EXCLUSIVE TO THE ENTERPRISE
being made slowly,
but surely, in Afghanistan
Soldier pleased with how things have
moved along in 11 months
May 6, 2011
Editor’s note: Lt.
Robert Thelen of Oconomowoc is serving a one-year tour of duty in
Afghanistan. On a monthly basis, he will update the Oconomowoc
community on his actions and the happenings in Afghanistan. You can
read his letters exclusively in the Oconomowoc Enterprise.
By 1st Lt. Robert Thelen III
Special to the Enterprise
Afghanistan - It has been a crazy few months since my return
from R&R. Our mission, to advise, train and mentor the Afghan
National Army is rapidly approaching its end, but we still have a
lot of work to get done.
I have been
perplexed as of late about what to talk about. Things have been
going well in the advising realm, and that is just not sexy
journalism. There have been the usual suicide bombings, but nothing
“out of the ordinary.” After talking to family and friends about
what to write about, we all decided that some good news from the
front lines may be a present change from what most of you see on a
Crawl, walk, run
>>view slideshow of Thelen's
States Army believes in progressive training. You start slow, teach
fundamentals and then progress slowly until you master the skill. We
use that same philosophy while training the Afghan soldiers,
non-commissioned officers and officers.
military doctrine is like building a pyramid; you need to start with
a strong, healthy foundation and you can go from there. Ten months
ago, we found the foundation was made of sand. A full 85 percent of
the unit that we advise was illiterate, unable to even read or write
their own language. Furthermore, most had never driven a vehicle or
used a computer.
This was our
initial challenge: to build literacy, driving skills and computer
knowledge to at least American sixth-grade levels. As you can
imagine, this was frustrating.
We had to hire
local literacy teachers to teach Afghan soldiers how to read and
write, had to teach them how to drive and how to use a computer. It
was my task to teach the officers, who are more stubborn than most.
Luckily, having taught my dad to use a computer a number of years
ago (he will kill me for mentioning this), I had the aptitude and
patience to teach the Afghans the same.
After 11 months
here, the literacy rate is nearing 75 percent, we have a master
driver Afghan-led course, and computers are used in everyday
issues like strategic management and leadership is even harder.
I have thousands
of years of culture to fight against to make a modernized army.
avoid confrontation. If someone doesn’t show up on time, the officer
does not discipline the subordinate; they take away their pay behind
their back. I had to discuss, sometimes for hours, the need to
enforce standards and be upfront and honest with supervision and
I advise a full
bird colonel (O-6), and in 11 months, I have seen a great change,
from being so timid as to not even talk to leadership on the phone
to recently visiting and discussing pressing issues with his entire
chain of command in Kabul.
live in the past and now. Running a military units requires a
certain vision. A leader must plan for the future, anticipate
problems and manage resources. Afghans wait to see what will happen
and then react. I had to teach them to be proactive. This started
with simple advising on coming up with a plan, following the plan
and adapting to changes as reality hit. Eleven months ago, the ANA
was looking at most a day ahead; now we discuss issues months in the
future. Nothing is fast here, but, slowly, progress is being made.
By, through, with
team advises the forward support depot personnel. The FSD is
responsible for all logistical support to Afghan National Army in
Eastern Afghanistan. The FSD ensures the 22,000 ANA soldiers in the
AO have everything they need to take over the fight, and it has been
doing a progressively better job every day since we started.
team advises 107 Afghans, in everything from convoy operations to
warehousing, strategic logistics to advising the 20 soldiers strong
When we started, the warehouses were nightmares. Food was literally
crawling with rats and was next to clothes. Ammo was stored outside.
Medical supplies were being pilfered, and fuel operations were
lacking. The progress in 11 months has been breathtaking and truly
food is now stored up to U.S. standards in its own warehouse, ammo
is safely stored in protected containers and is professionally
guarded by a well-trained security platoon, the medical supplies are
stored in a facility that one U.S. general called the best looking
warehouse in Afghanistan, and fuel is 100 percent automated and run
by the ANA.
every aspect of the FSD is now run by the Afghans with only minimal
One of the
biggest improvements has been in the profession of arms. Eleven
months ago, the security platoon could barely hold an AK-47. During
the direct attack in September, the platoon reacted by blocking the
entrances with debris and taking fighting positions. Now, they
actively patrol (we only go with them once in a while), have a
rotation schedule and have excellent weapon discipline.
Since June 2010,
more than 15 million liters of fuel, 8 million kilograms of food
(everything from rice and beans to chai), 22 million rounds of ammo
(bullets, rockets, mortars), 80,000 uniforms, 8,000 NATO weapons
(M-16s, M-4s, M-24 sniper rifles), 500 computers, 800 pallets of
medical supplies and countless other supplies have been distributed
across Eastern Afghanistan.
have been used in countless Afghan operations.
Some of the
training and advising has been fun, like advising the security
platoon on kinetic operations (how to shoot, guard, protect). Some
of the training has been very difficult, like projecting fuel needs
for next quarter. Some of the advising has been just plain weird,
like trying to figure out how much firewood the ANA would need (they
still use firewood for most heating concerns) or dealing with an ANA
officer that beats his soldiers with a stick (it worked really well,
but sent a bad message).
leadership has been interesting, but the most rewarding has been
training and mentoring the next generation of ANA soldiers, NCOs,
and officers. The younger generation (those younger than 30) are
well trained, have great common sense and show great potential. The
future of ANA looks very bright, as these young officers gain rank
greatest gains have been in the central government care for the
When I started
here, I saw a major void in services: the local population and
mostly the children. My unit delivered more than 3,000 backpacks to
local schools and gave supplies to children. Recently, the Afghan
army has been very proactive with going out and doing this very
important public service campaign. Afghans taking care of Afghans: if
things could be so perfect!
month will be my last article, as I should be redeploying soon
thereafter. If any readers have any direct questions, I would love
to answer them in my last article. Please send them directly to