23 July 2011

I Walk the Line

It's been a very tough past 24 hours, and any time I say that while I'm here, I always have to think to myself "yes, it's been tough, but it could have been a whole lot worse." It's all about perspective. And sometimes I like to think that by living here, I'm gaining a hint perspective of my own. Other days, that little pipe dream is all but shattered.

I will be the first to admit that I am easily disappointed. I will also be the first to admit that rules and structure are the two things I love most about being in the military. I know, funny coming from me, since rules are usually a starting point from which I can negotiate my way to the answer I want. In my career field, rules are written in pencil so that we can accomodate people's unique needs. I'm in human resources. I like bendy rules in human resources. They make sense. Everyone is different. Bendy rules accommodate unique situations.

But right now I'm out with the Army, in a combat job, advising Afghan Army officers, running convoys, and doing a lot of things that normal people would probably consider dangerous. I'm not very normal, and I think this stuff is relatively dangerous (at  least compared to sitting at a desk). When I'm in a job like this, I appreciate that the basic safety rules are etched in stone and ingrained in my consciousness. At least for me they are. It seems that I'm in the minority there sometimes, because yesterday it felt to me like basic safety rules were scribbled in chalk seconds before a thunderstorm.

Yesterday someone on this base left a loaded weapon unattended in a parking lot for about 30 minutes. And I don't mean locked in a vehicle, I mean laying on the ground in plain sight full of ammunition. Now I get that everyone who works on this base is "screened" so that the "good" guys work here and the "bad" guys can't, but we all know that life just isn't that simple. I'm sure there are people who work here who I wouldn't want to invite over for dinner (and a lot of them are probably in the U.S. military but I digress...) My bottom line: we (military) have a few cardinal rules when dealing with weapons. Keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction (i.e. not at anything you don't intend to shoot). Keep your finger off the trigger...unless you plan to pull the trigger. And always maintain positive control of your weapon (don't leave it on a truck then drive away and forget about it...especially in a warzone).

And maybe it's that I'm new to this whole "fly to a foreign land and defend freedom" kind of expedition, but from everything the Army has taught me (which has nothing to do with common sense) and everything I know from being somewhat worldly (i.e. common sense application), it is a big damn deal to leave a loaded weapon sitting on the ground anywhere in Afghanistan. Or the U.S. Or frankly, anywhere. But when it happens in Afghanistan, we say "that must have happened because of combat stress" or "that's a great guy who had a bad day" or any other gem that the Excuse Fairy delivered today. Sure, great guys have bad days all the time. But when great guys start making stupid mistakes, I stop calling them great guys and they have to earn that title back in my eyes.

Nothing bad happened yesterday. The gun was still there when said forgetful "great guy" went back to pick it up. Everyone involved tried to cover it up like nothing ever happened, including people who know way better. And what happens to our friend the "great guy" from there I don't know, and frankly, I don't want to know. Because as an American Airman, I believe that small mistakes in a combat zone can get people killed. I trained for 10 weeks to be allowed to come out here. And in those 10 weeks, I had to condition myself to be safe and to not put my "Battle Buddies" (the people with whom I serve) in harm's way because of a stupid mistake. There are stupid mistakes (oops, my left boot is on my right foot) and there is just plain stupid (Hey bad guy, here's a gun and some ammunition). Let's not belabor the issue.

Do people make mistakes? Yes. I've made a few (hundred) since I've been here. I'm human. Sometimes that's really annoying...like when I walk the 10 minutes to the truck and remember that my helmet...critical equipment...is in my room and not on my head. Other times it's reassuring...like me thinking "yes, I do need a checklist by my door to make sure I remember everything." I'm learning. Learning mistakes are okay. Though I can't claim perfection, if I were to make a mistake that truly jeopardized the safety of my Battle Buddies...well...I just hope that someone would straighten my act out in short order.

That's the line I'm walking tonight. I keep wondering what I would do were I in command of the unit in which this happened. Would I fry the "good guy" who made the mistake? (That's my natural tendency, which I hate). Would I let the "good guy" simmer on the mistake for a few days and wait for that person to approach me? (That sounds reasonable, but I'm infamously impatient). Would I call my boss to admit what happened...even if that boss would never find out on his or her own? (Yes, I probably would, but I bet I would regret it later).

And that's why I serve. Because in spite of human mistakes (that thankfully did not have dire consequences), I truly believe the military is full of so many people who have chosen to serve their country for such incredible reasons. And in my eyes, a "bad" day serving (in Afghanistan or anywhere else) with these inspiring people beats the heck out of spending my work days doing anything else in the world.

20 July 2011

A Day in the Life

I spent a majority of the day walking to Julia (my interpreter) about what life is like for her in Afghanistan. It was a relatively quiet day at work, and we were inspired by the sunshine. It was the perfect coffee shop conversation, but without coffee (caffeine and Islam are not compatible) and while on the move. So basically it was nothing like sitting in a coffee shop, but I digress...(wishful thinking...)

Let's start here:  Julia will soon turn 22 years old. She has a five year old daughter, and a husband who left her when her daughter was one year old. The marriage was arranged (it was not, as she she refers to my own marriage, a "love marriage") and would probably qualify in the minds of most Americans as at least unhappy (if not more). Since her husband left her, she has lived together with her two parents, her daughter, her sister and her sister's family in a four bedroom "house" in Kabul City.

As an interpreter for the American Forces, I have to believe Julia is paid substantially more than she could make elsewhere, and rightfully so considering how much we value her skills and the potential dangers of her job. She earns $565 a month (paid in American dollars, when the bank processes the payment correctly, which they often do not) and is paid one time per month. That's about 22,000 Afghani (the local currency). Julia, at age 21 and as an Afghan woman, is solely responsible for paying the rent for the family of about eight who live in the house. The monthly rent is $300 (13,000 Afghani), or more than half of her monthly income.

I am having a terrible time figuring out the worth of the Afghani. Downtown I can buy two loaves of bread for 20 Afghani and a quart of yogurt for 55 Afghani (about $1.40)...and though I was with an interpreter, those may be American prices. So sadly, Afghani is "play money" for me - I give them money, they give me change, and I find assessing value to be impossible thus far...but if you saw the condition of the living arrangements here, I'm fairly certain you'd agree that $300 a month is a complete swindle.

Whether Julia is appropriately compensated (or being ripped off by a corrupt landlord) is almost irrelevant to her, which I find astonishing. In the face of all of the monumental challenges she has faced in her 21 years in Afghanistan, she is inspired to create what she thinks will be a better life for her daughter. She works for me from about 9am until around 2pm, goes home to see her daughter, then goes to cosmetology school in the evenings. She glows. Literally. The weight of her entire family sits on her shoulders all day, and she doesn't once complain. Instead she tells me how thankful she is to have a good job (and that she gets to work for a woman!)

And I think that's the best lesson Afghanistan has taught me thus far...sometimes less is more. Julia is very well grounded - her faith and her family absolutely come before anything else. Her life, in comparison to mine, seems much more simple and certainly not as defined by material things. Though the American in me will probably never mirror her values, listening to her stories (and spending six months in a strange land with a lot of spare time on my hands) does encourage me to reconsider what is really important.

And the lesson is best taught by Robert Frost, in the last few lines of "The Road Less Taken:"

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

18 July 2011

Big Brother

I am fairly certain that you haven't lived until you've walked through Kabul, Afghanistan in the middle of a rain storm. To quickly bring you up to speed, the air quality here is less than stellar (at least 10% of the "air" we're breathing is actually fecal matter...it's so bad that we have a special letter added to our medical records documenting the fact that we were here.) Needless to say, when it rains, it's best to avoid being touched by raindrops. I was absolutely convinced my uniform was going to melt to my body, and words can't really describe the smell. At least my words won't do it justice, because, wow, let's just leave it at that.

As I'm sitting here reminiscing about my first rainy afternoon in Kabul I'm overwhelmed by a symphony of noise filling my little sanctuary of a room (okay, so it's not a sanctuary, but let's not go there). My tin hut is surrounded on three sides by would-be grown-ups living their lives on the other side of a wall that's about as thick as a standard piece of aluminum foil. In case you were wondering, it also transfers noise about as well as the biggest amplifier you've ever heard in your life. Right now the guy next door is spraying air freshener, which is infinitely more pleasant than the banging and hollering that was happening about 10 minutes ago. And no, I'm not trying to describe life in the brothel that disguises itself as a living complex for senior officer and enlisted members. It's just, well, turning out that way.

But it is a unique study in what personal freedoms those of us who come to forward operating bases give up. It's a strange existence out here, where walking to the bathroom in a non-Air Force uniform sweatshirt (or while wearing my purple Crocs with the Wonder Woman tag on them) is a huge rebellion. You won't believe this, but sometimes I even dare to sleep in civilian pajamas! (Thought criminal!) We spend every waking moment in a uniform of some variety, with at least one weapon strapped to our body, and personal freedoms are about as rare as a clear day in Afghanistan.

It's interesting to think of just how much control the military has over me right now, and how, for the most part, I'm really okay with that. Practically every bit of food I ingest has been provided by Uncle Sam. My luxurious sleeping quarters came courtesy of the U.S. Government. As did all of my uniforms, my personal protective equipment (like my helmet and flak vest). My access to the outside world is carefully scrutinized by the military - they control the mail, the internet, the on-base shops that sell pieces of home. And it's a very bad week when for three days in a row the military forgets to deliver the mail to your operating location. I think we'd all rather go without food than go without mail. Strange but true.

Big Brother is always watching over the U.S. military in Afghanistan. And I understand why for security reasons it's important for my government to monitor my actions here to help keep me safe. But such constant scrutiny has certainly inspired me to re-read one of my favorite books of all time..1984.


 Yes, Big Brother is watching. Please pardon me while I get dressed with my back to the telescreen in an attempt to steal three full seconds of privacy.

17 July 2011

Down by the Schoolyard

According to the 2000 census (which was the latest information I could find) the average American family has 1.86 children. There are 6.9 children in the average Afghan family. In case you were wondering, that's a substantial difference between the two countries. Here we are thinking that American schools have an overcrowding problem. Well, combine a lack of space, a lack of natural resources that generate revenue, and a central government that is in general disarray and you can almost imagine what public education is like in Afghanistan.

Your guesstimation probably isn't far from the mark. But even using your most vivid imagination, I'm sure what I saw on Thursday at one of the local Afghan schools would absolutely blow you away.

We pulled our 6 MAT-Vs (huge, armored military vehicles) into the courtyard directly in front of the school complex. Now I should mention that our MAT-Vs make a huge amount of noise, so it wasn't like we could sneak up on the place. It was sheer pandemonium from the second we arrived, which is part of the reason we could really only stay for about 45 minutes before we determined that we needed to cut and run.

Because there are so many students and such little space (and on account of cultural norms), Afghan public schools are structured in a very different manner than Western schools. The boys and girls are segregated, and the sister schools sit together in the schoolyard, governed by two principals (a male and a female). The students attend one of three daily sessions beginning at 6:30am and ending around 7pm. At any one time there are 8,000 students on the complex...half boys, half girls. Our fatal mistake this time was that we arrived almost precisely at shift change, and therefore encountered about 16,000 students who were eagerly practicing their English (and their ability to rip candy from our pockets).

This humanitarian aid drop of school supplies and teacher's kits is a fairly regular mission we perform under the auspices of Operation Outreach. Outreach is the officially sanctioned humanitarian aid program that the US forces support in Afghanistan. We receive donations from across America and the world and distribute them to families here. But like I mentioned earlier, I'm not convinced that our small donations to a school of 24,000 students even count for a drop in the bucket. We definitely perform this mission as a labor of love, and as a way for Afghans to associate positive feelings with the American military.

I trained very hard for 10 weeks to be able to safely perform "outside the wire" missions. Those are missions that take our team outside of the safety of the front gate of our forward operating base (FOB) and into downtown Kabul. We perform those missions almost every day. A majority of the people who came with us to the school have received little to no training on how to stay safe outside the wire, and even more frightening was the fact that many of them did not know how to shut the vehicle door, buckle a seatbelt or properly wear their protective gear.

I understand that there is something exciting about leaving the FOB and experiencing Afghan culture, but based on what I saw from inexperienced American Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen on our mission, I think it's time to institute some type of pre-mission training for people who want to be a part of these missions.

And that right there is tonight's lesson. Before I came to Afghanistan, I wanted to believe that American service members truly wanted to be here and truly wanted to try to make a difference. Now granted, making a measurable impact in Afghanistan looks and feels very different from making a difference in the States. But the similarity is that in both cases, some effort is required of the service member. Instead, what I'm finding here is that much of the good training we received before being sent to Afghanistan (always wear your helmet off base, take good care of your weapon, maintain 360 degrees of security) go right out the window the second boots hit the ground in this country.  And the typical reasoning behind these (and many other) bad decisions sounds a little like this: "well, anything goes...this is Afghanistan."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we let the bad guys win. We voluntarily take inexperienced people off the base, expose them to a potentially dangerous situation when they're not wearing their full protective gear and haven't been properly trained, and we wait for the insurgents to hunt us down. And we become complacent. We mistakenly believe that because the bad guys didn't hit us yet, they never will.

Make no mistake about it, the typical Afghan does not want to kill Americans. The typical Afghan seems to me to want to practice basic English phrases, eat a nice piece of American candy, drink a bottle of water and give us the thumbs up. It's a great feeling. But the bad guys sure do exist here. And they hide well.

I am very proud of the humanitarian work Americans are doing in this country, but you and I both know that I'm a bit of a stickler for the rules. And when those rules involve wearing gear that could save our lives, well, you had better believe that enforcement is coming the way of our volunteer Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors in very short order.

If you'd like to see more pictures from Operation Outreach, go here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roblisameehan/sets/72157627067377683/show/