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.