Monday, July 21, 2008

Re-bonding Time

Before I came home from Afghanistan, I asked each of my kids what they wanted to do with just their dad; without having to share the time.

My oldest daughter wants to bike the Loveland bike trail. I took all them out on the trail for an 18 mile jaunt, towing the youngest two in a bike trailer. That didn't count; by my own reckoning. I still owe her a day on the trail. We've been rained-out and had scheduling conflicts with her Irish dance, but we're going to try again next week, I think.

My youngest daughter wants her dad to take her ice skating. She recently broke her arm playing, so that's got to wait. Then perhaps dad can break his arm.

My 13 year old son wanted to go canoing, so I took him canoing today on the Little Miami River.

Before we got to the canoe livery, I stopped and picked up four bottles of water for the trip. Shortly after we got started, I said, "Son, chuck me one of those waters."

His response was typical of a 13 year old; "What?"

I repeated myself, word for word. He glanced at me over his shoulder with a look that clearly said, "That sounds crazy, but if you say so..."

He raised his paddle in the air and splashed backwards with enthusiasm, showering me with water.

I still can't figure out exactly what the thought pattern was that converted tossing me a bottle of water into a request to be moistened. The sad part is; he can't tell me, either. Somehow or other, he really thought that I had just requested for him to douse me with his canoe paddle.

Perhaps an appointment with a speech pathologist is necessary. It is entirely possible that I am reaching that age when I sound, to anyone under the age of thirty, like an amazing imitation of Charlie Brown's teacher. I thought I said, "Chuck me a water," but what he heard was, "Bwa waa wa wa waaa waaaaah."

Perhaps teenagers suddenly develop dog hearing upon reaching that magical age of 13. Perhaps I actually did ask him to chuck me a bottle of water, but all he heard was, "Son, wurfel rommit zumpf water." All he knew was that it was a command having to do with water. Being actually afloat on the stuff, I had to be demanding to be summarily drenched. He immediately complied.

I guess I should feel glad that no matter how crazy he may think it is, he will do whatever I tell him to do. Or, he could be like the old man in the movie who says he can get away with flipping everyone off because they think that he's senile.

I love being a father.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

O Weighs In On Chai

When I wrote the post on chai, I asked O if he would like to elaborate on the chai experience from his point of view. He responded days ago, but I had some pressing steam to vent about our journalistic brethren helping Taliban IO and the pathetification of veterans by the NYT.

Without further ado, here's what my bro O has to say about chai:

The experience of Chai; it’s an ice breaker and meeting tool, it’s a reflection time and it’s a coordination necessity. What does all this gibberish mean?

Let’s start with an ICE BREAKER. New fresh-faced Americans who are still adjusting to the smells and sights of the Afghan experience are invited to Chai. The experience is exciting and unnerving all at the same time. The relaxed Afghans are testing our resolve and understanding of the Afghan culture.

It’s not as scientific as one might think. The Afghans like to joke and be social during Chai breaks. Many evaluate you as you struggle with whether or not to remove your body armor. Indecision is weakness. By the end of the year your casually toss your stinky armor in the corner and in some cases are welcome enough to pour yourself refills if so desired. This is a huge acceptance in the community.

During Chai and all meals you are the guest of honor (more to follow on this one). You are expected to sit at the position next to the chief Afghan; whether it be Commanders, as was generally our case, or Mullahs, Government officials etc. You are expected to sit drink and be waited on. On many occasions I dismissed all but the key leaders and my “Terp” to discuss shop during Chai. It was on these occasions that I was accepted to pour my own refills.

MEETING TOOL. All things have a tactical purpose in Afghanistan. These purposes may not be military in a manner, but tactics play a definite role in the enjoyment of Chai. On many occasions, the mentors and ANA ETTs were invited to coordination meetings with our counterparts, the ANP and ANA.

As previously illustrated, the ANP and ANA have a deep hatred for each other. I would liken it to the healthy rivalry between the Army and Marines or the Police and Fire Departments stateside. Only in Afghanistan, it’s borderline homicidal hatred. The Army has had more time with one on one mentors than the Police and hence have a more stable leadership and structure necessary for success. The Police are coming along but still have some serious issues.

Many of these the ANA hold this against the ANP and chastise the ANP whenever possible. Needless to say, these coordination meetings can become very heated and hostile. Here comes the tool part of Chai; at the height of any argument, the ignorant American interrupts a pretty good argument and asks for Chai. Everything stops. Everything! Tactical change of subject stops the argument and the day goes forward. The problem resolved; at least for now.

REFLECTION TIME. On other occasions, I have sat with complete strangers and comrades alike all discussing the positive past experiences, through my terp, of course. Many of the Afghans truly feel honored to work with the Americans. Many of us did not realize this fact until later in the deployment.

They want to believe you, but will be untruthful as any 7 year old with cookie crumbs all over their shirt, swearing it was the little brother or sister who got into the cookie jar. A good firefight working together bonds people in ways that are nearly impossible to articulate. However, if you fight like a warrior in the face of the enemy you have earned your seat at any Afghan’s side.

As Americans, we fight with an audacity that is bred into our traditions and practices. Although the most frightening thing a human can experience, most firefights are physically and mentally easier than the training we conduct to prepare for them. These are the experiences many former Mujahadin reflect upon concerning driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

The Taliban or “Bad Guys” are disliked not as much for the purposes of their mission, but for the cowardly manner in which they go about them. Chai tends to bring out many differing philosophies on WAR and human kind. I have actually been in a very in depth conversation about the theological differences between Islam and Catholicism; all over Chai.

GUEST OF HONOR. Stone Cold and I had the rare opportunity to track down “Bad Guys” who decided they no longer wanted us alive. After a few exciting hours of rockets, machine guns, helicopters and the various tools of war, we decided to muster our Afghans and counterattack. A dismounted counterattack in the mountains of Afghanistan is more like a deliberate walk up the mountain hoping you catch the bad guys. Well, we had no such luck this day.

We walked and walked and walked. We surveyed positions that were being used as firing positions and later destroyed by Apache helicopters before our eyes. We followed all the signs and carnage of the flying arsenals. Well, the bad guys slipped through our net this day; no doubt a few less on the roster for the next inning. We searched khalats and villages with zeal.

At the very last village in this particular valley we encountered some Afghans who really thought we were Russian. Their misinformation led them to believe that we were here to eat their children and disgrace their women. When we did no such thing it was a unique reaction. After the last building was searched and all was cleared so to speak, the Afghans spread out a blanket and insisted we eat lunch. All the while a fierce firefight was occurring a few thousand meters below us.

Well, we were hungry and tired; and well, we took the opportunity to enjoy. A spread of bread, eggs, green and black chai was before us. We ate hastily actually joking amongst ourselves. One individual, an American among us, commented, “They won’t attack us if we are their guests.” Well, he was right.

We immediately embraced “Chai with a Bad Guy”, a term we repeated many times throughout our tour.

At one point during lunch, the Apache reported taking fire from a location between us and the forces below. The pilot requested we all “POP” smoke to identify our positions. I had purple smoke, correctly named “violet” but purple works just fine for me. I heard other units identify their color smoke to the waiting pilots.

Off to our southeast I saw a small plume of red smoke. The pilot addressed all ground units to confirm smoke color. Lo and behold; the bad guys observed all of us signaling the helicopter and decided to join the party in an effort to feint their location. After a tense few minutes the ground commander figured out the trick and cleared the Apache to engage the red smoke. A very smart and ingenious tactic on the bad guy’s behalf didn’t work out so well for them that day.

I feel confident those bad guys never made it off that mountain.

Well, it was a little more than just Chai, but it all blends into the experience.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Information Operations

There is a reason why we lost the Viet Nam War. There is a reason why we are struggling with this one. We are counterinsurgency-challenged. We are not highly skilled at it as a whole. The Army is a rigid, inertia-bound organization which is in motion, but finds it difficult to change course. We are conventional warriors who find it very difficult to make the shift to being unconventional, asymmetric warriors; which are exactly what we need to be.

The basic soldier skills are not that difficult to teach or to train. How to think like an insurgent; not so easy. How not to think and behave like an elite better-than-thou soldier; not so easy. How to be a highly trained and proficient as soldiers without having to look down on everyone else; not so easy. How to see unfamiliar patterns, unfamiliar situations, unfamiliar social structures, unfamiliar relationships and find a way to read them, to come to understand; not so easy.

Learning to manage information, to use the truth, to behave in such a way that you are not afraid of the truth; not so easy. To fight lies and misrepresentations and misinformation with truth; not so easy. We are absolutely miserable at it.

That's the Army. The Armed Forces. That's our issue.

Two days ago a flurry of stories came out in various papers, some versions slightly different than others. Two separate air strikes were made in Nangarhar and Nuristan provinces respectively. The stories developed and changed slightly during the day.

The gist is that in two very remote areas there were airstrikes made that a coalition spokesman stated killed insurgents. The governors of the respective provinces provided disturbing information; civilians were killed. But it was worse; the Nangarhar deaths were a wedding party, and no less than the bride was killed. At 6:30 am, it was reported, an American jet had bombed a wedding party that had stopped to rest on the wedding march between two remote villages.

There is no more joyous event in Afghanistan than a
wedding. There is no more heinous crime than to take such joy and turn it to tragedy. Especially by killing the bride.

Note that the governor did not witness these casualties himself, but his office received calls.

It gets better. The governor of Nuristan, Governor Nuristani, added to his original story as well. The deaths in Waygal province of Nuristan, the twenty two civilians in two cars (I've seen a lot of Afghans in a car, but twenty two in two cars would be a record) were also a wedding party. Oh, the humanity!

Apparently Afghan weddings attract bombs like trailer parks attract tornadoes. What are the odds? I mean, what are the freakin' odds?

They're really not that good, I assure you. Remember, I've got the T-shirt, okay? I saw lots of wedding parties during my sojourn in A'stan; none were at 6:30 am. Read the wedding story and look at the timeline. Also note that if there is no public hall, like in a remote village, the wedding is held at the bride's parent's home.

Not the groom's.

Also, if it was the women's party, why were "only two men" killed? There would be no men with that party.

Hitler himself said, "If you tell a big enough lie and tell frequently enough, it will be believed."

Afghans do not take dead bodies to hospitals. Only the living. The dead are immediately prepared for burial. Those killed at 6:30 in the morning are required to be in the ground by sundown. If they die late in the day, the next day is okay for burial. There is no time to transport bodies from remote villages to a hospital.

Waygal has no hospital. I was in Nuristan for three months. Governor Nuristani is no saint, either. We knew that.

I have the T-shirt.

The thing is that in the types of operations that we are engaged in, we often operate in tiny groups. I have been, and O has been, and LTC Cold has been the only American within literally miles in the middle of bad guy country. The only help that we could hope to get quickly enough to make a difference was an airstrike. It is the big hammer that we carried, and at times the mere appearance of an aircraft, be it an Apache, an A-10, or an F-15, was enough to "mellow out" the insurgents.

The arrival of "air" on the scene has caused attacks to cease and has prevented attacks that were planned from happening. How do I know? I was there.

The Taliban, HiG, and the rest would love, love, love for it to be even harder than it already is to get an airstrike approved. It is SOP that anytime there is a strike, claims are made that it was a group of civilians, often a group that would add particular human interest. Women and children, especially babies, are particularly tragic victims.

Who spreads these fairy tales? Oh, only every damned newspaper in this truth forsaken country.

Oh, hey... check the bylines on the stories. Stringers. Who is feeding us this crap? Why does our media feed us this and never any of the accomplishments?

Why does our own media print enemy propaganda? They tell the lie often enough. It isn't even questioned.

The only places that I ever saw mainstream media correspondents were in Kabul and at Bagram. Those are two very very safe places. Ridiculously safe compared to being out in Tag Ab. They never went to Tag Ab. They never came out to see the villages in Nuristan struggling to find security, getting electricity and flood control for the first time. Nope, never saw them there.

Al Jazeera was in Tag Ab. Twice. The propaganda piece that the second crew shot is shown lower on this page. It's not that Tag Ab wasn't newsworthy; Al Jazeera sent a second crew in after their first crew inexplicably neglected to file a report. That shows how newsworthy Al Jazeera thought it was.

There was, during the operation, one attempt by American mainstream media journalists to attend the party. A crew from 60 Minutes was turned back when they were intercepted enroute to the Tag Ab. You never heard about that, because they were turned back because they had not gone through the proper channels to get cleared. They were practicing their usual ambush journalism and got deflected. Nothing to squawk about there, they tried to be sneaky and break the rules and they got busted. It was a non-story.

But it's worse than that; we reviled American mainstream journalists, and 99+% of Americans get their news from them. If you are reading this blog, you are not in that 99+%.

All I know is this; you are not getting the stories. There are so many people who are doing difficult, dirty, confusing, successful-by-inches work over there, and you're not getting that. Almost none of the reporters are going out there. We used to see stories about what we were doing being reported as disjointed events by some guy sitting in Kabul.

American reporters sit in Kabul and the Green Zone and send out stringers. Why is that report in the NYT written by Abdul and Sangar?

The lie is told often enough because our media is too lazy or scared to actually do their own jobs.

I remember a lie that was questioned; by myself and a lot of others.

In her latest in a series of articles called "War Torn," (catchy, isn't it?) Lizette Alvarez even dares to refer to the widely rebuked article:

"This year, a New York Times examination of killings in this country by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan found that drinking or drug use was frequently involved in the crimes."

The newest in the series of how the war is turning soldiers and Marines into victims is about how alcohol and drug addiction is a looming problem that our PTSD-addled combat veterans bring to the table of society.

Lizette, remember, I have the T-shirt. I had the briefings, the post-deployment health assessment, I had help and counseling offered on the spot. As for fear of revelations of substance issues, there are AA meetings (which are not monitored by commands) on every major military installation. There were flyers posted on bulletin boards at Bagram for AA meetings.

As far as counseling, they practically throw it at you.

The point is that it is an individual's personal responsibility to take care of their health and that of their family. We have all seen people in our lives who had issues. Drinking, drugs, objectionable behavior... we've all seen it.

And they always had an excuse. How convenient to get into trouble and cry out that I am a victim. "It was the war," I cry, "It was the war that made me do it."

Soldiers and Marines are people. In the general population, about 10% are alcoholics. Alcoholism is a disease that does not sleep when the afflicted are not drinking. It returns with a vengeance upon return to drinking. Every year, there are nearly a half million DUI citations issued in the United States.

Most of them plead not guilty. The non-veterans would love to have such a convenient excuse. It doesn't stop them, though. The non-veterans have excuses, too. Lizette just doesn't care about their excuses, because it doesn't suit her agenda.

Demonizing soldiers and Marines, portraying us as unwittingly maimed victims... still potentially dangerous even in our victim states; what could the agenda be? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that there is an agenda. It's a series, for Pete's sake. It's already been demonstrated that Lizette manipulated data to make it appear as if returning veterans were more dangerous than non-veterans, when in fact you are actually less likely to be slaughtered by a returning war veteran than a non-veteran.

Weird, isn't it? Perhaps it's because we've seen enough death to last us awhile. Perhaps it's because we know what weapons and violence are for and this ain't it.

What could the agenda be? Suggestions, anyone?

Lizette, we are soldiers. We volunteered. We are not victims. Some of us may be hurt, and many of us have seen and done things that we hope that nobody we care about will ever have to. We were in a fight, and sometimes people get banged up in a fight. We are still soldiers, and we are still responsible.

PTSD is real, and the Army takes it very seriously. We had to have briefings and have help offered just to come home for a two week leave. We were not allowed to leave Kuwait without it. They even addressed the substance abuse issue. But most soldiers do not have issues that require intervention, and so it is up to the individual soldier first. Then it is up to their chain of command to recognize a problem and get help before there are consequences.

But we are still responsible for our actions. The worst thing you can do to us is to not hold us responsible for our own actions. It's amazing what it can do for a man to have to take responsibility for his actions.

We are not victims, we are not monsters, and we do not need to be relieved of responsibility for our own actions.

One other thing, Lizette... there are tragic stories of lives coming apart all over the place. Most of us have seen friends or classmates or even family members come unglued. A lot of people call these folks losers. Sensationalizing their problems is poor sportsmanship, really. It's just gossip writ large.

Not nice.

These are just two examples of how badly we are kicking our own ass in Information Operations. Instead of actually trying to learn about what we are trying to accomplish, our own media just reports whatever's easy. There is no meaningful discussion out there in the MSM about the goals of counterinsurgency. While I was in Tag Ab, there were a couple of little splashes on the screen back home of some vaguely detailed violence in Tag Ab. There was a lot of good work done in that valley. People back home never heard a thing about it. I couldn't write about it except in general terms, but a really professional embed could have.

The embed program really doesn't exist there. It's too much work, and it's dangerous sometimes. Kabul has amenities.

We as Americans are better insurgents than we are counterinsurgents. Counterinsurgency is the hard part, anyway. We are better in some areas than in others, but in the information fight, we suck. Military PAO's are perceived as cheerleading amateurs that nobody really listens to (when was the last time that you saw an article written by a military journalist in a non-military publication?,) and our own press is lethargic, agenda-driven and hostile.

I've said it before; the American Armed Forces are at war, America's at the mall. We are not in this together. Hey, we volunteered, it's true; but this attitude of, "Hey, we hired you to do a job... now get out of my way, there's a sale at Old Navy!" is what allows the NYT to be blatantly harmful to soldiers and Marines and get away with it.*

We don't need to be demonized, ostracized, or coddled. We are soldiers.

I would like to sit down with Lizette sometime and discover what her motivation is. Perhaps I've got it all wrong. Thus far, however, the woman just pisses me off.

In the information fight, she scores points for the other side. They used to call that "aid and comfort to the enemy." It's a crime.

*To be fair, I personally have received a ton of support from people here at home. Many people are truly patriotic, but think of this; for everyone who reads this blog and others like it, there are literally millions who don't. While this vast majority may express support on sight, tolerating this behavior from our press is dereliction. However, I read a lot of the comments on the NYT website, and most of them were cheerleading for the writer. It's depressing, really. Tolerating it may be dereliction, but buying off on it is ignorance.

"There is a principle which is proof against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

--Herbert Spencer
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Thursday, July 3, 2008


I saw a picture the other day of a soldier and his terp having chai with a couple of Afghan men. The men were Pashtun; you can tell by the black turban with the tail hanging down the back over one shoulder.

The turban isn't always black, but the tail is a Pashtun thing. Black is a standard color, but not a rule. This is my observation.

In any case, I've written before about having chai, but it's always been part of another story. I've always wanted to describe, in detail, the uniquely Afghan experience of having chai.

One of the key tenets of the Pushtunwali, the code of conduct of the Pashtuns, is hospitality. Hospitality is not just a Pashtun value, though. It is an Afghan value. It is shame to be considered inhospitable, and as O and I discussed over the weekend, we have both been offered chai by families whose khalats we were either searching or had just searched.

We have both had chai served to us by Taliban, as well. A Talib will not kill you while offering you hospitality. It just isn't done. They may have been shooting at you an hour before, and they will be planning their next ambush even as you sit there with them, but they won't kill you during chai or while you are leaving immediately afterwards. A mile up the road is a different story, but not during chai.

More often, the offer of chai was not an obligatory gesture but a genuine expression of friendship and a desire to have relaxed conversation with another. Either way, refusal of an invitation is a delicate thing. While you may be excused for having to fulfill other obligations, genuine regret and thanks for the offer are in order. If there is a possibility of following up on the promise, a promise to accept the invitation at a later time is acceptable. However, this is not a "get out of jail free" card, but a promise.

Afghans expect you to keep your word. In America, it's a commonly used tactic to express regret and promise, with no intention of ever keeping that promise, to "get together another time." This is considered acceptable here, and actually more polite than saying, "I don't want to spend that time with you." This is not the case in Afghanistan.

Upon acceptance of an invitation, there is a bustle of activity as you are ushered to the place where the chai will be shared. While the offer is often given out of hospitality and chai will have to be made, very often they were making chai and wish for whatever reason to share it with you.

Most often, chai is shared on a blanket or tablecloth type of covering placed either on the floor or the ground. Only in offices is there generally furniture to sit on, and the most important people have an office with furniture and another room which is usually furnished traditionally, with rugs and pillows around the periphery.

It is traditional to remove shoes before being seated; but when in uniform, the Afghans do not expect for one to remove their boots. It is an option, though. The cross-legged position that they used to call "Indian style" when I was a kid is the normal sitting position. This position becomes miserable to an old guy like me about half way through the chai, and at that point positions other than supine may be assumed.

Weapons should be lain at your side with the muzzles pointed away from the center; a gesture of good will. Pistols should remain holstered. It is not appropriate to handle your weapons while drinking chai unless it is to make room for someone else.

If not present already, dishes of sweets and snacks will appear.

The candies are often individually wrapped toffees. I've had milk toffee, coconut toffee, strawberry toffee, and several other flavors. They are usually labeled in English and at least one other language. Often they are made in Iran. Some small candies are the bare minimum, but there are often other snack-type foods provided as well.

Kishmish (raisins) are a very popular snack to provide. Dried chickpeas and almonds are also pretty popular. Occasionally, there will be small fried noodles that are very similar to the chow mein noodles that come in a separate can when you buy the La Choy Chow Mein at the grocery store. Sometimes they are seasoned. These items are usually placed in a divided ceramic dish, while the candies are in a small bowl.

Most often, someone is playing the role of "chai boy." He will bring out the plates of snacks, always placing some of the snacks either in front of or very near the guest. There is usually more than one tray. This individual also brings the tray with the chai and cups in as well.

The standard chai cup is a clear glass cup like a coffee cup. The cups have widely varying levels of cleanliness. My tactic was to drink from the edge of the cup directly opposite the handle. The chai is always served to the most important people first, including the guest. Those of less importance are served last, and if there are not enough cups, they will wait until a cup comes available and is perfunctorily rinsed with chai.

Hence my sipping strategy.

Sugar is nearly always available, and its absence will bring a strong apology. When Afghans put sugar in their chai, they put sugar in their chai. There will be a layer at least a quarter of an inch deep left in the bottom of the cup after the chai is poured.

Chai is always served absolutely scalding hot. The chai itself is usually green, but sometimes will be black. It is made by putting the tea leaves in the pot and boiling the water, often on a burner sitting directly atop a propane cylinder. If they are making shiir chai (milk tea) the leaves are put into the milk directly and the milk is not quite boiled. The propane rigs are commonly referred to in American parlance as "haji stoves."

This is a bit of a misnomer, because anyone who is referred to as "Haji" is given a great deal of deference, as they have done the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca; one of the Islamic duties. But to Americans, it is still a "haji stove."

Having chai usually requires at least 45 minutes to an hour.

Conversation must always start with small talk. It is considered very polite to ask about a man's family, but not to ask specifically about a female member of his family. To ask a man how his mother is doing is considered very rude. Asking about a wife or daughter is actually dangerous. Pleasantries often include a query as to the health of the family, and how various minor things about their life may be going such as things about their house, crops, or business.

Afghans have a lively sense of humor and truly appreciate jokes and laughter. Very often they will poke mild fun at each other, but will not shame another man. Chai is all about civil relaxation, and Afghans love chai.

Only after the small talk can any serious business be discussed. Often, though, the whole experience is simply about having chai together. The American equivalent would be meeting for coffee or a drink. Since Afghans do not drink alcohol, this is the closest to sitting on a bar stool with their buddies as it gets.

Americans like to get straight to the point, but the Afghans will nearly always make small talk first, just to get conversation flowing. Sometimes Afghans who have significant experience dealing with Americans will get to the point quicker. If a situation is fairly tense, the small talk will be brief.

I had many fairly relaxed moments drinking chai in Afghanistan. I had a few that were not. O and I shared a few chai stories over the weekend.

One of his had to do with getting into a TIC (Troops In Contact, or firefight) with a group of Taliban in the southern Tag Ab Valley who had shot at his group from a higher elevation and then fled in the direction of a village. He and his group of ANA reached the village some time later, intending to search for weapons and evidence of Taliban activity. They were immediately offered chai.

O is quite sure that some of the people serving him chai that day had been shooting at him shortly before.

One of my favorites is the day that I was sent on a mission into an area of the Tag Ab where I had not ventured before. I was the guy who was available to go. The reason was because we had reliable intelligence that Taliban had been in two houses and were possibly still there. They were there for discussions, and they were there to have chai.

This was my first experience going down the a particularly miserably narrow alley-like road between the main north-south road in the valley and literally into the riverbed. We parked in the riverbed and the team from the 82nd stayed there while I and my terp accompanied the ANP alone while we walked a couple of miles to the target houses.

We reached the first target house and it was the home of the village Malek, a senior elder position in the village. We asked him about the visitors he had had that day and the ANP searched his house.

They found sixty rounds of 7.62x39 ammunition. AK ammo. In AK magazines. Not good. We detained him and took him and the ammo with us. We then moved a mile or so to the next house and after a search and protestations of innocence from the homeowner, we proceeded back to the district center. Upon my arrival the Wuliswahl, or Sub-governor, of Tag Ab, a man since replaced and who we believed was no doubt "dirty," requested the pleasure of my company. By name.


I entered his sitting room, carpeted with rugs and with pillows arranged around the periphery, to discover three other gentlemen seated whom I had never seen before. One vaguely resembled the man that I had only recently detained. The Wuliswahl ordered chai and bade me sit.

It turned out that two of the men were supposedly Maleks from neighboring villages and the third was the detained Malek's brother. The whole point of this chai was to dissuade me from taking the Taliban-friendly, ammunition-hiding Malek in to the temporary detainee-handling facility we had established at the north end of the Tag Ab Valley.

There were still small talk and solicitations as to my health. I asked how their villages were doing. This was brief small talk. They had an agenda, and they really didn't wish me good health anyway. If they had been able, they would each liked to have killed me; but this was chai. We were dancing an ancient dance.

We drank chai and they expressed themselves thoroughly; alternately asking for and demanding the release of the Malek, vouching for the detainee's character, and asking that we let him go in their custody so that they could bring him in the morning. This part went on for quite some time.

I countered their points with discussion of the finding of prohibited ammunition, his need to set an example, and our belief that he had hosted Taliban for chai in his home. They refuted those claims, his brother offering to let me burn his house with his family in it if his brother had Taliban in his home; a dramatic portion of the dance.

They spoke of his honor, his honor in the eyes of his village, and of their honor-bound duty to seek his release.

Finally, I told them that I understood that it was their duty to come and seek his release, and that they had done their part to uphold their honor.

I told them that I am an askar, a soldier, and that my honor depends on me following my orders. They agreed; that is what askare are supposed to do. I asked them civilly, as I sipped the opposite side of my chai cup, if they were asking me to dishonor myself. The four men assured me vociferously that none of them would ever ask me to dishonor myself.

I thanked them, as I rose to leave, for understanding that my orders were to bring the man in, and I thanked them for not asking me to violate my orders and dishonor myself. I excused myself, bowing slightly with my hand over my heart in the Afghan way, and shook each of their hands mumbling, "Tashakur, khud hafez."

They wondered how that had gone so awry, but the civility of chai provided a safe situation for us all to speak our peace and attempt to negotiate. I still get a chuckle out of the outcome of that discussion, though. Through all of that, voices were never raised. That's chai.

Some of my most unique memories of Afghanistan involved chai.

My first chai was something that I stumbled into quite by accident. In April of 2007, the ANA were practicing for the annual parade in Kabul. It is a big deal, involving a lot of practice. We went to visit them at the area of Kabul where they were staying during this. The team chief and several officers and the Sergeant Major were all escorted about on a tour of the Afghan temporary camp that had been set up, looking at tanks and armored personnel carriers and the like as they wandered about.

The Maniac and I were left watching the humvees while the others were off being feted.

Americans always draw a crowd, and some of the soldiers from the tents nearby began to drift over and try to communicate with us. We noticed that they had M-16's. Their captain, who spoke limited English, asked us to show them how to disassemble and reassemble the rifle.

The rifles had been issued to them for the parade. The Afghan soldiers had no idea if they were going to actually work with these weapons.

I showed the captain how to do it, the soldiers gathered around the front of the vehicle watching intently. The captain would not try it in front of his men, however. Maniac started working with individual soldiers, showing them the same thing and encouraging them to try it themselves.

The captain asked me to chai. Since I could hit his tent with a rock from the vehicles, I accepted and wound up experiencing chai for the first time. I also experienced heavy sugared cream that you dipped into with nan for the first time, but that's a different story altogether.

It all happened in the shadow of ruins built by Alexander the Great.

Afghan chai has nothing to do with coffee shop spiced tea drinks.

"I'll have a double mocha chai latte with just a hint of Madagascar cinnamon..."

But chai is more than the tea. If an Afghan ever offers you chai, take him up on it. Chai is an experience; a hospitable, civil experience that is done nearly the same way anyplace I went in Afghanistan. It's a distinctively Afghan experience.

And they're not supposed to kill you while you're having chai with them.
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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stone Cold And The Silver Leaves

Ever notice that sometimes when you see people with whom you have a bond after a fair amount of time has gone by that it seems like none has passed at all? I got to experience that this weekend on a small pilgrimage that I took to celebrate one of the Army’s newest Lieutenant Colonels, LTC Stone Cold.

There was a gathering of his friends; stateside co-workers, family, and Afghanistan buddies commingled at a soirĂ©e held at a local establishment for a few hours. Seeing LTC Cold and SFC O again was a real treat! That wasn’t the end of the treats, though; I got to meet some folks that seemed only myth in Afghanistan; Mrs. O and Mrs. Cold, the stalwarts of homeland defense at Ft Livingroom. I also got to meet Mr. and Mrs. Stone Cold Sr; the people responsible for raising the man.

Meeting O at Ft Riley, I had no idea what we would wind up experiencing together in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, we were not really supposed to be working closely together at all. Funny how things work out. I met LTC Cold briefly at Bagram when he was a lowly Major just as O, Maniac, and I were heading downrange to establish ourselves as the Bastard Children of Nijrab.

He seemed a rather unassuming man, sort of a mild-mannered lurker on a team of three with two very outgoing personalities. SFC Jacques Pulvier has never met a stranger, and as for the Colonel, the team senior mentor, he’s got a lot to say, too. Then-Major Cold, yet to gain the very moniker, seemed a veritable wallflower by comparison.

He’s really a fairly understated man until you shoot at him, at which point he will gather up any sentient being wearing a friendly uniform and form an ad-hoc strike force. Sporting a maniacal grin, he will attack to the point that he has outrun all friendly support and then later joke about how scared he was.

SFC Pulvier once threatened him with bodily injury for gallivanting out of sight with a small contingent of Afghans seeking the perpetrators of heinous crimes against humanity; to wit, they were shooting at our guys.

There’s a reason why we call them bad guys. Actually, there’s more than one. As SFC O put it so eruditely, “Most times it’s easier to call them ‘bad guys’ than to explain what HiG means.”

In any case, Stone Cold was to demonstrate why it can be a surprise to peel back the flowered wallpaper.

O is a different story. O describes himself as an asshole. While he has been known to respond to a harebrained idea with a curt, “That’s just not to going to f*cking work, Sir,” I wouldn’t describe him as an asshole. He carries an air of workmanlike Infantry capability, and he is very straightforward. He stands up for what he believes, doesn’t sugarcoat his response to ineptness or tactical stupidity, and demands tactical proficiency of his subordinates as well as his superiors.

To me, that doesn’t add up to asshole. I could be wrong, but if I am it has turned out happily for me to this point. I like O; a lot. I hope to maintain a friendship with him for the rest of my natural life. Being older than O, that’s my way of saying that I hope that he attends my funeral.

Looking back, and really not looking back that far, it’s strange just how significant these guys have become in my life, when I really had absolutely no idea when I met them. I think that’s just really wild.

Seeing the wily Afghan Stone Cold in his natural environment was truly a contrast. Seeing him surrounded by his family, friends, and co-workers, doting on his son, discussing the myriad medical issues that his formerly diabetic and freshly reupholstered ancient cat has miraculously survived, the newly minted Colonel dressed in shorts and sandals simply revealed the same unassuming “average guy” that I had originally met at Bagram; not a hint of the “Tiger of Tag Ab.”

I just made that name up.

There’s no disguising his father’s pride in him, and he’s got his equally proud mother’s eyes. His family warmly embraces him and they are justifiably pleased with the decorations he earned and his new silver oak leaves. You can feel the genuine warmth of his friends and co-workers. You can tell that he is respected by all in his life, but not because of what he did last year; they respected him before he went.

Two Bronze Stars, one for valor, don’t change what they always thought of Stone.

Rick Dyn and Jacques Pulvier, sadly, didn’t make it. We chatted with Jacques for over an hour on speakerphone, laughing most of the time. Mr. Dyn was simply an inexplicable no-show. He was missed, too. We all wondered if he kept his facial hair when he returned.

At the end of the evening, the Afghan veterans were the last to leave. We reluctantly ended the hilarity with Jacques; his wife’s attempts to open a coconut in the background during the conversation added an extra comical touch. We suggested C-4 at one point, and we queried Jacques as to where he had found a coconut, which is tropical a fruit, in Michigan, which is in a temperate zone. The image of migrating swallows carrying a hairy fruit on a string suspended between them just never loses its luster.

Many of our adventures had seemed Pythonesque. It would have fit right in for any of us to canter into any cluster-of-khalats village followed by one of the ANP making horse hoof noises with coconut halves, pretend to dismount, and demand to see the local shrubber.

I think that most of the Afghan villagers would not have looked at us any differently.

LTC Cold’s son, Nugget, was losing a valiant struggle with the sleep monster. At one point Stone sprinted across the room to put a pillow under his head after he had nearly made contact with the wooden arm of the living room chair he was curled into. The ancient cat, its fur obviously recently transplanted from a donor stuffed carnival cat, began to reclaim the house. It was time to go.

As we stood saying our goodbyes and edging towards the door, LTC Stone Cold, suburban husband and father, stood casually in his living room. Looking over his right shoulder, I saw the plaque presented to team members in Kapisa Province hanging on the wall.

The wives and mothers are unsung heroes. We were recognized with Bronze Stars for our efforts amid the dust, dirt, rocks, sweat, and snow. The home front still bore the same issues, but the other parents were gone. The children, now worried about their fathers, with scant images available as to what daddy’s daily life was like, offered more than the usual challenges. The problems that they dealt with were many, compounded by the added worry of husbands and fathers in nebulous harm’s way. There are no medals to pin on the uniforms they do not possess.

They bore the burden of not only maintaining the home front, but of being the strong one in the face of the concerns of little ones and maintaining communication overseas about how the kids were doing without unduly adding to the soldier’s stress. It’s a fine line to walk.

Bearing a burden that just “comes with the deal” of being with a soldier brings no other rewards. We are recognized and thanked for our service while they stand holding our children’s hands and bearing the scars of children’s tears burned into their souls.

We had to deal with being in Afghanistan and all that came with our side of the deployment. What we dealt with was unusual, to say the least. What they dealt with was more of the usual with tons of stress added in… and never a break. We were challenged with making a difference in the situation in Afghanistan, and in our own operations; but we could have an impact on what we did. We could shoot back.

They could not. They were being subjected to stresses the source of which they had no control over whatsoever. Blind to our conditions, largely uninformed about our missions, the danger level that we truly faced, and often our precise location, they carried on and did it well.

My parents being long since gone, I rarely considered what it must be like for the parents of these soldiers. I have considered it as a soldier, wishing that my efforts could somehow contribute to ending this before my children have an opportunity to participate. The thought of having a child on a combat tour mortifies me.

I saw the pride, but the relief of the parents must be tremendous.

We will always be proud of what we did in Afghanistan, and we will always have plaques and medals, pictures and memories of adventure that seem more adventurous and less painful now. Time unleashes the humor of many of the events of the tour. The friendship and camaraderie appears to be enduring.

The wives, mothers, and parents have no such trinkets, except the pictures and memories of the times with the kids that they did not miss. There is no other recognition from any outside agency.

Just as we stand in our places in the long green line of the Army, they hold a place in the long chain of those who have kept the home fires burning throughout our history.
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