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
Looking back on September, it was by far my most productive and
exciting month in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was the end of Ramadan, or
the fact that we have built up enough rapport with our Afghan
counterparts for them to trust us, but either way, progress is being
made and my team has become stronger in the process.
We have had
some interesting experiences, to say the least, but each of them has
built upon one another to help us do our mission: advise and train
the Afghan National Army into a self-sustaining force capable of
Below are three
vignettes from this past month. Each, I hope, will show the progress
and the challenges that we face in this remote Forward Operating
Base in Afghanistan.
>>view slideshow of Thelen's
EID and 9/11
Sept.: Ramadan is over, and the weeklong EID celebration is
Ramadan is a
major event. From new moon to new moon, the faithful observed a
strict fast, from sunup to sundown. The fast includes no eating or
drinking; even water is forbidden.
The timing of
the holiday, and most Islamic holidays, is based off of the lunar
calendar, where every month begins with a new moon. This means that
the date of Ramadan moves up around eight days every year compared
to our solar calendar.
So, this year,
it began Aug. 10 - the middle of summer. After a month of fasting
during daylight hours, the Afghan army will celebrate this
achievement with friends and family.
My team and I
get a bunch of cheap radios together (normally distributed to local
villages as a means of communication) and water and went up to the
local mosque frequented by Afghan soldiers to give them a present
after evening prayers. It is a cold and windy night. Fall is already
in the air, and we sit outside the mosque, waiting for the service
to get over.
Islamic prayers wash over us as we prepare for the mass exodus.
Then, around 9:30 at night, the sky, so dark that it seems like you
can see every star in the Milky Way, the service is over and 400 ANA
soldiers start to flow toward us.
We let our
translators go home to spend time with their families, so we use our
broken Dari to make small talk as we hand out hundreds of radios and
bottles of water to smiling appreciative soldiers. We see some
soldiers from the unit that we advise, and we are invited over to
their barracks for some chai
A few of us take
them up on their offer and spend a few hours watching Afghan
television, piecing together a conversation with their broken
English and our broken Dari. We watch the Afghan equivalents to
Sports Center and MTV; we laugh, have fun, eat grapes and bread,
drink chai and find a common ground. This is a lesson I will not
soon forget: sports and music transcend language and culture.
0900, 9 Sept.:
Nine years ago today, America was attacked by terrorists trained in
Afghanistan. It is kind of surreal to think about how long it has
been since that fateful day. I still remember exactly where I was
when I found out that the Twin Towers were engulfed in smoke and
flames: roaming the halls of Oconomowoc High School. I remember
being angry, somber and confused. Why did this happen? Who did it?
How did it happen?
Now, nine years
later, I sit here in Afghanistan, looking forward to the day that
will be like any other.
proposed “International Burn a Koran Day” resonating across
Afghanistan, my team and I were put in a very difficult spot. Time
and time again, I was asked by members of my Afghan unit why we
hated Islam so much. The conversation played itself out like this:
ANA: Why are
they burning the Koran? Do you hate us that much?
Me: No, a few
people in Florida are using it to protest and make a scene.
ANA: Why doesn’t
your government stop it?
Me: This act of
protest is protected under our Constitution. It is in our Bill of
constitution allows for you to hate other religions. If your
government really was against this, they would stop it.
Me: Well, we
allow individuals to burn the American flag, so these individuals
are allowed to burn the Koran.
ANA: Do you
understand how much that hurts us? I cannot even think about burning
a holy book, even the Bible is sacred to us. Do you allow your
people to burn Bibles too?
although I think most frown on book burning in general, some people
ANA: And your
government does not arrest them? In Afghanistan, Karzi would put a
stop to this.
At this point, I
discuss the First Amendment, and, usually, the ANA soldier or
officer is left with a complicated answer as to why someone would
burn a book deemed holy by 1 billion people. Because of the Koran
burners and 9/11, we were on heightened alert for the day, but, in
the end, the day would end up being a quiet one in beautiful Gardez,
Afghan national elections
18 Sept.: It
is only a week after EID, and the national elections are today. It
has been a busy few weeks getting everything prepared. The unit that
we mentor is responsible for, among other things, supplying the
entire ANA 203rd Corps logistics needs. The 18,000-soldier strong
corps will conduct major operations to secure election sites and the
we have to make sure that these units have everything they need In
the previous few weeks, we issued 500,000 rounds of ammo, 500,000
liters of diesel and enough equipment for 100 polling sites across
In addition, my
unit is responsible for security of their resources. With any
national event over here, comes added risks, and my unit needs to be
prepared. We train them on weapons handling, marksmanship and basic
Almost daily, we
go “outside the wire” to conduct training and advise at our
geographically separated entities, like the ammo supply point.
Watching these soldiers grow in their understanding of military
tactics is one of the highlights of my job. They are now patrolling
their areas, conducting entry control point procedures and taking
The ANA is a
proud and courageous army, and we see them glowing with pride after
we teach them a new skill and they perform it satisfactorily. Thirty
years of war and strife have turned every Afghan into a hardened
warrior. They fear little and are willing to do just about anything
to secure their nation. Basic military skills are second nature, as
most have carried an AK-47 well before they joined the army.
Under the Soviet
system, they were “pushed” their supplies. Under the NATO system
(and most supply systems across the world), they need to “pull”
their supplies by requesting them.
But, the harder mission, something that I spend most of my time
trying to achieve, is a robust and responsive logistics system.
After decades of Soviet influence followed by anarchy and chaos,
simple logistics principles are foreign and counter-intuitive to
most of the population. Simple aspects like forecasting, stock
levels and requesting what they need require daily advising and
election, my team needed to be on the ball and ensure that the ANA
pulled assets early and often. In the end, from a logistics and
security standpoint, the election in our area of responsibility was
a success. As the sun sets on election day in Afghanistan, we take a
long breath, a major hurdle of my deployment is over.
The enemy is real
Sept.: We are sitting in our office on a beautiful Friday afternoon.
Friday is our day off, and we are taking full advantage of it. I am
working my masters, the other guys are shooting darts or doing
paperwork. It is 75 degrees, sunny, and I just got lunch and was
enjoying a burger with cheese, bacon, sautéed onions and mushrooms.
KABOOM! It is a
way off, but it is not coming from the range.
KABOOM! Dat, dat,
dat, dat. That is a bit closer. Maybe it is another range. We go
outside to get better bearing.
Dat, dat, dat
,dat. Zing, zing, clang. That is incoming. This was the first
instance that I heard a bullet. I have heard a gunfire plenty of
times; it is one of the pleasures of being in the military and from
a family that prides itself as anti-squirrel, but I have never heard
a bullet whiz past.
At 1215, a
suicide car bomb tried to enter the ANA base of which we are a
tenant, and then armed insurgents tried to breach. Quickly, we head
back to our rooms, get our body armor and M-4s and head back to our
b-hut. The fire fight is in full force, but it is out of our range,
and we stay in a defended position. Guns on both sides are blazing.
Explosions are going off, ever closer to our position. We head
toward the wall, but are called off as the incoming, although
sporadic and undisciplined, is coming from an inhabited area - there
are civilians present.
were shooting from a civilian location. We could not risk harming
innocent civilians, so we waited. A few more minutes passed gunfire
still incoming and then the most beautiful sound in all the world ,
the roar of 4 Pratt-Whitney F100-220 engines. Two F-15s are here.
(Three years as an aircraft maintenance officer working on F-15Es
makes me nearly an expert!)
They come in low
as a show of force. For a moment, all shooting stops. The silence is
eerie. Then t,he Apaches arrive and begin an orbit over our
location. Flares are dropping all around us; it feels like we are in
a movie. The silence is broken with the occasional single shot, but
the hum of the helicopters and the roar of the F-15Es seem to have
scared the force away.
We think the
battle is over, and after watching the Apaches for a while, we start
to head back to the room. Then, out of nowhere, blaring over the
loud speakers: “Defend, Defend, Defend - Get to the walls!”
My unit was
tasked with defending the command center, the nerve center of the
FOB. So, we rushed over to our positions and secured the site.
Sporadic gunfire begins again. I go to get the latest information
and find that there could be suicide bombers on the FOB. My team and
I take up a defended position around the building and wait.
A few hours
passed. I keep up morale by going to all of the troops and making
sure they are doing well. None of us, including the Army members of
my team, have been in a situation like this. A few hours passed,
the base is cleared, and we are called off from our positions.
In the end, the
ANA went outside the wire and took care of the insurgents and no
American or ANA was injured or killed in the attack.
This is their
country and they took care of the problem; I could not have been
prouder. As for us, we got lauded by the FOB colonel for our defense
of the command center. It seems that the Army really does not expect
much from an Air Force lieutenant and his adviser team when the
fighting starts. It feels good to prove Army colonels wrong every
now and then.
In the quiet
that followed, we were left with time and our thoughts. This was the
first time that the reality of war hit me. I have been outside the
wire around 90 times since I got here, I have dismounted in the
busiest street in Kabul, I have been a gunner and I have interacted
with the local population, but I never saw the enemy. To me, they
But, today, I
saw them. I heard them. Several took their own lives in suicide
missions. Attacking an American or ANA base is a suicide mission.
There are people out there that hate me far far more than I hate
As the adrenalin wore off and we enjoyed a delicious meal at the
dining facility, we ate in silence, not sure exactly what had just
happened. My team is stronger than ever. We would discuss the attack
many times over the coming days, learning from it and preparing for
the next one. We now know, with absolute certainty, that the enemy
ANA is a slow process. Some days, I feel like nothing gets done,
but, looking at the macro level, my team has accomplished a lot in
the 3 1/2 months that I have been here.
every gun, every vehicle, every uniform, and every bite of food the
ANA eat in this area goes through my ANA unit. They are taking their
security and patrols seriously, and are improving every day.
The attack was
an important leveraging tool. We used to influence the ANA to
increase their vigilance and work on improving their fighting
positions and tactics. We are making progress on just about every
front. The progress is slow, but steady.
I really cannot
wait to see what challenges October brings.
Operation Outreach - Gardez update
also an amazing month for Operation Outreach - Gardez.
We got a
total of 80 packages in (30 from Oconomowoc alone). The supplies
were used for the goat herders (see last “Letters from Afghanistan”)
and on numerous ANA missions to build up trust in the Afghan central
sent to another all-girls school.
Thank you so
much for you effort. With winter quickly approaching, if your heart
guides you to, cold weather clothes, especially for kids, is our
next priority. Knit hats, scarves, blankets, and plain jackets will
be useful as winter approaches.
Some member of
the community have sent several packages. Thank you all so much.
Every week, our connexes are getting more and more filled. Do not
worry; we will find a needy family to give everything to.
We are also
working with Operation International Children to get school
supplies. They have come through in a huge way.
Thank you all so
very much for your continued support!