Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Interpreter- Turjuman

The Dari and Arabic word for interpreter is turjuman. Interpreters are very important to all that we do here. I cannot mentor or work with my Afghan counterpart if we cannot understand each other. Even though my Afghan counterpart and I can communicate in some small way with my limited Dari and his limited English, it is always best to have an interpreter present. I once had a conversation with my counterpart without an interpreter present as I toured him around our camp. He was shocked when I talked about our "Fire House". He thought that we were shooting weapons inside of our Fire Department building, oops.

We had our Afghan Police Medical Director and his Quartermaster come to visit us today. As always we made some progress on several issues and learned more about each other and the system that we each work with. We were lucky enough to have two interpreters present today. The second interpreter did not really contribute to the conversation at all, but our interpreter did admit afterwards that he felt like he did a much better job today since he knew another interpreter was listening. A little competition can be a good thing.

There are several categories of Interpreters employed by the Department of Defense. Category I are local nationals like our team interpreter. They are usually hired through an Afghan contractor. They get paid monthly for their services and some extra money for going out on missions with us off the Camp. I dare say this extra money does not adequately compensate them for the potential danger they face. If you read the news headlines closely you will find the names of many interpreters among the wounded or killed in battle reports. Since they are targets for insurgents many interpreters work in areas that are not their home provinces. They also use names which are not their real names, so that they and their families cannot be tracked down easily. Many interpreters live in areas adjacent to Camps or FOBs, although a few continue to live locally with their families and commute. While there are many interpreters who perform their services for noble reasons, the main reason is the money. A US employed interpreter can make much more than a doctor, teacher, and most officers in the Afghan Security Forces. Many interpreters are doctors, engineers and teachers. They simply make much more money working as interpreters. Money which supports large extended families from this one paycheck. More concerning is that after one to two years of service interpreters can apply for a US entrance visa, leading to a further 'brain drain' of this countries best and brightest minds. Most of the interpreters you hear about in Afghanistan are category I interpreters.

Category II and III interpreters are US citizens. They have to be fluent in both English and Dari and/or Pashto. Additionally they have to have security clearances commensurate with the information they are processing. Although it is a little old, I would recommend a quick read on this article from the Stars and Stripes on Interpreters. There were problems this summer when older physically unfit interpreters were sent with Marine units. A starting salary of $210,000 a year is very enticing though.

All that aside our interpreter is an integral part of our team. He has been with the mission for almost two years. He knows what has worked well in the past and what has failed. He knows who in the Afghan heirarchy can get things done and where to get needed supplies on the economy. The bottom line is that without him our words here mean nothing.

Our interpreter is also my malem- or teacher. I have asked him to help me with my Dari. At first we were just working on a phrase a day, but I quickly forgot these if I did not write them down. For the past two weeks or so we have been working our way through the Dari alphabet. We work on one letter a day(there are 34). He and I write down 10-20 words in Dari script and their meaning. Now I can read some of the dari signs and food or drink packages. He recently gave me a written test of 100 questions. I scored a 92, but he admits he made it pretty easy fearing that I would fail horribly. It is still a good productive thing to do daily in addition to office work and exercise. I enjoy learning more about Dari, Afghanistan and its culture every day as we have our lesson.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Change 2

Change is an inevitable part of life. The military specializes in change. The highest rates of change seem to occur in the military in war time. Orders which are authoritatively passed to troops one minute may be countermanded the next. Like reading the names of fathers in the old testament; one change begets another which begets another.

Upon arrival here I was briefed by the person I replaced that my job was to supervise in processing and vaccination of ANP recruits. This task takes approximately 60% of our time. Our team made the decision that this was really only a secondary job, since our primary job is to mentor the ANP Medical Director and his staff. (Change 1)

I have been eagerly awaiting the end of the Ramadan and Eid period. Now I can get back out and my secondary job. Last week our team started getting some interesting emails with powerpoint slide attachments which indicated this secondary mission of in processing may be handed over to contractors and Afghans starting in January. (Change 2)

This week we were informed via email that the contractor is ready in our area and will assume all in processing starting 3 days ago. This certainly caught all the training site coordinators off guard as well. So now we definitely do not do in processing (the previous teams primary mission) at all. (Change 3)

The key to dealing with all this change is flexibility and an open mind. Innovation is helpful as well. We still have our primary mission to perform. In fact we now have a lot of vaccines which we can provide to our mentee, since we won't be using them. The other thing these changes gives us is a certain amount of freedom. We can now move around the Northern Region and visit ANP medical facilities and construction sites without being tied to the date of the next in processing. I may even get a chance to go to Kabul and actually meet many of the staff there who we work with through email and phone.
So to sum it up, change can be stressful but also liberating in the right situation.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Danger of Safety

Weapons safety is a big deal around here. There are lots of US and coalition military and many of other people who carry firearms at all times. Of course the goal of carrying these weapons on camp is to defend ourselves if needed.
Clearing barrels are placed at the Camp entry control points. They are usually 55 gallon drums filled with sand or small pebbles. Their purpose is to provide a safe direction to point a weapon to ensure weapons are in the safe and unloaded condition prior to going on board the camp. Obviously not everyone understands the steps to make a clear and safe weapon.
There are as many sets of instructions how to safely clear a weapon as their are weapons systems, but for the most part they all have these common steps. It is generally done with a buddy, sentry or leader to supervise the procedure:

Step 1- Point Weapon into the clearing barrel.

Step 2- Ensure the safety is ON.

Step 3- Remove ammunition belt or magazine

Step 4- Open the bolt to inspect and ensure no rounds are in the chamber of the weapon

Step 5- Place weapon on FIRE and fire into the barrel to further prove the weapon is clear.

As you can see the clearing barrel in the photo has two small accessory holes. These customized extra holes are proof that some folks do the 'readers digest version' and take safety off and pull trigger. The other clearing barrel has 5 extra holes in it. Thankfully nobody has been injured so far. I am proud to say that since I have been here I am not aware of any incidents among US military personnel. Nonetheless this is a situation that demands due diligence and attention to detail.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hornet Bane

Today was noteworthy for the stalwart performance of the vector control guy. We have been trying since our arrival at Camp Spann to get the large asian hornets out of the shipping container which we use for storage (CONEX). We move things around, put things in, or take things out of the CONEX as our mission directs. The hornets are not amused by our moving and stomping around. Luckily we were not stung. Since we cannot get any insecticide spray from our supply we have to contact KBR. Today put an end to our uninvited guests. The KBR vector control guy was very friendly as I walked him out to our infested CONEX. He sounded less than impressed when I initially discussed the problem. I guess I can understand why as he described the 6 foot cobra he caught at a nearby camp. He had a can of industrial insect poison in his hand. We opened the CONEX and he bent down to look at the nest. He quickly stood up using some forceful language and said he was going to get more 'ammo'. He came back with two more cans and a stick. Since he was a professional I decided to watch from a discreet distance and voice support. He expertly emptied the cans in the 'gunslinger' method and continued to spray with the third as he used the stick to knock out the next. It was the size of a dinner plate. I'll check back in a few days to make sure that all the guests have left our area.

In unrelated news tomorrow is the Autumnal Equinox. A sure sign that winter is approaching.

Rain; there was rain last night. As I was leaving the 'latrine' last night I felt some wet drops hit my head and arm. My first thought was to look up and see if there were any doves out to get me. Lo and behold it was not dove excretia, but actual drops of water which fall from the sky. Granted it was not a deluge, but the 2-3 minutes of sprinkling rain we had was the first I had witnessed since leaving the US in July.

Finally, while talking on the phone with Tricia last night I saw a shooting star. I did make a wish.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Eid and Range time

Today is the end of the month of Fasting- Ramadan. For the next 3 to 4 days families all over Afghanistan will be getting together to exchange presents and feast. No mentoring will be going on over this Holiday period. My team will be very busy once Eid is over, but the next three days will be our last leisurely ones for a while.

We celebrated today by going out to the Range again. This time my partner Steve took his golf clubs and balls out to get is some practice shots. He got to launch a couple of good shots while several of us were making adjustments to our weapons so they would fire precisely where we are aiming.

We zeroed, or adjusted both our regular (iron) sites and optical site or CCO. The picture shows what the CCO site looks like when it is on. The red dot is your aim point, so it is almost like a video game in some ways. The adjusments were a lengthy process for some on the range detail, but it was worth the time we invested.

After we finished our adjustments we drilled on some live fire, sweeping fire and fire on the move. It went well and I had a good confident day of shooting. We did have to monitor the Afghans in the area since some of them were getting a little close to the danger area until the Afghan Range control ran them further away. Normally after firing a day at the range you spend a lot of time picking up the spent brass cartridges. Here we were almost run off the range by some young Afghans who eagerly pounced on the brass so that it could be sold or melted down. I am dusty, hot, dehydrated and have a filthy weapon after I fired about 200 rounds, but it was a very good day nonetheless.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Turkish Delight

Today was another banner day.

I went along to witness the turnover of a new Provincial Police Headquarters compound in a nearby area.

The ride was better than most in the back of an MRAP. I got to talk Afghan politics and learn some Dari from an interpreter who was in the back as well. Once again my camera hand was not fast enough, but I saw more sights. There were of course the herds of camels, sheep and goats along with their herders. The Afghans build earthen walls around their land much in the same way the Italians build walls around their property. There were children waving and several groups playing with kites. The most impressive thing was the water.

I have been here 2.5 months and have yet to see a drop of rain. So imagine my suprise as we followed a river bed which had an actual river in it!

There was an impressive amount of agriculture. There were small fields of corn, orchards of almonds and figs(anjir in dari). Along the river and road were large fields growing watermellon (tarbooz). I can tell you that 4 medium tarbooz run about 240 afghani- which is about $4.80. The interpreter also claimed that here in the mountains they had the sweetest ones- he bought several so that his family could celebrate Eid, which is rapidly approaching.

Of course there was business to attend to as well. The new ANP compound is noteworthy for several reasons. First is that it was built by a Turkish company. The astounding part is that it was completed ahead of schedule, under budget, and with impeccable quality. I toured many of the buildings including a detailed look at the clinic, dining facility and water systems. I really wish this company had worked on our Regional Clinic, since this one is much nicer- ceiling fans in every room, central heat, tiles, sinks that work. It was a very well designed and built structure that will if maintained properly serve the ANP in this province for many years.
A great effort by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Turkish contractor. Thanks to them the Afghan National Police have a nice new 'home' in this province.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Good Day

Yes. Today was a Good Day.
A picture of our team: Dean our interpreter, Me and Steve.

We made a trip to visit our Afghan Police counterparts in their downtown clinic today. We had a good visit with them, making progress on several issues. I have hopes that several of these projects will even be completed before my time to return home arrives. If even one of these projects is completed it would be a astounding. It would be like melting a glacier with a lighter; possible but it rarely happens. Here in Afghanistan time is not measured with watches.
I impressed myself thoroughly at being able to read the sign, which says tashnab- or bathroom. Thankfully I did not need to use it since it was locked at the time.
The ride was as serene as possible with a young PFC driving a huge MRAP. I was able to see some picturesque sights, but I wasn't fast enough with my camera for all of them. There were long lines of camel caravans. Every now and then there were children playing around houses and open lots. I observed young men taking naps on manicured grass in one roundabout along the way. There were the obligatory goat herds, sheep herds and donkey carts. In many spots along our route there were entire fields of mud and straw bricks drying in the sun. Then of course there were the markets with huge watermelons and lots of other fruits for sale. It was a nice trip and a beautiful day. I don't even think I broke a sweat today.
After getting back to our office I had another nice suprise. Construction is about to start on a huge clinic which will be located about 5 miles out in the desert. I was able after conferring with my Afghan friends to contact Headquarters and at least get the project on hold until we can determine if this is the best spot to put it. I think we will be able to get it moved so that it can even be accesible to the people it will be built to serve!
Score one for reason, sanity and a responsive Headquarters.
Like I wrote at the beginning, it was a Good Day.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hail to the Chiefs

Naval Tradition has once again been upheld. Three fine Navy Sailors who have been working for the past several weeks to transform themselves into leaders of the Finest Navy in the world had their anchors pinned on today.

There was no ocean, nor even any water visible other than the sweat of those in attendance. Nonetheless ships bells were rung, sideboys posted, and time honored rituals were performed.

I have seen these three fine Sailors perform their duties with the ANA hospital mentoring team. The Navy did very well in promoting them to Chief Petty Officer. They are now charged with the duties of teaching and mentoring enlisted sailors, carrying out the tasks of the Navy, and teaching the junior officers they will work alongside. Hail to the Chiefs!

Friday, September 11, 2009


We had a nicely done prayer breakfast this morning in remembrance of the day which is a defining moment in our country's history. The ceremony, speeches and songs were reverent, but not excessively solemn. You see, we are here. We have the ability to ensure that something like that does not happen again by our example and actions.

I still remember the 8 years ago vividly, as I am sure most of us do. We had only been on Okinawa for 2 months and were living out in town in the top floor of a Japanese house. The first of many typhoons we endured on Okinawa was slowly approaching the island. You could roughly judge the windspeed based on the pitch of the humm of the bars protecting the windows. I recall seeing a 55 gallon drum blowing around like a piece of cellophane at one point. We were exhausted and finally getting ready to go to sleep when I unexpectedly got a phone call from my good friend Ed. In a choking voice he said I should turn on the TV then hung up. There will now always be life pre and post 9-11.

Typhoon Nari slowly passed around the island for the next 36 hours. The Okinawans claimed it was a spirit typhoon meant to keep us safely in our houses for the first few terrifying days that followed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Massoud Day

9 September is a National Holiday in Afghanistan. It is dedicated in the memory of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud Day (roz e Massoud) is the only National Holiday dedicated to one person. He is remembered as the most charismatic and effective leader of the mujahideen during the struggle against Soviet occupation and control. He was an articulate man who served as a rally point and focus for the western press during the Afghan-Soviet war. He earned the nickname Lion of Panjshir- which in Dari is a play on words 'Shir e Panjshir' or more literally Lion of the (valley of) the five Lions. It is in the Panjshir valley that Massoud made a name for himself first against the Soviets- who launched 7 unsuccesful assaults into the valley to kill or clear him from the area. It is also the area where he sought refuge after the Taliban started to take control of the country. Massoud warned European and other Western leaders of the dangers of the Taliban, to no avail.

Two days before our own country was attacked by Al-Qaeda, Massoud was assasinated by a group of Al-Qaeda suicide bombers who assumed the identity of a film crew. The bomb was in the camera. It has been suggested that this was a deal between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda would kill Massoud, and the Taliban would let them train and run their worldwide terror campaign from Afghanistan.

So while we can rightly remember with indignation the attacks of 9-11 and the tremendous loss of life and symbolism of those attacks, we should also remember that the people of Afghanistan lost a great leader, liberator, and hope of a peaceful unified Afghanistan. We share loss with the people of Afghanistan. The perpetrators of these cowardly and vicious attacks were the same. That is why we are here. That is why we need to support and train them so they can defend their own country from these extremists and control their national destiny.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Bird of Peace

In this land that has seen so much conflict there is very little in the way of wildlife. I am sure that the harsh environment also limits what can be supported off this rugged land. Other than some grasshoppers and spiders, it seems that little else exists here.

The notable exception is the Dove. Yes there are pairs of doves all over the camp. Nesting in the bathroom gables, flying about the camp in search of food. I guess they eat the grasshoppers. You can hear them cooing from early morning until late at night. They seem to thrive in this otherwise desolate area.
The Bible mentions the dove over 50 times. Many times it is mentioned as a sacrifice. We first hear of the dove as Noah's scout for dry land. Perhaps the first amphibious landing? The dove is described as innocent and cautious. It is used symbolically when Our Lord Jesus rose out of the water from his baptism the Holy Spirit settled on him like a dove; the bird of peace and the Prince of Peace together.
I like the symbolism of the dove as the bird of peace. In this land that has seen so many years of conflict and strive, a little peace could go a long way. So let us hope that the flock of doves that is thriving in our military camp with all the trappings and machinery of war is a sign of things to come.
I do hope that all of you back in the States had a fun and safe Labor Day weekend. We all wish we could be there with you.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Bazaar

I am sure you have a mental image of a Bazaar in your mind; small mud built structures amongst winding small streets or something similiar.

Our bazaar on Camp Shaheen is not necessarily like the model bazaar. It is a group of tarps and tables with various stuff for sale and occurs every other week or so. The sellers of carpets, wooden boxes and jewelry are regulars. Of course there are the knock off brand electronics, movies, and sunglasses familiar to any servicemember for sale as well.

The hardest part is the price negotiation. If I were buying something that I was remotely familiar with, such as a toothbrush, I would have an idea where to start the process. But I really have no idea what Afghan goods go for around here. If I become too frustrating, the shopkeeper usually has me just name some price. I usually try to start with an amount which is low, but not insultingly low. I would guess that I am still not starting low enough though. By the time it is over I feel like I must have gotten a good deal, but then the shopkeeper smiles a very big smile when we conclude the purchase. It really makes me think I have been taken to the cleaners. That and they usually throw in something free at the end. Perhaps they just want to make sure I am a loyal customer and will come back to them next time?

There are some who stay away from the Bazaar and prefer to spend money on stuff at the limited exchange on base. I know from experience that part of our job here is to spread our wealth around the world and stimulate their economy. It is also a nice break from the monotony of life on camp.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Weather Update- Autumn approaches

I guess Ramadan has really cut into my Operational Tempo since I seem to have more time to write these days.

There are no leaves to change color. There is no musty damp smell of decay. But Autumn is approaching. The view of the mountains to the south is clear and crisp. The high temperature has been BELOW 100 degrees F for several days this past week. There have been regular sightings of wispy clouds.

I still hold out hope that their may be some rain sooner or later. I have yet to see one drop fall from the sky after 2 months.

Nonetheless my observations support the coming of Autumn.

A different perspective of corruption

How many times have you seen an article in the news media start off with "There is rampant corruption in Afghanistan?"

We of the US Military abhor corruption. Bribes, kickbacks, skimming things off the inventory; these are things that we simply do not do or tolerate. Sadly there are politicians and other leaders in the US who do not share this standard of conduct. I think I am safe in declaring that almost every citizen of the US would put corruption in the BAD category.

Having been in more than a few foreign countries I would like to expand your perspective.

We are treated well by our Government. If I am asked to go to city X and stay Y number of days, the Government is kind enough to provide transportation, a place to sleep, a way to get food or reimbursement for all of the above. If I need equipment or personnel to carry out my duties, the Government provides the needed things or funds so that I can accomplish my tasks. US Government employees or military members are almost never assigned to do things without any tools or funding.

Well that is simply not the way things work here in Afghanistan. Imagine you were told to personally fund a trip to go pick up government supplies, which may take several days. You are not given any money to accomplish this trip. You are responsible for finding and paying for your own food, lodging and transportation. This is the framework for a system which is not taking care of its people. This is a system which is ripe for 'corruption.' Many times corruption is the word we apply when the system ignores or abuses its people. I have found after visiting several countries that while there are those who wish to individually profit from position, there are many people who are just trying to get things done, including taking care of their subordinates. It is no wonder that there are those who request suspicious amounts of supplies. For some loyal and otherwise straightforward officers, this is the only recourse they have to "reimburse" themselves or their troops for personal expenses they must pay while performing their official duties.

Yes, Corruption is Bad. But you need to ask the question Chirra or Why before you pass judgement on the actions of an individual, when it is a system flaw in many instances.

So for those who would condemn the Afghan people, or any other people for blatant corruption I would say that you would need to:

1. Walk a mile in their shoes.
2. Be a citizen of a country free from this sin, before we cast the first stone.