A soldier’s experiences in the U.S. Army in Kosovo and Afghanistan
U.S. Army Capt. Sean Klay, 30, is at home in Pine Plains, N.Y., and has been since early August, waiting for his next duty assignment while also searching for a job stateside. His unit is part of the 181st Infantry Regiment, and they have a new incoming battalion leader, Klay said in a recent interview. He had been promised a company command as his last tour of duty ended, but with new leadership at the top, that promise may not hold. “Things will change,” he said.Klay is very familiar with the way things work in the Army. He served in Kosovo from 2006 to 2007, and in Afghanistan from October 2010 to the end of July in 2011. His culminating mission was running security for a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan, in an area that welcomed a number of high-profile government and military officials who visited the country during his time there. The day after the Super Bowl this year, for instance, Gen. David Petraeus visited, and Klay had responsibility for planning his security operation. Other visitors to the province during his tenure included U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her delegation and Speaker of the House Rep. John A. Boehner (R-OH). The visits all went well, according to plan, “or you would have heard about that,” Klay said. “It was very gratifying, I think the visits were an eye-opener for them. There are a lot of great things happening there that don’t get reported. Americans don’t see the positive impact we’re having at the local level in Afghanistan.”Helping rebuild“The benefits from the surge are real,” he said. “We’re training Afghan SWAT-type police teams, as well as their army, mentoring them. We had a great working relationship with them.“There are a lot of misconceptions about our mission in Afghanistan. If you ask people at home about the mission there, many don’t have an answer. But a large part of the mission in both Afghanistan and Iraq is about winning the population over. Now, the average Afghans in urban areas are pro-government and pro-American. They see what we’re trying to do as far as creating security for them and improving infrastructure. In any village, any community, it only takes about three to five people doing bad things to disrupt life.Insurgents are becoming more desperate now, causing more collateral damage and civilian casualties in their desperation.”Klay also says that while bringing a democratic form of government there is also part of the mission, “It won’t be a mirror-image of the U.S. government. It is democratic, but has to include elements of their society and conform to their customs and religion. Many Americans don’t understand that aspect of it, either.”First, in Kosovo with NATOKlay’s preparation for his recent Afghan mission really began five years ago, when he served in the KFOR (Kosovo Force) under NATO command from October 2006 to October 2007. His training for that mission took place first at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, then for four weeks in Germany, where mock villages were constructed to look like those in the Balkans where the soldiers would next find themselves. “We did role playing, practicing real-life situations,” Klay said. “We had to learn to deal with all kinds of people. Some situations could be hostile, some could be safe. It helped us be able to judge that, and it helped with the culture shock, too.”The destination in Kosovo was Camp Bondsteel, which Klay said is now the only American camp left in the region. “The mission there was similar to the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “The big difference is nobody was shooting at you. Otherwise, it was the same: It centered on working with the local population, getting a feel for the people themselves. This was the way we addressed the counterinsurgency. To defeat it, the goal was to get the population on our side.”Learning their cultureTo do that, he and his fellow soldiers had to identify who the people of influence within the community were and to understand their culture. “This included the Muslim population, as well as small enclaves of Catholics and Serbian Orthodox people. We had to find the leaders, and that included religious leaders, elected officials and tribal elders, and interface with them.”One important rule of thumb, he said, was not to interact with women in Kosovo.“We were to maintain the peace, and give credit to the local government, support them.” The country had recently come out of a completely Communistic system, Klay said, where the government had provided everything, and part of the NATO mission was to help the population stand on their own two feet and use government support more appropriately.For instance, if local leaders came to the NATO forces and asked them to fix a bridge that was broken, rather than fix it, the troops would encourage them to go to their local elected officials. “Our main job was to work with local security forces in providing security, a safe and secure environment, to facilitate local government’s ability to operate and thereby improve the local economy. This way, local people were able to rely on their own skills instead of outside support,” he said.Help — not just handoutsSomething Klay said intrigued him, especially in Kosovo but also in Afghanistan, his next mission location, was how popular Americans were. “Local children would have no reaction to the French or Ukranian soldiers, but swarm the Americans,” he said. “They knew they’d get candy bars from us. Americans are a giving people.” But there was also a difference in the way American soldiers were trained to interact with the population. “We who wear the uniform are ambassadors, not in the diplomatic sense, of course, but we represent this country abroad. We learned quickly, though, not to just give things to the kids.”He and fellow soldiers, including his brother, Specialist (SPC) Tyson Klay, and Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Jenks and his neighbors in the Millerton area back at home, in cooperation with Legion Post 178’s Auxiliary formed Operation Handout. They were able to reach out to the larger Millerton community and receive donations of school supplies and other materials which were gathered together and then handed out to the area school officials and village elders.“We would give the donations to the local community leadership,” Klay said, “and then they would give them to the kids. The important thing was for the people to associate that the supplies were coming from their school administrators and teachers.” Part 2, next week.