Saturday, November 19, 2016

Kabul: Operation Proper Exit

Cheesy.

That was my first impression when we were asked to line up along a red carpet waving miniature American flags.  When the wounded warriors entered the room to thunderous applause and strode the 30 meters to the stage, however, I changed my tune.  Despite the cheering and clapping, I felt a lump in my throat as the delegation passed.  The columns of waving flags weren’t cheesy after all; they were a perfect tribute.

rolling out the red carpet for good reason

In total, six servicemen and -women joined us as part of Operation Proper Exit – a program run by Feherty’s Troops First Foundation that allows wounded warriors to return to the place of their injury and leave the country on their own terms.  Most of those who came to speak to us did not remember leaving Afghanistan the first time due to the trauma they had endured.  Some had spent months in medically-induced comas.

After the grand entrance, a few of the Operation Proper Exit organizers gave some remarks as did the Embassy’s deputy ambassador.  Then the guests of honor each took a turn at the mic.

First up was MSG Leroy Petry, U.S. Army, who in 2008 was shot multiple times and lost his right hand while attempting to throw a grenade away from his position.  His actions saved two fellow soldiers.

Next was MSG Neal Benson, U.S. Army, who sustained severe facial and head injuries from an improvised explosive device (IED) in Kajaki in 2007.  A significant portion of his skull was reconstructed from titanium plates.

There was MSG Raymond Castillo, U.S. Army, who lost both legs and suffered organ damage also from an IED, and SCPO Ren Hockenberry, U.S. Navy, who was involved in a green-on-blue attack, whereby an Afghan soldier, supposedly a “friendly,” fired on her group.  She was shot twice in the stomach, once in the groin, and twice in the leg, shattering her tibia.  She still requires the use of a cane.

SSG Earl Granville, U.S. Army, lost his left leg to a roadside bomb in 2007, and last but not least, SSG James Fitzgerald, U.S. Army, was shot in the right leg and knocked down a ravine, fracturing his knee and femur in the process, while in a firefight in northern Afghanistan in 2010.

All of the wounded warriors had received the Purple Heart, and in addition, Petry was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama.

While I think one of the guests was medically retired following his injuries, most returned to active duty after months, and in many cases years, of surgeries and rehabilitation.  Leaving their units behind was the hardest part of being injured, most of them agreed.

Some of the warriors approached the Embassy event with humor, and others were more serious.  Some were emotional, and some were nostalgic.  There were recurring themes throughout, though.

First, most of them downplayed their injuries, noting that they were the lucky ones.  All of them had seen buddies and colleagues killed in battle, often in the same incident that had resulted in their own injuries, and they all took the time to reflect on this ultimate sacrifice.

Second, all of them were exceedingly gracious and humble.  We were here to honor these heroes, but one after the next, they took the podium and thanked us for coming out to see them, for taking time out of our busy schedules.  They thanked us for supporting the troops, for working in harm’s way, and for striving to develop Afghanistan.

Lastly, in what came as a bit of a surprise to me, no one seemed to bear any ill will toward Afghanistan, and most expressed hope for the country’s future.  As SCPO Hockenberry put it, “A few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch.”

All the while, I was thinking about my older sister who had served two tours as a trauma surgeon at the military hospital at Bagram Air Base.  She had patched up dozens of injured military personnel, and had possibly played a role in saving the life of someone standing on the stage before me.  It was a humbling notion.

After the presentation, the wounded warriors formed a receiving line, and we all lined up to shake their hands.

I’ve heard it said when people face catastrophic injury or illness, their pre-injury personalities are often magnified by the experience.  Negative people come out with bitterness and bile, while positive people emerge with gratitude and optimism.  With this group, the latter definitely seemed to be the case.

The receiving line was moving slowly, so I had three or four minutes to talk with each guest.  SSG Fitzgerald and I both hail from Tennessee, so we chatted about that.  I talked with SCPO Hockenberry about Hawaii, her home state and current duty station and one of my favorite holiday destinations.  Everyone was interested in my life in Kabul and my career in the Foreign Service, and I was keen to hear the details of the rest of their trip.  We were toward the end of their two-week tour through Afghanistan, so they had already seen and done quite a bit.

The event took place on a Saturday – “Casual Saturday” to be precise – and I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt as I’ve done the past 13 years.  This didn’t go unnoticed, and it was unanimously agreed by the warriors that it was the best shirt ever.  MSG Benson even proposed we trade shirts, but, alas, he and I were clearly not the same size.

Last in the line-up for hand-shaking was MSG Petry.

“I’ve seen your story on AFN [the Armed Forces Network],” I told him.

The network routinely airs clips featuring Medal-of-Honor recipients.

“Oh, geez,” he remarked, “I’m not sure how I feel about being an AFN celebrity.”

“I guess it’s better than being the guy with alcohol poisoning in the public service announcement,” I replied.

We both laughed, and he gave me a fist-bump with his prosthetic hand.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 8)

At one of our weekly staff meetings, one of my Afghan colleagues had recently returned to work after an absence of probably ten days.  His father had broken his hip, and my colleague, the son, had taken time off to help him get treatment.

There was considerable interest in the incident among the rest of the staff, so he told us what had happened.

"It was really terrible," he began.  "My father fell in the middle of the night, and he was in so much pain."

"I took him to the hospital by taxi, but actually, it was no use."

"Why not?" we asked.

"Unfortunately," he explained, "there was no one there who could help."

"We waited for hours, and still no one helped us.  My father was really suffering."

"So," we prompted, "what happened?"

"In these situations," he told us, "there is only one thing you can do: Go to Pakistan."

They loaded up his father in an ambulance and began driving to Peshawar by way of Jalalabad.  This is a journey of five hours under the best conditions, but for his father who was jostling around in the back with an untreated broken hip, it must have been hell.

"Did you have visas?" my boss asked.

"Actually, it wasn't necessary," he replied.  "If you are in an ambulance you can cross the border without the visa."

All the Americans in the meeting found this system to be most curious.

"Once we got inside Pakistan," he continued, "a surgeon finally helped my father, thanks God."

After the injury was stabilized and his father was comfortable, they waited several days more in Pakistan for him to regain his strength.  Then they began the drive back to Kabul.

"By the time we left Pakistan," he told us, "my father was feeling pretty good."  "Actually, we could have easily returned by taxi."

"And did you?" we asked.

"Of course not," he replied.  "We still didn't have visas, so we hired an ambulance for the ride back."

Even the Afghans in the room saw the humor in this, and everyone cracked up.  It would seem there was a loophole in Afghanistan-Pakistan border security that you could literally drive a truck through.

Apparently, however, this situation was also on the radars of Afghan and Pakistani officials, and a few months after the great hip caper, the ambulance border exception was closed --- at least officially.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At Embassy Kabul, the American employees (who are typically on one-year assignments) get a reduced shipment of household effects.  Even with this reduced shipment, however, I still managed to bring more than enough cargo to fill my apartment.

That said, I still ended up leaving a few key items behind, and one day, I found myself in need of a Phillips head screwdriver.  A few of my dining room chairs had legs that were so loose, I knew it was only a matter of time before one collapsed and someone (quite possibly me) busted his butt.

Rather than hunt around for a screwdriver, I put in a maintenance work order, explaining the problem.  I also noted on the form that I was happy to handle it myself if it was possible to borrow a screwdriver.

A few hours later, the Embassy's carpenter called me about the work order, and we arranged to meet at my apartment that afternoon.

We meet at the appointed time, and he got to work.  A couple turns of the screwdriver on the four legs of four chairs, and everything was done.  The whole job had taken about two minutes.

"Is that it?" he asked me, with a slight tone in his voice.

But for some reason, all I heard was, "Please turn in your Man Card."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For the Afghan staff at the Embassy, the job is a mixed bag.  Most seem to enjoy the work; the pay and benefits are very competitive; and after two years of service, they can apply for an immigrant visa to the U.S.  On the other hand, it can be dangerous to be affiliated with the Americans, and some of our Afghan colleagues have been targeted in the past.

As such, most Afghan employees try to keep a low profile.  Many have developed cover stories they tell their friends and neighbors, and in some cases, they don't even tell their spouses and immediate family members they are working at the Embassy.  Besides the security angle, it doesn't always pay to spread the news about working at the Embassy because one might end up surrounded by a mob of those less fortunate, hands firmly extended for a piece of the pie.

Part of keeping a low profile is blending in while commuting to and from work.  Employees who wear logo-ed uniforms would naturally want to wear different clothes while on the bus, but even those who generally wear business suits might want to wear other clothes while out in town.  It all depends on the alias a person has assumed.

I've seen several of the Afghan employees coming to work in their traditional clothing, the shalwar kameez, before changing to their work clothes, but one morning, I saw one of my colleagues in a different get-up altogether.

While normally looking smart in a suit and tie, he was coming through the gate with pegged jeans, a varsity jacket, and a baseball cap turned backwards.  His age and beard made the ensemble all the more conspicuous.

When he saw me, he sheepishly grinned, and I was somewhat perplexed.

"What kind of blending was this?" I wondered.  "Did his family think he worked in a 90's boy band?"

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 7)

When the invitation for a high-level Embassy birthday party appeared in my inbox, I assumed the guest list must have been fairly inclusive.  I checked with Eitan to see if he had been invited as well, and once I had confirmation, we formally accepted.  We received our invitations probably three weeks before the big day, as did several other people, but the list wasn't as inclusive as I had expected.

A handful of people was invited on the first round, and word quickly spread around the Embassy.  Although everyone tried to play it cool, some people were cleared miffed at being overlooked.

As time passed, more invitations trickled out.  The staggered approach, however, didn't go unnoticed by any means.

I overhead several variations of this conversation around campus:

"I got my invitation today," a colleague would remark.

"Oh," came the reply, "I got mine a week ago."

While pleased to have made the cut, people were keenly aware if they had been relegated to second-, third-, or fourth-string.  Those who fared better were good about reminding the later picks.

The hurt feelings continued to grow as the party date drew closer.  Some only received invitations the day before, in which case, it's hard not to feel like an after-thought.

When all was said and done, most of the American community had gotten tapped, but not all.  In my office, eight out of nine of us made the cut, leaving one officer out in the cold.

"Come along anyway," we encouraged him.  "Your invitation probably got misdirected."

Compelled by pride and uncertainty, however, he was unwilling to try his luck (for what if he showed up and his exclusion had been intentional?).

"I'm pretty tired," he told us, "and I was planning to watch some Netflix tonight."

The party was fun in the end, but the invitation delivery scheme caused some major drama.  No one likes to be picked last for kickball, not even seasoned diplomats with decades of experience.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

While I don't have that many contacts of my own, as the admin assistant in my office, I know a lot of the guests who come to meet with my colleagues.

One afternoon, I went to retrieve one of our frequent visitors at the guard booth.

A gray-haired older man, he was sitting outside the security screening zone waiting for me.

As I normally do, I approached him for the customary handshake.

He stood up, slightly fumbling with his things, and extended his hand toward mine.  Something was amiss, however.  There was something else in that shake besides our ten fingers.

While I could tell that my visitor was palming something, I didn't take the mysterious object from him.

As I disengaged from the handshake, a pendant - a small lapis heart - fell to the ground.

"I got that for you," he sheepishly told me.  "I know you can't get out of the compound, and we have things like this in town."

Although we do in fact have access to such trinkets in the shops on the compound, I thanked the man for the gift and led him to his meeting.

Twenty minutes later, I was telling the tale to my colleagues.

"That's creepy, man," one of the guys told me.  "He was totally hitting on you."

I wasn't convinced this was the case, however, as it seemed more like something out of the grandfather's playbook.  Maybe next time he'll pull a quarter out of my ear.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When I first arrived to Kabul, there were pallets of bottled water everywhere on the Embassy compound, and people were clearly accustomed to it.  Six months later, however, the bottled water began to dry up.  The powers-that-be decided it was too expensive to continue stocking bottled water for general use when the tap water was deemed to be perfectly potable.  The shipments of bottled water were slashed dramatically and were now reserved primarily for emergency stocks.

To socialize the change, the Embassy's management section as well as the Green Team sent out e-mails and posted flyers about the awesomeness of drinking tap water.  Not only was it cheap, healthy, and better for the environment, it also tasted delicious.  Most people grumbled a bit at first, as people are wont to do, but soon enough, everyone who was anyone was drinking from the tap.

There were a few hold-outs, however, who were unwilling to drink the Kool-Aid (or in this case, the water).

One of my colleagues was convinced that the well water wasn't as healthy as had been claimed, so he ordered a water-testing kit from the EPA.

When the kit arrived, he began testing the water with wild abandon, and he'd kindly give us daily reports on his findings.

"This morning the tap is showing 480; the water fountain, 349; the water kettle, 434; and the Brita pitcher, 240," he'd announce.

When the concept was still novel, people would feign interest.

"Four-eighty what?" a colleague might ask.

"Parts per million!" he'd reply.

"Parts per million of what?" the colleague would continue.

And at that point, the conversation would die.  My water-testing colleague only knew that the tap water contained 480 parts per million of something, but with no further granularity, such testing was useless.

The daily reports never did stop, but they soon began to fall like trees in a forest with nobody there to listen.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 6)

I like some pungent foods, and my colleague, Archibald, was happy to indulge my stinky tooth.  Or perhaps he was trying to challenge me.

In any case, when he returned from his first vacation, he came bearing a jar of Cambodian fish paste.  To help ensure there was no accidental leakage on the plane, it was wrapped up tightly in about 15 plastic bags secured with rubber bands, in addition to the plastic jar itself.  When I finally peeled open all the layers and revealed the paste inside, it didn't look like a paste at all.  It was a chunky mess of fermented fish parts, and while it wasn't totally revolting, if it had been drawn as a cartoon, it would definitely merit some stink lines.  When I added it to recipes, however, it did contribute a nice flavor.

A few months later, Archibald returned from another vacation, and this time he brought me another treat - durian candy from Thailand.  Durian fruit is said to taste like heaven and smell like hell, and it's pretty polarizing.  People either love it or hate it, and there's not much middle ground.  I like durian, so the candy was well-received.

Archibald had given me the candy in the office, so I ate a few pieces, sealed the bag with a binder clip, and put it in my desk.  Everyday I would eat a few more pieces, and curiously, the smell seemed to intensify each time.  One afternoon, I cracked open the bag, and the smell wafted around the office.  Archibald could see what I was doing, so he knew what was happening.  The rest were clueless.

"What's that smell?" my other colleagues pondered.

The next day, the smell was more aggressive still.

I cracked open the bag around 2 PM, and outside the door, some workmen caught a whiff.

"Do you smell that?" one asked the other.  "I think there's a gas leak!"

I can't be sure they were smelling the durian, but it wouldn't be a stretch.  I closed it up.

A day later, I pulled out my stash of durian once again.  It was smelling roughly 22% riper than the day before.

Archibald was there as I opened it, along with my colleagues Jeb and Phoenix.

Phoenix and Archibald were laughing about the slightly obnoxious stench, and then something unexpected happened: Jeb ran out of the office dry heaving.

"What was that about?" Phoenix asked.

Opinions were mixed as to whether Jeb was being a drama queen or if the durian smell was truly making him gag.

In any case, I knew the gig was up.  You can't keep doing something in the office that might make your colleagues puke, so I took my toxic candy home and ate the rest in peace.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Language can be difficult, and sometimes, well-meaning expressions can go awry - and comically so.

As I was sitting in my office one morning, someone sneezed in the hallway.

In nearly every language there is a response to a sneeze, and one of our Afghan janitors gave it a try in English:

"Blast you!" he proudly shouted.

An American colleague was in the hall, and he quickly intervened.

"You shouldn't say that," he corrected.  "I think you mean, 'bless you!'"

We've all had some foreign language slips, and it was a good learning opportunity for the janitor.  But mostly, it gave us a good laugh to start the day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here at the Embassy, there is an office charged with keeping morale on the compound high, and this office has money.  It organizes events for nearly every holiday.  It hosts movie nights and market days.  And best of all, it will support events conceived by members of the community.  For example, if you want to host a Black History Month party for the community and you need some cash, you can submit a proposal.  If you want to conduct a bedazzling workshop and you need some money for supplies, you can submit a proposal.  I'm not sure of the exact criteria, but I think that most events that are fully inclusive and well organized get serious consideration.

There are a wide variety of events that are hosted or sponsored by this office, but the best by far, in my humble opinion, was my friend Antoinette's cocktail class.  This class was open to the community, but due to logistical constraints, participation was limited to like twenty or thirty people.

Eitan and I made the cut, and we reported for duty, ready to channel our inner bartenders.

Antoinette had arranged the training room with high-top cafe tables, with four people at each table.

The ingredients were all prepped beforehand with enough to make four cocktails on each table.  So, for example, there might be a small dish with 4 or 5 tablespoons of lemon juice if the recipe for a single cocktail called for 1 tablespoon of lemon juice.

Once the crowd assembled, there were a few youngsters on the front row.

"Do we get to drink the cocktails?" one asked.

"Of course!" Antoinette replied.

These two guys were some of our Marine Security Guards, which means they could have been as young as 18 years old.  No one was carding at the cocktail class, though.  Besides that, the old saying certainly holds water, at least for me, that someone willing to die for his country should be allowed to have a drink of alcohol.

By the way the guys smiled and blushed when they learned they could drink, however, I suspect they probably were underage.

Antoinette formally welcomed the Marines and the rest of her eager pupils, and then class was in session.

Our first cocktail of the evening was the Mary Pickford - a delightful combination of white rum, fresh pineapple juice, grenadine, and Maraschino liqueur.  We were each provided with a cleaned-out iced-tea jar from the cafeteria to use as a shaker, and we loaded up our ingredients.  As we did, Antoinette gave us tips on our technique, information on the ingredients, and some history about the cocktail itself.  The Mary Pickford, for example, was named after the Canadian-American film star in the 1920s.

Once we had our ingredients loaded up, Antoinette gave us the order to shake.  She had emphasized the need to shake our cocktails sufficiently and vigorously, and to make sure no one was cutting corners, she timed us.  One minute doesn't sound like much, but sixty seconds of forceful shaking can start to feel like a workout.

After the shaking came our reward.  We poured our drinks into our glasses and tasted our handiwork.

Everyone at my table was pleased.  Well, nearly everyone was.

"It's OK," my friend Harriett said, "but I really don't like Maraschino juice."

We took 15 or 20 minutes to savor our Mary Pickfords, cleaned up our stations, and prepped for the next cocktail: The Bee's Knees.

For the Bee's Knees, we combined gin, lemon, and honey in our shakers, waited for Antoinette's signal, and got our arms pumping.

Then we filled our glasses again and raised a toast.  Once again, only 75% of our table was satisfied.

"I just don't care for honey," Harriett announced.

This was a bit ironic because honey was a crucial part of the cocktail.  During the Prohibition era, honey and citrus were liberally added to mask the bad taste of "bathtub gin".

Half an hour later, we moved on to our final cocktail, the classic Whisky Sour.

The recipe for this one included bourbon, lemon juice, sugar, and fresh egg white.  As we were prepping, the first guy at our table, Jefferson, poured nearly the whole bowl of egg whites into his shaker, far exceeding the recommended dose.  Consequently, the rest of us barely got any.

We carried on as best we could and joined the one-minute chorus of shaking.

When we finished, Jefferson's cocktail looked like a milkshake it was so frothy.  The rest of us had considerably less head on our Whisky Sours.

We toasted and had a sip, and the three of us turned to Harriett to see what her reaction might be this time.

Harriett knew that all eyes were on her, and she didn't disappoint.

"Bourbon isn't my thing," she told us.  "I wish we had made a Gin Fizz instead."

We all had a laugh about it.  Harriett was three for three.

With the formal part of the class completed, we all got the opportunity to make a final cocktail.  Antoinette unveiled a variety of bitters with flavors ranging from chocolate to crawfish boil.  We students were invited to remake any of the drinks we especially liked, to try the cocktails with different bitters added, or to go free-style.

At this point, we mingled with the rest of the students in the class, thanked Antoinette for her initiative, and sipped away on our cocktails.  And for the first time that evening, Harriett found something to her liking.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 5)

In Afghanistan (and probably in other "hot spots" around the world) there is a so-called fighting season.  The Afghanistan fighting season is basically year round, save for the heart of winter.  Terrorists and insurgents are people too, and I suppose nobody wants to trudge through snow to shot someone or place a bomb.  Besides the discomfort involved, there are also less targets available in winter since people tend to hunker down more in bad weather.

This issue came up while we were in a staff meeting one day.  It was December -- at a time when fighting season would normally be over.  This year, winter in Kabul was very mild, with only a dusting of snow on a few different days.  There wasn't much rain either, nor was it especially cold.  In short, fighting season never ended, and December was a particularly bloody month.

"We sure are hoping for some snow soon," one of my Afghan colleagues remarked.

"It must look nice," an American colleague innocently replied.

"To be honest," the Afghan replied, "I only like the snow for the security."

"Look at what's happening in Kabul these days because there's no snow."

I think it's a pretty fascinating example of the interconnectedness of our world.  At least in part because of global warming or El NiƱo or whatever else caused this year's warm winter, there was an increase in conflict deaths in Kabul.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With dinner having concluded one night, some friends and I were sitting around the table talking.  As the night wore on, the topics of conversation danced freely between the serious, the silly, and the mundane.  At one point, we started talking about fitness.

Early on, one friend made an observation.

"Seriously," he told us, "I see so many people in the gym who are just wasting their time."

This prompted a few anecdotes from some of the others about half-assed workouts they had observed.

My friend who had opened this avenue of discussion then went on to outline his vigorous fitness regime and the results he had achieved.

"I've lost 20 pounds in five months," he offered.

There are many fitness high achievers here in Kabul for a few reasons.  People have time on their hands for starters, and there are also less distractions.  For example, most people with family obligations can't afford to workout two hours a day.  In a place like Kabul, however, where you come without your family, that's not a problem.

In contrast to the high achievers, you naturally have some lower achievers as well - the people who use the 3-pound pink weights, the people who walk on the treadmill, the people who barely break a sweat - and these were the ones being mocked.  This didn't sit well with me.  Not everyone goes to the gym to get a six pack or to drop a dress size or to train for a triathlon.  My own motivation for going to the gym is to keep my current wardrobe in play and to keep some of my medical metrics in check.  My workout is pretty low intensity, and, reminiscent of my friend's comment, I was indeed once told that my workout was a joke.

No personal offense had been intended by the conversation, but offense was taken nonetheless.

I should have ignored it and moved on, but instead I took the low road.

"Twenty pounds in five months isn't that amazing," I responded.

My comment was snarky, bitter, and not even true (for losing 20 pounds in five months is actually pretty impressive), and it didn't go unnoticed.

"It's better than you could do!" my friend retorted, his gaze dripping with venom.

An awkwardness now loomed over the table, and the party dissolved soon thereafter.

Instead of taking a stand for the less-driven, overweight, and stiff-jointed, I had made an ass of myself.

Check, please.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There are numerous stray cats on the Embassy compound, and there is a team of employees who offer their time and treasure to feed and look after them.  The team names the cats as well with colorful monikers like Bossypants, Sweetums, and Gordo.

While they are indeed feral, many of the cats have become habituated to humans, and a few are actually somewhat charming.

One evening, Eitan and I walked out of our apartment building to find a cat loudly meowing in the flowerbed.  Maybe it was Winston or perhaps Hank; I have no idea who is who.

I meowed back, and the cat ran over to us like a puppy dog.

We continued walking and I would occasionally meow to the cat.  He followed us over half the compound, walking a respectful pace behind.  He didn't try any of that weaving between the legs nonsense.  He just followed us.

I thought his response was pretty impressive, but Eitan wasn't of the same mind.

"Stop encouraging him," he chided.

The novelty was wearing off in any case, so I complied with Eitan's request and stopped "encouraging" the cat.  This was a smart cat to be sure, though, and as soon as I stopped playing with him, he disappeared.