Monday, January 10, 2011

An Attack on Democracy

Democracy in Afghanistan- Governor Naeemi conducts a Provincial Development Council meeting
with members of his cabinet in addition to many District Sub-Governors
This past Sunday morning was a little different from the very beginning. While Sunday is normally my day to "sleep in" (which now qualifies as sleeping until about 7:30AM), today I set the alarm for 5AM in an effort to wake up for the Indianapolis Colts playoff match-up against the New York Jets. The Armed Forces Network would be covering the game, which started at 5:30AM local time, so a few of us loyal fans decided we would wake up a little early and head down to the office to watch the game together.

As the alarm on my iPhone sounded at 5AM, I began my typical morning routine of fumbling around for my phone in an effort to silence the alarm. After quieting the alarm, I then activated the wireless network within my phone in an effort to fetch my incoming mail. After a typical night's sleep, it's not uncommon to have 6-8 emails awaiting me as I awake on an average morning. With the 9.5 hour time change, this has grown to be one of my favorite parts of the day as I typically start my morning with many wonderful reminders of home. This morning I was shocked to see 16 emails come in. As I anxiously awaited all the messages to finish downloading into my inbox, I quickly noticed that a significant portion of my new mail was from the same sender: "Breaking News from the Washington Post". What I then began to read about the tragedy in Tucson quickly activated the feelings of grief and even anger that I'm sure many of you felt as well.

I really was in disbelief that something like this could take place on US soil. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, now an Arizona resident, echoed my thoughts as she told the New York Times: "It sounds like something that might happen in some place like Afghanistan. It shouldn't happen in Tucson." Even in a place such as Afghanistan, where violence runs rampant and bombings become a daily norm, an attack  on democracy in this scale is quite chilling. 

Isah, our interpreter, poses in front of the
beautiful gardens contained within the Governor's Compound

Another reason this horrific event hit so close to home was the realization of how easily an event like this could become copy-catted. Just this past week I had the opportunity to attend my first ever Provincial Development Council here in the Khowst Province. Governor Naeemi, the Governor of the Khost Province, uses this randomly scheduled meeting as a chance to address his cabinet members as well as the District Sub-Governors that are able to attend. I mentioned that the meeting is randomly scheduled, in the interest of security the event is only announced 2-3 days in advance and then begins a mad dash to make travel arrangements to attend the meeting which is held at the Governor's Compound in downtown Khowst City. Each of the 13 District Sub-Governors is also then forced to scramble together a plan to attend as well. While attendance at this meeting is not mandatory, it is essential for securing funding back in your home district. Every major project within the province is voted on during this meeting, so you might imagine those that aren't able to attend are often not at the top of the priority list.

What a contrast, the Governor of Khowst has to secretively schedule a meeting with his top advisers while an American member of Congress is able to meet with constituents in the parking lot of a grocery store. Can you imagine the certain melee that would ensue if Governor Naeemi tried to host an open forum with the public? As Americans, we expect access to our elected officials and for the most part we are granted such an opportunity. The heinous act committed this past weekend in Arizona exploited the very freedoms that American servicemembers are fighting for overseas. Our right to bear arms and also accessibility to our public servants took a great blow, but rest assured it wasn't a knockout punch.

In the coming weeks, the 24 hour news cycle will point fingers in every direction. Perhaps it was the lax gun laws in Arizona? What about Sarah Palin's controversial slogan of "Don't Retreat - RELOAD"? Personally, I don't think any of these brilliant newscasters will ever look deep enough into the true causes of this catastrophe. As further details emerge, do you think anyone will begin to look into life inside the Loughner family? From the few reports I've had a chance to sit down and review, it doesn't take a psychology degree to notice this young man had some tell-tale signs of mental instability that if properly addressed- might have prevented a disaster.

Looking at the current government structure on the district-level in Afghanistan, it seems hard to conceptualize a multi-party system ever existing. Many government positions actually remain unfilled within the Governor's cabinet and especially within district-level or municipal governments. The main concern in filling these positions is undoubtedly safety. Just a little over a month ago, a District Sub-Governor was killed by a suicide bomber in the neighboring Paktiya Province. Because of a desensitized populace, this assassination only carried the headlines for a few days before finally being written off as a cost of democracy.  

As we continue to pray for the victims of this heinous crime, let us also hope that with tragedy comes unity within our Congress. While I don't personally feel this crime was politically motivated, I do feel it is a great wakeup call to those serving in public office. Let's remember the great principles and strong foundation that has made the United States of America the greatest democracy this world has ever known; while also honoring the countless number of Patriots who have died fighting for this cause- most recently the six victims in Tucson.

In front of the Governor's Compound...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Communications in Combat

SSG Azure provides one of the most important duties
to members of the 3-19th ADT: daily mail call.
I’ll begin today’s post by first wishing all a joyous 2011.  While you don’t really have “time off” per se in Afghanistan, the operations tempo of most military missions seems to at least slow a bit over the holidays.  Our team, while typically not reactive in nature, is able to schedule our own missions several weeks in advance.  This allowed us to take time on Christmas Day as well as New Year’s Day to communicate with our families.  While I’ve failed to update this blog during our slowed mission pace, I think it’d be safe to say my other forms of outgoing communications were actually kicked into high gear over the past few weeks.

With all of the different forms of modern electronics available today, I’m still convinced that nothing beats an old-fashioned, hand-written letter straight from the heart.  Of course a hand-written letter involves a significant investment of time as well, especially when you factor in an average two-week shipping time frame for mail coming into Afghanistan.

A few days ago I had an opportunity to perform a couple of “firsts”.  You might remember my mentioning a few months ago that in addition to my role in agricultural marketing; I was also assigned additional duties such as public affairs and most interesting the position of Unit Postal Officer.  Apparently the Army requires that an officer have the title of UPO, but the day-to-day operations are carried out by other team members trained in proper mail handling procedures.  As none of the other trained staff were available this past week, I thought I’d try my luck as the mailman.

The first hurdle I would have to overcome on this operation to fetch the mail would be trying my luck at driving the “Bumblebee”.  This bright yellow SUV is actually leased to our team and is registered in Dubai.  Apparently vehicles from Dubai are factory built for mailmen- all driver controls are on the right hand side of the vehicle.  Word to the wise if you ever find yourself driving such a vehicle:  the turn signal is on the right-hand side as well, pedestrians waiting to cross the intersection you are attempting to signal a turn at really don’t appreciate a drive-by dowsing of windshield wiper fluid!

Unloading a few packages from the Bumblebee
After successfully navigating my way the entire half-mile across the FOB to the US Postal Service compound, I was about to witness first-hand the amazing support all of us troops here receive from our wonderful friends and family back on the home front.  As I pulled up to the trailer containing our mail, the ADT mailbox was literally overflowing (as usual) and some boxes had to be specially marked to be picked up in an alternate location.  20 minutes and a stiff back later, I was on my way back to our ADT Headquarters with 36 letters and 17 packages thoroughly testing the limits of the Bumblebee’s suspension.

In addition to physical mail, the different mediums of communications available here are literally mind-boggling.  In the course of a few days, I think it would be safe to say I was able to connect with different friends and family by way of no less than five unique modes of communication including a traditional phone call via the Defense Switchboard Network, a text message through the TextFree app for iPhone, video or audio conversations through Skype (iPhone and computer), Facebook, and of course traditional email.  Two other methods that I don’t personally use, but are very prevalent among our team members include a Roshan (local service) cellular phone and through Microsoft’s Xbox gaming system.  I’m particularly intrigued by the xbox communication capabilities, what a wonderful way to connect with a young son or daughter.  One of our team members in his early 40's had never played an xbox before; but chose to buy one immediately after hearing he could play head-to-head against his son back in Indiana while having a chance to simultaneously chat with him on a headset.

As I mentioned previously, the amount of mail coming in to our team is truly a logistical marvel. Even on Christmas Day, we were able to collect letters and packages sent from family and friends.  Among the seven packages and four different Christmas cards I received on Christmas, one card stood out in particular and really inspired me to write this very communications-themed blog post.  That card came from my dear grandmother, Rita Pierman, who was kind enough to type out a very thoughtful note and mail it all the way from Ottawa, Ohio.  At 87 years old, she continues to inspire our family and never seems to slow down.  While she doesn't use a computer, she is darn handy on a typewriter and is able to keep up to date with this blog through the help of my kind Aunt Kathy who prints off updates and delivers them to grandmother on a regular basis.  

You'll see in the note I've included (at the end of this post) from grandmother her mention of Skyping over Thanksgiving.  For someone who has lived through all of the United States' wars and conflicts over the last eight decades, I'm sure she never dreampt she would one day be able to see a grandson serving in Afghanistan. 

While showing off my new artifact (the typewritten note) around the office, I began to ask some of my other team members if they could remember the last time they were the recipient of an actual typewritten note.  None could remember, but it did spark another very interesting conversation-  Chief Sam Rance is the rangeland manager on our team and he too was able to Skype with his grandmother over the holidays. This Skype conversation was particularly memorable for Chief and his grandmother Donna because it had been 66 years since she last communicated with a loved one in harm's way. 

In the winter of 1944 a historic battle we now know as the Battle of the Bulge took place.  Over 75,000 Americans were killed, maimed, or captured during this battle and one of the captured was a young man from Yeoman, Indiana named Leland Julian.  Technical Sgt. Julian was a combat engineer who was dating a young girl back in Indiana named Donna.  As you read so often with members of the Greatest Generation, Donna and Leland's love for each other was strong enough to overcome the six month delay in postage and resulted in their marriage shortly after Leland returned home from his POW status.

After describing the communications challenges his grandparents faced during WWII, Chief Rance began to enlighten me on his time in Somalia in 1993.  During the entire six months the Chief spent with his Ranger battalion in Mogadishu, he was authorized one phone call home to the USA from a tactical satellite field phone mounted inside a HUMVEE vehicle.  Mail wasn't much better in 1993, but this was mainly due to security issues and the necessity of keeping their location classified. Chief currently Skypes with his wife and children back in Indiana on a twice daily basis; I'd say he's earned that privilege...

Two days prior to this past Christmas, Skype's global servers crashed for a few hours and judging by the morale levels around the FOB you honestly would have thought that we had lost the war.  In all seriousness, the "crash" was the topic of nearly every breakfast table conversation in the dining facility that day.  What would we do if the server wasn't available over Christmas? Fortunately for those of us so dependent; the Skype servers were operational within a few hours and all were able to "see" their families over the holidays. 

In all the advances we see in modern warfare today, I would argue confidently that communications has undoubtedly had the largest impact.  As many advanced systems have done their part to reduce the fog of war, simple programs that allow troops to connect with their loved-ones back home provide a morale booster that even the finest cigar complimented by the best bottle of near beer couldn't hold a candle to.

Next breakthrough.....teleports?

Christmas 2010 typewritten letter from my Grandmother