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.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A fairytale day at the pool

Ahhh, the sweet coconut smell of suntan lotion, a splash of cool water on hot skin and the relaxing, sleep-inducing warmth of the sun … is there anything better than being near the water in summertime? Especially when you add in the tart bite of a lime swimming in an icy corona.

But there’s none of that in deployed zone, especially the beverages of an alcoholic nature, so yesterday, when I found myself lying on a deck chair in my bathing suit, smelling like sunscreen and sweating under the hot, hot sun as I watched people swimming, holding onto my icy cold bottle of water, I could almost pretend I wasn’t really deployed. I felt a little like Cinderella must felt all dressed up at the ball - out of place and out of character. Could these happy, and very tan, embassy people tell I didn’t belong? The day glow skin surely gave me away.

This little fairytale setting at the U.S. embassy, is typically off-limits for us military folks, but my co-worker Rachel and I had signed up to participate in a swim-a-thon, a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project, so we were granted access for the day.

We walked over to the embassy - as required - in our uniforms with our weapons and arrived, a sweaty, hot mess to be greeted by the sound of music pumping, people lounging on towels, and oh, that glorious, beautiful blue pool just waiting for us to jump in. Yes, we were there for a good cause – the WWP helps injured service members and their families – but the fact that we would have an opportunity to escape the heat in a pool didn’t hurt the cause either. The mission was to swim for 15 minutes and of course, raise money for WWP. Some people were competing for the number of laps they could swim in that time, but my goal was not that lofty; I aimed to just stay afloat, and I performed marvelously, if I don’t say so myself.

All in all there were about 170 swimmers involved and we raised almost $20,000 – not too bad for a day’s work. After finishing my swim, I stayed awhile to cheer on other swimmers, including several folks from our camp who were participating in the team competition. Oh, all right, it was to soak up the atmosphere a bit more too …. and to grab a hot dog (or two) from the grill.

But alas, this fun in the sun was not meant to last. As the sun started to sink, I again felt like Cinderella, trying to enjoy every leisurely minute until at last, I had to trade my swimsuit and flip flops for a uniform and combat boots. It was time to come back to reality, grab my weapon and begin the walk back to camp. No fairy godmother was going to rescue me but it felt amazing to be normal again, even for just a little while.

For more information about the Wounded Warrior Project, visit their website at:,com_frontpage/Itemid,840/

And, thanks to my friend (and co-worker) Chris Mobley for providing the outstanding photographs.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Boys will be boys

So this is a deployment related entry, but not about the training and development issues I typically write about. Yesterday, while walking to the Ministry of Defense, which oversees the Afghan National Army, I had an interesting conversation with one of our interpreters (who I will just refer to as A for his privacy) about one, yes, one of his new girlfriends. He has four, which according to him, is too many, so he’s trying to pare it down to three. Much more manageable.

It’s fascinating to learn about other cultures and the Afghan’s I work with are always more than willing to answer our questions in exchange for their own. We’ve talked about everything from dating rituals to holiday and family traditions. Afghans are known for many things, among them their generosity and hospitality, and their family-oriented culture. Arranged marriages are very common, as is the custom of marrying cousins but as times change, so do relationship practices. Many of our Afghans have talked about the new, unwritten (and confusing) rules of meeting and dating women in Kabul today. More and more they are seeking out their own partners as opposed to getting to know a girl after marriage or marrying a family member with whom interaction is permissible, until the “couple” is older, and a chaperone is required.

Several of our interpreters have girlfriends whom they secretly date, however, I was shocked to hear that A not only had four, but to hear some of his escapades … and the way he’s using technology such as blue tooth to exchange phone numbers. Girlfriend number four was picked up at a wedding; given that he couldn’t very well cross the room and strike up a conversation, A told me that they “talked” with their eyes. Then he held up his phone for her to see and casually walked by, whispering out of the corner of his mouth for her to turn her blue tooth on. Phone numbers were exchanged and now they are free to speak to each other whenever they choose. And here I though dating in American was complicated.

And of course, if things don’t work out, A can always use one of his creative break-up methods. My personal favorite was the heart-surgery story. Rather than ending things with a girl, A prefers to tell her that he has to go to Pakistan for a risky heart operation, during which he has a 98 percent chance of dying. Now, if the girl happens to call your phone to check up on you and your mom answers the phone, as A’s did, this could backfire, but all in all, not a bad plan.

I believe, ladies, that there is a lesson here and that would be to be careful who you date and perhaps not be too trusting … especially if your man has to undergo an extremely dicey operation. Not all men are bad but it seems there definitely shady characters in any culture.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Afghan women don't struggle alone

Afghan women face many challenges; cultural, societal and religious views create barriers that often prevent them from entering the work force, attending school or joining their military. The minority of women who do confront the status quo are faced with attitudes about women’s roles in society, discrimination and sexual harassment.

Currently there are 301 women serving in the Afghan National Army and just fewer than 1,000 in the Afghan National Police. While the ANA is on schedule to meet its overall recruiting goals of 134,000 by October 2010, the Ministry of Defense (in charge of the army) is struggling to fill the mandate of having women make up 10 percent of the army’s end strength.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a women’s forum that was going to be hosted by a group of NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan mentors. The purpose was to try to improve conditions for women in the ANA by giving them an opportunity to meet with other women in the military and learn from their experiences. I haven’t seen a lot of female Afghan soldiers, so I was very interested in going; Rachel, one of my female co-workers, and I joined a group of U.S. military women on Sunday, along with another civilian journalist, Gayle Lemmon for the forum.

When we arrived, Afghan Gen. Khatool Mohammadzai was speaking to the crowd of about 60 women, both civilian and military. The women all had lots of stories of being passed over for promotion, or in the cases of the civilian women, not being allowed to join the military because their families didn’t approve. One woman in particular stood out to me; she stood up to speak, saying she had been working for the army for 20 years but in all that time, had never received a promotion or pay raise. With tears in her eyes and her voice cracking, she told that every time asked for a promotion, the men would ask for a kiss or say she had to spend the night with them.
During a break, I had a chance to interview General Mohammadzai, who has served in the ANA for 30 years, as a parachute instructor to education director at the ministry.

She told me that there are many hardships facing Afghan women today; families won’t let women join (they have to attend a two-week training which requires them to stay overnight at the training center, away from home) or people will say bad things about those who do join. I asked her if there were any plans to modify the training program so that women can attend but also leave at night to take care of their families – currently the police training allows women to leave at the end of each day. Mohammadzai didn’t directly answer the question, but rather told me that when she joined, people talked about her but she didn’t care. She said education and training was necessary for females and males and that they need to learn the same things.

“I didn’t receive this position the easy way, I work very hard. I’m very proud I’m alive right now to see women in the uniform,” Mohammadzai said, after telling me that during her early years in the parachute unit, she broke her hand and leg and lost teeth.

I interpreted her answer to mean no, training most definitely would not be adjusted and that women were going to have to continue to fight for their freedoms and rights. In a way I could understand her position – by giving in to pressure to accommodate the training schedule, it would somehow undermine the struggle and lessen the accomplishments a few women have fought so hard for. If women are demanding equal rights and freedoms, taking the easier path is almost like cheating.

“We started from zero, but we’re improving and creating a good facility for women. It has improved the last eight years,” she said. “Other countries have men and women in the military; Afghanistan should be the same.”

One of the American speakers, Marine Col. Sheila Scanlon sought to acknowledge the struggles they face, while praising the women for their courage and perseverance.

“You make many sacrifices just doing what you need to do for your families but when you serve your country, you have to make more sacrifices,” Scanlon said. “Even in the U.S., men say women do not belong in the Marines, but it hasn’t stopped us; it has made us stronger.”

Several of the American women who attended the forum had been influenced in some way by a woman challenging the standards. Some had mothers who joined the Marines or male-dominated career fields at a time when women were still new to the military, or like Colonel Scanlon, were paving their own way.
Air Force Capt. Stacy Eskridge, one of the forum organizers, has taken up the ANA women’s cause. She is also working to get women the use of a gym, daycare services, and computer classes; she has also helped start a women’s driving course that will begin after Ramadan.

While we ate lunch I got to chat with her about why she was helping; she was very passionate about helping these women, and took their advancement personally. Stacy told me that in many cases, even once a woman is able to join the army, the men in their units won’t let them do work; they are often made to make tea or clean offices.

“They didn’t join to serve chai, they joined to be in the military,” she said. “They don’t get to see very many females in the military, just each other, which is why is so important to have events like this. The same battle our mothers had is what they’re dealing with here.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Afghan women defying limitations

For more than 100 years, women have been blazing new trails in society, science, medicine, business, sports, literature and military fields. In America, women have fought to be treated equally, for the right to vote, to hold office and receive equal pay. Women have demolished societal and cultural barriers, set world records and established new standards; in the process they have paved the way for countless other women behind them.

For most of the developed world, it is commonplace to have women working alongside men, and as their list of accomplishments grows longer and longer, the limitations placed on women grows smaller. Afghanistan, stunted by three decades of war, a repressive Taliban regime and conservative Islamic views about women, is far behind the rest of the world in terms of women’s rights. All the things we, as American women, assume as our given rights – the freedom to go to college, wear clothes that express our individuality, drive a car, have a job, join the military, vote, date, marry for love or not at all, leave an abusive relationship - are not granted here, or easily earned.
As the people of Afghanistan work, with the help of the international community, to rebuild their government and military forces, the country is seeing traditional beliefs clash with progressive attitudes. More and more women are entering the work force, holding government positions and serving in their military. I recently had a chance to speak with several women who had graduated from the Afghan National Police Academy in Kabul.

Petite and trim in her grey police uniform with a black scarf tucked neatly around her hair, 3rd Lt. Marzia Fazai recognized her country’s need for female police officers. In a religious culture that has strict rules about male and female interaction, women are needed to search females during police operations. Fazai enrolled in a six-month accelerated police officer’s course and has spent the past four years working in the Afghan Uniform Police and as an academy instructor.

With just under 1,000 women police in all of Afghanistan, Fazai is in the minority, but she hasn’t let that stop her from pushing through countless cultural boundaries. When she joined the academy, Fazai said that her fellow male students weren’t respectful and often gave her a hard time. Fazai’s family was supportive of her decision and when she wanted to drop out to attend a civilian university they encouraged her to keep pursuing her goals.

Now four years later Fazai said that despite initial interference with her work from male colleagues, she is able to teach both male and female students. She has also had her share of real-world police work; Fazai was part of an operation that rescued a female journalist who was kidnapped.

Joining the Fazai among the ranks of policewomen in the field, 2nd Lt. Zar Mina, a recent graduate of the three-year officer’s course, works academy legal department. Like Fazai, Mina sees the societal necessity of having women in the police.

Initially her family was not in favor of her joining the academy; she said they heard rumors of an unsafe, bad environment for female trainees and people said bad things about women in the police. After her family visited the campus, they changed their mind and supported her decision. The only woman in her graduating class, Mina had to prove herself to her male students and teachers; she was first in her class for academics, marksmanship and physical fitness.

“The first semester was the hardest; the males were saying bad things and I had a lot of bad days, but I never thought about quitting,” she said. “The second semester was easier and the third even more; my classmates and I had competitions to see who the best was.”

Overseeing the female training, living conditions and treatment at the academy is Col. Naiz Bibi, head of the Women’s Training Department. A 29-year police veteran, Bibi spends much of her time recruiting, often traveling to other provinces to speak with women and their families. Her support and recruiting work is more important than ever; President Karzai announced that an additional 5,000 women need to be added to the police force over the next five years. Although Bibi takes a bodyguard on her trips out, she told me she isn’t afraid of the danger; she has lived through the grip of the Taliban and has seen what she described as dark days. When I asked Bibi about life under the Taliban, she wouldn’t say much other than life was difficult and women didn’t dare leave their homes. Her husband was also a police officer, and he encouraged her to pursue her career – she said she loves being an officer and being in the military is part of a female’s duty, just like being a doctor, teacher or an engineer.

The fact that her husband was also in the police and one of her biggest supporters is something Bibi is quick to mention when speaking to young women and their families. With the police force having a reputation as a dangerous place for women to serve and rife with corruption, families are often reluctant to allow their daughters, wives, sisters or mothers to join.
“My message for those females who don’t dare to come here is that they should revolt against their roles and join the police; we are here beside them to help them,” she said. “My great ambition is to make a lot of females like myself. I encourage females and their families to come and join because this job is a holy job in Islam.”

While their experiences, backgrounds and education levels differ; Fazai, Mina and Bibi are united in their goal to serve their country and the future women of Afghanistan. Fazai, who hopes to have a family of her own one day, said she will only marry someone who will not interfere with her chosen occupation. And Mina, who is just starting out in her career, said that she knows the women of Afghanistan still face many challenges, but there are signs of improvement.

Overall, Mina is right –things are slowly getting better for women here, but more are needed to stand up and push through boundaries. I think I heard the plight of Afghan women described best by Col. Shafiqa Quarashi, the Police Chief of Gender and Human Rights Division. Recognized by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in March as one of 10 international women of courage, Shafiqa gave a speech to a group of police women where she made a powerful statement. “Who is saying women can’t do anything? We can do everything, anything you want,” she said. ““No one will give your rights to you as a gift, you have to take them.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In the palm of your hands

Abandoned as a baby, 12-year-old Haidar has never buttoned a shirt, held a pencil, combed his hair or played with a toy. Born with a twisted knot of bone, joints and fingers instead of normal hands, Haidar never been able to properly care for himself; he has only been able to use his wrists and forearms to pick up objects and manipulate his environment.

Haidar was brought to the National Military Hospital in Kabul in the hopes that the Afghan army doctors there would be able to help his situation, but they lacked the expertise to operate. When they learned an American reconstructive hand surgeon would be soon arrive as part of the new medical embedded training team rotation, the ANA doctors admitted Haidar.

One month later, U.S. Navy Capt. Jerone Landstrom, a surgeon specializing in hand and microsurgery, arrived and Haidar had his left hand operated on, giving him, for the first time, the ability to pick up objects. While Haidar’s hand will never look like a normal hand, it is functional.

Our office heard about the operation, and thought that it would make a great story. We cover anything related to training, but so often that focus is limited to developing the Afghan National Security Forces, even though our mission scope is much broader. We were invited to come out to the hospital to meet with Dr. Landstrom and the Afghan doctors who assisted him during the operation.

Working with Dr. Ab Ghafoor-Ateef, the Afghan orthopedic resident who admitted Haidar, Dr. Landstrom, who has been practicing for 27 years, taught the surgical staff the essentials for performing complex reconstructions. This type of surgery hadn’t been performed at the 400-bed military hospital before; Dr. (Gen.) Bahaudin, head of the surgery department, told us that the hospital typically treats major trauma injuries resulting from improvised explosive device attacks or vehicle accidents.

For a hospital used to dealing with trauma patients, Haidar’s case is a success story for both the Afghan physicians and U.S. mentors, especially as they work together to improve the supply and logistics systems and handle the nursing shortage. Based on their current tash-kil, or manning document, they don’t have enough nurses to fully support the ICU ward which international standards suggest having one nurse per bed, and there aren’t enough nurses to provide long-term care. The staff often relies on a patient’s family member to help feed and bathe patients.
More than anything, having the U.S. embedded medical team has given the Afghan physicians a chance to improve their technical skill base and improve the quality of care they’re able to offer patients. In addition to working directly with Dr. (Gen.) Bahaudin, who is responsible for nine departments including neurosurgery, urology and ear, nose and throat, Dr. Landstrom mentors the ICU staff as well as the plastic and orthopedics departments.

The center of the Afghan National Army healthcare system, the NMH mainly treats soldiers and their families, and Afghan National Police patients with injuries too severe for their own hospital to treat. So when I asked how Haidar was able to receive treatment, they told me a relative brought him, but no one seemed to know who he was or what relation he was to the boy. I’m guessing the relation, if he even exists, is a very distant one, but that just further demonstrates the Afghan capacity for compassion.

In terms of sterility, cleanliness, efficiency and capability, NMH is definitely not a typical Western hospital, but they are doing the best they can with what they have. Dr. Landstrom told me that the staff has far exceeded his expectations; he has worked at hospitals in other developing countries like the Philippines and in comparison the NMH has much higher standards.

Landstrom told us that the staff has far exceeded his expectations and have higher standards than some of the hospitals he’s worked at in other developing countries like the Philippines. Landstrom’s goal is to pass along some of his expertise to the surgeons during his year-long tour; already they are learning and taking over – Dr. Ghafoor assisted in Haidar’s first surgery and will be the lead surgeon on the second operation. I hope Haidar’s second operation is as successful as the first; I couldn’t image how difficult his life must have up this point and a simple thing like being able to pick something up can change a life.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Afghanistan 2010, part duex

A few days ago, our office said good-bye to the Air Force folks I came here with. They were packed up, ready to begin the long journey back to the states and home, back to reunions with family and friends. Many, me included, have been away from home since November. I thought I would feel sad or regretful as I watched them load up the trucks with their gear and said good-bye, but for some reason I didn’t. Instead of throwing my gear in with theirs and heading out, I was just ending another duty day here. I was asked to extend my deployment and eventually agreed, so instead of leaving this July, I’ll be here until January 2011.

I know it may seem hard for people to understand; some people have called me crazy, some said stupid, but that’s their opinion. I guess for the most part, I just don’t feel ready to leave. Our commander says what we’re doing here is a sprint, not a marathon, and that if we at the end of our deployment feel we can’t work another day, then we were successful in our mission here.

There have been times I’ve been so tired, I fell asleep sitting up, slept in airports, couches, floors, vehicles. There have been tumultuous times; I’ve been frustrated, upset, and so angry I wanted to scream or throw something. There were also times I was scared and exhilarated, and times when I swore I couldn’t wait until July came … but now that it’s here, I’m ready to do more. I can honestly say that despite all the negatives, I have also felt fulfilled. This is probably some of the most important work I’ve done in the military and I’m not quite ready to let go.

Someone said we are changing the dynamics in Afghanistan; I challenge anyone who says that we are not making progress here to look around. Afghanistan is coming full-circle; 30 years ago women worked as doctors, teachers and lawyers. It was not the kind of atmosphere associated with western, developed countries, but they were developing into a modern country with modern attitudes and beliefs; that was brought to a screeching halt with the advent of the Russian invasion and continued with the internal fighting and rise of the Taliban. With war comes a focus on survival, not education or development and unfortunately, this breed’s ignorance. There are people who will prey on the uneducated, and use their lack of knowledge to support their ideals.

Now, women are entering the workforce … again. They are going to school, women are supporting their families, becoming doctors, lawyers, serving in the government and even working in the fashion industry. The training and mentoring NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan offers goes much deeper than military and police forces; we are helping them create a national military and police healthcare system, literacy programs, working with their department of public works and various government agencies. We even have individuals partnered with non-government agencies to support micro-loan programs, promote women’s rights and help develop Afghanistan’s economy.

What we are doing here, whether we succeed or fail, will forever be in our history, and I want to be a part of that history. I joined the Air Force for many reasons, but one of them was to make a contribution, to help people. I hope that through our words and images, we are making lives better for the people here and giving them a chance to really live, not just exist and survive. Yes, isn’t always fun; it’s hard work and I miss my friends, family and the little things (privacy, good food, sleeping in, days off, driving for fun with the music on and the windows down, wearing my hair down, long showers, I could go on and on really) BUT what is happening here is more important than that. Than me. So, I stayed. We’ll see what the next six months brings!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fighting Taliban, recruiting challenges in Marjah

The heat was intense and stunning; as we stepped of the helicopter, the rotors pushed waves of suffocating hot air toward us. Sweating under 40 pounds of body armor, I stumbled over the rocky ground escaping the noise, dust and heat and climbed into the dirty and hot vehicle waiting for us. Baking under the southern Afghanistan sun, Helmand province is flat, dry and dusty. It is also home to Marjah, a district recently in the news as the site of major military operations conducted by U.S. and Afghan forces in order to clear out Taliban insurgents.

On a recent visit to Marjah, my boss, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan commander, met with Afghan National Civil Order Police leadership to discuss challenges in the area.

The training and development goals of NTM-A are multi-faceted, and although great strides have been made, there remain many hurdles to overcome. From recruiting to literacy development, building the Afghan National Security Forces is a complex challenge and nowhere are these challenges more apparent than in the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Working side-by-side with U.S. Marine police mentor teams, the ANCOP, an elite police force, are continuing to provide a majority of the security in the area despite large scale operations ending two months ago. The goal is to recruit and train enough Afghan Uniform Police so that the ANCOP units can be utilized elsewhere, or return home for a rest.

The problem, Regional Command – Southwest leaders told us, is with recruiting enough local police officers to take over permanently. Afghan Police, unlike their Army counterparts, are recruited locally, and once they complete basic training, serve in their home districts. Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban; with a strong insurgent presence lingering in there and in Helmand province, police recruitment is a difficult process at best.

During a meeting with Afghan Maj. Gen. Sharif, ANCOP commander, the RC-SW commander, U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Mills, told us his training center at Camp Leatherneck is ready to take on more ANP recruits. The Afghan manning document, or Tashkil, authorizes 311 police officers for Marjah, but there are only 90 currently serving; a class of 32 police officers started their eight-week basic training course June 21, however only eight of the new recruits were from Marjah.

“We keep hearing that there are young men out there who are interested in joining, and are on the fence. Many are concerned about their families and what would happen if they joined,” said Marine Lt. Col. Carlos Orellana, RC-SW C-10 director.

Our visit took us to Combat Outpost Turbett, a small U.S. Marine post in Marjah where the Marine PMT’s live and work with ANCOP forces. From there, we walked through the village directly outside the post. Everywhere we went, we drew attention, and some friendly stares; a few villagers came up to shake hands with the Afghan and U.S. military leaders. On a stop in an unfinished building where Afghan police were taking shelter from the sun, little kids came up to us, curious as always. One little boy pointed at me and asked, “Is that a woman?” Sigh. I’m not sure if it was the armor I was wearing or just the fact that a woman walking around on the street with a group of men is a very rare sight. In fact, during our entire time down there, I didn’t see any women or even the little girls that I typically see out playing on the street.

While we were talking to the boys, me kicking myself for not bringing candy, the sudden burst of gunfire broke through our conversation. Everyone stopped, and in the silence one of the boys said what we were all thinking, “Taliban” with a scared look on his face. Turns out there was a gun fight taking place in the street near-by, so after the marines and Afghan police cleared our new route, we headed back to the combat outpost. Gunfire broke out again during our stop at the new government district headquarters; this time we were getting into our MRAP’s when the gunner in my vehicle shouted down “Contact to the south, we’re getting contact to the south.”

I twisted in my seat to see Afghan police running to get into defensive positions and ducking as bullets hit the walls around them, sending up plumes of dust. Ordered to stay in the vehicle, I could only watch and try to get a few pictures through the dusty window; the gunner was told not to engage unless our vehicle took a direct hit. In those few minutes, I could fully understand the frustration many Marine and Army ground forces say they feel with the restrictions on enemy engagement.

Our visit only highlighted the challenges facing us as the U.S. and Coalition forces work with the Afghan government to create a safe and stable presence in the area. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more time and effort from the Afghan government, military and civilian population, to completely remove the grip the Taliban has on the area. The civilians may be tired of fighting, but their fear of Taliban retaliation and their lack of education keep them repressed.
When it comes to securing their provinces, Afghan leaders, both civilian and police, recognize the challenges facing them and they seemed, more than anyone, to want to bring peace and stability to their people.