Profile: one man’s experience in the U.S. Army, 2006-2011
Part 2 of 2Part two of a two-part series that began in the Nov. 10 Millerton News.On to AfghanistanA self-professed “history geek,” Sean Klay prepared for his missions by studying the countries in which he was to serve, as well as benefiting from leadership training, in trying to understand the culture into which he and his fellow soldiers would be inserted. His next mission was in Afghanistan, where he was stationed at the HHC (Headquarters and Headquarters Company) in Kabul with the 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment. “My unit is one of four out of Massachusetts that are the oldest in the Army National Guard,” he said, confirming his knowledge of and affection for history. “They go all the way back to the first units to muster in Boston in 1636.”Looking beyond the veilHe and his unit landed in Afghanistan on Oct. 25, 2010, following three months of training similar to that which prepared him to serve in Kosovo. They had again become immersed in the culture in a mock village at Camp Atterbury, but this time it reflected the Afghan environment and culture. For many of the soldiers undergoing the training, it would be the first time they’d visited such a far-flung nation, and one that is so different from the United States. They needed to understand the customs of the local population, including those of Muslim women who dressed in hijab mode, referring to a head covering and generally modest code of dress. “If we wanted to identify a person, and be sure that she was a woman,” Klay said, “we would look at her feet. Most women wore high-heeled shoes with the hijab.” It is not easy for men dressed in modest female style, in disguise, to replicate the more delicate feet and footwear of women.History resonatesKlay noted that Oct. 25 is St. Crispin’s Day, and that he and some of his fellow soldiers who were both history and Shakespeare buffs landing in Afghanistan that day remembered its reference in “Henry V.” King Henry gave his inspirational speech to a small number of troops prior to the Battle of Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day in 1415. “That was the famous speech in which Henry V referred to a ‘band of brothers’ for the first time,” he said.Khyber PassTheir initial assignment was providing security at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, where his unit relieved one from South Carolina. “We manned the towers on the perimeter, kept a quick reaction force and protected the entry points of the camp,” he said. After two months at Camp Phoenix, Klay’s battalion commander assigned him to another mission in Laghman Province, located along the Kabul River just off the Khyber Pass, the historic mountain pass that connects Afghanistan and Pakistan.“The provinces and districts in Afghanistan,” Klay said, “are similar to states and counties in the United States. But the borders aren’t quite as set as we would be accustomed to, and sort of bleed into each other. The maps don’t always reflect the reality on the ground, partly because villages can grow quickly.”Local leaders and the TalibanThe concept of interfacing constructively with local government and tribal leaders was even more important in Afghanistan than it had been in Kosovo, Klay said. Villages were growing exponentially, and with the instability created by the insurgency, especially the Taliban, it was important that communications with the local leaders be strong and that local government take charge and receive credit for improvements to their community.“Our job was to mentor them, not to tell them what to do,” he said. “We helped them create a problem-solving apparatus, but we also needed to make sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”If a farmer, for instance, was unhappy about an irrigation problem he was having, he’d go to Klay, who would encourage him to go his local elder or district sub-governor to have the problem resolved. Klay would also notifiy the chain of command of the issue so the mentors at other levels would see if the issue came up and was addressed and look for an answer back.Economic progress“There was phenomenal economic progress in Afghanistan,” Klay said. A clearly defined system for obtaining funding and materials for new construction and creation of infrastructure was put in place. The projects had their inception at the local level, and contributed to economic growth and the government’s ability to raise revenues through taxes.For larger projects, such as road repair, the village elders would go to the district governor with a proposal, who would take that to the provincial governor, then on to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), with each layer judging the project’s worth before passing it on. There are 13 PRTs just in eastern Afghanistan, each one assigned to a province. Some provinces, like Laghman, could fund smaller projects on their own through their own taxes collected because of the economic progress that has been made.Klay’s unit was in the Regional Command East, an American-dominated command zone operating near the Pakistan border. His Security Force (SECFOR) platoon provided security for projects all over Laghman Province, including roads, bridges, multiple schools, health clinics, and even a community co-op facility where farmers could store produce, especially wheat, before selling it.“Before, those farmers had to store the produce in Pakistan, because they didn’t have access to refrigeration any closer. The Pakistanis charged fees for the farmers to bring their crops back to Afghanistan, so the new facility saved the Afghan farmers money and time,” Klay said.Security firstSome of their work was strictly security, and some was more civil-affairs oriented. For the civil-affairs side, they would work with the district governor, council and local government officials to solve problems as they arose.An ongoing challenge was keeping missions safe for soldiers going out into the field. “We would have after-action reviews, discussions of the mission, and identify problems to be addressed, to be solved. A patrol could go fine for an extended period, and then two weeks later it could be very different,” Klay said. One way to identify a change was to notice the local populace’s movements: If they were out in the streets one day, then hiding and keeping off the streets the next, it was a red flag.“We had women who were medics and Air Force officers with us, and we did try to have them interact with the Afghan women,” he said. “We got some very good intelligence that way.”Coming homeUpon a soldier’s return to the United States, Klay said that the Department of Defense provides phenomenal services. “Those going back to a military base with good infrastructure have easier access to those benefits and services. It’s different in the reserves, however. A soldier may be coming back to an urban area where there are more people who have also served, or there could just be a guy who is the only one to return to a small town.”Once outside of that Department of Defense umbrella, it falls more on the local community organizations and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in addition to the Veterans Administration to maintain support for returning soldiers.“They are doing a good job,” Klay said. “But they have to know where the people are who might need help, and it’s not always easy to pull them into a VFW or American Legion hall.”The leaders of units also help those who served to keep in touch with one another, especially those who were wounded during their service and are still in the process of healing and adjusting. It’s important that returning members of the military maintain relationships with one another, and that they are aware of the services available to help them with the adjustment during the transition back to civilian life, or just life at home.“I’ve had adjustment issues myself,” Klay said. He said it’s a help to returning soldiers of all ages and both men and women to have access to services such as marriage counseling and counseling for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) to help ease the transition back to civilian life.For more information on services available to returning soldiers, contact your local American Legion or VFW hall, or go to www.defense.gov and click on the link to the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy.Klay is the historian at American Legion Post 178 in Millerton.