Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I pledge allegiance to ...

At the Turkish-run Gazi Training Center, 400 Afghan National Army recruits stood in the hot sun waiting to swear their commitment to the service of their country. Half-way through their eight week basic training course, the trainees were participating in an oath-swearing ceremony, promising to protect and defend Afghanistan.

The ceremony reminded me of an event in my own Air Force basic military training almost seven years ago; since then, basic training has been extended and changed to match the skills Airmen enlisting today would need, but back then, we had something called a coin ceremony. In our fifth week of training, known as “warrior week” trainees are sent out for a week-long field exercise. At the conclusion, each of us was presented with an Airman’s coin, symbolizing our transition from “trainee” to “Airman.” Patriotic music played in the background and our drill instructors who had yelled at us, pushed us and motivated us (sometimes out of fear) congratulated us on our hard work and achievements. I know for many, including myself, it was a proud and moving moment. It was also the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; it meant we had made it through BMT and provided we didn’t royally screw up the rest of the time, we would be graduating.

The ANA ceremony, while a lot different, was still a very cool experience – I hope the trainees felt the same motivation my fellow trainees and I felt when we received our coins. The patriotic music playing in the background, the marching and presence of leadership was all very similar; but they took it a step further. Each trainee placed one hand on a table and one on the trainee next to him and swore that he would defend and protect his country. They were sharp and crisp in their movements, and the oath was said in unison.

For four-week trainees, I was very impressed. Their marching was better than that of some of the eight-week graduating classes I’ve seen.The Gazi Training Center has been considered a success since it began operating in February 2010. With a 27 Turkish instructors and 28 Afghan instructors, the teacher to student ratio is only 1-to-8, much lower than the 1-to-50 (and often, more) ratio at the much larger Kabul Military Training Center nearby. The additional trainers allow instructors more hands on time with students. The first graduating class - more than 600 trainees - had a 38 percent literacy rate; the average graduating class at KMTC may have about 18 percent and literacy training has been dropped from the course to allow for more time on infantry-essential skills such as marksmanship.

The Turkish have been so successful in their training effort that after this class graduates in June, they’re going to switch from running a basic training program to teaching a non-commissioned officer course. I have no doubt they’ll be churning out skilled, literate NCO’s to help lead the Afghan Army in no time at all.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A place for women?

A few weeks ago I was invited by a female captain at Camp Eggers to attend a planning session at the European Police headquarters. As a civilian and non-government organization outreach liaison, Aheather is responsible for working with Afghan, U.S. and NATO groups to facilitate progress and implement change.

She’s worked on everything from getting Afghan National Security Forces to invite and help pay for families to attend basic training graduations to facilitating women’s rights talks. The planning session centered around a team of engineers, Afghan National Police leadership and European police who were meeting to discuss how to adapt existing and future Afghan police office buildings for female police officers.

The challenge was multi-faceted – policewomen need a separate area to receive female citizens, question suspects and if necessary, incarcerate them. They also need a safe and again, separate, area for themselves to work, including a break area and bathroom facilities. Women also need a separate entrance to their facilities from the men, which must be secure and clearly marked so the local female citizens will feel comfortable enough to visit the police office. All of this needs to be kept apart from the men’s facilities – separate but equal, right?

And the biggest challenge of all – however they designed the women’s facilities, they couldn’t be too nice, or the male police would take over the area for themselves. Very gentlemanly.

The initiative to provide a space for female police officers is just that – it’s in the very beginning stages, but with the help and cooperation of Afghan police leadership, it will hopefully come to fruition. It has multiple benefits – women citizens will be able to seek help or report crimes to the police, women suspects can be kept separate from male suspects (something that should always happen, no matter what the culture) and it serves as a recruitment tool; husbands, fathers and brothers will be more likely to grant permission for their female relatives to join the police force if they know that cultural and religious sensitivities will not be violated.

Already there are police office buildings being modified for women. While I would personally like to see a solution that includes men and women working together, I realize that it might take their culture a very long time (if ever) to get to that point. In the meantime, it’s an encouraging sign that they are indeed making a place for women in the workforce.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To drive or not to drive ...

Anyone who has driven in Kabul knows that it can be a nerve-wracking experience. Literally, there seem to be no rules of the road – cars on both sides of the road will drive in any direction while people on foot, bikes, horses, donkeys and push carts will dart in and out of traffic. Cars driving down the road will come to an abrupt halt, stopping to pick up someone on the side of the road and zoom back into the flow again without so much as flick of the blinker. Vendors set up stalls alongside the road, selling fruit, clothes, shoes, sunglasses, phone cards and balloons to anyone and everyone. Stop signs, traffic lights, heck even lane markers are nonexistent. It’s pretty much a free-for all out there and anything goes.

Which is why, one day as we were driving through the city, I had to laugh at the irony of seeing this ‘traffic information’ booth; empty, unkempt and warning drivers to obey traffic rules. I did manage to capture a picture for posterity. I remember thinking, "What traffic rules?"

Despite the lack of road rules here, there are encouraging signs.

A team from my office went on a three-day trip to the Kabul Military Training Center, where the Afghan National Army runs their basic training program and four other advanced training schools. Our goal was to get as many stories as possible during our stay, and one of the schools we covered was the Advanced Combat Training program which covers everything from advanced heavy weapons to reconnaissance and logistics. And of course, driving. After completing basic training, soldiers are selected for one of the advanced schools, depending on their previous skills or experiences. Those with driving experience are often chosen to attend the five week up-armored humvee course, where they learn driving fundamentals and maintenance basics.

During our interviews with the U.S. Army instructors, we learned that the concepts that seem to be the easiest for most people – review and side mirror use, seatbelt use and blinker use - are some of the most difficult for them to learn. They either don’t use them at all (mirrors and seatbelts) or in the case of blinkers; they use them to indicate to drivers behind them it’s ok to pass. Those who do have driving experience have never had to follow any sort of safety precautions designed to protect themselves or others on the road. One of the most common injuries among Afghanistan’s uniformed military and police is vehicle accidents, a combination result of speeding and not wearing seatbelts.

So while the course is helping teach the basics of driving, the instructors are trying to instill safety into the students. Although graduation from the course only guarantees them the right to drive military vehicles and not a civilian license, the instructors are hopeful that the lessons they teach pay off in both worlds. At the very least, they say it feels good knowing they are teaching them something that will save someone’s life.

The Afghan interpreters in my office also tell me that it is required for Afghan citizens to have a driver’s license in order to drive and, that if a driver is pulled over and doesn’t have one, they can be fined. When I ask how often that happens, they laugh. So, I’m guessing, not very often.

But knowing that one the streets will be a little easier to drive is a good start. Now, if I could only peel my fingers off the dashboard …

Monday, May 10, 2010

The land of opportunity

This is a land of vast differences – rugged terrain and tenuous beauty, all surrounding a fragile hope for the future. We came to make it a better place for the people who live here, to give them a sense of the world around them and let them know that there is more to life than just survival, that with hard work and determination (and maybe a bit of luck) anything is truly possible.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective of that sense of possibility, of adventure and excitement ourselves. We get caught up in the day to day routine of our lives and forget or don’t have enough time to dream or imagine a better future for ourselves. In other cases, we have to put dreams behind us in order to be adults, get jobs that pay the bills rather than fulfill us and do what we need to in order to get by.

The possibilities that exist for us are still there, but often life gets in the way. To me, one of the benefits of being deployed is it takes you out of your life, strips everything away and gives you something that we don’t always have at home – time. Time to think about what we want, what we’re doing and where we’d like to go. You think about what you really miss, what you’d really like to do when you get home and the things that are important to you. The last time I was in Afghanistan, I started thinking about families and how much I really did want one of my own. There is huge emphasis on families here; they will do just about anything for their families and unfortunately that is why some of them turn to the Taliban, to get the money they need to feed their family or help them survive.

I find that as I work to tell the story of the work the we are doing to create a stable, peaceful Afghanistan and through all that the U.S. and our NATO partners are doing to give hope to the Afghans, all we are doing to be optimistic and enthusiastic about their future, that I’m just as excited about my own. Who knows what will happen next? Will I buy a home in California? Will I get orders to Korea? Will I get another overseas assignment and extend in the military? Will I fall in love and finally have a chance at a family? There is so much opportunity for change and a whole new set of adventures; I just have to wait and see what comes next.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

It takes an village to raise a daughter

They say it takes a village to raise a child ... in my case there was my mom and dad, and two other very special women. This is dedicated to the women in my life ...

To Mary Ann, my pseudo stepmom:

She watched me grow up and treated me like I was one of her own. She listened to my problems and gave me incalculable advice over the years; by turns a mother, a therapist and a friend. Mary Ann encouraged me to follow my heart, to listen to my instincts and to always pursue a path that makes me happy. From boys and dating, finding my first apartment, graduating college, and joining the military, marriage, divorce and losing my father and her best friend, her friendship and support has helped me through years of growing up, adventures and difficult decisions.

For the past 18 years, she’s been a willing part of my life. Mary Ann has been a shopping partner, confidante, companion, teacher and friend. She helped my dad be a better father. She’s helped guide and shape me into the person I am today. Thank you Mary Ann for always being there.

To my Aunt Lorraine:

All of my childhood, my Aunt Rainey was synonymous with the best toys, snacks and playtime around. My cousins, brother and I had grand adventures in her house, playing with the great bins of toys she kept stocked, the snacks she kept in the pantry and the little quirks of her house that let us eavesdrop on adult conversations. She was always willing to let my cousin Krista and I spend the night and we’d battle over who got to sleep in the daybed in the guest bedroom. She read to us, took us to see the Little Mermaid (still one of my favorite movies) and had grand summer adventures with us.

Now that I’m older she’s more of a friend, although I appreciate her advice, wisdom and surprisingly sharp wit. Although she has children of her own, my aunt Rainey, just as in my youth, always has space for me in her heart and home. Aunt Lorraine’s house is my home away from home. Thank you for always welcoming me home, no matter how long I’ve been away.

And last, but not least, to my mom:

Our path hasn’t been always been easy one. We fought tooth and nail over clothes, boys, chores, curfews, attitudes, eye-rolling and back-talking. The last three were all me, I’ll admit. There were times when I was so mad her I thought I would never talk to her again, that she didn’t understand me and never would. I know I didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand her. It seems that most of my life, we were on two totally different planets.

But then there were the days we spent in the kitchen, our hands covered in flour as we rolled and cut out dough and decorated cookies by the dozen. There was my prom night when she let me stay out until 5 a.m. trusting that I would be responsible and smart enough to get home safe and sound. And when I did, my bed was turned down and the nightstand lamp was on for me. Or there was the time that my boyfriend and I broke up and I was so devastated, I cried all night and the next morning, she called into work sick for me. Or when I called her about my divorce and instead of playing the blame game or giving me the third degree, she quietly accepted my decision and told me how sorry she was. Her calm support was exactly what I needed at the time. It seems no matter how much we don’t get along or understand each other, when I need her the most, she’s always there. And that’s what I remember most, and am thankful for, on this Mother’s Day.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful women in my life! Thank you for helping make me who I am today.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's a small world ...

My friend Nestor is one of the happiest, easy-going, likeable people I know. He’s always smiling, full of jokes and good humor and is just loving life. We met in Guam, during my first assignment in the Air Force and his first public affairs assignment; the shop we worked at had some difficult personalities and Nestor and I bonded. It was great to have a friend in the office. He was so enthusiastic about life in general and about being in the PA world. Definitely a glass-full type of guy.

I moved on to assignments in Italy and then California and he to Japan and then Arkansas, but we stayed in touch via Facebook and email. I was lucky to meet up with him again during this deployment, when we found ourselves working at two missions not far from each other. He’s at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters and I’m at NATO Training Mission –Afghanistan headquarters, which are very close together in Kabul. We managed to see each other a handful of times, usually unplanned, at various events or around our respective bases, and it was so nice to see that in the past six years, Nestor’s enthusiasm for the Air Force, public affairs and life haven’t dimmed. A few days ago he invited me to his going away dinner with his shop and I just had to be there. I knew we’d have a good time, and finally get to chat in depth, instead of quick bursts of conversation in between photo jobs. Plus, when he mentioned barbeque, I knew the food would be good!

We can walk to ISAF from Eggers, but you need a battle buddy, so I grabbed my co-worker Davis and with the promise of good food, got him to agree to walk over with me. Sure enough, I could smell the food cooking on the grill from around the corner. It was a nice night of good food, a beautiful sunset and seeing old friends (another friend whom I met at pre-deployment training was also there) and of course, with Nestor and me, goofy photos.

So while I’ve still got a few months here, Nestor is about to head back to Arkansas to his beautiful wife, Sherrill, their bakery business, and some fun Vegas vacation plans. I hope that whatever happens, Nestor never stops smiling and that I have the good fortune of working with him again someday.