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.

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