Who Are You?

I was mobilized for my second deployment in 2013, this time to Afghanistan. I was a chaplain assistant in the Army Reserves and was being cross-leveled and reunited with some great people that I previously served with. I was going back to the 143d ESC family, this time with the command. I had previously been in a battalion within that organization where I was a chaplain assistant to the chaplain I would now be going to war with. We would spend more than a month that summer at Ft. Hood, Texas, training for the upcoming mission.

During that time at Ft. Hood, it was to be decided which personnel would be going to Kuwait with the main body and who would be going to Kabul, Afghanistan and be attached to the 1st TSC to become part of their mission. I was going to Afghanistan. Then it changed. Then it changed again. When the rosters were finally finalized, my chaplain and I were in fact going to Afghanistan. A group of 80 of us, or so, left Ft. Hood on August 8, stayed a day and a half in Kyrgyzstan, then arrived in Kabul on August 12.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/08/13/a-day-and-a-half-in-kyrgystan/

Believe it or not, there was some miscommunication between the unit I was in and the unit I was being attached to in Afghanistan. I know, right? Miscommunication in the army? No way! Believe it. When my chaplain and I got there with the rest of the soldiers being attached to the TSC, the chaplain and I were not on the TSC’s list to be there. “Who are you? Why are you here? We weren’t expecting a Unit Ministry Team.” Umm… I’m still getting paid, right?

The new unit wasn’t sure what to do with us and didn’t have office space for us. The Chief of Staff for the TSC told my chaplain and I to go see the chaplain with USFOR-A, at his office in the basement, and ask if they had anything we could do or help with until the TSC figured out what to do with us. (USFOR-A = U.S. Forces-Afghanistan). The Chief of Staff  told us to work with USFOR-A, do what they do, and that we would get some office space with the unit soon enough. So, we went to the basement and integrated ourselves in with the USFOR-A chaplain team. That miscommunication ended up being a good thing for my chaplain and me as far as I’m concerned. It was like getting bonus adventures on what was already going to be an exciting deployment.

By the third day of the deployment, I was already getting outside the wire on missions with the USFOR-A chaplain team going to other local bases in Kabul. We were told to work with them and do what they do. So, we did. The USFOR-A chaplain team was busy, always going somewhere. Some of the missions I went on with them included taking the USFOR-A Command Chaplain to meetings, picking up the AFCENT chaplain for a visit, attending the weekly NATO ceremony at ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), and more.

 

 

 

My usual view from the passenger seat while TSgt Hivner drove, in and around Kabul.

On a side note, the USFOR-A Command Chaplain at the time was CH (COL) Hurley. He’s now a two-star general and the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. To this day, he is still the only chaplain to make me drop and do push-ups. But eventually, he warmed up to my sense of humor. And I’m sure that working with me is what set him apart from other candidates for the Chief job. He probably used me as a reference. Ok, that last part might not be true. (This would be one of those moments when CH Hurley might tell me to do push-ups).

 

 

 

Left:  CH Hurley after a chapel service at ISAF.  Right:  Me and my chaplain at the left,  CH Hurley and CH Fredrick on the right, SGM England and Air Force TSgt Hivner (Both USFOR-A chaplain assistants) kneeling.

One mission I went on with the USFOR-A chaplain assistant was to get a vehicle serviced. More specifically, to get the Duke system updated. The Duke is a device mounted on a vehicle that jams remote controlled IEDs. Some improvised explosive devices would be placed on convoy routes and could be detonated from a distance by the enemy with a cell phone or other type of remote control. Our Duke was non-operational that day. Completely dead. We had to make the short trip to Camp Phoenix without the protection it offered. But we made it there without incident.

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Me and CH Mac at Camp Phoenix, Kabul, AFG, 2013.

On another mission with the USFOR-A chaplain team, we walked from our base to ISAF. It was a short walk, but to me, it was very exciting. It was a close-up view of the area that I could not get in a convoy or on a helicopter. I filmed the whole thing with a camera attached to my gear. I had my long rifle and my sidearm with me, both locked and loaded, both ready to go if needed. The following week, we were set to walk to ISAF again, staging behind the back entrance of the building we worked in. Keep in mind, we were told by the Chief of Staff to work with USFOR-A and do what they do. Imagine the surprise my chaplain and I had when our Command Sergeant Major showed up, about to pop a blood vessel in his forehead after finding out we did a walking mission the previous week, telling us that we are not authorized to leave the base on foot. He was livid. We made other transportation arrangements and still completed the mission.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/09/22/the-true-risk/

I thought we were going to be in trouble, well me, not so much the chaplain. When a Command Sergeant Major expresses his displeasure with you or your actions the way mine did that day, it can often mean you are in some sort of trouble. But, there was nothing in writing saying we couldn’t walk and we hadn’t been told not to. And the Chief of Staff told us to do what they do. We simply ended up being told to not do that again. Two positive things did come from that day. First, the entire command was given a memo very specifically detailing the proper procedures for going on any mission, to include prohibiting any walking missions. I should get a ribbon on my uniform for effecting such important change in a two-star command. Second, they finally gave us office space upstairs with the rest of the unit. I guess they wanted to keep a closer eye on us.

Thanks for stopping by this week and checking out my 100th post to Story of My Life. Good day, God bless.

Dave

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Memorial Day Weekend, 2017

Every Memorial Day Weekend I take time to reflect on the Service Members that paid the ultimate price. As you enjoy your long weekend, sales, BBQ’s, and family time, take a moment to remember how we got those freedoms. Men and women who willingly put on a uniform gave their lives to insure our continued freedom. Take a moment to remember them.

DSCN4755 Death Registers at Enduring Freedom Chapel at Bagram, Afghanistan. 

I invite you to check out a previous Memorial Day post I’ve made. It contains a piece of poetry about Memorial Day I wrote while serving in Iraq in 2009. https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/05/28/memorial-day-weekend/

I also invite you to check out another post I made while serving in Afghanistan that gives insight to the ceremony for the fallen of the NATO and Coalition Forces. https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/09/04/the-ceremony/

DSCN3370 The set-up for the weekly ceremony at ISAF in Kabul, Afghanistan that honors the fallen.  Only the countries with killed-in-action have their flag displayed during the ceremony.  The U.S. flag was displayed every ceremony I attended.  We gave a lot over there.

But most of all, I ask that you pause for a moment in your busy weekend and be grateful for the ones that gave their lives so that the rest of us didn’t have to.

Good day, God bless.

Dave

2230 Hours, Kabul, Afghanistan

2230 hours (10:30 P.M.), Kabul, Afghanistan, about five or six weeks into deployment. My two roommates and I had already turned out the lights and called it a day. I was half asleep when the loud knock on the door startled the three of us from our bunks. Who the hell was banging on our door so forcefully at that hour? One of us may have even yelled to the person at the door using some colorful language. Oops. To our surprise, it was one of our Master Sergeants. He informed us that Bagram was “getting lit up” and that intel reports were suggesting we were next. He told us to stay put, but be ready. Then he was off to the next room, banging on that door.

Really? “Stay put, but be ready”? Needless to say, I didn’t fall asleep until 3 or 4 A.M. I got online and messaged my friend that was stationed at Bagram and asked if he was doing alright. He told me there was some excitement going on up there, but he was well so far. There was not an attack that night at my base. Where I was stationed, at New Kabul Compound (NKC), there were very few attacks like those at other bases outside of Kabul. My base was across from the U.S. Embassy and ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces). Because of those places, we were fortunate to have greater security.

During my deployment to Afghanistan, I spent a good deal of time traveling. I used to call Bagram my second home because I was there so much. I became very familiar with the rocket attacks that would come in from the mountains there. Same thing at Kandahar and Shindand when I visited there on missions. Loud, unexpected noises still startle me, bother me, and get my adrenaline pumping for a moment. But our threats in Kabul were different. Usually they involved attacking a convoy in the city with an explosive device that could be slapped on to a vehicle stuck in the slow-moving Kabul traffic. Other threats were vehicles loaded with explosives that might try to penetrate the gates of one of the bases or detonate next to a convoy. Small arms fire was always a threat everywhere over there. Then there was the one big threat that was hush-hush, secret.

Whether these threats got carried out or the bad guys were disabled, the threats were real. Dealing with those threats in our minds was very real. We had to be ready no matter what. And having to deal with them over and over without anything happening most of the time took a weird toll on me. I am still having to learn what is a real threat and what is not. I imagine police officers go through that at their job daily. To me, when I’m driving to the store or to pick the kids up at school, I’m looking for threats. I seriously doubt there are any real threats on the roads here where I live, but I’m looking. When I see a car change lanes hastily without a turn signal, I see a threat. When people walk through traffic without using the crosswalk, I see a threat. When someone is driving the wrong way in a parking lot or trying to exit at an entrance only, I see a threat. I’m conditioned to see a threat even though in my rational mind I know it’s not.

At the end of one mission to ISAF we were waiting for the drive team to retrieve us. The two vehicles were separated before they could both enter the base and the second vehicle didn’t get in. A truck supposedly packed with explosives was trying to get in the base and traffic was halted. It was a mess. We were advised to move to the opposite side of the base until the threat was taken care of. The one vehicle that made it into the base met us in the rear. We exited the back gate and eventually met back up with the other vehicle and returned to our base without further incident.

For local missions, we traveled by convoy. Before each trip, we were always given safety and situational briefs by the convoy commander. This covered the route to be taken, who does what in the event of an attack, and current threats in the area. During one brief, we were advised that intel indicated that we should be on the lookout for a white Toyota that was carrying a trunk full of explosions. That information narrowed down our potential threat to about half the vehicles in Kabul. Maybe not quite half, but there were more white Toyotas than any other vehicle on the roads it seemed.

For out of town missions we traveled by helicopter and airplane. One trip coming back from Bagram, a short helicopter ride from Kabul, we were delayed for a day or two because of a threat somewhere in the mountains that we had to fly over. Finally, a pilot decided to make a flight back to Kabul. We got on the bird to head “home”. We took a different route back than we usually would. When you travel as much as I did, you get used to the terrain and route. Needless to say, the change of route was a little uncomfortable to me. We flew around the “bowl” and found our way in and made it safely to our base.

All of the threats were real, some came to fruition, and others never did. But either way, the threats were real in that every one of them had to be treated as such. Every threat brought a sense of self-preservation and wondering about our own mortality. Every threat had an element of reality that any of us could be going home in box draped with an American Flag. I’m still working on what’s real and what’s not in my life now as far as threats go. I’m getting better, but I still can’t help it when I have a flash of feeling threatened during certain situations and events. Some things just trigger that in me. Maybe it will go away one day. Maybe not. We’ll see in time.

Thanks for reading this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Other posts related to this one:

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/03/19/the-fear-in-the-eyes/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/04/memories-and-afghanistan/

 

Language, War, and the Bay of Bengal

I love language. I love communication. I love writing and talking. I enjoy words, their meanings, their roots, and how they fit into our lives and how we get our messages across to each other. When I first embarked on my anthropology degree, I wanted to be a Linguistic Anthropologist. Unfortunately, the university I went to didn’t offer that so I chose Cultural Anthropology and loved it. Language and culture go hand in hand and the more I got into my studies the more I enjoyed it. But in the long run, it didn’t matter since I quit school two semesters shy of my degree. But that’s a story for another time.

I think I’ve been to fifteen different countries. Some as a military dependent, some as a Soldier, and one or two just because. I have always liked learning about other cultures and I try to pick up a few words of their language when I’m there. Usually, “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Please,” and phrases like that. I think India was the most interesting place I have ever been. The different cultures I encountered within that country drew me in and the amazing and colorful people there fascinated me. The languages they spoke were different from anything I had heard. Yes, languages. The statistic I found states that India has 29 individual languages that are each spoken by at least one million people. There are many others languages that weren’t listed because the site said not as many people speak them. As many as 100 languages are spoken in India daily.

Our interpreter spoke four languages which helped us greatly in our travels. However, we did end up visiting a village on a beach on the Bay of Bengal that had been devastated by the Tsunami of 2004 and our interpreter didn’t speak their local language. We interacted with the people there, but we could not fully communicate. We had no idea what the locals were telling us but it was no doubt how their village was forever changed by devastating waves. In a later event, the interpreter was keeping up brilliantly in translating a sermon given by the leader of our group. Right up until he said, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The interpreter looked right at the speaker and said, “Beg your pardon?” That phrase had no adequate translation to Telugu, the language of the people we were speaking to. This intelligent, very well-educated translator could not convey the simple phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” He knew the words and what each word meant. But they had no meaning grouped together in that order in the translated language.

While deployed to Afghanistan, one of my favorite places I got to visit was the ISAF Headquarters base (International Security Assistance Forces). It was very close to the base where I was stationed at in Kabul. It was also connected to the U.S Embassy which was very cool to visit. I probably went on ten missions to ISAF. Most of the countries that were participating in the war effort had troops at ISAF Headquarters. I really enjoyed interacting with coalition and NATO forces. All of us from different cultures speaking a different a tongue, but on a common mission. I’m proud of the Bronze Star I received while there, but I think my favorite ribbon on my uniform is the NATO ribbon. It shows that I was part of something bigger than all of us, even if we couldn’t always understand each other.

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And of course, with that many troops from that many different countries there were some language and communication issues. Most notably, and to be honest the most entertaining to me, was a conversation I watched between two Service Members from different countries (one was Italian and I can’t remember the other). Both men spoke some English, enough to be able to talk to me for the most part. But their broken English was not good enough to talk to each other and it was the only language they had in common. They were actually arguing about something in broken English, not getting anywhere with each other. I was no help because I couldn’t figure out what their disagreement was. But it was amusing to me. Sorry, I find things funny sometimes that aren’t always funny to others.

Speaking the same language does not always mean two people can understand or effectively communicate with each other. Sure, one might know the words that are being spoken, but he might not understand the meaning of what is being said. That’s a hard concept to grasp. Even as I write this, I’m trying to figure out what I’m saying, trying to say it in a way that is logical to you.  It should makes some sense, then, that people get upset when arguing. A person understands the definition of each word being said, but he can’t grasp the concept behind all the words together, in the order they come, or the meaning portrayed by the speaker. Perhaps the speaker should say them louder and be more animated, maybe that will help. And, that’s how the fight starts. I think I do that sometimes when trying to describe my PTSD to people who cannot comprehend or begin to understand. It’s frustrating. I know it’s not from lack of trying. But people who have never experienced what’s going on in my mind, can’t fully understand what I say when I talk about it. Much like the two Service Members from different countries trying to figure out their problem. And no different than the locals on the beach in India that we could not understand at all.

But I still love language. I love putting all the words together and giving them meaning and feeling. Whether you understand me or not has no bearing on what I write. I’m doing this for my own good, for my own therapy. I do hope you enjoy it and get something out of it. I always appreciate feedback, good or bad. Mostly, I hope you have a better understanding of what many of us struggle with daily. We are doing our best to communicate, but it’s hard sometimes, especially when often times we are not understood.

Thanks for reading. Good day, God bless.

Dave

The True Risk

This post was removed for a while to make someone happy, even though it had been approved for publishing here. So, I’m putting it back. Enjoy.

Every weekend in September my chaplain and I travel from our compound to another to provide religious support and to participate in a ceremony honoring the fallen of our NATO forces. For more on the ceremony, see my blog entry titled “The Ceremony.” Every trip comes with some element of danger. Some of our trips have even been canceled. Most of the trips we made were in armored NTVs (non-tactical vehicles). One time week we walked to our destination for a trip that lasted only a couple of hours. We were walking on the roads for about 5 minutes, but it was quite an adventure to be on the streets, to see the people and the traffic up close. Turns out, we weren’t supposed to walk, at least not those of us in my unit. But that’s a whole other point of grief I won’t get into here.

On this particular weekend we were all geared up, ready to walk. We were wearing our protective gear, including a protective vest, helmet, gloves, etc. I had my M9 and my M16. I was ready for the adventure. At the last-minute we found out that our walk was canceled and began scrambling to find a ride. We did, our drive team came through like the professionals they are.

Early Sunday morning we are setting up for chapel service. The Navy Captain that plays piano for the services asked me to go to the gate of the compound and escort his Afghan National Army friend to the service. So I set out on my mission. I made my way through the compound to the gate. I went out to where I thought I was supposed to meet him and found myself on the street, outside the compound, without my gear. I had only my M9 with me. I looked around to see a few locals walking the street. There was almost no vehicular traffic. I walked toward the entry checkpoint down the way from where I exited. I wasn’t afraid and never felt threatened. But it was a very surreal feeling.

I found the gentleman I was looking for. He was dressed in his uniform talking to another Afghan Soldier who was also waiting for an escort to get into the compound. He had a genuine smile and was very happy to see me. I greeted him in his native tongue and he returned the greeting in English, shook my hand, then embraced me. I led him through the gates and checkpoints and then to the chapel. We talked about his training he had been to in the States and where I was from back home. He spoke very good English.

As it turns out he is a Christian, something that puts his life in jeopardy here (hence, I will not use his name or rank). As I sat there during the service, I pondered all this. Here is a man who not only is willing to risk his life to make his country a better place, but also to risk everything in his life to go to church and fellowship with other Christians. This moved me.

They say we, as American Soldiers, risk our lives everyday by being here. I know this to be true when I attend the ceremonies and see the names of the fallen. But I have never felt threatened or in danger since I’ve been here, not on any of the missions I’ve gone on, not even when we walked in the streets. Maybe that’s my American culture of taking things for granted or maybe I’m just old enough to know that we can’t live forever anyway. Whatever the job at hand, we are willing to do it not matter the cost. But in thinking about all this, I am humbled and ashamed that I take so much for granted. It’s easy to do what I do with all the cumbersome protective gear I have to wear. There is some safety in it. There are no repercussions for me going to church or being a Christian. But this Afghan Soldier, to do what he did, to go to church, to be a Christian here, is far more risky than anything I have ever done. His reward will be great.

So I ask you this question as I close: What are you willing to die for? More importantly: What are willing to live for. Dying is the easy part. Can you handle living for what you believe?

Good day and God bless.

Dave