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.


  1. Bart- Great stuff! Definitely jealous but glad you are able to do what you're doing. (I asked, to no avail, to stay in Iraq in '07 to be part of the new PRTs that were just being created.) Be safe and let me know if you ever need anything.- Lunderman

  2. I am so proud of you Bart and I know your dad is beaming as well. Please know you and your guys are in my prayers and my thoughts. Stay safe.