Saturday, October 01, 2011

Training Completed

For the past week, I've been in Indiana, going through training at Camp Atterbury and the Muscatatuck national training center. This was an intensive immersion period. We lived in conditions similar to those we'll live in in Afghanistan on a Contingency Operating Base (COB). We prepared for, and conducted, realistic scenarios in which we travelled to meetings in convoys, met with Afghan officials and villagers, and responded to attacks. We learned a lot about our mission. Most important, we forged some really strong teams in a very short time.

The week did not start well for me. I got to the airport in Washington a couple of hours before show time and discovered that my ticket had not been paid for. Yep, that's right, our admin section had only processed the first half of my travel preps. They'd made my reservations, but they hadn't actually gotten around to paying for them. And this was a Saturday afternoon. Think they're going to be in their offices working? Are you smoking dope? I got on the phone and called the travel agency that State uses. The first agent put me on hold and eventually disconnected me. The second told me to go home and they'd reschedule my travel for Monday or Tuesday. Not an option: training started that night. Finally, the third agent worked with me to find a duty officer in State who verbally authorized them to issue the ticket and State would follow up with the paperwork on Monday. So 45 minutes before takeoff, my ticket was issued. Whew! I was a nervous wreck, but I was on the plane.

We landed in Indianapolis and were then bused down to Camp Atterbury. The next morning (Sunday), we had an orientation briefing and then launched into a videoconference with the US Embassy in Kabul. For me, this made it real: here were the people that we will be seeing in person, and working with, in just a few days. Immediately afterward, it was off to the field where we got some familiarization training with pistols and then learned how to survive an MRAP rollover. This part included being loaded into an MRAP simulator and turned upside down. Getting out of an upside-down MRAP while wearing body armor and a helmet is quite the challenge, but we did. That afternoon, we were loaded into another bus and sent to the "COB", where we were issued our body armor, computers, bedding, given our berthing assignments, and basically settled in. We had a faux-briefing, military-style, that evening to set the stage for the week's activities.

On Monday morning the scenarios started in earnest. Every morning, we'd get into our group rooms at around 7 am, have breakfast together, and prepare for the day's meetings. We worked with our military security forces to plan the missions, convoy to wherever we were meeting the Afghans, conduct the meeting, and convoy again to the next scenario. In the evening we'd go over the lessons learned from the day's activities and then prepare for the next day. We'd generally hit the rack around 10-11 pm after going hard all day long.

I have to give kudos to all involved for the quality of this training. It was some of the very best I've ever had. Classroom training is one thing, but most people learn by doing, and this week, we did a lot. The pace was hard, the scenarios well-crafted, and all the Afghan roles were played by real Afghans. The role of a police chief, for example, was played by a guy who had been a real police chief in Afghanistan. A "village elder" really was a village elder. An imam had been a senior official in an Afghan bank. Most of our interpreters were extremely fluent in English - so much so that we were warned that most of the ones we'll work with in the field will not be as good.

So what were the scenarios like? We met with a provincial governor to introduce ourselves. We met with a district governor and tribal elders to discuss the reintegration of Taliban insurgents into the village. We tried to discuss agricultural issues with officials who wanted to talk about something else entirely. We went to a village where a house had been bombed by mistake, killing somebody and causing a lot of anger and mistrust. We visited a health clinic that had been poorly built under a US-funded program and was not being supported by the national and district governments. We were attacked by insurgents on several occasions. We drafted reports. We provided briefings to military commanders. We briefed the the US Ambassador on provincial issues when he came through on a short visit. Basically, we did things that we will be doing in real life in another week or two.

This past week was hard work, but it was a lot of fun as well. I had a great team. Among our group of six, there was a wide range of experience: Peace Corps, agriculture, international NGO, State Department, law, military, and business. There were no outsize egos and there were no slackers. Everybody led at some point and everybody had the experience of being completely lost at others. Everybody had a sense of humor about it all, too. At one point, we were meeting with villagers on a serious matter. We were sitting around a rug with the elders, cross-legged and with our boots and helmets off, deep in sensitive discussions, when a firefight erupted. Our security forces pulled us out and, with no time for dilly-dallying, we raced off through the mud in our socks, boots in one hand and helmets jammed on our heads with the other, laughing like fiends.

There were other fun times. The last night, our Afghan role-players held a party for us. It was Afghan-style: rugs on the floors, shoes off, men dancing to Afghan music, women grouped together in the back of the room, and plenty of great Afghan food. I sat and talked with one man who had been in several scenarios with us and learned more about him and his history. It was great.

So now I'm sitting in a hotel room near Dulles Airport. I did my laundry this morning and then mailed home a bunch of things that I won't need downrange. I'm putting together another box of stuff to be mailed to me once I get an address. I really don't want to go lugging two heavy duffel bags halfway around the world if it's not absolutely necessary.

And I'm enjoying hot showers again. After a week of living in rather austere conditions (think the worst KOA campground you've ever been to, including mud, gravel, and showers with no hot water, and you get the picture), it's great to be back in a civilized environment.

But this respite is short-lived. Tomorrow I get on the plane and head to my new job. After all this training, I'm excited about it. And nervous. But I'm really looking forward to it. This is going to be a long, intense, and frustrating year, but it's a chance to contribute to a much greater effort. How often do you get a chance to do something like that? You gotta grab it when you can and run with it. Time to run, then!

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