Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Update on the Future Farmers of Afghanistan

1LT Jesse Hardy, the 3-19th ADT Platoon Leader, engages in a friendly soccer volley with Gharghash High students.
Roughly eight weeks ago, a stable of horses here in Khowst Province was led to the nearest watering hole in an effort to teach them how to drink. During a recent visit to that watering hole, members of the 3-19th ADT were delighted to find that not only were the horses hydrating plentifully- they were also bottling some of the nutrient rich liquid in an effort to share it amongst other steeds who might not ever get the opportunity to travel to the source.

If you've read this blog in the past, you're well aware of our Future Farmers of Afghanistan project. The initiative, designed to aid in leadership development among Afghan youth, is proceeding better than  many of us could have ever envisioned.

Gharghash High School Principal Ajap Pan provides an update to Major
Jeremy Gulley. Pan was extremely pleased to learn that Gulley was also
a high school principal.
The six high schools chosen by the Director of Education to serve as pilot sites across the province are all currently in the mentorship phase of the program. During this portion, agricultural faculty from Shaikh Zayed University along with the local agricultural extension agent, spend four hours per week at each of the six schools.

Our most recent quality assurance visit, a May 21st trip to Gharghash High School, was by far the most inspiring check-in to date. With only a few hours notice, the school's principal- Ajap Pan, agreed to  meet us during the rotation period surrounding lunch, where the morning students begin their journey home and the afternoon pupils arrive hungry for knowledge.

As we first arrived the school, Major Jeremy Gulley- an Education Officer on the team and Principal of Huntington North High School back in the civilian world, greeted the Gharghash High School Principal. Before our interpreter could even finish his translation, the smile across the Afghan Principal's face exuded his delight in knowing that he was conversing with a fellow educator. This is another great example of why Agribusiness Development Teams are such an anomaly amongst military units. How often do you see a high school principal leaving his suit and tie at the dry cleaner for a year, only to throw on his camouflage fatigues?

A popular past time for children across the country of Afghanistan includes asking service members for pens. "Qalam? Qalam?" is a frequent request of most every child you meet while out amongst the population. Just as their counterparts in the United States, behavior levels among students vary quite drastically as you travel the province. As some young men will literally steal the pens out of your pocket, it is critical to keep anything of value out of sight from these kleptomaniacs.

"Rewarding Reservation"
These young boys can also quickly suffer from herd mentality, as it seems any common sense or manners that their mother taught them go right out the window when they congregate among classmates (sounds like soldiers). As the principals were chatting during our recent visit to the school, the students quickly began to swarm around each and every camouflaged soldier, in an effort to score a couple of qalams or trade for a new watch. One young man at Gharghash refrained from asking me for a thing though, in fact he was so quiet I honestly thought he might have been mute. Just as the principal was shooing the students (who by now could better be described as a mob), I secretly handed the quiet young man my pen. The smile across his face was electrifying as I motioned to keep it quite, just our little secret. For the rest of our visit, this young man walked around with a smile as wide as the Nile, with the piece of mind that he had received his qalam without even having to ask for one...

After speaking with the principal in the courtyard, our group moved into the agricultural portion of the school grounds. In an effort to cut down on pedestrian thru-traffic and vandalism, each of the agricultural kits are fenced off into a private area.

Reminders of Home
Upon entering the green house, the most welcoming site was that of a few lone stalks of corn. While these weren't strategically planted, I do think the Gharghash gardeners knew this would be a quick way to get onto a group of Hoosiers' good sides. Among the other crops we were delighted to see growing in bounty included "lady-finger" okra, spinach, and cauliflower.

One issue that schools have noted within the original design of the greenhouse is the lack of ventilation. After the initial construction of the project kits, the schools took full ownership of the sites and were free to do as they saw necessary to ensure a functioning agricultural environment.

One of the first things Gharghash leaders did was arrange for ventilation screens to be cut into each end of the greenhouse. This kind of improvisation is encouraged as a part of the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project, as a sort of field-expedient problem solving. This is also inspiring to think of in terms of the sustainability of these agricultural kits. When the United States is long gone from Afghanistan, young men and women who are confident in their skills will have the mental capacity and experience to act on an issue, whenever and wherever those issues will inevitably arise.

A Proud Principal
After our sultry (102 degrees outside made for 120+ inside) visit to the greenhouse, the next order of business called for a stop at the solar dehydrator device. Gauging by the amount of sweat rolling off our bodies, I think the greenhouse could have easily been labeled a solar dehydrator as well.As we approached the dehydrator, the excitement and pride in Principal Ajap Pan's voice was unmistakable. Opening the latch that secures the exterior flap to the base of the device, Pan revealed to us a textbook example of dried fruits and vegetables. Several screens filled with apples, tomatoes, and apricots lined the shelves of the dehydrator; just as Pan and others were taught eight short weeks ago during their training course at Shaikh Zayed University.

Preparing for Prayer
Before we departed the school grounds, Major Gulley congratulated his fellow Principal once again for a job well-done, so far. He stressed to Ajap Pan the importance of always having the agricultural area prepared for visitors. As the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project continues to attract attention all the way up both civilian and military chains of command, many high-profile visitors have inquired about the program and expressed interest in paying a visit to one of the six pilot schools. There is a very good chance that the Governor of Khowst Province, Abdul Jabaar Naeemi, will be touring one of these sites in the very near future as well.

Another issue we discussed with Principal Pan that was dear to my heart was the sale of goods grown inside the greenhouse or from the solar dehydrator. I was ecstatic to learn that eggs layed in the poultry coop had already been sold at a local bazaar, with the profits reinvested into the upkeep of the farm. The sale of products produced on the farm will not only give students a wonderful experience in marketing, but also ensure that the farm is around for decades to come.

To see that the horse we led to water drank voluntarily, was a very rewarding experience. We're all very well aware that only the Afghan people can ultimately decide what the future of their country looks like. We on the 3-19th ADT will have the satisfaction of knowing, in our short year on the ground here in Khowst, that we planted the seed for invaluable youth development and leadership programs.

The future is wide open and based on a plethora of variables, but if other provincial schools are able to model the initiative those at Gharghash High School have taken; rest assured that the Future Farmers of Afghanistan will continue to play a major role in the development of this country's next generation of leaders.

Colleagues in Education - two high school principals, from schools that are separated by 7,500 miles and several
zeros in their budgets; part ways after a May 21st visit to Gharghash High School in Khowst Province.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Birthday Abroad

A Motley Crue - teammates and neighbors gathered to ring in my 28th year

Ask any student group on a college campus "what is the most effective way to organize a group of people?" and nine times out of ten; your answer will include a combination of the following words: free and beer/pizza.

I'm proud to report that same theory of motivation proves true here in Afghanistan, among soldiers and contractors alike. Tweak the theory a bit to sub a cigar for the pizza portion, while adding a *non-alcoholic in front of the beer portion, and you've got yourself a case worthy of a doctorate level thesis.

This past Friday, May the 20th marked my 28th year here on this great earth. With the joys of technology, I was able to start my day off with a few phone calls to friends and family. After hearing my dear mother's signature tune of "Happy Birthday", it was official- I could finally open the packages that had been painstakingly awaiting someone to rip the customs label right off and tear into the goods...

After sifting through packages filled with several pounds of coffee and a couple dozen cigars, I opened a thin package sent from my sister Michelle. I'd been intrigued by the package since it's arrival on Tuesday afternoon, as the packing list simply stated "book". As I opened the package, the vivid colors on the cover you see here immediately caught my eye. Mrs. Corson, the 3rd and 4th grade teacher at St. Louis Academy, recently charged her students with the task of compiling all they have learned over this year of studying Indiana state history into a book that they could publish and cherish for eternity. My sweet niece Maggie was kind enough to dedicate her first attempt as an author- "ABC's of Indiana" to none other than her old Uncle Bart. While I'm extremely grateful to all for the many thoughtful packages sent, I have to say that this book was without a doubt the most heartfelt. She's quite a creative young lady I might add. From the first page's mention of B is for Butler, all the way to the final page's clever relation of the letter X to one of Indiana's thousands of railroad crossing symbols, I wouldn't be surprised in the least bit to see a few more literary works in Ms. Maggie's future. Kudos to the entire class at St. Louis Academy studying Indiana state history, keep up the great work!

Shabazz and I

After the duty day ended here on FOB Salerno, I decided to test out the beer and stogie phenomenon. We started to inform those in the neighborhood that we'd be gathering on the picnic table behind our barracks with free booze and cigars. Low and behold, the masses will flock to free booze and a good smoke!

While any blend of non-alcoholic beer is most definitely an acquired taste, St. Pauli Girl NA was the beverage of choice for Friday evening's get together. I have to say that the St. Pauli's made for a perfect compliment to the mild Nub Connecticut blend of cigars that we all were firing up.

SFC Andy Bowman, another good 'ol boy on the team from Northeast Indiana, especially enjoyed the evening. This was a great chance for all of us to enjoy a bit of time together, off of the clock, just hanging out as a team. In addition to Shabazz (Bowman's Pashtun name), several of our international friends came out to partake in our Happy Hour. Both Innocent (one of the Ugandan men I've gotten to know quite well) and Ajmala (our Pashtun interpreter and cultural advisor) stopped by for a bit to add a little flavor to the crew.

A special thanks to all who helped organize Friday evening's get-together, you know who you are. Also, I wanted to especially thank all 216 of you who were kind enough to post birthday greetings on my Facebook wall. Yes- my mother counted...only a mother's love is strong enough to meticulously creep through that many pages of Facebook profile!

27 was a great year, filled with countless blessings and decades worth of memories. At this pace, I'm excited to see what the future holds. As I think about all the adventures my 28th year is sure to entail, I can't help but think of a card I received from the Schroeder/Schleben families. While I'm not certain that my dreams would line up very similar with those of the gentlemen featured, I do have to say that I highly admire his forthrightness. The card cover features the gem of a man you see below, while the inside bears a motto I just might borrow for year 28: "Live Your Dreams."

A Portrait at 60?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Fourth Estate

The flags of NATO-ISAF member countries outside of the Joint Operations Center at Bagram Air Base

Throughout recorded history, the role of documenting military activities has taken on many faces. Historians and journalists alike are frequently credited with cutting their teeth in austere locations, long before they land coveted positions such as evening news anchor or national correspondent (see Walter Cronkite in WWII & Vietnam).  

As Americans, we enjoy a protection under the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights, the "freedom of speech". Unfortunately, a very small percentage of the world's population shares this liberty, thus creating an even higher demand across the globe for somebody to tell their story. 

Photographing the Photographer
Maura O'Connor from atop the provincial observation point
One of my additional duty assignments during this deployment has been that of "Public Affairs Officer". I have really grown quite fond of these duties, as rare as that may sound for a position in which I was voluntold. While the vast majority of news releases coming from FOB Salerno are conceived from the Brigade Public Affairs Office, a handful have come from out of the 3-19th ADT Public Affairs Office, and an even fewer amount of those were deemed newsworthy- eventually making their way to global audiences.

Recently, development focused units across the Eastern portion of Afghanistan had the honor of hosting an embedded reporter, a young lady by the name of Maura O'Connor. Ms. O'Connor (as we referred to her in briefings- I've learned that the Army has to place a title on EVERYTHING) is a research fellow with the Phillips Foundation, focusing on development projects and studying the impact of foreign aid dollars on countries in conflict. After a little over a week with us here on FOB Salerno, she accompanied the Provincial Reconstruction Team out on several missions before heading up to the Paktika Province where she spent several weeks with the ADT and PRT teams in that region. 

Maura learned a new term during her time around FOB Salerno- that of Hoosier Hospitality. Team members really enjoyed hearing Maura's stories from her travels, it seemed she had seen more of Afghanistan in her three weeks on ground than any of us had witnessed in nearly eight months. When we first learned that a journalist was going to be staying with the team for a few weeks, the timing could not have been worse. I'm sure the Rolling Stone jokes began to grow a bit old, but all in all I think she had a wonderful experience here with the Reapers of the 3-19th ADT. I know we're all eagerly anticipating the publication of her research; as she is closing out her Afghan travels at the end of the month, a release should be coming in the next few weeks.

It's a Small World, After All...
Once a quarter, the ISAF Public Affairs Office hosts an "Afghan Media Conference". I had the opportunity to attend my first of these conferences this past week, and have to say it was quite an enlightening experience. Upwards of 40 Afghan journalists filled the Jirga Center at Bagram Air Base, with the majority hailing from Kabul. 

During the conference, these mainly mid-to-late 20's Afghan men had the opportunity to interact with American journalists and military public affairs officials. Conor Powell, a Fox News correspondent from Kabul, shared some very blunt and practical advice to the audience- the need to dress appropriately and pack accordingly. Connor spoke of a recent mission he accompanied ISAF troops on, in which an Afghan journalist also joined- clad in a suit and dress shoes. As he was speaking, Connor stood up from behind the table he sat and gave a visual reference to all about what might be deemed practical attire while accompanying troops. His khaki/olive drab garb was loose fitting and breathable, with the ability to easily layer on more items during the evening hours as the temperature can easily fluctuate up to 30 degrees between night and day. 

Nearly 40 Afghan journalists attended the media conference held at Bagram
As the emcee prepared the attendees for a breakout session, he asked that all participants first take a few minutes to go around the room and introduce themselves. As my turn approached, I worked up the fortitude to introduce myself in Pashtu, after all I'd been practicing a bit with our interpreters and had formed a solid conversational foundation back at Indiana University last summer. "Salaam Aleykum, zma num Bridman Lomont; zay de Indiana Agribusiness Development Team de Khowst Province." As I finished, I wasn't sure if I had just made up my own version of Pashglish or not, but by the applause I think the crowd got the gist of what I was trying to say. 

In addition to the group of Afghan reporters and American service members, several public affairs representatives from the French Army were also in attendance. France is a major ally in the coalition fight, fielding an entire Brigade sized effort known as Task Force La Fayette. 

The conference came to a close around 3PM. This was designed to give those traveling back to Kabul an opportunity to travel during daylight, but also give others some time to network if they so desired. I immediately made my way over to the French, in an effort to inquire if any of them were by chance from the Besancon area. (Besancon, France is where all of my Lomont ancestors hail from; my father and I just visited the area in July of 2010.) None of the French soldiers present at the conference were in fact from Besancon, but they did offer to place me in touch with three of their superiors who just so happened to be based in Besancon when back in garrison. I made plans to follow-up with my new French friends before dinner, at the Joint Operations Center, the hub of all operations in the Regional Command- East area of responsibility.

Just as I was preparing to partake in a few of the tasty pastries that I'd been eyeing on the reception table (it has been a few months since I've had fresh bread), an unmistakably Pashtun man stopped me to inquire where I had taken my Pashtu language courses. He commended my accent especially and commented that before he turned around to see who was speaking, he honestly thought that it was a native Pashtun. The conversation that would then ensue has literally been one of the smallest world experiences I've ever been a part of-

Massoud, the brother of my friend and former
instructor Zalmai, after our chance meeting.

Massoud- "Excuse me sir, where did you learn to speak Pashtun?"
Me- "Indiana University"
Massoud- "Really?!?! My brother is teaching there!"
Me- Get out of here! What's his name? (By now, I could already notice the family resemblance)
Massoud- "Zalmai" 

On a bright, sunny afternoon- in the middle of Bagram Air Base; Massoud and I had just shattered the Six Degrees of Separation rule. I've referenced in past blogs my witty, intelligent Pashtu instructor Zalmai. He and I hit it off extremely well during our brief two weeks on campus last summer. Zalmai is a masters student in the Geology Department at Indiana University, but works on contract with the State Department to provide training to military and government officials in preparation to assignments where they will be speaking Pashtu.

As I think about the number of variables necessary for Massoud and I to meet, I can't help but laugh. What are the chances? Massoud just happened to be accompanying the Public Affairs Officer from his post, FOB Shank, to the same conference that day. If I had not mustered up the courage to attempt my best rendtion of Pashglish, Massoud never would have singled me out to inquire about where I had taken my language courses.

Hotel California

From the Jirga Center we began walking back towards our home for the evening- the Hotel California, which serves as housing for all media personnel passing through Bagram. Don't let the name fool you though; as I struggle to see any resemblance between the three wooden shanties that sit in the middle of Bagram and that of an actual hotel. Regardless, it's a roof over your head and heat/air conditioning that is much appreciated with the extreme temperature fluctuations existing at this elevation.

Each room at the inn bears a friendly greeting: Welcome to the Media Support Center's "Hotel California", which is followed by font so small that it is nearly illegible- serving as a disclaimer to inform guests that if they find their room is a mess, it is because "the last occupant, your journalism colleague, left the room in the current condition".

After unpacking my bags and settling into my room, I decided to make a quick stop-in to the Joint Operations Center in an attempt to link-up with my French comrades-in-arms. The JOC, as it is referred to in the military's world of acronyms, was quite an impressive area in itself. The flags of all partner countries in the International Security Assistance Force proudly line the courtyard of the center, with breathtaking views of the Hindu-Kush mountain range framing a picturesque backdrop to the north.

In typical European fashion, the three Frenchmen I was eagerly awaiting introduction to were out on a smoke break. As I approached them out near the smoker's gazebo, I could see them carefully studying my name tag. Fortunately all of the men, the equivalent of two Majors and a Lt. Colonel, spoke nearly fluent English. We discussed a variety of things before I was finally able to explain to them that my ancestors emigrated to Indiana from the Besancon, France area.

None of the men were actually born in the Franche-Comte region, but all three currently reside in Besancon as they are based there as soldiers within the French Army. I mentioned my trip to the area last summer with my father, and they were quite impressed that we had taken the time to visit the "land of our fathers."

The highlight of our conversation came as I inquired to the French soldiers about their shielding from General Order #1, the order outlawing any alcohol consumption by US Forces while in Afghanistan. It was as if I had cued them up, immediately as I inquired they all simultaneously retrieved their pocket knives to show me that each French soldier "was always prepared." While being prepared is a relative term, I like the way the French think. A corkscrew butting off the end of a pocket knife consisted of their version of preparedness...

After exchanging business cards and promising to send them the photo we took together, we parted ways. As I was walking away, Monsieur Chauval stopped me to ensure I had heard the French National Caveat-
"Lieutenant" he shouted, "you do know that a French soldier cannot fight without a fair compliment of wine and fresh bread, right?"

With additional responsibility, comes additional opportunity
Up until this trip to Bagram, frankly- I have despised the place. Between the media conference, the rooms at the Hotel California, my chance encounter with Massoud, and finally the brief introduction to the French soldiers; I have to admit that the place I once described as a "hell-hole" has begun to grow on me. As I traveled through Bagram in the process of returning home for my mid-tour in February, I swore that "the next time I stepped foot in this god-forsaken place would be on my way out of the country for good."

Thankfully, I was able to travel through Bagram this past week as a part of my additional duty as Public Affairs Officer. I have to borrow a line from Dr. Seuss as I think about such opportunities- "oh, the places you'll go and the people you'll meet." (Thanks Trace)

Chalk another one up to the archives; a few new friends have been made and yet an additional great story to tell for decades to come has developed. As I told the Frenchmen- "if I miss you in Bagram, I'll see you in Besancon..."

The Four Frenchmen
From left to right: Major Rene Ducrocq, 1Lt Bart Lomont, Major Didier Rostollan, and Lt. Colonel Philippe Chouval

Monday, May 9, 2011

Down Time

  "In war, morale is to all other factors as four is to one."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

Over the course of the last seven months, members of the 3-19th ADT have had a smorgasboard of what the military calls morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) events available to the unit. It may seem mind-boggling to hear that activities such as salsa dance lessons, "open-mic" night, and countless sporting tournaments occur around FOB Salerno on nearly a nightly basis.

Fitness minded events seem a bit easier to comprehend, but the number of other activities aimed at keeping soldiers occupied during their free time is quite impressive. These few events I've mentioned all occur here on a forward operating base; I wouldn't even begin to attempt to list the number of activities taking place on a much larger base such as Bagram.

The number of people that use tobacco in the military still seems quite paradoxical to me. Here we are in a workforce that values fitness and preparedness, yet arguably has some of the highest rates of smokers per capita. Before anyone sounds the hypocrisy alarm, I'll gladly admit to indulging in a few stogies from time to time... The Rocket City Cigar Club, the officially sanctioned cigar smokers group for FOB Salerno, meets on a weekly basis- providing soldiers yet another outlet to pass the time. 

A few of us taking a welcomed break from the monotonous "chow-hall"
at Aziz's, the one and only restaurant on the FOB.
Close your eyes for a minute and picture your favorite military themed movie...odds are that the majority of the scenes in that movie have to do with either soldiers playing cards or soldiers smoking and joking around with each other, perhaps even both. The reality today is that some things never change. While the card games have for the most part been traded-in for networked, XBox challenges amongst the men; the basic principle of spending nearly every hour of every day together as a team builds extremely strong bonds over the course of a deployment. The camaraderie that we as troops enjoy forms relationships that many of us will maintain for the rest of our lives.

The 'Stache
Every year, Air Force members across the globe participate in a decades old tradition known simply as Mustache March. For the sake of my family, friends, and anyone else who might need to take me seriously, I've opted out of this tradition in years past. As I flipped the calendar to March this past Spring, I decided to let the 'stache grow free...
No, this was not taken in the 1970's...but rather circa March 2011
As you can see from the above pic, I wasn't the only one around the FOB with a caterpillar resting above my upper lip. I will say that after several weeks of chapped lips (I think I had been sub-consciously checking with my tongue to ensure the 'stache was still in place), I grew somewhat accustomed to my furry little friend by the end of the month.

With the turning of the calendar page to April, also came the shaving of the 'stache. Within days of once again sporting a clean-shaven face, I was amazed at the number of people who commented "thank god you finally shaved that thing off." Perhaps it wasn't for me, but I do have to say it provided a lot of great laughs and some good natured ribbing. Needless to say I'm in no rush to see March of 2012...
All good things must come to an end...

Reminders of Home
With the running of the Indianapolis 500, the month of May shines a bright spotlight on the City of Indianapolis each year. Another race occurs earlier in the month that also draws quite a bit of attention to the Circle City each year, that being the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon. At the same time this monumental foot race is taking place in Indianapolis, the world's most famous horse race is taking place less than 100 miles south at another world-renowned track called Churchill Downs. Each year as May approaches, I find myself torn as I weigh the costs/benefits of running the mini versus that of making the short drive down to Louisville to experience my first Race for the Roses. Up until this point, I've always justified my choosing of the mini-marathon as a wise decision while I was still young and healthy enough to accomplish such a run. 

With Specialist David Silva after joining him in his first
half-marathon, our own satellite version of the Indy Mini.
I guess you could say one of the benefits of serving in Afghanistan is that you really don't have to make a whole lot of tough decisions regarding your social calendar.  As I looked ahead at the month of May 2011, I knew I wouldn't be attending either of the events that have caused me to question my decision making capabilities in the past. Factor in that the derby/mini weekend also falls on Mother's Day weekend, and you've got yourself a star-studded weekend. 

In the latter part of this past week, my running partner (David) and I had a short conversation about the possibility of running our own version of the Indy Mini. He had never run more than eight miles in his life before this attempt, but where better to at least give it a shot? After all, perhaps the threat of incoming rockets or poisonous snakes along the route would provide an extra shot of adrenaline. After praying to myself that he'd cancel, at 7PM Saturday evening he wrote to tell me that he'd be willing to give it a shot. Now it was time to prepare for our own version of the Indy Mini- the Salerno Satellite.

Race day was warm, over 80 degrees by 7AM with the high levels of humidity we've now grown accustomed to. With limited paved roads and even fewer water stations/restrooms, a few more logistical issues presented themselves than what one might encounter in downtown Indianapolis. After two hours and five minutes, we finished our own version of the mini. Although we were 7,500 miles away from those finishing in Indianapolis, the satisfaction of completing such an endeavor is the same the world around. 

Just as I had finished stretching, an email came in that I had been tagged in a new Facebook photo. As I clicked on the photo, a giant smile came across my face as I realized that I had finally accomplished something I had been trying to master for years- both running the mini and attending the Kentucky Derby. You see, while I was here running the Salerno Satellite, a group of ladies especially dear to my heart (my mother and three oldest sisters) had decided to experience that Race for the Roses that I previously mentioned. 

Great friends were able to meet up with dear family, a deadly combo...
A group of close friends also happened to be on the grounds at Churchill Downs on Saturday, so as luck would have it the six of them were able to rendezvous amidst the crowd of 300,000. This is the photo I saw when clicking on the link in my email, with a simple caption of- "This one's for you, Bart!". 

When I had first heard that the two groups were both going to be in the same general area, I sent a simple request to my buddies: if they were to by chance encounter my mother, please give her a hug and a Happy Mother's Day from Afghanistan. As you might imagine, the hug was a big hit when finally delivered. I was humbled by my great friends once again when in response to my thanking them I received a text stating- "Any time man, we were just arguing over who got to do it, an absolute privilege..."

These chance encounters, small victories from thousands of miles away, are what help deployed service members great through each day. A year away from loved ones, surrounded by the horrors of combat, can truly take a toll on many young men and women. Between increased communication capabilities such as Skype, email, and text messaging; the extraordinary distance separating us from our loved ones doesn't seem all that far. 

Several members of the 3-19th ADT were among the two billion tuning in to the Royal Wedding

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Chapter Closed

Captain Randy Cuyler, Major Gulley, and I enjoy a cigar to commemorate the news of the day

I'll be the first to admit that biology was never my strong suit during my Purdue years. But, as luck would have it, at least six credits in the despicable subject area were mandatory for any  students coming out of the College of Agriculture. There were the countless lectures, the recitation periods where it was more interesting to watch paint chips fall from the dilapidated walls of Lilly Hall, and last but not least the weekly laboratory classes that always seemed to fall at the most inopportune times.

Ironically enough, of all the courses I squeaked through during my proud six years on campus, it is a Biology 111 lab lesson that still to this day commands my most vivid recollection of life at Purdue. It wasn't because of any thwarted disaster in my mixing of chemicals (that's another story), or even the gorgeous Chi Omega that sat two rows in front of me, but rather because of an event that occurred 800 miles away in New York City.

Merely uttering the words Pearl Harbor, Kennedy, and Apollo instantly takes millions of Americans back to the exact place they were during the time of these world-changing events. September 11th, 2001 provided those of us born after 1970 with a new trigger word of our own: 9/11. Each time I hear those words, I instantly return to that dreaded 7:30AM Tuesday morning Biology laboratory.

Looking back on that day, nearly a decade later, I'm still amazed at how much those few hours of carnage changed my life. In September of 2001, I was a freshman with every intention of putting in my four years of college and simply returning to life on the farm. After witnessing what I had seen on 9/11, the call to serve soon grew too strong to resist. Following my sophomore year at Purdue, I chose to take a year off and enlist in the Air National Guard.

Now, in the interest of time, please sit shotgun in my Delorean and follow me nine and a half years into the future to May 2, 2011. For those of you who feel the need to quantify, we just traveled 3,520 days...

Only 197 miles separate Khowst and Abbottabad
As the threat level in the Khowst Province has been steadily increasing in recent weeks, commanders at the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team issued the order to staff our Tactical Operations Center with a duty officer and systems monitor 24/7 until further notice. Not necessarily music to anyone's ears, but oh well- it wasn't as if any of us had a hot date this past weekend.

My shift happened to fall from midnight to 4AM Monday morning, Murphy's law strikes again. After Skyping and trying my darndest to get ahold of my niece Libby to bid congratulations on her First Communion, I made my way down to the office armed with an arsenal of reading material certain to keep even the strongest of narcoleptics awake. As the early morning hours crawled by, I was actually quite fortunate to not be back in the barracks, trying to sleep through the barrage of cannon fire resonating throughout the area. A few minutes past 4AM, I made my way back to the barracks and made a beeline for my pillow. Just as I had slipped into a picturesque REM stage of sleep, the lights of the bay were turned on and shouts of "Bin Laden's dead" rang throughout our sleeping quarters. As I was still quite groggy, I'm not certain the magnitude of the message really hit at that point.  It wasn't until several hours later, upon reading the flood of emails and Facebook posts that had come in from friends across the globe; that I really grasped what an extraordinary event had just occurred.

Global Response
One of the first emails I opened that morning stated - Just thought you should know that fireworks are going off in Texas right now upon the news of Bin Laden's death. Another from dear friends in Chicago read simply  praying for your safety. Several other thoughtful and congratulatory messages were waiting for me as I awoke, and all were very much appreciated. One of my favorite emails of the day, from a family friend in France, read- Bravo for the special forces for Ben Laden elimination. After scouring through emails, I decided to feed the beast and started to browse through a few news outlet websites. All of the reports were very vague still at this point, aside from confirming the kill; specifics were quite scarce.

As I read through an article in the Wall Street Journal, I noticed a lump starting to develop in my throat.

“This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. The U.S. has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will 
be done.”

Those words, spoken by our 43rd President- George W. Bush, were enough to push me over the edge. Between the emails, Facebook posts, and text messages from friends; an overwhelming sense of patriotism had just overtaken me as I read the thoughts of a man who dedicated his entire presidency to ensuring another tragedy such as 9/11 would never again occur. If you've read Decision Points, you're well aware of the tremendous amount of time and resources the former leader of the free world put into eliminating Osama Bin Laden. Tears of joy started to stream down my cheeks as I read his words and tried to grasp how much this news must have meant to him; to know that his successor saw the issue critical enough to continue the pursuit.

Partisan Nonsense
After finally removing myself from the intravenous of information that is my laptop, I journeyed back to the office in an effort to gauge the morale levels amongst team members. To say the mood was blissful would be a drastic understatement, the men were as giddy as I've ever seen. Of course timing is everything, so the twenty boxes full of highly desired goodies (DVD's, Starbucks, Axe bodywash) that the kind folks at Jay County High School sent Major Jeremy Gulley didn't dampen anybody's spirits either.

I think the Ugandans might have even been more excited
than many Americans here on FOB Salerno. My good friend
Innocent Mwakatabu joined the festivities as well.
I hesitate to compare parts of this deployment to scenes in Band of Brothers, but on several occasions Monday I couldn't help but wonder if our feelings of elation might have been similar to that those of our predecessors experienced when learning of Hitler's suicide and the pending German surrender. In both cases, there was cause for great celebration but also cause for concern and the dire need to avoid complacency. In WWII, the men knew there was still a battle on the Pacific front; today we know all too well that there are still many bad actors in the world who would love for the defenders of freedom to sit their shields down- even if just a few minutes.

The scenes on television throughout the day were truly inspiring, reminiscent to the displays of patriotism seen last in the days following 9/11/01. The scenes of revelers in Washington DC, where it seems in recent times they have even started requiring Republicans and Democrats to live in separate neighborhoods, really solidified this day's significance in history to me. Eugene Johnson summed up the need to give politics a break for the day in this quote from the Washington Post's PostPartisan blog- 

"This really is one of those moments when there are no red states or blue states, just United States; no MoveOn progressives or Tea Party conservatives, just Americans. Triumphalism and unapologetic patriotism are in order. We got him."

There has already been much criticism of the President for his handling of the situation, conspiracy theories regarding the burial at sea, and even criticism for shooting an unarmed man. Today when I read that none other than the peace-promoting Dalai Lama came dangerously close to "supporting" the decision to take Bin Laden out, I was quite comforted that even he would find it a justifiable measure.

War on Terror
As a few of us gathered Monday evening to enjoy a cigar and commemorate the occasion, the conversation of "being where this all started" came up. It was mind-boggling to ponder the fact that we were sitting in Eastern Afghanistan, the very region where Osama Bin Laden morbidly enjoyed the events of September 11th, 2001.

As Bin Laden had now been eliminated, it was very interesting to think that he was the man responsible for all of us currently finding ourselves in Afghanistan. Several of the men gathered that evening have wives and multiple children at home, getting by with "life without Dad" as he is busy defending their freedoms. But what is the cost of that freedom? NATO countries (the United States more so than others) have paid heavily in blood (2444 Coalition casualties since 2001) and also actual dollars (over $400 billion US). 

Each time I travel and go through TSA screening at the airport, I can't think of how pleasant traveling was before Bin Laden (BBL). How many other facets of your life have changed in the last decade because of that wretched man? Ask any pilot you know and warning- you might encounter some choice words. The different security measures required to even enter a flight training program create an enormous barrier to entry to many. 

By eliminating Bin Laden, nearly ten years later, we have shown our perseverance and desire to return to BBL times. During the raid, countless laptop computers and hard drives filled with data were collected. Though only time will tell the actual value of the data to intelligence communities, one could only assume that the lead shriner of the Al Qaeda circus was controlling most of the rings. Because of the resolve shown by the American people, through two separate presidential administrations, the future dividends paid out could help us return to some sort of normalcy.

So yes, with the death of Osama Bin Laden a chapter in the War on Terror has closed; but the real question freedom-loving individuals around the globe have to ask themselves is: when will this book end?

Funny to think that only 12 days earlier Admiral Mullen (center of image, standing with tie and no jacket) was
here on FOB Salerno, learning about life on the farm - Photo released by the White House