Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Where has the time gone?

So I haven’t written a blog in what seems like a very long time. It started with my R&R break and then like a good habit fallen to the wayside, it just fell out of my normal routine. I’ve been guiltily thinking about writing one for weeks. Each day, I wake up with good intentions – “Today I will write a blog,” I think to myself, only to get sidetracked at work, errands or small tasks that seem to take enormous priority over writing my thoughts down. When my computer crashed and I lost 10 months worth of photos, notes, stories and blogs, I was … well, devastated might be too strong of a word, but I was definitely not happy. It definitely didn’t add writing to my list of things to do.

And let’s face it folks, part of it is a little laziness on my part. It takes a lot of mental effort to go out on a mission, take pictures, interview people using interpreters, negotiate the Kabul city streets and produce imagery and a written product. By the end of each day, I’m usually wiped out, not write more.

So each day passed to the next, and suddenly it’s been two months since I’ve written anything for my personal blog. As each day came and went, it became a little easier to justify not writing anything. It’s like when you skip a workout; each time you’re tired, not feeling very well, or just not energetic enough to go, it becomes easier and easier to skip the next session. But like going to the gym, I know if I just force myself to start, I’ll get into it, and maybe, shockingly enough, actually enjoy it. It’s just a matter of time. SO like jumping into a cold pool, I’m taking the plunge back in. And besides, with less than a month left to my time here in Afghanistan, I figure it’s best to finish strong. Let the writing (and photos!) commence.

Monday, September 20, 2010

To protect and serve

On a recent trip to Kandahar province, we had the opportunity to attend an Afghan National Police graduation. During the nine months I’ve been here, I’ve attended numerous graduations – Afghan Army, NCOs, academy graduates, basic trainees – but what made this one so interesting was the fact that 1) it was being held during Ramadan and 2) it was in Kandahar.

On this hot afternoon in Southern Afghanistan, 164 ANP graduates were crowded into a room, eager to receive their diplomas. These 164 men had joined the police, knowing that they would be staying in Kandahar province, to protect their homes and families. The police are a local force, they live and work in their home communities, while the army and Afghan National Civil Order Police deploy to where they are needed. Often it is hard to recruit people who fear being sent to Kandahar or Helmand provinces; some even go AWOL when assigned a duty there. But these men signed up knowing that would be where they would stay.

It may be a small thing, to have a class of 164 graduating, but it’s a start. After all, it only takes one person to ignite a change. I hope they serve as an example for others in their villages; that they take courage and strength from these leaders, and stand up against those who would only hurt them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An afternoon with Afghan heroes

Today, I had a visible reminder that while the wounded U.S. and coalition forces are the more visible casualties of the fight in Afghanistan, there are others who are fighting for and dying for this country – the Afghans themselves. On our way to visit wounded Afghan soldiers at the National Military Hospital in Kabul, our convoy was halted by a funeral procession. I looked out the window and saw a huge crowd of people – mostly in military uniform, so I knew it was a funeral for a fallen Afghan National Army soldier.

Although little publicized, especially to the American public, the Afghans are joining their armed forces - the Afghan National Army and Afghan Uniform Police - in droves. In a little less than a year, the army has grown almost 40,000 soldiers and the police by more than 20,000. Motivated by the need for a peaceful and stable country, these men and women are risking their lives to protect their country, fight corruption, drug lords and the Taliban who are doing their best to pull this country down.

Wounded soldiers are stabilized at the nearest regional hospital, located in Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Gardez, and then sent to the national hospital, if necessary. On our trip to NMH, we visited with about 15 soldiers who had been injured in various IED attacks and firefights with Taliban. In addition to Lt. Gen. Caldwell, commander NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan and Command Sgt. Maj. Beam, with us were Afghan Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, ANA Chief of Staff and Command Sgt. Maj. of the Afghan National Army Roshan Safi, who I later learned has been a frequent visitor to the hospital.

We were there to present Army achievement medals to the soldiers, recognize them for their bravery, and thank them for their sacrifice. Many had lost legs, some were severely burned or disfigured, and in one disturbing case, the patient was emaciated, after spending two months in a trauma-induced coma. It was heartrending to see the victims of this insurgency up close and personal, and I had tears in my eyes to see them laying on their hospital beds. Even though they weren’t my fellow American servicemembers, they were soldiers fighting the same enemy and I couldn’t help but feel a connection to them.
The Americans, and our Coalition partners - British, Canadians, Italians, French, and Spanish – have all recently lost servicemembers, but they are not the only countries with people willing to fight and lose. The country we are here to help is filled with those who are also willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice. They too are fighting for independence, for peace, for freedom.

Let us never forget.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

One step closer ...

Last month, I covered a ceremony officially opening a new infantry school in Kabul for the Afghan National Army. The move is a big step for the ANA as they work toward professionalizing their force. NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan and the Afghan government have spent much of the last 10 months building a force large enough to protect the country, with much of the focus on recruiting and end-strength goals. Now that the ANA has met their goal of 134,000 soldiers, two months early I might mention, they are turning their attention to building the necessary specialized skills – medical, infantry, communications, artillery, etc. – that make up a military.

Previously, infantry tactics, including reconnaissance and heavy weapons systems courses were taught under the Advanced Combat Training Brigade at the Kabul Military Training Center; now the ACT brigade is in the process of separating all advanced branch training, including artillery, maintenance, logistics, signal and engineer, into separate schools to enhance training.

The new school will allow the ANA to develop entry-level soldiers, NCOs and officers by providing more space for training, time and attention on infantry-specific skills. It will do much to boost the ability of the Afghan infantry soldiers and, perhaps even more importantly, will be run and taught by the Afghan army with support from the British. Slowly but surely U.S. and NATO forces are handing more and more responsibility over to the Afghans.

The first class of 211 students to go through the new school began training July 31, 2010. If courses run at full capacity, the new school will be able to accommodate up to 2,000 students at one time, or 14,000 infantrymen per year. This is a historic time for the Afghan National Security Forces. It seems every day there are more and more signs of progress and milestones reached and even though I didn’t have any direct impact on their success, I can’t help but feel proud of all that they’ve achieved.

Flying high

An estimated eight million people have been left homeless and 1,600 were killed after waves of devastating floods swept across Pakistan in July and August. The same rains that caused the massive flooding also affected western Afghanistan, albeit on a much smaller scale. The international community has pledged millions in humanitarian relief aid to Pakistan, including its neighbour, Afghanistan. For 27 days, a crew of 22 Afghan Air Force, with four MI-17 helicopters, conducted more than 400 rescue and humanitarian missions in Pakistan. The crew helped move more than 2,000 aid works and stranded residents and delivered 188 tons of food, medical equipment and shelter supplies.

A few days ago, we were there at the Kabul International Airport to welcome the crew home from their mission. Their return from Pakistan was remarkable in not only that this poor, war torn country was able to lend a hand to others in need – epitomizing the true nature of the Afghan people – but that they were actually able to do so. The humanitarian relief effort demonstrates how far the Afghan Air Force has come in the past year, and comes shortly after they led rescue missions in their own Laghman province in late July, where crews saved more than 2,100 people from flood waters, many times under the threat of Taliban guns.

Since the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan command stood up in November 2009, the AAF has grown to almost 5,000 airmen and 50 aircraft. But I think the more impressive factor is that the humanitarian effort was completely Afghan coordinated and executed. Working under President Karzai’s directive, the Afghan Air Force coordinated with the Pakistani government to offer support – no U.S. or NATO help was used, or even needed.

I can't speak for everyone at the airport, but I know for me, watching their hero's welcome was exciting; to see the Afghan Air Force strong and capable enough to stand on their own and knowing that this was a huge step toward an independent and enduring Afghan nation. And maybe a little bit because this was about the Afghan Air Force, a young organization just getting its start. Someday, maybe an Afghan airman will be studying this historical event for a promotion test, knowing that this was the just the beginning of what his (or her!) Air Force was able to offer the world.

Monday, August 23, 2010


She’s won numerous awards – the Peabody, several Emmy’s, various journalism and television awards, not to mention she’s interviewed presidents, first ladies, politicians, actors, musicians, foreign leaders. She’s had the license to ask questions of some of the most influential people of our time – Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Colin Powel, Sandra Day O’Connor, Bill Gates and Tony Blair to name a few. Millions of us have learned from her, watching her on the Today Show before she became the new anchor for CBS Evening News. With this move, she became not only the first female solo anchor of an evening news broadcast, but the highest paid TV journalist in the business.

I’m talking about Katie Couric and she was walking toward me with a huge grin on her face. My first thought was, “Holy crap, that’s Katie Couric” followed quickly by, “But she’s so little.” I think I was just surprised that someone who has made such a big contribution to the journalism world was so petite.

And she was right here in Kabul, here to interview the commander of NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan before we left for a visit to Kandahar. I looked around at the crowd of maintainers gathered in the aircraft hangar – they had to stop working for the interview – and a majority had their cameras out taking pictures. It seems everyone was as starstruck as I was. Katie hardly seemed to notice but I’m sure she’s quite used to it by now. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to her; “Call me Katie” she said, when I addressed her as ma’am. I immediately call her ma'am again. Oops. It's a hard habit to break.

For the next 40 minutes I watched her interview General Caldwell. She was gracious and warm; friendly with her camera crew and with her the boss. She thanked him several times for agreeing to sit down with her before the trip and after the interview, took a group photo with everyone, where I tried to squeeze in as close as possible. I know, I know. Starstruck.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


One of the best (and sometimes, worst) things about being stationed at a NATO headquarters base is the amount of visitors we get. There is a lot of attention from the U.S. and international community on our progress, ability to meet training goals and of course, now the pressure to meet withdrawal deadlines, so we are constantly receiving distinguished visitors. Everyone from U.S. senators to movie stars to foreign leaders have made their way through Camp Eggers.

While this can be exciting at times, it can also mean a lot of planning, preparation, rehearsal’s, last minute schedule changes and a lot of waiting. People get very nervous when there are VIP’s involved, so of course, there is the rolling out of the red carpet, so to speak.

Some days we are hopping from event to event or in the case of a recent visit from Undersecretary of Defense for Police, Michele Flournoy, pooling our staff to cover a tour. During her visit to Afghanistan (her second since I’ve been here), Flournoy went to the Kabul Military Training Center, where the Afghan National Army runs their basic training program. The tour was designed to show Flournoy the progress being made at the training center, both with meeting the recruitment and training goals for the ANA and with improving the overall quality in training. At each stop, she took time to ask trainees, both men and women, about their experiences and why they personally joined. It was a crazy tour with multiple photographers assigned to capture every stop, including arrival and departure … its times like these when we joke that we’re the paparazzi.

Over the Fourth of July, several congressional delegates - Senator John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman – came to Eggers where they helped promote and present awards to several servicemembers. I know this was a huge treat for those who were personally recognized and for all of those who were able to meet and speak with their elected leaders. These Senators serve on the Senate Armed Forces Committee and help shape policy on everything from our military benefits to Department of Defense policy.

Sometimes it can be frustrating working these DV (distinguished visitor) events, especially when you’d rather be shooting (that’s taking pictures folks, not actual shooting) the behind the scenes things – Afghan security forces training and development – that are making a difference. It is that foundation building that will eventually let us leave this country and what the American and international community’s need to see. I try to temper that frustration by remembering that it is through these visits, the public will learn about what we are doing here. Getting to meet them personally doesn’t hurt either.