Monday, January 22, 2007

An Explanation - Fourth New York Times Entry

It has been over two months since my last post to this blog. In November, I was contacted by an editor for the New York Times online who had been following my blog for some time. Editor Peter Catapano asked if I would be interested in providing content to the website for a month as one of four contributors that were serving in Afghanistan. After getting the approval of my chain of command, I agreed. The posts were written over the course of four weeks from November 19th (my birthday) until December 16th.

The content I wrote for the New York Times was proprietary and I agreed not to repost any of the material for a month following the date of publication. As they are now eligible to be reproduced, I offer them up now for your review. This entry and the following three were originally published on the New York Times subscription service "TimesSelect" and ran between 20 November and 15 December, 2006. There is a problem with posting some of the photos to these files due to some internet connection challenges, but I will update them with the pictures that were posted on the website as soon as I am able.

Shortly after I finished my contract with the New York Times, I was able to take a mid-tour leave at home with my family over the Christmas holiday. It was a wonderful release and I will offer a quick post in the near future about that. In the mean time, thanks for being patient friends and thanks for encouraging me to continue writing.

From Kabul,


Author:Arnold Strong
December 14, 2006, 8:58 pm
Not Your Typical Hero
By Arnold Strong

United States Army First Lt. Shawn Hammond is not your typical junior infantry officer. He is a big man, with a high forehead crowed with brown hair rapidly turning to salt and pepper. Having just turned 40, he has been a single father of three boys — aged 15, 14 and 8 — for years, although he remarried just before this deployment. He left active service over ten years ago, remaining in the Ready Reserve. After finishing his master’s degree in psychology, Hammond attended law school with the goal of coming back in as a JAG (judge advocate general). However, after setting up a practice he did not return to the active reserve because he felt his civilian role as sole attorney for a battered women shelter in Augusta, Ga., assumed greater importance.

Nothing would lead anyone to believe that his actions would be a key element of the defense of a forward operating base in the Pech River Valley, a combat infantry officer leading a dozen soldiers in an hour-long firefight.

In the summer of 2005, he got his letter in the mail, ordering him to active duty as an individual augmentee. After training at Fort Benning, Ga., and Camp Shelby, Miss., he joined the staff of the Training Assistance Group at Kabul Military Training Center. Assigned in early 2006, he has served as the deputy personnel officer, basically the military equivalent of an assistant human resources manager for our team. As an additional duty he has assisted with the security forces platoon in their routine patrols in and around our sector. Last weekend, he joined a platoon in inspecting their area of operations in the vicinity of Asadabad in the Pech River Valley in eastern Afghanistan.

As part of their tour, the security platoon stopped to bring much needed supply items and conduct basic presence patrols while inspecting the readiness and defensive perimeters of several remote F.O.B.’s. Each F.O.B. is manned by a team of U.S. soldier mentors that advise a platoon of Afghan National Army soldiers. After traveling down what is widely called “the eighth most dangerous road in the world,” Hammond’s team hunkered down for the night at one of the F.O.B.’s. He and a dozen troops that were preparing to rotate out of this area did one last security inspection before bedding down for a night that none of them will soon forget. In his own words, Hammond offered “Those taking a beating were getting one last beating before they left.”

At around 6:30 p.m. the soldiers discovered the first sign of what was to come. One of them found that the wire outside the major line of defense had been cut and a path cleared in order to crawl under the wire. The soldier alerted Hammond. He ordered the men to fix the wire without using any flashlights. “I thought that if we repaired (the enemy’s) entry point without their knowledge, we could fix them and destroy them … so we were waiting for them,” Hammond later said.

Later in the evening the security patrols saw lights on the mountain that surrounded their position. At 11 p.m., the team increased their security posture. Intelligence had informed the unit that there was a 30-man anti-coalition militia accompanied by a local Taliban leader, conducting cross border operations. Further, there had been a confirmed attack in the area just the previous day, where militia members had killed four teachers for daring to instruct girls in basic literacy. As terrible as this seems, it is one of the main tactics of terror used by the enemy we face every day here. In other words, it is an unfortunate factor of this war that many of us have gotten used to. The challenge for the platoon in this instance was that many of the Afghan soldiers normally based in the F.O.B. with their American counterparts had been sent away to hunt for the men who had murdered four teachers, leaving the F.O.B. with much less than its usual line of defense. But being in a reinforced F.O.B., surrounded by HESCO barriers (dirt filled four foot wide walls) the platoon thought we were safe.

It was about 2 a.m. when those not pulling security were brought to full alert with a startling alarm clock. Mortars were being walked into the F.O.B. The entire compound was manning security positions within five minutes. While the first two mortar rounds fell short of their target, it did not take long for the enemy to adjust his fires.

“I was just outside the tactical operations center when the third round came in about sixty meters from my location. The flash surprised me,” said Hammond. “The overpressure from the blast definitely impacted the first sergeant and I but no one was hurt,” he concluded.
But the men were ready for this attack and quickly moved to their designated positions. With five HMMWV’s (High Mobility, Multi-Wheeled Vehicle, commonly referred to as Humm-Vees) in position, the gunners rapidly got into position behind their crew served weapons., the M-240B and the “Ma Deuce,” .50 caliber machine guns.

Hammond, an expert marksman, moved to a position between two of the vehicles on the perimeter with an SVD Dragonov rifle. In hindsight, he said “it seemed like a good thing to bring.” His men were very glad for his foresight. The weapon, a Soviet-era sniper rifle is incredibly accurate once zeroed when wielded by a sharpshooter. Of his talent with a rifle, the 40-year-old lieutenant said plainly, “When you’re fat, you need to be a good shot, because ya’ ain’t going to be able to run away.”

He continued: “I went to the HESCO wall and started firing upon the Taliban positions based on the muzzle flashes that we could clearly see up on the mountainside. I had the 1SG right next to me. So I was spotting the positions with the tracer fire and enabling the SECFOR guys to direct their fire,” he said. The Dragonov was loaded with tracer rounds, thus enabling others to target their fires on where the “fireworks” are going.

The problem, which soon became evident, was that in helping to pinpoint the enemy positions, the Hammond also gave away his own location for the mortar men in the hills, “which really wasn’t a good feeling,” he said.

The only protection available for the lieutenant and his senior non-commissioned officer was the HESCO barrier to their immediate front. With enemy fire cracking over their heads and all alongside them, the gunners of the machine guns began to synchronize their fires, maintaining the rhythm and keeping the enemy’s heads down.

The enemy finally got a bead on the position of the de facto platoon leader’s position, and brought a mortar round six feet in front of his position. Violently thrown to the ground, the lieutenant and his first sergeant were temporarily deafened by the ringing in their ears and disoriented by the thunderous pounding in their heads. “I was trying my best not to vomit,” said Hammond, reflecting the common feeling soldiers experience when bombarded with “danger close” mortar fire. The disorientation is so strong that it makes you feel like an astronaut in training. It is an act of extreme will not to lose control. Had it not been for the four-foot thick protection of the HESCO, the two of them would likely have not lived to tell their story.
Hammond recovered to his fighting position. Not typically an ill-tempered or foul mouthed man, “I just started swearing at them with every curse in the book, as if they could hear me from 800 meter away,” he recalled.

Once Hammond had spent his ammo, he quickly became an ammo bearer for the other gunners. Over the course of an hour-long engagement, the soldiers defending the F.O.B. spent 4,000 rounds.

After almost exactly an hour, the fire stopped and the lights disappeared from the ridgeline. It seemed to the platoon that the threat had retreated east, in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They maintained their full security posture for about an hour, and conducted an AAR (After Action Review) of the activities, checking equipment and each other for potential injuries. Amazingly, no one was injured.

None of the platoon members slept after the engagement. After ensuring the security of the F.O.B., they headed back to Kabul via Jalalabad, leaving around 9 a.m. At around 4 in the afternoon, the group returned to Camp Alamo here in Kabul where we learned the story of the previous night’s activities.

The story of Shawn Hammond is an interesting one to me because it is an example of the stories that are rarely told. It is the story of those members of the Individual Ready Reserve, for all intents and purposes, members who are names in a database available for duty at the order of the President of the United States. These are men and women who had served in active or reserve forces, then returned to civilian life. There are many members of the I.R.R. active now, having been called to service in this conflict. Some have found loopholes to get out of returning to service or taken advantage of opportunities to resign. But the great majority of them have answered the nation’s call and mustered out for duty.

Lieutenant Hammond was not planning on valorous deeds when he answered the call. He initially tried to explain to the Army his extenuating circumstances. But when his orders came, he met the challenge and got to work.

His story is just one of many from this front, the place where the global war on terror began. Afghanistan is turning a page in its history and no matter how many naysayers or “realists” there are that call for more troops and more resources, I can tell you that this nation is already succeeding due in part to the efforts of citizen-soldiers answering the call of duty.

3rd New York Times Entry

December 6, 2006, 6:26 pm
Renovating for the Future
By Arnold Strong

Thanksgiving week provided a snapshot of the sort of work we do beyond our basic tasks of building the Afghan army and providing security.

We started the week with our first step in a humanitarian assistance project that we had been working toward for some time. In August, my commander Col. Jim Lyman and I met an Afghan-American woman, Salma Seraj, who runs a charity called Tomorrow’s Women and Children of Afghanistan. Revolving around the urgent need for improved health care for infants, proper maternity care for pregnant women, and the general improvement of pediatric medicine in her native country, Ms. Seraj, while based in Washington, D.C., does most of her work in Kabul. She spoke to us about the needs of a particular project here in Kabul, the Esteqlal (“Independent”) Hospital, the second largest in the nation’s capital. One of the wards needed to have new windows, plumbing and electrical work, but more immediately, it needed to be cleared of debris, cleaned and painted. Col. Lyman saw a way that he could help.

After writing a letter home to friends about the plight of these people, a fraternity brother from his alma mater, Oregon State University, contacted Col. Lyman, informing him that he knew how to help. As the president of a construction and engineering firm in the Pacific Northwest, he worked with Portland-based Miller Paint to donate 500 gallons of paint, tarps, brushes and rollers. Another fraternity brother was the C.E.O. of Blackwater, Inc., the defense contractor, who transported the paint and equipment overseas on one of their routine missions to Afghanistan. The end result of these efforts, after months of slow progress, was realized late last month.

About thirty of us from the Training Assistance Group and Kabul Military Training Center left after breakfast on a multi-vehicle convoy from eastern Kabul to the western side of town, an adventure itself. A large group of soldiers from the Afghan National Army, along with United States sailors, airmen, soldiers, officers and non-commissioned officers arrived to the wary looks of scores of patients waiting to be seen and doctors surprised at the size of our effort. After some hesitation to comprehend that we truly were there to assist in redeveloping a ward of the hospital on our “day off,” the administrator showed us a room full of stacked, rusting, old medical equipment, mixed in with broken wooden pallets, and items that could probably be considered hazmat — old bed pans!

The sergeants and petty officers, as usual, were ready for the officers to give them some general direction and then get out of the way; these men and women were ready to get to work. With the arrival of Ms. Seraj, our intentions were given a spokesperson that could cut to the chase, explaining to the staff that, yes, we were here as promised and were going to get the work done. With some quick guidance from the hospital leadership, we started.

Working on Esteqlal Hospital. Photo by First Sgt. Don Weber.

We removed the debris and separated it into “re-use” and “junk” areas, and rapidly broke into teams of demolition, clean, search and prep crews. The engineers tore apart the rotting the plywood structure in the corner of the largest room and removed the molded bathtub. The taller of us stretched our arms to reach the ceilings with scrub pads and Simple Green, wiping away months of dust and grime. Others sealed off the windows, door frames and heater units with tape while others prepared the painting materials. Within two hours we had removed the grime and started to see the potential of this building. Within four hours, we had a painting party that covered our hair with flecks of white primer and showed signs of progress. Within six hours, we had transformed the building inside and out.

The most essential element of this whole project was doing it hand in hand with our Afghan counterparts. The patients at the hospital and the staff saw that this was an effort of partnership. They saw that this was task that could not be accomplished alone, but only through rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty together. There is an unfortunate consequent to doing too much for a nation that needs help. Often it creates apathy and the expectation that nothing can be done without it being done for you.

Phase one was complete. Now we needed to commit to come back and put on the second coats of paint and get a commitment from one of the contractors to finish the plumbing and electrical work. It made for a great way to share “Black Friday.” In the words of First Sgt. Curtis Watts, “I give thanks that I’m doing this here instead of fighting other people over shopping deals in some mall back home.”

A Loss

Two days later, I got the call. There would be a task-force-wide blackout. That could only mean one thing. We had lost a member of the task force.

Our flag was lowered to half-staff and we patiently waited for word from the south, to learn the details of the incident. On the following afternoon, I learned that we had lost Second Lt. Scott Lundell. A 35-year-old junior officer who joined the Utah Army National Guard comparatively late in life, Lieutenant Lundell was a husband and father of four who was killed as a member of an embedded training team, working with the Afghan National Army in the field against a resurgent Taliban. The engagement lasted almost nine hours.

At the memorial service held at our headquarters, Camp Phoenix, Lieutenant Lundell was eulogized by his own governor. As it happened, four state governors — Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, Jon Corzine or New Jersey, George Pataki of New York — were in Afghanistan visiting soldiers from their home states and had arrived only that afternoon. Kulongoski and Huntsman were here in Kabul, while Corzine and Pataki visited soldiers of Upstate New York’s 10th Mountain Division, headquartered in Bagram, to our North. Huntsman attended the service, and his calm, confident but somber voice recalled a servant of state and nation.

On the following day, we were visited at Camp Alamo by the two governors. Kulongoski had won re-election only weeks before. He has been a stalwart supporter of the Oregon National Guard and the military in general, having attended over 70 funerals of our fallen comrades and almost all of our mobilization and redeployment ceremonies. His encouraging words of support and news from home were greatly appreciated.

Since then we have been treated to the real start of winter. It has been snowing here for the past two days. It is cooling off, both heads and hands, mountains and valleys. The mountains that ring Kabul are white, hiding the dismal, dusty grey of wartime that lies just under the surface.

2nd New York Times Entry

November 27, 2006, 10:13 pm
Making It Work, Giving Thanks
By Arnold Strong

Kabul, Afghanistan – The Afghan Soldiers march across the parade field every day at four o’ clock in the afternoon. On a recent afternoon, the light was extraordinary, clearly illuminating the white caps of the mountains that enclose Kabul’s Eastern frontier, the foothills of the Hindu Kush brilliantly on display, as the newest foot soldiers of the Afghan National Army marched along, Soviet Style, bringing in the thunder.

As the main force in the transformation of the Afghan National Army, the Kabul Military Training Center is not only building the military from the ground up, it is also teaching and communicating to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan the importance of building its own internal defense. Consequently, hardly a week goes by that we are not hosting visiting dignitaries, both Afghan and coalition. In the month and a half since I got here, we have hosted the speakers of both the lower (elected) and upper (appointed) houses of the Afghan Parliament, over a dozen visiting general officers, a survey team from NATO headquarters in Belgium, and many others.The visits often impart to the guests how very much has been accomplished in the four years that this institution has existed, but the challenges we experience every day are hard to communicate to an audience that so desperately wants to see success. We are building an army while it is fighting a war. We are mentoring Afghans, and trying to convince them to consider themselves Afghans rather than to exclusively identify themselves by tribe or ethnicity. We are doing this with fewer resources than those being provided to Iraq, fewer than those poured into Bosnia, and frankly, fewer than we need to get the job done in an efficient manner.

But it does us no good to make comparisons with Iraq. We have our job to do with the resources we have. In the words of our commander, Brig. Gen. Douglas Pritt, “What we can do is what’s going on today: build the Afghan National Army and make a difference for the citizens of this country.”

Some Celebrations

On Thanksgiving, we invited our Afghan counterparts to partake in the feast and the Kellogg Brown and Root (K.B.R.) contractors did us right. Even on our forward operating base, they brought us all the fixings. Turkey and ham, steak and shrimp, fruits and nuts, sweet potatoes, rice and beans, salads, pies and even ice cream from Baskin Robbins. It is great to appreciate the bounty provided to these soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines all far from home, and amazing to understand the Herculean effort it takes to deliver such a feast. Seeing the joyful smiles of some of our Afghan workers enjoy the dinner (and the sparkling grape juice) was a treat, sharing a smile and a bit of turkey, giving thanks for each others’ work, appreciating the blessings we share as family for each other when we are all so far from our own loved ones.
Arnold Strong, far right, with two Afghan workers on Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving feast.

Last week was not only Thanksgiving. It was also my 39th birthday.
I received a hazelnut torte from my wife in the mail. She had also included a mason jar of a home-made chocolate sauce for icing. Miraculously, it made it here in six days. Typically, it takes 10 ten days on the button for a package from Oregon to arrive in Kabul. As a result, it was moist and fresh. I had hoped to share it with some of my colleagues after our weekly meeting at the Ministry of Defense. But that optimistic notion was dealt a dose of reality by an imminent threat warning from our intelligence officer. After learning that a suicide bomb attack along a route often used by coalition troops was likely, our commander banned all non-essential traffic. So we were stuck on base for the day.

“It is all fine until someone gets stuck in the eye,” goes the old saying. Here, it’s a little different. It is all fine until an I.E.D. blows up on the main supply route.

Then we are all reminded that we really are in a war zone.

An Explanation...1st New York Times Entry

November 19, 2006, 5:26 pm
Waiting for the Thaw
By Arnold Strong

Kabul, Afghanistan – My name is Arnold Strong. I am an Army officer assigned in Afghanistan as the chief of training and operations for the Training Assistance Group that advises the Kabul Military Training Center on Kabul’s easternmost stretch of Jalalabad Road. My responsibilities are split about 60-40 between mentoring my Afghan counterpart and being the operations chief for my coalition headquarters. Brits, Yanks, Canucks, Irishmen, Kiwis, Frenchmen and Romanians, all of us rolled into a collective whole of trainers and mentors to our Afghan brothers. We are men and women from seven countries and all branches of military service tasked with training an army so it can train itself.

A convoy patrol through southwest Kabul, with the Darulaman King’s Palace in the background.

I left my home in Salem, Ore., in March for a three and a half month train up at Camp Shelby, Miss., before arriving here in late June. On Father’s Day this past June, one day before I started my own commencement toward the Hindu Kush, I delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of U.C.L.A.’s Department of English, the largest in the nation. My wife and I had graduated from the program in 1990 and I guess there was something timely to having an Army officer alumnus speak about what you do with an English degree on the day before he deployed to a war zone. It made an impact on me, and I hope on the newly graduated members of “the real world” to see so many faces full of hope. My main theme to them on what to do with an English degree was to “Write. Write. Speak. Read. And write.”

The hardest part of all of this, of course, was leaving my family behind — again. When I broke the news to my two sons, aged 12 and 8, the oldest said, “I hate my life.” Then after a long pause of tears and sobs, he continued, “You already went to the war and you went to the hurricanes and you go away all the time and I don’t want you to leave.” I don’t know if it hurt me to hear his words and see the pain in his eyes so much as it floored me that an 12-year-old could so confidently and articulately express his grief. The youngest cried his way to sleep in my arms that night.

It was different with my wife. She is a mature and self-confident woman and she knows that I have been a soldier since before we first met, but it does not make it any easier to be away from her. She is a constant calm in the darkest hours of this journey, the one voice that brings me peace in this crazy land of improvised explosives and suicide-bomber tendencies borne of hopelessness and despair. I miss her and my boys, but have a mission to do. The more I deploy myself into this role, the faster the time goes by, the sooner I am home with them again.
Back home, I served as an executive at a public company until our unit, the 41st Brigade Combat Team of the Oregon National Guard, was mobilized for this deployment. I resigned from my position with the company before deploying on this mission. Why, you might ask? Well, despite the fact that I had already served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, this mission, this team, this opportunity was hard to turn away from. My team had already served together in the wakes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and trials like that make for tight bonds of trust and confidence in your leadership. And with an opportunity to travel with this same team to the land of the Hindu Kush, to meet the Hazara, Pashtun, and Uzbek peoples, to learn Dari-Farsi and drink chai with the elders, all while training an army that we would not abandon, that yearned for our support and experience, seemed to me to be a rare gem in the constant operational tempo of the modern Army.

It is an interesting time here. Although I have been in country for five months, I have only been in this position for the past five weeks. Immediately prior to serving as the operations officer mentor to KMTC, I served as the task force public affairs officer, or P.A.O. When asked to contribute comments to this blog, I jumped at the opportunity to work the other side of the headlines, to report my own thoughts and assessments. The last events I worked as a P.A.O. were a dismounted patrol escorting Terry Moran of ABC News Nightline and giving a post I.E.D. interview to Al-Jazeera. As I said, it has been an interesting tour so far, and I am not even at the halfway point.

Sunset, Nov. 12

The seasons are starting to turn. There were still remnants of summer until last week, then Thursday and Friday it rained and suddenly the sun was replaced by clouds and cold, wet air, which was refreshingly reminiscent of the weather back home in Oregon. It seems the violence has quieted somewhat as well. We need to enjoy the quiet while we can. After winter’s numbing of the hatred and malicious intent of the enemy, we will likely see a Taliban spring offensive more aggressive than any other, if our estimates are correct.

And they usually are.