Saturday, March 27, 2010

Eye on the prize

For the most part, being deployed isn’t fun. You’re away from most things good in life – family, friends, good food, the freedom to enjoy your hobbies at your leisure, wearing civilian clothes, comfortable beds, hot showers … the list is endless.

But all of that is usually offset by the knowledge, the hope, that what you’re doing in your deployed location is making life better for someone else, that you’re providing an opportunity, a chance for a safer and happier life for someone that may not have had that chance. For whatever reasons any of us join the military, there is a part of us, however small, that joined to serve our country and make the world a better place.

Being in public affairs lets me talk to a lot of different people, from all different career fields, backgrounds, walks of live etc., so I hear a lot of viewpoints, but one common theme I’ve come across while deployed is, well, I guess the best way to describe it, is frustration. After a certain amount of time, deployed life starts to wear on people. Some sooner than others, but eventually I think it gets to all of us. We become short-tempered, complaints are voiced more frequently, and we start to question what we’re doing here.

Yesterday, while doing an interview for a police anti-corruption story, I talked with an air force captain who, if he felt any of that negativity, definitely didn’t let it show. He was at the tail end of his deployment, and one of the best interviews I had in a long time; articulate, well-spoken, knowledgeable and full of details. He was definitely what we in the public affairs world would call a subject matter expert. But not only that, he was passionate about his topic – he came prepared with a binder full of notes, facts, figures and detailed information and spoke at great length about the pay by cell phone program, a new anti-corruption measure being implemented through the joint efforts of the Ministry of Finance, and the finance reform office at NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.

The program allows Afghan National Police serving in remote or dangerous areas to receive their pay electronically, through their cell phone. It’s a creative and unique way for them to get paid, reduce corruption and help build the Afghanistan banking infrastructure. Currently, only about 3 percent of the population use banks in some sort of capacity. For police in remote areas to get paid, they send a representative to the provincial headquarters, who picks up the pay – in cash – for his unit and brings it back to them. Yeah … you can see where this is going. But the new pay by phone program has been successful in its test districts, so much so it’s being expanded to three more this month.

While the story itself is really interesting, as I talked with the captain, he said something that really struck me. He had worked very hard during his six months here, to create a payroll system that could be run by Afghans and in fact is run by Afghans. Essentially, as he put it, he worked himself out of a job. If we could all be as successful in our efforts in our mission, we’ll not only have our eye on the prize, but firmly in our grasp.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A presidential duty

Imagine the president of the United States coming to your college graduation; having him (or her!) be the guest speaker and personally handing you your crisp diploma. How exciting, how cool would that be? And imagine how you would probably always remember something like that. A few days ago I attended the graduation ceremony for the National Military Academy of Afghanistan Class of 2010, where Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke and then stayed to personally present each of the 212 graduates with their diploma and ceremonial sword. Talk about making someone’s day!

I was thoroughly impressed. The guest speaker at my college graduation was Eliot Spitzer, then the New York state attorney general, who became the NY governor several years later, quickly followed by his resignation over his involvement in a high-priced prostitution ring. Ooops.

Since Karzai was attending, security was extremely tight for the graduation and our gear had to be examined and all of us patted down. Once inside the gymnasium, our movements were restricted to certain areas. Not being one to listen, I moved around under the glaring eyes of the presidential secret service. “Madam, you can’t go here.” And “Miss, you can’t go there.” Oh, ok, sorry, sorry, I nodded. All the media were penned up in one section and I was told that they would let two or three come to the front at a time. Finally, I just went to the front of the room where the U.S. military guests were seated and parked myself up there. There was no way I was getting stuck in the back. So I was lucky enough to get some great views, and shots of Lt. Gen. Caldwell and President Karzai speaking, and I was able to get an earpiece that we use to hear the interpreter give the English translation.

Although graduations seem really common around here, this one was particularly important. The academy is modeled after the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and provides graduates with a four year degree in civil engineering, computer science, management, law or English language. It also allows the graduates to become commissioned officers in the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Army Air Corp. The Class of 2010 was only the second class to graduate from the academy; the first graduated last year. And the audience was packed with undergrad cadets, who were very enthusiastic and supportive of their senior counterparts. So while the program is relatively new, it’s produced and is continuing to produce, qualified, educated, literate leaders for Afghanistan.

Oh, and did I mention, after President Karzai finished handing out diplomas, he took the time to greet several of the U.S. military officials attending the ceremony … including yours truly! Ok, now that made MY day.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

First comes career, then comes marriage ....

I learned yesterday that even when you are at your most frustrated and annoyed, good things can come out of a bad situation.

I had the worst headache yesterday, so after coming into work for a photo shoot that got moved to 8 p.m. I decided to lay down for a bit. Not 10 minutes after I turned off my light, my phone rang, and against my better judgment, I answered. It was work. Bad idea. I got assigned to go into Kabul to do a cultural piece about what Afghans do on a typical Friday, which is their religious day of worship, their day off from work.

As I grumpily gathered my gear, I realized was in no mood to talk to people. This isn’t going to work, I told my boss. We don’t have an interpreter, no one speaks English, etc. But he was determined that we go, so we headed out to the Olympic Stadium, which was built in 1923 by King Amunullah Khan, in celebration for defeating the British; it marked Afghanistan as an independent nation. Under the Taliban it had a less illustrious role – it was the site for public punishment, including executions and stoning. Since 2001 it was gradually gone back to the people and is now used for local and national sporting events. On this particular, beautiful, sunny Friday, it was filled with people playing soccer, having picnics and hanging out.

And of course, the first person that we spoke with, barely minutes after getting out of the vehicle, spoke English. Seriously. There went that excuse, right out the window. As I walked around the field, I started to enjoy the day, the weather and just being out with the people as they played in the sun. We don’t get many opportunities to freely mix with the Afghans without a lot of military people around so this was a nice change. I started taking pictures of people playing soccer and soon, kids started crowding around. The ball came to me and I kicked it back, to big smiles from the players.

We left shortly after to move on to the next spot, where again, we were greeted with smiles, curious glances and eager children. Sometimes the kids want to just talk to you, or be near you, maybe have their picture taken and some want something, anything they can get from you and they won’t take no for an answer. It can be frustrating and sad, but I don’t like to hand out money. I hadn’t brought candy like I normally do, which in this case, may have been a good thing because there were quite a few kids and it could have turned ugly, quick, especially if I hadn’t brought enough.

There were lots of people playing soccer and cricket, this time in fields near the old presidential palace and we stayed for a bit, talking and taking pictures.

On our last stop, on a crowded city street, with lots of traffic, our colonel got out of the vehicle to buy some sodas and bread. I hopped out of the vehicle to keep an eye out and to see if I could get any more photos. The light was going, but it was beautiful too, casting a soft, golden glow on everything. An elderly man walked up to me, speaking in English. As I chatted with him about being a “soldier” and what we were doing here, the line of questioning went down a familiar path.

“How old are you,” he asked. Sigh, I knew where this is going. Sure enough, the next question came out: “Are you married?” I guess to be a 28-year old, single woman with no children is not a common occurrence here, and often my responses are met with looks of surprise. “Why are you not married?,” he asked. Oh boy, how to answer this one. I smiled vaguely and said, “Someday, I hope to be.” This usually works, earning me nods of approval and big smiles. I’d interviewed several people who turned the tables on me with these types of questions – both men and women. This time the man looked at me and said, “You finish being a soldier, and then get married. It is good what you do.” This time it was my turn to nod and smile, and although I think women can have both a career and a marriage, I’m not sure that’s something they are accustomed to here. I guess it was a big step just to have him be accepting of a woman “soldier.” I'm glad he's got it all figured out; at least one of us does!

Regardless, as we headed back toward camp, I realized my headache was gone (although I was starving!) and that I was no longer frustrated by the day, and in fact, was happy that I’d gotten to go.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In my father's eyes

Sometimes it’s the oddest things that can remind you of a loved one, a song, a person, a place. For me it’s the sound of a train whistle or a motorcycle revving, the scent of a cigar or burgers cooking on the grill that bring back memories of my father.

I arrived at Eggers the day before what would have been my dad’s 59th birthday, so he was on my mind a lot during my first few weeks here. While I still think of him constantly, the pace of work soon distracted me, as it did during my first deployment to Afghanistan, during which my dad passed, and at the time I was grateful for return to the deployment tempo. So the other day, I was a little surprised to find myself thinking about my dad while flying down to Helmand province with my boss and his staff. I was in full work mode, writing notes and thinking about what I would try to get photos of, while listening to my boss talk to his staff about the day ahead, and I was reminded so much of my father. They don’t look alike, and while he served in the Navy, my dad was nowhere near the rank of general, but all the same, my dad had a similar commanding presence of my current boss.

My dad was a tall, broad-shouldered man with red hair and large features. When I was young, he was a giant and when I was older he was the man I most wanted to impress, with my accomplishments in school and then in the Air Force. I know he wasn’t perfect, and he had his flaws, but people gravitated toward him. He had a way of making people feel comfortable, to tease them and joke and tell stories until you were on the floor laughing, barely able to breathe. His self-deprecating humor and story-telling ability are things I miss almost constantly.

But even more, I miss something I took for granted when I was young: the opportunity just to talk to him, to get his advice and perspective. I found as I grow older myself (and supposedly more wiser) I valued the inputs my father had on my life more and more, and I wish I could still have him in my life, to talk with him, to bounce ideas off him and to just have him listen and be there.

I wonder what he would think about the decisions I’ve made and how my life has changed in the two years he’s been gone - getting stationed in California, getting divorced, starting my master’s program, running my first marathon - and what he would think about my being in Afghanistan again.

All I know is as I sat on that plane, I was overcome by a longing so fierce for my father, that I had to fight back tears. It took me a long time to be able to talk about my dad without crying and even longer to look at his pictures. It’s been two years since we lost my dad, and while the pain lessens over time, I miss his presence in my life every day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A true partnership

“Oh my god. I’m going to fly right out the back of this thing,” I thought. On jell-o legs I clung for dear life to what I termed the ‘oh sh&t’ handle the gunner pointed out, braced myself against the tug of the wind and snapped picture after picture out the back of the Osprey as we zipped across Helmand province.

Not quite a helicopter and not quite a traditional airplane, the Marine-owned V-22 Osprey is something I soon learned was a very cool aircraft. When I told my co-workers what I’d be traveling in, they were pretty envious, so I was expecting something pretty neat and the Osprey definitely didn’t let me down. Operating as a helicopter when taking off and when making vertical landings, the Osprey can convert mid-air to a turboprop aircraft for faster and more fuel-efficient flight; it also allows the aircraft to perform rolling take-off and landings. When the aircraft makes the change, it almost feels like it stops completely and you get the brief moment of weightlessness, followed by a powerful surge, where, if you happen to be standing on the edge of the gunner platform, you feel like you’re going to be sucked right off. I wasn’t sure if I was more worried about me, or my very-expensive camera, flying out.

The purpose of our visit was for Gen. William Caldwell IV, commander of NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan, to get a better picture of how the Marines in the south were partnering with the Afghan National Police. Our journey took us from Camp Leatherneck to Forward Operating Base Delhi in Garmsir district of Helmand Province to Delaram where a unit of Afghan National Auxiliary Police live and work.

One of the biggest goals of NATO Training Mission is get the Afghan National Security Forces up and running so they can train and equip their own forces and secure their own country. So far, more attention, time and money has been spent on the Afghan National Army and they are far more capable than their police counterparts, something that has been noticed and mentors and trainers are working alongside the police to bring them up to speed. This pairing up is exactly what the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines out of Camp Lejune, N.C., are doing in the south of Afghanistan.

At FOB Delhi, the Marines have created a police mentoring team (PMT) that is embedded with the ANP, living and working alongside them. This, they found, has been successful and plans are underway to create more PMT’s at the police district centers. The police and the local population see that the Marines are in it with them; they are living in the same conditions, they are training the police hands-on and are eating, sleeping and patrolling together and this, more than anything, has had a positive effect on the reception U.S. forces have received. The police recruits see that we are here to help them, we won’t abandon them and that we’re trying to improve security in their country, now and for a lifetime. But let me tell you friends, I will NEVER complain about deployed conditions ever again. These Marines are tough – it was 85 degrees at 10 a.m. and as I ran around taking pictures in my body armor, I thought I was going to pass out. These guys live with no air conditioning, no dining facility where someone else makes the food, no real toilet that flushes and hot water with the turn of a knob. They are truly hard-core.

As the Marines and the ANP took us on a tour through the village outside FOB Delhi, it wasn’t obvious at first (I was too busy keeping the sweat out of my eyes) but soon I noticed that there were no women around. I saw two girls, too young to be in burqa’s, but other than that, nary a woman in sight. It was something I had gotten used to on my last deployment to Afghanistan, where I traveled to rural provincial areas like Teg Ab, Panjshir and Sharana, but in Kabul it’s quite common to see women walking around, both in burqa and in more western-style dress of jeans and dresses, with a simple scarf over their hair. Also noticeable was a less-friendly atmosphere; the people, while not hostile, were definitely less open and quick to interact with us as we walked through the town, even the children, who were curious but didn’t come up to us like usual. When one of the interpreters came up to me and quietly suggested I put something over my hair, I complied, although I don’t like wearing a hat when shooting; the brim always hits the camera.

In addition to the PMT station where the Marines live and work with the police, we saw their Operational Coordination Center-District, which is essentially an operations center where the Afghan police can communicate emergency situations around their district; and the Afghan National Auxiliary Police station, where again, Marines are working side-by-side with the Afghan forces.

Overall, despite the heat, it was a good trip. It’s also interesting to see other parts of the country and get a feel for how different life is for the people here in the rural and urban areas, and to see what progress has been made by our efforts. I only wish there was some way to show the Afghan people that we don’t want to make them into America and we don’t want to be in their country permanently, but we just want to leave them a country that is safer, more stable and secure, where they can live and work in peace, and have a future other than poverty and violence. We just want to give them a chance.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A hero’s heart

I’m the type of person who finds it hard to sit back and watch, especially when it comes to showing someone how to do something. My friend Nestor can attest to that - when I was training him on design and layout at his first public affairs position, I was not the most patient of instructors, often pushing him aside so I can finish pages faster. I'm sort of like the parent who completely takes over their kid’s science project, because, obviously, I can make the volcano bigger, better, cooler.
So I understood completely when Dr. Lorn Heyne, an Air Force colonel in charge of a medical advisory team at the Afghan National Army hospital at Camp Hero, Kandahar, told me that his team was trying very hard to step back and let the Afghan medical staff take charge.

“We, as American’s, have an inherent desire to do, we want to get in there but we made a conscious decision and effort to have them do it so they could arrive at the right decision and course of action themselves,” he told me.

For the last eight months or so, Colonel Heyne and his embedded medical team has been mentoring the ANA doctors and nurses at the military hospital, with great success. The hospital mortality rate has declined 20 percent and they’ve doubled the number of doctors on staff; no easy feat in itself when staffing is one of the biggest challenges the hospital faces. Kandahar is a dangerous area, and professionally-educated people aren’t exactly jumping at the bit to work there.
But despite the obstacles – lack of qualified personnel, supply issues, inexperienced staff and security concerns, the hospital and its staff are doing amazing things. They’ve created a medical library, host a weekly women and children’s clinic, and have an emergency system in place including inbound patient communication systems and ambulances, and an intensive care ward, which they beefed up in preparation for Operation Moshatrak – their ICU is a source of pride for the hospital staff. On a visit to the hospital, the ANA deputy surgeon general said it was the best ICU capability he’s seen out of the other military hospitals.

There are three other regional ANA hospitals, and the 400-bed national military hospital here in Kabul, all doing their best to create a nationwide military medical system. It’s hard to see the big picture in Afghanistan sometimes, about what we’re doing here and even harder to see the results of all the time, money and energy we’re putting into this country. But when I toured the Kandahar hospital and saw the dedication of the staff, the pride in what they’ve been able to accomplish and where they hope to go, it definitely fills in the gaps. Two years ago, a suicide bomber attacked Kandahar City, killing 100 people and injuring 67; 47 of those wounded were taken to the Kandahar regional military hospital. For two days, they worked non-stop and in the end, they managed to save all but one patient.

The list of accomplishments is remarkable, but what was most impressive to me was the professionalism of the Afghan medical staff. These are people who were either left Afghanistan during the fighting to continue their education or practicing medicine, and have come back to care for their people. Col. Aelaj Basir, the hospital commander, is determined to follow his physician’s code of ethics and insists on treating everyone – civilians, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, who are infamous for their rivalry, and even Taliban patients – with equal care. He believes that all patients are human beings and deserve the same care and treatment.

And it is that belief more than anything that will help the Afghan people to have faith and trust in their government and leaders – I’m sure the Taliban isn’t offering their IED or bomb victims medical care.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Family reunion

It’s a small Air Force … that’s a pretty common phrase used in the Air Force to explain how you can run into the friends and previous co-workers when you least expect it. I guess the same can hold true for any branch of the military. I have several relatives serving in the Air Force and Army but the last place I expected to run into one of them was in Afghanistan, but yesterday my cousin Haley, whom I hadn’t seen since 2003 (when we both enlisted; her in the Army National Guard, me in the active-duty Air Force) met up at Camp Eggers, Kabul.

When I left for this deployment I had hoped I would have the opportunity to see her; her unit deployed in August so I knew we’d be in Afghanistan at the same time, but initially she was stationed at a Forward Operating Base in the south. When we found out she’d be moving up to Kabul and I got really excited. Then Thursday afternoon, I got a phone call at the office; my co-worker answered, and with a confused look on his face, he came in and said there was a girl on the phone and she was saying she was my cousin. We chatted and Haley told me she would be at Eggers the next day so I was super excited to see her.

The last time we met was the summer before I left for basic training; we were at my Aunt Lorraine’s house in New York and Haley was young, only 18. I wasn't sure what to expect six years later, but when she showed up at my office I was blown away. Now, she’s 24, all grown up, beautiful and totally in love. She possesses much more poise and confidence than I did at that age, and probably more than I do at almost 29. We had a great time laughing, catching up and sharing stories. Haley is a Brown, through and through.

She goes on leave soon, and I hope that her time in Europe is amazing and everything she hopes for. But most of all, I’m excited to have a cousin, whom I hardly get to see, here in Afghanistan so we can re-connect. I think she’s most excited about the fact that I promised to get her a mattress pad at the BX. That’s what big cousins are for!