Air Force Band of Brothers

A long year has finally come to an end.  We are still spending our last days in Ali Al Salem AB, Kuwait waiting for the “Freedom Bird” to transport us to BWI Airport.  Here we will say our goodbyes and each of us will take a different connecting flight back to our homes and to our families who are anxiously awaiting our arrival.  It will be a bitter sweet moment when this happens.  It has been a long year we’ve shared together.

Helping to rescue Afghan family after a bad car accident at J-Bad Pass in June 2009.

When you live, sleep, and eat with a group of men over a year’s period of time, you develop a bond that is not only professional but personal as well.  These are the same team members you entrust your life to when going on a mission outside the wire.  But the bond my Air Force brothers shared was rather unique and I never experienced this type of closeness on any other deployments in the past.  Prior to this deployment, most of us had never met or knew each other.  We were assembled as a team at Fort Riley, Kansas.  Of the 10 personnel featured in the photograph, 8 of us were on the same team and shared the same open-bay sleeping quarters and trained together as a team.

My ETT Team displaying their Bronze Star Medals.

When you have this type of an arrangement, it’s hard not to learn about the personal lives, ambitions, and goals of your fellow members.  Even though we had a rank structure to include officer and enlisted, we established a strong bond of unity and personal friendship.  Being assigned to the Army had its challenges, but we learned the Army procedures and before long, we were conducting our own missions using Army vehicles and weaponry.  Our journeys took us outside the wire to some very remote villages.  Whether you were a gunner, driver, or truck commander, everyone played an integral role and you learned to trust each person with your life and theirs in return.  Unlike many teams who struggle with the forming and storming stage, our team quickly advanced past the norming stage and moved into the performing phase.  Bottom line:  We were damn good at what we did and efficient at how we did it!

Traveling through the Uzbin valley.

Our primary mission was to mentor the Afghan National Army (ANA) on logistics processes.  First, we had to understand the basic Afghan supply system patterned after the Army’s antiquated supply processes.  Then we were expected to advise our ANA counterparts on the intricacies of this logistics process.  Not only did we succeed, but collectively we excelled at our first camp with our ANA counterparts.  Our ANA Kandak was awarded the Minister of Defense’s Capability Milestone 1, which is the highest rating a unit can receive and the warehouse area was lauded as “best seen to date.”  So this was testament to what our team could achieve.

Jorga (village meeting) in Yakdand Mountains.

Not only did we accompany our ANA counterparts on logistics missions, we went on joint humanitarian missions to some secluded villages nestled in the Hindu Kush Mountains.  While on these journeys we saw poppy fields as far as the eyes could see and crude mud brick houses without electricity.  I affectionately called this “driving through the Old Testament area.”  We saw towering mountains and climbed a few along the way too.  It truly was an experience!!  Despite being exposed to the perils of rockets, mortars, RPGs, small arms fire, IED devices, and planned Taliban ambushes, we came out of this deployment unscathed.

Capt Matthew Freeman memorial Camp Blackhorse Aug. 2009

Unfortunately, we attended the memorial services of our camp mates and mourned for those who had their life taken by the insurgents we are at war with.  These men and women are the true heroes and their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

In the end, the US Army recognized our accomplishments as well and awarded my entire team Bronze Star Medals for “Exceptionally meritorious service in support of Operation Enduring Freedom … personal courage and commitment to mission accomplishment in a combat zone, under the most extreme of circumstances, greatly contributed to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom.”  What makes this medal so unique (without being self-serving) is that this is an Air Force team who was given an Army mission and performed remarkably in a combat zone.  I don’t know how many Air Force teams can make this same claim because it’s truly a unique accomplishment.  In fact, as the Army migrates to the “partnership concept”, the

We helped treat this little girl during a village medical mission in June 2009; her nose was rotting away from Mucocutaneous Leishmaniasis disease.

Embedded Training Teams (ETT) will disappear.  We were one of the last Air Force ETT teams left in Afghanistan and can proudly mark our place in history.

Tomorrow we fly our final leg of this journey together and then will go our separate ways when we land in Baltimore. It’s not a final goodbye because I have a feeling sometime in the future we will see each other again.  But this will be the last time we serve in this capacity as a team.  To my Air Force Band of Brothers, it was an honor and a privilege to serve with you.  I wish you all the best and to your families who are anxiously awaiting your return.  We can be proud of what we did and let us never forget, freedom is not free.

Female ANA General

From Liisa, SMSgt Temple’s wife: Rex is on his way home and may not be able to write today. So he asked me to post this video about one of only two Afghan women who have the rank of General in the Afghan National Army.

Radio chat for this week

From Liisa, SMSgt Temple’s wife: Rex has departed his camp and is on his long journey home. Before he left he had a chance to chat with WUSF Radio’s Bobbie O’Brien. They talked about Rex’s recent visit with two female Afghan National Army officers. You can download that chat by click on this link  4-12 MLT women ANA or if you would like to read the entire transcript, you can see it here.

Mujahedeen Revisited

After yesterday’s interview with a former Mujahedeen commander, I was inspired to revisit him.  I was prepared to meet the ANA Brigade surgeon but I couldn’t locate Mir Wais, the interpreter.  I wanted to get his side of the story before confronting the ANA officer.  Since he wasn’t available I opted to visit the garrison Religious Officer.  He

ANA Brigade surgeon during the school supplies drop after some ANA soldiers say the convoy first dropped off some of the donations at the Surgeon's house.

agreed to bring in his revolver that was presented to him by his former commander Massoud.

As Omid and I walked to the RO’s office, I thought about the Brigade Surgeon and the allegations of him stealing the children’s school supplies.  As much as I want to confront him with these allegations, I also want to leave this country in peace and not be distressed during my final days here.  Last night it really bothered me, but my wife and some friends responded with some comforting words and support.  As such, I will leave this chapter unfinished and go forward with my journey because there would be no just resolution.  I will chalk it up to another case of corruption that is sadly destroying this country.

Major Shah and his assistant religious officer were in their office and must have been waiting on me because on the table was some Naan bread, Afghan- made cake, and empty chai glasses.  He asked Omid and I to sit down and they would join us.  Another soldier filled our glasses with some hot green chai.  It’s called green tea due to the leaves, but it has a yellow color in appearance.  In the corner, another ANA officer sat busy reading a book.  Major Shah introduced him and revealed this officer was also a former Mujahedeen commander who served under the Massoud the Lion of Panjshir.  I was rather excited to have two former Mujahedeen commanders in the same room.

Before we started eating, Major Shah presented his pistol to me.  I could tell by the way he gingerly handled it, this gift meant a lot to him.  By him placing it into my hands was a true gesture of friendship and trust.  As for the weapon, it wasn’t really anything special to look at.  It was a Spanish-made LLama, .32 caliber pistol and the pistol handgrip was severely worn.  But it held sentimental significance, because Massoud presented this to Major Shah shortly after his Mujahedeen fighters destroyed 5 Soviet Commando helicopters.  I found it ironic they used Soviet made Zeko 1 mortars to destroy the Soviet aircraft.

Pistol presented to Major by Massoud.

When I inquired about Massoud’s leadership traits, the Major could only praise his former commander.  He said, “Massoud was a devout Muslim who prayed 5 times a day” and he was not only known as a military strategist, but equally known for his kindness and forgiveness.  These personal characteristics also played an important role in his battle successes.  When the Mujahedeen would capture Soviet-Afghan soldiers, they were treated as detainees and given an option.  They could remain a detainee or they could return to the Soviet-Afghan Army and provide intelligence on the Soviet movements.  The Major referred to these former detainees as “friends” inside the Soviet Army.  Much of their plans for ambushing relied heavily on good intelligence reports from these “friends.”

Me with 2 former Mujahedeen commanders.

As I presumed, the turning point in the conflict with the Soviets was when the Mujahedeen acquired the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.  This weapon system was an equalizer to the Soviet MI-24 gunship helicopters.  The rebels nicknamed this helo “Satan’s Chariot” due to its awesome firepower and bombing capabilities.  NATO refers to it as the Hind.  After the introduction of this heat seeking system and the downing of 270 aircraft, the Soviets were less reluctant to fly them into battle and by 1989, the Soviets completely withdrew from Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen declared victory.

After the Soviets departed, there was a vacuum of power and the Mujahedeen factions were fighting among each other in attempt to gain power and control of the country.  This allowed the Taliban to rise to power and Pakistan unleashed thousands of brain-washed Wahhabism students from the Saudi Arabian- financed madrassas to fill the void.  When asked, Major Shah said the Taliban are a much tougher opponent than the Soviets.   The Taliban coincidentally is also composed of former Mujahedeen fighters.  They are still employing the same tactics against the coalition forces as they did fighting the Russians.

In order to defeat the Taliban, Major Shah listed several criteria.  First, the endemic corruption must be removed from all sectors of government to include the ANA.  He felt there is still too much nepotism and cronyism based on ethnic tribe origin, i.e.Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun.  The second factor is the people are not satisfied with the current government and they must unify.  Unity is the key and he repeated this theme several times.  Then he shocked me with his next statement.  He alleged Britain was supporting the Taliban.  I found this preposterous and gave him an opportunity to explain.

Maj Shah alleged Britain is playing both sides because they are supporting the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Pakistan.  The ISI in turn is supporting the Taliban.  For the next 20 minutes I defended Britain and the Religious Officer never answered my questions directly.  He claimed the security situation is worse in Herat because of the Brits and that they don’t suffer many casualties.  I strongly objected because Britain has the second highest casualty rate behind the United States.  He also mentioned something about revenge against the United States that didn’t make sense to me.  (Note:  After the interview I tried to discuss this in more detail with Omid and I got the impression what he was inferring that Britain wanted the United States to lose the war, the same way the Soviets did.  I recall a snippet from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates memoirs, “From the Shadows”, the United States saw an opportunity “give the Soviets their Vietnam” and they took the bait and invaded Afghanistan.)

I am still perplexed over this whole issue.  There were rumors that Britain used their helicopters and dropped off the Taliban fighters in the Mazir Sharif province.  But I explained to Major Shah, this is an example of how the Taliban spread rumors in the same way they allege American soldiers intentionally burn the Koran.  These rumors are propaganda and only incite violence, demonstrations and infuriate the Afghan citizens.  However, due to the high illiteracy rate, the people believe their religious mullahs and the rumors.

Our conversation continued and the other former Mujahedeen commander decided to join in this spirited conversation.  His father was a Mujahedeen who was killed during the Soviet occupation and this seemed to inspire his fight against the Soviets.  Seeing that our conversation was at a stalemate, he shifted the topic and directed his blame toward Pakistan’s interference.  He detailed how Pakistan arrested the two Taliban leaders who were going to meet with Karzai to discuss possible reconciliation.  He alleged Pakistan arrested them to prevent them from discussing peace propositions with President Karzai.  He said, Karzai asked Pakistan to release them, but they didn’t.

So I decided to dig further to understand the political ramifications of Pakistan’s alleged involvement.  This is when this commander informed me it’s not really political as it is economical.  Pakistan is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in support to fight the Taliban and their country is being used as an avenue to transport fuel, food, equipment, etc. to the coalition forces in Afghanistan.  As such, they make a large profit off this venue.  The commander also said Pakistan did the same thing when the United States was covertly supporting the Mujahedeen.  He said Pakistan would take their share of profit before giving money to the Mujahedeen.  So basically Pakistan doesn’t want this war to end because they don’t want to lose the millions of dollars being provided by the United States.  “Pakistan has no motivation to stop the war or the money would dry up,” he said.  This same theme has come up in other conversations, except instead of Pakistan, it is Afghanistan who doesn’t want this war to end.  The corrupt war lords and government officials enjoy receiving million dollar contracts which they subcontract out for pennies on the dollar and in turn, they become wealthy.  So if the Taliban can be kept at a stalemate, the millions and billions of dollars in aid will continue to flow in, subsequently making government officials extremely rich.

I’m glad I went back for the 2nd interview, but still puzzled about the allegations against Britain. This time I can’t attribute the misinformation due to lack of education, because the people who I conversed with are educated and seem to be very well informed.  To my British friends and brothers in arms, I don’t believe this allegation for a minute.  So please don’t be upset with my entry, because I am only reporting information from an interview.  Surprisingly, this is the 4th or 5th person who has made this same claim.

Interview with Former Mujahedeen Commander

Former Mujahedeen commander.

At 22 years of age he was single and attending school in Kabul.  The Soviets were already attempting to establish a Soviet-Marxist government in Afghanistan.  Then in December 1979 after executing President Daoud and his family, the Soviet invasion began.  The Soviets brutally attacked villages and provinces opposed to their presence.  Because of these attacks, Major Shah opted to join the Mujahedeen and fight for his country’s freedom against the Soviet occupation.

With his family’s support, he left school and traveled to a Pakistan military training camp.  After one year of intensive training, he returned to his home province of Panjshir as part of the Mujahedeen force.  In one of his first engagements with the Soviet commandos, he claimed to have destroyed 5 helicopters with artillery using Soviet made mortars.  Because of this action, he was promoted to the rank of commander by Ahmad Shah Massoud.  Massoud commonly nicknamed the Lion of Panjshir and also known as the formidable leader of the Northern Alliance presented him a pistol and promoted him to commander status.  As a commander, at any given time he had 300-1000 Mujahedeen fighters under his command.

The ANA Major and I discussed some tactics and military strategy used by the Mujahedeen against the Soviets.  He confirmed when the Soviets would find an IED, at times they would gather around the explosive device for a group picture.  Meanwhile one of his fighters would patiently wait for this opportunity and set off the explosive.  The Major also explained how his Mujahedeen fighters would travel in small groups and ambush the Soviets, similar to the tactics used by the Taliban in attacking coalition forces today.  The key to a successful attack was in planning.  The Mujahedeen fighters would take advantage of the dense vegetation and hide among the trees so they could not be seen by the Soviet helicopters.  They would also attack in early morning or evening when the helos were not present.

Major Shah and I also discussed the use of mines and IEDs as part of their arsenal.  He explained how they would mask their mines or IEDs from the Soviet bomb sniffing dogs.  His fighters would disguise the smell of the explosives by sprinkling spices and fish.  The dogs disliked the smell and would avoid the mines.  He said the Soviets never caught on to this tactic.  Ironically it was a Soviet landmine that ended his Jihad with Massoud’s forces.  He stepped on a landmine and the explosion tore through his feet, hands, and severely injured his left eye.  According to him, American doctors in Panjshir treated his injuries.  He still has visible scars on his hands and there is something noticeably wrong with his eye, but I didn’t want to pry any further.

The religious officer also made a point that their neighboring countries are interfering with the war.  He specifically mentioned Pakistan and Iran.  He alleged these countries are providing weapons and training to the Taliban.  Judging by his demeanor, this obviously upset him to discuss this issue.

After our interview, he inquired if I would like to see the new ANA library.  This was an opportunity I was waiting on.  While walking, I was trying to think of some quote to say about the importance of a library.  My initial thought was a Chinese proverb, “A book is like a garden in the pocket”, but after further thought, I figured this might be too hard for Omid to translate.  Then I thought about the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A man is known by the books he reads”.  This just didn’t seem fitting either, so I resorted to a quote from our 33rd President, Harry S. Truman, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers”.

It's the beginning of a library.

The new library was shaping up.  The walls were lined with book shelves made out of particle board and a reading station was positioned in the middle of the room.   In one small corner of the room and on the shelves were all the English books I donated along with 99 books from the previous ANA library.  The only problem they are facing now is security for the facility and having someone there to account for the books.  Part of the remaining building is used for other functions and unless another wall is constructed, they cannot maintain security of the books.  I was happy to see the library and the books, so the finer details of operation will have to be resolved among the ANA leadership.  I get a sense this library will expand and won’t mysteriously disappear like the one at my former camp.

The library is finally completed and books are on the shelves.

Tomorrow I am going to return to see the pistol gifted to him by Massoud and hope to explore in more detail about the Mujahedeen.  My batteries died on the recorder, so I stopped the interview.

Corruption – My Last Straw

Me loading a big roll of HA blankets.

It started off as a perfect morning.  I had some extra time for breakfast and enjoyed a fluffy egg omelet, fresh fruit, and washed it down with some mediocre tasting coffee.  Omid and I loaded the truck with large bags of clothing, blankets, and first aid kits.  In addition, I had some boxes of hygiene items and some other gifts to present to my ANA counterparts as parting gifts.

Our first stop was the Kandak Religious Officer (RO) and Mullah’s office.  We ran into the ANA Sergeant Major and I asked him to boil some water for chai because we would visit his office next.  The Mullah was in the RO’s office and I didn’t have to chase him down.  They were both happy to see me and more so when they saw I had some gifts.  Previously the Mullah was having trouble with his cell phone and asked if I could find one for him.  At my previous camp, the ANA Sergeant Major gave me two cell phones to use, even though I rarely used them.  I suspect he felt guilty about gouging me on the contracts I gave him, he would reciprocate a little.  So instead of giving the phone away to another soldier, I gave this phone to the Mullah.  His eyes really lit up when I presented it to him.  The RO also had a request.  He had a problem with his memory stick, so I replaced it with a new one.  He too, was very happy with his gift.

The Mullah and RO were sad to see me go and thanked me for everything I did in supporting the literacy class and for distributing humanitarian assistance in the villages.  I joked, “I’m not ready to be converted to the Muslim faith and that I was going to remain with my book (Bible).”  The Mullah, a man of few words, “Wished me the best with my travels back to the United States and happiness to my family.  They will be sad to see me go.” Before leaving, we took a picture together and I thanked them for teaching me about Afghanistan and the Koran.

Saying goodbye to Kandak Religious Officer and Mullah.

Our next stop was the ANA Sergeant Major’s office.  We walked into his room and the teapot was boiling water and bubbling over the sides on to the table.  He was still using the same bag of tea leaves that I previously gave him as a gift.  Since the SGM is supporting 12 children, I presented him several boxes of hygiene items for his family to use.  I also gave him an opportunity to pick through some of the clothes that were loaded on the back of the pick-up truck.

While sipping our chai, he revealed some information about the ANA school supply distribution.  Some of his soldiers participated on this mission.  According to his soldiers, after the school supplies were loaded on the back of a truck, they made a detour before arriving at the school.  The truck stopped at the ANA Brigade Surgeon’s house and he had the soldiers off load several boxes of school supplies and a portion of the Beanie Babies.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!  Here was a man I entrusted and to save face and keep our promises, I divided the school supplies and Beanie Babies for distribution to the village school.  This is the same village where the ANA surgeon was born at.  Now I find out he deprived his own people of goods only to enrich himself.  I was livid and still am!!  Interestingly enough, he is not a real doctor either and apparently knew someone to get his position and title of ANA Brigade Surgeon!  Furthermore, we already suspected him of taking medicines from the pharmacy along with some of the other medics.  Coincidentally, they all own pharmacies in Kabul city.  After this school supply thievery, I would not be surprised he is also stealing medicines from the ANA medical warehouse to resupply his privately owned pharmacy.

ANA Brigade surgeon who allegedly had school supplies dropped off at his house.

Note:  I am still contemplating what to do.  I have no real proof and a soldier will not provide testimony against an officer.  Even if he did, there would be little ramifications due to a weak and inadequate justice system.  Somehow I want him to know that I know what he did. I will have to sleep on this one and determine my course of action.

The ANA SGM still wants to give me a gift too.  He wanted to take me to his house and eat a home-cooked Afghan meal together.  But he knew for security reasons this wouldn’t be possible.  Instead, he is going to bring the food and offered to make me lunch tomorrow.  This will be his parting gift to me.  I am not sure if the man knows how to cook, but tomorrow I will find out.  It’s the thought that counts.

Our next stop was at the ANA Family Support Center.  The garrison Religious Officer and his assistant were waiting on me and the truckload of supplies.  I tried to assist with offloading the truck, but the RO insisted the soldiers do it and for Omid and I to come into his office to chat.  This is the officer who formerly served as a Mujahedeen commander under Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance who fought against the Soviets and the Taliban.  To be cont’d…..

ANA On Their Own

Afghan children hoping to get more school supplies.

Yesterday I mentioned that the ANA visited a village school and dropped off school supplies and Beanie Babies for the children.  Today I had an opportunity to discuss the trip with Mir Wais, the interpreter who accompanied them and took these photos.

Since there was so much stuff to transport, they piled everything into a 7 ton truck including some of the vitamins and medicines our medic provided.  The shelf life on the medicines was expiring soon, so this was a beneficial way to dispose of them instead of throwing them away.

Beanie Babies and school supplies waiting to be handed out.

The ANA Brigade surgeon along with his contingent of soldiers drove to the village school.  This school hosts both boys and girls during the same time period.  However, the buildings are segregated and inaccessible to each other.  One side has the girls’ classrooms and the other side houses the boys.  But in typical Afghan fashion, the girls are not provided the same resources as the boys.  None of the classrooms for the girls has any desks in them, except one designated for the teacher.

Afghan girls pose with school supplies.

But all the boys’ classrooms have antiquated desks and benches.  The girls are required to sit on the worn out floor mats while the teacher conducts the lesson or sits at the only desk present in the room.

Notice only one desk in the classroom for the teacher.

The principal insisted on handing out the school supplies to the boys first and then

Afghan boys reaching for pencils.

anything left over be given to the girls.  What was really surprising is that the girls have a female principal and she was totally unaware of what was going on.  Otherwise, they could have split the school supplies equally.  So the boys prevailed this time and received notebooks, pens, pencils, and Beanie Babies.  Only a handful of girl classrooms were given any items.

Afghan girls receiving Beanie Babies.

I’ve mentioned before in my blog, we aren’t just trying to rebuild a nation, but the real challenge is changing a culture.  I’m sure I have critics who disagree with me and even the term “ nation-building” is not PC, but I really don’t know how else to explain it.  Our taxpayer dollars contribute to 50 percent of this country’s national budget.  Much of it is specifically coded for the ANA and the ANP salaries and resources.  In addition, we are expending hundreds of millions of dollars for building infrastructure projects to include roads, dams, wells, electricity access, sewage systems, etc.  We are building schools and refurbishing them along with providing agricultural assistance in the form of seeds, saffron bulbs, etc.   So if that is not nation building, I don’t know what is.  I suppose the correct term is a generous aid package for rehabilitation.

What really gets me upset is the amount of corruption that continues to fester in this country.  I am a big proponent of education and seeing these young girls forced to sit on raggedy floor mats is appalling.  This school is less than 10 miles from the capital city where corrupt government officials are becoming wealthy by siphoning off the aid that is received in this country.  Sure they try to legitimize it by paying high consultation fees (bribes) or charge American prices on contracts only to subcontract it out and pay pennies on the dollar while pocketing the difference.  One could argue that at least these girls have a school building and are permitted to attend, unlike the remote villages where females are prohibited from going to school and the female illiteracy rate is above 80 percent.

Women are not treated equally here, including the women who serve in the ANA and ANP.   Even the women elected to Parliament (who I recall compose one third of this body) are powerless and vote according to the powerful warlords and businessmen who put them into office.  In the next paragraph I have copied an article from today’s local newspaper.  I will let you form your own opinions.

***

MAZAR-I-SHARIF – Afghan officials have banned women from having an exclusive day for visiting the main shrine in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif, saying the restriction was imposed for security reasons. The head of Balkh Women’s Affairs Department, Fariba Majeed, told Pajhwok Afghan News that the restriction was in place both for security and traffic problems. Before the restriction, at least the initial five Wednesdays of each solar year were reserved for women to visit the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam. Ms Majeed said a number of ‘immorality incidents’ were reported during those exclusive days, which led to the women’s visit ban. She argued that a girl, who eloped with a man and then returned, told the interrogators that she had met the man on a Wednesday at the Shrine. However, the ban was welcomed by religious scholars, but not by women in the city, saying the move was a violation of their right. They argued that moving around ‘independently’ in the courtyard of the shrine on every Wednesday provided them opportunity to enjoy and entertain themselves. However, the women’s affairs director said that small parks had been constructed for women in different areas of the city and they could go and enjoy their leisure hours there. A local Maulvi, Abdul Rahman Rahmani, said the shrine was a sacred place and not an area of enjoyment for women.

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