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.