Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas from Afghanistan!

A Colts Christmas!

I'll keep today's update short and to the point-  Thanks!  Without all of your strong support, spending the holidays away from home would be unimaginable.  Rather than updating the blog over the past few days, I've been assembling a sort of "Year in Review" Christmas letter.

SPC Cashion, our in-house elf and I

A few of our interpretor/cultural advisors and I during our
team Christmas party

For those of you who don't really know me all that well, I think this letter should give you a little better glimpse into my life.  As you'll see, I've been blessed with the best family and friends a man could ask for.

Merry Christmas from FOB Salerno, Afghanistan!  Pictures to follow from the dining hall as it is decorated quite festive once again...

My office looked more like a war zone by the time I was done opening all of the packages.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My second cup of tea...

A US Army MATV augments the Afghan National Police while providing
perimeter security around the Tani District Center
Those of you who have read Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea are most likely aware of the origins of the book’s title. Mortensen’s creative titling of the book refers to an ancient Balti proverb: "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family...

I would argue this same proverb proves relevant here in the Pashtunwali culture as well. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to call upon the Tani District Sub-Governor (DSG), our second meeting of sorts. (This was actually my first mission in country, profiled in my Nov 7th post: It was all worth it...During our first meeting, which took place roughly six weeks ago, the DSG sent me home with a “District Development Plan” for the Tani District. This was essentially a 5 year, comprehensive strategic plan for the district.  The vast majority of the projects mentioned in this plan dealt with schools, roads, and other infrastructure projects. I had a feeling this would be the case as the bulk of our first discussion consisted of these topics as well, all quite a bit outside the realm of agriculture.

LTC Kulich accepts a serving
dish from the "Wizard of Tani"

One addition to our meeting today was the inclusion of our Executive Officer, Lt. Colonel Kulich. After hearing during our debrief following our initial trip to Tani that the DSG spoke some broken German, LTC Kulich decided he would like to join in on our next meeting. As we learned several weeks ago at Shaikh Zayed University with Major Gulley’s gift of cookies, tasty treats are warmly welcomed as a friendly gift to start a meeting. Appropriately enough, LTC Kulich happens to be married to a German woman and she had recently sent over a shipment of delightful leibniz butterkeks. Cookies once again proved their diplomatic wonders, this time even warranting a gift in return. It's amazing what a little taste of home can do.

Much to the surprise of us coalition troops present, our second cup of chai with Mr. Dhalil Khan would also be accompanied by a meal. This was a great indicator that the District of Tani was eager to work hand-in-hand with our team to better the lives of their people.

As you might imagine, fine-dining is quite hard to come by in most parts of the Khost Province. The soul fact that five whole chickens were slaughtered in preparation for our lunch speaks marvels about Dhalil Khan’s hospitality towards coalition forces. The chicken was also accompanied by a wonderful concoction of long grained rice, raisins, and other vegetables they call pulao here in Pashto. Rather than using a plate, we were each issued our own individual serving of naan to place the rice and beans on top of. Each piece of bread distributed was about 10 inches in diameter, closely resembling a pizza crust. This proved rather practical and made for easy clean-up!

One cultural aspect that still proves a bit harder to digest is the absence of a single piece of silverware anywhere on the table. You really have to trust that the others you are dining with have thoroughly cleansed their hands prior to the meal. Also, you might imagine the logistical considerations required to place rice and raisins into your mouth make this quite a complex operation.

The wizard explaining the agricultural value of
check dams in the area, again...
The DSG had asked that we have somewhat of a working lunch and we were more than happy to honor this request. Following our lunch he immediately placed a map (the same map he referenced during our November meeting, with the same locations highlighted) on the surface that had just previously served as our dining table. No matter how much I stressed to the DSG that we weren’t in the business of building check dams, he continually returned back to the conversation and reaffirmed the need of more in his district. Fortunately, there was a representative from the Provincial Reconstruction Team present at our meeting as well. Apparently this wasn’t the first time they had heard about the need for check dams either as they stressed to the DSG the need for him to fill out the paperwork required for such projects. Mr. Khan then claimed there was too much bureaucracy involved in getting a simple project approved and once again I was reminded of the many similarities to government back in the USA.

As we wrapped things up, it appears a project involving sustainable forestry would be the most beneficial for the people of Tani. I promised the DSG I would contact my friend John Groninger (who was now back on campus at Southern Illinois University) to check on the possibility of involving the Tani District in the Afghan Water, and Agriculture Technology Transfer (AWATT) program that he worked with. Within the AWATT program another possibility of a “Foster-mum” initiative could also be a viable option. In this program, local village women care for a sapling for a set amount of time before turning it back over for planting.

DSG Dhalil Khan is a very light hearted man who speaks fairly decent English. I would say he spoke English during 60% of this past meeting, only relying on interpreters during especially technical discussion involving tree types or soil science, etc…Another cultural hurdle present in many of these meetings we conduct is the expectation of some tangible good at the conclusion of each meeting. The DSG was adamant that our next visit provide something he can deliver his people, even noting his generosity in feeding us a meal. “I even feed you; next time if you come without something for me to give my people I put you in jail!” he quipped.

Ironically enough the only jail in Tani is the bathroom he refers to as “jail” a few doors down from his office. After using this restroom and noticing the lack of any indoor plumbing, I’m in no rush for my third cup of tea- that is until we can work out something to deliver the people of Tani. 

My first official "state dinner" consisting of naan, pulao, beans, and chicken.
(From L-R: Interpreter Isah, myself, Interpreter Kazi, Tani DSG Dhalil Khan, PRT rep, and a civil affairs team member)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Village on the Hill

A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter departs FOB Salerno

As in any country, over time a few cities or municipalities will inevitably rise to the top and shine amongst their peers. A variety of factors may contribute to this trait amongst so many societies- perhaps it is the result of good governance?  What about natural resources?  Access to markets and a solid infrastructure surely don’t hurt when looking at places to relocate as well.

Sometimes these magnetic hubs are plagued by blighted neighbors. In a society this basic, it’s quite easy to witness a culture of “have and have-nots” as basically any material good you see in the villages is a result of humanitarian assistance.  Unfortunately, while this aid might have been sent with the best of intentions, it can easily and all too often be utilized to further empower a corrupt official.  

Jaji could very well be described as one of the shining stars of Afghan districts.  Most recently, Jaji was coined with the coveted “District of Peace” label, distinguishing the district from the other twelve districts in the Khost Province.  (Afghanistan has 34 Provinces total, each province is further broken down into districts, then villages, and finally even into tribes in some cases.) Jaji Meidan is neighbored by two of the most dangerous or in military terms (kinetic) districts in the entire Khost Province Because of this security threat, a ground convoy to Jaji is rarely an option as you would surely encounter numerous homemade explosives along the way.

The primary mode of transportation to most districts in the northern region of the Khost Province is by Blackhawk helicopter. These helicopters are the logistical lifeline of countless smaller “combat out-posts” or “fire bases” scattered throughout the mountainous eastern border region of Afghanistan.  The commanders of these combat out-posts are what we call the “battle-space owners” of an area.

US Forces take cover as the they exit the Blackhawk helicopter.  The Jaji
Meidan District Governor and Police Chief are also present.
In keeping with the joint operations and “all-hands on deck” theme, the battle-space owner of the Jaji Meidan District decided he would like to conduct a meeting with the District Governor. This would require the combat operations folks, the Human Terrain Team (cultural experts), the Provincial Reconstruction Team, and the Agribusiness Development Teams all to send representation.  

Any loyal reader of this blog can probably already guess where this is going, but I’m actually happy to report that after a delay of only three hours, I was on-board a Blackhawk and headed for Jaji Meidan (I’ll take three hours over my last wait of 28 days anyday). I was also accompanied by three other members of our ADT, who would be augmenting security for some of the other meeting participants around the Jaji District Center 

After a few strategic pick-ups along the way, we were preparing to touch down in Jaji.  Our landing zone was reportedly a rice paddy, but as we arrived it looked more to be a freshly planted wheat field.  As the field sat on a hillside and each plot of wheat was articulately terraced for erosion control, our pilot did a phenomenal job of sitting us down just fine.  Immediately upon exit I noticed all of my other passengers were now hitting the ground in the prone position to provide cover for the choppers as they exited the area.  You might imagine what a storm of dust and debris a Blackhawk can make as it takes off from a loosely tilled spot of barren earth.  

Governor Eunis and I from atop the District Center
As Governor Eunis welcomed us all into his district center, it was obvious that he was a very intelligent man and capable leader. The primary goal of our meeting was to discuss the arbicai project in the district, similar to a county sherriff’s reserve or auxiliary program.  Jaji Meidan first found itself in the national spotlight as the district residents successfully defended themselves from the Taliban earlier this decade.  The will of these townspeople has been strong enough to thwart any attempts at infiltration by numerous insurgent groups over the years.

After the combat ops and also the PRT folks had discussed a few projects, I discussed a few agricultural issues with Governor Eunis.  Unfortunately, the district’s agricultural extension agent was traveling to the capital during my visit, so we couldn’t get too in-depth in our discussions.

Following our meetings, it was time to head back to our terraced landing zone.  As we were awaiting our transport to arrive, the village children began to notice us lingering around the field.  Slowly but surely, they one by one started moving cautiously towards our group. I’ve mentioned earlier the dangers of giving hand-outs, especially while in a giant vehicle that could potentially run over the children.  The beautiful part of today’s mission was that I was traveling by air.  If they were foolish enough to be around during a Blackhawk landing, they deserved whatever trinkets they could solicit!

Civil Affairs team members discuss a proposed project with
district engineers as Governor Eunis watches over.
Before heading out, I stocked my lower pocket with little giveaways in hope that I might have a chance to interact with some of the youth of the village.  While I lay in the prone position with my rifle ready to defend against anyone who might try to alter our anticipated ride out of there, a small boy around the age of eight started towards me.  I placed a deck of cards, a keychain, and a pen out about three feet in front of me as a sort of bait for him.  You can imagine the courage it took for this little guy to slowly inch closer towards a line of armed men, but never underestimate the curiosity of a young boy.  Whatever the cost, you can bet that he was going to get whatever I had laid out there in front of me.  As we played a bit of peek-a-boo behind the terraced walls of the field, he eventually made his way up to our position and was delighted to find the goodies I had positioned for him.

My peek-a-boo partner finally showed his face for a deck of cards

In the meantime, another group of children was beginning to gather around one of our interpreters.  One of the other troops had given these young children an instructional book to learn English, so the interpreter started reading to the children.  What then took place will forever remain one of the great images of my time here, nearly 15 young boys started an English class right there in the middle of the field.  Of course after about three minutes of repeating word for word, the novelty of a new language wore off and the boys were ready to move on to something new.

A makeshift classroom, but what a memory...

By this time I was out of trinkets in what had previously been my fully stocked pocket.  The only thing I had left was my iPhone…let the swarm begin.  I first began showing them pictures of my family and other images that were saved on the memory.  Next we moved to iPhone video recording, and as you might imagine they really enjoyed that as well.  As they all fought to “touch” this seemingly magical device, I was careful to always keep one of my hands on it as well.  While I consider myself a decent runner, I wasn’t about to challenge one of these kids half my age to a footrace over a terraced wheat field, especially in 60 lbs of body armor!  After recording a few videos for the kids, I decided to play them a few songs to gauge their taste in music.  From Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison” to “Beat it” by Michael Jackson, the boys were soon laughing hysterically as I did my best impersonation of each. 

All good things must come to an end, and so must my karaoke days in the hills of the Jaji Meidan district.  Shortly into “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys, the communications sergeant yelled that the birds were three minutes out.  As quick as the interpreters shouted for the children to clear the area, they were gone in a flash.  Within seconds a few attack helicopters started circling overhead to provide cover and before you knew it the familiar sound of a Blackhawk’s rotor blades beating into the wind came from around the hillside.

Looking back on our time in Jaji, I can’t help but think of the popular adage “the lord helps those who help themselves”. In a society that was beaten down into total governmental dependence by communism only 30 years ago, it’s definitely a welcomed sight to see people actually taking pride in their village and exerting some initiative. For the first time in my two months here, I saw a group of people who were willing to do whatever it takes to defend themselves. Because of this optimism amongst the people and their ability to defend themselves, governmental programs and dollars will continue to flow towards the people of Jaji Meidan. 

Our ride home...we weren't in a big rush, but it's always a welcomed sound.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Back to School

Cattle grazing just outside the main gates
of Shaikh Zayed University

The sprawling malls, the seemingly endless lectures, Harry’s Chocolate Shop, calculus (3x for this guy), and lest we forget: Breakfast Club.  For all of you non-Boilermakers reading, these are just a few of my favorite and not so favorite things back on the beautiful campus I called home for six years (on and off, and yes- only for a BS).

3-19th ADT members survey a previously installed drip
irrigation system
Earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit another institution of higher education- Shaikh Zayed University. I couldn’t help but laugh as I envisioned our convoy of six 30,000 lb MRAP’s pulling onto a college campus back in the states and the outcry that would have immediately followed. As we departed the mammoth, up-armored vehicles we loaded up our backpacks and headed for main gate.  

Students were visible from hundreds of yards away, tiny dots throughout the horizon of the surrounding hills. Just as they would be back in South Bend, Ind., students were burrowed into their books as they crammed last minute bits of knowledge in before the coming week’s final examinations were to take place. The campus sits in a bowl of the hills in the surrounding area, making for a beautiful view in almost every direction imaginable.  

Surrounding hills provide an isolated spot to study for some students
Our mission today was two fold: first to finish delivery on several laptop computers that we were providing to the agricultural faculty and secondly to discuss an agricultural education partnership between our team and the university. One lesson you learn quite quickly here is to never give the impression that you are handing anything out. As I’ve previously mentioned, the children here have nothing and have literally been run over by vehicles in convoys as they scavenge for a small piece of candy. For this reason, we strategically removed the laptops from their obvious “Dell” tattooed boxes and placed a few laptops each within our camouflaged backpacks.

Another interesting site to me was that of watching a dozen or so armed troops being welcomed with open arms into the university by the chancellor. While advocacy groups back in the states are fighting for the right to carry a weapon on a college campus, we had just been welcomed by invitation onto a campus by the chancellor while carrying two weapons a piece.

Gulley providing a little taste of Indiana
As we began our meeting with the chancellor, the two educators within our team took the lead. The chancellor’s office was actually quite large and probably the nicest space I’ve been in here in the province. There was even a separate sitting area to allow for multiple conversations to take place simultaneously. One of the educators, Major Jeremy Gulley who serves as a high school principal in NE Indiana, broke the ice a bit as he was the one offering refreshments. Apparently his mother had sent cookies for him to share with some of the Afghans he met, whom better to share with than a fellow educator? The chancellor was very receptive of this good-will gesture and even made a comment how a mother’s love is the same all around the globe.

My primary role on the mission was that of a public affairs capacity, so after ensuring I had taken sufficient photographs I was free to listen in on one of the many conversations taking place while enjoying a piping hot glass of chai.
The group of educators who were to receive the computers came in shortly after we had initiated our meeting with the chancellor. They sat quietly along an isolated row of seating, only speaking when spoken too but listening ever so intently and nearly drooling at the site of their new laptops. Christmas came early for this batch of instructors, they couldn’t have been happier as we finalized our laptop arrangement.  

Ken Heldenfels w/ the State Dept, Shane Robbins, our interpretor, and
Major Jeremy Gulley meet with the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor
As we closed the meeting, the chancellor stressed again how important the ADT concept is to his university while also thanking us for our visit. We coordinated some follow-up training opportunities in the future and set some short term goals for our work together in the ag education program. 

One of the top areas of interest in the development effort here in Afghanistan is that of the youth. After hearing statistics like the fact that 60% of the Afghan population is under 25 years of age, you start to understand the necessity of the youth having a positive impression of coalition forces.

As the university continues to receive support both materially and intellectually from our team, they will continue to remind their students of the risks we take to provide them with educational tools. Each student we have a chance to work with is one more future leader of Afghanistan that will be able to speak on a positive experience he/she has had with an Agribusiness Development Team and most importantly their Agricultural Extension Agent.  And after all, isn't that why we’re here???    

Students watch from atop their dorms as the SZU chancellor greets members of the 3-19th ADT

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Operation Check Dam

Dr. John Groninger walks through the valley of the Mashi Kalay village among members of the
3-19th Agribusiness Development Team and local villagers.

If a Veteran from the Korean or Vietnam era were to find himself suddenly thrust into a modern battlefield, you might imagine he would find some significant changes in the way war is waged in today’s everchanging world.  Among the multitude of differences he might find would be advanced communications platforms, weapon systems used to engage the enemy, and new transportation methods.  But, quite possibly the most difficult for him to grasp would be that of joint operations.
The sole fact that I am writing this blog as a US Air Force Air National Guardsman deployed with an Army National Guard unit makes this a “joint mission”.  While I can’t honestly say I remember a whole lot about the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, I do know my very being here is a direct result of the legislation.  Prior to this reorganization, each service within the Dept of Defense operated as it’s own entity.  As you might imagine this didn’t always make for the most efficient of military operations.  (Yes, I just used efficient and military in the same sentence, perhaps I’ve been reading a bit too much of the current deficit reduction committee’s recommendations.)
In a battlefield as complex as the one we find ourselves in currently, coordination among all branches of service and coalition forces is crucial.  When these different entities fail to communicate, we are forced to learn the hard way through the loss of innocent life in that of civilian casualties or friendly fire accidents.  The patch we wear on our left sleeves reads “ISAF”- a symbol of hope for the local Afghan people. According to the NATO website, there are currently 42 different countries contributing troops to this International Security Assistance Force.
Here on FOB Salerno there are probably only 5-6 different countries represented, miniscule in
Dr. John Groninger and I in our MRAP during
Operation Check Dam on 11-24-2010
comparison to a place like Bagram Airfield that could easily be mistaken for the United Nations Headquarters.  In addition to these coalition militaries, you’ll also find quite a broad cross-section of different US government agencies. If you were to count the number of USDA and State Dept folks here currently you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that DC’s population went down in the last census!
I took my first bite of the joint mission apple a little over a week ago.  You all know the concept of an Agribusiness Development Team by now, we’re old news.  However, we also share the stage here in the Khowst Province with another unique team with a specialized mission- the Khowst Provincial Reconstruction Team.  PRT’s typically focus more on brick and mortar construction projects as well as governance issues as they bring a staff heavy in engineering and  civil affairs backgrounds.  The 3-19th ADT Commander- a US Army Colonel, and the PRT Khowst Commander- US Navy Commander have pledged to join forces on many future missions in an effort to maximize their effectiveness and development footprint. 
Our first mission together (Operation Check Dam) would lead us to the village of Mashi Kalay in the southern tip of the Garbaz District, only 1km from the Pakistani border.  The 2-19th ADT, our predecessors, originally met with the village leadership in May of last year to address concerns of violent flooding in the area and a growing wadi (remember that word?  If not, it’s a dried out river bed- note several posts back) in the village.  Before we on the 3-19th ADT decided to plan a mission back to assess the watershed; we decided it’d be wise to invite our friends from PRT Khowst.  Afterall, they do have civil engineers on-board who are eager to help. 
The drive from FOB Salerno to Mashi Kalay is quite scenic as you often find yourself in the middle of giant mountain switchbacks as you make your final climb into the border village.  The nearly two hour drive (thank goodness for extra seat-cushions) also gave me a great opportunity to get to know another one of our passengers, Dr. John Groninger from Southern Illinois University.  Groninger is currently working as a part of a USAID-funded Afghanistan Water Agriculture and Technology Transfer Project in which he travels throughout eastern Afghanistan in an effort to gather samples of native trees. Through the use of a specialized increment borer, Groninger extracts a cross-section of a living tree to take home for further research. Results of this research assist engineers and agricultural experts in planning future projects.  Hydrological data is not currently available for many parts of Afghanistan, but through research such as Dr. Groninger’s, future projects in this region should have a better understanding of hydrological impacts. 
The Mashi Kalay village elder and I before
we began our meeting
As we arrived into the border village, I couldn’t help but notice the border police check points scattered on the mountainside just several hundred feet away.  The barren terrain that makes up the border of Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan is some of the rockiest I’ve ever seen.  It amazes me that any form of life can sustain in such a region, but interestingly enough people have been living here for thousands of years.  Within seconds of hearing our MRAP’s roll into the village, children immediately greeted us in an effort to scavenge anything from a US Soldier.  From pens (you have to hide them in your pockets as if they are visible they will be stolen) to watches and sunglasses; the children all seem to speak impeccable English when soliciting a hand-out.
A few minutes after our arrival we were informed that the village elder was enroute to greet our delegation and walk us over to survey the wadi where all of the heavy flooding had previously occurred.   As the man claiming to be the elder approached I couldn’t help but note how relatively young he was and how well dressed he was. As we surveyed the area, I stayed out of the way in an effort to allow the experts room to operate. Anyone who remembers my struggles with calculus can appreciate my yielding of the engineering work to the professionals.  The two engineers we were loaned from PRT Khowst; one a Navy Lt. Commander and another with the US Army Corp of Engineers, were a perfect complement to our internal hydrologist, Captain Randy Cuyler.

Following the assessment of the wadi, the village leader led us partially up one of the hills facing the border and offered us a seat (on the ground) around a beautiful room-sized rug.  He then removed his shoes and sat cross-legged on the rug and invited us to do the same.  (Following our interpreter and cultural advisor’s lead I didn’t take my shoes off, but did manage to pretzel my legs into something that resembled the elder’s positioning)  Once again, I couldn’t help but marvel at the similar concepts- half a world away -that the elder wanted to discuss.  The obvious problem at hand was the watershed issue, but other discussion topics such as education and unemployment dominated much of our meeting together just as they might have with a local official in Indiana.
Conducting a key leader engagement with
the village elders of the Mashi Kalay village
At the same time our meeting was going on, nearly thirty other members of our team were simultaneously completing other tasks within the village.  From our medics treating local children to our intelligence officer holding discussions with random villagers, a very complex operation was under way.  Unfortunately for Dr. Groninger the only trees he encountered in the village were gurgura trees.  His repeated attempts to utilize his increment borer came up short as the wood was some of the hardest he had ever encountered.  This tool is normally sufficient to borer into the hardest of oaks we have back in the United States, but apparently not tough enough for these rugged trees that have dotted this mountainous border region for centuries.
Our trip home would provide a little more of a chance to engage with some of the PRT engineers and also learn about Dr. Groninger’s work a bit more.  The highlight of our conversation came as Groninger and I were comparing Indiana and Illinois’ hardwoods industries. Of course I’m a bit partial to Indiana’s business climate, but it was very interesting to hear about the stark contrasts to the industry in Illinois as a direct result of certain state policies.  After dropping the PRT members off over at their base, Forward Operating Base Chapman, the participants of Operation Check Dam wrapped up what would now be known as the 3-19th ADT’s most complex operation to date.

Operation Check Dam included participants from the US Army, Navy, and Air Force as well the US Army Corp of Engineers and finally a civilian forestry expert.  While the concept of an agricultural operation may seem quite basic, the planning and logistics required for so many entities to take part is astounding.  Both the PRT and ADT have full-time operations staff that plan these missions days in advance and continue to work with the mission participants after mission completion to conduct debriefs and compile lessons learned.
What a way we’ve come since the days of a single service conducting missions on their own.  Just thirty short years ago the Dept of Defense suffered from negative publicity as a result of poorly executed joint operations missions in Iran, Lebanon, and Grenada.  The possibility of conducting a mission such as “Operation Check Dam” is only because of these lessons learned.  A sincere thank-you to all who have gone before us in joint operations mishaps, your sacrifice paved the way...

While there were dozens of children anxiously following our every move from the moment we exited the MRAPS,
this little guy would not leave my side.  The orangish crust in his hair is a customary henna hair dye.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving on the FOB

Model of an Indian village and the Mayflower sitting in the center
of the FOB Salerno dining facility

Just as I mentioned previously of this past Veteran’s Day being especially memorable, Thanksgiving on FOB Salerno will reserve a special spot in my biological hard drive as well.  I’ll let the attached photos tell most of this story as my time to post is limited this evening.
The survivors of the 5K Turkey Trot strike a pose
As always, there was plenty to do here on the FOB on a holiday.  The day began with the FOB Salerno Turkey Trot 5K, I’m thrilled to report three members of the 3-19th ADT finished in the top 10 of over 200 runners.  I finished 8th overall with a time of 21:43, nearly a minute slower than my Halloween 5k. (I think all of that dining hall food might be catching up with me!)
Next on the bustling holiday schedule was Thanksgiving mass here at the FOB Chapel.  Father Hannon gave a beautiful homily addressing the need to give thanks even during times of stress and struggle, just as the pilgrims and even Abraham Lincoln did with the creation of the Thanksgiving Holiday right in the middle of the Civil War.  The choir sounded especially heavenly today with the new addition of a pianist in Major Larres, an occupational therapist who was just assigned here to FOB Salerno.

Soldiers and civilians wait in line for the FOB Salerno
Thanksgiving Brunch.
The official Thanksgiving Brunch was served from 11AM-3PM and to say it was a feast would be an understatement.  As you’ll note in the attached menu, the catering crew didn’t miss a beat when designing the meal fit for a king.  There was a small fee attached to this meal though: a wait time of nearly 45 minutes!  The meal was well worth the wait though; especially tasty were the marshmallow covered sweet potatoes…who knew they had marshmallows in Afghanistan?  There were model sculptures of the Mayflower and actual fruit cornucopia displays as well; quite a presentation I must say.

Instead of napping I decided to finish a few things up in the office during the afternoon.  Dr. John Groninger, a Foresty Professor from Southern Illinois University, is currently on FOB Salerno and wanted to discuss upcoming projects and the possibility of him joining our team on a mission outside the FOB.  John is currently conducting research in the region as a part of a USAID-funded Afghanistan Water Agriculture and Technology Transfer (AWATT) Project.   We discussed some of our current operations and it appears John will be able to join us on our mission to Mashi Kalay where he’ll look to utilize his increment borer to sample tree trunks and also hope to meet with the agricultural extension agent assigned to the area.
  I can’t say I was anywhere near hungry by the time dinner rolled around, but what the heck?  May as well indulge a bit!  John is traveling alone during this portion of his research so I invited him to dinner.  (We had planned on meeting for dinner at 6:30PM in an effort to watch the Macy’s Parade, but apparently it was aired a bit later as I saw it later in the evening.)  The majority of our dinner discussion consisted of all we had to be thankful for and the many different experiences a trip such as this Afghan Adventure can bring.  Most important to both of us that list of things to be thankful for was family.  John has young children back in Illinois and he mentioned how he had hoped to be home in time to watch a musical recital for one of his daughters in early December.
Following dinner, I made a few phone calls back to family and friends across the states before finally signing on to Skype for what was another memorable moment.  The marvels of modern technology allowed me to Skype right into Thanksgiving Brunch at the Lomont household.  There were 27 present physically and a total of 28 in the virtual sense with me joining in from 7,500 miles away.  The 9.5 hour time difference made things interesting as they were just preparing to eat at 1PM EST which meant it was 10:30PM here on FOB Salerno.
I think it probably goes without saying, but is definitely worth repeating and for that matter shouting to the rooftops:  A sincere thank you to all my great family and friends who have been nothing but supportive throughout this entire adventure.  Without you all there is no way I could continue this mission to help the people of Afghanistan.   Let’s never forget how blessed we are to be citizens of the greatest country the world has ever known, the United States of America. 

Must have been a bountiful harvest!
From L-R: Captain Randy Cuyler, Major Jeremy Gulley, Major Tony Kaiser,
Major Shane Robbins, 1st Lt. Bart Lomont

Thursday, November 18, 2010

We built it, but will they come?

 A common term you'll hear members of today's armed services use is "train the trainer".  This goes right along with the old adage of teaching a man to fish...  As members of the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team use agriculture as a tool in the larger counterinsurgency effort, this concept of training takes the utmost importance.  Many readers of this blog ask if we are working directly with Afghan farmers- at times we are, but that is not the goal.  Agricultural Extension Agents here in Afghanistan, just like we have back home in the United States spread throughout each of our counties, make up the target audience for our training efforts.

 The Khowst Province of Afghanistan is home to numerous military installations.  In addition to our farm on FOB Salerno, the 3-19th ADT also maintains acreage over on a joint Afghan/USA base in the western portion of the province. Camp Clark sits within the grounds of Camp Parsa, an Afghan National Army (ANA) basic training base. While there are a few handfuls of US troops stationed on Camp Clark, no members of the 3-19th are permanently assigned to keep up with the endless daily duties a farm requires.  Instead, a small contingent of 2-3 soldiers makes the 40 minute trip from Salerno to Camp Clark about once a week to maintain operations.

Members of the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team begin
construction of a greenhouse on a demonstration
farm on Camp Clark.

One of the major obstacles to providing agricultural training is security.  This seems to be a common theme and is ultimately the reason military members are here in an agricultural role.  While FOB Salerno is obviously one of the most secure areas in the entire province, this also means it is one of the most difficult places for the agricultural extension agents or other farmers to gain access to.  Enter Camp Clark- because Clark is located within an Afghan military installation, local nationals feel much safer attending a workshop here as opposed to over on FOB Salerno where if the wrong person saw them entering it could cost them their life.  

Carefully lining up the frame on my first greenhouse...How
about those mountains in the background?

One project that our team has started promoting is the construction of greenhouses.  I have been here in the country now for a little over three weeks and have witnessed bright sunny skies on literally every day.  The sunny skies mixed with a very moderate temperature that has averaged between 75-80 degrees each day make for nearly ideal greenhouse conditions.  With the help of our translators, we are able to provide assistance on the construction of a greenhouse as well as technical expertise on what might grow best inside this giant bubble that just grew from the earth. Today's construction project drew many inquiring eyes; even from the Camp Parsa Commander, Colonel Abdullah.  He stopped by to check on the construction project, ultimately giving us his blessing and even offering men for labor if we needed any more hands.  

Just over seven hours from the time we arrived on the camp; this barren, rock-filled area had now been transformed into a new point of commerce for Afghan agriculture.  Building this structure is only one part of the battle, filling it with plants and most importantly inquiring minds is the larger fight.  Our intention is to work through the local agricultural extension agent to host training sessions for local farmers and villagers, let's just hope they feel safe enough to come.  
Perhaps I'm a bit partial, but I'd have to say it
doesn't look half bad!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Veteran's Day in a combat zone

With the exception of the stars and stripes table coverings in the dining facility, you really wouldn’t notice this past Thursday was Veteran’s Day here on Forward Operating Base Salerno.   There really aren’t “days off” here for that matter, even Sundays require a steady presence of personnel if for no other purpose than base defense.   Securing a FOB of this size requires a considerable amount of planning and coordination. The Security Forces section of the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team assists with the everyday security needs of FOB Salerno by sending teams of men to positions such as tower guard and detainee operations on almost a daily basis.  You could think of this almost as a chore or even rent for our team’s tenant status as a portion of a larger brigade here on the FOB.

One friendly reminder of home came courtesy of an invitation from the Center Grove Middle School Social Studies Department to take part in a Skype conversation on Veteran’s Day.  (In addition to my duties as the Agricultural Marketing officer, I’ve also picked up the additional duty of Public Affairs Officer.  The Army is notorious for tasking individuals with additional assignments, I’ve already managed to be volun-told to take on three in the sense of Public Affairs, Postal Officer - guess they thought the Air Force guy could schedule air mail?, and finally a Contracting Officer Representative and Pay Agent. )  It didn’t take me long while looking over the team roster to decide who should represent our team in front of this crowd of nearly 600, including over 100 veterans.  Major Shane Robbins is just one example of the many professionals we have on this team.  Shane is the Superintendent of Monroe Central Schools in Randolph County, Indiana and also a father of two young boys.  He was more than eager to participate in the Skype call and was obviously a natural at speaking to middle-school aged students.  A few days prior to the event I coordinated with the school’s tech department to practice a test run on Skype and all went extremely smooth. 

Major Shane Robbins skyping back to CGMS
students on Veterans Day
With a nine and a half hour time difference, the 9AM EST Vet’s Day program actually took place here at 6:30PM.  As I briefed Major Robbins on his interview and told him that Rafael Sanchez from Channel 6 in Indianapolis would be conducting the interview, Shane responded that he and Rafael were actually good friends from Franklin College.   We connected to the event seamlessly and did a few sound checks before the actual speakers started, all was good to go.  To begin the event, all Veteran’s in attendance were introduced by name and service.  Following the official introductions was one of the most impressive displays of public speaking I’ve seen in my years here on this earth.  Kevin Rankel, the father of former Marine Sgt. John Rankel, gave a hair-raising description of his son’s life from his days there at Center Grove Middle School right up until his death this past June here in Afghanistan.  Mr. Rankel closed by asking all the students listening so attentively – “Could you have done what Kevin did, would you give your life so that other may live?”  There was hardly a dry eye in the audience by the time Mr. Rankel finished his speech, the same could be said for the folks here watching from 7,500 miles away. 

The event then turned toward the Skype conversation as Major Robbins was projected onto a giant screen overlooking the audience.  Rafael immediately drew laughs from the crowd as he asked Shane (a former Franklin College football player) for a prediction in this coming weekend’s matchup between Franklin and their archrival Hanover.  Shane responded that he was insulted Rafael even asked and that there was no question Franklin would win big.  Major Robbins then began to describe our team’s mission, the country of Afghanistan, and finally the daily duties a soldier in combat finds himself involved in.  The students were in awe that they were talking to someone live; 7,500 miles away with just a bit of an echo and a slight delay.  The final question was in reference to communication with family, and the very medium we were using to make this video call came to play.  With the assistance of Skype, Shane is actually able to tuck his children into bed on a fairly regular basis.  As the event came to an end, I let out a deep sigh of relief as I had been quite nervous the crowd of 600 might witness one of our frequent internet outages here on the FOB.  Fortunately this was not the case and all went smooth, perhaps it was meant to be.

This weekend I was reminded once again of the realities of where we are serving as I attended a memorial service for Corporal Andrew Hutchins.  Cpl Hutchins was performing tower guard duty- just as I described our security force members do in the beginning of this post, when he was struck by indirect fire.  The hardest part for me was hearing about the young, pregnant wife he left behind as they were both in their very young 20’s.  This is so often the case, a brand new father and husband stolen away from his family.  The crowd here at the FOB Salerno Chapel showed the incredible amount of respect Cpl Hutchins’ fellow soldiers had for him.  The chapel was filled from wall to wall with a standing room only crowd that spewed out into the overhang of the chapel entrance,

I’ve always enjoyed the many parades and other ceremonies I’ve taken part in over the past few years; however I can’t say I’ll ever remember a Vet’s Day more than this past year’s.  We are remembering so much more than the veteran on these days.  I will never forget the words John Rankel spoke nor can I imagine how difficult it must be for a 20 year old Ms. Hutchins to have to describe to her future child why he/she will have never met their father. 

Thank you all for your support, it’s days like Veteran’s Day that give our military members the support and drive to continue fighting the battles we find ourselves in almost daily.  God bless all our veterans, in particular Sgt John Rankel and Cpl Andrew Hutchins who will always mark Vet’s Day 2010 in my mind.

An overflow crowd waits outside of FOB Salerno Chapel during
a memorial service for fallen Corporal Andrew Hutchins

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It was all worth it...

A little over three years ago in a conference room at the Indiana Government Center; Major General R. Martin Umbarger first briefed Lt. Governor Becky Skillman on a new military mission that would use agriculture as a tool in the counterinsurgency effort.  I happened to be sitting in the same room that day and listening to the General brief the rest of the Counterterrorism and Security Council (CTASC) on how the Indiana National Guard would be fielding a team for one of these new “Agribusiness Development Teams”.   On our walk back to the Statehouse that morning, the Lt. Governor and I had a lengthy discussion about what a natural connection the two (Afghan development + agriculture) share and I also expressed to her my interest in joining such a team at some point in my career.  

Fifteen months ago I received an email from my commander in Ft. Wayne with notice to interview for a position on the 3rd rotation of these Agribusiness Development Teams.  To say I was a bit shocked would be an understatement, for several months since returning from flight training I had been lobbying the folks at the Indiana National Guard headquarters to allow an Air Guardsman on the team but to no avail.  The mission was only open to Army and that was final.  Apparently something had changed, but I wasn’t going to ask questions.  I can remember the very second I opened that email, I was driving home to Ft. Wayne for our Lomont Family Reunion which was held in conjunction with Dad’s 70th birthday.  I decided it wouldn’t be the best idea to inform the family during this weekend of celebration that I was considering this new adventure.  It’d be best to wait until after the interview process was through, perhaps I wouldn’t be selected anyways and I’d have gotten the entire family riled up for no reason…

The 3-19th ADT had its first official drill together as a team on October 16th, 2009.  After slipping the news to the family while home for Mom’s birthday (tough timing with the birthdays, eh?), informing the rest of my friends and colleagues would seem like a breeze.  After all, I was always up for a new adventure and they should have known I was getting stir-crazy after having been in Indianapolis for six straight months!  The training schedule for the team would be pretty consistent with weekends only through most of the winter and finish off with a few more week and month long training periods coming before our mobilization date of September 25th, 2010.  I would only have to miss a few days of work before officially going on military leave from the State of Indiana on June 11th, 2010; the day after returning back to the States from the Lt. Governor’s trade mission to China.

Forgive my look back into the past, but I wanted to just give you a glimpse as to what every member of this team has gone through both in their personal and professional lives to prepare for this mission.   When the average person looks at a military deployment, the number of days in the combat zone is all that really sinks in.  It is no secret that the 3-19th ADT will be spending a year here in Afghanistan.  However- the truth of the matter is that each and every soldier on this team will have altered their personal lives for well over two years by the time this mobilization and re-deployment (military term for coming home) is through. 
Just before 8AM (Afghan time) this morning, the 3-19th ADT rolled out of the gates of FOB Salerno and for a while there time stood still, the reality of what was finally taking place was an awesome experience.  For over 15 months this team had been working together to conduct a mission that now seems routine to most of the crews. 
Our interpretor Shariff and I in the MRAP

Today just happened to be my first mission, the majority of the team has been on 4-5 missions each.  The complexity of such an operation is worth a good study as well.  Days in advance a Warning Order is issued, this then triggers a series of mission planning meetings which ultimately lead up to your mission brief.  Ironically enough, on my first mission, I also found myself as the ranking member- thus conducting the Key Leader Engagement.  Today we would be meeting with the District Governor of the Tani District, Dhalil Khan.  This meeting stemmed from a conversation that Major Robbins and Major Gulley had with Sahib (Sir or Mr.) Dhalil just over a week ago at the Provincial Development Council.  Both Majors had warned me what a jokester this gentleman was, but I was anxious to find out for myself.  To think a simple meeting between four men (Sahib Dhalil, SFC Butt, SFC Bowman, and myself) would require five MRAP vehicles loaded with men to provide security seemed a bit inefficient, but this is the reality of what we are faced with today in Afghanistan.  The route along the way would take us through six wadis  (essentially dried riverbeds that can fill up with water after a large rain) in the road.  We passed through several small villages as well as Khowst City proper.  I was quite surprised to see a few billboards throughout the city, several for different cell phone companies and even a few from the Information Operations side of the war that promotes peace over violence. 

Tani District Governor Dhalil Khan showing me the district development plan
From the moment we entered the Tani District Center Compound, I felt a strange level of comfort.  It was really no different than a municipal building back in the States, or even some of the government buildings I’ve traveled to in Mexico or China.  Of course there was an obvious disparity in furnishings throughout the compound, but the basic concept was very similar to our system.  We had actually arrived at the district center nearly an hour early, mainly a result of never having traveled there before and guesstimating travel times.  Sahib Dhalil was settling a land dispute between two village elders at the very moment we were escorted into his office.  I didn’t see the need to go in at the moment we did, as we were still at least 45 minutes early; but for security purposes it would be much safer for us to enter his office and patiently await his settling of the land dispute.  After a few signatures, Sahib Dhalil stood up with an outstretched hand and belted “Good morning my friends from the ADT!”  I responded in broken Pashtu with “Salaam Aleykum, willa-swall sahib, cenga ye?”  My best attempt at saying- Hello Sir District Governor, how are you?  After a bit of a laugh, we were offered seats and off to a great start.   

Several minutes passed as Sahib Dhalil described his district, I think that’s when the thought of how similar he was to any local official in Indiana first crossed my mind.  It was honestly quite humorous how every topic we discussed could have easily been taken right off the minutes of the latest New Haven City Council  or Jackson County Commissioners last meeting.  From roads to education, I never dreampt topics I’d discussed with mayors and legislators across the State of Indiana could have prepared me so well for my work here 7,500 miles away.  There was one big difference though- as opposed to traveling on behalf of a state that exercises fiscal responsibility, I was now meeting as an agent of a coalition force tasked with development and therefore armed with a generous budget for projects that fit into the Khost Provincial Development Plan.   After reviewing a map of project proposals from check dams to highways and several cups of chai, over an hour had passed.  Sahib Dhalil had been referencing a certain 5-yr plan he had on his desk and when I asked to make a copy of it, he handed it right to me.  There were no copy machines available and this was one of his few copies, but he trusted our team enough to give us the document and just asked that we return it to him at our next convenience.  Another aspect to these meetings that is easy to overlook is what is taking place outside the compound.  While the four of us inside are sitting around in comfortable chairs sipping chai, the remainder of that five truck convoy is on their feet carrying sixty pounds of armor, providing 360 degree security around the compound.  We finally said our goodbyes to Sahib Dhalil and made our way for the trucks after about 75 minutes of meeting.

The route home was uneventful, which is a great thing.  I say uneventful with a careful avoidance of the word “boring”.  You seem to be on super-alert mode the entire time you are in a convoy, after all this is your most vulnerable time.   The look on the young children’s faces as a convoy rolls past is quite inspiring.  Some who don’t know what else to do might throw rocks at your MRAP, but it’s not out of hatrid.  They are simply kids throwing rocks, the majority seemed very eager to meet an American soldier as they immediately ran towards the road at the sound of a passing MRAP.  As we came back through the gates of FOB Salerno, it seemed impossible that over four hours had passed since we first departed this morning.  I think I’m going to like my time here; it was all worth it… 

3-19th ADT MRAPS passing through one of many wadis along the route.