Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Beginning of a Journey: Becoming an Air Advisor, Part IV

Salaam Alaikim! Chitoor astain? Zeyat khoob astam, wa hafta khoob ast!

As you can tell, this week was primarily focused on language lessons. We spent four hours each day learning Dari, which is one of the two national languages of Afghanistan. By the end of our lessons, we should be able to "get by" if we find outselves in a situation without an interpreter. We can also use it to impress our counterparts with our mad language skills...or show them that we respect the fact we're on their territory and are making an effort to reach out to them in their environment.

Our language instructor has been very good. He's taught us with a phenomenal blend of vocabulary, grammar/verb conjugation, and sentence structure. As a result, we're able to do basic things, like introduce ourselves, ask how they and their family are doing, and say that we need some particular item. At least for me, understanding basic sentence structure helps me create the sentences I need to create rather than trying to memorize certain phrases that have very little meaning or no way to associate the words to anything known. And, so that I can refresh my memory when I get over there, we have the instructor slides and a set of index cards! I know. I'm a dork.

This week we also had a cultural meal. A week or so ago, a few of us went to the local Afghan restaurant for dinner. That same restaurant also caters a cultural meal for each class so that we can try some authentic Afghan food and to get an idea of what to expect when we eat with them. The food was very good! We had a sort of curry chicken with rice, spiced garbanzo beans, salad, and bread. It was delicious! When we get the opportunity to eat with them, it will most likely be at their base. In those cases, they have couches and/or tables to sit at and we will eat with utinsels -- just like we would normally do. The traditional Afghan meal, however, and what you would likely expect if you were to eat at an Afghan's house, is to sit on the floor with legs crossed (Indian-style!) and eat with your right hand (no utinsels). I'm thinking that must make eating rice fun! Unfortunately, I don't think I'll have the opportunity to eat at an Afghan's house. I'm sure that would be the cultural experience of a lifetime!

Well, only one week of training left! We finish our language classes next week and have our final exercise, where we basically have to put together all that we've learned. Then home for a day and off again on a 50-mile hike with Brennan and the scouts! Woohoo!

By the way, the Dari at the top says, "Hello! (technically, it's "Peace be upon you") How are you? I'm doing great, and it's been a good week!"

I hope you have a great week also! Khodaa Hafez! (Goodbye or, more specifically, Godspeed)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Beginning of a Journey: Becoming an Air Advisor, Part III

This past week, we got some more time in the classroom learning about Afghan culture and ways we can offend them. The amazing part is that their culture is so different from ours, it's really not that hard. Simply point or touch them with your left hand, and you've greatly insulted them. Ask them a question they don't know the answer to in front of others, and you've insulted their honor. They must save face. Its a good thing I'm giong through this course!

As I mentioned in my last post, we also spent a significant amount of time out in the field this week. We had an entire day of weapons use. I've shot the 9-mil before and am fairly comfortatble with it, but the first time I shot the M4 (basically an improved M16) was to qualify right before coming here. I was still trying to figure out where the trigger was and how to sling it. I was hopelessly lost trying to figure out how to shoot it when you can't reach your shoulder pocket because of the body armor! I can tell you that their course here was incredible! I am now much more comfortable with both weapons! Those of you that shoot know how good it feels to be confident with the weapons you use.

Another day, we did land navigation (orienteering in Boy Scout terms). I thought, "Finally! Something I know how to do!" But, even though I was already comfortable using a map and compass, I am now fully task-certified on navigating using UTM (a much more user-friendly land-nav system than lat-long). Look out Boy Scouts! We'll talk about this on the hike! When we did the practical exercise, I unknowingly teamed up with a guy that actually graduated from the Naval Academy and had to learn to do this stuff out on the water. Needless to say, we rocked the course!

The latter half of the week was driver's ed. Seriously. Well, okay, maybe it wasn't your daddy's driver's ed. We learned how to safely push our vehicles to the limits and learned a little about the physics behind speed, brakes, and tires. For example, you get much more traction staying off your brakes in a turn and trusting your car (tires) to do the work for you. Of course, if you do that too sharply or at too high a speed, you risk a rollover, so you have to know your vehicle's limits. We got to feel a few of those limits doing sudden lane changes, slaloms, and high-speed turns. Cristi has now declared that I'm no longer allowed to teach Addison how to drive. I just don't understand! Wouldn't you consider those to be critical skills everyone should know? I mean they keep telling us they're teaching us things that apply to much more than just the combat zone! What do you think?

Overheard at Lunch

We spent the majority of our time out in the field this past week, so we weren't able to get to the chow hall for lunch. Whenever that happens, we're relegated to MREs. A couple of short exchanges occurred in conjunction with that and I thought I might share with you.

First, I have to say that the MREs have definitely gotten better over the years. If you've never seen one, they come in a big ol' pouch with several smaller pouches inside and all of the food is fully-cooked and sealed. Presentation is lacking in all cases, though, to put it mildly. Things that just couldn't be stomached, like Ham & Cheese Omelet and Corned Beef Hash have been replaced by Buffalo Chicken, Southwest Beef & Black Bean, and Chicken Fajita, and they now all include heaters instead of leaving it to you to figure that part out. People also have their favorite sides. Sit down with a group of people eating MREs, and it won't be long before it turns into a Middle East market with people trading their Apple Sauce for the Protein Shake, the Tootsie Rolls for the White Chocolate Raspberry Cookie, or the Beef Jerky for the Jalapeno Cheese Whiz. And, then, when it's all done, all the leftovers that no one wanted get put into a box for people to take later if they want them. As if the same group of people that decided it wasn't worth it then would take it later!

So, one day, we were out in the field and one of our instructors told us we were going to do XYZ and then we'd sit down and get some food from Mr E's restaurant. I said, "Ya know, I've been to that restaurant several times, and I'm just not all that impressed!"

Another day, I was sittin' down with the fellas, popping open an MRE I hadn't tried before: Chicken Pesto Pasta. I heated it up, peeled it open, looked inside at something that resembled day-old Hamburger Helper that had been put into a plastic bag and vacuum-sealed, and said, "Ah! Whaddaya know? It looks like an MRE!" One of the other guys in the room said, "Look, I don't want to ruin it for you, but it tastes like one, too!" Yeah, I know...Ba-doom-boom. Sad humor, but when you're stuck out in the field eating MREs, you have to find humor where you can!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Beginning of a Journey: Becoming an Air Advisor, Part II

This week was much less physically demanding and exhausting as last week. We spent much more time in the classroom, yet even though it was PowerPoint, in many ways, it was much more interesting. Outside the classroom, we had another session on self-protection, so I'm gradually refining my abilities to beat you up and kill you! By the time we get done, it might even look pretty! We also worked on small-team movements should we find ourselves off in the middle of nowhere. That part was by far the most physically demanding but extremely interesting as I had had very little exposure to it up to this point in my career. I found it (and most of the fieldwork) very challenging because it requires you to think and react quickly on your feet, something I'm woefully inadequate at. I was instead blessed with much more robust deliberate thinking skills, meaning I like to stop and think through each of my options, weighing which might be the best. Fortunately, this course intends to bridge the gap to a degree through exposure and practice so that, if we ever need these skills, we'll have a "new instinct" that should take over.

Our last bit of fieldwork we did this week was a vehicle rollover simulator -- stressful yet fun all at the same time. Imagine getting stuck in an uncomfortable position on one of those Six Flags rides and being on your own to get out -- no maintenance team is coming to free you and bring you a jumbo-sized Coke as a consolation for the inconvenience. Oh, by the way, we were of course wearing all of our body armor, which added weight and restricted movement. The first time, I easily got out of my seatbelt but quickly found myself laying prone on the ceiling of the vehicle. It quickly became apparent that I was laying closest to the only available exit, but I could no longer reach it because my legs were stuck back by the door and my head and arms were in the middle of the vehicle with no one else able to reach it either. Now imagine trying to rearrange yourself so that you can open the door and get out.

The second time, I was suspended from the top side of a vehicle that had rolled onto the side opposite me. This time, I couldn't unbuckle my seat right away for fear of falling on the folks on the bottom side (i.e., underneath me). At least while suspended there, I had a chance to look around and figure out the best way to get out. Unfortunately, there was nothing to grab onto above me, I couldn't reach the bottom of the vehicle to brace myself, and (as the driver) I was afraid my legs were going to get tangled in the steering wheel on the plunge down. This was going to be interesting. As my teammates were able to clear out of the vehicle, I had the next to last person brace me when I unbuckled the seatbelt, lowering me down (somewhat) gracefully to where I could crawl out. Our group totally rocked. We had good communication between us both times on finding the way out and helping others out, thus getting out of the vehicle both times as quickly and efficiently as possible, earning good praise and little critique from the instructor.

During our academic sessions this week, we finally started to get into the heart of the matter. We had a session on the history of Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency therein. I was amazed at how much instability there has been there since the '70s -- even before the Russians invaded! In much of our modern world history, the seeds of conflict go back to post-World War II, when national boundaries were redrawn (somewhat arbitrarily) by the victors with no regard for ethnic settlement patterns. The same is true to an extent in Afghanistan, and we are reaping the "benefits" now as we try to cobble together a blended government of Tajiks and Pashtuns. The insurgency and state-building is incredibly more complex than that simplistic statement, though. I found myself thirsting for more because I think it could be vitally important to our success as advisors in understanding what the Afghans want and what will work for them, but I'm afraid we're not going to get it. We'll see...

The second block that really caught my attention was Islam Familiarization. This block appropriately included a history of it with some comparison/contrast with Christianity. I did a fair amount of research on Islam as part of my last Master's thesis on Somalia, but I got some holes filled in here that I was missing. First and foremost, to dispel a prominent myth, something I already knew: Jihad is NOT, repeat, is NOT one of the five pillars of Islam. Jihad, as it was intended, does have a two-fold meaning, though: First, it refers to the inner struggle a Muslim has as he strives to align his spiritual life with that which Allah intended. Second, it does refer to an external struggle, but only insofar as it applies to proselytizing and converting the whole world to Islam, yet NOT through violence. The same should be said of Christians as Jesus commanded us to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." We as Christians would never consider that directive to be a militant edict, although, some that claim Christianity would near purport that. The same has happened amongst politicized Islam: Salafism/Wahhabism (Islamic sects) has been developed and further twisted into something the religion never intended, and now it is being used as a recruiting and political platform for those that truly wish to do us harm.

A couple of things I didn't know that I found interesting: First, the split between Sunni and Shi'a goes back to a dispute over the succession of the first caliphs. For those that don't know, the Islamic caliph is similar to the Pope. The Sunnis believe that there were three rightly-appointed caliphs following Muhammed, while Shi'as discount the first two after Muhammed. What I didn't learn is whether, like the Pope, these caliphs are still designated and whether they're more regionalized like Cardinals. I suspect there is great dispute over who these caliphs are.

Second, many of Muhammed's revelations/teachings that are recorded explicitly in the Qur'an are now largely ignored. In addition to the Qur'an, Islam also includes the Hadith, which are the teachings/interpretations provided by the Imams and clerics down through the years. These are then added on top of what is in the Qur'an and, like Israel during the time of the Pharisees, tradition now trumps Scripture. For instance, while the Qur'an specifically teaches that women may be educated and work outside the home and hold status, we know that has been suppressed by the Hadith in some Islamic sects (like Talibanic Afghanistan). Additionally, Muhammed apparently made a statement that in his house, when worshiping, there will be a screen between the men and the women such that they would not be together. This has been interpreted over the years that women must wear veils. Again, I found myself wanting more because I think it could be very helpful in understanding Afghan perspective and building rapport with our counterparts.

One of the reasons I joined the military was to see the world and experience other cultures. I find this an amazing opportunity to get to interact on an intimate level with those of a completely foreign culture. My prayer is that we will be able to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people -- to get them closer to security, rule of law, peace, and prosperity.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Beginning of a Journey: Becoming an Air Advisor

For those of you who don't know -- and many of you don't since I haven't been overly talkative about it -- I'll be deploying to Afghanistan for a year toward the end of this year. I'm going to be the advisor to one of the Afghan Mission Support Group Commanders there, as well as "the mayor" of the base I'll be on. Basically, I'll be responsible for all of the base support functions -- those functions that keep the base running, like infrastructure, food services, logistics, and security -- for my base and advising an Afghan partner how to do the same for his base. That's similar to what I do here in the States as the deputy to the Mission Support Group Commander.

"That's great," you say, "but aren't we getting out of Afghanistan?" Good question. What's really ending in 2014 are the military operations; the advisory role, which I'll be filling, will continue until 2017. That means there will still be a significant number of people deployed over there, yet only a small percentage compared to what we have now. Leading up to this deployment, I've had to click through an infinite number of computer-based training modules (CBTs in AF-speak) on everything from the Law of Armed Conflict and the Geneva Conventions to preventing sexual assault in the deployed environment to Afghan culture and language. All good stuff...well, okay, not all of it...but mind-numbing. I've gotten an inordinate amount of gear, including uniforms, magazine pouches, two different Camelbaks, a compass, a knife, and a headlamp, and that just scratches the surface! The uniforms are fire-retardant right down to the gloves and underwear. I'm just not sure I can do AF-issued underwear, but the gloves rock! I'll definitely be keeping those! It's enough to fill two very large rolling duffle/hockey bags -- with even more to get once I get in-theater.

As part of my preparation, I've also had to attend two training courses. The first was basically a Code of Conduct class that taught us what to expect and how to behave in the unlikely event we're captured. Mom, you can rest assured this is a VERY unlikely event, but better to know what to expect and how to act than to inadvertently or unknowingly bring dishonor on yourself or the United States. The second course I'm attending right now, and is a five-week course called the Air Advisor Academy. Its primary objective is to prepare us first and foremost on how to build up our Afghan partners for success but also to prepare us for the uncertain environment we could potentially find ourselves in.

That second part is what we spent the majority of our first week doing, and it totally took me by surprise! It was extremely physically demanding, and at the end of each day, I was physically exhausted! I was expecting the first day to be all classroom with lots of PowerPoint, complete with where to find the bathrooms and how much the coffee costs. Instead, I was thrust into a line where we were issued a first-aid kit, body armor and helmet, and a dummy 9-mil and M4 to carry around, which we were told to carry around with us at all times -- back to our room, to the chow hall, etc. At one point, I decided I needed to add Full Metal Jacket to my deployed movie list because I had "This is my rifle, this is my gun..." chanting through my head! Anyway, I digress...Then we spent the entire afternoon outside in full battle rattle (about 25-30 pounds of body armor, helmet, (fake) weapons, etc.). I was spent!

The next day, we spent the afternoon outside learning self-protection, which basically boiled down to hand-to-hand combat. We learned a lot of simple protective moves and a few offensive moves. So beware: When you thought before that I knew 8 ways to kill you, now I really do!

The week finished up with two and a half days of Combat Lifesaver training. This was a really great course that took our usual Self-Aid/Buddy Care to a whole new level. We learned how to put tourniquets on and completely dispelled the myth that if you ever put one on, the limb has to come off, meaning that if you only have time to put on a tourniquet, that's okay. It can always be taken off later. To make the point, in fact, we had to put them on ourselves and then tighten them down to as tight as they would actually be. We also dispelled the myth that tourniquets can't be put on the neck. Just kidding...that only fixes misbehaving kids! We also learned how to pack wounds with quick-clot gauze and how to put in a nasopharyngeal airway. In fact, one of our class members actually had to put it down the nose of another class member. No, neither one was me!

Our two finals were a written test and a series of practicals where we had to rescue some casualties during hostilities and then treat their wounds (again in full battle rattle and in low light). To make it more realistic, they even used real blood, which we got all over ourselves. And, these skills could be invaluable outside of the military, too. In fact, Cristi already said that she feels better knowing I have those skills when I go out hiking with the Boy Scouts. Yep. Sure enough, if one of the boys gets shot or steps on a landmine, I've got 'em covered! All seriousness aside, these are great skills to have in the event of a broken bone or other serious injury when you need to keep calm and doctor on.

Well, one week down and four to go. Last week was full of training that I hope to never use, but better to be exposed to it and know what to do than to sit there paralyzed from shock and fear. It's why the Boy Scouts spend so much time on first-aid and wilderness survival skills: To be prepared...for life! Next week is much more focused on the advisor role with only a couple of days of fieldcraft. If I can keep my blogging motivation up, I'll let you know next week how that went, too!