Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Holiest of Weeks

Father Joe washes the feet of soldiers who volunteered to take part in Holy Thursday's mass
Spending any holiday away from home causes one to reflect upon all they take for granted back in life as we know it in the States. This past Easter was no exception as several events took place that will undoubtedly remain vivid memories locked in my mind for decades to come.

In past posts, I've mentioned our catholic community here on FOB Salerno, the Queen of Peace Catholic Church. The priest here presiding over the entire brigade's area of operations is Father Joseph Hannon. Father Joe is quite a remarkable man, you can read more about him here in a recent story that the military featured him in. At 68 years old, I have to say his energy level is quite inspiring; which I'm guessing is closely correlated with his religious workout routine.

Several weeks ago Father Joe announced to us that his one year tour here was coming to an end and that he had received orders to head back to the States. Originally the Army (in it's infinite wisdom) told Lt. Colonel Hannon to prepare to make his way back to his post at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas on April 20th. Knowing that his replacement was likely at least a month away from deploying, leaving those of us here without a priest over Easter, Father Joe volunteered to extend his tour and ultimately convinced the budget hawks back in Washington that this extension was a "worthwhile, necessary expenditure".

Preparing the eucharist for adoration in the side chapel
Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday as it is known by some, was the official start of our Holy Week activities here on FOB Salerno. Choir members and those involved in the lay ministry had been busy earlier in the week preparing for all of the additional mass parts that the Easter Triduum entails; but for the majority of folks around town Thursday evening is when the action got started.

With the traditional washing of the feet and even a procession to a side chapel to store the Eucharist for adoration, you had to remind yourself often that you were in Afghanistan. Of course the arsenal of M-4 machine guns lining the aisles and 9mm handguns on the hip of each parishioner also served as a great reminder of our locale as well.

Up until this point, I've made a conscious effort to keep the overall mood of this blog a positive one. While death and destruction are a function of where we currently reside, I don't really see the need to dwell on these unfortunate side effects of combat. If you'd like to read more about those issues, read the news...

April 22, 2011 will be a day that those of us on the 3-19th ADT never forget. The fact that it was also Good Friday only compounds the magnitude of what so many around FOB Salerno saw and witnessed on this fateful day.

Captain Joshua McClimans
5-12-1980 to 4-22-2011
For years now, FOB Salerno has carried the nickname Rocket City, a well-deserved title with the number of incoming rockets and artillery shells that find their way onto the base we call home. As the FOB sits in the Khowst Bowl, the surrounding mountains provide a breathtaking panoramic landscape; but also make ideal positions for enemy fighters to launch rockets from an elevated position right down into the base, sitting conveniently in the heart of the bowl. There are of course many defensive tactics employed to thwart these rockets, but unfortunately a few still manage to make their way onto the FOB.

On Good Friday, the day billions around the world commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Lord called one of his own home from FOB Salerno. Captain Joshua McClimans, an emergency room nurse here at the Salerno Combat Support Hospital, lost his life as a result of  indirect fire during an attack by insurgents. 

I still hesitate to post such grim news, in an effort to avoid unnecessary worry from so many of you devout supporters. However, as I think about the fundamental purpose I started writing in the first place- that of serving as a historical record to document my year here, I would be remiss in my duties if I failed to mention this gentlemen who made the ultimate sacrifice. The fact that he was an emergency room nurse, sent here to help others in the first place, only makes such a loss that much harder to swallow. 

Candidates preparing to state their baptismal vows
Throughout the course of the last six months, Father Joe has been counseling three dedicated soldiers on the Right of Catholic Initiation for Adults. The program was designed in an effort to allow these three men the opportunity to join the Roman Catholic Church, with the culminating event held in conjunction with the Easter Vigil. As the Easter Vigil began, we all gathered around a small bonfire (although the FOB has a zero tolerance policy on flames after dark, I don't think anyone was going to stop Father Joe as he was on a mission) outside of the chapel where Father lit the Easter candle and then led a candle-light procession into the chapel.  Captain Annette Podolak graced all with a breathtaking rendition of The Exsultet to begin the service, which was then followed by a traditional Easter Vigil mass. The three candidates began their entry into the church with the stating of their baptismal vows in front of the entire congregation. Anointing of all three men with the oils of confirmation took place immediately following the baptismal vows, and last but not least the trio was finally able to make their first communion with the rest of the parishioners.

Easter Sunday brought another great crowd to mass, but it was the after-party that was really special. In a well-disguised, covert operation, several of us were able to lure Father Joe back to the 3-19th ADT compound where he thought he was just going to enjoy lunch in the rose garden. Upon arriving on the grounds, Father was delighted to see a few other parishioners already present with a large "thank-you" banner and even a few Easter treats. Having known that Father Joe was a native Hoosier, born in East Chicago, Indiana; we coordinated to have a State of Indiana flag flown over FOB Salerno on Easter Sunday in his name. Just after noon, our group moved over to the flag pole where his flag was flying and several of us made an official presentation of the colors to Father. In addition to his flag, Father Joe was delighted to hear that he had also received a letter from Lt. Governor Becky Skillman; thanking him for providing such a critical service to Hoosiers, Americans, and those around the globe.

Presenting Father Joe with his State of Indiana flag and his letter of gratitude from
Lt. Governor Becky Skillman

Yet once again, another week has passed and an additional set of memories has been archived. Some of these memories will last a lifetime, while others will be stored until the mind re-organizes them in an effort to prioritize, ultimately tossing out the non-essential details.

While the Lord called one of his sons home on Good Friday, he also welcomed three new ones into his church over Easter. It happens ever so often, a grieving family is soothed by the birth of a new child. While all of these emotions can seem to push you to a tipping point, rest assured that all is under control. As I try to envision what memories I'll be able to recall in decades to come, there is little doubt that this past week will take up an extremely disproportionate chunk of space on my mental hard drive.

Please keep the McClimans family in your prayers, as well as the families of all the troops that have given their lives over the last ten years of war here in Afghanistan- all in an effort to better the way of life for others. Rest assured that your continued prayers and support can be felt clear over here, 7,500 miles away.

Father donning his Easter lei with members of the Ugandan choir, Captain Annette Podolak, and I

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Chairman's Visit

Admiral Mullen was especially interested in the lessons learned over the course of three consecutive ADT's, all from Indiana.
You could say that Holy Week of 2011 passed by in a whirlwind, but perhaps a cyclone would be more appropriate here given recent events. Regardless, I continue to marvel at how fast the time is passing by.

Each week that passes means that we are one week closer to seeing our beloved families, but also one week closer to closing out our strategic projects while also beginning transition initiatives that will help bring our replacements up to speed with life in the Khowst Province.

FOB Salerno tornado- April 18, 2011
Although I've spent the vast majority of my formative years in the great state of Indiana, I can honestly say that I've never witnessed a tornado with my own eyes. Through my travels with the Lt. Governor, I've had the opportunity to see the tragic and devastating aftermath such storms bring; but amazingly enough I still can't say that a live twister has ever been in my sights. In preparation for a mission such as this to Afghanistan, service members are briefed on virtually every topic under the sun. From mountain climate cold weather survival tips to desert condition dehydration prevention, it seems the good folks back home in Washington have thought of everything. But hold that thought; Monday, April 18th of 2011 brought a spectacle that few ever thought was possible at this elevation. Even the locals were shocked to see that a funnel cloud was forming in the west, headed straight towards us as we sat like sitting ducks in the middle of the Khowst Bowl. As the storm neared the FOB, the loudspeakers that are typically used to notify us of incoming rockets or an incoming casualty were now essentially just giant weather radios. I guess one hidden benefit of hardened structures, normally intended to withstand the impact an incoming rocket round, is also a quite comforting level of storm preparedness. As the vortex started expanding, the massive amounts of dust in the area quickly began to spiral up into the epicenter. With the funnel cloud also came hail, fortunately these pellets only measured about a 1/4 inch in diameter and if you've seen any of the photos I've posted of the surrounding area- there aren't a whole lot of vehicles on the roads that would worry about hail damage. Fortunately, for all in the surrounding area and especially here on the FOB, Tornado Sal was short-lived and failed to grow much larger than the spaghetti strand you see in the photo above.

Just as we here at the 3-19th began to think that Monday's tornado would prove impossible to top, Tuesday brought some excitement of it's own. For several days, emails detailing an up-coming USO tour had been circling around email servers here on FOB Salerno. Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will soon be retiring so as a little retirement gift to himself- he decided to make a farewell tour. The tour would feature NFL Hall of Famer and (most importantly) former Purdue QB Bob Griese, his son Brian who is involved with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a Cuban supermodel/actress named Mayra Veronica.

After learning that a fellow Boiler alumnus was going to be on the FOB, I thought it'd be nearly criminal for me not to offer my services as an escort to the delegation for the day. After several days of trying to connect with the event coordinator, I later learned that many others around the base had also volunteered their services. (I can only assume that most were interested in meeting the supermodel...)

Admiral Mullen tours the 3-19th ADT Farm with the team members.
A visit by any higher level military officer is often very well concealed. Today's visit was no different, the only official business I saw prior to the Admiral's visit was that he would be having lunch with a small number of soldiers.

Three of our younger, shining stars on the security portion of our team were selected by their platoon leader to attend the lunch. Aside from our several members involvement during the lunch, the ADT didn't have any specific responsibilities during the Chairman's visit.

Upon hearing that Griese would be present to sign autographs; I coordinated with Specialist Jared Sweet, a Purdue student who is currently on military leave from classes back in West Lafayette, to head over to the recreation area where the USO tour was scheduled to appear. As we arrived the area, we were greeted by the gentleman in charge of the event coordination. Apparently he felt bad for not returning my calls or emails in the days prior, so in an apologetic effort he offered to take us in to meet Griese and the others privately as they finished up their lunch. As soon as the staff whispered into Bob's ear that there were a few Boilermakers here to see him, he hopped right out of his chair and made a beeline to where Jared and I were standing. Bob's first question pertained to trying to figure out how a couple of Purdue grads ended up working here in Afghanistan. He was delighted to hear about the ADT concept though and found our work very practical after learning how dependent the Afghan economy was on the agricultural industry. After a few more minutes of describing our backgrounds to Bob, the topic turned towards Purdue. 

As for Purdue's recent dilemma regarding the Purdue Pete mascot, Griese was excited to report that the old Purdue Pete would remain the mascot. The three of us were all also in agreement that retaining Matt Painter as basketball coach was also a wise decision, as he's well worth the money.

Before parting ways, I presented Bob with one of our State of Indiana unit patches in addition to a camouflaged nametape that reads "Purdue" (ironically enough one of our team member's names is Staff Sergeant Alexander Purdue), before having him sign my camouflaged Purdue hat.  

Specialist Jared Sweet and I striking a pose with Bob Griese. Sweet is
a Purdue Law & Society student who is currently on military leave.
I'm not certain how Bob was invited on the CJCS's visit in the first place, but think it's awfully interesting that both Admiral Mullen and Bob Griese were each every part of 65 years old. Not that 65 is ancient by any means, but I'm not certain that I'd be real anxious tromping around in a combat zone.

Following our visit with Griese, I grabbed a bit of lunch for myself and started back to the office. Upon my return, I was greeted by our Operations Officer who was kind enough to inform me that the Admiral's plane had broken down and therefore he would be headed over for a visit on the farm- in ten minutes. As you might imagine, there were several dozen helping hands pitching in during an expedited farm cleanup session, but all in all we were pretty well prepared.

As the Chairman arrived (he came by foot, but following him was the typical motorcade of up armored SUV's), our Commander- Colonel Colbert greeted him and welcomed him to the ADT compound. Major Robbins (the high school Superintendent) was the point man for the visit to detail our Ag Education project, while I had the honor of showing him around several different areas of our farm.

I think the fact that the Admiral was an extremely intelligent gentleman probably goes without saying, but I will say that I was quite impressed at the many questions he asked to further detail our projects. It seemed he was most interested in our "lessons learned", as we strolled through the farm and explained our many initiatives.

The large photo at the beginning of this post shows he and I looking at a sample of wheat that I uprooted for him. The wheat here on our farm is dwarfed by wheat you see across the countryside, by at least a solid foot. He was very interested to learn that the Afghan's have been flood irrigating their crops for centuries, therefore the seed has mutated over time to adapt to local conditions. He also was quite interested in our solar dehydrators, a great initiative we're pushing especially in the women's empowerment field.

As the Chairman said his goodbyes and departed the ADT compound; with countless special agents toting automatic weapons and SUV's stringing behind him, I couldn't help but marvel in what had just happened. The highest ranking military officer in the United States, President Obama and Secretary Gates' senior military advisor, had just spent the better part of a half an hour touring around our farm. The last time I had seen Admiral Mullen, he was discussing operations in Libya while a guest on Meet the Press. Just a few weeks later, he was walking through the fields of FOB Salerno, cautiously watching his every step in an effort not to land in one of the many mud puddles that our recent rains have left us with.

You just never know what a day around the FOB might bring, but I'd have to imagine this was a rare visit. Yet another memory I'll take home and cherish from this "Afghan Adventure"...

As always, the solar dehydrators proved of interest to the Chairman.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

For the Children

Children from the Sadiq Rohee High School escort members of the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team back to their vehicles after a recent visit to the school. Sadiq Rohee High School was one of six schools chosen by the Khowst Province Director of Education as a pilot school for the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project.

Just over a month ago, in my Teach a Man to Fish update, the basic groundwork was laid for our team's legacy project- the Future Farmers of Afghanistan. Since that time, members of the 3-19th ADT have cris-crossed the Afghan countryside in an effort to ensure a key component of this project, agricultural education kits, have been properly installed at the six pilot high schools selected by the Khowst Province Director of Education.

The front side of Sadiq Rohee High School
Five of the six schools included in the program have been visited by ADT members and received approval at this point. While there have been a few minor construction discrepancies throughout the inspections, overall the contractor has exceeded expectations on product delivery in what was a relatively short period of time by Afghan standards. The kits; consisting of a composting pit, greenhouse, chicken coop, and a solar dehydrator, have grown into quite popular attractions at each of their respective schools. At the time that each school was visited, instruction had not yet begun specific to the agriculture kits. To be completely honest, the look on most student's faces as they examined the newly installed devices for the first time was that of inquisitive innocence

The school children were extremely grateful for the new
training opportunities provided to them
During a recent visit to Sadiq Rohee High School, a school in the Mandozai District of Afghanistan with an enrollment exceeding 4,000 students, ADT members had the opportunity to discuss the newly installed kits with both administrators and the actual teachers who would be utilizing the training devices. As classroom space and teacher time is extremely limited, the school day by American standards is cut in half. With the  younger students attending in the early morning hours, afternoons are filled with upper classmen. These schools could best be compared to a K-12 school back in the States. While a full day approach would obviously be favored, it is simply just not feasible with the shear number students enrolled.

While discussing different components of the ag ed kits with educators, the greenhouse is usually the topic of  most conversations. The different economic opportunities a greenhouse provides a community, with season extending production capabilities draws immediate interest. Solar dehydrators, a relatively new concept with essentially no operating costs, also provide an avenue for economic activity within a village.

A common concern, virtually across the board within our six schools, is a lack of water access in the immediate area surrounding the agricultural education kits. If I had a dollar for every time an Afghan engaged me in a conversation regarding a well, I'd retire an extremely wealthy man upon completion of my year here.

Over the years, many efforts have been made my Coalition Forces and Non-Governmental Organizations to address these water concerns. In the time we've spent on the ground here thus far, water is by no means a limiting factor to agricultural production in Khowst Province- however the management of water resources could definitely improve.

The project manager responsible for the FFA project, Rahim Hadi,
discusses options for vegetable planting in the newly installed greenhouse
at Sadiq Rohee High School with the school's principal, Mohammad Nasir.

By far, the most memorable and rewarding portion of this trip- the portion that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life, has been the people we have met along the way. I'm amazed, while also proud to report that we're over 2/3 of the way complete with our year here. With less than four months left, we've still got a lot of work to do before we're ready to hand over the reins to our fellow Hoosiers on the 4-19th ADT. 

While working in a war-torn country, it is quite simple to find yourself bogged down in the daily grind. Many of the usual suspects you're forced to deal with would make Chicago politics look like a textbook version of democracy. Hand sanitizer has quickly become one of the most coveted additions to any daypack I carry along on mission, it's as if you can feel the corruption oozing off the hands of some of these men. Just as I find myself reaching a breaking point with this older crowd- I'm quickly reminded that there is a younger generation, the Future Farmers of Afghanistan, who are depending on work by teams such as ours to give them a glimmer of hope for a brighter tomorrow; in a country that has seen a very dark past few decades.

This poor sap wanted a photo with your's truly...think
he must have liked the moustache?
From the Agricultural Extension Agents to the District Sub-Governors, to our interpreters and comrades-in-arms comprising the Afghan National Army; the efforts so many are making to better their country has been truly inspiring. If the country of Afghanistan will soon be ready to stand on it's own- after a transition from the current ISAF-NATO presence diminishes, a nation full of men and women determined to prevail in the battle of good versus evil will be necessary. 

Even after several months exposure at random locations around the Khowst Province, the solar dehydrator
systems continue to draw the most inquisitive looks from the locals.