Thursday, June 2, 2011

AFN and the Stars of Farah

We had an AFN reporter wandering around FOB Farah for the week before my R&R. Reporters haunt the nightmares of most State officers, but AFN -- the Armed Forces Network -- seemed kind of harmless, and since the reporter they sent couldn't have been older than 12, I felt ok talking to him.

AFN mostly rebroadcasts U.S. television on behalf of the troops worldwide (we get it in the chow hall), focusing, it seems, on the staples of sports and mixed martial arts fighting. They produce their own public service announcement-style commercials which everyone else except me seems to hate but that I find oddly captivating, on topics ranging from the practical ("it takes a lot of paperwork to bring a dog overseas with you") to the historic ("and that's why to this day we still blouse our pants in our boots") to the somewhat grim ("suicide prevention tips" and "remember: rape is a crime").

The Embassy has given field officers blanket permission to talk to media in our province, so long as we don't stray from our work and generally stay on message. We don't actually have any media in Farah -- there is no functioning press, and with single-digit literacy rates, it's unlikely that any newspapers will be starting up soon -- but the blanket permission covers international reporters as well, so I was good for an interview. I badgered the AFN kid to do a story on me but he politely declined, focusing instead on the military members of the PRT who are partnered up with various members of the Farah Government. The PRT had originally referred to those individuals as Government "mentors," a term I loathed for its intrinsic arrogance; we now use "liaison officers."

I was assuming that the end result of these interviews would somehow end up on AFN television, which may happen at some indeterminate time in the future. For now, though, AFN has published the interviews as a series of YouTube clips highlighting the work of individual officers at the PRT. I was thrilled by them -- it seemed like our little province, so often forgotten, was finally in the spotlight for once. The first video to hit to internet was of Commander Quixote, the PRT's affable if slightly ADHD doctor, talking about his work with the Farah Provincial Director of Public Health.

(Commander Quixote -- or Doc Quixote -- is infectiously enthusiastic about everything in life, and spends his spare time stargazing or practicing on his purple and slightly sparkly electric cello. He addresses everyone -- even the enlisted -- as sir, and likes to throw an oorah in at the beginning and end of every conversation. He's a vegetarian and has been systematically starving himself in Farah, where the dearth of non-meats in the chow hall has forced him to subsist almost entirely on raisins and nuts. He loves good patient care and loathes the Taliban with every fiber of his being. You get the feeling he'd be tilting at windmills, if only there were windmills around at which to tilt).

Commander Quixote's video opens with some spectacular stock footage -- an explosion, the flames from which burn down into the words "Enduring Freedom," followed by a photo montage of someone shooting a machine gun and then some random Afghan bleeding from the face. I loved it as a video opening, but we all had a good laugh over it: nothing could less resemble Farah.

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I told Quixote that I thought his video was excellent, both very sincere and very on message, which is quite a compliment for me given the frequency that "whoa, whoa, whoa! I think you're off message!" passes my lips. "It was awful," Quixote replied. "I looked like a bobblehead doll. Seriously, have you ever seen anyone move their head so much?" he asked. Other things of note in the video, aside from Doc's head: the footage of the meeting takes place in the conference room just outside of my office. The huge map on the wall, barely visible in this video, is amongst my favorite things at the PRT.

Engineer Lovesalot's video was published at the same time as Quixote's.

(Engineer Lovesalot told me that he likes my blog but wishes I hadn't saddled him with "the gayest nickname possible." "What would you prefer?" I asked him. "How about... Lieutenant BIG MONEY?!" he replied. "That's way gayer," our Senior Enlisted told him. "Lovesalot it is," I said).

Video Link:

I love this video for a variety of reasons -- it makes Lovesalot look exceptionally rugged, for one -- but more important is that some of the footage was taken in the PRT parking lot, next to our ridiculous vehicles with a good view of the sharp and unexpected mountains that punctuate the desert just across the airstrip. It's a nice little snapshot of how things actually look like here.

Chief Blackboard, an elementary school principal from Oklahoma turned communications officer who doubles as the education ministry liaison, also got a brief video of her inspecting tents in the PRT's parking lot. (Blackboard has gone a long way to fixing the Education Department, so much so that the Provincial Education Director said he wished she'd never leave. That sort of actual know-how and ability makes me wish I had anything resembling an actual skill -- that is, an actual skill beyond knowing how to use semicolons and being really good at unjamming the xerox machine, of course).

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I was there helping to lug tents around but I appear nowhere in this video, which honestly makes me think the AFN guy was intentionally avoiding me.

Next up was Captain Harmony, who is normally quite poised but comes off as a little stuttery in this video. It features the rinky-dink shipping container on base that serves as the "women's handicrafts store," which had been her initiative and which provides one of the only livelihoods available to women in the province. Note that the salesperson in the store women's handicrafts store is male: the base is widely assumed to be a roiling den of sin, and very few women are willing to come lest they be stigmatized as prostitutes. As is common practice here, the few women who do come always do so with a male relative escort.

Video Link:

Harmony actually got a second video as well, though it's somewhat less inspired. It features footage of a women's shura in far-flung Shib-e Koh district, tucked in the desert in the middle of nowhere near the Iranian border. Sadly, it doesn't show much -- and it includes no images if the wasteland that is Shib-e Koh.

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The final video -- and perhaps the most exciting of all -- was of Petty Officer Moonshine, who partners with the Director of Economy. The construction of the Economy Department's new office building had been massively labor intensive for the PRT, in no small part because the Director of Economy himself is extremely demanding. ("It appears that beggars can be choosers," one of our engineers said).

Video Link:

This video is packed with exciting things. For one, for all my cajoling, AFN actually put in a tiny sliver of my head, visible from seconds 0:07 to 0:10. You also you see Moonshine sitting on a couch next to our lead USAID rep (who amazingly still has no nickname and was never appropriately delineated from the last lead USAID rep). I'm actually right next to her but the view is blocked by an interpreter, who was whispering to Commander Killjoy, sitting in the row in front of us. Killjoy himself appears in the video towards the end, standing next to the Governor during the ribbon cutting portion of things.

It is the goal of most Commanders to cut no ribbon over the course of their time in Afghanistan: we consistently seek to put the Afghan Government in front and keep ourselves in the background. That Killjoy got suckerpunched into cutting the ribbon -- and that AFN was there to record it for posterity -- should give me enough to make fun of him for to last the rest of this tour.


Dakota said...

This was my first time ever attempting to embed YouTube videos. They certainly make it is easy as possible, but Haysus Maria it's still a pain.

Jaded Compass said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donna said...

I hate this post! It's like watching the movie after reading the book - none of the people look the way I imagined them. Well, that's not entirely true - the sliver of Dakota's hair looked relatively authentic. And we can say we knew you back before you were a major AFN star.

Say, maybe you could apply to act in a few of their commercials. They could use some new actors.And you clearly have that on-screen flair.

GWB said...

Re: The Book The way you portray the players around you is great! The nick names are humorous and perfect for the military (they don't want their names and personal info splashed all around.) My favorite was "Captain Blackboard". You probably realize that in a short time their lives will have changed a lot and they will have a lot to say about this experience they can't say now. GREAT WRITING!!

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