Monday, May 29, 2006

Final Training - MRX

The last week of our stay at Camp Shelby was more than enough to write about, as it filled our days with 24 hour operations, designed to stress us as individuals and as a team. The goal seemed to be to cram about six months worth of likely experiences we will face into one week long exercise. It made for some intense training.

The good news for me is that I finally got my team assembled. I have two real professionals now assigned to the public affairs cell. 1st Lieutenant Catherin Fraker, from the Wyoming National Guard, and Sgt. 1st Class Tom Roberts from National Guard Bureau. Catherin proved herself as a PAO during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Tom is a bit of a legend in the PA world of the National Guard. He is a first rate camera man and video producer who also doubles as a talented noncom leader of soldieers. Together, I think we are going to make an awesome team.

Our exercise concluded in the most frustratingly realistic way imaginable. On the last evening of our training operation, we conducted a "Fallen Soldier" memorial service. Unfortunately, the leadership of this team is already trained in this task, having executed it at least nine times in the past two years. When BG Pritt stood before us to discuss "Specialist John Doe" he ehlpd to put it into context. But when Command Sgt. Maj. Conley stood before us, it took the breath out of everyone. COnley had conducted ceremonies very similar to this nine times in Iraq; in theatre, before his men. He said "I am not going to speak about Specialist John Doe, because he is a notional soldier that died a notional death. But I will tell you that I am a "T" (Trained) at this task and I want to make myself a "U" (Untrained) at it in the future. General Pritt, Sir. Let's make this the last time we ever do this, Sir."

After that night, everyone pretty much slept deep. The emotional finale to a long week of training excellence, was to be followed by closing our accounts at Camp Shelby, and preparing for our "Pass in Review." After a quick transformation from an "Army in the Field" to an "Army on Parade" we formed a pretty cool formation to commemorate the 41st Brigade and its members. The Sunset Patch formation was shot by my old friend Maj. Anthony Bolante from a Huey helicopter. It turned out pretty nice and will be in our archives for years to come. The shot is shown above.

Although we had few family members make the trek from Oregon, there were several that made it from Oklahoma and the closer states. It was a beautiful day. Governor Ted Kulongoski and Congressman Peter DeFazio joined Lt. Gen. Honore' and Brig. Gen. Pritt in addressing all of us on the parade field before we signed out on leave.

It is good to be done with the training and the experience of 'Shelbystan.' I have several weeks until it is my time to depart, but soon may we all go forward into Afghanistan with our heads held high.

-out here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Advanced Party Departure

Yesterday, the training paid off and the operation started in full gear. We sent off our Advanced Party of over 200 members of the task force. Going forward to establish contact with our predecessors, set the stage for a successful arrival of the rest of the task force and to prepare for assumption of our mission to train the Afghan National Army.

Among the soldiers deployinng from Gulfport to Afghanistan was my friend and colleague Scott Kesterson. Kesterson has made a tremendous impact on this organization. As one of the only photojournalists I have ever heard of to embed with ha unit for its entire deployment, Scott has been exposed to and help to expose others to the incredible cycle of training and preparation that goes into getting a reserve component unit ready to fight.

His blog, located at: has already built an extensive audience and a loyal core of readership. He has uncovered so much of the thoughts and innsights of soldiers, sailors and airmen as they prepare for a year long tour in combat. His pledgge is to keep himself out of the picture as much as possible, focusing on the warriors and their day to day lives for the next year. He has built strong relationships and impressed every member of the force that has met him. Focused on the war fight, he has undergone the same training that the troops have, with a special emphasis on medical and language skills. As he will often be in austere conditions, with nothing but his wits, his body armor and the relationships with the soldiers he is working with to keep him secure.

He is going to have a great year, but his frequent late night conversations will be missed. I wish him a safe passage into the new world he is entering, as well as all of the soldiers he is accompanying.

God Speed!

-out here

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The New Leadership Climate in Afghanistan

Over the past three days, we have been paid a visit by one of the most extraordinary soldiers I have ever met, Command Sergeant Major Roshan Safi. Soon to graduate from the U.S. Army Sergeant Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas, he is the first enlisted soldier to train in the United States from Afghanistan. A more professional example of the future of the Afghan National Army (ANA) is hard to imagine. A man with a passion for training the best soldiers his nation can have, he is as articulate as he is experienced in the modern world.

Although he enlisted in the Afghan Army in 2003 as a supply sergeant, his quest for knowledge and his professional excellence quickly drew the attention of the emerging leadership of the newly formed ANA. He quickly learned new skills and and rapidly rose throuugh the ranks. In an army thirsty for leadership, his focus on building a professional soldier class, his heartfelt enthusiasm for training and his hardened skill on the battlefield made him the natural choice to mentor the soldiers of Afghanistan.

Immediately before attending the Sergeant Major Academy, he attended the Defense Language Institute to study English as a second language. He graduated at the top of his class. When asked about his heritage, something that is a natural subject of Afghans proud of their ethnic history, Roshan does not hesitate. "I am Afghan. First and foremost, I am Afghan. It does not matter how we identified ourselves in the past. Sure, when people want to know, yes, I am Pashtun, but what matters most to me is that we stat to recognize that we are not so many different tribes. That is a way we will stay apart. We are one people, the people of Afghanistan."

He discussed passionately his view of the role of the United States intervention in Afghanistan. "My country was a very sick patient in 2001. We had suffered from the disease of War for three decades and America was our doctor. You gave us the medicine we needed and stayed by our bedside to help us get better. All we want is for your to keep this prescription long enough for us to walk on our own feet again as healthy as we possibly can be," he said.

"Your reward will be the loyalty of a Nation that wishes to serve alongside you, no matter where" he offered. "Shoulder to shoulder, we will meet any enemy together. We are one team, one fight!"

He continued "You have to understand, I am the fruit. I am the fruit that comes from a seed that the Americans and Coalition partners planted four years ago and watered and nurtured and helped to grow strong. Now, I must be a seed for the rest of my country, planting ideas and growing a professional Army."

His passionate enthusiasm is infectious. In the words of our own Command Sergeant Major, CSM Brunk Conley, "I have a new best friend."

Pondering for several weeks how our combined joint task force should respond to our motto "JUNGLEERS!" our CSM had a proposal within an hour of meeting with CSM Roshan. Roshan's words echoed in Conley's head and he came to our staff meeting with an idea that was readily welcomed by the staff.

When rendering a salute to a superior officer, the warriors of this task force proclaim "JUNGLEERS!" In response to that challenge we now respond with Roshan's own words in the languages of Afghanistan. Depending on whether we are in the Dari-speaking, Pashtun or Uzbek areas of the country we will replay with;

"Yak Team, Yak Jang" - Dari

"Yo Team, Yo Jang" - Pashto

"Beer Team, Beer Botta" - Uzbek


Sunday, May 07, 2006

It's Been long Month

So I realized today that I haven't posted any content at all to this blog. There have been a lot of time constraints recently, including training and certification and an exercise that has kept us on the go. That and the fact that my three peers left on their pre-deployment leave, with me filling their roles as I can. It has been busy, but fortunately, they all have great NCOs to back them up during their time at home with their families.

The truth is that I just got bogged down by some of the work and got into a bit of a rut. I am glad to have pulled myself out of it thanks to the help of some friends and my family back home.

So I guess the first thing I should write about is the success of our OPERATION BACKPACK.

It happened over two weeks ago, but I finally have the time to write about it.

On Friday, April 21st, about two dozen members of our task force followed up on a promise made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in delivering 38 pallets of school supplies to schools in New Orleans. The event, dubbed “Operation Backpack”, delivered much needed supplies to the beleaguered school district as a good will gesture by our unit before we mobilize from Camp Shelby, Miss., to Afghanistan.

We took off after a thorough safety briefing and started the two hour drive to New Orleans. On reaching the ouutskirts, it started,The supplies will be delivered to the Macmain High School, Ben Franklin Elementary, Mary Bethune Accelerated School and the Mehamie Jackson Consolidated Center. National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from Oregon were among over 24,000 Guard members to have deployed to the Gulf Coast region to assist in recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

With operations mostly in the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parrish and the Lakewood district, the 41st Brigade conducted civil relief and stability operations in some of the most hard hit areas of New Orleans. “Operation Backpack is our way of continuing to support the people that need it most,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas A. Pritt, commanding general of the 41st Brigade.

“The people of the Gulf Coast touched our hearts and those of citizens back home. This is really America at its best…citizens helping citizens. We are proud of our service in Louisiana and want to continue to recognize and assist in the efforts to rebuild this unique area of the United States.” he said. The supplies were donated by private citizens from Oregon through a program that was facilitated by the Oregon Department of Education. We really are blessed to see such activism come to fruition. These kids were so delighted to get these much needed school supplies.

I got so many hugs from these kids. They were just delighted to get out of the class room, to run and romp in the rain and to see the overwhelming amount of goodness from people that wanted them to have a better life than they currently have.

In a letter from Mary Haynes-Smith, the principal of the Mary Bethune Elementary School, to BG Pritt, she wrote to us "The students were overjoyed by the experience of meeting you. We have been humbled by the genuine support and charitable contributions of individuals and organizations such as yours that give us hope for a brighter future. What a BLESSING! The school supplies and personal hygiene items will allow us the opportunity to provide students with additional materials for a long time to come. Thank you so much. We are excited and thankful."

This from the same principal that told us that she comes in to school every morning at 7:00 a.m. to be there just to listen to the kids. To hear their stories. As she explained to us, "I tell all of my teachers that these children won't be able to learn unless they can talk first and get these experiences out in the open.Some of them have lost so much, family, friends, loved ones, homes, all of their belongings. It just takes a lot, but thanks to people like you, it gets easier."

It was a great day.

-out here