Friday, May 29, 2009

A Special Memorial Day

For many back home, Memorial Day is the national holiday marking the beginning of summer. It’s a day off from work and school; there are sales and bargains for shoppers; families and friends gather for picnics; pools open and many make their first foray of the season to the beach. For us in Kabul, it was a poignant time of remembrance for the men and women in uniform who gave their lives fighting for our country, followed by another day at the office.

Our day began at 5:00 a.m. with a memorial run, in formation, led by outgoing Commanding General, David McKiernan. Afterward, in the General’s moving speech, we were reminded us of those who came before us in defense of the United States and were summoned to rededicate ourselves to making a difference in the lives of the people of Afghanistan.

The speech was bittersweet, knowing that General McKiernan will be replaced in a matter of weeks. I have great respect for him. He cares about the Afghan people and about the lives of his soldiers. While he may have had disagreements with those above him, including our President, he was loved by many and will be missed.

Here are some photos of our morning run led by General McKiernan.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Troops are Coming!

We have just returned from another trip to Kandahar, continuing to build our new media operations center. the pace has been feverish, trying to make sure the center is operational in time for the press to cover the influx of new troops flowing into Southern Afghanistan. More than 20,000 soldiers are in the process of arriving to protect the Afghan people, and the base is overflowing with activity. Every time I visit, it's more crowded, with construction of new facilities made of the connex boxes happening daily (see photos).

It's amazing to see the building, first hand, instead of reading about it. Each day hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of soldiers arrive via military transports. In many cases, the infrastructure is not yet built, and the troops must create their own places to sleep and work. Everyone competes for space. The word is that Kandahar Air Field will become one of the largest garrisons in the US Army anywhere in the world.

Our media operations center is our small contribution to the military effort in Kandahar. We are bringing in 20 or so personnel to manage the operation, a small fraction compared to the numbers coming to fight; however, we’re here to back them up.

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Top of the World

I have written in previous entries about the beautiful Afghan landscape. With its towering mountains and lush valleys, it has to be one of the most visually appealing nations on earth. Today I had the opportunity to see this wonderful view up close while hiking on a famous mountain on the outskirts of Kabul. Friends from Germany, Canada, Finland and the United States all joined me for the half-day event.

The mountain is on the grounds of the Kabul Military Training Center, a campus used by the Afghan National Army, and reaches a peak of nearly 9,000 feet. Luckily, we only had to climb 3,000 feet, since Kabul sits at nearly 6,000. It was still a challenging climb.

As we approached the mountain, we began to see rusted Soviet tanks on either side of us, memories of the horrific wars that the people of the nation have endured through the years. But as we began to climb, the poverty and wreckage faded into the landscape and we saw only pure beauty. From the summit, we could see the holes in the ground below where the Soviets dug in their tanks, though they looked more like interesting patterns reaching across a prairie.

Once we reached the peak, we had some snacks, took pictures (which I am showing you here) and caught our breath before the long hike down. Today was a nice escape from the stresses of working in a war zone.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friends Reunited

It's not often that one is deployed to a war alone and then have two of his best friends arrive on the same base a few months later, and one assigned to the same office! But that is what has happened to me in the last few days. After a tough week, not much could have been better than the arrival of Tommy Groves and Mark Walton, two of my closest friends in or out of the Navy.

Tommy Groves and I met two years ago when he was first commissioned in the Navy. I was assigned as his mentor to help him get situated and become familiarized with military life. We became very close friends through that experience and are now more like brothers. He is a producer for CNN's Larry King Live in his civilian job, and he brings excellent experience to our mission in Afghanistan.

Mark Walton has been a great friend since 2003, when we served together in San Diego. We hit it off immediately and became members of the social crowd that liked hit the town in San Diego on drill weekends. Mark's brother lives in DC, and whenever Mark comes to Washington, we hang out on U Street or Adams Morgan.

The tradition continues in Afghanistan. The three of us are working out together, going to social events at the embassy, and meeting for chai during the day. It makes my experience so much more meaningful to know that two of my best friends are serving right beside me. I have attached a photo from a couple days ago when the three of us met Katie Couric during her trip to Kabul to report for the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Stressful Time in Afghanistan

I apologize for not posting in the last two weeks. I know that some of you have been concerned about me. Unexpectedly, I was sent back to Washington for meetings at the Department of State. When I returned to Kabul, we faced a major crisis. As you may have read, there was an incident in the Farah Province of Western Afghanistan where many civilians have been killed. At this point, we do not know how they were killed, but demonstrations have erupted in the streets and blame is targeted in many directions.

According to the reports, the Taliban beheaded some members of the provincial government, eliciting a swift response from the Afghan National Police. When the police went to arrest the people that committed the crimes, they came under attack and called for help from American fighter jets. Munitions were dropped on the buildings occupied by the Taliban. After the smoke cleared, the Taliban claimed that U.S. forces killed dozens of civilians.

We believe that this may not be true, and that the Taliban may have slaughtered innocent people while blaming us for the tragedy. My colleagues and I have been awake for hours on end responding to media interest and working to find out what really happened. When civilians die, it's tragic, no matter how they were killed. My stress level and sadness are intense, and it’s difficult to sleep imagining how the families and loved ones of the victims must feel. I am working hard to keep perspective and think long term about why we are here. I hope our presence will help create a better life for the people of Afghanistan. They so deserve to live in peace.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


We have just returned from Kandahar Air Field, one of the largest bases in Afghanistan, in the volatile southern city of Kandahar. It is the birthplace of the Taliban, and was the hometown of the infamous Mullah Omar. Violence is an everyday occurrence in Kandahar, and stabilizing that region will be key to a successful outcome in Afghanistan.

President Obama recently announced an increase of 17,000 troops in this country, and most of them will be heading to Kandahar. The media have now begun to focus on Kandahar, and we traveled there to plan for the many upcoming embed-journalist requests. Working with large numbers of media requires a tremendous amount of coordination. Where will everyone sleep and work while waiting to be embedded with various units? That infrastructure does not now exist in Kandahar, and building a much-needed media-operations center, while important, will take time.

On a lighter note, Kandahar Air Field is an exciting place. After traveling to all the major bases in this country, I was surprised to learn that this one has more recreational activities than any other place, including beach volleyball, outdoor spinning classes, and even a hockey rink for the Canadians. Finally, what would a military base be without fast food!

Sunday, April 12, 2009


The last stop on our trip was Mezar-i-Sharif. Actually, it wasn't much of a visit, as we were there connecting to our flight to Kabul. Mezar is city in Northern Afghanistan, and the reconstruction effort is led by the German Army. The base where we landed is home to more than 2,000 Germans and very few people from other nations.

As one would expect, the base was immaculate, with paved and lit sidewalks and well-manicured landscaping. Even the chow hall was spotless, with traditional German cuisine. I must say, it was an interesting experience being on a German military base with so few Americans, especially seeing the Iron Cross on the military vehicles.

World War II was 60 years ago, and we are now in a different time. Germany is one of our closest allies and an integral part of the effort in Afghanistan. Many of my close friends here are German. While history will always be etched in our minds, I am happy that former adversaries of tragic wars in the last century can now work together rebuilding one of the world’s poorest nations.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


In my last post, I failed to mention the reason for our trip. My boss, Col. Julian, my good friend, LT Dave Hecht, and I took a team from CNN to see development efforts in Afghanistan. We are barraged in the media with images portraying the negative side of this conflict, but there is much else on which to report. Significant progress has been made here during the eight years. As a Public Affairs Officer, I am blessed to have the opportunity to see so much of the country. Many soldiers never leave base. While traveling in Afghanistan is dangerous, I want to seize every opportunity to know the country better.

Our stop after Bagram was the ancient city of Herat in Western Afghanistan. Herat is on the famous Silk Route and one of the largest cities in the country. Since the fall of the Taliban, the international community has transformed the area, and Herat now has 24-hour running water for the first time in its history.

The Italians and Spaniards have led the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Heart. The camp where we stayed is called "Little Italy." To give you some perspective on the international efforts here, the camp is home to nearly 2,000 Italians and only eight Americans! The food was delizioso. The pizza is as good as any I've had in Rome (or at Matchbox or Sonoma on Capitol Hill).

By the way, "Esercito," written on the side of the helicopter, means "Army" in Italian.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Our trip to Herat began with a drive to well-known Bagram Airfield, housing the largest base in Afghanistan. More than 17,000 soldiers, mainly American and Polish, are stationed there. Most flights around the country originate at Bagram.

Bagram is nestled in the middle of the beautiful Hindu Kush mountain range. On a clear day it sports perhaps the greatest view of any airport in the world. During its long history, Bagram served as the main base and air hub for the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan. It was also the location where former President Bush and candidate Barack Obama spoke to the troops during their visits to Afghanistan.

Since we were here as a stopover while waiting for our plane, there was time to relax and enjoy the surroundings. Not only did we enjoy American fast-food favorites, but we watched a volleyball game and were able to head out to the flight line to see planes take off and land.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Travels Begin

The last 10 days have been a whirlwind filled with constant travel. Now that I can finally sit in front of a computer, I'd like to spend the next few days telling you about the reason for my trips and the experiences we've had along the way. Last week, we flew by Blackhawk helicopter to Laghman Province, east of Kabul, to attend the first graduation of the Afghan Public Protection Force, a new program designed to give local villagers responsibility for the security in their villages.

Similar to community policing in the United States, recruits are chosen by village elders to attend training offered by the Afghan National Police and then sent home to patrol their own neighborhoods in Wardak Province. While it is a brand new program, the concept is groundbreaking and we are rooting for its success.

The graduation ceremony was fantastic. Seeing the new recruits standing proud as they received their certifications was as poignant as it gets. General McKiernan, along with the Afghan Minister of Interior and the Provincial Governor of Wardak Province, addressed them. I had an opportunity to speak to several Afghan students and instructors, and all were proud of the work they are doing. It is inspirational to see this nation rebuild itself with such diligence and pride.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Heading West

I am going on a trip to Western Afghanistan for a few days and will not be able to post while away. The blog will continue next week when I return to Kabul, with lots of great pictures to share!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Honorary Pirate

This blog post is to thank all of the great young pirates in Grade 3B at the Carlthorp School in Santa Monica, California. Jack, the son of Dr. Amy Zegart, my former graduate school professor at UCLA, and his class, led by Mrs. Tarvin, have adopted me as an honorary pirate on their class ship!

Thank you for writing me such nice notes. Even though I am a grown up and a Navy officer, I still get homesick sometimes. Afghanistan is very far away from the United States, as you have learned. Your letters have brought me so much joy! I am very touched that you are thinking about me and all of the other soldiers protecting the country.

Life is difficult here. It snows all the time, and there are bad people all around us. But we stay positive because we know that we want life to be great for all of you back home and for the good people of Afghanistan. That is why we are here. Something I have been reminded of here is how good it feels to make a difference in the lives of children and adults who suffer every day because their country has been at war for so long. Whether you decide to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, construction worker or soldier, always remember to help those in need whenever you can.

I am honored to be on your pirate ship, and I hope that one day you can sail over here and take me back to America, I will definitely come visit your class when I return to the U.S. and can visit Santa Monica. Ahoy, sailors!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Space Constraints

ISAF is probably the nicest base in Afghanistan. As a NATO command, it is international. I especially appreciate the array of menu selections. Lamb chops with mint sauce, pasta and pesto, and grilled salmon are all at ISAF. But this base was originally built for 800 people, and now there are more than 1500 permanent residents. This causes some logistical nightmares and severe crowding.

I have been here for two months, and only now have I moved into my permanent room. I no longer have Italian roommates, but I have more space and a real place to call “home.” In a future post, I will profile my new living arrangements, but for now, I want to tell you a quick story about my friend Jamey, who came to visit for a day, but is now stranded because his helicopter was cancelled.

Jamey has now been here for three days, and has had four different rooms. Now he is in a tent, probably a more permanent location—for now! Because rooms keep filling up so fast for permanent residents, transient soldiers like Jamey are forced to play a game of musical rooms.

Life on deployment is full of ups and downs, and we certainly do not have all the conveniences we are used to in the U.S. But the staff here at ISAF does its best to fix or improve challenging situations. For that we are thankful. Just a few years ago, the thought of eating hot meals and living in hard buildings in a combat zone was pure fantasy for most of us here. Now it's a daily reality. For me, serving our country is not about the money or the perks, but to help protect the national security interests of the United States.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fun Under the Lights

We work seven days a week in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the security situation does not allow for days off. Ever-changing circumstances require constant vigilance. If the insurgents are working, then so are we. But that doesn't mean there isn't time during the day (or night) to have some fun.

Physical fitness is a "must" in the military. Recently, our command sponsored evening volleyball. ISAF has a lighted volleyball court that is usually occupied by members of the international coalition. Whether it's the Macedonians, the Italians or the Canadians, you can always find action on the volleyball court. So far, our American contingent has played only within our group, but I'm hoping we can start an international tournament this summer.

Unfortunately, I hurt my back lifting weights in the gym and was unable to play in the most recent match. Instead, I served as referee. Notice the holster and pistol in the picture above. How often do you see an armed referee? Fortunately, I did not make any controversial calls, but if I had, it was nice to know I had some protection!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Taste of Home

Immersion into life in Kabul is an experience of a lifetime, but that does not mean I don't crave some comforts of home. The strong European influence on our NATO base provides delicious food and cultural richness.

The other day, we went to Camp Phoenix, another base in Kabul. To my surprise, right in the middle of the Post Exchange, was a Dairy Queen!

I have always had a passion for DQ. My friend Tommy and I had a tradition of stopping at one on our way to and from Norfolk for Navy Reserve duty. And during my childhood, my grandfather would sneak me off to DQ, leaving my grandmother at home holding a bowl of granola. Discovering DQ in Kabul seemed like divine intervention!

Here is a photo of Specialist Shipp and me chowing down on a Blizzard. Remember the song, "Happiness is Two Kinds of Ice Cream" from You're a Good Man Charlie Brown?" This is what happiness look like.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Wreckage of Kabul

My last post gave a glimpse of some post-Taliban recovery in sections of Kabul. New stores, restaurants, and even some modern luxuries have made their way into Afghanistan's ancient Capital. But the scars of war remain, and are fixtures of a city that still has much healing to do. It's hard to imagine enduring 30 years of war, more than five times the length of America's involvement in World War II.

In Kabul, there is no need to imagine, because the reality is everywhere. Buildings have pock marks from bullets, and entire structures were destroyed by either Soviet bombing or civil war. Years later, these artifacts are a constant reminder of past conflicts. Someday, let us hope in our lives, we will see a Kabul where the only scarred landmarks are monuments to preserve history and to remind generations to come of war’s devastation. For now, Afghanistan’s ever-present past is real, and a fact of daily life.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Virbrant Kabul

Even after 30 years unrelenting violence, Afghanistan is more than a poverty-stricken, war-torn country. Yes, there are reminders of danger everywhere, yet a recent drive through Kabul shows something else. Parts of the city are busy and lively, as my photos show. The economy appears to be functioning, and people go about their daily lives commuting, shopping and picking up children from school. I saw electronics stores, restaurants, Internet cafes, and other establishments one expects to see in any city. Some of the locals I’ve met say that Kabul has become more built up since the removal of the Taliban. Let us hope that our presence here assures continued progress.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Enjoying the Cuisine of Afghanistan

Afghanistan may be one of the poorest nations on the planet, but you can't tell that by their deliciously prepared food. While the daily rations here at ISAF are mainly European, we are occasionally presented with a full Afghan feast. Whether it's a special dinner, or just enjoying lunch with some locals, the flavors are a holiday for my taste buds. Perhaps it's because the food is fresh and unprocessed, unlike in most American restaurants, or because the ingredients are different, but I love the native dishes.

Most Afghan meals consist of thin bread used to grab the kabobs or other dishes. The process of eating, apart from the food, is also an experience. Afghans sit on the ground and eat with their hands. No chairs, no silverware, no table. We sit in a circle, place our food on the ground in front of us, and eat with our right hands. It is considered unkempt in the Muslim world to eat with one's left hand.

A couple days ago, I enjoyed a nice lunch with some of the contractors working on the base. One of them, my new friend Aziz, grew up in Kabul, later fled to Pakistan, and came back when the Taliban were removed. I look forward to learning more about his life in the months ahead.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Tragedy of War

Afghanistan seemed far away just two months ago, but being here, though I am not facing down insurgents, makes the war feel very close. All wars cause tragedy, and none of us wants to fight them; but some, such as this one, can be considered "just wars." The U.S., along with other NATO forces, is fighting to bring stability to a severely threatened country.

Unfortunately, innocent civilians, those we are working hard to help, get caught up in the fighting and lose their lives. The American and NATO forces here take every precaution to avoid such casualties, but Taliban militants use noncombatants as human shields to scare the population. The Taliban have killed many more innocent civilians than Coalition forces have, but every innocent death is tragic, no matter who is responsible.

Recently, my boss, Brigadier General Michael Ryan, visited villagers after claims of civilian casualties following a fight between American forces and insurgents. Ryan went to a remote part of the country to offer condolences to the families of victims who lost their lives. I was touched by this action, and it has strengthened my resolve to work as hard as I can here to help bring about positive change for the deserving people of Afghanistan. The photo above shows Ryan sharing an emotional moment with one of the village elders. The world needs to see this side of the conflict.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Meet the Office

I have been describing aspects of my interesting and eye-opening life in Kabul -- Italian roommates, the international community, and the various shops and restaurants on our compound. Now I'll introduce you to my officemates and my responsibilities. As a Public Affairs Officer, I'm responsible for communicating the facts about coalition efforts in Afghanistan. It's an exciting job with a great deal of responsibility. But I am just one of a large group of talented Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines supporting the rest of our military effort here by telling the stories of their hard work, perseverance and progress on the ground in Operation Enduring Freedom. Each of them works hour after hour, seven days a week, to ensure that the international community is successful in Afghanistan.

The picture above is of my co-workers and me. My boss, Colonel Greg Julian, first row standing in the middle, is a great professional and a wonderful person to work for. He has become a true mentor to me. His job is a tough one, especially since our command is only four months old. Not only does he serve as the primary spokesperson, but he manages a growing office and numerous outreach initiatives. Considering the challenging working conditions and worldwide attention on Afghanistan at the moment, he is doing an outstanding job.

As time goes on, I will introduce you to more of my co-workers. There may be some bias toward the Navy, but I will try my best to be objective!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Another Base VIP

I have described the political VIPs that visit ISAF, but we also have other very friendly visitors. Stray cats inhabit the base and are everywhere. Domestic animals in Afghanistan do not hold the same esteem as they do in the States. Driving through Kabul, we see stray dogs in the road, and even some goats! But on our base, cats are our only wildlife.

Since they aren't "fixed" you can hear them throughout the base at certain times of day. Feline mating calls certainly have a unique sound! We found one furry friend who is one of the most lovable cats I have ever known, just begging to be petted! I have not named her, but I'm open to suggestions....thoughts anyone? By the look of her, she is fed pretty well by the soldiers here.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Speaker Pelosi comes to Afghanistan

Kabul is beginning to feel more and more like Capitol Hill with the steady appearance of official visitors from Washington! Most recently, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, attended high-level meetings at ISAF (and I caught a glimpse of her). One thing that feels very different about being here is the lack of partisanship I sense and how being and American, not defined by party, predominates. We are grateful to see our elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, show such deep concern about the challenges facing this war-torn nation. They see for themselves the devastation and critical situation and can return to Washington with clearer perspective and deeper knowledge and understanding of what’s really happening on the ground.

It takes real courage to come to Afghanistan. It’s dangerous and definitely not a comfortable place to be. But their visits are tremendous morale boosters, for their trips here show concern and earnestness to us in the military as well as to the Afghan people.

What I look forward to are many more visits by elected officials and diplomats from the U.S. and other NATO countries. I am convinced that along with our military presence we can find a working solution to vastly improve the situation here. This is an extraordinary country with a rich past and proud people deserving to reclaim their nation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

La Bella Italia

The Italians have become central to my international experience here at ISAF. I now know more Italian words than I do Dari, the native language here in Kabul. Beginning with my first trip to Italy at the age of 12, I have felt drawn to Italian culture, food, and history. With my many Italian friends on this base, I sometimes think I'm really in Napoli or Milano!

Last night my roommates invited me to a party at the Italian NSE. An NSE (National Support Element) is a building for each country that serves as its headquarters here in Kabul. Soldiers go to their NSE to deal with their administrative issues. But the Italians use their NSE for social events as well, which is not surprising! The party featured delicious cuisine that one would find in an upscale restaurant in Rome. Troops from dozens of countries attended--a great cultural exchange.

Soon, I will start eating some authentic Afghan food; but for now, being in Italy is fun! Here are some pictures from the event, including one of Amadeo, my other roommate, and me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

International Flavor

One of the benefits of living on the ISAF compound for "foodies" like me, is the plethora of native cuisine from NATO-represented countries. For breakfast, for example, along with bacon and eggs, there is an excellent selection of breads, cheeses and meets, as well as museli, reminding me of trips to Amsterdam and Germany. Even more exciting, is that many of the nations have their own little shops. My personal favorite is the Italian store (Chiano, pictured here), which has great specialty foods I've seen only in Rome; but there are also shops from Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

This is the first time soldiers from so many nations have served on a mission like this, and never before have they lived together and integrated on a base like ISAF. It feels like a great experiment, and for me, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Here are some photos of some of ISAF's more popular establishments! In addition to Chiano, there is the Danish PX, and the Nordic Palace. It seems like Scandinavia has quite a presence here in Afghanistan!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holbrooke Visits Afghanistan

President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan came to Kabul this week to hold several high-level meetings with President Karzai and other leaders. He had a press conference with the media and conducted an interview with a local TV station, which my colleagues and I helped to coordinate. It was an amazing opportunity to hear first hand his thoughts on the strategic importance of this mission.

It's hard to believe that we are in the middle of a worldwide effort that for years we read about or watched unfold on TV. Being here makes me even more passionate about what the international community is doing to stabilize this country, and I hope that we can help enable an eventual success.

Here is a link to an AP story that highlights the upcoming strategic review by the United States and Afghanistan for the future of the mission: