20 July 2014

Partner in Democracy—and the Pictures to Prove it

I am a democrat and a counterinsurgent.

A monumental effort has been made by the West to ensure that this Afghanistan election business comes off smoothly. (Mission fail, so far. What appeared to be a major victory for democracy, NATO, and the Afghan People has become a circus. )

The latest in that effort was seeing the ballots safely to Kabul, where the venerable Independent Election Commission would conduct a thorough audit. I'm not going to get into how the commission performed up to this point, or why the runoff was necessary. That story has been told elsewhere.Here is a good version.

The armistice that Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated between the two candidates included the provision that ISAF would transport the ballots to Kabul. That meant that every zip-tied box needed to be taken to the regional command hubs (Kandahar Airfield in the south) to be flown by C-17 to the capital.

When John Kerry speaks, NATO generals listen. We tripped all over ourselves to make sure that it happened.

In they came a couple of morning ago. Armored trucks? Nope.

Jingle trucks.

Ten of them. 7,000 kilograms in total of boxed ballots. The Afghans unloaded them onto US Air Force pallets. NATO troops stood watch and guard. Civilian contractors tied them down and loaded them onto the aircraft.

And I took pictures. Moving pictures, even.

Unfortunately, the images are not releasable (Except for the jingle trucks-- no ballots were in view; ballots are like porn. We have to censor  anything that appears to show ballots).

Seems like a great story, right? ISAF does its part to ensure an objective and thorough vote audit. The observers from each of the opposing campaigns and the IEC were there to confirm that ballots loaded were ballots actually submitted last month-- untampered.

ISAF personnel were not even allowed to touch the bins. At one point a C-17 made a routine turn on the tarmac to get on the runway. It's jets roared and spit out a hurricane in our direction. Strong gusts of hot air and exhaust bellowed toward us-- and the stacked ballots bins. Over they went.

The airmen who were overseeing the palletization went to the rescue (Mission First!) but were ordered away. The Afghans had to re-stack them, lest a point of contention be raised during the recount.

One day I will show you these pictures that prove the ballots-- or what appear to be ballots-- made it from the outlying districts all the way to KAF and onto a jet. One day, long after the next president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is chosen, irrespective of the actual vote count, you will see the pictures that prove I was there.

Doing my part for democracy.

16 July 2014

Running on KAF

They're calling it a Super Moon out here. I've never heard it referred to as that, but it makes me feel better about my run.

Running around KAF at night causes the strangest synapses to occur. My mind races faster than my heart, which is working hard enough.

By the time I write this I remember only a fraction.

I am alone, properly donned uniform and reflective belt, but improperly adorned with ordinary eyeglasses instead of APEL eyewear. The Authorized Protective Eyewear List is an Army's quality standard for ballistic eye protection.

It's a reasonable requirement. This place takes a rocket about once every two weeks, but life goes on.The dust is more of a nuisance than any possibility of taking rocket shrapnel. Nobody seems to worry much about the threat.

Theories of the military effectiveness of bombing civilian areas during World War II suggest that bombing campaigns are more likely to induce the desired panic when they are unexpected.

The expectancy theory would explain why I and dozens of other Soldiers jogged along the outer roads rather carefreely.

As I run I listen to House to House: An Epic Memoir of War. It's about the Second Battle of Fallujah. The author, a squad leader in the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, has the Army doing most of the clearing, though conventional tellings of it have the Marines as the conquerors. In one part, several platoons were ordered to backtrack along territory they had already moved through to meet up with the Marines, who were woefully behind schedule.

It's extremely hot and dry. I realize that we are in a combat zone. My mind goes back to running late one summer night in St. George, during another episodic drive to get into shape. The Army has motivated me, from time to time, to stay fit. Running in the heat has always made me feel like I satisfying some minimal obligation for pain and discomfort. St. George is a pretty good analogy. If pain is some product of muscular exertion and environmental wear, then KAF is a great place to feel like I am achieving something.

I find a bit of pride in that as I run along in the moonlight.

An occasional dump truck drives by, kicking up more dust in my face, and ultimately into my lungs. Oh well. 

This place is like a city.

A small, dumpy, industrial city.

But it is safe, or at least feels so. There are thousands of insurgents who knows how far outside the wire. They'd like nothing more than to score a major attack in a big base like KAF. But it'll never happen. There are to many protection measures in place.

Two blimps float above me. They are called Aerostats, and they are equipped with high powered cameras that scan the landscape, day or night.

The sonic screams of jets erupt in the darkness, reminding me and the bad guys that they are outmatched.

I get back to my hooch exhausted, soaking, and feverish. It's too hot to be running. 

14 July 2014

My One-track Mind

The following originally appeared in the blog "Musings of a Factotum" May 19, 2009

I realized that I had not written much that was not military related in some time. It got me wondeing why I was so obsessed with the Army?

Well, isn't it logical? I am serving a deployment. To say that I am working for the Army full time is an understatement. I carry my weapon nearly all of my waking hours, and am on call for military duties 24/7. I do have some down time, but even that is spent performing maintenance on my equipment and getting ready for more work.

We are in a sort of news vaccuum out here, and the people I see, even at the "store" or at dinner, are all here for the same thing, and only reinforce the mindset that comes along with a deployment. 

Needless to say, I have to make every effort to redirect my thoughts away from the Army, and don't often have epiphanies about things that used to occupy my mind. So, it's hard to be clever about topics about which a factotum should be clever.

But it's important. I don't want to be so narrow. Does it not go to the heart of the question about whether it is good to be generalists or specialists? I would rather be the former, but certianly our society needs specialists. Maybe I am still looking for what really motivates me. Do we all find a speciality in the end?

I hope that's not the inevitable conclusion to our lives' paths. I love teaching, but I joined the military knowing full well that it could take me away from it. I am also trying to get into investing, but a teacher's salary doesn't exactly foster a climate of investment opportunity. The Army has taught me a bit about video editing, and I am learning more in hopes of applying it to my teaching. I also love writing, and both math and my military service have given me fodder to practice the craft.

At any rate, I like to dabble in lots of things. It's enjoyable, and I would encourage those around me to do the same. I am making my best attempt to avoid keeping my mind on one lonely track.

Editor's note: I wrote this on my last deployment to Kosovo. I find every bit of the information still applies to this deployment to Afghanistan.

13 July 2014

Utah Pioneers in Afghanistan Never Quit

Few holiday celebrations can match the Days of '47 in fervor. Statewide in Utah are parades, cook outs, rodeos, demolition derbies, races, carnivals, and fireworks.

Those celebrations will extend to Afghanistan this year. Our little band of Utah National Guardsmen will host a bona fide, authentic, Beehive State barbecue ten and a half hours before anything in the Mountian Time Zone. 

They'll even order up some July-in-Utah weather, just for tradition's sake. Forecast is around 110 degrees. 

Many of these Soldiers will reflect on Utah's pioneer heritage while they live out their own kind of pioneer experience in southern Afghanistan. 

Our unit is based in Draper, a growing suburb of Salt Lake with its own unique pioneer roots. We left Utah in March for mobilization training on the East Coast. By early May, we were in Kandahar.

Many of our Soldiers are fourth- and fifth-generation Utahns, whose ancestors settled the state when it was known as "Deseret." 

But they each represent their own pioneer spirit. Deployments can be tough. One Soldier, on her first, said that she draws strength from thinking about pioneers. 

"When I'm going through a hard time, I realize that it doesn't compare to the suffereing that [Utah] pioneers experienced; they traveled through really rough conditions, but they kept going."

Persistance and a hope for a better future drove the earlier Utahns just as it pushes us to do our best to get the mission done here in OEF. 

Another Soldier, who served multiple tours in Iraq, compared some of the conditions that he had to operate in to the trials of Mormon pioneers who helped settle the West. 

"Growing up in Utah, we are taught about how they were persecuted, driven across the plains, and settled in a not-so-hospitable place. But they made it happen. It was similar for us in Iraq, in the sense that we lived in austere condidtions and had to do hard things. But we just did it."

From the days of 1847, when wagon trains full of religious refugees began spilling into the arid Salt Lake Valley, through the nineteenth century when life in the Western U.S. was rough and often wild, success required a certain pluck-- a refusal to accept defeat.

American Soldiers display that same moxy today, and none more so than those in Afghanistan who come from Utah, steeped in Pioneer culture and motivated by love of country. 

"The spirit of being a pioneer is having to do something that people haven't done before, and figuring out how to do it," our most experienced combat veteran said.  

One Soldier with our detachment was married just weeks before deploying. Another negotiated a hectic family move to another state. Two Soldiers put doctoral studies on hold for a tour of indefinite duration. Several left civilian careers on pause. 

The Utah Pioneer Ethos is alive and well in this corner of the world, 167 years after it became the stuff of legend in the great state we all call home. 

So fire up the grill. Just because we're 7500 miles away doesn't mean we can't keep up with the celebrations.  

(Bottom photo courtesy Visit Salt Lake)