Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Afghan Plan: Where the Marvelous Dakota Blogs from the Middle of Nowhere

You know you're going to be reading something fun when you see the following disclaimer:

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent or reflect the views, opinions or policy of the United States Government. All names within this blog have been changed.
Then there's a Cast of Characters. The author writes "I'm moving to a nickname-only policy in this blog."
The following people have been mentioned thus far:

El Comandante -- the Commander of the PRT.

Captain Firepower
-- the plucky young Captain in charge of ensuring we have enough firepower on our missions.

Lieutenant Moneybags
-- the First Lieutenant in charge of giving out money.

Ag -
- The Department of Agriculture Rep. I recognize that this nickname is hardly creative.

Sergeant Charlie
-- a Vietnamese-American who labelled the fridge in his office area with "If you take a water, replace it: Charlie is watching you."

Petty Officer Frying Pan
-- Our PRT's culinary specialist, a Johnson and Wales graduate.

He has already ranked his Meals Ready to Eat writing, "Given the new-found frequency of MREs in my diet, the time has come to definitively rank them by deliciousness.  #1 is beef enchillada "comes with a side of refried beans; what's not to love?" Check out his list, if you expect to be eating MREs in the next year.

He has also included a list of Commonly Used Acronyms (this should make David happy!):
DCM -- Deputy Chief of Mission; the second in command at most Embassies. Embasy Kabul has a larger management structure, and one of the five Ambassadors there plays the traditional role of DCM.

IED -- Improvised Explosive Device; usually a roadside bomb.

MRAP -- Mine Resistant Anti-Penetration vehicle; pronounced as "Em-Rap."

SME -- Subject Matter Expert. Not "Small-Medium Enterprise," as one might think. Pronounced "Smee."

SRAP -- the President's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; currently Richard Holbrooke. Pronounced as "Es-Rap."

I suspect that Dakota has been writing a few political cables (poloffs tend to insert phonetic guides in their cables :-)

Below is an excerpt from Dakota's first post in his blog,  The Afghan Plan. (excerpted with permission):
The process of getting to Afghanistan is far more daunting than the idea of going to war. The paperwork is incredible, so much so that State has hired contractors to help streamline in-processing. There are checklists upon checklists. Things that seem like they go without saying must be specifically requested, and if all the boxes aren't checked, you'll be denied landing permission. Do you need transportation from the airport? Do you need housing upon arrival? Will you be collecting danger and hardship pay? Request them in writing or expect to be be denied.

My favorite piece of paperwork was the gym membership waiver, reminding those of us headed to a war zone that moderate physical exercise can result in injury and the Embassy is not responsible should things go pear shaped. This was on top of the form reminding employees that Afghanistan is a hardship tour and we should be prepared to wear a minimum of 30 pounds of armor and expect our housing to be sub par.

There were weeks of training. My 39 weeks of Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, ended three weeks ago and I'm already slipping, despite spending all my time chattering to myself in broken phrases.
And then there was Indiana, an intensive intro to Afghan village life and working with the US military -- the ins and outs of protective details and how to be protected. It was taught at a mock Forward Operation Base (FOB) in rural Indiana, three hours from nowhere: FOB Panther, named for the local high school's mascot.

The scope of the training was incredible. Groups of 8 civilians, each coupled with one military and two civilian "subject matter experts" (SMEs -- "smees") who had just returned from working in the field in Afghanistan. Each group of civilians was being protected by a small contingent of 6-12 National Guardsmen who'd been called up to spend two weeks learning personal protection tactics, as well as how to deal with the somewhat persnickety animal that is a Federal Civilian.

("We should call this OEF-1," one of the Guardsman said in reference to us and playing off the acronym for Operation Enduring Freedom. "That stands for 'Over Educated Fucks.'")

The bridge between each group of civilians and their protective soldiers was a Sergeant, tasked primarily with training the soldiers but also with making sure the civilians know their role in the game of personal protection -- how to act, how to react, and how to be a help rather than a hindrance.

Our Sergeant was a Scottish immigrant who combined Hollywood-style drill sergeant gusto with a highland brogue. He had for a healthy contempt for civilians, and generally referred to us as "you lot" -- as in, "what YOU LOT forget is that if you ask these people what time it is, they'll tell you how to build a fucking watch!". Having been tasked with molding us into war-ready team members in a scant six days, he was determined to make the best of it even if he couldn't make us do pushups. He was, in short, awesome.

He spent a week berating us into being better protectees, lecturing us about how idiotic civilians always refuse to keep their helmets and body armor on (our military SME later conceded that it would be impossible to conduct a meeting with a helmet on). He drilled into us that if at any time he or another member of the security force barked out the code phrase "Bayonet! Bayonet! Bayonet!" (always three times, to be clear), that we should run for the door.

("If YOU LOT were put in charge of selecting the egress word, you'd probably pick something STUPID. Like 'lunchtime.' If I called out "lunchtime! lunchtime! lunchtime!" would any of you be running?" And then gesturing to a more heavyset member of our group, he added, "Well, except him?")
And then came a few days in West Virginia, at a State-contracted raceway in the middle of nowhere. First was offensive driving training. How to stop at high speed, reverse at high speed, use your car to ram another car out of the way. How to generally be street aware and keep one's eyes peeled for potential insurgents, car bombs, IEDs, ambushes.

Did I crash the Crown Vic assigned to my group? Maybe. Maybe I lost control of the car while backing up at 40 miles an hour, and maybe I turned the wheel the wrong way and got a little panicky and maybe I slammed on the brakes (in contravention of everything they taught us) and maybe we had a little dust up with a concrete wall. And MAYBE the car stopped working after that and had to be towed off. The world may never know. (My colleague, taking a cue from me that speed kills, practiced escape by reversing at an outrageously slow pace. "Ah yes," I said, "here we are escaping from the terrorists at a nice, leisurely pace." Although by that point, I wasn't really in a position to be making fun of anyone).
And finally weapons training. Three hours of classroom time taught by a firearms loving ex-marine. (My burning question: "With the exception of pulling the trigger, is there any way to make that gun go off?" The answer: an emphatic no). Then two magazines with five bullets each for five different guns; fifty rounds total. I started with a baretta, the service pistol carried by our troops. I waited in line, got to the front, and told the instructor that I'd never touched much less fired a gun and was skittish. He walked me through it: safety on, safety off; magazine in and out; hands here, second hand wraps around, grip tightly, aim through the sights and fire. He was extraordinarily patient. I think I hit the target once or twice.

Moved to the Glock and then on to one of two rifles -- the M4, carried by our soldiers. I repeated my spiel: first time touching a rifle, third gun ever shot, kind of skittish. "Pffft. My fifteen year old daughter can shoot this gun," the instructor sneered. "Ok, that's not helpful," I replied.

Reads like a novel? Yep. Read the rest here.

Also read his Here Today, Guam Tomorrow where he tagged along on Combat Life Support class and was told "good that you're trying to be more than just self-loading baggage," the XO said.
Looks like we're double booked," the instructor said. "You guys can go ahead and rotate."

As soon as she said the word rotate, the Guam guys started shouting "GO! GO! GO!" again, and we were off, sprinting like idiots. The instructor for the next station was standing next to mound of dirt, not unlike a snow-fort you might make if were living in place that had snow instead of several inches of hot dust on the ground. "All right!" said the instructor. "One of you has been shot in the chest!" I clutched my chest and threw myself theatrically into the dirt, hyperventilating. "I've been shot in the chest!" I shouted. "DAKOTA'S BEEN SHOT IN THE CHEST!" the Guam guys shouted. "Bang bang!" said the instructor. "They're shooting at you!"

One of the Guam guys grabbed me from behind, sliding his arms under my armpits and lifting me from the shoulders; another grabbed my legs at the knee, and the two of them picked me up more or less effortlessly and carried me behind the dirt pile. They dropped me and then joined the other guys, who were peering over the top of the dirt pile with index fingers and thumbs extended, pantomiming shooting and shouting "bang bang bang bang bang!" (Only one of the four pantomimed holding a rifle; finger pistols were the order of the day). "Ok!" shouted the instructor. "Treat the patient!"

An action movie, in words, definitely!  An eye for details and a gifted storyteller ... in the middle of nowhere that's also a war zone.

We look forward to reading some more stories during his one year (plus one) tour in Afghanistan. Visit his blog, leave him comments; we think he'll appreciate the online company while he's in the boondocks.

Stay safe, Dakota and keep writing!

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