Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘training

How To Make Things More Tolerable

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One of the things that is vital to being able to live and work in close quarters with a fairly small number of people is a good sense of humour, and it seems that’s something we have in spades. The mix of nationalities seems to help, because it means we can cover a diverse array of styles of humour.

Being the new guy (though there are several new people in the organization and several getting ready to return home to various places) means getting to understand the history of the jokes, having to ask questions about some of the more bizarre things posted up around the office, and just trying to get a handle on what makes everyone tick. They do a good job of making you feel welcome quickly though.

One of the chief jokers is an American National Guardsman who will be leaving soon. I don’t actually see much of him because he’s running around closing out things before he heads home, but he’s left his mark. I learned of him primarily from walking into a hilarious late night conversation about his travel plans (including visiting the Canadian I’m taking over for), and his almost passable ability to sing the Stan Rogers classic Barrett’s Privateers, which he knows is somehow associated with Halifax.

One of his creations stemmed, as the story goes, from a conversation with someone senior about the mundane job of running a training centre. He was told “Well, it could be worse. You could be out doing foot patrols in the Korengal Valley.” Ever see the movie Restrepo? If you’re reading this, probably a good movie for you. There’s also a good PBS Frontline documentary about it. The Korengal Valley is located in Konar Province east of Kabul, and is a remote, lawless, dangerous area where Americans live in precarious combat outposts.

Anyhow, that’s what Wikipedia’s for. I’m getting away from the point, which is that a sign up sheet for “Dismounted Patrols In The Korengal Valley” went up in the office in short order. Beside it was his “Christmas email” sent to the entire camp, a hilarious riff on the Mayor’s Cell suggesting that conditions were ripe for insurgency within the camp, and the response from that office.

This is the kind of stuff you need to get by. By one of the 435784578 coffee makers located in our facility is a list of “Don’ts”, which describe series of offences that most people would be familiar with (leaving less than a cup in the pot, etc), all with verbs to describe them based on the names of the individuals notorious for the sins.

Additionally, I have an event to look forward to every week – trivia night run by the Brits. It’s a hilarious affair, seriously competitive with a grand weekly prize of nothing but bragging rights. My first night out was a roaring success, trouncing six other teams. More amusing was my introduction to “The White Rat” which is evidently some sort of naval tradition. Essentially, someone is secretly nominated each week to snoop around camp collecting gossip and embarrassing stories about the contingent, which are then delivered to the assembly in the form of a hilarious monologue which a prop “white rat” (which I think was some form of sock puppet) presents the dirt. It was brilliant. Their humour is also well used in their farewell traditions where departing soldiers are subject to a great roast, for which detailed notes are kept during the tour.

The latest development is that I finally have my permanent quarters. I don’t have my own room, I share it with another Captain, but it should work out okay. We piled all our stuff in as soon as we got the keys and spent a good couple of hours yesterday organizing things. To our good fortune, the previous occupants left lots of stuff behind of use – a kettle (two, actually, we gave one away), cleaning supplies, coat hangers, power bars, carpets, etc etc. The room’s nothing fancy – it’s maybe 10′ x 10′, with a couple of lockers, a couple of book cases, a bunk bed, and a desk (we would like another one, but it’ll be a tight fit). It’s comfortable, and once we got unpacked a bit it felt like progress. It also, unlike some accommodations, is in a building that has laundry and washrooms within it. Some quarters rely on trailers you’ve got to go outside to get to, which when it gets muddy in the spring won’t be so much fun. No complaints, really. We’ve got an option to buy a TV and DVD player as well from someone about to leave, and movies can either be borrowed from the morale and welfare folks or bought at the Afghan shops – the latest Chinese bootlegs for $2 each. Whatever works.

For now, though, things are going slowly. There’s a lot of stuff we’re working on, but it’s not really coming together due to circumstances presently beyond our control. I’m mainly getting ready to do some courses which will be interesting – reading the material in advance and such things. I’ve also done a little bit of monitoring of ANSF classes, sitting in the back with an interpreter and the Commandant who’s advising their chain of command on the quality of their instructors. It’s interesting seeing how their officers teach – I can’t comment on how well they cover the content (except that apparently with some variation it’s been pretty good), but they seem to have strong presentation skills and an interest in the material which makes their teaching more effective.

There’s lots swirling around, but for now, we’re just getting what we can done and waiting on what we can’t.

Written by Nick

March 4, 2012 at 6:42 am

Home Is Where…

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Camps in Afghanistan are interesting places. They’re essentially small cities, more or less entirely self-contained, and designed to provide space for residents to live, work, play, and generally enjoy a comfortable existence during their residency.

Camps are run by the Mayor’s Cell. There is an actual Mayor, though he’s appointed by virtue of his job, rather than elected. He employs a number of officers who look after everything from housing (billeting) to food services, to contracting services, to managing classroom/office space, to discipline on certain matters like water consumption. There’s a fire department, a post office, shops, a telephone exchange. There’s a small army of local nationals (Afghans) who do maintenance work, run the DFAC, and so on. It is a very busy place at times.

As far as water consumption goes, the hope I have is that the massive snowfall Afghanistan has “enjoyed” this winter will make sure that the aquifers are well replenished and hopefully we won’t have any issues with water supplies. Right now there are none, but with the summer coming and some movements into my camp on the horizon that may change. Problems have happened before, there are posters about rationing to be found in some places, for now mostly common sense prevails. Note that this is water for washing and so on. Drinking water is all bottled water, which is abundant. There are “kiosks” literally everywhere piled high with bottled water – mostly from Uzbekistan, some from a plant in Bagram that is as I understand it Afghan-owned.

That’s actually one of the interesting things in the DFAC – stuff comes from all over. Pepsi products from Germany. Coke from the UAE. Orange juice from Uzbekistan. Milk from Bahrain. It’s a little bizarre to think about how out supply chain works.

Of course, for all the cozy atmosphere here, and it really is, there is no escaping the reality of the place. The camp is ringed with Hesco Bastion walls, topped with barbed wire. Observation towers surround it. The entrance point has a complex system of controls for anyone entering, manned by armed guards with no sense of humour. Bunkers are situated around the camp in case of an indirect fire attack. This is, after all, a military encampment in the heart of a country with an active, dangerous insurgency.

Part of inclearance is a series of boring briefings – don’t play with feral animals lest you get rabies, reviews of ROEs and other policies, and even a trip to the clearing bay to prove you can safely handle

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Written by Nick

March 2, 2012 at 4:09 am

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

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Today we got a crash course in Counterinsurgency (COIN). COIN is the nature of the kind of operation that is ongoing in Afghanistan, and based on history, it’s something that the Canadian Army will have to get better at over the next few years to be prepared for future operations. The reality is that since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, three quarters of military conflicts have been insurgencies or other low intensity conflicts. The massive global conflagrations that are what first spring to mind when one thinks of war are indeed very rare.

COIN is something that no one has really done well, in no small part, I think, because it’s hard for a conventional military to wrap its collective minds around how to deal with insurgencies. The British were probably the first to start understanding COIN during the Malaya Emergency, and it’s from that in part that we got the idea of “Hearts & Minds”.

Problem #1 is that a lot of people don’t understand, even at a fundamental level what it means.

“When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”

Well, there’s no easy way to get the balls of an insurgency that blends seamlessly into the population. There’s no battle front, there’s no Fulda Gap to stare across at your “most probable military opponent” (which is one term that the Soviet Army apparently used for Americans when teaching officers about tactics), there’s no way to actually accomplish this. And of course, it’s totally not the idea, but I’ll get back to that.

“Remember, hearts and minds, boys. Two in the chest, one in the head, that’s hearts and minds.”

Yep. I heard that on a close quarter combat range once. I can’t gloss over what we do, remember. We are trained in the art of using deadly force. We are trained to kill people. I’m in the infantry. That is our job. The Role Of The Infantry, which is taught to us and we’re constant reminded of throughout training, is bluntly this: “To close with and destroy the enemy, by day or by night, regardless of season, terrain or weather.” There’s no glossing over it. But remember that thing from ethics? I have no problem telling my mom what I do in the army. In addition to that blunt description, of course, we have the ability to harness our organizational and leadership skills to do all sorts of things. But our training necessarily revolves around that role.

So what’s the phrase actually mean? Well, the important thing in a counterinsurgency campaign is to understand how insurgencies work, what the prerequisites are, and how to counter them. Insurgencies happen because the insurgent organization is able to exploit a vacuum. When governments fail to address the needs or wants of a society, an insurgency can emerge. The Taliban, for example, rose to power by helping resolve what amounted to legal disputes, and providing law and order, which didn’t exist in most of the country. Rising in the Pashtun southern part of the country, they harnessed both religion and tribal customs and were able to become strong enough to take over the whole country. When they were routed in 2001, they resumed a highly effective insurgency.

It’s worth noting that they not only exploit the vacuum, they  essentially help create it by destabilizing the areas they still can influence. There’s a lot more complex forms of insurgency that can develop too, but I’ll be writing a university paper if I try to get into them all, and well, if I’m going to do that, I’ll write a book and sell it. Or something.

Thus, the idea of winning hearts and minds doesn’t mean winning a popularity contest. It means convincing the local national population that the Host Nation government can meet their needs. It doesn’t even need to meet them now – it just needs to gain the trust of the populace that it will be able to in the future. It means understanding the root causes beyond the surface grievances, getting to understand them, and empowering the Host Nation to address them. Winning hearts and minds means that we set conditions for both an emotional and logical conclusion that the Host Nation can address those problems. It’s not a simple matter of dumping some foreign aid on them, or fighting off insurgents when they attack. It’s about cutting the insurgency off from their base of support, making it such that the local population no longer needs or supports them, and no longer wants anything to do with them. That isolation ends their relevance.

What you’re probably coming to understand is that the military cannot do it all, but we’re definitely a significant part of the problem.

Modern COIN doctrine gives us four stages: Shape, Clear, Hold, Build. We’re basically embarking on the “Build” stage, to create the capabilities within the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the Afghan National Security Forces to operate effectively, to provide a state that meets the needs and wants of its people. That will cut the Taliban off from its support (mostly, there’s foreign interference of course, and that’s a whole other problem), and render them increasingly irrelevant. With that, hopefully, a generation of Afghan kids will grow up not knowing war, get educated, and be able to provide for themselves and their family without turning to fighting. That’s the goal at the highest level. If that doesn’t sell you on why I’m going, well, probably nothing will. I absolutely can proudly tell my mom that that’s what I’m doing for the next year or so.

The guidance we have seems almost comically simple. Drink lots of chai (Afghan tea, which is served over conversation). Treat every soldier as a sensor gathering information on the environment and the variety of factors that contribute to the nature and persistence of insurgency. And the one I love: get out of your vehicles, take off your sunglasses – sit and look counterparts in the eye and have a good discussion, find out what will work to move forward. Oakleys are a barrier to building the trust that Afghans want with us, according to the Big Boss. Makes sense to me, actually. It really does. We need to build lasting relationships so that the people we advise see a value in working with us.

COIN requires a willingness to keep up the “clear” task. A well-executed COIN campaign, which is what ISAF is working to set up, will be able to reintegrate most of the insurgents into society, to get them to see the value of working with rather than against the Host Nation government, in this case GIRoA. Some, however, will be incorrigible. They will never be able to let go, and so, we – or more specifically, the ANSF must be prepared to go out and kill them. It’s that simple. The goal is to get them to think like we do – that we can either be a solid partner, comrade, friend – or will spare no effort to root you out. We’ve got a lot to learn still, and I think COIN will be an ongoing Professional Development study topic while we’re away. But we’re getting the idea, and learning how to present ourselves to the challenge.

I am a Canadian soldier. In me you will know no better friend, and no worse enemy. That was one of the quips in the presentation we had today, and it sort of resonated.

Focusing In On The End State

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We’re getting toward the home stretch for sure. Combat first aid wound up well – a good, thorough, and frankly relevant and intense course was probably the best training I’ve seen so far here. Interestingly enough, one of the instructors was a young NCO I trained on his PLQ (primary leadership qualification) course a few years ago and had back the following year as an instructor. He’s doing alright for himself after leaving the Primary Reserve to join the Regular Force.

The course is taught over two days, the first day being mainly theory – the basics of paramedicine, essentially. It’s a crash course in anatomy and trauma management, essentially. It takes what you learn in Standard First Aid courses and rearranges the priorities to make dealing with trauma the primary emphasis, with the equipment that we carry. That equipment is pretty good and being constantly improved upon, but at the end of the day, like any tools, its effectiveness depends solely upon the skill of the users. We therefore got introduced to it all, and put into situations that were realistic enough to get us thinking.  With the limited time and huge audience we didn’t get the intense casualty simulation that often comes with the training, but when you’ve got people taking the material seriously, it’s going to give you the desired effect.

The only thing we cannot simulate is your own reactions to seeing first-hand the impacts of attacks. There’s a combat psychology aspect to this that we haven’t covered intensely in this workup but most people at least in the Army have either been formally introduced to in some aspect of training, or have learned about from their own study of our art. The key to dealing with this revolves around an expanded version the Cooper Colour Code – which was developed by a USMC Marine Colonel, Jeff Cooper, who is an expert on firearms training. The key is to keep yourself “out of the black” – a situation where the natural reaction to combat stress renders you unable to effectively perform anything. The great concern is that in the wake of an incident, those people who need to react and start rendering aid will be in Condition Black – heart racing, brain unable to process information properly, fine motor skills effective. We train on drills so that what you have to do is no longer a conscious thought process, but simple reactions.

Training done right will push you into the red, at which point your heart is racing, your breathing is laboured, you start to get tunnel vision on your objective, and your brain is struggling to process the information around you that you need to remain situationally aware. We train to understand this physiological reactions and to manage them. Studying this has led us to change the way we teach people to use their weapons, to teach them breathing techniques that will aid them, and so on. We don’t do that perfectly yet… and that’s a big, big pet peeve of mine, but I’m not doing this to rant about things I want to see changed. I know we’re getting there. But that’s a discussion for another time, and probably for another forum.

Today we’re working on cultural awareness training, which has been somewhat interesting, but at the same time for me it’s kind of boring, because I’ve read extensively on Afghan history and culture, and while I’m getting some insights from our advisors, the rest is kind of slow. I’ve got another day of that tomorrow, which I’m hoping will be better.

Tonight, however, was especially interesting. We got a visit from the Commander of Canadian Forces Expeditionary Command (CEFCOM), who had a lot to tell us about his insights into the mission we’re embarking on. It wasn’t a lot of blowing smoke up people’s arses. It was a realistic assessment of what we’re going to do, and that to me is good, because having a realistic context in which to work means that we’re going to have realistic objectives. Setting up to train Afghanistan’s security forces – or rather – to enable them to train and sustain themselves will make a difference there, and is what we haven’t done an effective job of for the last ten years. It seems like the overarching concept isn’t an unrealistic view.

We will face a lot of challenges. Afghans in the age bracket that the ANSF recruits from have a literacy rate of 14%. That means 86% of them are unable to read or write. These are things we take for granted in a country like Canada, but a country which has been devoid of an effective education system creates that sort of problem. Corruption is endemic, of course, and we will never eliminate it, to suppose we can is folly, so instead, we just have to try to work around it to focus on effectiveness. We have to hope that political will to support the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stays intact. The “green-on-blue” incident in which 4 French trainers were killed and 15 wounded the other day shook the French resolve. Comd CEFCOM put it best – the insurgency needs to work to break the bonds of trust that make ISAF work – between ISAF armies and their ANSF counterparts, between the Afghan civilization population and their police and army, and if that breaks the link between us, the deployed soldiers and the people at home then it is far easier to push us to give in.

I guess, then, in some way, I’m going to play a direct role in all aspects of that. My job is to help the ANA training system work better, by enabling them to do for themselves, rather than us doing for them. And more importantly, I’m going to tell you the story – the story of one contributor, but part of a broader Canadian story. The fact is, we’re not going to have the kind of media attention that operations in Kandahar ever did. When you really think about it, actually, the fact that Afghanistan isn’t splashed all over front page news right now is an indicator that something is going right, but it’s also creating a risk that the public won’t realize we are there. I want to counter that – I want people to know – to remember – that even though the intense fighting in Kandahar is over, even though hopefully we’re not going to see so many corteges traveling the Highway of Heroes, there are still 1000 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan working to make sure that that country can stand on its own and that we won’t have to worry about the costs of a failed state. We’ve paid it for 10 years.

I hope it’ll be interesting. It’s getting close to the next chapter – to “go time”.

Deeper Thoughts On Training

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First aid training is done. Well, Standard First Aid, anyhow, Combat First Aid starts tomorrow. It’s going to be a relatively relaxed course I think though, being that it’s the weekend, and the idea is to actually learn as much as possible. Some of the kit we get for our own med pouches is stuff I haven’t really used, though, so it’ll be important to pay good attention, I have a lot to learn. I’m realizing as I think about the course that while I’ve set up my SORD rig in a way that I think is mostly functional, I have my med pouch in a place that is only accessible from one side – which might actually not be the best idea from the perspective of planning for its use. I think I’m going to move it.

I feel like such a snob going to ranges and so on with non-combat arms types using the SORD. The whole reason people started using this sort of hit is that the tactical vest we normally carry has a couple of significant flaws. The main one has to do with the placement and design of the ammunition pouches. The tac vest has four single magazine pouches that carry 30 round rifle magazines. They sit high on the vest, which makes them awkward to use. Back when it was designed, the idea of carrying five magazines when going out on an operation seemed reasonable. Afghanistan showed that wasn’t enough. Most people wound up carrying at least ten. The position, in addition to being inefficient for rapid reloads, didn’t bear the weight properly.

With a chest rig, you can carry your magazines lower and more accessibly. I have them low and mainly on my left side, because I’m right handed, allowing me to grab them with my left hand, and swing them up rapidly into what we call “the workspace”. It’s ergonomically superior to the awkward motion required with the tactical vest. I have the pouch that will hold my pistol magazines mounted higher, as the workspace for it is different, and I can do everything right in front of my face that way.

I will note that the other major problem with the TV – the “one size fits all” problem that wastes lots of space for those who carry a machine gun as a personal weapon – isn’t really solved by the SORD rig we have been issued, because as yet there’s no pouches suitable for machine gun ammunition. However, other than the force protection folks, people generally aren’t carrying anything but rifles or carbines anyhow during the normal course of business.

So, why do I feel like a snob? Simple. So many of these guys I see have the mag pouches mounted high, and the problem is in fact made worse by the design of the mag pouches, which have a larger foldover flap. This is a smart compromise, because they can be closed relatively easily. I just don’t think they get why they’ve been given the kit they have, and perhaps that the fault of some people who aren’t sharing the knowledge. Normally, even “customizable” kit comes with a pretty strict set of directions about how it will be used. We’re not getting that direction, instead we’re being left to the soldier’s favourite term – “personal preference”. When that preference doesn’t have knowledge to shape it, well, people just go with what they know. I’ve shared mine with some people, but when someone who’s barely handled a rifle in their entire career blows me off, well, what I can I do? I’m not an expert by any means, nor do I have any authority to tell them what to do. Some people just don’t want friendly advice I guess.

There’s a second problem that it seems we (the combat arms types) have to try to break people of. We have had for many years something of an obsession with rifle magazines. We have created a culture so obsessed with retaining those magazines that it leads people to do things in gun fights that are dangerous. Our experts will tell you that when you need to change magazines, you just dump the empty one, get the fresh one loaded, and keep getting rounds downrange. However, we’ve all been taught to make sure that magazine doesn’t get lost, and I don’t really know why. The best explanation I’ve gotten is that they’re prohibited items – to have one other than as a military/law enforcement person at work is illegal. It seems we’re worried that one lost in a training area might wind up in the wrong hands or something. It’s certainly not a cost issue, they’re about $7 each or something like that if you lose one (which I haven’t in a long time).

There is an old, and possibly apocryphal story about a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, in the process of reloading the revolver he was carrying. Someone highlighted that the spent casings from that revolver were found in his pocket – suggesting that during his reload he had fiddled around to get the casings into the pocket because he would have been conditioned to do so on ranges, rather than simply dumping the cases to reload quickly. We’re conditioning people to do the same thing, but it’s getting weeded out I guess. It’s like our need to restructure the way we train people on their service rifles, because combat arms folks rather quickly get told “what you learned on basic is wrong”. Because it is.

What got me thinking about that was a series of events today. This morning I read about a green-on-blue incident involving French soldiers in Kapisa Province, which is near Kabul. Four were killed by an Afghan National Army soldier who was in a unit being mentored by the French Army. That as a headline was awful enough, but then I read the whole story – that 15 French soldiers were wounded in the attack. One lone ANA traitor created 19 casualties. How did that happen? One source explained it: they were unarmed. That I couldn’t believe. The idea of being unarmed at any point there is to me simply ridiculous.

The attack has prompted the French to “reconsider” their role, and suspend operations for now, mainly because of domestic political pressure I’m guessing.

The problem, the concern that I’m developing is that lots of people deploying who perhaps aren’t taking enough opportunity to train on the skills that they hopefully won’t ever need, but should have. I’m going to be surrounded by almost all combat arms types, so we’ll be out honing skills constantly, but I guess I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t do that. I guess it’s just the way that even as a Reservist to think about those skills. There is, also, the fact that I shoot recreationally, and I probably know more about firearms than at least 2/3s of my colleagues. I take the stuff seriously, because it’s my job.

I also was struck by something that happened during the trip to convoy ranges. After drawing our weapons, we were loading up into MSVS trucks to go out to the training area. SOP for us is when you’re loading a vehicle, you unload and clear your weapons. There are of course exceptions, but this wasn’t remotely close to being one. Additionally, when you’re going to a range, weapons handling is particularly important, for reasons I shouldn’t need to explain even to non-soldiers.

So, we’re on the truck. I was last in on the left, and as I tend to, I started looking around. I spotted a loaded rifle in the hands of someone sitting across from me. Incidentally, in our terminology, loaded means that a magazine is mounted on the rifle. Whether it actually contains ammunition or not is not discernable by appearance. There was almost certainly no ammunition present, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still not done. So, I said, “Hey man, what’s with the loaded rifle?” and shot him a bit of a glare.

I didn’t realize he was a Major. But hey, that should have meant he knew better.

His answer? “So, when I catch you doing it, I can use the same tone?”

What tone? I didn’t use a “tone”. I did highlight a significant safety infraction. That’s all.

And you’ll never catch me doing the same thing. Because I’m a pro. And we don’t do stupid things like that.

Or we shouldn’t. I don’t.

It’s not that I have a lack of confidence in our training or my peers. I don’t. I know that they’ll be able to do what they need to do, and that we get some of the best training around. I’ll be interested to get a lot more experience seeing how ours stacks up against our allies while I’m away, but what I’ve seen in limited experience tells me we’re well ahead of most of them.

It’s just that I sometimes wonder if people just brush it off, even when there’s lots of people who’d happily coach them.

Written by Nick

January 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm

And We’re Back…

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Back to Gagetown. I arrived back in the area Saturday night with my wife, she came to drop me off to resume workup training, and mainly because we wanted to go for dinner at a particular restaurant in Fredericton that we discovered on arriving no longer exists! Nevertheless we had a nice evening out with an old friend of mine from a course six years ago. She’s out of the military now, but her then-shaggy-haired boyfriend is now her Army Captain husband. We hit a wine bar for a long night of revelry before heading back to our hotel.

I got back to the shacks Sunday afternoon and set about sort of unpacking. I have a fair bit less stuff here now, because I’m trying to more or less live out of my barrack box until it’s time to leave. I’m here until February 3rd, and literally every day is booked with some sort of training activity. Tomorrow I’m off to do convoy ranges at Swan Creek Lake. I got some frostbite watching the demos today, but tomorrow should be a little warmer as I understand it. Wednesday I have… I can’t actually remember, and Thursday I start first aid training, a good refresher. Standard then combat first aid will take me through the weekend, and then we move on to some other stuff. Mostly it’s “classroom” so I shouldn’t be too bothered about things like cold.

We’ve got about an inch of snow on the ground. Kabul apparently got something like a foot over the weekend, though it won’t likely last long.

Today was also my first day wearing my CADPAT(AR) uniform – desert cam. It’s just weird seeing my reflection in it – or people milling around in it. We are also a Sergeant Major’s worst nightmare, because climactic conditions mean we have to make use of all our cold weather gear, which is all green. I don’t think this will make sense to the average civilian, but mixing different uniform components is generally a big no-no that drives those charged with enforcing dress and deportment ballistic. Alas, we carry on.

I got my departure date today (although it’s not 100%, I haven’t seen it on paper), early on in the relief-in-place, which is good. I won’t have a lot of time sitting around between the end of training and when I head off.

In addition to all the training on the schedule I’m still working at learning the language. I got my hands on some better materials and I’m starting to get a grip on the basics of things. It’s tough to learn a language that literally in no way resembles any language I know. I’m starting to wrap my head around things like basic grammar, and very slowly building up a little vocabulary. I have a lot of lessons left though, and I’m hoping that between the different tools I have and the time remaining I’ll have some better skills.

For those of you reading this regularly (or stumbling upon it – that seems to happen from time to time too!), what do you want me to tell you about? I feel like I’m not telling that great a story yet, but I’m not totally sure if there’s better directions. Use the comment feature to tell me what you might want to see.

Written by Nick

January 16, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Holidays

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When I got back to Halifax after being dismissed from Gagetown for the holidays, I immediately set to trying to get my leave schedule as synchronized with my wife’s vacation days as possible. Thursday night when I got home she told me she’d found a last minute five-star all-inclusive trip to Cuba, leaving the following Tuesday.

I immediately started trying to negotiate for some leave schedule that would allow for it, but alas, nothing even after Christmas dinner. Monday, I breezed into the office and almost immediately into a conversation about training going on between Christmas and New Year’s Eve for a recruit course and our Mountain Operations Platoon.

Turned out that they needed more staff for the four days of planned training, and I immediately volunteered, getting a leave pass for the rest of the week and plane tickets to Cuba leaving the following day. We didn’t get the five star steal, but a nice four star, leaving from Toronto so we visited some old friends on the way there and back.

Had a great trip, nice to relax and enjoy some sun,  wander around Old Havana, and not really care about much of anything.

I came back expecting to spend those days between Christmas and New Year working. Specifically, they needed someone to help run rifle ranges, because the other officers who were to be there had other things to do. Not really a hard go. The problem, of course, is that I had left most of my cold weather kit in Gagetown. So I called a friend and asked her if I could borrow… well… everything.  And she hooked me up (and gave my wife a quick lesson on Afghan carpets, and pashminas). Off I went.

The CF all but shuts down over the holidays due to leave. Everything goes to minimum manning. When we arrived we were basically the only people at this camp, the Land Force Atlantic Area Training Centre Detachment at Camp Aldershot. Aldershot is about an hour from Halifax in the Annapolis Valley just outside Kentville, Nova Scotia.

We ordered all the necessary accommodations, meals, etc. All went well on arrival until we realized that the heat in the staff quarters was off. My room the first  night was a balmy 7°C. In the morning, it got more interesting. I was supposed to be running a PWT-3 range. The ammo techs first didn’t show up at their appointed time, then we found out that for whatever reason, there wasn’t enough ammunition to do the shooting that was planned. Some request didn’t get processed properly. Then it was decided to cancel the range altogether. The same day, the recruits were going to the gas hut, and the instructor running it and the Deputy Commanding Officer of my unit showed up. They said, “Well, you may as well go home.” (the subtext was “why did you even come?!”) So I packed up my kit and off I headed home for some nice relaxing days off. It worked out really nicely.

New Years Day I headed down to my parents’ winter home in Yuma, Arizona for a week – I’ve been enjoying myself here, riding around the desert in a dune buggy, visiting Mexico for shrimp tacos (while my mom got her prescriptions refilled), and so on – just enjoying some sun. I also visited the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, a massive sprawling training and research facility. I’ve been playing with the new Kindle Fire I bought, and just relaxing. My folks have been asking what I want them to send me “over there”, so I’ve sort of set up a standing order for things I’m interested in having in care packages.

I’ll be home next week to work at my home unit (which I don’t think will actually be anything!), and then after a week it’s back to Gagetown to bash on with the last stretch of training before we go. After a week of sunny days I’m not looking forward to seeing the snow.

Happy New Year everyone. 2012 is going to be interesting.

Written by Nick

January 6, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Long Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nick

December 7, 2011 at 12:34 am

The Final Week…

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It’s been four weeks already of workup, and it feels like it’s raced along. This is the last week before we head back home for Christmas leave. In my case, I have to report in to my home unit for a few days before I can start burning some leave. This week is pretty light, a final DAG process, some lectures, and then the mundane administrative process of outclearance, getting off the base. That’s going to be pretty easy because we’re basically being treated like we’re staying, anyhow. I don’t have to clear out of my room, or anywhere else. I just have to pack. I’m trying to figure out how to rationalize all of the stuff I have here so that it’s easy to keep organized for when we leave. I’m going to take home a lot of stuff that will no longer be needed, ditch some kit I have that’s now obsolete, and start to adjust to living out of a barracks box for the most part.

This morning we welcomed back our boss who’s just returned from a “Tac Recce” visit to Kabul, gathering all sorts of information from our counterparts over there that will be turned into handover briefs for us. He had a lot of good information to share about how things are working there now, how they are anticipated to be working in the new year, and what impact the many changes happening in Afghanistan at the moment will have. With the Americans getting ready to pull about a third of their forces out of the country, NTM-A will certainly be doing some reorientation, and it will directly impact us. We’re not sure how just yet, though, and no one really wants to start rumours. They don’t help at all. We’re just sticking to a mantra I learned from a mentor of mine – Semper Gumby. Always flexible.

We spent the rest of the morning with the military police doing some training on detainee handling, personnel searches, and vehicle checkpoints. The likelihood of needing to know any of that stuff is relatively low, but all the same, it’s important. I hadn’t had a thorough review of it in a long time, and things have changed a lot anyhow, as they often do. The MP who taught it had lots of great stories to illustrate her points, and that made the process much better than some massive PowerPoint presentation as was the expectation.

Following that, as I’ve been tagged as a Unit Ethics Coordinator, I was tasked with delivering an ethics briefing. I had to condense a large package into something useful but brief, and I think it went pretty well, based on the feedback I got. It’s going to have to be revisited in more detail, but I don’t actually have the relevant course yet, so that will wait. I did introduce the concepts, and they are important. The CF has suffered from some failings in that area over the years, and the emphasis made on explaining why it matters is a valuable thing.

The briefing complete, I headed back to the office to catch up on email, and was prompted by the Company Sergeant Major (CSM) to go through the DAG process that was ongoing for the 2RCR folks. I was basically already DAG Green on the key points, but there were a few little things left to get checked off, so I’m now done them – and just have to get my green passport processed. Green passports are “Special” passports carried by officials of the Government of Canada, ie me when I deploy. I’ll enter Afghanistan on that passport, but keep my regular blue passport for my leave travel.

Somewhere in there, I found time to get over to the LAV barn and find my tan uniforms, which are now set to kill all manner of insects that might attempt to approach them. I have to take a combat shirt over to the office with me tomorrow for a “media handout photo”. I think I warned readers that we have a kind of bizarre, gallows humour kind of thing. The only time those photos are media handouts are when things go very, very bad. So we call them “hero pics” or more cynically, “dead guy pics”. That said, my parent brigade is making a display of all their deployed personnel that those pics will adorn, so that’s a little better use. I hate being photographed though, and blink/squint in photos constantly, so I’m not really looking forward to it. It took about ten tries to get my passport picture done this evening.

This evening – right – a trip to Costco, and $600 later, I’m back with a MOB box full of almost everything I’ll likely need for the tour in terms of consumable – everything but shampoo, to be specific, and enough coffee and tea to last… well… a couple of weeks anyhow. I picked up a nice set of fleece sheets as well, and a memory foam mattress pad, which I think I’m going to have to either persuade someone else to put in one of their MOBs, or just return. Since I have the camp coffee maker in my MOB, I think it’s only fair someone should bring the thing for me. I’ll try to sort that out tomorrow.

My UAB gets loaded into a sea container Wednesday night to start the long journey, and hopefully it’ll find me in Kabul fairly close to my arrival.

The day was busy enough that I almost forgot to observe a moment of quiet reflection for a sad anniversary. Today marked the third anniversary of the day an IED killed a good friend of mine in Senjaray, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Cpl Mark MacLaren, MMV, was 24 and joined up not long after I did. The hit that killed him and his two OMLT colleagues was quite a loss, but through the life he led he enjoys a sort of immortality few will know. RIP Chinaman.

I’m not really sure what else will fill the rest of the week, because some of the planned training has been rescheduled. Rumours abound that we’ll be sent home early, which suits me – I could use the jump on settling some other business that needs to be looked after on the home front anyhow.

Written by Nick

December 6, 2011 at 12:07 am

Professional Development Day!

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When I was a kid in school, a “PD Day” was a Friday off. Not so in the Army. Today’s main thrust is an endless slew of briefings on a variety of subjects. Law Of Armed Conflict, Rules of Engagement, Media Awareness, Information Security, and Staff Procedures are the order of the day.

This week’s been productive. My staff duties are getting done ahead of most camps, and I now have all of my mission kit, having picked up my new rucksack yesterday.

A few years ago, the Army embarked on a project called Clothe The Soldier, which for a while was dubbed “Tease The Soldier” as a lot of stuff took a while to get fielded. The last major item I didn’t have was the rucksack. To design it, DND turned to a bunch of scientists, engineers, and generally smart people to design an incredibly sophisticated modern load carriage system. While it may be awesome, it’s easily the most complicated piece of kit I have ever been issued, so much of my evening went to assembling it, the most difficult part of which is custom bending the frame stays which are made of 1/8″ aluminum bar stock. Don’t think I damaged the furniture, and I think I got all the angles right.

How it’ll work on top of a flak vest with ballistic plates, I’m not sure. I don’t think they thought of that. I still have a lot of adjustments on it to play with. It’ll look good in the corner of my room since I doubt I’ll have any operational reason to have it on.

I got off to a rough start this morning though, my nagging cold of the last few days took a turn for the worse, and so I skipped PT this morning and headed to the MIR (medics) to get it sorted. Two hours after being hmmed and hawed over by a couple of Med Techs, I was sent back to work with a fistful of OTC meds, and probably don’t have a dreaded sinus infection.

The briefings haven’t been terrible, fortunately, because some of the presenters have been pretty good. The JAG Officer who did the RoE brief could have a second career as a comedian.

At lunch, we headed back to the LAV Barn for “the dip”, treating our uniforms with Permethrin, a potent (illegal for general use in Canada) pesticide to deal with mosquitoes. We’ll ignore that at Kabul’s altitude there are no mosquitoes, but the Army has SOPs and they haven’t been updated for this Op yet it seems. (Update: Permethrin is also effective against arthropods – spiders – and that’s why we are issued it.)

Part of the Media brief covered social media, and it was interesting. It’s a good thing to touch on here. While there is a particularly robust rule in place, it’s not really practical. I follow a pretty simple rule of thumb that you’ll see. Actually, it’s more like rules.

You won’t see me publish my full name. It’s not because I want to be aloof, it’s just a basic PERSEC thing. Most of you know who I am anyhow, but the random reader doesn’t need to know that to follow the story. Similarly I won’t disclose the identities of my coworkers to protect their information.

The nature of this mission is such that there won’t be thrilling stories of kinetic operations anyhow, but even if there was, I won’t have anything to say about them until long after the fact. Likewise, while I’ll tell you about what we are training on, I can’t and won’t get into specifics of TTP’s, the specifics of how we do things. Plenty of that stuff is readily available via various channels anyhow, lamentably, but I won’t add to it.

All I can really tell you about is my experiences, my knowledge, my story. I think it’ll be reasonably interesting even with colouring inside the lines.

All that is left today is to hang my Permethrin soaked uniforms to dry over the weekend, and then off home for the weekend where I’ll be spending some quality time at Costco filling my MOB boxes with tour goodies.

Written by Nick

December 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm