Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rolling Out the Red Carpet

Terezayi District Sub-Governor Amir Bhad Shah was literally waiting out in the middle of the road as our convoy arrived, a dangerous position for a Governor to place himself in.
It doesn't take an advanced degree in mathematics, statistics, or even organizational management to understand the value of teamwork to any organization. If you were to ask Purdue University Men's Basketball coach Matt Painter what the deciding factor in the Boiler's recent upset of Ohio State was, I'm quite confident he'd agree it was a team effort. I'm also quite excited to see that team effort deliver another victory in this evening's matchup against Indiana...

If you were to tell me three months ago that I'd soon be delivering 400 tree saplings to a village, twice a week; I'd probably look at you as if you had a third eyeball growing in the center of your forehead. Of all my coursework during college, my botany or horticulture professors were not the first I requested letters of recommendation from. For that matter, no member of our entire 60+ person team has any significant experience in the forestry industry. After conducting several visits and needs assessments throughout the province, it was evident that we were going to have to involve ourselves in the forestry business. 

Enter our friends from the Afghan Water Agriculture and Technology Transfer (AWATT) project- in a previous post (Operation Check Dam) I detail an encounter with Dr. John Groninger. John has since returned to campus life in Southern Illinois, but through continued contact with John I was introduced to another John. Dr. John Harrington is another forestry professor, also with AWATT, who hails from the great state of New Mexico and appropriately enough specializes in arid climates. After several weeks of coordination over email, John was finally able to escape the hustle and bustle of Kabul and sneak down to spend a few days with us at FOB Salerno. With the help of the experts at AWATT and the ability to tackle an initiative as a team, the 3-19th ADT might just become the Bad News Bears of the forestry industry.

A look at the makeshift nursery set up on the 3-19th ADT's demonstration farm on FOB Salerno. The forestry initiative is a team project, usually requiring 5-7 team members to complete a mission set.

While we had the luxury of hosting an in-house forester, we decided it would be best to put his skills to use in a district that could really use some help. Nearly six weeks ago, members of the 3-19th ADT first traveled to the Terezayi District in an effort to assess the needs of the villagers. During this meeting, the number one need presented was once again tree saplings. Immediately following this meeting, the district ag extension agent was kind enough to show us around the district center. The first room we stopped in was a barren, concrete room with literally nothing inside of it besides a broken chair, some moldy flatbread, and a coiled up hose- all crammed into one corner. Haji Mohammad, the ag extension agent, assured me this mess could be cleaned up in no time and that his district would be prepared to conduct a training seminar on a moment's notice.

Far from an atmosphere that "encourages learning"...

It'd be safe to say that I was more than a little hesitant to set off to a district such as Terezayi on our one mission with Dr. Harrington, but I'm happy to report Haji Mohammad is a man of his word. Not only did he have the room cleaned since our last visit, he also had it filled with chairs and even a desk for instruction. (Note the machine gun spray of bullet holes all across the back wall of the picture below, this continued around the entire perimeter of the room- unfortunately these holes were still in tact, a grave reminder of the tragedy that even this very room has hosted through the years.) Most importantly, every chair in the room (20 of them) was filled with a young Afghan farmer, each eager for instruction.

20 Terezayi farmers patiently await their block of forestry instruction.

Following a brief introduction of all those in the room by the Terezayi District Sub-Governor, the ag extension agent began to give the lesson on forestry he had prepared. After about 30 minutes of instruction, Haji Mohammad offered Dr. Harrington an opportunity to address the farmers. John was very cordial in his remarks, paying close attention to ensure he only reinforced points already covered by Haji Mohammad in an effort to boost credibility of the district ag extension agent. 

Haji Mohammad was responsible for issuing each attendee their bag full of 20 tree saplings.

In an effort to appear as nothing more than the enablers, we in camouflage did our best to stay out of sight as it came time for dissemination of the sapling bags. Each bag consisted of 20 trees, thus tallying up as quite a valuable bundle for the men to carry home. Haji Mohammad conducted the official issuing of the trees to each attendee of the training session, while the others waited patiently for their turn to collect.

Well I'm no Paul Harvey, but what more could you ask for during a radio debut?

The east wing of the Terezayi District Center is home to Khowst Radio. Because of it's relative inexpensiveness, radio is the number one source of news and information for the people of the Khowst Province. While touring the radio station, I was shocked to find a few cots and beds lining the walls of the station. Apparently the DJ's sleep in the studio on most evenings. After ensuring the tree delivery had gone smoothly, I couldn't resist jumping on the airwaves in an effort to try out some of my Pashto. Robin Williams would have been proud at the clarity in my "Good morning Afghanistan!"

Villagers look inquisitively into the Terezayi District Center as forestry training attendees are issued their take-home bags.

As we prepared to leave the Terezayi District, the sight outside the gate was yet another solemn reminder of the many individuals we weren't able to provide training to during our visit. While Haji Mohammad had been issuing the bags filled with tree saplings, dozens of villagers lined the constantina wire outside the District Center, just trying to catch a peak of what their fellow tribesmen were carrying home.

While it often seems we face an uphill battle here in the work we are trying to accomplish, together as a team (AWATT folks included) we are making some marked progress. Members of the 3-19th ADT will continue to work together, one district and 20 trees at a time, to provide the people of the Khowst Province with a sustainable way of life for generations to come.

And now you know -- the rest of the story....


Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Hungry People

Villagers from the Shamal District jockey for position to be
among the first issued a set of chickens to take home from their training.

One lesson my father instilled upon me during my formative years is the necessity of a good plan. To this day, I can still hear him stressing “a wise captain always charts his course before setting sail.” The 3-19th ADT commander, Colonel Walt Colbert, must come from the same school of thought as my father as it seems we have done our fair share of charting since we hit ground here last September.

After four months of meeting with local leaders to assess needs of their respective villagers, we on the 3-19th ADT have finally set sail with a few projects of our own. The first mission designed to validate a training class held by a district ag extension agent took place in mid-January, just as I was departing for my leave back in the states. Upon my arrival back in country last week, I was pleased to return to an elaborate plan designed to visit all thirteen districts in an effort to provide specialized training to each.

The "K-G Pass" (Khost to Gardez) Highway dissects the
central bazaar.
My first mission (since returning from R&R) off of FOB Salerno sent me to visit the Shamal District, quite an appropriate mission for me to get back into the swing of things as Shamal was also the last district I visited  before leaving the country in mid-January.

During our last visit to Shamal, we were able to conduct a meeting with the District Governor to hear firsthand what some of the needs of his people might be. In addition to our meeting held in the safety of the District Center Compound, we were also able to walk through their local market or as the locals refer to it- the bazaar.

Apparently it had been quite some time since the locals had last seen Coalition Forces walk the streets of the main bazaar.

Between our meeting with the district officials and physical discussions with shopkeepers while walking through the local bazaar, two agricultural goods commonly came up as necessities: chickens and trees. “Trees” is quite a generic term, but for now let’s just assume forestry products in general. On a macro scale, the country of Afghanistan is going through a massive reforestation project. With trees planted numbering in the millions, an effort to reforest while also throttle back dangerous erosion levels is currently underway. Closer to home, the Shamal District is just kilometers away from Pakistan where lumber is far and away the most valuable commodity.

After a few weeks of internal discussions amongst our Ag team back in the confines of FOB Salerno, several project areas were chosen to focus our efforts on. The three main projects we determined would make the greatest impact- at least in the short-term; were composting, forestry, and poultry training. A new round of district visits would now need to be scheduled, this time (finally in the villagers eyes) we'd have a tangible good to deliver to the people.

The first order of business, before the products could be delivered to the people, would be training our trainers. Each of the province's13 district ag extension agents agreed to attend a one-day seminar, a continuing education type of instruction block, at Camp Parsa. During this day of hands-on practical instruction with members of our ag team, each agent had unlimited access to each of our project officers.

Shamal District Ag Extension Agent Mir Wais conducts a forestry training seminar
while Captain Randy Cuyler and I observe.

Depending on how a district governor or ag extension agent prioritized their needs, a flock of chickens or a bundle of trees- coupled with a training session, would soon be headed to the farmers of their respective districts. For Shamal, as stated earlier during our needs assessment, the highest priority fell in the area of forestry while poultry training was also mentioned as an area of importance. 

In preparation for a training session with the people of the Shamal District, our interpreters placed a call to the Khost Province Director of Extensions in an effort to reach the Shamal District Ag Extension Agent- Mir Wais. As you might expect, Mir gladly accepted our request for him to schedule a training event in the coming days. Sadly enough, you don't really have to plan all that far in advance to secure a strong turnout. Unfortunately there is not a whole lot else going on, very little to compete with when it comes to timing or scheduling issues.

Captain Randy Cuyler assists villagers of the Shamal District with the
bundling of their trees.

As the primary goal involved in a training seminar is showing the capacity of the Afghan Government, our goal as Coalition Forces was to stay out of the way as much as possible. Mir Wais conducted the training while only two of us (body armor and helmets off) did our best to blend in with the other students while observing his block of instruction. Utilizing training materials provided to him during our recent workshop, Mir provided instruction on tree care and planting to nearly a dozen farmers from the Shamal District.

In this video, you can see some of the training first hand. I did my best to capture a bit of the lesson on candid camera. By resting my iPhone on top of my chai glass, I was able to nonchalantly record a bit of the training without the disruption of a larger camcorder.

Immediately following the classroom training portion, Mir led the group of hungry farmers out into the commons area of the District Center. Upon arriving to the compound, members of our team had pre-positioned plastic bags loaded with 20 trees each to ease in the hand-out process. After a few last minute instructions, Mir began to conduct the great tree giveaway of 2011. I'm not certain I've ever seen grown men so eager to take ownership of a material good, the looks on their faces said it all. 

Last but not least, the men (proudly lugging around their newly acquired entry into the timber industry) began to line up behind the trailer that even an untrained nose could easily have sniffed out contained our chickens. The agreed upon take-home package for those who completed the block of instruction was 20 trees and 2 chickens. Having grown up on a farm, and also being the low-ranking member present from the Ag team, I volunteered my services as chicken wrangler. The elation I described in the last paragraph (on the men's faces after receiving their trees) was now the 2nd happiest I'd seen a grown man, I honestly think a few of them might have been drooling by the time I handed each of them their two birds.

Even after growing up on a farm, I never dreampt I'd have to go to Afghanistan to have the opportunity to wrangle a group of chickens...

KFC may now actually mean Khowst Fried Chicken in this part of the world, but regardless the farmers of the Shamal District now have a few more chickens roaming their pastures and possibly even a few trees lined up to mark their property lines.  Regardless of what these farmers do with the goods they take home from a training session, our goal of utilizing the Afghan government to conduct training was a smashing success. Mir Wais is now a credible agent of the people's government here in the Shamal District and the farmers know they can come to him with agricultural issues. Only time will tell how much the farmers choose to utilize Mir's knowledge base, but one thing is for certain- they had better not be serving chicken at the District Center the next time we pay a visit...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

107 Hours

Within 30 minutes of my arrival home Dad poured a
celebratory toast for all in attendance, fortunately for the kids he had
some sparkling cider on hand.
International airline flights and travel in general are often seen in a negative light due to the many delays associated with such a journey. From weather to aircraft maintenance issues, inevitably something is bound to place your journey into a holding pattern. Through the years I've been on multiple flights to Europe, Central America, and even China. I'll never look at an international expedition the same after setting out on this past journey, it was quite an adventure- but it was all worth it...

On January 14th, I departed FOB Salerno on a C-130 bound for New Haven, Indiana. Unfortunately, this journey would take me through four countries, three continents, and over 110 hours to complete. I won’t elaborate on specific locations, mainly due to security concerns (also to spare you the boredom), but trust me- it was a long trip.

Rather than detail in full my entire 15 days on the ground back in the land of Old Glory; I think I’ll cheat a bit and let a few photos I took tell the story for themselves. I will mention that my only regret was not being able to see my dear sister Brigette, her two sons Dakota and Lincoln (Godchild #3), and her fine husband Wade. They are inundated with other issues related to Wade’s own Afghan deployment later this year, so another trip to Indiana only two short weeks after their Christmas visit wasn’t really feasible.

It’s amazing how much you can fit into 15 days, especially when you calculate a “blizzard” into the mix. I can’t thank all of my wonderful friends and family (especially you Mom & Dad) enough for all they did to literally make those two short weeks some of the best in my life.

I guess you could say I was fortunate on the way home, as it only took me 104 hours. This trip provided yet another one of my life’s “firsts”, an engine loss on our C-130, during flight back onto Salerno. After a switch of aircraft back at Bagram, I honestly thought the crew chief was joking when he announced this aircraft too had blown an engine (at least this time we were on the ground) during startup tests. As they say, the third time is the charm and just before midnight on February 7th, I was back on the FOB. If you average my travel times, you’ll arrive at 107 hours- regardless of length,once again it was all worth it…

A late 5th birthday date with my nephew Luke (Godchild #2) involved a trip to the store for a new Nintendo game but most importantly gave him a chance to show off his new pakol.The snowstorms provided bonus time to hang out with all of my nieces and nephews as they were home on snow cancellations.

Another birthday date with my niece Lillie (Godchild #1) to celebrate her 13th birthday landed me in a pedicure chair. Word of caution to my fellow Uncles and Godfathers out there- lay out a few ground rules before allowing your teenage niece a day on the town to do anything she would like...

My first weekend on the ground consisted of great friends, wonderful music, and a bit 'o bourbon down in Music City. Nashville might never be the same after twenty of us joined together to send our great friend Nick off in true fashion for his bachelor party.

If I had to complain about one thing (besides people) I really miss while serving in Afghanistan, it'd undoubtedly have to be a good meal with even better people. Fortunately I was able to get my fill of seafood down in Key West for a few days with the family, not a bad place to spend time in late January.

Crickette Simone (Godchild #4), my sister Anne's daughter, was the only child along on the trip to Key West. As you can see in the picture, she fit right in to the laid-back culture of Keys' living. We even got to have a small 1st birthday party for her during our time together.

In addition to Truman's Little White House, another tourist must-see is Earnest Hemingway home. Breathtaking gardens surround the home where Hemingway wrote many of his most famous novels in the mid-1930's. Might I suggest a pit-stop before touring, only three blocks away- Blue Heaven is an eclectic breakfast joint with outdoor seating and live music all day. I'd recommend the lobster benedict, rest assured I'll be savoring that scrumptious taste for at least the next six months.

I mentioned Nick's bachelor party in Nashville, but I should also mention this wedding was the chief reason for the timing  of my visit home. Both Nick and his new bride Holly are great friends of mine from Purdue. I knew this would be a wedding to remember, but after Nick asked me to be his best man; there wasn't a chance I would miss it.

Many would argue that one of the Best Man's most important roles is that of securing the rings prior to their blessing and installation upon the hand. Fortunately my tuxedo pants had structurally sound pockets and there were no incidents of missing jewelry. Nick and Holly have yet to see this photo, but I thought they'd enjoy my special touch ;-)
No, this isn't a scanned in image from the cover of Vogue. The bride and groom both looked stunning and were blessed with a beautiful day. A January wedding in Indiana can be quite a gamble, but I'd say the big man upstairs gave his approval of this marriage with his granting of a sunny, 50 degree day. 

The 50 degrees and sun in Southwest Indiana quickly turned to snow and ice by the time I cris-crossed the entire state back to the farm in Northeast Indiana for my final few days at home. One of the many benefits of life on the farm is having your own snow removal system.

I hope that most reading this will remember the name Pat Tillman. For those of you who don't, Pat was the NFL player who left professional football to enlist in the Army. Unfortunately Pat was killed in action while in Afghanistan during 2004, but the busiest USO in the country now bears his name. In the final stretch of my trip home, I happened to be stuck at Bagram Air Force Base for several days. I can't think of a more fitting place to have been on Superbowl Sunday...