A young man's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk...and apparently, back again.

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Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

The details of my life are quite inconsequential, really. Summers in Rangoon...luge lessons...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Roze-e Tashakuri

"You got a problem with that?"
Col. Ibrahim, Col. Asif, AfghaniDan, Gen. Azimi, Maj. Daoud

Thanksgiving in Kabul, 2010...

The post title "Roze-e Tashakuri" essentially translates to "Day of Thanks."  There is a great deal for which I am thankful this year, and Thursday presented some pretty unexpected reminders of some I hadn't considered.  It was the designated day for a high-level conference and working group between my advisees at the Defense Ministry, their counterparts from Pakistan, and a number of folks from ISAF (the NATO-led coalition command).  You know it was an odd Thanksgiving when the highlights were: Seeing your general and colonels in uniform instead of their usual suits; appearing on NBC's Today show in an extended crowd shot outside of where you eat your meals each day; and deciding that the Afghan feast you had for lunch was far better than the "traditional" dinner everyone awaited with great anticipation.

 The honor guard turned out for AfghaniDan...

"Does anyone know how to just end this thing? Anyone?"

It turned out that I was thankful to spend a holiday like this one -- so sacred for family functions in the US -- with "my boys" from the ministry.  It is extremely rare for all of the Dagarwaals (Colonels), Dagarmans (LtCols) and the Major General whom I advise to be gathered together in one place, and I considered myself really fortunate to be there with them.  Perhaps it was sealed by all of the "main commander" ribbing from Asif (who loves to call me that after General Azimi dropped that on me in a meeting), or the back-and-forth whispering throughout the meeting with utterly insane Daoud (who is going to break my ribs one of these days with his "I can crush you" Pashtun bear hugs), or the re-entrance of Azimi himself -- after all the VIPs had gone -- to ask "Where is the Major?", since he hadn't yet wished me a happy holiday.  (Story by that Huvane guy who's always writing about Azimi...)

Tripartite meeting highlights Afghan-Pakistani cooperation

Now when you read that, you can probably decipher that "lively discussions" refers to got pretty interesting when each side of the border wanted to point out the other's culpability for the spread of ammonium nitrate (a key ingredient in IEDs).  And less you think that it's all sunshine and roses -- though it was plenty sunny outside and the dying rose bushes were still holding on -- there were some comments shared with me by some Afghan colleagues who were...let's say...less than enthusiastic about their Pakistani counterparts being here.  But of all people, it was Daoud who put it into context for the grumblers..."Today, we are friends.  Today, we shake hands."  Wish I could do justice to the fake smile he wore for that remark; it was classic!

 My posse -- heads of the "3 families" of PAO -- and a wild card.  

One funny moment I must share: At one point in the meeting, which had run almost 2 hours past its scheduled break for lunch, the Afghans brought in a folding table from outside to set food upon.  As they draped a tablecloth over it, and then those buffet-serving dealies (you know, with the top that pulls open in an overly unwieldy way?), I thought immediately of Snoopy setting up Thanksgiving dinner outside in that Peanuts holiday classic.  I haven't seen that in quite a few years, yet still, folding table + tablecloth + food = memories of that scene.  And there it was, in the "Tea House" of the Ministry of Defense, Kabul.

Oh, the things I do for my country and world peace.

It never turned out to be much of a holiday in the labor sense, but there were a bunch of enjoyable moments back at the base too, squeezed in between the work and more work.  Busy is always good here, especially during something like Thanksgiving: it wasn't until my 2am phone call to the family when I really remembered what I was missing.

One of those things "missing": alcohol.

Some other things for which I am thankful:

 - My team.  Esmat, Johnny Kabul, Pam, Joe, Qais and Dave are the greatest people I could possibly work with.  I'd serve alongside any one of them again, anywhere.  Working arrangements are always temporary in a business such as this, but this is one team I'd have looked to keep intact somehow.

Dave, Joe & Pam from the team, and good friend Senior Chief Garcia, enjoy turkey dinner Goat-style (that's the name of the chow hall).

- Donations to my moustache fund.  People, it's not easy keeping that hideous rat on my lip, particularly as it tries to grow to some respectability while staying within strict Marine grooming regulations.  But some of you have shown great generosity already in giving to the fight against prostate cancer...the worthy cause which ended my career-long refusal to grow a deployment 'stache.  And you honor this effort when you do!  (It's not too late -- chip in if you like...)

Lt.Col. Arif and I support Mo'vember.

- Hot water (usually).  Bountiful food (though "edible" can often be considered a stretch).  And a culture which fosters a tradition such as senior officers serving up food to the troops.  Some of our higher-ups got their Afghan principals into the act as well, in a few of those forward posts...where generals from our side and theirs stood side by side, dishing out grub to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians.  Pretty cool, that.

As an Irishman, should I consider this reparations?
 Col. Nigel Jefferson (UK) & Maj. Cheney serve up grub.

- The fun side of deployment.  I would never get caught up any more in a television broadcast the way that I wound up enjoying Lester Holt's live sequences from the Today show yesterday.  Now, I'd rather they were further downrange, bringing the excitement to some grunts living out of a true combat outpost in the badlands...but since they were here, it was fun to check out.  And to broadcast this unfortunate dirty sanchez look to the American public!  (Supposedly this clip below shows me...but I have no ability to view video...anyone want to verify that this link even works?)

Lester prepares to go live...and I prepare to nod at the camera.

...the host then greets an attention-starved crowd.

- A position of responsibility, at such a crucial juncture for Afghanistan.  Sure, if I've learned nothing else, it is that time is continuous and so is human maybe none of this will much matter in the grand scheme of things in a century, or even a half.  But the moment is palpable here.  And though it's hard to see through many daily frustrations, I've got an important job doing meaningful work (some of you who comment have really helped me see that -- I thank YOU too!).

 Which is the one from Jersey again?

Also on Thanksgiving, in another part of town...
Bashary himself praises Joe for HIS meaningful work.

- Those who keep us safe.  As much as I lament being here in the bubble of Headquarters land while comrades in arms put their lives on the line every day in some parts of the country, I am thankful for what I have.  The forces which keep Kabul safe have done an amazing job...I shudder to think of how ridiculous our already-ridiculous force protection policies would be if it were actually still a dangerous place.  I'm not being shot at, or going out on patrols through mine-infested farmland...and for that I do give thanks.

Marine Corps corporal in a firefight earlier this year...

- My amazing family and great friends...who support me every step of the way, who understand when I say I'll be extending my time in Afghanistan, who take care of needs I often don't even think of, and who manage to make me feel as if I'm there when I call.  I miss you all.

Roze-e Tashakuri Mubarak!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Eid al-Adha

Johnny Kabul doesn't see the hand of AfghaniDan...

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back the holiday of EID for an encore!  That's a rough translation of the banner my imagination, anyway.

Truthfully, it just concluded...but the past three days (four when you tack on the preparation day, which gets declared a national holiday each time anyway) was "Big Eid," which follows Eid al-Fitr on the calendar by about 70 days.  Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) is all about the feast, commemorating the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for God...which ended up in smiles and feasting all around.  Some of my guys were out on Dushanbe (Monday) selecting and purchasing the cow for their respective gatherings.  This holiday immediately follows the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage by Muslims to Mecca...which meant that we saw lots of footage of Saudi Arabia on Afghan TV recently.

Since the locals were on holiday most of the week, yesterday turned into "puppy day" for a few of us...and it was as delightful as that sounds.  Really it was a relaxing lunch away from the rat race with our Indian friends at AINA, an inspirational Paris-based company which describes itself as a "third-generation humanitarian association".  They employ hundreds of Afghans and work with countless more in doing the work they do...never taking a dime of even a grant in return.  The stated mission sums it up well: Aina promotes independent media development and cultural expression as a foundation of democracy.  

Kabul street scene, quiet during Eid.

"What is this, a school built for ANTS?"
 (you Zoolander fans should appreciate this)

The Daddy Dog dances.

I don't usually plug; these guys are just that good, both at what they do and in their humanist philosophy.  But this time -- in addition to the great company and delicious Indian lunch -- there was an added bonus: PUPPIES.  They found that five newborn furballs had joined them in the compound, about 25 days ago.  They were the softest, gentlest pups, when they weren't busy nipping at my boots or hands, or mauling each other all over the driveway.  It was hilarious...and utterly adorable.

Somehow, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog came to mind.

Pam attempts to break up a savage attack...

While I check the pulse on this cuddly rag doll.

Puppy take-downs are the best!

Tired scrappers take a breather...

Then get right back at it. That's a classic pin!

I assessed the goon two minutes for boarding. 
The mama dog approved.

He chose his own penalty box.

Happy Eid al-Adha from Kabul!

If you'd like to learn more about AINA, please see their link below.  There are some absolutely brilliant photos in their galleries, some of the best I have ever seen of Afghanistan...

And if you'd like to know why I'll be growing an increasingly disturbing dark fuzz above my upper lip, please, read on!  Though joining the party late, I decided to join my cousin Tim in raising awareness and donations for prostate cancer research by participating in "Movember."  We'll grow our moustaches for 30 days minimum, looking ridiculous so that people ask why...and I for one have long resisted the deployed-'stache habit.  Please check out the link below for more info or to donate to a worthy cause...

I look something like this with a 'stache. Finding a photo with the beard hidden is the best I can do - since you don't want RedneckiDan, who awaits on the page. As I said, ridiculous.

School's out

The flamingos have taken to the camp...

Last week was the conclusion of our latest Public Affairs Course in Kabul, and the graduation was appropriately filled with ceremony and speeches.  This version of the course was a great leap forward than the previous ones though: much more practical application and less theory, more testing and evaluation throughout, and my Afghan colleagues even taught a few days of it themselves.

Colonel? Nope...on this day he is Professor Paiman.

The sign explains that the 'Media Center' is inside.
Not exactly Advertising 101, but c'mon - it's Kabul.

Hafiz takes charge. His development over the past few months as a deputy spokesman has been incredible. People on our side tend to forget that there are NATURALS out there.

The joyful "I serve Afghanistan!" moment I can never get enough of.  They had each of us present a few certificates, a very cool gesture.

Navy Lt. Joe Holstead, more responsible than anyone else for the successful strides the Afghan army and police have made in Public Affairs, spoke a few words on what would be his last graduation after a year of service here.  BZ, Joe!

While I've been known to rail against the incessant coverage of graduations around here (it's true -- there is a massive amount of graduation obsession in this command), I simply had to show off the one by my guys.  And yes, I suppose every advisor and mentor feels the same way when it's theirs.  So, the Dude abides...

This patch -- the coolest I've ever seen -- was commissioned by Johnny Kabul, aka John House, my senior statesman, trusted advisor-to-the-advisor, and workhorse.  Even though we Marines don't need no stinkin' patches, I'd be tempted to attach a strip of awful velcro to my sleeve just to attach that baby. "Far out."

Incidentally, the fact that Marines don't wear patches but the other services do (yes, old Navy salts, it's true - your brethren are in those awful velcro-overloaded Army uniforms) creates some humorous when the commanding general of your entire multinational joint organization says that you better be literally wearing the NTM-A patch on your sleeve.  I like to look at my arm in those moments and shrug, then raise my hand and ask, "Can I go home, then?"

Kickin' back over chai and sweet cakes.  
Kinda like "Miller time" in Afghanistan. 

 Hangin' with Holstead, Huvane & Hafiz.
(coming soon to daytime TV near you)

Please read this if you have a moment, or even if you don't.  It's an outstanding essay by my friend Victoria, who I was fortunate enough to meet here in Camp Eggers while doing the advisor thing...and it's easy to see why it was voted the winner of the "Welcome Home Essay Contest" by the American Women Veterans.

I especially liked these lines...

Though the best of intentions may be from where we start, I have come to realize our objectives are almost always lost in metrics and want for numbers.

I have learned that it will take time, perhaps more time than we are willing to give. We have an obligation to be honest with ourselves and what, as a nation, we are willing to give.

The former Rose Garden, suddenly stripped of life.

I learned that three cups of chai is just one meeting.

I learned that to get anything done in Afghanistan you need to know somebody, but that took me back to NY, “I know a guy…”, which reminded me that perhaps Jim Henson was up to something in The Muppets Take Manhattan, “peoples is peoples”.

Progress, around here. Another triple CONNEX.

I learned that coming home can be lonelier than I ever imagined.

Regarding that last one, my return won't be until the new year -- it got pushed a bit further once again due to the timing of my eventual successor's arrival.  But I already remember that feeling from last time.  Even with the love of family and good friends, it's a very strange thing to uproot from what's become your reality and adjust to one you once knew...or another new one entirely.  It always is, for anyone who moves...but when you leave something like this "war" and it's still going strong, you start to wonder immediately about the initiatives on which you worked so hard, or the personalities you only truly began to figure out after six months.  It's not hard to see why some people never leave.  (Don't worry -- them people ain't me!)

Kabul street, November 2010.

Friday, November 12, 2010


As most readers of this blog likely knew, Thursday (Nov. 11) was Veterans Day in the United States.  It was also Remembrance Day in Canada, the UK, Australia, South Africa and other Commonwealth countries; and still known as Armistice Day in France, Belgium and New Zealand.  I wasn't able to attend the ceremony at Camp Eggers due to another ceremony -- the graduation of our latest class of Afghan Public Affairs Officers and NCOs (story to follow) -- but still enjoyed experiencing the commemoration of such a day while here.

Vets Day 2010: Public Affairs Course 5-10 graduation.

Ironically for Afghanistan, where the cultivation of them is at the heart of many of the country's problems, the poppy is the widely recognized symbol of this holiday.  Canadian officers here began wearing their poppies on the last weekend in October, and wore them until the 11th, in accordance with tradition.  More on the day below:

Reason for Remembrance Day (Canada)

Remembrance Day commemorates those who died in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. It is held every November 11 throughout the British Commonwealth, beginning in 1919. Originally called Armistice Day, it commemorated the end of the First World War on Monday, November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m.: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

From 1923 to 1931, Armistice Day was held on the Monday of the week in which November 11 fell. Thanksgiving was also celebrated on this day. In 1931, M.P. Allan Neill introduced a bill to hold Armistice Day on a fixed day - November 11. During the bill's introduction, it was decided the word Remembrance would be used instead of Armistice. The bill passed and Remembrance Day was conducted on November 11, 1931. Thanksgiving Day was moved to October 12 that year.

In many other countries, people gather on November 11 to honour the courage and devotion of brave men and women who made the supreme sacrifice of dying for their country. It marks the observance of a day to remember and honour those who died, as well as to give thanks for the sacrifices of those who came back from serving their country. 

The poppy's significance to Remembrance Day is a result of Canadian military physician John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields." The poppy emblem was chosen because of the poppies that bloomed across some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I, their red colour an appropriate symbol for the bloodshed of trench warfare.

National Independence Day

Narodowe Święto Niepodległości is a public holiday in Poland celebrated every year on 11 November to commemorate the anniversary of Poland's assumption of independent statehood in 1918 after 123 years of partitions by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. The foundation of the Second Polish Republic is considered a key event by many Poles.

Veterans’ Day

Veterans Day is an annual United States holiday honoring military veterans. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed an Armistice Day for November 11, 1919. In proclaiming the holiday, he said:

"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."

On June 1, 1954, the United States replaced Armistice with Veterans in order to recognize all veterans, and it has been known as Veterans Day since.

Even the chow hall goes all out for Nov. 11.

Unfortunately, you don't have to look far to find places where there is too much bloodshed today.

The brief story below is from a reporter with 3/5...Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, which has been suffering heavy losses from the day they took the reins from the Brits in Sangin.  A notorious crossroads and district capital of Helmand province, Sangin had already acquired a brutal reputation -- and is proving itself deserving of that notoriety.

"The tactics keep changing because they're smart and they watch us," said Esrey. "They don't have TV here. We're their TV."

Please keep the warriors of 3/5, and all of those in harm's way, in your thoughts and prayers as they face the deadly danger they face each day.  And here's wishing a belated happy Veterans Day, solemn Remembrance Day, and joyeux Armistice Day to all of the veterans out there.

Camp Eggers, Kabul: November 11, 2010.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jarhead Birthday

From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli...or in my update, from the halls of Kabul's M.O.D. to the sands of Lashkargah.

From the rooftop of Marine Corps Central Command (Forward) HQ in Kabul airport, taken back in July at an all-Marine BBQ.

Today the Marine Corps celebrates 235 years of kicking ass as the nation's world's premier fighting force.  While that description seems a pretty far cry from what I do on a daily basis, at least I sometimes get to feel like a Marine here.  And exchanging birthday greetings all day with fellow Leathernecks, sometimes even receiving them from Navy, Army and Air Force brethren, makes for a special day in NATO Training Mission Afghanistan.

A squad of Marines approaches the highest flag in all of KAIA. 
The residents, naturally, were nervous at the sight of what looked to be reinforcements.

I did not catch the birthday festivities at ISAF today, swamped in catch-up work after completing a exhausting journey back to my command yesterday.  I returned from a week split between missions in Herat, the primary province of western Afghanistan, and Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern region.  It was an eye-opening getaway, and good for the Marine (not to mention wandering) soul to be out of Kabul for a bit...I look forward to posting photos and descriptions of those adventures.

An Afghanistan promotion for one lucky new Lt.Col.

Today I found myself wishing that I'd stayed a few more days in Mazar, where I was asked if I'd be around to take part in the birthday commemoration they would have in Camp Mike Spann, as the senior Marine...a far cry from where I fall in any pecking order around here.  But anxious to not leave issues and meetings on others' shoulders for too long, I made the painful call to return.  For any of you who haven't seen it, try to catch a USMC birthday cake-cutting you might expect, it's full of ritual and camaraderie (aka, ball-breaking), and truly unlike any other organizational anniversary you might find.

A memorial to Capt. Spann, where he valiantly gave his life.

Mike Spann, incidentally, was a Marine.  Widely known as the first American casualty of this Afghan war, he was a paramilitary operations chief for the CIA when killed while fighting the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif, nine years ago this month.  I'll post an entire blog with my photos of the massive fort complex where that happened, but found it particularly appropriate to be there so close to the Corps birthday, as Spann served as a Marine officer for six years before joining "the agency."

The memorial reads:
In honor of Mike Spann (1969-2001), a hero who sacrificed his life for freedom, for Afghanistan, for the United States of America.  We will not forget his courage or his life.  May God be with him and bless him.

I'll sign off with a simple wish...that you pause and reflect upon how blessed we are to be Marines, if you are one, and if you're not -- how fortunate we are to have the Corps on our side!  Warriors like Mike Spann, like Cpl. Jason Dunham (Medal of Honor recipient, Iraq, 2004), and like Cpl. Dakota Meyer (just recently recommended for Medal of Honor, Afghanistan, 2009) don't come along every day.  Semper Fi.

Living the good life, yet wishing we were in Helmand.