Advisor, Afghan National Army, Eastern Afghanistan…

November 25, 2012

…so read an email announcing my next assignment, thus commencing my “15-Month Adventure.”  This blog documents that service as a member of an Embedded Transition Team (or, “ETT”) to Afghan National Army forces in Khowst and Paktya provinces in 2008 and 2009.   I knew as soon as I read that email that the tour would be very interesting and very dangerous, and that I would want to write about it.  Some of the entries were made while I was deployed, but most were written upon my return as I looked back on my war experience and tried to write in interesting, original, and truthful ways about it.  In July of 2012 I shut the blog down because I thought I had said enough and wanted to move on to other writing projects.  I have a new blog called Time Now that discusses art, film, and literature whose subjects are the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Please visit it at acolytesofwar.com.

I’m proud of my service in eastern Afghanistan and honored to have served with the great American, coalition, and Afghan soldiers that I did.  ETTs, it seems to me, had the greatest appreciation for Afghans, thought they were doing the most good, and had the best stories to tell of all the American forces who served in Afghanistan.  I’m especially fond of my fellow members of Embedded Transition Team class #55 out of Fort Riley, Kansas and all those who served at Camp Clark in Khowst province.  Three Camp Clark ETTs did not return home to America:  1SG John Blair, SFC Kevin Dupont, and SSG Alex French.  I’m privileged to have known these men and fought alongside of them. Two members of class #55 distinguished themselves above and beyond us all.  CPT Will Swenson and SFC Kenneth Westbrook were with United States Marine CPL Dakota Meyer in Kunar Province during the battle for which CPL Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor.  SFC Westbrook died of wounds he received that day and has posthumously been awarded a Silver Star, while CPT Swenson awaits formal recognition.  I did not know them personally, but I do remember CPT Swenson and SFC Westbrook from Fort Riley days.  Without claiming the slightest sliver of reflected glory from their heroism, one small virtue of my blog is that it records events and experiences probably very similar to those they lived through leading up to the battle in which they performed so magnificently.

End of the Journey to the End

June 6, 2012

A vet’s list of important deployment dates is more vivid to him or her than the nation’s official holidays. The day you fly, the day you return. The day something big happened, something usually not good.  My own private memorial day, for instance, is coming up. See the posts The Worst Day By Far, Gun Run, and Still, if you don’t know what I’m talking about.  The picture above begins to tell the story.

Every holiday deserves music, but for personal holidays the music is more introspective than patriotic. For my memorial day, the Avett Brothers serve nicely. The Avetts sing big heart-wrenching, self-lacerating songs full of guilt, sorrow, loss, regret, and shame. One of their albums is titled Emotionalism, and whoever named it wasn’t kidding. Thank God their songs are joys to sing along to, because the message is almost always heavy.  A great example  is “Go to Sleep”:

Lay back, lay back, go to sleep my man,
Wash the blood from your face and your hands,
Forgive yourself if you think you can,
Go to sleep, go to sleep my man.

Here’s a video of another good one, shot live (not by me) at a concert I attended last September. It’s a cover of a 1970s John Prine song called “Way Down” I’ve listened to since I was 15. But I didn’t know the Avetts knew it, and nearly fell over when they began playing it.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though, because I don’t reproach myself for things that happened in Afghanistan, far from it. In most ways I’m lucky to have served and and proud of what we accomplished.  But what stings on the private holidays is a deeper, quickened sense that you’ve been singled out to learn the hard way an especially cruel life lesson or two that everyone else gets to consider more abstractly on the national holidays.  The lessons, whatever they are, seem more irreversable and indisputable, and, worse, you feel like the fates thought you must have needed to learn them with particular intensity.  Ouch.  Seen this way, the lessons and whole deployment are punishments for character flaws and poor behavior.

But life does go on.  The other day I opened a drawer to find my Afghanistan dog tags, which spurred me to inventory other personal possessions remaining from an exciting year. I still have the sunglasses, or “Eye pro”[tection], I wore. The same computer on which I watched DVDs and tapped out emails. The same camera.  Not the same wristwatch, alas, but the Ipod Nano my Mom bought me on leave rocks on. The things I carried, so to speak, like the title of that great Tim O’Brien short story. Objects and a year mutually charged with memory and significance.  “Boom down,” for those who’ve read O’Brien.

The end has no end, so they say, but it’s time to bring this blog to a close. I’ve used this space to offer the perspectives of a 50+ year old Infantry officer with a PhD in English who is sent, in Winston Churchill’s great phrase, not to the front, but to the front of the front, where he rolled out the gate almost every day to chase the Taliban. It’s felt almost like a duty to write–if not me, then who would describe such things from such a point-of-view? But 120-odd posts seem to constitute a reasonably substantial body of evidence for those interested, and I’ve got other writing projects in mind.

So, thanks for reading, just thanks. I’ve enjoyed crafting the posts and am as fond of most of them as a poet his poems and a singer his songs. The ones that have received the most hits, by far, are Red Beard, Pat Tillman, Fallen Soldier Photograph, Sleeping Soldier, US-ANA-PAKMIL, and Combat Snatch-and-Grab. I like them plenty, but the posts closest to my heart are the aforementioned Gun Run and Still, along with The KG, The BSO and RPG Boom-Boom. For me, they best get to the fear, violence, and mystery of the tour. I also like LACKA-LACKA-LACKA and 500 Mattresses, because they express as well as I can say it what it was like to partner with the Afghan National Army. Check them out, please, if you haven’t already.

Have a great summer everybody.  I’ll be reading Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, so if you are, too, and want to talk about it, let me know.  A review by Matt Gallagher is here

To the Rough Riders.

Tales of Brave Ulysses

June 1, 2012

Ulysses took twenty years to return to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. When he arrived home, his wife Penelope didn’t recognize him and only slowly did he reveal himself to her.  The myth suggests Penelope needed a long time before she knew Ulysses as the man she sent to war. His adventures on the way back with the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, and the rest were allegorical.  He actually returned to Ithaca soon enough, but the war so dizzied him up it took forever to settle down. “Stay low, go slow, say no” didn’t cut it, and Penelope wasn’t so helpful, either, with her nine suitors and all. Telemachus their son must have wondered what the hell was going on, but by scheming with Ulysses to drive off the suitors, he restored the family.

Circe, jeeze, “the loveliest of all immortals,” according to the Greeks.  “He calls her Circe, she turns men into swine.” “He” here is Robert Cohn in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, another post-war story of travel and jangled nerves.  The speaker is Mike Campbell, and Cohn is describing Lady Brett Ashley, whom he and every other man in the novel worships, but Cohn also refers accurately to Circe’s actions in The Odyssey.   The line’s good, too good for Cohn, who is portrayed unsympathetically by Hemingway—it should have been Campbell’s or Jake Barnes’ or Bill Gorton’s. Campbell even grudgingly compliments Cohn:  “Damn good.  I wish I was one of those literary chaps.”  Speaking of Jake Barnes, what did he do before the war? Wife, kids, job, hometown?  Like Mad Men‘s Don Draper, Jake is a wounded war hero with no past, no history, no ties to drag him down.

Well, that’s nuts, but maybe it helps explain the myth of the long return. There are other stories, too. For example, the one of Theseus fighting the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Minos. Theseus killed the Minotaur, but that’s not the interesting part. If you remember, he then needed Minos’ daughter Ariadne’s help to escape the labyrinth. Next, he left Crete with Ariadne, only to abandon her on the island of Naxos, where Dionysius, of all people, rescued her. So she starts out with the fighter and ends up with the artistically-crazed drunkard. How does that make sense? Something happened on Naxos, that’s for sure.  Maybe Theseus was punished for killing the Minotaur, which Picasso (for one) associated with imagination, intelligence, and courage.

Picasso, “Candle, Palette, Minotaur’s Head”

There are hundreds of pictures of Ariadne lying bereft on Naxos, like this one:

de Chirico, “The Myth of Ariadne”

But I’m thinking possibly Theseus did not leave Ariadne; instead, she told him to move on without her.  In this reading, he was her Jake Barnes and she was his Lady Brett.  Brett liked Jake, but he wasn’t all she wanted him to be, so she gave herself to the bullfighter Romero, while Ariadne rejected her bullfighter boy for the man-Minotaur Dionysius. The logic’s a little mixed up, but it just might work.

Anyway, big love and thanks to my wife and  sons, my own Penelope and two Telemachii.  No nine suitors or lying bereft on Naxos business, thank goodness.

Anchors Away, Memorial Day

May 27, 2012

Commander James J. Galoppa, Jr. is retiring this week after a long career in the Navy, including a year as the team chief of the Navy element on Camp Clark, where I got to know him well.  These pages from his retirement ceremony program honor Camp Clark soldiers who died in action while we were there.  Thanks for remembering their sacrifice, Jim, and thanks for your service, too.

War Horses

May 17, 2012

Adviser units were pick-up teams by military standards, cobbled together out of odd specialties from the different branches of service, mostly comprised of personnel who had never before deployed.  At Camp Clark, we had Navy, Air Force, Marine, Army, civilians, and soldiers from two or three other countries.  Army personnel were both active duty and National Guard.  The National Guardsmen came from umpteen different states.  At any one time, about 10 of the military personnel were women and so too were maybe a couple of the civilian contractors.  Except for Guardsmen from the same state, none of us knew each other until we went through training at Fort Riley, or even until after we arrived in-country.

Somehow we had to get it together and keep it together.  I was in charge and responsible for the team’s success or failure.  Most of my day was spent working with my Afghan counterpart.  I also did the bulk of the coordination with our higher headquarters and the big Army units in our sector.  I planned and usually led the tactical missions that took us out the gate.

To keep things straight on the team and camp, I needed help.  Fortunately, I had two stout deputies—the team Executive Officer and team Sergeant Major.  Both were regular Army infantry, as was I, with years of service in good units.   Both were loyal to me, which was great.  More important, though, they were loyal to the Army.  They didn’t care if we were in the middle of Afghanistan or on the back side of the moon.  If they had anything to do with it, and they did, Camp Clark and the Roughrider ETT team were going to be squared away.

Sergeant Major was the highest ranking enlisted service member on Camp Clark and the best soldier, period.  Long tours in Ranger units and other high-speed line units made him, as the Army likes to say, “technically and tactically proficient” and intolerant of those who weren’t.  At Camp Clark, I never had to worry about soldiers dropping their uniform and haircut standards or forgetting the niceties of military protocol.  Sergeant Major was a standard-enforcing machine, and just wouldn’t let such things happen.  And when we headed out the gates, he ensured the crews, trucks, weapons, and equipment were ready.  The trucks were loaded per the SOP, battle drills were rehearsed, and everyone knew their jobs.  And yet he had a soft touch, and he understood he couldn’t be on everyone’s case day-in, day-out, in close quarters for a solid year.  Much of his leadership, therefore, was by example.  When the rest of us saw the rigor with which he lived up to the demands of duty, we couldn’t help but do the same.

The Executive Officer, or XO, was the second-in-charge of the team.  He also was offended by military incompetency and even more vocal than the Sergeant Major.  “OH-NO, HELL-NO,” he used to bellow at the first sign of sloppiness, stupidity, or selfishness.  But the XO had other strengths, too.  Primarily, he was a mission-accomplishing marvel.  His ability to turn the merest trace of an order or suggestion into a plan and then organize and motivate people to execute it was off-the-chart.  He was just endlessly relentless and resourceful when a task was at hand.  A good example was after Camp Clark early on took two direct hits by insurgent rockets.  The XO took it upon himself to improve our internal defenses.  Within days he had a half-dozen agencies and units outside our command building a more formidable barrier system to protect the barracks and other buildings.  Even more impressive, he began to scrounge electronic equipment that would give us some early warning and tracking ability of rocket attacks.  I can’t divulge details, but the fancy equipment that soon filled our Tactical Operations Center was all obtained back channel at no expense.  Nothing illegal, the XO just knew well the value of connections and persistence when it came to getting what he wanted.

What really distinguished the XO, though, was his magical ability to persuade people to happily perform hard, miserable jobs.  He wasn’t afraid to make anyone work, that’s for sure, but he tempered bluntness with a consideration and savvy that made people insanely eager to please him.  For instance, he eschewed military rank and last names and called everyone “Crazy,” as in “Hey, Crazy, here’s what I need you to do” or “Slacker,” as in “Hey, Slacker, I’ve got a mission that only you can do.”  Apparently, there’s something about being called “Crazy” or “Slacker” that causes soldiers to swell up with pride and grin goofily, as if some inner identity they cherished had just been recognized.  I saw it work hundreds of times, just like honey.

“Hey, Crazy, I need you to fill sandbags for the next ten hours.  Don’t even THINK of shamming out of it,” he might say early in the morning.  At sundown, Crazy would still be working, a mountain of sandbags by his side.

The XO was smart about people in other ways, too.  He knew, for example, when one soldier needed to be taken off a mission to take care of an issue, and when another needed to be told to shut the fuck up and stop making excuses.  When new women team members arrived, the XO would counsel them to be circumspect. “Watch out for the guy who says he just wants to talk or just be your friend,” he would say, “That’s the one who’s going to get you in trouble.”  They seemed to appreciate that, and he was right, too, as demonstrated by a couple of cases where the advice went unheeded.

There’s a lot more I could say, but I think you get the picture.  Sergeant Major and the XO ensured military order  and high morale prevailed on Camp Clark, and preserved our good reputation across Khowst and Paktya.  Well done, gentlemen, well done.

To the Moms, the Whole Love

May 13, 2012

Happy mother’s day, also my birthday.  Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered.  Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting.  For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch, author of Dust to Dust, describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:

“My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street.  Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.”

How to describe a mother’s anxiety about her child’s deployment?  Kaboom author Matt Gallagher’s mom writes:

“’I will be stalwart,’ I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.’

“But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.’

“‘And in despair, I bowed my head,’ she sang. ‘There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’

“And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.”

And if the child comes back wounded?  Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When The Men Are Gone, describes a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:

“And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: ‘Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?’”

And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life?  Benjamin Busch again:

“She had been a librarian.  All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out.  Nothing left but ash.”  Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”

So much hurt.  So much damage.  So many memories.  So much love.

Mothers, sons, daughters, everyone, make much of time.

My mother, Athens, Ohio, 1958, a few weeks after I was born.

Tani

May 7, 2012

On the road in Tani

“A rich indetermination gives them the function of articulating a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal meaning.”

So it was for place names in Afghanistan. No one knew why one place was a Bak and another a Shimbowat. This place a Sabari, and that a Nadir Sha Khat. What was the geneology of Khowst? But the foreign names achieved a lyric suggestiveness even-the-more-so, forever linking phonics with memory and ideas.

Children waving on the way to Tani

“A whole series of comparisons would be necessary to account for the magical powers proper names enjoy. They seem to be carried as emblems by the travelers they direct and simultaneously decorate.”

Well, yes. Gerde Serai was where SFC Dupont was killed. Yum Toy was where the rockets came from. Zormat and Narizah were places that we could never get to, no matter how hard we tried.

In Tani, people just said no to terrorism

“Numbered streets and street numbers orient the magic field of trajectories just as they can haunt dreams.”

True also for the names of towns and districts scattered about Khowst, Paktia, and Paktika. Important to the day-to-day accomplishment of missions but all the time accruing symbolic second meanings in the mind. Shwak, Jani Kheyl, Sharana. Margha, Gardez, Terra Zayi.  The most evocative of all was Tani. It was just such a pretty name and all our visits there were so pleasant. As you drove out, on a paved hardball road past some of the more interesting houses in Khowst, the children waved. Nothing bad ever happened there, or could happen there, it seemed. The locals were friendly and helpful. The police were orderly and efficient. Beyond Tani, the hardball gave out, and the IED-infested gravel road rose up toward the deadly mountain passes on the Pakistan border. But nothing bad could happen in Tani itself.

Pretty fields in Tani

Beautiful homes in Tani

“Linking acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions, these words operate in the name of an emptying-out and wearing-away of their primary role. They become liberated spaces that can be occupied….” The constructed order, that of place names on a map and political organization of the land and people, is “everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning” of the individual traveler.

That’s sort of a violent, but still poetic, way to talk about how we personalize our life circumstances, but I’ll buy it, sure.  Seems about right for Afghanistan.

Beyond Tani, the hardball gave out, and you had to be very careful

NOTE1:  All quotations are from Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” (1984).

NOTE2:  RIP MCA Adam Yauch.  There’s a song or musician lurking in the background of almost all my posts.  Today I’m making the architecture and inspiration visible.  Beastie Boys songs such as “A Year and a Day”Yauch-dominated from start-to-finish–reflect the bravery, beauty, drive, and smarts that I’m trying to channel here. Trying, I said, trying.

Orientalism

May 1, 2012

So, Time magazine reports in an article on the year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s death that Bin Laden was living in Khowst when the Al Qaeda hijackers took down the Twin Towers.  He listened to their fall on BBC’s Arabic service radio.

I didn’t know that. I wish I had. I wonder where in Khowst exactly? In Khowst city? Or one of the districts? One of the friendly, placid districts, or one of the mean, hostile ones? In a big kalat? Hell, I might have driven by it two dozen times or more. Or I could have made a special trip to have seen it, if I had known.  Terrorism tourism, so to speak.

But then there’s so much I didn’t know.  For example, I didn’t know while I was in Khowst that Pat Tillman had fought and died there, and I care a lot more about that than I do about where Osama Bin Laden was on 9/11.

Or, the origin of the big forts in Khowst, Matune Hill and Taktabeg Castle.  You could ask, but you never got a dependable answer.  The British.  The last Afghan royal regime. Alexander the Great. The Soviets.  Who knows?

Matune Hill fortress, downtown Khowst. Did OBL live here?

Or when Spera COP was built. What Khowst was like before Camp Clark. Just about any recent history.  When you drove around Khowst you could see relics of earlier goodwill initiatives set up by Americans and the UN after the fall of the Taliban.  A health clinic.  A women’s center.  Few were functioning now.  An officer returned to Khowst in 2009 after five years away.  He wanted to see a performing arts hall he had helped establish.  It wasn’t there any more.  What happened?

When it came to the Afghans with whom we worked, we knew even less. Even with those with whom I spoke daily, I knew so little about their private lives and personal histories. This one’s a Pashtun. That one’s a Tajik. He was a muj. He was Soviet. He’s been in command five years. He’s been here four. Edward Said writes of the typical way that Westerners speak of Arabs, “In statements as these, we note immediately that ‘the Arab’ or ‘Arabs’ have an aura of apartness, definiteness, and collective self-consistency such as to wipe out any traces of individual Arabs with narratable life histories.” The same is true of us in regard to Afghans. We generalize aggressively on the basis of one or two interactions. We see one thing, and we know their character. What to expect. What they will say. What they think. Implied in all this rush to judgment is that they don’t live up to our standards and values.

Take the faces in the picture below. Me. A young Afghan lieutenant. A much older Afghan brigadier general. A grizzled war-weary Afghan National Police chief. Forgetting about me for a moment, how to account for their individual perspectives? Their hopes?  Dreams? Fears?  What they’ve seen? How they bring their experience to bear on problems at hand?

It would take a novelist’s imagination to begin to account for it all. No one in a year deployment could come close.

Communication Breakdown

April 28, 2012

On the move in Khowst province, June 2009

A couple of readers have told me they couldn’t post comments. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ll try to fix it. If you’ve had the same problem, or just want to be sure your message reaches me, write me at petermolin@msn.com.

A Little Bit of Afghan Goofiness

April 28, 2012

Poet Brian Turner talks of a “little circle of stupidity” that lovingly enveloped his squad in Iraq.  By that he meant that their lives while deployed were saturated with comic moments and a general spirit of laughter.  In-between and alongside the scary moments and the overall seriousness, humor reigned and jokes prevailed.  Everything possible was played for laughs and teasing and ridicule were the rhetorical modes of choice.   The sentiment suggests that Turner’s squad just plain enjoyed soldiering in the company of like-minded colleagues.  It also speaks to the delta between the precision and competence with which his units’ missions were planned and the mishaps that characterized their execution.  Human, all too human.   Soldiers use humor to voice dissent and to keep standards high, while simultaneously cutting each other slack.  Laughter knits them together and prepares them for what’s next.

Much the same was true in Afghanistan.  You just never knew what was going to happen—every trip out the gate was an adventure, and much of it was comic.  The pictures here illustrate the point.  The ANA had driven one of their Ford Ranger trucks to the top of one of the mountains surrounding Camp Clark to resupply an OP.  Forgetting to set the emergency brake when getting out of the vehicle, they then watched the truck roll off the top of the hill and 500 feet down the mountain before crashing to a stop.

A day or so later we drove out and then hiked up to the vehicle.  There it stood, still functional and only slightly banged up.   Driving it off the mountain was impossible, though; it was going to take a helicopter to get it down.   What a mess, unnecessary and a huge distraction.

But while on the side of the mountain, we yukked it up.  Cracking jokes and posing for hammy pictures, we proposed goofy, impossible ways we might recover the vehicle.  Allah?  Goats?  The Taliban?  We might have castigated the Afghans for their carelessness, and we wouldn’t have been wrong.  But what would have been the point?   They knew they had screwed up.  And besides, it wasn’t like we were perfect.  We slid our big trucks off the roads, suffered breakdowns, and got lost at inopportune times, too.  We weren’t the 75th Rangers, we just weren’t, and I’m sure even the best units had their moments, too.

Tomorrow we would again fight the dooshmen. Today we had to get the truck off the side of the damn hill.  No use making anyone miserable while we were at it.


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