Monday, July 12, 2010

Laying the Ground Work

T-minus 36 hours till I board the plane for Dubai, and I'm more or less hyperventilating at everything I still have to do: hit the pentagon to get the ID card that allows me to eat and shop on base; repack my bag so it's light enough to carry by myself; return my tags to the DMV and cancel my car insurance, as well as my cell phone plan and gym membership. And I need a haircut, and some dental work, and there are still goodbyes to be said.

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?")

We practiced "downed driver drills," taking control of armored humvees from the backseat using a throttle control lever on the dashboard. We learned how soldiers communicate by the sounds of their guns -- that certain guns shot for certain periods of time signal a safe curtain in which you can bolt for the safety of the armored vehicle. We were in mock ambushes and mortar and IED attacks, simulated with fake grenades and light arms filled with blanks. I learned, in no uncertain terms, that I am the first to take cover. I confirmed that my fight-or-flight impulse is keyed squarely to flight, and that few people are faster than me. Lacking a gym, I spent my evenings running the perimeter of the base in body armor.

The military had purchased a former mental hospital, and littered the lawns with rubble and the charred, rusted carcasses of bombed out automobiles. Some of the buildings they detonated and some they sledgehammered to make them look old. They covered the walls in graffiti in Dari and Pashto: "Death to America, death to the Soviet Union. The Mujaheddin are the champions of the nation." They hired Afghans as role players, to act as translators and partners, adversaries and devils' advocates. It was as close to Afghanistan as you could be, though lacking mountains and with significantly more corn.

We practiced sitting at a table across from a group of people making demands: the clinic needs money for medicine. The roads are poorly paved and need resurfacing; promise that you'll do so. Your government must pay to refurbish this building; you built it two years ago but already it's falling apart. The point is to focus on the long term, emphasizing sustainability. If we refurbish the building, will it be falling apart again two years from now? What are your maintenance plans and who have you hired to implement them? What resources do you already have that you're not utilizing? There was enormous pressure to cave and promise resources that weren't ours to promise -- State promising USAID money or committing the military to something not within our purview. Our SMEs confirmed that we can expect more or less every meeting in Afghanistan to have an element of high pressure salesmanship to it.

We offered condolences to the family of someone mistakenly killed by a US airstrike. We met with the Governor, the Provincial Development Council, and leaders from civil society and NGOs. We visited a remote combat outpost and considered requests for the expansion of civilian personnel in the outlying districts. We rode a blackhawk, which filled me with a child-like sense of glee. It was like summer camp, only with a lingering sense of dread that we could be attacked at any moment. I have never felt more prepared for an upcoming assignment than I did following the training in Indiana.

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).

Then came explosives familiarization: classes on the physics of explosions, the creation of blast waves and primary, secondary and tertiary dangers of explosions (which are, respectively, the blast itself, the shrapnel caused by the blast, and any impact a person may have with a ground or other objects when lifted by the blast wave). It was accompanied by video after video of things blowing up -- of car bombs and truck bombs and people dying. And then came a demonstration: low explosives and high explosives, det cord (high explosives contained in wire), a blasting cap, TATP (the liquid explosive that prevents one from taking a water bottle though airport security), and finally a lump of C4 about the size of half of bratwurst, stuffed into the ashtray of broken down Cadillac. "This demonstration," I told my colleague standing next to me, "has eradicated my desire to go to Afghanistan." "I was just thinking the same thing," he told me.

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.

Then combat medicine: how combat medicine is different than civilian/EMT medicine (there's more focus on bleeding and hypothermia), how to tourniquet and pressure bandage to stop bleeding, how to treat puncture wounds to the chest to prevent lung collapse. "I know some of you are squeemish about seeing people bleeding," our medic instructor told us before putting on a video. "But this next video only LOOKS gruesome. It's fake. If you look closely you can tell that it's actually just a rump roast that they put into a pair of pants and are pumping fake blood through."

And that was that. Afghan prep: one glorious year, complete.

I finished writing this in the air over the Persian Gulf, off the northern coast of Saudi Arabia. I'm about half an hour from Dubai and less than a day from Afghanistan. I'm more nervous about simple logistics -- will there be anyone at the airport to pick me up? What will my room look like in Farah? Do I have too much stuff? -- than I am about being in Afghanistan. I feel well prepared. I also feel like I have no idea what I've gotten myself into.


Anonymous said...

Best of luck, Thornburg. Remember you have the Maldives to look forward too.

j said...

Excited about the blog!