Despite delays caused by regime overthrow in Manas, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, a refueler strike in the Azores and delays caused by aircraft maintenance…. After 60 hours of sleeping in chairs – I am home at last! Warmest thanks to my wife Liisa’s former teaching assistant Sarah Wilson for this homecoming video. (If you are looking for information about the “School Supplies for Afghan Children” project, please click on the tab at the top of this page.)
A long year has finally come to an end. We are still spending our last days in Ali Al Salem AB, Kuwait waiting for the “Freedom Bird” to transport us to BWI Airport. Here we will say our goodbyes and each of us will take a different connecting flight back to our homes and to our families who are anxiously awaiting our arrival. It will be a bitter sweet moment when this happens. It has been a long year we’ve shared together.
When you live, sleep, and eat with a group of men over a year’s period of time, you develop a bond that is not only professional but personal as well. These are the same team members you entrust your life to when going on a mission outside the wire. But the bond my Air Force brothers shared was rather unique and I never experienced this type of closeness on any other deployments in the past. Prior to this deployment, most of us had never met or knew each other. We were assembled as a team at Fort Riley, Kansas. Of the 10 personnel featured in the photograph, 8 of us were on the same team and shared the same open-bay sleeping quarters and trained together as a team.
When you have this type of an arrangement, it’s hard not to learn about the personal lives, ambitions, and goals of your fellow members. Even though we had a rank structure to include officer and enlisted, we established a strong bond of unity and personal friendship. Being assigned to the Army had its challenges, but we learned the Army procedures and before long, we were conducting our own missions using Army vehicles and weaponry. Our journeys took us outside the wire to some very remote villages. Whether you were a gunner, driver, or truck commander, everyone played an integral role and you learned to trust each person with your life and theirs in return. Unlike many teams who struggle with the forming and storming stage, our team quickly advanced past the norming stage and moved into the performing phase. Bottom line: We were damn good at what we did and efficient at how we did it!
Our primary mission was to mentor the Afghan National Army (ANA) on logistics processes. First, we had to understand the basic Afghan supply system patterned after the Army’s antiquated supply processes. Then we were expected to advise our ANA counterparts on the intricacies of this logistics process. Not only did we succeed, but collectively we excelled at our first camp with our ANA counterparts. Our ANA Kandak was awarded the Minister of Defense’s Capability Milestone 1, which is the highest rating a unit can receive and the warehouse area was lauded as “best seen to date.” So this was testament to what our team could achieve.
Not only did we accompany our ANA counterparts on logistics missions, we went on joint humanitarian missions to some secluded villages nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains. While on these journeys we saw poppy fields as far as the eyes could see and crude mud brick houses without electricity. I affectionately called this “driving through the Old Testament area.” We saw towering mountains and climbed a few along the way too. It truly was an experience!! Despite being exposed to the perils of rockets, mortars, RPGs, small arms fire, IED devices, and planned Taliban ambushes, we came out of this deployment unscathed.
Unfortunately, we attended the memorial services of our camp mates and mourned for those who had their life taken by the insurgents we are at war with. These men and women are the true heroes and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.
In the end, the US Army recognized our accomplishments as well and awarded my entire team Bronze Star Medals for “Exceptionally meritorious service in support of Operation Enduring Freedom … personal courage and commitment to mission accomplishment in a combat zone, under the most extreme of circumstances, greatly contributed to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom.” What makes this medal so unique (without being self-serving) is that this is an Air Force team who was given an Army mission and performed remarkably in a combat zone. I don’t know how many Air Force teams can make this same claim because it’s truly a unique accomplishment. In fact, as the Army migrates to the “partnership concept”, the
Embedded Training Teams (ETT) will disappear. We were one of the last Air Force ETT teams left in Afghanistan and can proudly mark our place in history.
Tomorrow we fly our final leg of this journey together and then will go our separate ways when we land in Baltimore. It’s not a final goodbye because I have a feeling sometime in the future we will see each other again. But this will be the last time we serve in this capacity as a team. To my Air Force Band of Brothers, it was an honor and a privilege to serve with you. I wish you all the best and to your families who are anxiously awaiting your return. We can be proud of what we did and let us never forget, freedom is not free.
As I write this entry, we are on board an Air Force C-17 aircraft flying to Al Udeid AB, Qatar. Originally, we were supposed to fly into Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan. But ever since the uprising it has affected our travel plans. One day they are accepting inbound and outbound flights. The next day all flights are suspended. Nobody on my team projected a regime overthrow in Kyrgyzstan; therefore our departure mission has been see-sawing back and forth.
Yesterday I made my final trip to ANA land. At one of the entrance gates, some Afghan local employees were working on a new building. It was a bit comical to see how they were applying the concrete mixture to the exterior wall. They would use their trowels and scoop up a gob of concrete and then throw it at the wall. Only half of it would stick, but they were persistent with this process. Then another employee would come along and smooth out the concrete. I guess this additional layer of concrete is to strengthen the integrity of the concrete block wall.
I met up with Omid and had hoped to see the ANA Sergeant Major one last time. We went to his office and found out he was still out on mission. So I will never know what kind of a cook the SGM is. I still appreciate his gesture of kindness and wish him and his family the best.
Our next stop was the Kandak Assistant Religious Officer’s office. He wasn’t there, but the ANA Mullah was present. He invited us in for some tea. He seemed to be upset about something. I learned his superior was trying to take away the cell phone I had presented to him. Somehow, this person was under the impression I gave the phone to the Mullah to present to him. This officer is also a former Mujahedeen commander, but I never had the opportunity to interview him. Based on my research, he was one of the financial managers for Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance. He also had a dislike for Americans. I rectified the cell phone issue and the Mullah was happy. We drank our tea (my last cup of chai in Afghanistan) and said our goodbyes.
The rest of the day I spent packing my gear, uniforms, books, etc. I was quickly running out of bag storage space due to my last minute impulsive shopping trip to our small bazaar outside the camp. These merchants will be sad to see me go…lol. But Mrs. T should be happy with my purchases, especially these igneous and metamorphic rocks that I bought at bargain basement prices. Some people refer to them as gem stones and are very appealing, especially the corundum. The time quickly flew by and before long it was night time.
In the morning I packed my final belongings and we loaded them on an armored LTMV for transport. This would be our last mission and this time, we would all be passengers in the back of the MRAPs. Our 173rd Army brothers would be our chauffeurs. It was time to pass the torch because now they will be responsible for running their own
missions. We had a small hiccup with the radios not communicating with each other and took some time to resolve. My Air Force team made a habit of checking the vehicles and communication equipment the day before the mission to prevent delays the day of the mission. But this is no longer our worry and hopefully this Army team will come together as a team and figure it out the same way we had to.
As we drove through the capital city one last time, I took notice of my surroundings. Being a passenger allowed me to look further back into the side streets and focus on the people longer than I normally would if I was driving. It was only fitting we had to dodge around hundreds of people gathered in the market area and swerve around a horse cart. I don’t recall seeing too many horse carts in Florida, although near my home in Pennsylvania, the Amish still travel around in them.
We arrived at the Kabul International Airport (KAIA) military terminal and off-loaded the truck with our bags. As luck may have it, after several hours of waiting, we were able to
leave there the same day. Our first stop was Al Udeid AB, Qatar. This is the temporary processing center until the situation in Manas gets resolved. It was obvious they were still struggling to accommodate the large influx of passengers and clearing customs there can be a royal pain in the butt. Unlike most other Air Force personnel processing through, my
team was rather unique. We still needed to turn in our Army weapons and gear. The Army is a real stickler for accountability and we are personally accountable for thousands of dollars worth of gear. No inventory, except for the weapons was performed. Instead, we filled out name tags and attached them to our bags of gear. Some of it has to be shipped to Manas AB, once they start allowing flights, while the majority of the gear and weapons will be returned to Fort Riley, Kansas. Either way, it was a relief to return these items.
Lady Luck was still smiling on us and we caught another flight to Ali Asaleem AB, Kuwait. This place is great and I am nicknaming it “Air Force Club Med”. To be cont’d…..
Here is a link to this week’s chat with WUSF reporter Bobbie O’Brien. We talked about the latest school supplies delivery mission, the preparations for it and how the children reacted. To hear the story, click here.
Also congratulations are in order for Bobbie and her editor Joshua Stewart; the pair has won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for their work on this radio series. Now their entry moves into the national finals. If you would like to listen to the winning entry from WUSF, click here.
Filed under: Missions, Radio interviews, School supplies project | Tagged: Afghan National Army, Afghanistan, ANA, Deployment, education, Edward R. Murrow Award, ETT, humanitarian mission, news, RTNDA, U.S. Air Force, war, WUSF | Leave a comment »
Now that we had a solution, it was time to implement an action plan. The next day, my teammates and G-Company, 186 BSB combined forces and loaded a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV) with the boxes packed full of school supplies. Before loading them, we stacked them in the parking lot by type of item contained in the
postal flat rate boxes. Then I divided the inventory in half. We formed an assembly line and half of the boxes were loaded on to the truck and the remainder was placed back into the metal conex. The boxes were then covered with a tarp and parked at the Motor Pool in preparation for tomorrow’s mission.
In the morning the convoy commander set
up a sand table diagram (without the sand) and we walked through today’s mission. He wanted to be sure everyone knew their security position and we discussed possible contingencies and egress strategies. We weren’t taking any chances even though this appeared to be a safe village.
Everyone got loaded into their vehicles and we met
up with our ANA counterparts. I was pleasantly surprised to see most of them on time, although one third of them were still running late. The ANA surgeon was all smiles and took charge of his men. He lined them up in a row, took roll call, and then we started discussing the security parameters. They seemed a bit uneasy since they visited
a different village and didn’t have a chance to recon this village. After a few minutes of discussion and describing our security plan in detail, they agreed with it and it was time to execute this mission.
Our armored convoy rumbled through the village and as planned, the vehicles established security at various over watch points. Omid, our ETT leader, and I went inside the school and met the principal. As part of COIN philosophy, we wanted to give the principal the opportunity to explain
the best method of distribution. By using this process, it gives ownership to the principal for the idea. Often we may not agree with the Afghan idea, but we go along with it anyhow. Such was the case today too. He directed the boxes be stacked outside in the courtyard area and then the teachers would bring one classroom at a time to receive the items. He also insisted that
no American soldiers distribute the items to the female students, except for the female US soldiers. It was also permissible for the ANA soldiers to hand them the items. I had hoped to go inside the school for security reasons and then we could limit the number of people grabbing for items in the open boxes. I was especially concerned about the boys who were gathering outside the school complex and perching on top of the concrete walls. Nonetheless, we off-loaded the items and ANA and female soldiers set up their distribution line.
Initially it was a very systematic and organized process. The teacher would bring one classroom of students at a time and they were given a notebook, pens, and pencils. Most of the teachers carried a small wooden switch and wasn’t afraid to use it to maintain order. The children were elated to get the supplies and even happier when they got a Beanie Baby. While this was going on, I went inside a 5th grade classroom to talk with the students. They were studying basic arithmetic. The black chalkboard the female teacher was using was in pretty bad shape. Notice in the picture how it’s deteriorating and the slate or whatever the composition of it is, is falling apart. Even though I was only permitted in one classroom, this was representative of the other classroom environments.
Outside, my teammates along with the ANA were rapidly handing out the supply items. Now instead of one classroom at a time, they were bringing 3 classrooms at a time. When the children saw the free items being handed out, they ran to get into line. The boys who were previously sitting on the walls were jumping down and like vultures, they would make their way into the stash of supplies and grab a handful and run off. The ANA soldiers were helpless to keep them all back and we asked them not to hurt the students either. On previous occasions I have witnessed them remove their steel cleaning rods from their AK-47s and used this as a method of crowd control. This is not a prudent way for the ANA to enhance their image among the local populace.
Among the crowd I recognized a familiar face and he saw me too. It was one of the boys I had met at the shooting range. He ran over too me and in his best English said hello. One of the ANA soldiers was trying to move him back from the other students. Despite being one of the ornery boys jumping over the wall, I wanted to give him a special gift of remembrance. So I got a notebook, pen, pencils, and a Beanie Baby for him. Through one of the interpreters, I explained about keeping my promise to see him again. He was very grateful and I asked him not to jump over the wall again. He ran off with his booty and about 10 minutes later, he jumped over the wall again and tried to snatch some more school supplies. I guess some things never change.
As the supplies dwindled, so did the fervor of the children crowding around to get supplies. The boys from outside were jumping over the wall in throngs and we were losing control of the crowd and the supplies. The ANA started to give out the teacher
supplies until I could convince the principal to take them inside and secure them. Due to the ravaging boys, we ran out of notebooks and were quickly handing out pens and pencils to the remaining 25-30 students. It didn’t help the situation when someone tossed a handful of pencils into the air because the students were pushing and shoving to grab these items.
The female soldiers put the remaining boxes on their heads and we handed out the remaining leftovers to some grabby hands. One would think by their reaction, we were giving away hundred dollar bills. Our ETT leader made the call to leave the area and mount up on the trucks. It was time to go. Outside there were several hundred boys pestering us for pens and money. Somehow the ANA managed to hide a few boxes of school supply items in their vehicle and created even more chaos by handing them out to the boys. But the distraction allowed us to get back inside our vehicles and within minutes our convoy was inching its way through the crowd of students. We returned back to camp without incident.
By my estimates, we handed out over 600 notebooks, 2000 pencils, and 1000 pens to the students. In addition, the Beanie Babies were a big hit and several hundred of them were given out resulting in big smiles on the children’s faces. I had a great time and today, we won “the hearts and minds” of these students. Before I left, I talked to the principal and explained the importance of education. I said, “I really believe in education and these children are tomorrow’s leaders.” He shook my hand, thanked me for the donations, and agreed with my statement.
Now that our mission is over, I will reveal what I couldn’t yesterday about the potential of being the biggest blunder of my deployment. It took some real finesse and some sheer luck to resolve the situation.
Some 173rd teammates and I joined forces with G Company, 186 BSB and our mission was to perform a reconnaissance mission on a village. I have been working on this project for several weeks and now it was coming to fruition. Previously I had targeted a village school to deliver school supplies to. It sounds simple, but it’s a very tedious process and involves a lot of coordination, logistics, analysis, and planning. After all the atmospherics are completed and layers of bureaucracy of approval are granted, the next step is to meet with the appropriate village personnel and establish a date for delivery.
We drove down a bumpy road to get to the quaint village which was nestled in the foothills of the towering mountains seen off in the distance. Most of the homes were simple and crudely constructed of mud brick and part of the road was lined with green leafy trees. I saw some power lines too. This was an indication part of the village enjoyed electricity. We also drove past some wandering scraggly sheep and cows, which is typical in almost any Afghan village. As we passed by, the citizens watched us and the children were fixated on our armored vehicles mounted with lethal crew serve weapons.
Our convoy pulled up next to the school and our dismounts were taking notes of the surrounding terrain and village dwellings. Since it was the largest building in the village, I assumed this was the school building. My first impression was it looked like an abandoned warehouse building complete with missing windows and painted an ugly tan color. The structure was surrounded by a solid concrete wall and the adjacent land which we used for a parking lot was filled with rubble and piles of large stones. According to Omid, my interpreter, and the sign attached to the building, this was the village school.
A few of us dismounted from our armor vehicles and was immediately approached by a tribal elder inquiring our purpose for being there. I informed him that we would like to visit their school in hopes of distributing school supplies to the students at a later date. The elder was very cordial and agreed to give us a tour of the school complex. He introduced me to the principal and then I unveiled our plan. Both the elder and principal were hesitant to allow us to visit in the morning when the school is occupied by the female students. They suggested we come in the afternoon after the shift rotation and give the items to the boys. I was very diplomatic because our mission was set for the morning and too often the girls are left out and receive nothing. They gave in to my request and looked forward to our visit the next day.
Originally the ANA Brigade Surgeon was supposed to join us and introduce us to the tribal elders and principal. But he was nowhere to be seen and nor was he answering his cell phone. Meanwhile, our vehicles attracted attention and the village children were starting to crowd around our vehicles. Some members were trying to be hospitable and interact with them. While they were being distracted, the children removed the pens exposed from their uniforms and were badgering for more. I completed my conversation with the principal and knew it was time to depart before the entire village would swarm around the convoy. Our security experts got the information they were seeking and we then departed for the second leg of our journey, which I wrote about yesterday.
The ANA Surgeon called me on the phone and wanted to meet to discuss tomorrow’s delivery. I went to his office and he inquired where I was this morning. I explained that we went to the village on a recon mission, met with the tribal elder and principal and solidified our plan to deliver school items tomorrow. He revealed that he also went to the village and met with the tribal elders and the principal and he too promised delivery of school supplies. Suddenly a dark cloud filled the room and I sensed something was wrong. How could we have both been at the village in the morning and not seen each other? It was because we visited two different villages about two miles apart. Both villages had identical names except for the last four letters. So now we had a dilemma. The ANA surgeon was obviously concerned because we both had made promises. I had to think fast on my feet and come up with a solution. I proposed to divide the school supplies in half. This way we could deliver to both schools and both of us would not lose face and keep our promises. The ANA surgeon accepted my idea and he ordered some chai to drink while we worked out the final details.
Communication is so vital and is also the most challenging aspect of mentoring. I was certain all of this time we were discussing plans for the same village school. When in fact we weren’t. Fortunately I had a large supply of school items or this could have been ugly, thus the potential to be the biggest blunder of my deployment.
Note: Because I am super tired, tomorrow I will discuss the school supply mission in detail. I will refer to it as “Organized Chaos.”
I want to thank everyone who is supporting me in my wife’s efforts to give me an anniversary gift by nominating me for the MILblog competition. If you like my blog entries and would like to vote for me, please go to Milblogging.com and follow the instructions. I’m really surprised that I made it to the finals for the Air Force bloggers’ category and now am just one vote behind the seasoned Air Force PAO professionals.
Filed under: Missions, School supplies project | Tagged: 173rd, 186 BSB, Afghan National Army, ANA, convoy, Deployment, education, ETT, G Company, humanitarian mission, school, U.S. Air Force, village elder, war | 8 Comments »
The past few days has been nonstop planning, coordinating, analyzing, and preparing for these missions. The first leg of the mission had the potential to be the greatest blunder of my deployment. For OPSEC reasons, I can’t provide any more detail or pictures until later on this week. I even penned a catchy headline entitled “Case of Mistaken Village.”
So let me move onto the 2nd leg of the mission. I teamed up with the garrison personnel and requested their support. This mission called for the use of up-armored Humvees and since we turned ours in, I had to locate someone who still had them. I didn’t have to look far because one of my b-hut mates happens to be a First Sergeant and is in charge of garrison support. He and his team are from the Massachusetts Army National Guard, G Company, 186th BSB out of Quincy, Massachusetts. Normally, they are responsible for repairing vehicles, camp security, mail runs, etc. This would be their first opportunity to travel off paved roads and on to some dirt roads. They jumped at the chance and offered their full support.
Before Christmas I started a special project at one of the remote guard towers outside the wire. The project was completed, but I never got to see the finished work. So today I would inspect the contractor’s work and this would give me closure on this project. My ANA Sergeant Major would accompany us to the site.
Initially we drove through
a small village and then exited through an open gate. We followed a dirt road leading back towards some of the highest peaks surrounding Kabul. It has been awhile since I last road in a Humvee and felt every pothole we hit. Being scrunched into the front seat with little room to maneuver my body or legs didn’t help matters. The scenery had not changed and it was still the old boring barren area painted drab brown and sand color. We drove for a few minutes before climbing to the pinnacle of a hill housing the guard towers. I didn’t want to take the chance of driving this steep incline with a MRAP and there is little parking area at the top, so this is my reasoning for requesting Humvees.
My SGM insisted it was safe and asked me to remove my body armor, helmet, etc. Unless there was a sniper lying nearby, we were very safe and I took off my protective gear. I gave my team a brief history of this site and some of the significant events leading up to the creation of this place. This site is the revered resting place for
Afghanistan’s first president. President Daoud and his family members were executed in the Royal Presidential Palace in 1978. Last year they had their remains transferred here and are constantly guarded round the clock. For more history on this incident, read my November 9th blog entry. The presidential burial site hadn’t changed much since my last visit and it still resembles an unfinished construction site.
The first guard shelter I visited had new walls, raised wooden floor, and new windows. The door was conspicuously missing and Omid and I presume they used it for firewood. During the winter season when the ANA do not receive their firewood deliveries, they start burning any wood they can find to keep warm. This includes doors, tables, and just about anything constructed of wood. The carpentry quality was rather substandard but the ANA soldiers were delighted because previously they slept on the ground and the walls and windows had holes in them. The second shelter wasn’t much better. Omid pulled back the floor covering and you can see for yourself the quality of their work. I’m certain my father (a great contractor and carpenter) would not approve and the adage of measure twice and cut once is not existent here.
While there, I noticed something I hadn’t observed before. Initially I thought it was a bridge with arched domes underneath it. I was informed these are the remains of the former Soviet silos where they stored rockets and munitions. Albeit they were empty, this country is still littered with constant reminders of the Soviet occupation.
My SGM and I posed for a picture before returning to the Humvees. Through Omid he inquired what kind of a gift I wanted before departing the country. I was truly humbled. Here is a man who supports 12 children and still wants to present me a gift. I explained that a gift was not necessary and that our friendship and professional relationship working together was an intangible gift and more than enough for me. But this wasn’t good enough for the former Soviet-Afghan colonel and this is when he surprised me about visiting the Darulaman Palace (Kings Palace). He wasn’t sure if we could get inside or not, but we could drive up to the exterior of the palace. The closest I ever got was at a distance while traveling past it and taking pictures of it through several inches of ballistic glass.
Our convoy drove up a paved road leading to the palace grounds and parked only a few yards from the exterior of this grand Afghan landmark that was destroyed during the Afghan civil war when the Soviets departed. The façade is still painfully blistered with bullet pockmarks and large holes were present probably caused by mortar and rocket fire. The metal roof had large gaping holes and the skeletal metal frame was exposed to the elements. King Amanullah would roll over in his grave if he saw how his countrymen destroyed this monument of peace. The name Darulaman translates to “abode of peace”.
The ANA soldiers guarding the palace were not the friendliest and refused us entry. Even though the SGM was with us, they were following orders given to them by their commander. Omid went inside to speak with their commander. Meanwhile, our armored vehicles were drawing attention and the neighborhood children were coming
over to visit. This is so typical here. Shortly after 2001 and since, soldiers rode around in their protective armored vehicles and handed out candy, water, pens, pencils, etc. However, this gesture of kindness has caused some problems now. The children associate the armored vehicles with free handouts and have been known to run in front of our vehicles or really close along side of them. I have experienced this in every village I have visited.
I was really surprised at how young some of these children were. One little girl walked around in bare feet too. She approached me and spoke one word of English “dollar,
dollar, dollar”. My new teammates were also doing their best to converse with the local children. They were about to learn a valuable lesson. Had I known we were going to stop at the palace I might have placed some Beanie Babies or a supply of pens and pencils in the vehicle. But I also knew that once we started handing out free items, it would take 10 minutes before half the children in Kabul would be swarming around us. One Army soldier started to hand out bottled water and was quickly surrounded. At the same time, these children were getting close to us, all of our exposed pens sticking out of the uniform quietly disappeared …. lol.
Omid returned and the ANA commander inside was rather rude but agreed to accommodate us provided we came in groups of three and carried no weapons to include a pocket knife. I did not like the sound of us and perhaps this was his way of keeping us out. I think he knew there was no way we would relinquish our weapons. I tried to counter and asked to stand from the outside and peek inside one of the rooms. My request was denied. As much as it pained me to make the decision, I could not permit anyone to enter without their weapons. This would be the closest we would get to the Kings Palace. We mounted back into our vehicles and returned to camp. I was satisfied and crossed another item off “My Things to Do” list. With not much time left here, my list is dwindling and every day that passes, is one day closer to completing this deployment and returning home … for good.