Research In A War Zone: Operational Variables & Civil Considerations

01APR2011. As mentioned in my previous posts, the Army is all about processes, detailed in a slew of publications ranging from administrative, technical and equipment, doctrine and training, to engineering and medical. (There’s an entire website should you wish to peruse.) Of the doctrine and training ones, the publication often referenced during my training was the 2010 version of Field Manual 5-0, The Operations Process (the latest version can be found hereyou’re welcome!). Doctrine, as it was defined in class by the trainer was “to follow procedures, codes or regulations so that everyone understands.” The Army definition was a bit more formal, “a body of thought on how the Army intends to operate as an integral part of the Joint Force.”

Field Manual 5-0 delineates the Army’s framework for maneuvering in the operational environment (OE), which encompasses the physical environment, governance, technology, local resources, the culture of the local population, and services. Our trainer emphasized the importance that OE conditions had on the commander’s decisions and how she or he employs resources. After this brief review, the trainer stomped his foot three times, which meant that this was definitely going to be on the exam (duly noted!).

He went on to discuss the changing nature of threats, which includes dynamics such as nation-states, organizations, people, groups, conditions or natural phenomena able to damage or destroy life, vital resources or institutions. As such, preparing for, and managing, these threats required employing all instruments of national power beyond military power. For the U.S., this means employing diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) elements of power to meet national interests and goals. The OE also considers threat categories such as traditional (states employing the military), catastrophic (acquisition, possession, and use of weapons of mass destruction…WMDs), and disruptive (the enemy using new technologies).

The trainer reviewed the spectrum of conflict (which I discussed in a previous log entry), then he segued to counterinsurgency (COIN) (also discussed in previous log entries…here and here). He finally got to a topic that I found most interesting (at least for today’s training session): how the Army understands and solves problems by developing a plan of action guided by operational and mission variables, as well as civil considerations. These variables were ones that we would use to conduct our work as part of a Human Terrain System (HTS) team in the OE once deployed…at least that’s what we were told.

The military emphasizes linear models to make sense of the OE. In the mid-to-late 2000s, an integral part of understanding the OE included cross-walking the operational variables, which include political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, information, physical environment, and time (PMESII-PT) across the civil considerations, which include areas, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events (ASCOPE) in what’s popularly known as the PMESII-PT/ASCOPE matrix. Instead of boring you with details, here’s what the matrix looks like when populated with district-level information in one of the provinces in Afghanistan (BTW, I found this on the internet…Googled it).

U.S. Army operational variables and civil considerations (PMESII-PT/ASCOPE)

In reviewing the PMESII-PT/ASCOPE matrix during training, I appreciated how structured it was and wondered about how – or whether – I’d be using it once deployed to Afghanistan. It definitely generates a lot of raw data, but does it work better in a specific area of operation (AO) than at the national level? Given that Afghanistan is an amalgam of ethnic groups that exist together as a consequence of geographical borders (okay, maybe it’s not that grim), I wasn’t sure it was an analysis tool that would’ve generated very useful information at the national level.

Even if the matrix was used to understand a specific district within a province, what could it reveal about the local population’s behaviors or reactions? What about the “hows” and “whys”? And how would you determine what information was important versus irrelevant? Was there another tool or matrix? The use of such linear models have been challenged and continues to be. For now, PMESII-PT/ASCOPE was the preferred tool being used across the country. For the sake of not pissing off the trainer, I kept my mouth shut, concluding that I’d broach these issues with my future team once I deployed.

For now, it was time for our first smoke break, which turned out to be another bitch session among some of my fellow grunts who’d served in the Army. They found the training boring, redundant, and joked about their ears bleeding. I just stood there, listening…feeling sorry for them, yet totally over the bitching. But I didn’t want to be rude by walking away. So I stayed put while my mind wondered about what I needed to take care of once I got back to my hotel room. Specifically, the classes I was teaching and the first online discussions that were approaching (if you’re curious about my dual-hatted responsibilities during this time, click here).

Since I’d never taught classes online and wanted to ensure that the students were engaged beyond just reading the assigned chapters, submitting their writing assignments, and logging in to Blackboard to take exams, I added an online discussion component. I did this for all three of the courses with a total of eight discussions for each class. I’d open the discussion boards on Monday evenings, post the discussion question for the week, and give students until the following Monday to log in and participate.

This created a bit more work for me because I’d have to monitor the boards every night and provide feedback. But it was worth it because it gave me an opportunity to catch some of the students online and interact with them. Participation in the discussion boards also comprised a significant portion of their grade (15 points x 8 = 140 points), but I think I was pretty fair because it didn’t require a paper-length response and they had a week to log in and complete the assignment.


The word "PLAN" in scrabble letters on top of other scattered, blank wooden blocks.

Once again, training was chock-full of new information that, unlike my former Army fellow grunts, I didn’t find boring. In reviewing Field Manual 5-0 (The Operations Process) again, Design, MDMP, and TLP were listed as some of the Army’s planning methodologies. Design is the application of “critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them.” The military decision-making process (MDMP) culminates in an operation plan (O-PLAN) or operation order (OPORD), and is an iterative process that “integrates the activities of the commander, staff, subordinate headquarters, and other partners to understand the situation and mission; develop and compare courses of action [COAs] that best accomplishes the mission…” Troop leading procedures (TLP) are a “dynamic process used by small-unit leaders to analyze a mission, develop a plan, and prepare for an operation.”

That’s a lot of processes, I thought. All of them were further detailed in FM 5-0, and for a novice, just learning about the Army and its ways of operating was a lot to take in. The trainer told us to focus on MDMP, which helped. But I still had questions…like how did they go about trying to understand the situation and mission? Yes, I know. By using operational variables (PMESII-PT) and civil considerations (ASCOPE), but that wouldn’t provide a complete picture. And what about the comparison of various COAs, how were they devised? What if there wasn’t much time for a full assessment of COAs, which when you’re in a war zone, I’d suspect would always be the case. How would you know whether something was an “ill-structured” problem or a regular problem (necessitating the use of design methodology as opposed to MDMP)?

I hoped that during one of our training sessions I’d be able to ask these questions. Did others have similar questions? Or given that the military is such a structured, hierarchical organization, were people just supposed to view doctrine as gospel and not question it? That wasn’t going to sit well with me; I needed clarification, which required a diplomatic approach that prevented me from coming across as a know-it-all researcher. I really just wanted to understand. But maybe I was reading too much into the information we were being presented with during training (why couldn’t I just relax, and take it all in?!?!?).

As part of an HTS team, we had our own research methods template, which was anchored in the questions raised by the command (the unit we were assigned to downrange), often referred to as information requirements (IRs). Once the IRs were known, we were to identify the project duration, research objective(s), background information, research environment, assigned personnel, key resources needed, methods protocol, (surveys, in-depth interviews), limitations, expected deliverables, citations, and appendices. This was very similar to the research methods that had been ingrained in me as a student of the social sciences, which includes a statement of the research question(s), literature review, research design and methods (study design, sample), operationalization of concepts, data collection methods, and timetable.

Connecting puzzle pieces.

The major differences were the high tempo nature of operating in a war zone, the type of sample or population (college students versus military personnel and local nationals), human subjects’ approval, which entails approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at a university. In lieu of an IRB, we were supposed to send our research plan to the mothership and obtain approval from the Director of the HTS Social Science Directorate (did we have an HTS IRB?). We also had access to the Research Reachback Center (RRC), the entity charged with providing us with the background information (or literature review) that we might not have access to while operating in a war zone.

It sounded doable, but I was skeptical about how long it was actually going to take to obtain approval and the background information from RRC. But maybe I was getting ahead of myself since it was only the third week of training. For now, I needed to make sure I made note of all the information that was deemed important based on the trainer’s foot-stomping. I hadn’t taken an exam in years, so I was a bit nervous.

I was also waiting to see whether my transition from a contractor to an Army civilian would be approved at the senior-level, which would mean I’d be deploying as a senior social scientist as opposed to a junior one. If it was the former, then I’d need to reconcile the aforementioned issues. As a junior social scientist, I’d have to rely on the lead social scientist to take on these issues. But for now, it was a waiting game.

Language & Culture: The Challenges of Translation

31MAR2011. The first lecture of the language and culture training block consisted of a brief history of some of the wars in Afghanistan interlaced with what was taking place through 2011. It wasn’t very detailed, probably because the language and culture trainers weren’t given much time to do a deep-dive. Some of the highlights included:

  • Three Anglo-Afghan wars with Britain in 1839, 1878 and 1919;
  • The brutality of the Hazaras between 1880-1901, viewed as an inferior ethnic group by the Pashtuns, and remains the third largest group at the forefront gender equality;
  • The idea of Afghanistan being comprised of “mini-Afghanistans” with their own regional/provincial governing bodies – all loosely affiliated with the central government in its capital (Kabul);
  • The British-led partition of 1947, which led to the creation of Pakistan, and the Durand Line, which is recognized internationally as the western border of Pakistan, but unrecognized by Afghanistan; and
  • An agreement that made Afghanistan a “buffer zone” between Russian and British interests in 1919. 

I think the class would’ve benefited from a more detailed overview of the history of Afghanistan. I also think we, as a nation (the U.S.), would have benefited from understanding its tumultuous history because it may have provided the necessary context to develop more successful military and socio-political strategies. But we didn’t seem to care to understand because we were going to do it our way, the American way, because we thought we knew best. Almost two decades later, we’re still in Afghanistan without a clear path to understanding how the hell to get out.

The language portion of this block of training was focused on Pashto, one of the official languages of Afghanistan (the other is Dari). This was good because I didn’t know a lick of Pashto. Not that I was eager to become a native speaker, but I was open to learning some key phrases and greetings such as “manana” (thank you). Looking around the room, most of my fellow grunts were even less enthused, one going as far as calling the country “Trashcanistan,” and muttering that he had no interest in “wasting his time” learning Pashto. While I found such comments offensive, I hesitated to call people out. Maybe I should’ve been more vocal, but I made a mental note of who said what and opted for one-on-one conversations instead.

Most of my classmates were far from prejudiced or racist. As for the individual who’d called the country Trashcanistan, he’d deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and his views of Afghanistan were based on the U.S. approach as much as it was on his interactions with local Afghans in the Southern region (namely Kandahar), where loyalties changed quite often. He understood why: it was easy to pledge loyalties to the U.S. military when there was a heavy presence of troops in the region to keep them safe and compensate them for their cooperation. But as soon as the U.S and its allied forces left the area – assuming that their work was done, the Taliban would crawl out of their holes and threaten the locals, leaving them no other options than to cooperate with the enemy. My fellow grunt said that this cat-and-mouse game was the rule and diminished the morale of the troops, increased hostilities, and distrust, and left them wondering what the hell we were doing in the country in the first place.

I’m glad I took the time to understand his perspective; not that I condoned his name-calling. I could understand that some viewed Afghanistan as a backward country that harbored terrorists with a less-evolved population that allowed it happen; and now the superpower America had come to liberate it from the grip of evildoers and help it find its way into the 21st century. I could also understand that others viewed the war as a U.S.-led invasion that was motivated by self-interest, prompted by a need to rid the world of al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, as well as the Taliban; with the goal of turning Afghanistan into a “Swiss democracy” as an afterthought.  

I agree that the terrorist groups that wreaked havoc on the population of Afghanistan – the Taliban, and bin Laden and his ilk – needed to be eradicated. But I was just as frustrated as my fellow grunt with our approach in Afghanistan, thinking that we had all the answers. We didn’t take the time to understand the country’s history (like why it’s referred to as “the graveyard of empires”), we didn’t ask the Afghans for input…we were eventually going to turn things over to them, but not from the outset because we didn’t want them to screw things up. The inferiority of the locals’ way of life, knowledge, socio-political acumen, military prowess, etc., and the need to be led by a more advanced ally (the U.S.) formed the overarching narrative. Whether blatant or subtle, this narrative was evident in how we interacted with the locals, how the media reported on Afghanistan, how we trained the Afghan military, and how little confidence we had in its population in taking the lead in rebuilding the country.

5 apples with one red one in the middle.

In the course of contemplating these things, I kept going back to the work of Edward W. Said, a Columbia University professor whose seminal book, “Orientalism,” sent shockwaves throughout academic corridors in the late 1970s. His ideas centered on the framing of the East and West in a dichotomous framework, where the West (U.S., Great Britain) represented all that was good and the East (Islam, Arabian countries) represented all that was bad. This framing, he argued, was practiced by Great Britain via colonialism and by the U.S. via its educational system; done so subtly by the latter that if you were educated in the West, you’d hardly recognize, nor question your worldview. I suppose you can say that about other countries and their people: filtering their views of others through their own cultural/ethnic lenses.

What makes an ethnocentric worldview harmful is the power dynamic – the power to define the “other” as inferior and define the advancement of a population with a capitalist yardstick. Case in point; a handful of Afghans such as warlords profited tremendously by the war in Afghanistan, but that didn’t turn them into open-minded human beings who all of the sudden recognized the need to unite the country and use their newfound wealth to promote social justice. On the contrary, their socio-political views remained intact, while their economic ambitions continued to grow.

During our first smoke break, I ran into one of the language and culture trainers (the one who smoked). I introduced myself in Dari and he immediately started asking questions about my family, where I was from, my thoughts about the war, and why I was interested in the program. The 10-minute break didn’t allow for much time to provide too many details about his inquiries, but over the course of training, I shared more about myself and how I ended up as part of the HTS program. He commended my efforts to understand the broader picture as well as my willingness to put myself in danger to assist my adopted country in understanding my birth country. I thanked him but told him not to be too impressed because I wasn’t sure how helpful I would be to either country.

He chuckled, telling me that I was way too humble considering that I not only had the education and experience but an intimate understanding of Afghanistan that many others lacked. He also told me that he’d pray for my safe deployment and return home. I thanked him for his kind words and told him I looked forward to learning about Afghanistan from his perspective; a perspective informed by his experiences in Afghanistan during the ouster of King Zahir Shah (the last King of Afghanistan), the Soviet Invasion, and the Taliban.

While I was able to engage in conversations with him during training, I never saw or spoke with him again. Sadly, I recently learned that he passed away. RIP Faiq.

There’s Definitely No “I” In A Military “Team”

30MAR2011. Before our first language class (which I really looked forward to…seriously I did), we were going to delve into team dynamics. This seemed appropriate enough since the U.S. military is all about teamwork. Our instructor, a former Marine with a Ph.D. in adult learning strategies (I’m not sure about the exact discipline), would turn out to be my favorite. You could tell he really enjoyed teaching and really knew his shit. I’ll call him Dr. R.  

He discussed team dynamics in relation to Human Terrain System (HTS) teams, which required task cohesion (same goals) and social cohesion (getting along). He said that leadership was about influencing others to complete or align peoples’ goals to mission goals. And illustrated the dimensions required for successful HTS teams using a Venn diagram (overlapping closed circles) that included: the ability to work effectively as a member of a team; technical skills; and the ability to function effectively in dangerous and ambiguous environments (sounds like corporate America, I thought. Only in this case, the dangers were far greater).

Looking around the room, I hoped that my fellow grunts were paying attention and taking this seriously because the tension was already mounting between certain folks and that shit was not going to fly downrange (at least I hoped it wouldn’t). I didn’t want to get stuck on a team with people who didn’t get along (aside from dying in a war zone, this was my biggest fear). It was already becoming clear that some of my fellow grunts who were former military had a bit of a chip on their shoulders, viewing those of us without any military experience with superstition. And while most of them had served their country as soldiers, they chose to join the military, and as a result, had an obligation to deploy (very brave and noble indeed).

Nonetheless, I understood their position (to some extent) and hoped they appreciated what some of us nonmilitary peeps brought to the table: research expertise. Still, the onus was on us to show that we were no different from them…any pomposity on the part of a researcher might ruin it for the rest of us. Time would tell how all of this would shape up…we were only approaching the end of the second week of training.

Dr. R was a patient instructor who used the Socratic method of teaching, but when it became apparent that some of my fellow grunts were being argumentative for the hell of it, he quickly put an end to it by answering questions about the Army correctly and thoroughly, illustrating his knowledge on and off the battlefield. He couched his lecture on team dynamics in the context of the levels of warfare – tactical, operational, and strategic. The tactical level was best viewed as team performance, and in the military, it represents what takes place on the ground – the “battles and engagements…executed to achieve military objectives…” by tactical units.

The operational level highlighted recruitment and retention of soldiers, and in the military, focuses on the “campaigns and major operations…planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives…” in the war theater or operational environment (OE). Finally, the strategic level was about organizational stability where team dynamics were concerned, and in the military, highlights “national or multinational strategic security objectives…and national resources to achieve…” them.

With a propensity to get lost in my own thoughts, I couldn’t help but think about this succinct, “doctrinized” approach to warfare. Surely, this had to be an iterative process and not just a uni-directional, top-down approach where the strategists conducted armchair analysis and disseminated their plans and orders to the operational and tactical units. How much of the challenges that we faced in Afghanistan up to this point (2011) was due to faulty strategic and operational assumptions that rendered our tactical approaches ineffective?

And how much of what was being communicated by those on the ground at the tactical level influenced changes at the operational and strategic levels? And what about the fact that Afghanistan is an amalgam of tribes that identifies along ethnic lines without a solid national identity, requiring various OE-specific engagements (kinetic, COIN, diplomacy, etc.)? I hoped that we’d have an opportunity to delve more deeply into the levels of warfare, but obviously asking Dr. R about them during his team dynamics lecture wasn’t a good idea.

Dr. R continued his discussion by highlighting team effectiveness and introduced a heuristic model, which, appropriately, included consideration of the task design, team composition, and organizational context that required both internal and external processes. Also, determining the extent to which this made a team successful required effectiveness measures, performance outcomes, member attitudes, and behavioral outcomes. (Simple, right? Especially in a war zone.)

I wondered about the team dynamics of the HTS teams currently deployed. Once in awhile, we’d hear snippets about an authoritarian Team Leader who treated his team horribly, or a cantankerous Senior Social Scientist who thought that his Ph.D. made him superior and all-knowing. But we’d also hear about teams that were doing well, with the units they were attached to giving positive evaluations about their performance. When it came to positive snippets, it was always about a team doing well, but when it came to negative snippets, it was almost always about an individual who was causing problems.

Military folks holding logs.

It’s amazing (not in a good way) how one person can wreak havoc on the morale and performance of an entire team. Of course, this depends on the severity of the issue, whether it’s addressed in a timely manner, whether the person is removed, etc. Otherwise, if the toxicity festers it can destroy a team. Just thinking about this made me anxious…and the idea of having to deal with these types of problems downrange worried me. At this point, I wasn’t sure how HTS leadership mitigated team toxicity downrange, but I’d hoped that people were dealt with fairly and justly. From my perspective as a trainee, I hadn’t been around long enough to know, and I was going to suspend judgment until I witnessed things for myself.

It’s not that I’m naïve about the realities of human interactions, personalities, and politics in the workplace, it’s the idea of being in a dangerous environment and losing sight of this as a result of infighting. We were deploying into a country that included groups of people who viewed us as enemies, so we didn’t need folks within our own ranks who disliked each other and refused to get along.

After our second smoke break, Dr. R addressed team conflict in terms of tasks and relationships. The former (task conflict) entailed a perception of disagreement among group members with regard to differences in viewpoints, ideas, and opinions. The latter (relationship conflict) included perceptions of personality incompatibility, annoyance, and animosity among individuals. Whatever types of conflict facing a team, identifying and resolving it was going to be important.

So maybe it wasn’t so much about team conflict, but WHETHER it was resolved, and HOW successfully it was resolved. A lot of this, I’m assuming, would fall on the Team Leader given that he or she was responsible for setting the parameters of conduct for his or her respective team. All I kept hoping (and praying) for was to end up on a good team with a great Team Leader. For now, I had to focus on getting through training and making sure that my transition to a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) position was successful.

I was a bit concerned about this because, in addition to all the information that we had to retain about the Army, I now had to format my resume to adhere to USA.gov standards, which was tedious. But it was a temporary inconvenience and soon enough, my evenings would be mine again. And none of this would matter if I couldn’t transition successfully to a DAC position…not the junior-level social scientist position, but the senior-level one.

The evening after lecture, the leadership from XYZ Defense held a resume tutorial session at my hotel. I was definitely taking advantage of this and waited around until they showed up. I met with the Director, and he was very thorough about what changes I needed to implement in order to highlight my research experience. I took copious notes and was eager to get back to my hotel room to start the editing process.

But before I could make it out of the hotel lobby, I was stopped by a few of the other social scientists who asked me to share what I’d learned. I did, and at the expense of coming across rude, I kept it short because I really wanted to edit my resume, grab a bite to eat, review my notes for the following day’s lecture, and get a few hours of sleep. It was already 2200, but I was determined to get it all done…even sleep.

The Military & The American Way of War

29MAR2011. Having been exposed to what was expected of us as part of the Human Terrain System (HTS), or as part of a research team deployed into a war zone, the lecture for the day focused on understanding the Profession of Arms, particularly the U.S. Army. We were advised to read the “Profession of Arms” by Lieutenant General (LTG) Sir John Hackett, which details the historical development of armies from antiquity to the 20th century. This piqued my curiosity because I like to know the origins of things (when possible), and figured it might help me better understand the “hows/whys” of the military.

I found a copy online, and perused the 1962 edition, which is organized into three lectures. The first few sentences captured my attention:

“From the beginning of man’s recorded history physical force, or the threat of it, has been freely and incessantly applied to the resolution of social problems. It persists as an essential element in the social pattern. History suggests that as a society of men grows more orderly the application of force tends to become better ordered. The requirement for it has shown no sign of disappearing…a society of men in which no resort to force is possible, either for the common good or against it, either for individual advantage or against it, is inconceivable, so long as man remains what he is” (pg. 3).

Essentially, what the author concludes is that we, as fallible humans, aren’t capable of resolving social or political problems without the use of force (wonder what the anti-war establishment thinks of this).

Then the trainer narrowed his focus on the American profession of arms for the U.S. Army, which is distinguished in three ways: (1) Service to the Constitution; (2) Officer and Non-commissioned Officer professionalism; and (3) Proficiency in integrating with technology. There are also two oaths, one for enlisted soldiers (non-commissioned officers with special skills); and one for commissioned officers (management, have more authority). There’s something meaningful about pledging allegiance to something, someone…a calling or something bigger than yourself. The very ritual, IMHO, makes you feel more vested and responsible.

Soldier's Creed with a baby standing next to it.

There are also creeds and norms of conduct. The U.S. Army is nested in a larger American profession of Arms (Marines, Air Force, Navy are other services). And the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) defines the military criminal justice system as a federal law that was enacted by Congress. For example, we learned that if you get in trouble in the Army (or other services), you’re likely to receive an Article 15, which is non-judicial punishment (no court trial). These are handed down by commanders who have the authority to decide whether an offense can be handled outside of court proceedings. If a soldier refuses to accept it, he or she can “demand trial by court martial.”

I must’ve been in the zone, taking notes like a crazy person because the guy sitting next to me (a fellow grunt) said I was taking this stuff too seriously. I turned to him and said that I didn’t have a military background and that all of this was new to me, and I wanted to make sure I understood it. He just chuckled and said, “it’s not that hard.” Under normal circumstances, I would’ve said something sarcastic (something like neither was my Ph.D.), but he was someone who liked to incite arguments, so I just smiled and said thanks. 

This fellow grunt, Chris, was an interesting character. In a little over a week, he’d managed to piss off most of the trainers with his sarcastic commentary and know-it-all attitude. He tried really hard to be the coolest person among the group of guys he’d picked to hang out with (kind of like when you’re in high school and pull obnoxious stunts to stand out…yeah, that was Chris). He was one of three Chris’ in our group (the least liked one), and while the guys tolerated him, the women weren’t much impressed. He’d served in the Army a few years and his latest deployment was to Iraq.

He liked to talk about his badassery in the war zone – how many people he’d killed, how hot it was in the desert, how little sleep he got, how terrible the Iraqis were, and all the cool equipment he got to use. I was definitely worried about someone like him deploying to Afghanistan to assist the military in understanding the locals. He didn’t appear to have much respect for anyone other than those who were like him (young, white, male, former military). Still, I tried to remain open and even went out to lunch with him one day.

When I come across people who are defensive, I often wonder what happened to them as a child and whether they’re aware of how they come across to others (or whether they even care), especially when it’s off-putting. In Chris’ case, what happened to him to turn him into such a callous blowhard? One-on-one, he was a bit contained, but with his chosen group, he was empowered to be the loudest, most obnoxious, and if he kept up with this shit, there’d be no way he’d complete training and deploy. I never got much out of him during that one-on-one lunch encounter. I wanted to know more about his upbringing, but he didn’t give me much to work with, always bringing the conversation back to his “heroics” in Iraq.

I believe your early experiences in life and socialization in the home, school, and larger society have significant influences on who you become as an adult (yes, there’s nature too). People who aren’t pleasant and get defensive easily are wounded. But oftentimes, when we come across these folks and have a negative interaction with them, we assume we’ve done something to upset them (at least I always used to think so). Still, this doesn’t mean we have to condone their actions. Sometimes we can’t help but interface with them on a regular basis because they’re colleagues, or worse, a boss. Chris had an air of superiority about him that masked his insecurities, and nothing I could’ve said during that hour lunch (or beyond) would’ve helped.

Every 50 minutes of class lecture was followed by a 10-minute break, and most of the time, we all hung out in the smoke shack. This was definitely one of the cool things about training that I much-appreciated as a smoker (now former smoker). But every hour?

That’s not what I did for my classes, not even the ones that met one night a week (usually 1830-2200). My once-a-week classes got a 15-minute break around 2000, then I lectured until about 2130, followed by 15-20 minutes of questions (not that they couldn’t ask questions throughout lecture…these questions usually centered on other things like grades, whether someone could have more time to submit an assignment, etc.); then I’d let them loose. I wasn’t trying to torture them, but I knew that anything more frequent would lead to a dwindling of the class, so by the time 2100 rolled around, I’d probably end up with a handful of students.

But no, the Army was different. They had the 50-minute lecture/10-minute break thing down to a science. And God help the trainer who didn’t stick to this schedule. People would start squirming in their seats, or be as bold as to remind the trainer that it was time for a “smoke break.” My buddy Chris usually led these protests.

Aside from an explanation of the Profession of Arms, the trainer also discussed civil-military relations. The Constitution establishes civilian control of the military by Executive Branch, with the President of the United States as the Commander in Chief. That seemed kind of odd to me in the beginning, but I understand why it’s set up that way; a sort of checks and balances exists. Also, only Congress can declare war, but the President can deploy troops into a combat zone based on the War Powers Act. This federal law checks the President’s powers in that he or she has to have approval from Congress before committing to armed conflict and set time limits on such actions. (This also explains the many surges and drawdowns during the last two presidenciesthe Obama and Bush Administrations).

We also learned that the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) is a member of the President’s cabinet and in charge of the Department of Defense (DoD), with the military services subordinate to him or her. Each service has a secretary (usually a civilian) and a Chief; the big kahuna of sorts…such as the Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA), becoming the highest-ranking officer (a four-star general). Through June 2011, the SECDEF was Robert Gates, succeeded by Leon Panetta, a California native who also attended Santa Clara University (where I did my master’s degree…he attended for undergrad and law school).

Peace dove with military weapons.

After our 3rd smoke break of the day, we learned about the Unified Campaign Plan (UCP), which is an Executive Branch document that defines the area of responsibility (AOR), missions, and responsibilities for combatant commands, and is generally updated every two years by the President. The U.S. military has seven geographic combatant commands such as U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), U.S. European Command (EUCOM), etc.; and four functional commands based on (you guessed it), the functions they perform such as U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) (this is the newest one established in 2018) and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) (yes, they’re special because they’re the elite, chosen ones who do badass stufffor more info go here). I remember thinking that we’re definitely a military force to be reckoned with…because we’re everywhere.

We did some practical exercises where we were asked to answer questions focused on the various military services. One question was about describing each service and discussing what sets them apart; another was to describe their identities and how we viewed them (huh?!?!). Being new to all things military, I didn’t know enough to form an opinion, but those with prior military experience had a lot to say. And the best way to describe some of the things that were being said is summed up well by the following (which was making its rounds on social media recently):

“The military branches explained: the Army, Navy, and Marines are all brothers in a family. Army is the oldest and mom and dad made all their parenting mistakes with him. The Navy is the middle son, they’re the explorers who left home and no one cared. The Marines are the youngest who mom and dad let do whatever they want and they still have an inferiority complex due to their small size.

Well, mom and dad got divorced once all the boys were grown. Mom got remarried to a rich guy and quickly gave birth to a fourth son the Air Force. Now she loves him the most, showers him with the best toys, and buys him whatever he wants. When they go on vacation, they fly first class, stay in 5-star hotels, and enjoy the finest meals. The Air Force is spoiled rotten and his three older brothers have bitter resentment toward him for this.

Finally, there’s the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is the rich step dad’s son from his first marriage and none of the other brothers think or act like he’s a part of the family. That’s the best way to explain the various service branches and their internal dynamics to civilians.”

The final lecture for the day (on all things military) focused on the American way of war, which, in short, we were told, is about firepower and minimizing casualties. The trainer also listed Colin Gray’s 13 attributes of the American way of war, which are apolitical, astrategic, ahistorical, problem-solving and optimistic, culturally challenged, technology-dependent, focused on firepower, large-scale, aggressive and offensive, profoundly regular, impatient, logistically excellent, and highly sensitive to casualties. These definitely characterize a superpower’s approach to war when regular war takes place (forces fighting other forces). But apparently, in irregular warfare (non-state actors, guerrilla armies), these same characteristics become a liability.

Gray’s ideas about the American way of war and its application to the war in Afghanistan were apropos. We went in with the mentality of fighting a regular war, if you will. But we met with many challenges and therefore altered our strategic approach to focus on counterinsurgency (COIN) (see my previous log entry for a discussion about this). But as Gray further postulates, we don’t do COIN well because we’re trained for regular warfare, and COIN requires the involvement of local forces, and other non-military organizations to be executed successfully. Furthermore, Gray states that we confuse war and warfare. The former is a “total relationship – political, legal, social, and military.” Whereas the latter is the “conduct of war, generally by military means.” As such, our “narrow focus” on warfare tends to be unidimensional and obscures our ability to “function grand strategically.”

Empty shells

These details weren’t discussed in class. I dug deeper to understand Gray’s ideas, and I’m happy I did because it validated a lot of my own thinking about our approach to the war in Afghanistan (and quelled some of the angst I experienced during the previous day’s lecture…if you’re curious, see my previous log entry). And as much as I was still trying to figure out the Army as an organization, it was great to delve into substantive material that provided such incisive analysis of what had taken shape and what we could expect if we continued to plow ahead in Afghanistan without continually assessing our approach, and making necessary modifications.

The day ended with an introduction to our language teachers, both distinguished Afghan scholars in their own rights who were going to teach us the basics of Dari and Pashto. And considering that I already knew Dari, I was looking forward to learning some Pashto. BTW, contrary to popular belief, these two languages have very little in common (and are the official languages of Afghanistan). It’s like Mandarin and Italian…French and Turkish…German and Arabic (LOL, you get my drift).

The Cultural Turn Had Taken Hold

28MAR2011. Once the bulk of training on personnel matters had come to an end, and the process of transitioning from a contractor to a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) was made clear, we were ready to delve into a nuanced understanding of the research program that would lead us downrange (military slang for being deployed overseas…most likely in a war zone).

Before I accepted the position, I did my own research online; Googling the program to assess what others had to say (I’m a researcher…it’s instinctual). I came across articles that painted the program as a disaster and others that were either neutral or complimentary. One article that stands out discussed the pay of those deployed prior to 2009. Apparently, these folks were pulling close to $300,000 per year and some were upset that their salaries were being slashed (the program at that time didn’t include transitioning to a DAC position. These people were contractors, and in general, contractors make more than government civilians, so the salaries weren’t exorbitant given the position and location).

Still, it was a lot of money and nothing close to what I was being offered (but no complaints here!). Plus, there were hazard and hardship pay increases once you deployed (not bad at all). And this wasn’t unique to our research program, military personnel and contractors who deploy receive pay differentials; it’s to be expected when you’re putting your life on the line and working in hazardous environments.

The online articles that were most disheartening were the ones about researchers who were killed while deployed – all in 2008: two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. This triggered my initial anxiety and panic about dying in a war zone. As tragic as the deaths were, there were no other researchers killed…there were injuries (physical and psychological) but no official numbers.

The research program I was a part of was known as the Human Terrain System (HTS), a U.S. Army support program that was implemented under Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), tracing its inception to a research paper that was critical of anthropology for conducting armchair analysis and moving far away from its warfighting roots. Some anthropologists didn’t see it that way.

(Anthropology had in fact also moved away from its “native” roots. The discipline was accused of doing more harm than good through ethnographic accounts that situated the “other” through an orientalist lens: a dichotomized framework of “us” and “them.” The discipline – as the anthropologist Dr. Laura Nader, one of my advisors at Berkeley, made clear – engaged in a lot of navel-gazing, and has since tried to do better. My anthropology mentor, Dr. James Freeman, held similar views, always instructing us to ask “From whose perspective?”)

In 2005, HTS was a pilot project developed within the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Ft. Leavenworth, with the first team deploying to Afghanistan in early 2007. The project leaders were skeptical of its “catastrophic success” but the Army’s cultural shift toward winning the hearts and minds of the local people resulted in a $40 million allocation by late 2007. In 2010, it became a permanent Army program, lasting until 2014.

There were research teams sent to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). And as with most pilot projects that are scaled too quickly, what started off as a great idea experienced a lot of growing pains during implementation (the Army refers to the push for a rapid expansion of a program as building a plane in flight).

The concept wasn’t new per se, some viewed HTS as an extension of the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) program instituted by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. And just like with the CORDS, HTS was met with a lot of criticism, especially from the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

When I started training, I reached out to some of my anthropologist friends to gauge their views on the program, and to see if any of them might be interested in joining the program. All of them were quick to turn me down, highlighting the fact that it was the kiss of death for an anthropologist looking to secure a tenured position at a university. A handful of other academics stopped speaking to me altogether once they learned that I was a part of HTS. They couldn’t understand why I’d support the war effort, which to me, sounded too simplistic of a view. People have a right to their anti-war stances, but it’s not as simple as WAR IS BAD and PEACE IS GOOD.

Some people found it pretty ironic that a Berkeley Ph.D. was now a part of a military program. The stereotype, of course, is that all Berkeley-ites are hippies that oppose war, wear Birkenstocks, and sing “Kumbaya” while seated in a circle around a fire. I got a lot of chuckles from fellow grunts when they’d learn where I’d gone to school. But do you know that UC Berkeley’s Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) dates back to 1870? (*mic drop*) I wasn’t bothered by the teasing, I laughed along with them (funny shit, I tell ya).

By the time I was recruited for the program, they were sending Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) only to Afghanistan, which was fine because if given a choice, I’m not sure I would’ve deployed to Iraq. Then again, most of the people who joined HTS didn’t have the ethnic background or language skills (if you had these, it was a bonus). Was it the money? The altruistic drive to help? What motivated people to put their lives at risk?

For me, it was THAT opportunity to go back and do some good (and I’d be lying if I said the money wasn’t a factor. It was but it wasn’t the most important thing.) During my first trip to Afghanistan in May 2002, where I went with a handful of ex-pats to do some humanitarian work through Global Exchange, there were plenty of opportunities to stay and work.

There was so much money being thrown at the problem (Afghanistan), and so many ways to become a part of the solution (non-government organizations, private initiatives, public, etc.), it would’ve been easy to stay and make tons of money. But I was intent on starting my Ph.D. and completing it. So I made the conscious decision NOT to stay, knowing that I’d return. I just didn’t know when or in what capacity and this opportunity – the one with HTS – was it.

The HTS website has been taken down (not sure when it became obsolete since the program ended in 2014), but there are plenty of articles and books about the program, some that sing its praises and others that have nothing good to say. Here’s an account by an anthropologist who wasn’t fond of the program. And whatever the views, I’d come to learn that painting it with a broad brush as a failed program wasn’t entirely accurate. I’d also learn that once deployed, each team operated quite independently and the success or failure of the team had a lot to do with factors beyond what was taking place at the mothership (headquarters in Ft. Leavenworth). My experience, for the most part, was positive.

Based on my notes for that day in training (28MAR2011), we were just starting to do a deep dive on HTS. As an organization supporting the U.S. military, the program recruited, trained, deployed, and supported a dedicated embedded social science capability. Its vision statement was to “provide decision-makers with socio-cultural understanding to enhance achievement of desired outcomes across the spectrum of conflict.” This refers to the phasing construct of military operations.

For example, it starts with Phase 0 (shaping), then Phase I (deter), Phase II (seize initiative), Phase III (dominate), and Phase IV (stabilize); then back to Phase 0 and so forth, if necessary. (See, I told you the Army has lots of SOPs.) This phasing construct also depends on the type of operation employed, and was utilized in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So for those who know little about military operations, there’s always a plan – whether things go according to plan is another topic all its own. HTS was involved in Phases 0, I and IV, and definitely not in II and III.

With the military’s cultural turn – as evidenced by the creation of the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual 3-24 (also known as the Petraeus Doctrine) – the focus had shifted to public diplomacy via military means. The HTS program was to provide the U.S. military with teams of researchers who could help commanders and their units better understand the sociocultural landscape to facilitate the winning of hearts and minds. As one of the trainers said during a lecture: “We must understand culture from an institutional perspective, which the Army has just recognized.”

The HTS team, as the trainer continued, enables leaders to visualize the environment from an indigenous perspective. In using the social science tool-kit, we were to provide operationally-relevant socio-cultural understanding in support of a commander’s decisions. Each team, it was recognized, would have a unique set of researchers and each operational environment (OE) would have a unique set of operational concerns. This seemed pretty obvious but thank God it was highlighted and harped on throughout training.

The most crucial point that we, as a nation, missed entirely (and I’m not alone in this assessment), is that we didn’t take the time to understand Afghanistan. We didn’t do our homework (except the Special Forces community…they get it…that’s what they do). Yes, each HTS team would contend with OE-specific issues, but the fact that the country is an amalgam of tribes and identifies along ethnic lines without a solid national identity was what we missed or failed to recognize completely (except the Special Forces community…). Our hubris got the better of us and 18 years in, we’re still trying to define what “winning” means and trying our best to get the hell out.

There’s a reason Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires (ask the British…they can tell you all about their failed excursions); because while small battles have been won, no empire has successfully conquered this land of disparate tribes that have never (nor will ever be IMHO) governed by a national government perched in its capital (Kabul). So when the U.S. realized that kinetic activity (active fighting) alone wasn’t successful, COIN was implemented (something I’ll expand on in later posts).

I tried to remain engaged in the trainer’s lecture, but these recurring thoughts flooded my mind. On many occasions, I wanted to raise these issues, but I didn’t think the trainer would appreciate it (he didn’t seem very receptive to the Socratic method of teaching), and I didn’t want to come across as a know-it-all or ruffle any feathers by giving someone who was reading his lecture from Powerpoint slides a reason to kick me out of the program. I, by no means, was an expert on the U.S.’s Afghanistan war strategy (or strategies since there ended up being more than one…), but I did know more than the average person. And I would’ve appreciated some honest discussions about how the war in Afghanistan was going (maybe this was going to happen later during training).

We were also told NOT to ever say that we “collect” information because this was an intelligence function, and provided the HTS critics ample fodder to accuse it of engaging in interrogation techniques. So we had to say that we were “gathering” information, and hunting for the right questions to ask. As a researcher, I get it, semantics are important and the terms you use in research must be operationally-defined so there’s no confusion.

The social science tool-kit included subject and research methods experts, research generalists and cultural analysts. HTS products included field reports, assessments, analytical reports, cultural maps, surveys, and cultural briefings. We were given a research template to utilize that was similar to what’s used in academic research, except that in a war zone, the recommendations are time-sensitive, actionable, and operationally-relevant, whereas in the academic world, they’re much more theoretical. The HTS research framework utilized the military decision-making process (MDMP), a process of comparing and analyzing various courses of action (COAs) to make informed decisions and coordinate plans and orders.

HTS teams, again, were geographically-oriented and sustained by staggered, individual member replacement unless more than one person was needed on a team. Teams consisted of about 5-7 individuals. In addition to the HTTs, there was a Research Reachback Center (RRC) located at the mothership in Ft. Leavenworth, which provided research capabilities to deployed researchers. The RRC employed analysts and served as a resource hub. In-country, there was the Social Science Research and Analysis (SSRA) unit that conducted country-wide surveys, and in some ways, stood apart from HTTs.  

Teams existed at various military echelons. HTTs operated at Brigade and lower military echelons (Battalion, Company, Platoon), and Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs) operated at higher military echelons (Corps, Division). Towards the end of schoolhouse training, you were told to submit a list of your top-three preferences in terms of geographic location (province) and type of team (HTT, HTAT), and include the reasons why you thought you’d be effective in those preferred locales. There were no guarantees that you’d end up where you wanted because a lot of it was determined by need.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. It was our initial exposure to a lot of substantive information about HTS, the teams, the research process, etc. And aside from wanting to grab a quick bite and rush back to my hotel room to work on personnel-related matters (formatting my resume, filling out my time card, etc.), it was also the first official day of classes for my students. So I had to check in to see how many people had enrolled and how many were on the waitlists (it was going to be a long night).

Before we were excused for the day, the trainer ended his lecture with a quote from Captain J.L. Picard, commander of the Starfleet from Star Trek: “Study [their] art, history, and philosophy, then you will learn something” (exactly!).

The Teacher Becomes A Student

25MAR2011. Did I mention that I was teaching courses while going through training? I’d made a commitment to the university to teach another year (Sep 2010 – Jun 2011), and since I’d moved across the country, the Chair of the department let me teach online. While it was something that I never wanted to do when I was a short distance from the university (I really enjoyed the face-to-face interactions with students), the online thing was inevitable once I moved.

I had enjoyed my seven years of in-person interactions in the classroom, but this would be different; a challenge of sorts. (And you know I’m always up for a challenge.) This was going to be kicked up a notch: teaching three classes and training full-time. FYI: Before you attribute superhuman powers to me (and think you’re an underachiever), let me clarify that I was used to this pace: I started teaching a full-load (3 or more courses) in the second year of my Ph.D. studies. I’m not really sure how I did it all, but it got done without my professors or students thinking that I was half-assing it. Maybe the fact that I enjoyed both so much (teaching and studying), made it possible.

Prior to arriving in Kansas for training, I was wrapping up the Winter quarter – grading exams, papers, and submitting final grades (my least favorite part of teaching). And since California State University East Bay (CSUEB) operates on a quarter system (~10 weeks) instead of a semester system (~15 weeks), there wasn’t much of a break between quarters (Winter ended in mid-March and Spring began in late-March. Oh joy!).

What made it less challenging was that I’d taught the classes before, but now I had to format them for online delivery. I didn’t like to recycle class material – the textbook maybe, but not the handouts and exams. This was based on my experience as a student, and I vowed not to emulate some of my professors who didn’t bother injecting fresh content into their courses. I wanted to be like the ones I admired, those whose love for teaching was evident in their lectures and up-to-date handouts.

The three classes I was teaching in the Spring quarter (as I was starting training) were Child Welfare, Social Psychology, and Social Deviance. The Child Welfare course focused on historical, contemporary, and future directions of federal and state child welfare laws, as well as major initiatives governing child welfare practice. CSUEB had a lot of first-generation college students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And my students (mostly sociology majors) wanted to pursue careers in the helping professions, so this class was among the popular ones.

I enjoyed teaching this class because I’d worked as a Child Counselor for the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter for a few years (during my undergrad years), and thereafter, as the Children’s Program Coordinator for a domestic violence agency. I was quite sensitized to the experiences of abused children since I too experienced it at the hands of my nanny. Working at the shelter and teaching this course was, in a lot of ways, cathartic.

The Social Psychology course was fun and focused on the extent to which groups (family, church, community, society) influenced individual behavior. This course came in handy during training because it helped me remain as emotionally detached as possible when shit hit the fan; and analyze the intricacies of group dynamics among my fellow grunts (some of those dynamics were more interesting than soap opera dramas).

The Social Deviance course was another interesting one to teach and was very popular. Most people think deviance equates to criminality, but it’s so much more than that. The concept of deviance exists in societies based on their implicit and explicit norms, rules, and laws: these constitute the standards by which behavior is judged so that anything that falls outside of what is considered NORMAL is classified as deviance.

And had I known all that I learned about the Army during training, I would’ve definitely used it as a case study for my class; one of a hierarchically-structured organization with limited tolerance for the abnormal, with its own mechanisms of social order and control (but I still heart the Army…warts and all).

A wooden stick figure lying down, reading a book.

Some of the books that we were assigned to read prior to reporting for training were Ghost Wars, Afghanistan, and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) (to name a few). The last one I read cover-to-cover (not that the others weren’t interesting…they were historical accounts of my birth land…and I kind of know a bit about that). SOP was the story of Abu Ghraib prison that made international headlines in 2004 and became a PR nightmare for the U.S. after leaked photos exposed the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

In the SOP book, the Special Agent assigned to create a timeline of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib had to pour over 12 compact discs (CD) of pictures (like 1000s), and determine which ones were criminal acts and met the criteria for dereliction of duty, and which ones depicted standard operating procedures (if there’s one thing to know about the Army, it’s that there are a lot of SOPs…they have SOPs for their SOPs. Ha!).

In the social deviance literature, crime and deviance are considered overlapping categories with independent dimensions. Most deviance, or what’s socially-constructed as abnormal (obesity, unwed pregnancies) is non-criminal; whereas most crimes are considered deviant (murder, torture, tax evasion, theft).

From a social psychology perspective, we construct our own realities collectively, with shared meanings leading to coordinated actions. We also seek approval and acceptance from others, which often leads us to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t. This is especially true in hierarchical relationships and organizations, where the price of nonconformity far outweighs its benefits.

As such, it’s easy to see how the high-intensity, stress-induced environment in the prison – and the need to fit in on the part of the soldiers – resulted in the systematic torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners. Above all, the SOP book recounts the story of being a fallible human; soldiers who were at “once the instruments of a great injustice and the victims of a great injustice.”

Black and white image showing total destruction of a city with a hand holding a "Peace??" sign.

The prison debacle, the Duelfer Report [which concluded that Iraq didn’t have a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program that posed a significant military threat], and the killing of Blackwater security contractors, among other disasters, provided ample fodder for those who were opposed to the invasion. And aside from the exorbitant financial costs and political ramifications, the human toll was just as significantly grim: an estimated 184,000 – 206,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and a total of 4,898 U.S. and Coalition Forces deaths, with 32,337 wounded U.S. military personnel (through 2019).

The U.S. announced the end to combat operations in Iraq in August 2010 and declared an end to the Iraq War in December 2011. By 2010, they were no longer sending research teams to Iraq, as all the focus was now on Afghanistan. So with the exception of the SOP book, the rest of the required reading for training was focused on Afghanistan. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that The Kite Runner didn’t make the cut (if I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned that they read or knew about this book when they learned of my Afghan roots, I could retire).

In December 2009, President Obama renewed the “U.S. commitment to the Afghan war” with 30,000 more U.S. troops, in addition to the 68,000 that were already deployed in the country. As such, there was a need to fill the pipeline with trained researchers to embed with the U.S. military and Coalition Forces. In July 2011, a few months after I started my training (March 2011), the President spoke of a drawdown without specific details. At that time, there were a total of 31 research teams embedded with the military in Afghanistan.

As the first week of training came to an end, we’d covered the nuts and bolts of government personnel-related topics (logging hours, expense reports, security clearance paperwork, etc.), and had our initial medical and dental check-ups (my teeth were solid, but I had about 10 shots since I couldn’t produce my shot records). We were also delving into more meaty topics like the organizational structure of the research teams and our responsibilities based on our specific duty positions.

In the March Cycle, there was five Social Scientist I hires. We weren’t competing against each other, but as someone who often questions my competence in relation to others (especially those with social science Ph.D. degrees), I felt like I was the least experienced. I was the youngest (by at least 10 years) and although I had ample teaching experience, I didn’t have field experience. But in addition to a Ph.D. and ample research know-how (pounded into my brain by my Berkeley professors), I had something that the others didn’t: the language skills and cultural background.

Each team had a Team Leader (usually a retired or active-duty Colonel or O-6 or Lieutenant Colonel or O-5); a Social Scientist I (senior researcher with a Ph.D. or a graduate degree with extensive research experience); a Research Manager (gatherer of information and tracker of the team’s research products); 1-2 Social Scientist IIs (junior researchers who worked with the senior Social Scientist); and 1-2 Human Terrain Analysts (similar to a Social Scientist II with a different title). I was brought in as a Social Scientist I.

I was a rarity – something that I didn’t give much thought to until years later. This didn’t make me special in the eyes of the U.S. Army, but as an Afghan-American, it was special to me because here I was, a participant in an important moment in U.S. and Afghan history.

In his book, the Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills discusses the importance of timing in affording us unique life chances…the intersection of our micro existence and macro events. According to Mills, the “vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society” IS the sociological imagination that gives meaning to our lives.

Viewing the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan to help my adopted country understand my birth country – from Mills’ perspective – made me realize how fortuitous an experience this was shaping up to be. And as long as I made it through Army training and survived living and working in a war zone, it might just turn out to be a very cool story to tell… 🙂

Army Training (But Not Bill Murray In “Stripes”)

21MAR2011. I was up before my alarm clock went off (0500), and since the anticipation of the first day loomed, I jumped out of bed. My heart was racing so I took some deep breaths to calm down, which only made me dizzy. (What would today hold? Would I be impressed? Would I be disappointed? What if I didn’t like it? What if I couldn’t hack it? What if I was in over my head? What experiences and qualifications did the other social scientists have? Had any of them deployed? What if I made a fool of myself?) My mind wondered into some dark places as I got ready. And when I sank too far down the hole of doom, I’d take deep breaths and tell myself to relax (get a grip!).

The dress code was business casual and I wanted to look professional, but I’m not a suit person, so black slacks and a button-down collared shirt it was. I was out the door at 0630 (no, it didn’t take me 1.5 hours to get ready…I lounged around a bit). I headed to the hotel lobby to grab breakfast. I had a lot more time to kill so I indulged in a hearty meal of eggs, hash browns, fruit, toast, and coffee. I sat down to eat and looked around to see if I recognized anyone from yesterday’s onboarding session. A few people looked vaguely familiar but I kept to myself, which is my usual response when I’m feeling anxious.

By 0700, I was on the road. My GPS estimated the time of arrival at 0725, so I was doing well on time since training didn’t start until 0800. As I approached Fort Leavenworth, the GPS sent me in the opposite direction. Apparently training wasn’t being held on base. I headed toward downtown Leavenworth instead, looking for the building that my GPS had identified as the training location (if you’ve never been, downtown Leavenworth is small, quaint, and every bit like something you’d expect in a Norman Rockwell print).

I parked my red PT Cruiser (this was another thing on my do-list: change the rental car to something less speeding ticket prone), and headed into an old brown office building that had seen better days. There were no markings to indicate that much was going on there. It had very low ceilings and a musty smell. I entered on the ground floor and made my way upstairs, but still couldn’t find where I needed to be; I was starting to get worried about showing up late. But I did find a Mexican restaurant named Tampico (a place where I’d enjoy more than my share of enchiladas verde de pollo over the next three months).

I exited on the other side of the building, and all I found was an empty parking lot (was I in the wrong place? Shit, what if I was and needed to haul ass somewhere else?!?!) I ran into an equally perplexed fellow grunt, Dan, who was as lost as I was (at least I wasn’t alone!). By 0755, I was getting very nervous because as I’ve mentioned, I’m a stickler for timeliness. From the way things were going, I was going to be late (ugh!). Dan and I went into the building again and exited on the side I’d originally entered, and happen to run into someone who was a part of the training staff. He led us to where training was taking place – the basement of this dilapidated building. It was now 0805.

As we made our way into the room, I could see that training had already started. I was mortified because the trainer addressing the group of 30+ people made sure to point out the importance of being on time (no shit!). Obviously, I wasn’t going to tell him that I’d arrived a half-hour earlier, I just took a seat and kept my head down. The only seats available were the ones in the front row. (Oh joy! To be chastised in front of a group of strangers and take the only available seats in the front. This was a great start, no?!?!)

I quickly pulled out my notebook and pen and started to write down some of the stuff the trainer was saying. He was quite Napoleon-esque in stature, with the conviction to match. He was dressed in the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) and tan combat boots, and stomped around the room as he spouted off some information about the U.S. Army. I’d come to learn that he was a Colonel in the Kansas National Guard (I think) and not a trainer. He was actually the Training Director (way to make an impression!).

A Colonel (Full-bird or O-6) is the highest-ranking field officer in the Army with the insignia of an eagle embroidered on the front of the ACU and cap. He came across very serious, wanting to ensure to the group that he meant business. His demeanor was anything but welcoming, and I tried not to make eye-contact (99% of soldiers I’ve worked with have been awesome, but every so often, you get one that’s, let’s say, interesting).

Colonel N, as I’ll call him, continued by telling us about the Army’s sexual harassment policy and the procedures entailed in launching an investigation (I wasn’t sure what prompted this). He also rattled off the Army Values – loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage (LDRSHIP…clever, huh?!?!). Then he proceeded to stomp his foot a few times, which I’d come to learn meant that the information was important; something that would most likely appear on a test (we were going to take tests?!?! WTF!).

He also told us to turn to the right and left and take a look at the person seated next to us because some of us wouldn’t make it through training, let alone deploy. He actually said that of the 30+ people in the group, only half would make it through training and possibly deploy (quite inspirational, I tell ya). It sounded like we were on a reality show like Survivor, except it wouldn’t be your fellow grunts voting you off the proverbial island, but the trainers and other circumstances that weren’t necessarily in their control (inability to secure a clearance, pass medical standards, etc.). Shit just got real.

The program entailed 3.5 months of schoolhouse training where we’d learn about the U.S. military, specifically the Army (kind of like the How the Army Runs course, but not really since that course focuses more on the procurement process). In addition, we’d learn about our specific job responsibilities and what to expect once deployed. This was followed by a 2.5-month training program dubbed Combat Advisor Training in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

We were told that in order to pass the course and deploy to Afghanistan, we had to successfully:

  • Transition from a contractor to a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) equivalent position;
  • Obtain a security clearance (have you ever filled out a SF-86? It takes weeks just to get the info together, seriously);
  • Pass a thorough medical exam, with lots of shots (I had 10 in one day because I didn’t have my shot records);
  • Complete a series of Department of Defense (DoD) security and safety online courses (and print multiple copies of certificates to take with us);
  • Withstand the stress, anxiety, and pace of the program; and deal with the shenanigans of some of the trainers;
  • Build rapport and trust with fellow grunts, or at least tolerate them (some of whom were clearly not qualified to deploy); and
  • Survive field training in Ft. Polk at the peak of summer (110+ degrees…not even counting the heat index…an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

By 1200, my head was spinning from all the new information that was thrown at us (well, new to me and some of the others, but not for those who’d already served in the Army or had gone through training before). I was also pretty hungry and decided to join a few others for lunch. They all seemed very nice, and those who were familiar with the Army joked about how long and boring the training was going to be. Not for me…not at all. I was hoping to survive and be one of the 15 or so who’d actually complete training and deploy. This attitude was a departure from how I previously felt (that is, unsure I even wanted to be here; reluctant to take the position…). I now viewed it as a challenge to make it all the way through (and I LOVE a good challenge!).

I felt like I’d started school all over again, but this time, I was learning a new language (Army speak) in order to understand the lessons. I took this pretty seriously, and since I’d gone through proverbial academic boot camp as a Ph.D. student, I felt pretty confident that I at least knew HOW to study. We were assigned a shit-load of reading, which was fine. During my doctoral studies at Berkeley, some of the classes I took included twice as much reading and way more writing assignments (bring it on!). The difference was that as a Ph.D. student, I knew the subjects well (psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, etc.). But I didn’t know “Army speak” or much about the military.

I do, however, remember an Army commercial from the early 1980s: the Be All You Can Be one, where the announcer chimes in and says, “we do more before 9am than most people do all day.” I remember it vividly because even though I was about eight, it made me feel like a lazy bum: here I was chilling at home during summer break eating ice cream and watching cartoons, while soldiers were doing way more than me (what a loser I was, I thought.). That commercial left an impression that Army soldiers were very hard-working (and got up way too early). Maybe the impression I’d formed at that age imbued a feeling of respect and security in knowing that I’d be okay in a war zone with our soldiers.

I’d also come to accept that a daily Starbucks run was not going to happen unless I added about 30 more minutes to my commute (um, no thank you). No more venti, single-shot mochas for me. It was either regular coffee, tea or water (I grew up in a tea-drinking home, so no tea for me). It was during this time that I stopped drinking fancy, foo-foo coffee drinks (mochas, lattes, cappuccinos, etc.). But I wasn’t too thrilled with the swill that passed for regular coffee during training, so I made sure to buy an insulated mug that I could fill with something that actually tasted like coffee (first-world problems, I know).

By 1700, the first day had come to an end, and while others in the group were planning their evenings (dinner venues, bars to hit), I just wanted to get back to my hotel room, grab a quick bite, review my notes, and get some much-needed sleep. I was drained, but at least I’d figured out where training was located, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to be late again.

Meet & Greet of Fellow Grunts, Plus Onboarding

20MAR2011. I set two alarms to ensure I’d be up on time. And even with that assurance, I tossed and turned all night, checking the alarm on my cellphone throughout the night to ensure it was on (not that I’m a heavy sleeper, just paranoid sometimes). My body, mind, and soul would have to get used to all the newness. After all, it was a new bed…a new environment…a new job…a new state!

I think I’d chosen wisely because the meeting was at the hotel I was staying at, and although it didn’t start until 0800, I was ready and out the door by 0730. I walked to the lobby to check out the selection of breakfast items. To my delight, it was quite decent. The coffee was good and the warm, freshly-baked cranberry muffins were awesome! Coffee, a banana, and a cranberry muffin would become my go-to breakfast on mornings I perceived to be running late (“perceived” because I can be paranoid about timeliness).

By 0750, I was refilling my coffee cup and stopped by the front desk lobby to say hello to the attendant. I was trying to kill some time and didn’t want to appear too eager by showing up early. But I’d come to learn that in the military if you’re 15 minutes early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late, and if you’re late, it’s unacceptable. (This was fine because, again, I’m a stickler for being on time.)

Coffee in hand, I walked upstairs to the meeting room and was greeted by a few of the employees from XYZ Defense. One of them asked my name and handed me a tag, which I quickly scanned to ensure that my name was spelled correctly (it was, phew!). There were already a few people in the room, and we’d be known as the MARCH CYCLE. (Through 2012, there were groups of people joining the program on a monthly basis, and at any given time, there were at least three groups cycling through training.)

I chit-chatted with a few of my fellow trainees/colleagues and was particularly interested in getting to know the rest of the Social Scientists (I’d heard there were 4-5 in our group). Aileen was the first Social Scientist I met. She was a slender, petite woman in her early 50s dressed in a sharp black pantsuit. She had short, wavy blond hair and looked like she really liked the sun (very tan skin, but not leathery).

As we exchanged pleasantries, I’d learn that she too was from the Washington, DC area, and applied for the position because it sounded like an exciting opportunity (sounded like an exciting opportunity?!?! Really?!?! Wow, okay). We both had questions about the process, which was comforting because I didn’t feel like I was the only one still trying to figure things out.

Two wooden stick figures shaking hands.

After a brief exchange, she excused herself to grab some coffee and I made my way to one of the tables. I took a seat in the middle row of one of the plastic tables, which were evenly-spaced throughout the room and accommodated a maximum of two people. I sat silently and glanced up periodically when someone new walked in. They were mostly males. Some would look over and say hello, then awkwardly look for a seat. Others just kept to themselves. (Were they as nervous as I was?).

I took a deep breath and opened my new notebook and wrote the date on the first page. (I always use a new notebook for a new job.) Although the people I’d met initially seemed nice, I still didn’t know what to expect. (It felt a lot like move-in day in the dorms during my college years – I didn’t know anyone and was anxious to meet my roommate.)

As the room filled up with fellow grunts, one individual took a seat at the table in front of mine, and as I was thumbing through my packet of endless paperwork, he turned around and excitedly said hello with a big smile.

Bart: Hi, I’m Bart!

Me: [chuckling] Is that your real name?

Bart: Yes it is. Well, it’s Bartholomew, but everyone calls me Bart. What’s your name?

Me: Farzana

Bart: Ooooh, Persian. Are you Persian? What does it mean?

Me: Well, yes…a Persian name. No, I have Afghan roots. It means “wise.”

Bart: Wow, cool! Wise? Nice. And you’re going to Afghanistan? I’ve been there…I was deployed there. I love the Afghan people. I’m going to call you “Farzana Jon.” Is that okay?

(Adding “Jon” at the end of someone’s name in Dari is a term of endearment. In Persian or Farsi, it’s “Joon.”)

Me: [smiling…laughing] Cool! I’ll call you Bart Jon.

Bart: Cool.

The interaction with Bart – who’d become a good friend and colleague – was comforting. He was a bit quirky, and at times, off-putting to those who weren’t used to someone being so open and abrupt, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I’d watch him interact with others and it made me laugh how squeamish they appeared (not that he was trying to make them uncomfortable, but he was wicked smart and very straightforward, and not a lot of people appreciated that especially some of the trainers.)

A sheet of paper w/"Checklist" at the top.

At 0800, we were greeted by one of the individuals who’d serve as a seminar leader – all of whom were employees of XYZ Defense. He introduced himself and welcomed the group, and provided an overview of what to expect for the next few hours. It was essentially onboarding with XYZ Defense – filling out forms and reviewing the many others we were instructed to bring with us such as marriage/divorce certificates, transcripts, passports, resumes, etc. (This is where my anal-retentive tendencies came in handy. Not only did I have all of my forms, I had at least two copies of each!)

Bart: [looking over at my form] So you live in Arlington, Virginia? That’s a pretty coveted zip code…where wealthy people live.

Me: Really? Okay. It’s a nice location…urban feel, close to the Metro.

Bart: Who’s “we”? Do you have a family?

Me: Myself and my husband. I got married a few months ago. I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area…my parents and brother still live there. I recently moved to the East Coast.

Bart: A California girl. Nice! So why would you be here if you just got married? Your husband’s okay with you being away from him for so long?

Me: Yeah, he’s supportive. But it’s for a year or so and then I’ll be home. How about you? Any family?

Bart: Yeah, a wife, and two kids.

Me: That’s great. What’s it like to deploy and be away from them?

Bart: I’ve done it a few times. You get used to it and so do they. It works for me…us. I miss my kids but we stay in touch.

Me: You’ve deployed multiple times…how do you do it?

Bart: Well, I love my work and you get used to it. You’re helping people.

I couldn’t understand why people deployed multiple times. Was it for the money? The sense of duty? Why would people willingly put themselves in danger? I knew soldiers didn’t have a choice (unless they were injured and couldn’t deploy; obtained some other type of waiver, or were discharged, etc.). My questions about the “hows/whys” of multiple deployments were initially triggered after watching Hurt Locker, a movie intended to show the experiences of soldiers in the Iraq War during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Dirt road and mountainous terrain with a Humvee.

In the movie, Sergeant First Class William James (played by Jeremy Renner), a reckless, arrogant team leader for the U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, often pissed off his team by playing Russian roulette with his life and theirs. But he was brilliant at his job and knew it. When he arrives home (redeployed), he has a hard time adjusting. In one scene toward the end of the movie, he stands in the cereal aisle of a grocery store, overwhelmed by the variety, and ultimately, the mundaneness of civilian life. Eventually, he’s back in Iraq, disabling explosives.

Seeing the character return to the war zone didn’t make much sense to me. Why would he leave the comfort of his home and his family? I just couldn’t wrap my head around his decision. I get that he loved his job, but my naivete about what war means to some and what it does to you – physically and psychologically – were limited at the time. (I’d come to understand the desire to deploy again once I redeployed, but the need to go back – at least for me – faded the longer I was home.)

As I’d come to learn throughout my training, multiple deployments were the norm – either in uniform or as a contractor (not to mention those who work for non-profits, media outlets, etc.). But, as far as I was concerned, I was only doing this once; intent on coming home…alive…in one piece.

Having completed the necessary paperwork during onboarding, some of us stuck around to chit-chat, then parted ways in anticipation of the first day of training (aka work). I headed back to my hotel room, made some calls to family members to fill them in on the happenings of the day, and headed to bed early (which for me was 2100, or 10p for you non-military folk). Again, I set two alarms to ensure I’d wake up and get to where I needed to be in the morning.

I was both excited and anxious about the first day of training.

I’m Not In Kansas Anymore!

19MAR2011. If someone told me that I’d be moving AGAIN a few months after uprooting my entire life from Northern California (SF Bay Area, to be exact), I would’ve laughed hysterically…then cried. According to the Life Change Index, moving is a stressful event, so is a job change, marriage, death of a loved one, and divorce, among others. (Shit, I had experienced the first three in the last six months.) So much had happened that I didn’t have time to think, let alone process the physical and psychological impacts (but lucky for me, I’m quite resilient and these were not the worst life changes).

Arlington, Virginia was just starting to feel like home, even though I had virtually no family in the area. And yet here I was, about to board a plane for Kansas – a place that I associated with a red, sequined shoe-wearing Dorothy and her dog, Toto. That’s about all the thought I’d given Kansas – a state often referred to as a “flyover” one by those darn elitist East and West coasters (totally rude, I know).

[On the drive to the airport.] 

Husband: You’re so quiet, are you okay?

Me: Yeah, I’m fine…it’s just surreal. I hate that I’m moving again. I don’t know what to expect. I hope it goes well.

Husband: It’ll be great. What an experience! And you’ll be home before you know it. Just be safe, okay.

Me: I’ll try my best not to die or kill anyone.

I was lost in thought but tried to remain engaged in the conversation we were having. But my mind kept drifting. I felt somewhat numb, and the closer we got to the airport, the more anxious I became. At that moment, I felt alone. I was bothered that my husband was so laissez-faire about the whole thing. He was too calm as far as I was concerned. Why wasn’t he more concerned? (Clearly, he missed the part about a year-long deployment to one of the most dangerous parts of the world!)

Truth is, I wanted him NOT to let me go. I wanted a very different reaction. I wanted him to tell me that he couldn’t bear the thought of me being in a war zone and loved me too much to let me go. But instead, he was too supportive (did he just not love me enough to want me to stay?). Was it wrong that I wanted him to fight for us? We hadn’t even had time to nest properly as newlyweds. He wasn’t making me go, but it felt that way. (But let’s be clear, I made the decision to take the job, no one made me do it, so if I make it sound as if this was done to me, imposed upon me, it wasn’t. Plus, he’s not a bad guy. But I could feel the resentment building…)

As I said goodbye to my husband and made my way through security, I felt even more numb. The experience was akin to the one in April 2001: awaiting to board a flight to San Diego to attend my maternal grandmother’s funeral, who’d passed away quite suddenly. (Okay, maybe this experience wasn’t exactly the same. I wasn’t flying to Kansas for a funeral, but on some level, I knew this too was going to be a life-changing experience. I knew I’d come back changed in ways I couldn’t anticipate at the time.)

When I got to the gate, I called my mom. Her tone was somber as she asked about what I’d packed, and where I’d be staying once I landed in Kansas. She gave her usual talk about praying to God for protection and safety, remaining vigilant, not trusting people too quickly, and making sure I ate properly. In her mind, this was my flight to Afghanistan. I reassured her that I’d be fine and that this was just the first leg of the journey and that I wasn’t even sure I’d actually deploy.

She was very supportive of my initial trip to Afghanistan in May 2002 – a trip I took with a dozen other people including medical doctors, non-profit directors, and ex-pats – all with the desire to do some good for Afghans in Kabul. It was the Spring before the start of my Ph.D. program, and the initial trip just fell into my lap (how could I NOT go?!?!?!). My dad, on the other hand, was quite livid. He didn’t speak to me for days, but eventually, he came around.

Red high heels with red-and-white stripe stockings.

It was a short 2.5-hour flight to Kansas. Well technically, the airport was in Missouri and a third of the size of the airports I was used to flying to/from (San Francisco, Oakland, Dulles, Dallas Ft. Worth, Chicago, Boston, Dubai,…). It was the first trip where I wasn’t being picked up by family or friends. I was on my own. But hey, Missouri was not a foreign land and people spoke English…go figure!

The recruiters at XYZ Defense were quite thorough and had supplied us with tons of information before arriving for training. We had a posh setup – each of us had our own hotel room and a rental car. (Those joining the program a couple of years later had a very different set up: they lived in corporate apartments with 2-3 people to a room – single-sex of course, and were shuttled around in vans.)

As I boarded the bus to the car rental area, that feeling of numbness returned. It felt like I was watching myself from a distance – an actor in a movie. A movie that seemed intriguing and emotionally-suspenseful enough to maintain interest. The rollercoaster of emotions was now taking hold; with fear, anxiety, indifference, and sadness dominating. (What the hell am I doing? Wait, this isn’t so bad. See, the roads ARE paved. Am I really in Kansas? What if I die in Afghanistan? Well, I can always quit and go back to Virginia if it’s too much. Would that make me a quitter? Shit! Who cares, it’s better than dying.) 

On the ride over, I turned my phone on and called my mom. If nothing else quelled my anxiety in times when I was out of my comfort zone, talking to my mom always did. She was happy to hear that I’d survived the flight to Kansas.

I shoved my luggage into the rental car and headed to the hotel. To my surprise, it was a 5-minute drive, which meant that I probably should’ve picked a hotel closer to the worksite. But this place had a townhouse feel to it. It was a sprawling property with lots of trees, manicured lawns, BBQ pits, a pool, gym, laundry facilities, and meeting rooms. Each 2-story building was composed of a cluster of suites, and the 2nd-floor units all had balconies.

The front desk attendant was kind enough to help me with my luggage, carrying the heaviest one up the stairs to my 2nd floor suite (I gave him a proper tip!). The suite was pretty big and looked like a studio apartment with a full kitchen (not that I’m much of a cook, but still, I wanted the option).

Me: Thanks for helping me! One last thing, how’s the weather here?

Front Desk Attendant: Ask me in an hour. [Chuckling.]

Me: Wait, what? I’m sorry, I’m a bit dense, what does that mean?

Front Desk Attendant: It means it constantly changes. Yeah, it’s hot in the Summer and cold in the Winter, but in the Spring, we get lots of rain and tornados. So always have an umbrella, okay? Like keep it in your car, or your bag…you’ll be fine. It’s just water.

Me: Yeah okay. Thanks.

Once I got done wiping just about everything in my room with disinfectant wipes (yes, I’m THAT person), I headed to the nearest grocery store and stocked up on some water and snacks. It was Saturday afternoon, so I still had time to acclimate before I showed up at 0800 in the lobby on Sunday to fill out initial paperwork. But I officially started work/training on Monday, 21 March.

It had been a long day, and I was pooped. I wanted to get enough sleep before tomorrow’s meeting. I called my mom, then my husband, before I called it a night. I showered and plopped into bed, channel-surfed, said some prayers, and zonked out.

The Position Is Located Where?!?!?

07FEB2011. Since I’m chronicling my training and deployment experiences, it makes sense (at least to me) to start from the beginning. The following is the dialogue between me and the recruiter, followed by some introspective analysis about what I’d just gotten myself into.

[Phone rings…]

Me: Hello?

Recruiter: Yes, hi. How are you today Ma’am? May I speak to Dr. Farzana Nabi?

Me: Hi…speaking.Who’s calling, please?

Recruiter: My name is Tomas and I’m a recruiter with XYZ Defense. I got your cover letter and resume for the senior Social Scientist position we posted. You’re very qualified…a great candidate. I want to tell you more about the position…answer some questions…especially because it’s a term position in Afghanistan.

Me: Wait, what? I thought the position was located in Washington, DC. That’s what the job description indicated, which is why I applied. Afghanistan?

Recruiter: Sorry Ma’am, it’s not. It’s in Afghanistan. Well, the training is state-side…six months of it, then you deploy to Afghanistan for a year…or longer…depending on how long you want to stay. It’s with the U.S. Army.

Me: Um, okay. Wow. That’s a long time. So wait…why would you advertise it as being state-side when it’s not? Makes no sense…and where in Afghanistan?

Recruiter: Yeah, sorry…probably should’ve been more clear. But it’s a great opportunity and you’re so qualified! And the pay is great too! Are you interested?

Me: No, I’m not interested. I just moved to the DC area a few months ago and recently got married, and I have no intention of leaving and moving again. Especially to Afghanistan. And with the military? Like with Soldiers? Is this a translator position?

Recruiter: I understand. And no it’s not for a translator position. Can you at least hear me out? Then you can decide whether you’re a good fit. And yes, with the U.S. Army as a senior researcher. I don’t know which province…those are things that are decided later on in the program.

Me: Well, I’m curious enough to hear about it even though I wouldn’t take the position.

[Two hours into the phone call…]

Me: Wow, that’s a lot of information and lots to jump through before you deploy. I’m still not sure I’d take the position. It sounds like a great opportunity and I do want to return to Afghanistan to do some work, but I don’t know if this is the right opportunity for me. I’m still teaching at the university I’ve been teaching at for a while, and the Chair was generous enough to let me finish up my last year online. Since, you know, I’m no longer in California.

Recruiter: Are you sure? How about I give you a couple of days to think about it? You can discuss it with your family and I’ll circle back with you. You’re just such a great fit…with your background, language skills, and Ph.D. You’re one of the best candidates we’ve ever come across!

Me: Thanks for trying to butter me up, but it’s not going to change my stance. It’s a lot to take in. My head’s spinning. But I’ll think about it…and let you know.

Recruiter: Okay. Sounds great! Thank you for your time. I’ll call you in a couple of days. But if you decide to take it before then, just call me directly.

[Two days later…phone rings…]

Me: Hello?

Recruiter: Hi Farzana, it’s Tomas. How are you? I’m circling back to see what you’ve decided. How about it? What did your family say? Will you take the position?

Me: Hi Tomas. Well, I spoke with my family and they think it’s an interesting opportunity…my parents don’t and are shocked I’d even consider it…I’m still on the fence. But my husband (now former husband) says it’s a great opportunity and could open lots of doors once I’m back in DC.

Recruiter: So is that a “yes”? If so, there’s paperwork to fill out…an online application link I can send you, and a packet with lots of details about the program.

Me: I don’t know. It’s a huge decision and all I keep thinking is that I don’t want to die in the country I was born in, you know?

Recruiter: Die? Who said anything about dying? You won’t die. Yes, it’s a big decision. I understand. But it’s not that dangerous. Sure, you’ll be in a war zone, but you’ll be on a military base, where it’s safe.

Me: Safe?!?!? Really?!?!? Do you not watch or read the news? People are being blown up left and right. Especially the U.S. military…they’re not exactly being greeted with open arms.

Recruiter: I can’t guarantee your safety, but you’re free to come back any time, especially if you don’t feel safe. I just think you’re an excellent fit and will do very well. With your background…think about how much good you’d be doing for us…for the Afghan people.

Me: That’s rich, thanks. You’re good. Look, I went back to Afghanistan in May 2002…on a humanitarian trip…it was only for a month, and it was probably the safest time to be there because we’d just carpet-bombed the country to get rid of al-Qaeda operatives, and in the process, freed the people from Taliban rule. The military presence was hard to miss…Allied Forces everywhere…a curfew for all. I felt very safe walking around the streets and riding around in civilian vehicles. But things have changed…gotten worse!

Recruiter: I can’t make you take the job…I can just keep asking and calling you periodically to see if you’ve changed your mind. It’s ultimately your decision, but you’d be so great! Didn’t you say that you talked to your husband and he was supportive?

Me: Yeah, he’s on board, and I was actually surprised how supportive he’s being. I didn’t expect that. So yeah, the decision is all mine…a very tough one.

Recruiter: So what do you say, Farzana? Do you just want to give it a try? At least fill out the application online? See what we offer in terms of salary and benefits? If you change your mind after, that’s fine.

Me: You don’t give up easily, do you? Fine! Just send me the link. I’ll take a look and let you know. Can you give me a day or two?

Recruiter: Great! Sure. I’ll send the link shortly. If you have any questions, please call me directly. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll call you.

Me: Will do, thank you for the info. You’re relentless! You make a commission from every person you hire, right? Shit…I hope I don’t regret this.

Recruiter: Yes, I do. That’s the nature of recruiting but if you weren’t so qualified, I wouldn’t have hounded you…I’m usually not this persistent.

[The next day…]

After reading all the material Tomas sent, and doing multiple internet searches about the program (which turned up mixed results), I did it. I took the job and requested to join in March 2011, or be a part of the March Cycle. I needed more than a few weeks to prepare to move, yet again! I had to relocate to Kansas because the schoolhouse training was happening in Fort Leavenworth.

As I packed my stuff for the first leg of the journey, I wondered if I needed to pack more than clothes. Did they have CVS stores in Kansas? Did I need to bring a 3-month supply of toiletries? I wasn’t sure, so I packed a month supply and figured I could purchase the rest on Amazon.

Had I overcome my ignorance and did a search online, I would’ve known that Kansas was not a 3rd-world country and that they indeed had CVSs, Targets, and other places to shop (they even had paved roads!). But I was in such a haze and so consumed with the “what ifs” that all rationality seemed lost.

Sometimes I’d find myself standing on the balcony of my apartment, leaning over the rail watching people rush around, and wondered if any of them would do anything as crazy, brave, and/or stupid. Or if some already had (why can’t I have a “normal” life? Career?).

In these moments, I felt even more conflicted – at times I was excited and viewed this as my next BIG adventure; at other times, I wasn’t ready to pick up and move again. So I kept my focus on the present…checking things off my daily to-do list (fill out paperwork, book a flight, bring my passport, buy suggested books, pack enough shoes…). And regardless of how reluctant I was about leaving the comfort of my apartment in Arlington, there was an inevitable pull to take this on. Was it the money? The opportunity to help? The excitement? Probably a combination.

I’m always up for a challenge and this one seemed as arduous as my Ph.D. program at Berkeley.

The inevitable pull was followed by thoughts of doom and fearful negotiating with God (please God, don’t let me die in Afghanistan! If I’m supposed to die, then please let something happen during training that prevents me from deploying. If I do deploy and end up dying, then maybe I wasn’t meant to live ’til old age. But if I’m meant to die young and I don’t die in Afghanistan, please don’t let my life end in some crazy, ironic twist of fate wherein I die a few weeks/months after returning to the States.)  

Regardless of the fears that plagued me, I’m always up for a challenge and this one seemed as arduous as my Ph.D. program at Berkeley. I was moving to Kansas to see this through. And the rest was up to God.