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, August 31, 2011

...or you never really leave?

Afghan children wave to U.S. Marines in the Gereshk Valley in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Because that's how it feels sometimes.  It seems that every single newsworthy development there, or new report on some angle of it, or anecdote from those still fighting the fight, captures my attention like nothing else.  It's all mandatory reading, even if I'm not operating in any capacity to do anything with the information -- both new and old.  Here is the big news dominating the past few days...well, not exactly dominating, since Afghan news only does when an aircraft crash occurs.

The 66 U.S. service members killed this month eclipses the previous record of 65 killed in July 2010, according to an Associated Press tally. Nearly half the August deaths occurred when insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter Aug. 6, killing 30 American troops, mostly elite Navy SEALs.

I remember well the almost breathless reporting just over a year ago when that month took the "record" (what a macabre use of the word).  It's an obviously misleading number anyway if it's being used to mark success or failure, which it usually is, due to the number killed in that fateful Chinook.  What the story could mention is that American casualties are still actually down from this point in 2010, despite the aggressive operations against the insurgency in Helmand, Kandahar and other restive provinces.

A U.S. Marine Scout-Sniper aims his rifle during an exchange of fire with Taliban militants, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Kudos to the AP, on the other hand, for including a mention of other casualties in the NATO-led coalition...something that usually goes unreported in U.S. media.

Besides the 66 Americans killed so far this month, the NATO coalition suffered the loss of 14 other troops: two British, four French, one New Zealander, one Australian, one Polish and five others whose nationalities have not yet been disclosed.
So far this year, 403 international service members, including at least 299 Americans, have been killed in Afghanistan.
This month America's deadliest in long Afghan war

Calcium Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer, used in an IED

Another story which caught my attention centers on ammonium nitrate, a serious and significant issue...which therefore tends to garner few stories.  It was a major focus of the Afghan-Pakistani-Coalition meeting I attended late last year, and which take place regularly.  I recall much talk about what is being done and what should be done, which I suppose is how these affairs tend to go...but from the sound of it, that's all it  In the meantime, the material is used constantly in deadly bombs.

Such bombs, typically buried and detonated remotely or by pressure plates, have killed more than 719 Americans and wounded more than 7,440 since the conflict began in 2001, along with thousands of Afghan troops and civilians. Last year's U.S. death toll — 252 — was as high as the two previous years combined, and 2011 is shaping up to be just as bloody.

Speaking of that particular tripartite meeting, my former colleague Gen. Azimi is quoted, voicing again the frustration that Afghan officials feel over the issue.

On Aug. 17, authorities in Afghanistan's Helmand province said they seized 200 sacks of ammonium nitrate that had been smuggled from Pakistan. Photos of the sacks, which had been partially buried, showed they were made by Pakarab.
"All of this chemical is coming from the south and the east," said Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry. "We want Pakistan to control it."

AP IMPACT: Pakistani fertilizer fuels Afghan bombs

If all of this news on the human cost isn't depressing enough, there is the other cost to consider.  The Commission on Wartime Contracting released its much-anticipated report on waste and fraud throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While I suspect it was more prevalent in Iraq due to its scope, I have pointed out before that one never has to look very far to see money being burned...

Panel tallies massive waste and fraud in wartime U.S. contracts

Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest, Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Aug. 23 
(photo courtesy of NTM-A)

Alright, so it looks as if I lack an optimistic view this evening (aka late night)...but it's hard to locate optimism from this distance.  Fortunately there is, as always, progress in the training mission.  This is the effort on which it all hinges, according to our leadership -- the professionalization of Afghanistan's security forces.  If anyone can do it, it's our many trainers: Air Force personnel working with the fledgling Afghan force at airbases, US Soldiers conducting joint patrols in Kandahar, German police officers relentlessly training recruits in the north, Marines imparting tactics to special new police response units in Helmand province, to name a few...

Marines and the ANP – Special Tactics Mission Training

I'm willing to bet that some of the Jarheads conducting that training are activated Reservists, as are many of the individual Marines who augment our joint commands in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa and elsewhere.  That came to mind as our component, Marine Forces Reserve, was designated 95 years ago this week, in time to immediately boost its numbers to help turn the tide of World War I in France.  The size has fluctuated ever since, but it remains vital to the Corps and to the nation's needs.

Although it's a very productive charity, and great visibility for the Marine Reserve, we do a heck of a lot more than take charge of Toys for Tots each holiday season.  Never more was this proven than during World War II, as this stunning statistic demonstrates...

Of the nearly 600,000 Marines called to serve [in WWII], approximately 70% were reserves. And of the 82 Marine Medals of Honor bestowed during the war, 44 went to reservists.

From the annals of USMC history came this series of facts about Reserve involvement in the Korean War, in which their rapid mobilization made an enormous impact...

In 1950, the Korean War saw the Marine Corps expand from 75,000 regulars to a peak strength of 261,000 Marines, most of whom were reservists. Complete mobilization of the organized ground Reserve had been accomplished in just 53 days, from July 20 to Sept. 11, 1950. Of the Marines participating in the Inchon invasion, 17 percent were reservists. By June 1951, the proportion of reservists in Marine Corps units in Korea had increased to nearly 50 percent, and during the war, 48 percent of all 1st Marine Aircraft Wing combat sorties were flown by Marine reservists. Between July 1950 and June 1953, about 122,000 reservists, both recruits and veterans, saw active duty with the Marine Corps.

Marine Forces Reserve Celebrates 95th Birthday

Happy birthday to all of my brethren and citizen-warriors, both now and those who've gone before.  Semper Fi!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The pull to return...

Kabul, Jan '11: A few of the locals

A Returning Soldier Answers the Inevitable Question: ‘Why?’

// When someone asks, I realize that I have about 30 seconds to condense years of frustration, painful memories, self-justifications, introspection, conversations with comrades, insecurity, guilt, resentment and humble prayers into an answer that is honest and accessible. Because the moment I open my mouth, interest and comfort begin to wane. //

No, it's not me...this time.  The post is written by Jonathan Raab, a soldier with the New York National Guard.  But it's an excellent summation of the motivations behind deploying again back to a place like Afghanistan.  In particular, I think most of us can relate to the isolation that often accompanies being back in the States, whether in conversation with friends or strangers, or just in that "petty" or "self-absorbed" culture which seems to dominate our daily lives far too often.  When it's already tough to feel that you've left the most meaningful work you could be doing, it eats at you.

This line, one that I was asked repeatedly when preparing to return there, is one that I now ask a friend who's about to return for a very long stretch of time.  While we've spoken so much that I already know the answers, I still am blown away by the willingness to fork over the next three years of one's life to a cause that, despite the best efforts of literally hundreds of thousands, is on shaky legs.

// Why would any sane person want to return to risk life and limb in a war that has no clear objective and faltering popular support? //

There is no easy answer.  But we go anyway.  And guys like Dave agree to go for years...and dedicated friends such as John and Pam have already logged years there.  And our Afghan advisors, without whom we'd be utterly lost, risk their lives to help us.  Truly an incredible bunch, all of them.

So what's the latest on the mission?  The item below is based on an interview just last week with the commanding general of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Caldwell...the man responsible for standing up, training and equipping Afghan security forces.  My thoughts on a few excerpts follow, because I can't help myself.

Afghan forces need help post-pullout: commander

Lieutenant-General William Caldwell indicated that several thousand international trainers could be needed to support the mission until at least 2020 in an interview with AFP.

"I'm very confident that the Afghans can in fact take the lead for security by December 2014 -- there's no question they can do it," Caldwell said.

- I'm heartened to see the honesty about what the Afghan government needs from us, at a bare minimum, beginning to emerge.  And I would still take any bet against our involvement being done by the end of 2020.  As for the all-important "take the lead" by 2014, well...expect some continued gymnastic semantics in order to demonstrate that a true transfer of security control takes place by then.

Some diplomats and Western officials in Kabul suggest it could be up to 10 years before the Afghan government can afford to fund its own security forces.

He put the figure for this at "maybe 3,000 people, uniform-type people, police and army" plus financial support to help the Afghan government pay for the security forces, possibly for another six years.

- These are still incredibly optimistic -- probably completely unrealistic -- estimations, in my opinion.  And that of anyone familiar with economics and/or the state of Afghanistan in 2011.  But it's the nature of the beast, I suppose...only in increments does a venture of this scale continue apace.

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez-Fonte

Finally, I've got to pass another blog shout-out to my Army brother Steve in Kuwait (at the moment...I think...they bounce around) on the occasion of his birthday this week.  He sent a recap of his platoon's recent partnership training in Kazakhstan, which I took the liberty of sharing below.  This type of cross-cultural combined multinational training happens a lot more than most Americans realize, but few & far between are those who've carried it out in the world's largest landlocked country!

Ah jaqse, brother (he tells me that essentially means, "it's all good")...

2LT Steve with Kazakh colleague Serj, Aug 2011


     2nd Platoon recently received the opportunity to travel to Kazakhstan to take part in the multi-national tactical exercise Steppe Eagle, now in its 9th year. As the Kazakhstan Government celebrates its 20th year of independence, they held their most populous exercise to date, hosting troops from Great Britain, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan and the United States to help their bid for certification into NATO. Our platoon arrived in the former capital city of Almaty on August 1st, and fell under the oversight of Army Central Command (ARCENT) who controlled all the logistics of the American ground troops, including a National Guard infantry company from Colorado with whom we shared our living space.

     During the first week on ground, 2nd Platoon spent time getting adjusted to new surroundings and temperatures (much cooler than Kuwait!), refining our tactics in preparation for the start of training, and getting to know some of the local Soldiers and cadets that occupied the compound with us. The Opening Ceremony for the training was held on August 8th and included a dazzling concert displaying various cultures of the local people, demonstrating their musical and artistic talents. The following day, our platoon received AK assault rifles with which to go through situational tactical exercises, which we did for three days before beginning the field training portion of the exercise (FTX). The AKs were definitely different (and much louder) than the weapons we are used to firing, but working with them was a unique experience for most every Soldier. During the 3-day FTX, we trained around the clock executing both day and night operations which included guard tower security, vehicle check point, quick reaction force, and patrols every other hour.

      We also got the chance to wear some civilian clothes and get to travel outside the training area on Culture Day. Starting on the morning of August 13th, we rode a bus to Almaty to see the War Memorial; then rode up to the scenic overlook site of Koktobe for lunch; and after visiting the vast marketplace in the city, we had a buffet-style Kazakh dinner and even got to enjoy a couple alcoholic beverages if we so chose too. In addition, right before the Closing Ceremony on the 18th, we enjoyed another “fun day” as the Soldiers broke down into teams and competed in Sports Day against the Kazakhs in soccer, volleyball, track, and tug-of-war among other events.

      Unfortunately we did have multiple cases of a virus-like sickness arise among the Platoon, and overall would have liked a bit more side-by-side interaction with the Kazakh Soldiers (both points were brought to higher command’s attention post-exercise). But we were all thankful for clean latrines, good food (with a lot of help of two of our Platoon’s 92G personnel “cooks”), ample internet access, and the overall experience gained from taking part in such a multilateral exercise. This is definitely something all of 2nd Platoon’s Soldiers will enjoy telling their grandchildren all about some day.

Thank you,
2LT Stephen Huvane