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...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Back Where It All Begins

March '09: The annual Allman Brothers' residency in NYC

I'm not talking about Kabul in this case...or Khost, or Bagram, or Camp Lejeune, or even Quantico.  I'm talking about New York City, and the annual run of Allman Brothers Band shows at the Beacon Theater.  We each have our markers, our reminders that more time than we possibly realize is slipping on by...and one of mine is a ritual that I missed in 2010 for the first time in a decade.  It was only Marine Corps service that ever caused me to miss a year since I started going 15 years ago, in fact...and as I sit in Colorado growing more grateful for what I have here, I'm positively fired up to be back there by this time next week.  I couldn't quite get my young Afghan brothers to dig the band's phenomenal range the way I do, but I'm willing to bet that they'd enjoy a live show every bit as I did the entertainers I was fortunate enough to catch in Kabul.

 KMTC concert, Oct '10: Qais, Joe and I crash the stage.

Shafiq Murid & Sita Qasimi, national talents, entertain the ANA.

Esmat checks out the view from in front of the stage.

March in NYC is also relevant to my beginnings as it's St. Patrick's Month (that's right...month).  It's a great time to be Irish-American no matter where you are, but New York is the epicenter.  As my family roots go through there, it was all the more meaningful to celebrate the 17th for years as a resident...and all the more bittersweet to spend a few anywhere else (although the surprise of coming across a bagpiper in Jalalabad made '06 just as special as any).  Marching up Fifth Avenue in the world's largest parade, as the fourth generation of my family to do so, was simply one of the greatest thrills that military service afforded me.  I'm not talking about donning neon green beads, shamrock-shaped glasses and a "Kiss Me, I'm Drunk" t-shirt; getting trashed at 9 am on Paddy O' Hurricanes and green-colored Bud Lite; and singing "Why don't we get drunk and screw?" until everyone pukes all over the sidewalk.  Nothing against drunken shenanigans, but this time of year actually means a celebration of heritage, faith and family for a lot of us...something that enabled me to relate to major holidays in other parts of the world that would seem on the surface to have nothing in common with this one.  OK, and Guinness.  And maybe Jameson's.  But those are strictly optional.  Erin go Bragh!

A bunch of Irish hoodlums clean up for the season's start.

March '11: Joe & I reunited under more civilized rules...

...and bring a touch of Afghan-Irish class to Grand Central.

The post title applies in another sense.  While I normally wouldn't comment on an unresolved command decision in Afghanistan, it's noteworthy that my director, mentor and friend Dave is soon completing his year in Kabul, and there are no clear answers on the future structure of our Public Affairs development mission.  That is not to imply that advising and training in our functional area is about to cease -- for one thing, my dear friends and dedicated teammates still there haven't let up one bit, and continue to devote themselves day after day to building the capacity and capabilities of our Afghan allies.  But it does complete an arc which saw a robust team structure, one with a disproportionate share of experience, re-energize the task at hand.  It was that newly-formed structure, built from what Joe, John, Pam, Esmat & Qais were somehow doing on their own last March, that I was fortunate to jump into when I arrived ten months ago.  Without that lead-in and guidance, I surely would have gone crazy as I tried to figure out the ins and outs of the Defense and Interior Ministries...instead of waiting until I got back to the States to lose it (insert madman laugh here).

The team as I departed: Pam, Senior, John, Qais, Esmat and Dave...
Along with six of my favorite Afghan colonels.

Dave in the ISAF garden, holding a periodic team meeting...
(conveniently when our camp was on a lock-down drill)

So my heartfelt wishes go out to all who remain, as they tirelessly continue the daily grind of meetings, site visits, meetings, translations, meetings, presentations, justification pitches, and more meetings.  It's not glamorous work, even if you do sometimes find yourself meeting with the country's biggest power brokers and most famous faces.  I hope you all know how much you're in our thoughts every day.  My best wishes go out as well to the others who've moved on, from those who long preceded me and got the ball rolling, to those about to make the leap back to this side of the world in the coming weeks.  In the spirit of tomorrow's great holiday, here is an Irish blessing in (hopefully accurate) Gaelic, with the translation following...

Go raibh tú daibhir i mí-áidh
Agus saibhir i mbeannachtaí
Go mall ag déanamh namhaid, go luath a déanamh carad,
Ach saibhir nó daibhir, go mall nó go luath,
Nach raibh ach áthas agat
Ón lá seo amach.

May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings,
Slow to make enemies,
quick to make friends,
But rich or poor, quick or slow,
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward. 

 Another departure: Brig. Gen. Neasmith leaves today.
He was an outstanding, calm & personable.
Here he presented me with a coin on my last advisor meeting.

 My last time feeding Casper, who wolfed down a steak...
Her empty belly clearly showed she had her litter!

 The pups I never got to see, courtesy of my successor, Edward.

 Weeks later, the scrappy one he named "Major."
Now THAT is back where it all begins.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Pause Button

At poor peace I sing
To you strangers, (though song
Is a burning and crested act,
The fire of birds in
The world's turning wood,
For my sawn, splay sounds)

- Dylan Thomas,
Prologue to 'Collected Poems'

Written from Boulder, CO, in late February...

Since posting my last, I have already been warmly supported by readers, friends and family, and am extremely grateful for it.  In an urge to shed more light on the disjointed transition, allow me to refer to a vexing phenomenom I call "the pause button."  Not that I coined it...a chaplain who gave the mandatory post-deployment brief to a few of us at Camp Lejeune last month mentioned it.  Such briefs usually focus entirely on reuniting with family and coping with combat stress, but this one contained something more relevant to my situation: the notion our minds stubbornly build that life as we know it 'back home,' and for everyone else we know, is on pause.  No matter how irrational it may seem to those who haven't sequestered themselves in the deployed way of life for a time, it's a construct that becomes very real for some of us...a coping mechanism.

Again I'll insist that my plan, such as it was, was simply to catch you all up on the sights and tales of Afghanistan as I experienced it...not to pour forth a series of laments about post-adventure life.  But in the interest of bringing the journey full circle, it is significant as it's where I am now.  Transition back has not only overwhelmed me and left me devoid of purpose, but discouraged me from looking back much thus far.  Still, I do my best to stay attuned to events back in the 'stan, and feel a part of every development in the rush to build the capabilities of their nascent defense and police forces.  How can I not?  I just hope to focus enough mental energy on the present and future, which hopefully entails enjoying the West again and at least accepting that I won't have the answer tomorrow, or the next day.

That brings me back to the pause button.  When I receive updates on changes at NTM-A and in Afghanistan's Defense and Interior Ministries, I can process those.  If I returned, I wouldn't be surprised to find things quite different, and would likely be able to adjust quickly...there'd be no choice.  But here, head still spinning from the realization that my illusory life in the States is nothing like what I imagined it would be, it is a daily battle to get past the entrenched pause notion.  Everyone and everything continues to change, whether you accept that or not, and putting off decisions about what should come next...well, that's a killer when suddenly squeezed between depression and anxiety.  A key position in Kabul was easy by comparison.

Writing from Bronxville, NY, today...

Too stuck and overwhelmed in place, I took off for my old environs in the NYC and area for a frenzy of visits.  It's been food for the soul.  Over the past week I've been so fortunate to spend time with people who mean the world to me, who care about me, and who even do their best to point out that it wasn't just an odd dream...I actually did spend most of the past year on a mission in Afghanistan.

* Blogger has failed me once again.  The "add image" function has not been operable for a while.  Therefore, you are stuck with just words and no pretty pictures for now.  My humble apologies...