we want to accomplish. What “Afghan Right” means is something that works for them. The structures, systems, processes that work for western militaries won’t work here (and working in a multinational environment we quickly learn that even amongst out NATO allies, there’s a number of different ways to do things we have had to learn and adapt to), but what we have sought to do is provide some ideas that our ANSF partners can use to develop their own systems. It’s made complicated by cultural issues – both remnants of a Soviet trained and organized military and Afghan culture in general, so we only try to offer ideas and then work to build the linkages they need to make the systems work.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In the military, what’s called “the 4 shop” looks after logistics/supply issues. There are various letters that go with the numbers to denote all the staff positions, which I explain a little in the glossary. So, let’s make this simple: at the school where I advise, the S4 is the officer who deals with logistics and supply. He’s been having a hard time trying to get parts and maintenance for the vehicles that the ANA own on their Tashkil (basically the Table of Organization & Equipment), because when he sends the requests to the G4 (the next higher headquarters, the branch that “owns” them), they go nowhere. So, we look for where things break down by getting a copy of the paperwork and sent it to the advisors all up the chain to try to figure out where the breakdown is and to fix the linkages.

As we barrel toward our transition (the date of which has changed repeatedly, always getting closer), we’ve shifted from dealing with the training end of the business and more toward making sure that the school is functional. It’s kind of a complex situation now, because they’re sort of orphans – we’ve moved them from a coalition camp to an ANA compound down the road. They’re only there while their more permanent home is constructed as part of the Afghan National Defence University located just west of Kabul in Qargha. For now, it seems, no one really wants to support them.

There’s also some bizarre personal dynamics in play, and I can’t really get into them in any detail, save to say that we sometimes work uphill against people who aren’t so much interested in our mission as in other motivators. It’s because of this I titled the post “Hitting The Wall”.

Since I got back from Germany, I’ve been trying to find a way to get more busy with mentoring, which has become a little easier based on the fact that a few of our team have gone on leave and we’re juggling tasks around. I went to a cordial meeting with the school staff to learn about some of the issues they’ve been having to try and help sort them out, and they went well. The other day, I set off with the Chief of Training, another mentor, and one of our instructors who is also trying to get more involved in mentoring for a meeting to discuss what the ANA have on the go for their training events. When we all worked in the same place they’d give us copies of their schedules, and we would accompany them to some of the training sites to monitor the training and help develop their instructors. Since their move we haven’t gotten as much information on this – mainly because there’s less casual interaction.

So our meeting started off as usually, friendly, casual, and we got some info on some upcoming events, and discussed some more professional development we could run for ANA instructors, based on what we had done when I first arrived, having ANA teach classes to each other and then doing a feedback session afterward to help them learn from each other. All seemed well, until we went to leave and a huge group from their higher headquarters arrived and started asking us about what we’d accomplished, why there was such a small training staff, etc, etc… it was not a comfortable experience and we bailed as fast as we could.

So we’re left basically in a position where we have to pass this on to higher levels of authority to try and sort it out. The instructors we work with – who still have passed to come onto our camp and do so frequently to eat at our DFAC (which, according to a blogger at the New York Times, is the worst dining facility in Kabul, and we agree!) – still are friendly and we want to make sure they’re set for some measure of success, but we’ve gotten to a point where what was a pretty good relationship on the staff side is no longer so cordial. The driver seems to be that they want more “stuff” from us – carpets, furniture, computers, whatever – without realizing that we’ve equipped them with everything we have to give them, and the rest is supposed to come from the ANA supply system, with which we’re happy to help… it’s just gotten that petty.

For now, we’re feeling a little useless while we try to sort this situation out – Ramadan is coming as well when a lot of things will slow down (though I’ll be on leave for a large part of it), and there’s yet again pressure to move our end date to the left despite there being so much more we could do (both here, and with our regional teams which are basically being closed out when Ramadan starts), so the feeling of being unable to accomplish a lot is doubly frustrating with this recent turn of events.

Written by Nick

June 25, 2012 at 2:02 am

Watching Blog Stats

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WordPress has a couple of interesting features, not only does it tell me how many hits I get on the blog, and where they come from if they have direct referrers, but it tells me what search terms lead people to the blog (some are bizarre, I have to say), and also an idea of where readers come from. Most hits originate in Canada, which doesn’t surprise me, because virtuatlly everyone I’ve distributed the site info to is Canadian), but every now and then I will get weird one-offs, and sometimes, a whole bunch from one country – like the other day about 11 from Austria. Could all be the same person, know knows, but it was interesting to see that number of hits.

Today is a scorching hot Friday, though hot is a relative term, I’ve got a trip planned to southern Afghanistan where there is a whole lot more heat to contend with – and we’re headed to the range shortly for a mix of training and some good friendly competition in pistol and rifle shooting. Good way to spend a Friday afternoon, especially given that the power is off in the office while electricians do some work.

I did manage to sleep in today for the first time in a while, which was nice – my new room is pretty comfortable (if small) and there’s some luxury in no longer having a roommate – though even if I hadn’t moved, he’s gone on leave for three weeks anyhow – actually, with the way our leave process works it’ll be almost a month before I see him again. We’re busy working on pranks for when he returns.

Written by Nick

June 15, 2012 at 4:48 am

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Back To The Sandbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Written by Nick

June 12, 2012 at 2:52 am

Spreading The Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

June 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Been A While

with one comment

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.