Saturday, February 27, 2010

And Then There Were Two

It's hard to believe I'm going home soon. At times it feels like a year and at other times it feels like I just arrived. The team is starting to filter out and we are down an engineer.

I wanted to share a couple of pictures from a recent awards ceremony where all three engineers on the team (including myself) earne
d an Army Combat Action Badge (CAB). Strangely enough, the criteria for Air Force equivalent is much more strict. I will definately not receive one but my guys have been submitted for the award. They should also receive Purple Hearts for the incident, but alas the Air Force is dragging its feet once again. It's shameful that the Army Purple Hearts for same incident have already been presented. I thought a Purple Heart was a Purple Heart, no matter what branch of the service.

The ceremony was strange in the fact that people were congratulating me for getting blown up. Who in their right mind wants to get blown up or shot at? I don't want a "congratulations," but at the same I don't want
sympathy. In the military we train and prepare ourselves for combat. So getting blown up or shot at is what we want to do, what we hope to do, what we should do. And of course fight back! It shows that we are mentally and physically tough to endure such an event and prevail. We are brave and courageous in perilous situations. And maybe that does warrant a congratulations. But sitting in an MRAP--attracting baby IEDs--totally helpless--is not very courageous.

Accepting the Army CAB from the Commander

Combat Engineers!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Operation Notebook Part I

Operation Notebook. Not the most creative name, but it will have to do. I've received several packages of school supplies in the mail over the past couple of weeks. This past weekend I was able to go through them and sort all the supplies and come up with a plan for delivery. A big thank you for every one who either chipped in some money or organized a school supplies drive at their school. I was able to divide the supplies evenly among five different schools throughout Nangarhar Province.

The first delivery was two days ago in one of my favorite villages in Dari Noor. The PRT has a very good relationship with the village and I always feel very safe whenever I go there. However, I was unable to be on the mission, so one of the other engineers delivered the supplies to the headmaster. I was told that when the boxes of school supplies were taken out of the MRAPs, a huge crowd gathered to see what was in the boxes. The headmaster was very grateful and I think you can see the huge smile on his face. His school had zero supplies and books, but now they at least have paper, pens, pencils, chalk, rulers and notebooks.

I hope to have all the school supplies delivered before I leave. And the good news is, I just received word that I have seven more boxes waiting for me at the post office!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The C Word

Convoy. Two years ago, it was my dirtiest of dirty words. I didn't like the sound of it. I didn't want to hear it. And I certainly didn't use it. Because whenever US troops were being killed, it was on a convoy. A convoy was just disaster in the making and I didn't want any part of it.

In lieu of tasking. A dirty phrase. I knew eventually I would deploy and I wanted to. I was an oddity in the military-in almost five years and never deployed. Hanging out in Korea doesn't count for shit. I was crossing my fingers for a cushy deployment-Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan where you can go on weekend hiking trips. The worst case scenario was an in lieu of tasking, now called a joint expeditionary tasking (JET) where I would take the place of an Army bubba because the Army is that strapped for people. Most of these JET positions involve that nasty C word and going "outside the wire," or outside the base.

So on 23 December 2008, my world turned upside down. My unit deployment manager (UDM) came into my office and said she had a deployment for me. I was both excited and nervous. Then she said it was a long one. What? Longer than six months? How is this possible? I just came off of a short tour (Korea) and should not be eligible for a 365-day deployment. Oh, it's just a 270-day deployment with three months of pre-deployment training that doesn't count towards the actual deployment time. That makes me feel better. Oh, and you say I'm with the Army on an Afghanistan PRT and I'll be going on that C word two to three times a week? Fantastic.

Adapt and overcome. I've been put outside my comfort zone so many times that now it's the only place I can exist.

Now I feel at home with the Army. Don't let that fool you into thinking that I actually like the Army. But, the Army is pretty simple. If you're not a Sergeant, you're pretty worthless and your opinion counts for a whole lot of nothing. Officers are God-like and placed on a pedestal (even the really dumb Lieutenants). If someone gets in trouble, you drop them for push-ups rather than dropping paperwork. But there are a lot of draw backs. The Air Force always talks about diversity and learning from other people. I've learned a lot in this joint deployment, just by asking questions of my Army brothers and sisters and listening to their answers. But they did not ask me one question about how the Air Force operates. The Army only operates one way-the right way, and their personnel cannot see it any different. Completely incapable of thinking outside the box. And that irks me. We are fighting a counter-insurgency (COIN) war and people throw around the COIN phrase more than Megan Fox around here. But when the Army bubbas have been told to operate a certain way and this is the only way they know, they cannot adapt and overcome the COIN environment. Because all their training is the exact opposite of what they should be doing in a COIN environment. You should live outside the wire, eat your meals with locals in their house and take off your ridiculous body armor that makes you look like a monster. Okay, I'm going off on a completely different tangent. I'll save that piece for another entry entitled "Risk Adverse."

What I'm trying to say is the Army is still pretty messed up, but I feel at home with them. Two years ago I was petrified of a JET tasking and now I don't want to reintegrate with the Air Force. But I don't want to be with the Army. A catch-22 in classic military fashion.

The Air Force thinks I'm extraordinary. Here I am, running missions outside the wire, living at a small forward operating base and directly contributing to the war effort. I'm a hero in Big Air Force eyes. But it's ridiculous!! The Army does this stuff all day, every day. I'll ensure you that there's nothing special about me, but whenever the Air Force big wigs come to visit, they like to stoke our egos and tell us how awesome we are. Yeah, I'm really brave for going outside the wire in a big vehicle that was specifically designed to be IED and small arms fire proof.

Two years after I thought convoy was a dirty word, I couldn't image myself at Diego Garcia or Manas. What would I write on my Officer Performance Report? That I supported the infrastructure so the real war fighters could make it to the fight? I'm one of those real war fighters now and I'm not looking back.

Over the past 11 months I've acquired an Army PT uniform. When I return to Mildenhall, I plan on wearing it to my first day of squadron PT. But I have a feeling that no one will get it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Four Hundred Pounds Lighter

It's the beginning of the end. My replacement is here and the rest of the new team will be here soon. I've mailed home 200 pounds of stuff and turned in 200 pounds of gear that I was issued almost a year ago. Even though most of that gear and stuff was hiding under my bed for the past several months, I can really feel the weight started to come off my shoulders. It feels really good.

It seems like this last month is the hardest. I wish I could say I came back off of R&R ready to finish out strong, but my rejuvenation lasted only 48 hours. This deployment has been very wearing and I feel a lot older (and have more gray hairs to prove it). I just have to stay focused until the very end, when I can kiss the UK soil and my sweet Scott.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Contractor Seminar

I'm still catching up on the blog and posting some events that happened before I went on R&R. Below are some pictures from a contractor seminar the PRT hosted a couple days before I left. We invited as many contractors as we could find and even received a lot of invitation requests from companies we didn't know. In the end, over 300 people showed up and travelers from all corners of Afghanistan showed up.

The PRT Afghan engineers instructed the con
tractors on basic construction techniques and materials, quality assurance programs and communication skills. It was a great event. Our Director of Public Works, Engineer Arif, gave a great motivational speech. I can't say enough about him, but I think I'll save it for another time.

After the seminar, we provided a lunch for all the attendees and I felt like a minor celebrity as many people wanted to take my picture. Hopefully it doesn't end up on some Taliban website.

Engineer Arif talks to the group.

Enjoying lunch

The only two female attendees. :)