Afghan Adventure

My name is Jason and I am a 9 year veteran of the Toronto Police Service. I have been selected to represent my service for the upcoming International Policing Operations Branch of the RCMP in the next CIVPOL mission in Afghanistan.

I have set up this Blog for my family, friends and colleagues. It is my hope to provide a better understanding as to what is going on over in Afghanistan through my experience.

People often ask me why I have decided to take on this mission in such a politically volatile and dangerous environment. There are a lot of reasons but, Martin Luther King Jr. said it best.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

It Smells Like Victory !

I am sitting in my hotel room in Bad Homburg, Germany in a quaint little hotel, taking time to reflect upon the last 9 months.

A couple days ago I was climbing on to the airplane out of Kandahar and as I climbed the stairs to the door I took a long look around, felt the warm air on my face and smelled the aroma of jet fuel. The experience was bitter-sweet. The mission had come to an end and I was happy and a little sad all at the same time. But, we were en route to Germany and that felt great. It felt great knowing I'd be home in 3 days!

I know I could have blogged more, done a better job of 'keeping in touch' but all I can say about that is that the last few months were more of the same. Not that I was bored, I just didn't feel that there was much newsworthy stuff to write about at the time. I'll apologize quickly and move on.

This blog post is going to touch on you. All of you who showed me (and others) support over the past 9 months. I want to acknowledge all of the folks who took time to write me an email, send me a message, respond to my blog or take the time to prepare a care package! I have to say a big thank you to all of you, especially my family whom I scared to death with this endeavour, and to my friends who support me through all of my choices (including the nutty ones). I love and appreciate every one of you.

One of the things I discovered about the Canadian people is that they care. They care about our soldiers, they care about our police, fire and ambulance workers. I was moved, on more than one occasion, by the generosity of spirit Canadians have for those serving overseas and abroad. I found people have the need and desire to express gratitude and to show support. I read many cards and letters addressed to "Any Canadian Soldier" and opened gifts at Christmas that were donated by families who are proud of the men and women making the sacrifice to serve in Afghanistan.

A shining example of Canadians thinking outside the box occurred when a small cigar shop in Oshawa contacted me in order to show their appreciation and respect to the serving men and women of Afghanistan. "Victory Cigars" owners Julian Luke and Kevin Newell contacted me through a retired Toronto Police officer with a plan. They felt and had seen a growing desire by their clients to combine their love of fine cigars alongside their wish to show support.

Victory Cigars held a promotion whereby people could bid on empty cigar boxes, some of which are considered works of art, and with the money collected they would purchase cigars and send them over to Kandahar. The program generated enough interest and participation that they sent over 100 Cuban cigars to the serving members there!!

I had the distinct honour of distributing those donations to many Canadian Forces personnel, including Brigadier General Dean Milner, who, ironically is the President of the Cigar Aficionado Society of Kandahar.

Julian, Kevin and Victory Cigars were made honourary members of CASK for their generous gift. I was proud to have been included in the program.

I have to say that I have learned many, many lessons here. Some are cultural, some are spiritual and some are personal. The choice to come to Afghanistan was not difficult in the beginning. Upon closer examination of what I was giving up, things got a little tougher and finally, the light at the end of the tunnel put things back into perspective. I made it through. Because of all of you around me here and all of you in Canada I made it! Thank you all very much!

Just before I finish up this post, I'd like to acknowledge all of those who didn't make it home.

May we never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice and their families who were left to soldier on without them.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The More Things Change

I am sitting here at KAF with my shoulders slightly raised toward my ears, my eyes squinted. I am cringing at the fact I haven't blogged in a very, very long time. I have the usual excuses, poor internet connection, rock n roll know.

I think the problem may be tunnel vision, as in, "light at the end of the tunnel" vision.

In large part, my focus is on the end of the mission having spent a good deal of my time at Forward Operating Bases (Walton, Panjwa'i, Dand)...oh did I say Dand?

Yes, it's true, friends, I moved from Panjwa'i District to Dand District and since then have moved to KAF. So let me catch you all up.

Just prior to my vacation to Scotland (visiting the newest addition to the clan), Ireland (on St. Patrick's Day) and Egypt (because taking risks is what life is all about) I was asked by higher command to move to another District in Kandahar Province. Dand District. The CivPol guys there were due for a change and IPOB had to fill the spot there, albeit for a very short time. They asked. I answered.

So, I loaded up my gear, packed this, tossed that and gave away the other.

Believe it or not, you accumulate a lot of "stuff" even here in Afghanistan and it is a royal pain to hump it on and off helicopters. One man, one kit they say. Ironically, the more I moved, the more stuff I had and the smaller the rooms got!

My time in Dand District was brief and because of that I was unable to strike a chord and build relationships with the Key Leaders of the ANP (an absolute must if one wishes to gain the respect of the Afghans). My job as a mentor had come to an end with my departure from Panjwa'i and I was in Dand acting as a type of "Police Advisor" for the military mentor team there. Overall, not a bad gig, although I would have preferred to have been a little busier. What can ya do?

I did manage to get "outside the wire" a couple times and witnessed Afghan ingenuity at work. Here is a street light that has been re-wired to act as an indoor light at one of the Police Check Points. Almost every Afghan I have met has the uncanny ability to re-wire or re-work small appliances or machinery into something more useful or beneficial to him. I'm surprised more of them aren't named MacGyver!

I did get to see the military personnel exercise their right to vote! A polling station was set up and the boys lined up to cast their vote. It was organized and impressive (with a great result to boot).

I know I have said it before in previous posts, but I can't say enough about the military personnel I have had the opportunity to work with. From the regular force men and women to the reservists, they have all been incredibly professional, dedicated and friendly. Dand was no different. I have met and made lifelong friendships with some of the amazing people I've had the pleasure to work with.

After about a month I loaded up my gear, packed this, tossed that and gave away the other. You see a trend here?

So. I landed at KAF anticipating my last leave block where I currently have plans to visit friends on this side of the world while I have the chance. This place has grown even larger in population since we first landed in September 2010. The rest is pretty much as it was back then. It's hot, dusty, noisy, dusty, busy and dusty.

One of the more poignant memories of my visit to the Middle East will always be the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. On the very day the Taliban warned of mass attacks against International Security Assistance Force, the Al Qaeda (and terrorists everywhere) were dealt a blow to their morale. Kudos to U.S Navy Seal Team 6. And don't worry about the lefty liberals who love to criticize from their comfy little armchairs. You did the world a service and we are indebted to you!(let me just step down off my soap-box).

On a more positive note, when I get back from vacation I'll have about another week in theater before we head to Germany to "de-compress"

It's funny. Even though the days tend to drag on over here, the time has seemed to fly by.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It Ain't All Kittens and Rainbows...

...but every once and awhile it is!

A couple of weeks ago this CivPol Roto passed the half way point of the mission. The day came and went like any other day here with maybe a little jump for joy in the back of my head. I have learned that 9 months is indeed a long time. But, like they say, it's all downhill from here.

The weather has been absolutely crazy. It's get pretty cold and windy here in our winter months. The temperature even gets below zero! The rain is torrential when it comes and is relentless when finding it's way through the cracks of my man made shack. There is a waterfall in my room every time it rains and I can't help but think what a feature like that would cost me in Toronto!

Often with mentoring the Afghan Police we feel like we have made some inroads and gained some ground only to be slammed back to reality a short time later. One of the most curious and dangerous habits they have is related to explosive finds. Despite of their training and several warnings from Coalition Forces the ANP almost always bring explosive devices back to their headquarters. As you can imagine, these "trophies" pose a real threat to the public, the Afghan police and, if I am to be zealous, to us!

For some reason, the accolades and respect the Afghans receive from higher command and one another outweigh the danger of moving the volatile substances.

I, personally, have had a proud Afghan Patrolman present me an anti personnel mine, had to cordon a small IED and been exposed to the all of BIPs (Blow In Place) of several dangerous IED components by Canadian Engineers.

The last IED cache find had several 20 litre jugs of HME (home made explosive), a few pressure cookers and detonation chord, all of which were carefully placed in the back of a police truck and driven cross-country right to our front door step. As with all of these demonstrations of success, the Canadian military engineers attend, take control and blow up the components in the safest way possible. The last one, pictured on the right, when destroyed blew out all of our lights and knocked everything of the shelves...not to mention jarred me to the bone!

As we negotiate through day to day operations here we are faced with daily challenges related to culture. An IED find, for the Afghans, is a reason to celebrate and demonstrate their courage and experience. The danger of moving it is secondary to the positive reinforcement they receive from their higher authority. Often times this causes a rift between we Canadians and the Afghans. The practice of moving IED components is slowly coming to an end as we reinforce the safer way to dispose of these threats.

One of the most impressive and inspiring stories I have from Panjwa'i doesn't relate to the war. It speaks to kindness, teamwork and courage. Not courage in the face of the enemy but courage to take action when you may be in over your head.

Relaying this story I run the risk of losing any street cred I may have had for being a heartless big city cop, but if I am lucky, you'll think there may be only a sliver of compassion in this black heart! :p

Before you read on I want you recall the Looney Tunes cartoon with bulldog Marc Anthony and his kitten friend Pussyfoot.

*special thanks to the cat whisperer for this photo*

A short time ago we had a kitten take up residence in our compound. He was annoying and cute and playful as kittens often are. We named him Major (Pain) because he is such a pain in the ass.

Our little friend managed to injure himself in a precarious area of his body. Boys, if you are faint of heart read no further!

Somehow Major had managed to cut open his tiny nutsack. His beans had found their way outside the their home and were dangling exposed and looking very uncomfortable as you might well imagine. After a day or so of parental worry about an infection a few of the soldiers and myself sprung into action.

Armed with the internet and some medical supplies we froze the Major's minors and removed them, placing the tube back inside the pouch before sewing him up.

My role, and that of another man,(it took both of us) was to hold him still while the team medics worked their magic with the scalpel and needle and thread.

The entire procedure took about 45 minutes where there was shortness of breath, heavy sweating and teary eyes...good thing I recover quickly!!

I am happy to report that a month later Major is still running around and annoying us night and day. He is happy, healthy and affectionate while continuing to be Major Pain.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thin Blue Line

It's no coincidence that police use the colour blue as their moniker. I mean, I know it's the colour of our uniforms but that is a simplistic way to look at it. The Thin Blue Line is a reference to we, in blue uniforms, standing between the good people in the community and those who would do them harm. But moreover, being True Blue is a reference to having Loyalty. That's what being Blue means to me. Loyal to my family, loyal to my friends, loyal to those I'm sworn to serve and protect. Ryan Russell was loyal.

Ironically, being Blue also means to be unhappy and it is with a heavy heart that I dedicate this post to Sergeant Ryan Russell of the Toronto Police Service. Ryan paid the ultimate price for his dedication, leadership and service to the community. And we shall always remember him as a hero because of it.

The man was a son, husband, father and a brother to those of us who wear a uniform each day.

I was touched by the outpouring of emotion shown by fellow officers and emergency personnel. What's more impressive to me was the public outcry, anger and dismay over the tragic event which transformed to love and support for Ryan's family and for those of us who must soldier on without him.
There is a time tested and true bond between policemen. We don't all love one another, nor are we all the best of friends. But I will say that we respect each other. Not necessarily for what we have accomplished or for how well we do our job but for the very reason we mourn the loss of our brother. I can look any police officer in the eye and know that they would lay down their life for me and, moreover, for you.

Over the course of the last several days I have received many emails or Facebook messages from friends, family and other coppers. People were reaching out across the world to offer support and share kind words of love and respect. Being so far away it's easy to feel disconnected from the very people who understand how it feels to lose a brother in arms. But those feelings of loss are felt from any distance. The Thin Blue Line stretched all the way here to Afghanistan to offer condolences and to share in the grief. I am truly grateful for that.

People over here and back in Canada were often curious as to whether or not I knew Ryan. The answer is yes. Not in the the traditional way. We didn't go to Ontario Police College together, we weren't in the same squad and we didn't even play on the same hockey team. But I knew him. I knew him in the way I know every other police officer. All I have to do is look inside myself and I see Ryan as does any police officer. We are all similar in spirit.
My friend and past partner Sean Thrush, currently with Police Dog Services wrote a few words about knowing Ryan Russell on Facebook. If you know Sean, check out his note "Did you know the officer?". It was extremely well written and pretty much sums up how I feel when people ask if I knew the man.

Lastly, I am reminded of a day I was in the USPX at KAF where I had the honour of meeting the father of fallen Canadian soldier Pvt Kevin McKay. He is a Toronto Fire Captain and approached me upon seeing the Toronto Police Service flash on my shoulder. He was here in Afghanistan for a service dedicated to his boy. We spoke for almost 45 minutes minutes and all I remember saying to him over and over was, "Thank you for your sacrifice". I admired his courage and strength. Mr. McKay's son made the sacrifice to be here and paid the ultimate price. But it is his father who lives with the loss everyday.

Ryan's wife Christine and son Nolan will always have to live with the sacrifice Ryan made. I want to thank Ryan for his dedication to our profession. He has made us all look incredibly good while reminding us what's on the line. More importantly, on behalf of all police officers serving here in Afghanistan, I want to acknowledge his family for sharing Ryan with us and to say "Thank you for your sacrifice".

Friday, December 24, 2010

When The Man Comes Around

It is Christmas Eve here in the Panjwa'i District of Kandahar Province in Afghanistan and I have finally reconciled what this blog post is to be about.

The Man.

Santa Clause? No.

Jesus? No. (but let's remember what Christmas is all about folks!)

I'm talking about The Man.


Picture me on my bunk, barefoot, atop a bright red comforter (for Christmas) in tan combat pants and my new blue hoody with my laptop ironically placed on my...(wait for it)...LAP.

I have been absent from my writing duties in large part due to my HLTA (Home Leave Travel Allowance) which saw me thankfully uprooted from my dusty shack in the south east of Afghanistan to the familiar (and comforting) cold of Canada. Three blissful weeks of Canadian cold.

My social, eventful and somewhat painful 36 hour trek home from Kandahar Airfield to Dubai to London Heathrow to Toronto to Milton (don't ask) to my hometown was all worthwhile when I stopped into my sister's place and was met by the shrilling shrieks and the spinning in circles of my two nephews Hayden and Cohen! Either they had a lot of sugar or they were happy to see their Uncle JJ.

I'd like to think the latter because it gets me right here, ya know?

After much deliberation and debate, and a little counsel, I have decided to make this blog about what it is like for me, and other people serving I imagine, to be away from home at this time of year. That is to say, I am going to tell you what it feels like to be here knowing most everyone I love is there and together.

Now, don't go calling the therapist or anything. I just watched "The Notebook" so I'm hoping for a little latitude! :p

Going home for my first leave block was an obvious choice so close to Christmas, and let's face it, I have put my loved ones through the level of stress reserved for families of the military. I was pretty cavalier about my adventure with a slight err of invincibility (see what I did there?)

I guess what I didn't realize was that, upon my return, I would find myself powerfully drawn to home. I had taken for granted those things which were common place only 4 months ago. My family. My friends. My life. Until recently, I didn't see the sacrifice people were thanking me for.

I discovered during my time away from Afghanistan that those whom you love and they who love you back have little difficulty expressing what you mean to them. They do things like send care packages, pick you up (or drop you off) at the airport, they cook your favourite food, let you crash on their couch, they hold your hand until it sweats or they squeeze you just a little bit tighter and longer knowing that you will be heading back there soon. Sometimes they just say the words.

Perhaps being so far away from home and in this volatile place I was more affected by the affections of my friends and family more than I anticipated. Perhaps I am at an age where I am getting more sentimental, I mean, I do cry during long-distance phone call commercials...who doesn't?

But I was affected.

I have always had a keen sense of adventure. I would decide to up and go and then I would. No problem.

But this time was different. I came to Afghanistan with the thrill of the upcoming challenge and prepared myself in almost every way I could imagine. What I hadn't prepared myself for was the feeling I had as I climbed back onto the plane to come back here. A feeling I still have but is slowly waning. Plainly put, it was tough. Really tough.

Don't get me wrong. I made the decision to come to Afghanistan. I don't have any regrets about that decision. But in fairness to myself and to you , the readers, I wanted to post about all aspects of the mission. It ain't all "kittens and rainbows" or, I guess in this case, "kickin' ass and takin' names".

I have been back over a week now and I have managed to kick myself in the ass (already have the name) to get re-motivated for the mission. I was forced to take some of the medicinal advice I have doled out to friends over the years. You know what I mean. The kind of advice they make those motivational posters about...

The bottom-line is I sincerely miss so many of you and I wish you all the very best during this Christmas season!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Out of the Fryin' Panj...

And into the fire! I arrived safely in the Panjwa'i District via Chinook Helicopter near Kandahar City and close the Horn of Panjwa'i where the Canadian Battle Group is currently focusing operations to help build stability in the region.

Panjwa'i is now considered to be in the "Hold" phase of operations and safe for civilian mentors. It wasn't that long ago that a Canadian helicopter went down very near here where all of the passengers survived, thanks to the very men with whom I am now attached.

We (another CIVPOL fella who came in a few days after me) have joined up with a compliment of Military Police and other Canadian Forces personnel who make up my new team. The POMLT is a group of military who specialize in Police Operations. The group is comprised of a variety of ages and experience. Some of the guys here are the ripe age of 20 years and have seen more violence in 7 months than many of us will see in a lifetime. What's truly impressive is the manner by which they handle it. They take it all in stride, like another day at the office, except in this office they rely on one another for everything including support through traumatic experiences. There is definitely a strong sense of family here.

My new role is to assist with the mentoring of the District Chief of Police (who we dubbed the Afghan Robin Hood without the forest) and his Deputy and Operations Officer. These men are all younger than me (who isn't these days) and in charge of the Afghan Police with their boots on the ground. I am involved with day to day operations of the uniformed police in Panjwa'i and am doing the type of work I was hoping to do when I decided to toss my name in the hat.

The part of the compound the POMLT (and CIVPOL) live in is really small. There is a makeshift gym, a kitchen and a tiny bathroom. All the comforts of home. Well, except the gym is in a tent and made up of wood and nails, the kitchen is run by an American cook, the bathroom has no toilette or hot water. I live in the guard tower (in the bottom) in a cozy one room suite which is about 35 square feet, plenty of room for me (and my ROOMMATE)!Thaaaat's right. At least he's a Toronto copper...and a great cuddler :p

Oh, I forgot to mention the area in which we live is right beside the (HLS)helicopter landing strip and, literally, as I am typing this there is a Chinook landing spitting gravel all over the place while 2 Blackhawks fly around for protection. No big deal.

My partner and I have had the opportunity to go out to a site for a future PSS (Police Sub Station) while mentoring the DCoP (District Chief of Police). We walked a short, dusty distance from a secure compound to an area in a little village nearby. The people greeted us with friendly "Salaams" with their right hands over their hearts as we passed through. The kids followed us along our route speaking broken English asking for pens or water. One kid must have recognized me because he said, "Hey, Ugly, gimme a pen!" Aren't they sooo cute?

The work done here by the MPs to this point is impressive. There is progress being made. The right people are being put into key roles and measures of success are foreseeable in the near future. I hope that my partner and myself will be able to continue with the "game plan" through the transition from Roto 9 to Roto 10. In the following weeks the English speaking troops are being replaced, in large part, by the French speaking military, primarily the 22nd (VanDoos). I better brush up on my Franglais! Je m'appelle Jason et j'habite dans la sac du golfe! Uh...ya.

"EID MUBARAK!" Today marks the beginning of Eid Al Adha (Eid of Sacrifice), which is celebrated on the 10th day of the 12th month and I'm told is a little like Christmas where there is the giving of gifts etc. Believe it or not we gave our counterparts a sheep to offer as a gift to all of our Muslim brothers. Eid is a 3 to 4 day celebration whereby the Muslims are permitted by Allah to slaughter and about that sheep....ya...we ate it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Rolling Stone...

The move from FOB Walton came swiftly. On the day I was meant to depart I was ramming my sleeping bag into a garbage bag worried that all of my stuff was going to be tied to the side of one of our TLAVs (Tracked Light Armoured Vehicle). Anything that is fixed along the outside of these beasts ends up covered in beige talcum powder.

So there I was, in my private, amazing, comfortable room loaded down with full fighting order, helmet tipped forward into my eyes, backpack bursting at the seams, rifle slung over one shoulder and a black garbage bag slung over the other like Ole St. Nick. I swear I could hear my knees creaking as I staggered along to the rally point.

As we climbed aboard our tank-like trucks and the back ramp closed up and we started to roll I said a Good-Bye to FOB Walton. I left behind my little Afghan buddy, some friends, both CIVPOL and American military. I left behind high calorie foods, over-populated bathrooms, nightly small arms fire and 3 a.m. explosions and mortar fire. I joked with the guys that when I get home I am going to need someone to stand in the washroom with me in order to avoid "stage fright" and a "Sounds of War" CD to get me to sleep. What did Robert Duval say in Apocolypse Now? "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning!" Okay, maybe it wasn't THAT bad.

We rolled on to KAF where we transitioned from our armoured truck to 'soft skinned' SUVs. We dumped our gear in the rear and rolled toward the JRAC (Joint Regional Afghan Command Center).

The JRAC. This is an ISAF sponsored build funded in large part on the back of the U.S. taxpayer and is also known as 'The Promised Land' to the Afghan National Police Regional Headquarters. It is meant to fill the voids and address the logistical shortcomings affecting the ANP at the current HQ...things like photocopiers, fax machines, phones and computers.

The JRAC is an 800 by 800 metre fenced in patch of land shared by 4 of Afghanistan's policing services situated along the side, very near KAF. Afghan Civil Order Police, Afghan Border Police, Afghan National Police Regional HQ (404 Maiwand) and the Regional Logistics Center. Each gets a quadrant of the area. And it is all brand new. New, but, the same colour...bland.

Remember how I spoke of the SEAMLESS transition? Wait for it.

As a member of the advance party, I bore witness to the department chiefs showing up on their Juma to take possession of their office space, gather up the new furnishings and stake claim to their new workspace. Sounds simple enough, right?

Something I have learned about the Afghan culture so far is that "stuff" equals "status". It was no surprise that officers were laying claim to more offices than they had originally been assigned, helped themselves to extra pieces of office furniture, televisions and couches and "jingled" (decorated) up their space...that is until the General arrived.

After a quick and effective blast of sh*%, the mentor advance party was given the responsibility of safe-guarding the offices and locking down all of the rooms and furniture until everyone got sorted. It was a bit of a gong-show to say the least. Other than that, fairly seamless...the organization continues.

So there I was, at the JRAC, in a bunkhouse, gear still packed, sleeping on the top bunk in a small cement room with a few of the boys I had stayed with my first week at Walton, with no real privacy, no internet with one toilet and one shower (to be shared among 12 of us). The Promised Land.

Day 3 at the JRAC and I've settled in, unpacked my stuff and the remaining Canadian Forces OMLT crew have arrived. Things are looking up. We have a temporary internet connection, our dried goods and comforts of home have been shipped in. This isn't going to be so bad.

At day's end, just as I kick my feet up I get word. Re-assigned.

It seems the next adventure is already about to begin. Pack your gear, Tomlinson, you're on the move.

And so, while laughing to myself, I start to pack AGAIN.

Now. Where did I put that garbage bag?