Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Hoosier Homecoming

Members of the 3-19th ADT reunite with their families 

Greetings from Hoosier soil! I'm happy to report that this update (although several weeks tardy) was completed in the comfort of my parent's home, the same dwelling that I've called "home" for the last 28 years. In addition to this blog being the first done while back on the farm, it is also the first that I've been able to enlist the efforts of a tasty glass of port when facing a writer's block.

During my last post, I mentioned "an undisclosed location in SW Asia". Today I write from "from an extremely familiar, hospitable location in Allen County". Fortunately, within about four days of writing that post I was notified that it was time for me to begin my final leg of travel back to Indiana. After nearly three weeks in transit, you might imagine this was music to my ears. There was a slight deviation in my flight plan though- instead of traveling into Indianapolis, they informed me that I would be flying to Ft. Wayne in an effort to return to my Air National Guard base. 

Upon learning that I would be traveling into Ft. Wayne, a light bulb instantly turned on alerting me of a chance to surprise my parents. For weeks, I had been telling my father that I would be home in time for his 72nd birthday which fell on August 4th. As the delays continued, it appeared that there was no way I would be in Indianapolis before August 5th. Therefore, I decided it'd be best not to tell my parents (or anyone for that matter) that I might now be coming into Ft. Wayne until I was physically on the ground. 

Several months ago the Indiana News Center featured a segment on the work of our team in Afghanistan. One of the producers (Krystal) for the INC actually used to intern in the Indiana Senate's Media Office, so she and have I kept in touch over the years since we were colleagues in the Statehouse. Just for fun, I emailed Krystal to gauge her interest in helping me stage a surprise homecoming for my family. Needless to say, she loved the idea and the rest is history. My sister Ellen was the only person in the family who knew about my plan and this entire surprise would not have been possible without her assistance/coordination. The following link will take you to the story and accompanying video clip. Thanks again to Krystal and Max for all of your help!

Within 30 minutes of conducting the interviews with the Indiana News Center, my dear mother was hard at work preparing "the quintessential Indiana summer meal" I publicly announced I was hungry for. Just as the story goes about the loaves and fishes, mother dearest performed several miraculous feats with her BLT's and sweet corn as all 16 of us ate to our heart's content. 

State Fair Fun
For the last four years, I've had the opportunity to attend the Indiana Pork Producers Ham Breakfast. The breakfast, essentially a "Who's Who" in Indiana agriculture, is held at 6:15AM each year on the Opening Day of the Indiana State Fair. In an effort to spend as much time as possible with my parents in the immediate days following my homecoming, I invited them to join me for the breakfast. With close to 300 people in attendance that morning, the look on my parents' faces when Lt. Governor Skillman mentioned publicly that they were in the crowd was one I'll not soon forget. Following the breakfast, the official Opening Ceremonies took place over in the Pioneer Village section of the fairgrounds. During the program, one of the Queen contestants sang a rendition of "Back Home Again in Indiana" that honestly could have made a bald man's hair stand-up. Standing with a close friend at the moment, I mentioned that the song now had an entirely new meaning and has never sounded more beautiful. Although I've heard countless renditions of the classic, I'm certain that version will stand out in my mind for years to come. The State Fair was a great welcome home for so many, our thoughts and prayers go out to those killed or injured during last weekend's tragic accident where the stage collapsed just before the Sugarland concert.

The remainder of our unit, a group of 57 soldiers, all arrived back to Indianapolis this past Wednesday. It was  wonderful to see all of them as they stepped off of the aircraft, but as you might imagine- other military members were the last people they wanted to see at that point. Awaiting just a few miles away, families who hadn't seen their loved ones in close to a year were just as anxious for their reunion.

In the short week that I've officially been back at home, we as a family have been able to accomplish an entire summer's worth of activities. Together we've logged countless hours down at the family swimming hole, snuck in quick trip to Cedar Point, enjoyed far too many extravagant meals, and even managed to shoot a few squirrel during a morning father/son hunting expedition. 

Cedar Point with the nephews
(Mitch on the left and Zach on the right)

I couldn't help but laugh at the irony involved in the squirrel hunting episode with my father this past week- Just three short weeks ago it seemed the day where I could wake up, put on civilian clothes, and not have a weapon in my hands could not come soon enough. How quickly we forget though...

Suiting up in my camouflage once again, I was headed out the door for some quality bonding time with my father- after all we've got plenty of catching up to do. As we pulled back to our hunting spot, the landscape we encountered could have been the cover shot of a National Geographic. Two buck deer, a doe, and a fawn were all carefully observing our every move as we entered the woods under a very patchy sheet of morning fog. After several hours of enjoying the serenity of an Indiana August morning, we made our way back home with a meager one squirrel each.

As Dad gave me a refresher course on the proper skinning and cleaning techniques necessary to prepare squirrel for consumption, I couldn't help but think that this was yet just another example of type of lessons we as Americans take for granted in the hustle and bustle of today's society. After having spent time in a part of the world where many men don't have the luxury of learning such lessons from their fathers, you can rest assured that I took great notes.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Homeward Bound

Freedom Bird - Sergeant Matt Williams and I preparing to board the C-130
that would take us off of FOB Salerno for the final time.
Of the thousands of phrases that are used to describe life in the military, I would have to argue that "hurry up and wait" is hands-down,  without a question- one of the most appropriate descriptions a tongue could speak in an effort to capture the feelings of so many in uniform.

Traveling via the military transportation network is also quite a humbling experience. With no first-class seats or in-flight movies, you quickly learn that you are just another number, a small star in the enormous galaxy that is military movement.

As I was reading a recent edition of Conde Nast, I came across the following quote in a Louis Vuitton advertisement (featuring none other than  Sir Sean Connery) that I couldn't help but share. As I sit here, now on my 16th day of travel, awaiting word on when I'll finally be headed back towards the land of the free and the home of the brave, Louis' tag line seems all too appropriate-

"There are journeys that turn into legends." - Louis Vuitton advertising campaign 

At 12:15PM on July 16th, a C-130 aircraft operated by Air National Guardsman from Niagra Falls, NY lifted off, shuttling Sergeant Matt Williams and me off of FOB Salerno for the final time. If only our departure from Forward Operating Base Salerno was that simple...

Tres Amigos
If you'll recall my first post to this blog, back in October of 2010, I detailed how I had been chosen as the "pallet rider" for our team's movement in and out of Afghanistan. Although it took me 28 days to get the cargo over there, the kind folks in our command decided that I was as capable as anyone else to shepherd the goods back towards US soil on the return trip. In an effort to ensure that the shipment arrived Camp Atterbury in advance of the rest of the team, a decision to send the cargo and myself up to four weeks in advance was made. Accompanying me and the pallets would also be Sergeant Matt Williams, a broad-shouldered, square-jawed (nicknames include Buzz Lightyear and/or GI Joe) soldier from the Muncie area. Matt actually managed to tear his meniscus several months ago, limiting his mobility and combat capabilities to an extent that it was determined he should be sent home early for a closer examination. A former high school football stand-out as linebacker, Matt has a history of knee injuries. With the Fall semester beginning at Ball State University on August 22nd, Matt is anxious to return and start a treatment plan before he goes back to school in pursuit of his degree in Exercise Science. If a surgery of sorts is indeed warranted, he and his wife Lacy are going to have a busy couple of weeks as he completes the required redeployment procedures at Camp Atterbury in addition to whatever type of rehabilitation he is prescribed.

Our home for 46 hours
Because one of the pallets we are accompanying is classified as sensitive, the need for constant supervision of said pallet is necessary. Matt and I first got word from Captain Randy Cuyler (one of the three amigos) on July 14th that we were to report to the Salerno Airfield in hopes to catch our flight bound from Bagram. Due to low cloud ceilings on the evening of the 14th, all flights into Salerno were forced to turn around as visibility of the runway was too low. Alas, that evening marked my first "night under the stars" at Salerno. Matt and  I took turns "guarding" our precious cargo over the next two days; while the other caught a bit of shut-eye, grabbed what we hoped to be our "final" meal at the dining hall, or most importantly- took a highly coveted shower. Several teammates, including our Commander Colonel Colbert, Executive Officer Lt. Colonel Webb, and numerous other friends (Randy, Andy, Sweetness, Nurse Mary, Innocento, and Big Mac) all came by during our 46 hours of fun to bid us farewell. Randy, our official movement officer, logged the most hours along with Jared- a devoted fellow connoisseur of fine cigars. Thank goodness for all of those thoughtful shipments of coffee and stogies, those two nights would have seemed unbearable without a few vices. (Editor's Note: For the record Lacy- I haven't the slightest clue when Matt started smoking cigars ;-)

When we finally got the word that our bird was in-bound, a mood of cautious optimism began to fill the air. We'd been told that before, but this time it seemed like all of the stars had finally aligned. Even as we walked out to the runway in hopes of boarding the plane, we were careful not to get our hopes up too much. After all, the night prior we had been in the same position and ultimately turned away as the aircraft had been designated as a medical evacuation flight at the last minute. But this time it was for real, Matt and I were finally taking off from Salerno.

The Magic Pallet
The flight that came in was actually a cargo plane designed specifically for moving cargo in and out of smaller bases just like Salerno. A C-130 operated by Air National Guardsman from Niagra Falls, the six small seats burrowed into depths of the fuselage looked very welcoming. As we climbed aboard, the pilot stopped Matt and offered him a seat up in the jumpseat of the cockpit- a great sign that things were finally starting to go our way. As I sat there strapped into the cargo-net framed seats, a sigh of relief that could probably be heard back in Indiana came out as the first pallet they loaded into the aircraft was that high maintenance sensitive piece that had already claimed two good nights of sleep from the both of us. After an uneventful flight (that's always a good thing in this part of the world), I have to say it has never felt so good to step foot on Bagram Air Base.

For brevity's sake, I'll refrain from going into detail regarding the many complications our cargo was faced with upon arriving at Bagram. A long story short, even in today's world of advanced computing, there are definitely still some serious communication issues between the Army and Air Force. In this very blog, I have raved about advances made in joint operations over the years, those advances must be operating in a vacuum far outside the world of cargo movement.

One member of the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team, Sergeant First Class Tom Johnson, has had the unenviable task of operating as the unit's liaison officer at Bagram Air Base over the last year. In this role, Tom was responsible for facilitating the movement of each and every team member's travel in and out of Bagram for our individual leave periods. While the travel coordination portion is the most visible part of Tom's job at Bagram, he is one busy-bee as he also handles countless other issues around Bagram for members of the Indiana National Guard and beyond.

It seems that each additional visit I make to Bagram, the more I enjoy my time there. Perhaps this visit was cloaked by a sense of completion, who knows. During this stay, I made sure to coordinate sleeping arrangements through the Media Operations Center again as we did during a visit there in May. The only other sleeping option was in tents, not an ideal situation when the average daily mercury reading sits between 106-108 degrees Fahrenheit.

Major Ducrocq behind the bar at Talibanned Tavern, a gathering spot for French soldiers near the Coalition Village
According to the original travel itinerary, we planned on spending four or five days on Bagram. Due to the complications previously mentioned, we quickly learned that there wasn't a chance in Haiti that we'd be flying out anywhere near our scheduled departure date. While we did feel like we were beginning to overstay our welcome at the Hotel California, the staff at the Media Center were extremely hospitable over our entire nine day stay. They knew all too well the joys and frustrations of military travel and were happy to accommodate.

Aside from the high temperatures and seemingly daily dust storms, the low humidity found on Bagram was a welcomed relief to those of us who were used to Salerno's muggy days. Our time on Bagram actually flew by as we kept quite stringent schedules. Personally, I took the opportunity to enjoy a few long runs, write a few blog updates, read Tim Russert's book Big Russ & Me (a great read for any son), and also enjoy a little more variety in dinner options offered between the base's seven different dining halls. On our first evening on Bagam, Saturday the 16th, we noticed a large crowd gathered near one of the activity tents. As we walked closer, the Air Force Tops in Blue came in to focus on the stage. After six months months on a "black-out" FOB, where noise and light discipline are practiced after dusk, live music was a much-welcomed sound. I've heard this group of talented Airmen in the past, but have to say that their patriotic-themed set and songs took on a whole new meaning while listening to them in a war zone.

Evening Stogies
Much as in the States, Saturdays must be a great day for live music on Bagram. This past Saturday, while again walking home from dinner, we noticed the faint sound of a saxophone in the distance. Fortunately, at Matt's urging, we set off to explore and hunt down where this music was coming from. After a few minutes of navigating the maze of b-huts scattered across Bagram's bowels, we were led into a courtyard setting deep within the Coalition Village. Shockingly enough, the first person to greet us as we entered the area was a familiar face- Major Ducrocq, one of the French soldiers that I had met several months earlier during another visit to Bagram. Apparently the French host a sort of Saturday social each week at the "Talibanned Tavern", a small wooden hut with more war memorabilia than the Smithsonian. This week, they just so happened to be featuring Espresso 57, a jazz component of the 1st Cavalry Division Band. While the scene lacked a few of the critical components (booze and Ingrid Bergman) that brought fame to "Rick's Cafe" in the movie Casablanca, I couldn't help but think of how GI's must have felt after spending an evening listening to great music and of course in honor of Humphrey Bogart- enjoying a fine cigar.

Monday July 25th, our ninth day at Bagram, started off with an alarming phone call. Just as a parent must feel when the phone rings during a sound night's sleep, this was not the call I was looking forward to waking up to. Apparently in the course of the last few days, in the hustle and bustle that is cargo movement at Bagram, the four pallets that we were assigned to travel with had taken off without us and were now sitting Dover, Delaware. The issue of the sensitive pallet isn't quite as concerning now that the goods are back on US soil. If anything, I think the strongest feelings were that of frustration, after learning that we too could have accompanied the cargo and most likely would be nearing Indiana by this time.

In an effort to "catch-up" with the cargo, we were sent to the Bagram Airport in an effort to obtain the first available flight out of Afghanistan. Within eight hours, we were on a C-17 bound for an "undisclosed location in SW Asia" as the military refers to this particular installation. Upon touching down at this location, a particularly rough landing resulted in the foot peg of a gurney-type stretcher (3 foot long piece of titanium) giving me my first official welcome to the country. Fortunately the blow to the top of my head didn't knock me out or require stitches- although it definitely woke me up after my in-flight nap.

Bon Voyage, Bagram!
(Matt Williams, Tom Johnson, and I)
Within minutes of arriving to my current location (that's how I'll refer to it from here on out as opposed to typing an "undisclosed location in SW Asia" each time) it was apparent that my complications were far from over. Apparently, in the haste of rushing us out of Afghanistan, the necessary paperwork for my "release from theater" and "authorization for movement" had not been properly documented. Although I was hand-carrying all the required documents, this was still not sufficient for the kind young Airman I was now faced with and I was told that a "deviation" to my orders must be completed, a process she claimed could take "several days".

As for Matt, I think the rigors of traveling in and out of Bagram, loaded down with several hundred pounds of luggage each, took their toll on his ailing knee. By Tuesday, our first full day on ground here at my currently location, he was limping around considerably. With temperatures nearing 120 degrees here each day and a 10 or 15 minute walk necessary to access any of the bases many amenities, we both decided it was best for Matt to head for the US on his own. Because Matt is an Army soldier, traveling under a different type of "order" per se, he was authorized to leave while I was forced to watch him board his plane bound for the Glory Land.

So in a most bizarre string of events, I find myself alone on Day 16 of my journey home. Things could be much worse though, as there is actually quite a lot to see and do at my current location. With an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a Fox Sports Skybox themed sports bar, it's not hard to pass the time. Now if I could only round up my French comrades and Espresso 57 to join me in enjoying the three drinks per day we are rationed here, then we might have a scene worthy of a Casablanca sequel. After all, as Louis Vuitton cautions, some journeys are bound to become legends...

Bagram at Night

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Farewells and New Beginnings

One of the Guys
From L-R: Zahman, Shariff, Isah, Zaiulhak, Patman, Rahim, and Ajmal
Several years ago, in an effort to liven up her weekly staff meetings held each Monday morning, Lt. Governor Skillman requested that several of her fellow elected officials and also state agency leaders join as a "guest" for the day in hopes that both the guest and the staff would leave the meeting with an improved understanding of the other's operation.

Throughout the course of those dozen or so weeks, countless leaders shared a plethora of valuable lessons and experiences in government service. Of all the guests who entered Room 333 of the Indiana Statehouse during that speaking series, it might come as no surprise that the most memorable of all was Governor Mitch Daniels. This of course was before all of the speculation involving him in a 2012 Presidential race, a much more intimate discussion regarding his work as a staff member to both Senator Lugar and President Reagan.

Speaking in regards to Reagan's hesitation to become dependent upon or deeply involved with a set group of people, Governor Daniels attributed this character trait to Reagan's time in Hollywood. Traveling from set to set on a sometimes weekly basis, it was difficult to really get to know or trust someone. As anyone who travels frequently can attest, saying goodbye can be an exhausting affair and also quite time-consuming.

Fortunately in today's society, as opposed to Reagan's era, there is a tool that over 750 million people use to stay in contact with one another- Facebook. The website is now available in over 70 different translations, so rest assured that language now won't even be a barrier. Even in a country such as Afghanistan, where electricity is a luxury in most villages- rest assured that the youth are connecting. With the advent of smart phones and increasing broadband services throughout the country, many of the locals have already sent their "friend requests".

Several of the interpreters hosted a ghullam jani party in honor of our upcoming departure
As I attempted to make a list of all those I wanted to visit before leaving FOB Salerno, I decided to focus on those that I might not soon see back on United States soil. The obvious group of men involved here would be our interpreters, mainly men in their mid-20's applying feverishly for "Special Immigrant Visas" to the United States.

These dedicated, jovial Pashtun men we have worked with over the last year have done great things for all of humanity. Some immigration critics may argue that these are the very types of citizens that Afghanistan needs, but I'm quick to argue that these are also the very types that America needs as well- in fact, one might conclude that these are the types that actually make America the country she is today. Some of these men have actually been serving as interpreters for US and Coalition Forces for the last eight years. Each and every one of them have chilling details of past firefights, as you might well imagine.

One night last week, in an effort to bid farewell to as many interpreters as possible, I attended a ghullam jani party. The party was held at one of the small huts where all of the local nationals live, near the perimeter of FOB Salerno. Ghullam jani (think donut holes but all sugar, no dough) are a traditional candy in this part of the world, taken with chai tea to commemorate special events. While these treats are a bit sweeter than my usual choice of desserts, it's the experience that counts and for that I am most grateful.

At first glance you might not notice the Caucasian Hoosier in the opening photo. As always- there is a great story behind my very own custom-made set of man-jams. Isah, one of our interpreters, was kind enough to take my measurements to the local tailor in the downtown bazaar. Before giving Isah my measurements, I went to the laundromat on FOB Salerno to inquire if someone there could size me up. Within minutes of the tape coming out, a crowd had gathered to marvel at the sizes the tailor was announcing to his scribe. Isah was also very anxious to inform me that the tailor who actually made the man-jams was curious where this "large man" came from. Isah, never one to miss a beat, quickly responded that I was his "Uncle from Japan, just visiting Khowst for a few weeks this summer."

My farewells would not be complete without at least a thank-you to my great Ugandan friends. All of these men are great examples of optimism. No matter how miserably warm of a day it is on FOB Salerno, you can always count on a smile and a wave from each and every Ugandan you encounter. The economic opportunities that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have opened up for thousands of Ugandans such as these men is a story in itself.

"You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him." ~ James D. Miles

One Ugandan man in particular has been especially inspiring. Innocent Mwakatabu, a loving husband and father of three that I've mentioned in past blogs, is one of those people you meet and within seconds of shaking hands- you know you're in good company.

Throughout our time on Salerno, Innocent and I have shared countless discussions on topics ranging from the 2012 Presidential Campaign to the terrifying reign of Idi Amin. Most of these discussions took place over the dinner table, at first after mass on Saturday evenings but later on a much more frequent basis of several nights per week. One evening while having a political discussion, the topic of President George W. Bush came up and Innocent's eyes immediately lit up. I just so happened to be reading a copy of GWB's newest book Decision Points at the time, so I offered to let him borrow it. Within two days time, the book had been returned and we now had yet another topic to discuss over the increasingly mundane meals the Salerno "chow-hall" had to offer.

Innocent's Innocence
Several weeks later, during a conversation with a friend who works in President Bush's "retirement" office, I shared Innocent's extreme interest in American politics and devout appreciation to the Bush Administration for all of their efforts to combat AIDS in Africa (even Bono agrees on this accomplishment). Astounded by this story, she offered to send a signed copy of Decision Points. Just a few days ago, in what became my last dinner conversation with Innocent, I invited him over to the ADT Headquarters prior to dining to present him with this great surprise. As you might imagine, the look on Innocent's face as he opened the package containing the autographed book was one that words can't quite describe. Instead, I'll yield to the photograph. This book will be a perfect memento for Innocent and his entire family to commemorate the time he spent away from them while in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If all goes as planned, Innocent should be home for Christmas this year- a first since 2008.

Unfinished Business
With my list of "those to say farewell to" pretty much complete, there was only one item of business left for me to tend to. This item, a work in progress, came to my attention after the world lost a great man. That man is John Harrington and many of you might recall that he was the forestry expert from New Mexico State University who was tragically killed in a bicycle accident within the last few months.

Rahim informing Colonel Colbert and
Major Gulley of his acceptance to NMSU 
Before John departed FOB Salerno, he began assisting one of our interpreters with the arduous task of applying for admission into the New Mexico State University Graduate School. With the help of Captain Randy Cuyler, the conversation continued between Rahim and John up until we received the unfortunate news of John's passing.

After reading my tribute to John on this blog dated June 9th, a colleague of John's emailed me in an offer to assist wherever possible with Rahim's pending application to NMSU. This gentlemen, coincidentally named John as well (now the Afghan's think that all forestry experts in the US are named John), worked with John Harrington at the Mora Research Center in Northern New Mexico. In email correspondence we all agreed that this would be a fitting tribute to John Harrington's legacy, to finish what he had started. What better way to honor a man's work on this earth than to nurture a seed that he had planted before his departure?

With an 11.5+ time difference and a sketchy phone network, the weeks we spent communicating with folks in both the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department and also the admissions office were a great test of patience. Needless to say, although I've never before been involved in immigration issues or even graduate school admission- I can now hold a scholarly conversation on the topics of I-20's, TOEFL tests, and the wonderful world of third party "credit evaluators".

Letter in Hand
One of the largest hurdles that most international students face when applying for admission to universities in the United States is the necessity of proving that they have the financial wherewithall to support themselves. As any parent or student who has seen paperwork from a bursar's office in the last decade can attest, higher education is anything but affordable these days. Fortunately for Rahim, over his years as an interpreter and most recently his work as the contractor who made the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project possible, he has been able to save up an amount sufficient to prove to NMSU that he is financially capable of supporting himself.

I'm happy to report that late last week, in an email Rahim opened with great anxiety in the presence of a few of us who helped him through the process, he received a "conditional" acceptance into the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University where he will work towards a Masters of Science degree. (The conditional acceptance was based on a few technicalities that he has to complete either at the Kabul Embassy or upon his arrival in New Mexico, minor details in the larger picture.) To say that Rahim was excited to read this news would be a drastic understatement.

When I look back to examine how this whole string of events has unraveled-Rahim's selection as the contractor for the FFA project, John's coming to Salerno, Rahim and John's mutual interest in forestry and ultimate application to NMSU, John's tragic bicycle accident, and finally Rahim's acceptance into the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department-I can't help but marvel at how things have a way of working themselves out. In a most fitting tribute, the gracious folks back at NMSU are also looking into the possibility of funding an "assistantship" for Rahim out of salary savings that would have originally gone to John Harrington.

So alas, because of the wonderful world of Facebook and other social networks- there was no need for me to really say goodbye to any of these delightful individuals. Just think of how many friends or fans President Reagan would have if he had his own personal Facebook page today? Regardless, I'm very thankful to have had the opportunity to meet so many unique individuals across the world who are fighting for a just cause.

Rather than saying "goodbye", I'll sign off with a more traditional phrase in honor of both my Ugandan and Afghan friends: Mungubariki ("God's Blessings" in Swahili) and De khoday pa amaan ("Go in God's Peace" in Pashtun)


Nyeupe Cheetah (The White Cheetah in Swahili, my nickname from the Ugandans) and of course Patman ("Man of Honor" in Pashtun)

Rahim and his four children- the second and third order effects of our work here will only be fully realized in the decades to come...

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Finishing Touches

Turnin' Dirt
Major League Baseball players sweat through the nine-inning ball games all summer long in hopes that they might have the chance of playing in the World Series. NFL players tirelessly endure a 16-game schedule over the fall and winter months in preparation for the Super Bowl. Every great sport or organization has a culminating event; and the Future Farmers of Afghanistan is no exception to this rule.

Over the last five months, students at six high schools throughout the Khowst Province have been participating in a program made possible by a partnership between the Khowst Province Director of Agriculture, Director of Education, Shaikh Zayed University, and the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team.

His Pride and Joy...
This program, the Future Farmers of Afghanistan, was first envisioned by Major Jeremy Gulley (3-19th ADT Education Officer and Huntington North High School Principal) after members of the agricultural team met with Jim Moseley at his lovely farm in southern Tippecanoe County.

As Moseley (Former Deputy Secretary at the USDA) discussed the critical need for leadership and development type programs as a way to break the corruption cycle and empower young minds, Gulley's wheels immediately started turning. After a few coordination meetings with the implementing partners, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed by all parties involved (which might be considered a miracle in itself when you consider the fact that three Provincial "Line Directors" were willing to set aside their personal agendas in an effort to benefit the youth).

With Phase I of the project calling for a renovation of the agricultural facilities at Shaikh Zayed University and Phase II utilizing those same facilities for hands-on training of over 130 Khowst Province teachers and agricultural extension agents, a significant investment in infrastructure was made on the grounds of the local "land-grant" style institution of higher learning.

Phase III was the mentorship phase, where the professors from SZU visited each of the six schools and did a bit of quality assurance on each of the teachers' individual instruction techniques. During this phase, agricultural extension agents from districts across the province also visited the schools, utilizing the facilities as a training site for local farmers. This is a major step forward when you consider that just a few short years ago the very thought of a public school was unheard of as the Taliban governed in such an oppressive fashion.

Listen Closely
Just as in Major League Baseball, not all schools make it to the World Series of the Future Farmers of Afghanistan (Phase IV). Rest assured that we've informed the other five schools of the paradox that is the Chicago Cubs; hopefully it won't take any of them 102 years to take the crown at the "Khowst Province Agricultural Fair". Regardless, they were happy to hear that just as in the case of the Cubbies, they could still be inexplicably profitable while failing to take home the grand prize.

Of the six high schools participating, one school stood out among its peer institutions. Gharghash High School, with Principal Ajap Pan at the helm, was the schoolhouse that we chose to host the first annual agricultural fair. As I mentioned in a previous post, there was definitely a genuine interest shown by all members of the community surrounding Gharghash, dating back to the program's inception in February.

While I don't foresee the "agricultural showcase" hosted by Gharghash High School breaking the million visitor mark the Indiana State Fair flirts with each August, a promising foundation and precedent has been set. In addition to the government officials involved as signatories to the project, Khowst News television crews, family members, and other community leaders all came together on the school grounds to show their support and interest for the program.

By design, there was not a single United States service member on the grounds at Ghargash High School during last week's showcase. Even the photographs you are looking at in this blog were the work of local national Afghan men, sent to me in the days following the event. With all event preparation and coordination conducted by Afghans, there was little hint of any US involvement as community members visited this local public school for what quite possibly could have been their first time on grounds.

All Smiles 
In terms of sustainability, these farms are actually turning a net profit for each of their schools. After the initial investment of the actual infrastructure-greenhouses, chicken coops, composting pits, and solar dehydrators-the actual expenses incurred by the schools is minimal. At the time of reporting, schools had sold a total of $420 worth of produce at local markets. While this number might not cause you to leap out of your seats, please also remember that the average annual household income for Afghan families is a mere $800.

Another interesting number to analyze is the number of women trained within the program. Of the 567 total students trained over the past five months at the six schools, 129 of them were females. I mentioned earlier the lack of public schools under the Taliban leadership; I hope the magnitude of such a large percentage of this program's participants being female speaks for itself.

Improving Animal Care in Khowst
As we prepare for our successors to take over the agricultural development efforts of Khowst Province, a project similar in nature to the Future Farmers of Afghanistan might seem like a natural fit. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we have chosen to build off some of the successes we've noted in the FFA program, while also tweaking it a bit to better target an area of great need in Khowst Province- livestock care.

The actual training will ultimately be carried out at the will of Indiana's fourth team, the 4-19th ADT. Just last week, in what actually ended up being my last mission outside the comforts of FOB Salerno, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed between Colonel Colbert and the Khowst Director of Agriculture Sayed Rahman. This agreement is very similar to the one signed back in February in the preliminary stages of the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project, with buy-in required from several different entities in an effort to encourage provincial government partnerships.

Shaikh Zayed University will again play the central role in this next training platform, with the ADT obviously providing the majority of the funding and the Director of Agriculture's office providing administrative support in addition to hosting the actual training. Extension agents will identify quality individuals from all thirteen districts who could benefit from an animal care training seminar, before the training is actually carried out on the newly constructed demonstration farm at the Director of Agriculture's office. One area of this negotiation that I personally felt strongly about was the need for the Director of Agriculture to contribute some of his own funding towards the training. While a portion of the program design calls for the renovation of animal care facilities on the grounds of the Director of Ag's compound, it only makes sense that some of the funding required for these renovations should come out of Afghan budgets.

As we were finishing up the signing of this agreement, the Director of Ag's assistant came into the office to inform us that the District Governor (think Mayor) of the Qalandar District and his Shura Commissioner were outside of the office and would like to meet with a representative of the 3-19th ADT. The old saying of "rank has its privileges" rang true here, so the fact that I was the only man in the room without the word "Colonel" in my title resulted in me leaving to go meet with the men from Qalandar.

Looking back on this impromptu meeting, I have to say that it was a most fitting way to close out my time here in Afghanistan. Back in November, on my first mission here in Khowst Province, I had the chance to meet with Dhalil Khan; the Sub-Governor of the Tani District. It was during this mission that I first realized the striking similarities that those in local government in Afghanistan share with their counterparts back in the great State of Indiana. Last week's meeting with the Qalandar officials was no different- roads, bridges, and improved security were all topics of discussions.

At the end of the day, these men were attempting to state their case to anyone that would listen; in an effort to improve the quality of life of their district. Closing my eyes briefly during this meeting, I traded in my flame-retardant camouflage uniform for a suit and tie and envisioned myself back in Indiana, conducting local government visits on a sunny summer afternoon in Southern Indiana. With our team's ultimate departure from Afghanistan just a few weeks away and mine coming even sooner, it seems I can almost taste the perfect Hoosier summer meal of BLT's and sweet corn.

Oh how I long for my Indiana home... 

Nearly eight months to the day after my first "local government visit", the fine gentlemen from the Qalandar District
paid a surprise visit to meet with members of the ADT while we were on site at the Director of Agriculture's office.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meanwhile on Salerno...

Me and My .50 cal

I've mentioned in past posts that there is actually quite a bit to do around Forward Operating Base Salerno to pass the time. Today's update is going to be more of a photo essay format, in an effort to let the pictures speak for themselves...

Every few months, on days when we're not conducting agricultural training out amongst the populace, the Reapers of the 3-19th ADT often find themselves on the firing range. After some persistent persuasion, and of course my offer to bring a camera, the kind souls from our Security Forces Platoon allowed me to try my luck on a .50 caliber machine gun. As you can see in the photo below, I very much enjoyed givin' her hell!

.50 cals stir up just a bit of dust...
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV's) are making plenty of headlines these days. As a cost-effective approach to providing aerial surveillance of an area, the future looks very bright for those involved in this field of work. During my time here, I've enjoyed getting to know quite a few of the men here who operate the Silverfox, a UAV that the Air Force contracts through BAE Systems.

Lunch w/ the Silverfox crew at Aziz's
From L-R: Ryan, Ed, Ben, Jason, Joe, Rudder, and I (only the first four are with Silverfox)

Most of the operators of these UAV's are pilots in the civilian world, perhaps that was our initial connection. After learning that they too enjoyed the finer things in life (stogies at least once a week on their back deck and Peet's coffee on Sunday mornings) our bond only grew stronger. 

Applying the Henna
Always a fun group of guys, we've had a lot of laughs together over the last year. While several of the men have rotated out over the course of my time here, each replacement has also fit right in to the crew.

Earlier this month, as Jason and Ed were preparing to return back to their home base of Tucson, Arizona; a few of us convinced one of the more outgoing individuals in the group that it might be a good idea for him to look a bit more the part if he was going to wear a pair of man-jams (the loose-fitting, two-piece clothing sets that Afghan men wear) during his stay here on FOB Salerno. Within about 15 minutes of Ryan's agreeing to have his hair dyed with henna, I coordinated with Ziaulhak (one of our interpreters who has a beautiful head of henna'd hair) to come down and perform the tribal ritual on Mr. Ryan. After a few more laughs, the dying was complete and the fun was just about to begin.

On the day that Jason and Ed were scheduled to depart, we all met for lunch at the usual spot- Aziz's. To say Ryan had a little extra "spring in his step" as he left his quarters would be a drastic understatement. With his custom-tailored man-jams, matching hair and even an authentic beard (although we're cautioned that his ungroomed approach may cause some to mistake him for Taliban), he was well on his way to blending in. The only other step I can think of would be his application for Afghan citizenship, but I don't see the required trip to Kabul anytime soon.

Dangerously close to a native Pashtun
The weekend before last, I was invited down to the airfield to photograph a promotion ceremony. My friend Jennifer Bales (a name you might recall from the 4th of July Blackhawk flight post) was set to be promoted from 1st Lieutenant to Captain, along with several other members of the Task Force Tigershark Aviation Element.

As I approached the flight line, I was immediately greeted by two men whom I had never before met. Jon and Nathan Dyer, twins that originally hail from Maine, both extended a hand-shake as they introduced themselves. It's rare that I find myself in a crowd where I'm the shortest man, but that was very much the case that day as the brothers who were both every part of 6'6" dwarfed me on our walk out to the flight line.

The more I spoke with the brothers, the more interested I was in their backgrounds. While they both graduated from West Point several years, they have spent a bit of time apart. As a part of their Mormon faith, both set off on separate missions to spread the good word. As one headed to the Far-East to spend time in Korea, the other journeyed to Poland in an effort to enlighten others. Amazingly enough, before their reunion today on the occasion of their promotion from 1st Lieutenants to Captains, the two had not seen each other since early 2009.

The Twin Towers

After a few weeks of coordination, the two received permission from their respective commands to pin on their Captain bars together. While one brother is here on Salerno as an Apache pilot, the other is based in the northern portion of Afghanistan in Mazar-e-Sharif as a Combat Engineer. And I thought my mother was nervous having her only son in Afghanistan....

The Captains' Cheers

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Fourth on the FOB

Fireworks Over Salerno
The very mention of the words "July 4th" has a unique way of bringing a smile to the faces of so many Americans. As I mentioned in my Memorial Day post, those of us here on the 3-19th ADT have been eagerly awaiting July 4th- as it is the last holiday we will have to spend away from our families.

While even a scrumptious BBQ cookout followed by the finest cigar still wouldn't replace our loved ones back on the home front; we decided to do just what we have done for every other major holiday over the last ten months here in Afghanistan: cherish each moment and be happy it will be the last "insert applicable holiday here" you spend in Afghanistan.

Team members and a few other friends from different units across FOB Salerno gathered here at the ADT compound on Sunday evening, July 3rd for a Hoosier style cookout. With Independence Day staples such as burgers, chicken breasts, and hot dogs on the grill; it might have been easy for guests to imagine they were back in the States for at least an hour or so. As Chief Rance assumed grill master duties, I volunteered my services to prepare appetizers.

As I meticulously sliced each hunk of smoked gouda from the wheel, I said a little prayer that none of us would get sick from the cheese that had obviously seen a wide range of temperatures across the eight time zones it traveled through before reaching FOB Salerno. Four days later, I'm happy to say that all turned out well. There were smiles all around as I delivered triscuits topped with smoked gouda, the only thing we were missing was a nice glass of wine ;-)

Senator John McCain exits a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
Man's worst friend (his alarm clock) started yelling at me a bit earlier than usual on July 4th, as I had set it for 5AM in an effort to grab breakfast before starting off on my Independence Day adventure. Several days ago, I approached a Blackhawk pilot friend of mine about the possibility of having several American flags flown over the Khowst Province. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that not only would the flags be flying on July 4th, but that I would also be welcome to ride along as an honorary "aircrew for the day".

After a quick breakfast and a last minute effort to ensure both camera batteries were fully charged, I made my way over to the Task Force Tigershark Operations Center where I was greeted by several members of the crew that I'd be flying with for the day. We met just a few minutes after 6AM, although their first flight wasn't scheduled until close to 8:30AM. As I was handed the flight schedule for the day,  I was a bit disappointed to learn that I was going to be "bumped" from the first mission of the day. The disappointment lasted only a few minutes, until I heard the reason for the change in plans.

With only a few hours notice; a Congressional Delegation consisting of Senators John McCain, Joe Leiberman, and Lindsey Graham popped up on the airlift schedule. Apparently the Senators decided that they were going to leave the comforts of Kabul for a few hours and make a trip down to see those of us roughing it in Khowst Province. Where better to spend the 4th of July?

Senators Joe Leiberman and Lindsey Graham walk with staff
and security during a 4th of July visit to FOB Salerno
Never one who would willingly miss a good photo op, I decided to make my way down to the flightline in an effort to at least catch a glimpse of the Senators as they arrived. The Senators arrived on a C-130 aircraft and immediately made their way over to the group of Blackhawks (the ones I was supposed to be on) where they would embark on a short journey to visit with troops at smaller outposts surrounding Khowst Province.

While I think the total time on ground for the Senators was less than two hours, the chance to shake the hands of three of our nation's leading legislators on America's Birthday made for a great start to what would only become another day to remember here on FOB Salerno. I had met Senators McCain and Graham during campaign events leading up to the 2008 election, but this was the first time I had met Connecticut's Independent Senator. Just for fun, I handed one of the staffers accompanying the delegation one of my "Indiana" patches (like I gave Bob Griese) and asked that if possible, the patch make its way back to Capitol Hill and into the hands of Indiana Senator Dan Coats. More to follow on this, as a staffer myself, I thought it'd be fun to test the system a bit.

I boarded the Blackhawk just before lunch to start my journey for the day. The pilots had just finished flying around some "precious cargo", so they too had a great start to their 4th of July. As we traversed the province, I couldn't help but marvel in the potential of the surrounding mountains. While I don't see Khowst Province competing with Vail anytime in the near future, the mountains that makeup the Khowst Bowl still have a way of marveling a man from the sprawling cornfields of Northeast Indiana. In years to come, after the security situation has hopefully improved, a tourism industry in its infancy wouldn't surprise me in the least bit.

Captain Jennifer Bales and I after the Blackhawk flight

After several routine stops along the way (with road conditions still "dismal" at best here in Khowst, helicopter travel is by far the most common method of transportation to many of the outposts), I began taking pictures from the gunner's window. In addition to the two pilots in the front of the aircraft, immediately behind the cockpit sit two "crew chiefs", or gunners if you will.

Armed and Dangerous
The view from the M240B machine gunner's seat
If there is one thing that the American military has mastered over the last 235 years, it is that of teaching its members the art of "multi-tasking". Those involved in aviation most definitely understand this critical competency, as it is a necessary trait involved in flying any type of aircraft. The "crew chiefs" assigned to our flight today, in addition to conducting pre-flight mechanical inspections, also had the responsibility of ensuring our safety during flight as they sat perched behind their M240 Bravo machine guns. Each fully automatic weapon is capable of firing up to 950 armor-piercing rounds per minute, enough to make even the most incompetent of Taliban warlords think twice before launching a rocket-propelled grenade towards any NATO aircraft.

After completing our scheduled stops for the day, Captain Bales asked over the radio if I had a good view of our partner chopper off the right side of the aircraft. As I moved a bit closer to the window, with a cool breeze in excess of 100mph greeting me in the face, I responded that I indeed had a fantastic view of our wingman. The only words that followed echoed a very well-known countdown that millions of Americans back in the USA also heard on Independence Day-

"5.....4.....3.....2....1- Happy 4th of July!!!!"

Just as Captain Bales finished her countdown, the Blackhawk traveling next to us shot off its flares. As you can see from the photograph at the beginning of this post, it made for a very appropriate photo-op on this 4th of July that we were all celebrating so far from the home front.

The flight back to Salerno seemed like it literally flew by after our flare disbursement. With my adrenaline rushing after the photo-op, each additional segment of the flight seemed like it was out of a storybook. As we arrived back on the ground, I honestly felt like a child that had just conquered Cedar Point's highest coaster. We took a few moments to snap a couple more photos, then parted ways. The crew was just down for a brief lunch stop, then headed back up to finish their work for the day. As for me, I was headed to download some of the 600+ pictures I had taken that day.

So as you might have already gathered, the 4th of July has kept in tradition with providing a fantastic memory of holidays here on FOB Salerno. While I'm happy to say that I'll be back on US soil for Labor Day, holidays spent here will undoubtedly spark fond memories in my mind for years to come. Between a random visit from a group of US Senators and a once in a lifetime opportunity to photograph flares fired from a Blackhawk; July 4th, 2011 was a day to remember. Thank you to all at Task Force Tigershark for making this remarkable day a possibility!

With the Bugsy aircrew

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Art of a "Care Package"

Students at the Shamal Peran School anxiously awaiting the handout of pens that were specially shipped all the way
over to Afghanistan from the good folks at Bedford Federal Savings Bank
While it'd be foolish for me to attempt to personally mention each and every thoughtful soul that has taken the time to send members of the 3-19th ADT a reminder of home; I would be remisce in my duties as a grateful recipient of countless packages if I failed to at least highlight a few.

A few of the literally 500+ boxes of
Girl Scout Cookies sent to the 3-19th ADT
After reading the creative wordsmanship used on several customs receipts, I feel that some should consider a career in politics or lawyering. While there hasn't been anything illegal shipped over per se, much excitement has come from the anticipation levels associated with the thrill of opening a new box of goodies. At the time of writing this- June 30, 2011; an astounding 111 packages have made their way onto FOB Salerno addressed to "1LT Bart Lomont". With return addresses from California to Connecticut; and of course a dominant majority from the generous folks in the Midwest, I have truly been humbled by the remarkable, genuine interest that so many share for our team and mission.

Last fall, as we first arrived FOB Salerno, the initial inquiries began coming in from the usual suspects (with a mother and five older sisters, I often quip that I've been blessed with six mothers). It didn't take me long to realize that there was very little that we here on FOB Salerno actually "needed". With a stocked dining hall featuring all the fresh fruit and energy bars a man could ask for, I really couldn't think of much more that I'd like. Never one to turn down a good offer; I replied with a request for two items that would satisfy two of my vices: coffee and cigars. Since they don't allow alcohol in the country of Afghanistan, I figured that I'd may as well comply with the old adage life's too short for cheap coffee...

Buy Local
Some of the 430 packages of popcorn sent by
MSM Trucking and Weaver Popcorn
One of the unintended benefits I've noticed after receiving all of these packages is the opportunity for my tastebuds to explore uncharted territory. From Willa's Shortbread Cookies in Nashville to Peet's Coffee out of Berkley and heaven forbid I forget to mention My Grandma's Coffee Cake from New England, I'm exhausted just thinking about the culinary road trip the members of our team have taken throughout this past year- all without leaving the comforts of FOB Salerno. Cigars, from different outlets across the country (although the majority came from Stogies at Copper Creek in Jamestown, CA) have also come in. While there is no way I could ever drink all of this coffee or smoke all of these cigars alone, the packages have done wonders for my social life as well ;-)

As my strategic reserves started to fill to capacity with coffee beans and tobacco leaves, I decided it was probably best to flip the switch on the shipments of stogies and coffee. Instead, included with my "halt shipping" instructions I included a list of needs for a local family here in the Khowst Province. The family had tragically been the victims of a firefight in the local area, with four children all having severe injuries as they came in to the FOB Salerno Hospital. From blankets to childrens jackets, over 20 packages came in just in time for the Christmas holiday. Much to my dismay, after confirming with the family that they would be coming into the hospital for future therapy visits, they were never seen again. Fear not though, as you might imagine there are plenty of other needy folks around the Khowst Province. After several months of determining a worthy recipient, the goods were delivered to a local girls school and I'm told that the reaction was that of extreme gratitude.

The Middleman
While I have to say that I've thoroughly enjoyed partaking in a fine cigar or imbibing in a tasty cup of coffee; it wasn't until I started passing some of the goods I'd received out to friends here on the FOB that I learned the truth behind the statement "to give is better than to receive". Actually, I think I had the best of both worlds in this sense, as I was able to enjoy both the joy of receiving the package in the mail and also the joy of passing the goods out to their needy recipients.

As the 3-19th ADT is one of the only groups currently deployed from the Indiana National Guard, the generosity of Hoosiers has been truly overwhelming. This was especially noticeable around Christmas time, as the packages literally came in quicker than we could pass them out. The most popular items we've recieved would have to be girl scout cookies and popcorn, with shipments of those two numbering in the 500's!

Teddy Bears for the Troops
Another group that I've grown quite close to through this deployment is that of "Teddy Bears for the Troops", started by a young girl named Faith in Lafayette, Indiana. Ironically, Faith and I actually met back in 2008 when I paid her a visit in Lafayette to present her with Lt. Governor Skillman's Hoosier Rising Star award. It's funny how things work out, immediately after hearing that I was going to be a part of a deploying unit, the packages started to flow in from Faith and her group. I believe Faith has now sent over five large boxes, filled with her signature stuffed animal and a note from a student, for us to pass out across FOB Salerno. As you can see in the photos, a few have even made their way into the hands of locals. While many of our men won't admit that they still sleep with their teddy bears, I'll gladly concede that the personalized bear Faith sent over sleeps within an arms reach each and every night.

A Deserving Home

The most recent "joy of giving" sensation I've had the opportunity to experience came just this past weekend. I've mentioned my Ugandan friends in past blogs, a group of devoted men that are some of the friendliest fellows you've ever met. The Ugandans are here on FOB Salerno as contractors, working as escorts for any local Afghan national who does not have clearance to walk the FOB on their own. I first met this wonderful group of men through church, as they grace the congregation with their gift of song each and every Saturday evening during our 5:30PM mass.

During a conversation with one of the Ugandan men, he inquired about the possibility of me finding him a used laptop computer. I told him that would be very difficult given our current location, but in the meantime he should save his money and that I would keep my eyes open. As fate would have it, less than a week after this conversation with my friend Thomas "The Bell Ringer" (his duties at mass), I was contacted by a friend back in Portland, Indiana who was looking for a place to send four used laptop computers. As you might imagine, I was just a bit excited by this proposition and immediately responded that I had just the place for her computers.

It appears that the John Jay Center in Portland was looking to upgrade their computer systems, fortunately for my friends here they were thoughtful enough to seek a new home for their old computers rather than scrap them as so many of us might have done. After a few days of coordination with the folks back in Indiana, four laptops made the two week journey over here to Afghanistan.

As I brought the men in to our office to present them with their new computers, they didn't have the slightest idea as to why they had been summoned to the ADT compound. In their typical innocence, even after sitting down at each of the computers we had laid out for them, they still didn't assume that the computers were theirs for the taking. As we informed them that the computers had been sent from Indiana all the way over here for them, instant shouts of joy ensued. The picture below shows their reaction much better than any words could describe...

Genuine Gratitude - the group of Ugandan men's reaction upon hearing that the computers were theirs to keep