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1006 PD: The View from Here

Mike Gangwer Published on 02 October 2006

Reporting from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan …

My assignment in Afghanistan is nearly half over. I will give you a general progress report in this article and include a few pictures.

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My adjustment to military life is still challenging to me. I am one of just a few civilians on a large military base in a war zone. There are weapons, armament and military assets everywhere. There are caring, highly trained soldiers of every branch of the military here, too. There are a number of contractors hired by Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton.

I live in a plywood billet called a B Hut. This eight-man unit is entirely wood other than wiring. Divided down the middle with a narrow hallway, there are four sleeping stalls per side. My bed takes up just less than half the space; my cabinet has two drawers and an opening for hanging clothes on a rack. There are four shelves with no doors on them.

I wake at 05:00 in the morning and run my nine miles around the base. The base perimeter is pavement, gravel or concrete; it is constantly changing. On several locations, contracted crews are demining the top 60 centimeters (about 2 feet) of soil. So portions of the perimeter road are closed to runners and vehicle traffic if demining is underway. Our elevation is 1,490 meters (about 4,888 feet), so running took some getting used to in the thinner air.

I am at my office at 07:00 for a morning briefing. We have missions scheduled six days a week. We do not go out one day, as it is reserved for maintenance, weapon cleaning and rest. Our missions are entirely based around security, meaning that they may be moved later in time, by hours or days, or cancelled outright. We do mission briefing, then go through all the logistics of scenario action and response, then cover routing and medical identification. All of us leaving the wire do so with our blood types in the convoy operations. We also have another layer of personal identification, if necessary.

After the mission we conduct an after-action review, which can take as short as half an hour to any length beyond that depending upon the complexity of the mission.

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I always wear body armor, including a combat helmet, goggles, gloves and a Kevlar vest, which is wrapped around my rib cage. We always ride in tactical vehicles that are armored. I have spent many hours in the back seat of a Humvee.

Later in the evening, we have senior staff briefing. I report directly to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) commander. As the only civilian, I do not follow the normal military chain of command. This provides me with a different kind of relationship with the military, and we have made it work just fine. My commander is a lieutenant colonel with the Air Force. Our PRT is about 60 soldiers; its members are evenly divided between the Air Force and Army.

I am teaching my 20-week course three times a week. I have a total of 65 students. All are adults. Most are employees of the agriculture department, some are extension agriculturalists and just a few are innovative farmers. I am teaching the course at the 200 Level at a land-grant university. At this writing, we have delivered six weeks with 14 remaining. I hope to be done by the end of December. Currently, we are in the laboratory portion of the course, estimating soil fertility using a field-level soil test kit. My students have sat through five weeks of soil science lectures; now they are bringing field soils into the classroom and using the kit for evaluating their soils.

I am also asked to conduct aerial assessments in a helicopter. So we get up in the air in a Black Hawk with a handful of soldiers and work on two objectives. One is finding and marking additional land that could be brought into agricultural production. As you might expect, the farmers in Afghanistan are farming nearly every square meter of land, if they can get water to it, including terraces. Our second objective is assessing how much farmland is irrigated and how much is in winter wheat but no second crop. The second crop is usually corn for human consumption, and it is grown only where irrigation is present. I estimate the second crop is grown on about 80 percent of the total land base.

I am also reviewing contracts that have an agricultural component to them. Nearly the entire reconstruction budget here (military) is earmarked for roads, bridges, schools and clinics. So agriculture development is secondary; however, the case is made that all of these infrastructure improvements will by default help encourage agricultural production and, importantly, marketing to urban areas from the rural locations of Afghanistan.

I just returned from a week’s leave. Sandy drove to Washington, D.C., from Michigan, about an 11-hour drive. I worked in our USDA national headquarters for a day and a half, and then we spent a few days in the D.C. area visiting memorials and museums.

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We visited Arlington National Cemetery, and I thought quite a bit about the perspective of this famous place in context of the Fallen Warrior Ceremonies here at BAF. Our half-day there was a pilgrimage for me.

Finally, there are many stories to tell, but I cannot write them here. Everything we write is in the context of security. I cannot be specific about dates and times and locations. We scramble these often so nothing is routine. This is life in a war zone.

I am asked, often, if this is a dangerous place. Yes, it is. I cannot be specific about that either, other than to write that we take this business seriously. I have a host of well-trained, dedicated soldiers doing their jobs, including protecting me. They never let me wander too far, and I have learned to stay within their bubble of sight and protection.

My assignment is over at the end of January or first of February 2007. I will return to East Lansing, Michigan, and my great career with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). I will go through decompression and adjustment. But for now, I am implementing my work plan and making sure that I get something done.

Ultimately, my objective is leaving this country a better place than when I arrived. Many of us here, especially the Army Civil Affairs officers, have this same attitude. We are force multipliers, meaning that as a team we get more done than each by ourselves. We are altruists, and we are dedicated to a making difference.

Thus, this assignment is a privilege for me, and I am grateful that you have sent me here to do this important job. PD

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