Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas in Afghanistan

I freely admit that I was apprehensive about how Christmas would be this year -- being alone and away from my family.  Cristi and I tried to plan it so that it would be as good as it could be.  I had presents shipped to me to open.  I had Christmas music on my iPod playing continuously.  Cristi even sent me garland and Christmas lights.  Still, what would it be like, spending it alone, not seeing the joy on my kids' faces on Christmas morning.

I have to tell you that it was pretty good.  As I mentioned last week, the Christmas spirit came out early and in full force.  I shared a picture of the Christmas tree the cops created over in our living area.  This week, a decorated armored truck appeared, and the various squadrons painted Christmas cards and set them out in the courtyard. 

Yes, that's a picture of me down in the corner.  Alas, I'm in my service dress.  Not very combat-looking. 

I told the Defenders we needed to get a new picture of me all geared up.  Stand by for one of those...

On Christmas Eve, we had our Christmas party. Of course Santa and his elves were there...or was that Santa and his personal security detail?

They had events all through the day, including an ugly sweater contest, poker tournament, Madden tournament, and raffles for cool electronics like iPads and Kindle Fires.  My cops twisted my arm to be in the scavenger hunt.  Boy, was that fun!  They sat right up front and supplied me with everything from a driver's license to a stapler.  I was determined to win.  After all, there was a cash prize on the line!  I intercepted a water bottle and a set of dog tags and shoved multiple people out of the way to secure my spot in the ever-decreasing number of chairs.  Finally, I was defeated for a black sock.  Who just happens to have one of those?!?  We're supposed to be wearing green!  Never fear!  One of the cops literally ran back to his room to grab one but was just a bit too slow, foiled by the person that has one of everything.

Later, we got all the folks here that I had gone through the Air Advisor Academy with and got a picture.  This is a great bunch of folks.  We've committed to having dinner together once a week just to rag on one another and laugh over the latest insanity.  Most of us make sure we're there so that we're not the ones talked about!

Christmas morning I FaceTimed with the family (Christmas Eve night for them), and they watched me open my presents.  Then I met up with my boss, and we visited the cops and some of our folks on the flightline to spread Christmas cheer (some of our advisors even helped launch aircraft that day!).  It's a good thing we took a big box of goodies because we ran into several Afghans out on the flightline.  They don't have candy bars and general junk food there, so they love it any time they can get their hands on it.  It was great to see them smile.  Along the way, we got invited into one of the Afghan colonels' offices and had chai.  He had his son there visiting.  I asked him if he wanted to be like his dad and go in the Air Force.  He said no, he wanted to be president!

We made it back to base in time for lunch, which was a good thing since we were helping serve.  The spread was amazing!  They had a bigger feast than I've ever had for any holiday meal.  We certainly weren't lacking.  The picture below shows the spread of just the desserts!  Check out the vegetable art, too.  Yes, that's all vegetables, and, yes, that's the AF logo carved into that watermelon!  Our chow hall staff is AMAZING!

Christmas night, I got to FaceTime with the family again and watch them open their presents for their Christmas morning.  I admit this one was difficult.  I really wanted to be there with them.  This time just seeing them wasn't enough.  Somehow, the joy and laughter didn't come through the video screen like it had on other calls.  Thankfully, I also got to talk to my parents shortly afterward and celebrate with them.  I know it made their day, and it made me smile, too.  Fortunately, the day was almost over, too, and tomorrow was another day.  Fortunately also I had much to be thankful for:  I got to talk to my family twice.  I am safe.  I got to have a wonderful meal.  I got to make some Afghans' day just by sharing some candy.  I got to serve those who normally get very little thanks for what they do -- my cops.  And, it's the one time of year that the world pauses to remember a baby that brings hope into all the world.  How could it get any better?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

One Week into Command

Well, week 1 of command is in the books, and I'm pleased to say things are going well.  The honeymoon is over, and plenty of people have found my office (turns out a LOT of people are interested in meeting me...shocking!) to see what improvements can be made in their favorite area.  Not surprisingly, the gym is on many folks' minds and, with all the use, the machines just get run into the ground.  I already made several new friends, though, just by listening and telling them I already had a plan to address their concerns.  As usual, though, since I'm not that smart, I benefit from the wisdom and foresight of others:  My predecessor had already purchased three new treadmills and a weight machine.  All I had to do was deliver the good news that they were on their way!  I'll take it, though.

We also started our next class of Security Forces training.  Every seven weeks, we train 30 Afghan Security Forces members on basic weapons and tactics employment.  I went over to check out how Day 1 went and was proud to see they were all enthusiastic and eager to learn.  Below are a couple of pictures I took, where they were learning the basics of operating and breaking down their weapons.

I got indoctrinated quickly into the culture of random power outages, too.  I was notified one afternoon of a 6-hour power outage (which would also take out our water because it runs via electric pumps) that would start the next morning.  That was fun breaking that news as the mayor, too.  Well, as luck would have it, right as the power outage was supposed to start and those that were leaving to go back to the main base were leaving, the base alarm went off and we went on lockdown.  I tried to call the Afghan contractor to see if they could delay the power outage for an hour while we got through the situation and took accountability of everyone and was told no.  Nice.  Fortunately, for whatever reason, the power stayed on for 3 more hours and only lasted about an hour and a half.  The nice part was everyone that lives on the main base went home, and I got caught up with work!

I said goodbye to two of my Defenders this week, MSgt Rich Blackstone and SSgt Chris McAleer.  They had earned a tremendous amount of respect here on the base, so it was hard to see them go, but I'm glad that they made it home for Christmas.  They paid their dues. We got SSgt McAleer's replacement in the next day, and he's not only stationed at Altus, but he's from Snyder, which is just 30 miles away. Needless to say, we hit it off.

I'll close with a few pictures for this week.  First, a rare clear day in Kabul:

A couple of days later...I'm pretty sure there used to be a mountain over there...

Standing around the fire pit...The cops build a bonfire every single night.

As you can imagine, Christmas is an interesting time over here.  It's absolutely phenomenal to see the Christmas spirit come out in various and creative ways.  Here are a couple of pictures of the Christmas tree my guys made out of camo netting.

As you all spend time with your families over Christmas, take a moment to pause and think of those sacrificing to serve over here.  Don't worry about us too much, though:  Necessity is the mother of all invention, and we constantly look for ways to make life better, have fun, and revel in the camaraderie.  We miss our families, but we are definitely enjoying ourselves. Life is good!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Settling in to Afghanistan

So many of you have been so supportive of me and my family as we began this journey apart for a year, so I thought I would give you an overview of our mission here in Kabul and a few pictures showing what deployed life is like, at least on my base.

On Thursday, December 12th, I took command of the 439th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron. Our parent Wing is responsible for all of the Air Force advisors in Afghanistan. The 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group that I work for advises Afghanistan's Kabul Air Wing, advising on all areas of their mission: Fixed and rotary wing flight operations, maintenance, and base support. The 439th, my squadron, is responsible for that last area. The phenomenal advisors I have advise in the areas of security, supply, fuel, and troop and cargo movement. I, in turn, advise the Afghan Colonel, who is the Mission Support Group Commander over those functions. He has other squadrons under him similar to USAF Mission Support Groups, such as Civil Engineering and Communications, but, unfortunately, we no longer have advisors for those functions due to troop reductions.  Working together, the Afghans are maturing as an Air Force. Unfortunately, their culture is much different from ours, and we are sometimes guilty of trying to force methods or equipment on them that just won't work for them because we think they should be just like us. It's one of the hardest parts of this advisor mission: Helping them mature as a force, but in their own way, not ours. Nevertheless, the Afghans have come a long way, and they have great leadership under their Wing Commander who is a two-time national hero (equivalent to our Medal of Honor). My counterpart has been doing the job for 8 years and also knows his job very well. We mainly work together on how to break through bureaucratic blockades from other areas of the government. Imagine Pentagon bureaucracy multiplied by five or ten!

I'm located at a Forward Operating Base (FOB), known as Oqab, which means "eagle" in Dari, one of the two Afghan national languages, and, in addition to the advisor mission, I'm also the "mayor" of the FOB. That basically means that, like a Mission Support Group back in the States, I'm responsible for all of the base support functions here on the FOB from chow to facilities to security. Ironically, the only traditional base support function that doesn't fall under me is communications. Like a traditional Mission Support Group, though, I basically run a customer service organization, and rarely do people tell you thank you that the lights came on today, if you know what I mean. The funny thing is that the infrastructure isn't that good here in this third-world country, and so people really should be thankful that the lights came on, that there was hot water for their shower, that the toilets flush, that they have heat in their rooms, that there's hot food available...You get the idea. To be fair, I haven't heard any complaints yet, but it could be that the honeymoon's not over yet! All seriousness aside, one of my priorities is for everyone on this base to leave with a positive experience. We've got a mission to focus on and friends and family left behind on our mind. We don't need problems on base to be one additional stressor. We'll see how successful I am at that.

With all of that background, I wanted to show you a few pictures of the FOB and my personal space. Base size, facility types, and living accommodations run the entire gamut in the expeditionary world from being nearly a fixed base (as is the case in Qatar, where they have a TGI Fridays on base. I kid you not!) to being nearly all tents. FOB Oqab is somewhere in the middle. Our facilities aren't the greatest, but we have a couple of phenomenal contract partners out of the UK that help make them as good as they can be.

The headquarters building

The building my office is in

My office. It's still not quite decorated. It's missing my Sooner sign and 1st Combat Comm flag

A courtyard close to where my boss lives

The chow hall, or DFAC as we're supposed to call it now

The area where I live. That's mine in the foreground on the left

I live with my Defenders (cops), and this is on several of our doors, including mine. I guess that makes me he head of the ZORT!

My room. It's not much, but I live by myself (not everyone does), and there's plenty of space to sleep, read, and watch TV.

Just had to show a close up of my blanket with all my patches on it that Mrs Incredible sewed before I left