Sojourn to Afghanistan

The following is a series of emails I sent to chronical my experiences in getting called to war. The basic background is that I was, and am a Naval Officer. I spent almost 10 years on active duty flying helicopters, going to sea, living overseas, working logistics, and ended up in the Pentagon working budget and policy issues and preparing reports for Congress. I left that life to settle in Jacksonville and raise a family, and then one day I got a phone call that changed my life. This is that story as told through emails I sent home to my friends and family:

03.12.2006

TO ALL:
I am deeply grateful and humbled by the support and concern our family has received over the past few weeks. I’ve been called duty, and though this was not our plan, I’m going willing to serve, and I will be better able to conduct my mission with your love in our hearts. I’ve now finished the Navy portion of my “processing” and am on the way to an Army Camp in Mississippi to learn about Army things. My basic role will be to train the Afghan National Army in Logistics… I’m currently leading a group of 14 Navy Supply and Medical personnel, and we’ll be in various parts of Afghanistan, preparing the country to assume the duties of National Defense. We have at least 150 Navy folks going, performing various different missions, and I understand we’ll join about 1,000 National Guard troops, and all go over together. I’ll be learning Dari and Pashtu, as well as the use of Army equipment, before I head over in May. I’ll be “in-country” for a year, and will not be back in Jacksonville until at least June 2007, and it may be August before I’m available for beer and war stories. I do know that this will be an incredibly rewarding experience, and I’m sure in the future I’ll count this as one of my most significant periods of my life.

My business is continuing in my absence, thanks in large part to the help of my boss. I have a team in place, taking care of my customers, and I will still have good email access, and will even be able to retrieve voice mail and faxes (the numbers below will continue to work, particularly for messages). I will be working on several license and designation classes, and hope to return with a stronger skill set than when I left. I’ll have a mailing address in Afghanistan soon, and will promulgate that information. I plan to serve as a conduit for all the troops to home, and will be seeking other Florida residents. I know I have phenomenal support, and plan to spread that as far as it will go. We currently have about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that seems to be increasing.

Thanks again, I couldn’t do this without you. I’ll give you more information as I have it. Feel free to forward my emails to those who may not have received them. Raise a cup for me at Starbuck’s and I’ll hurry home.

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03.17.2006

I’ve been in Mississippi for almost a week now, getting steeped in ARMY life. My hair is shorter than it’s been in 11 years, and the days start around 5 am. We’re living in cinderblock barracks, with 17 guys in my room. The bathroom and showers are in a building 100 feet away, which seems like a mile when it’s 45 degrees before the sun rises. I’ve been issued my desert camouflage uniforms and battle armor (helmet and flack jacket), and we’ll start training with weapons next week. We carry our M-16 (machine gun) and M-9 (9mm pistol) everywhere around the camp here… even in the mess hall or barbershop. This is a little different… might be good training for going back to Springfield, though. In general, the ARMY is treating us really well, and is appreciative that we’re going along with them to help. They’re going to teach us how to do the job, and make it back… and I’m appreciative of that. Tomorrow we start defensive driving training with HUMVEEs! I think that will be a blast.

Everything is in flux, but it looks now like I’ll get to Afghanistan in late-MAY. It’s about a 7-day trip, and I’ll have to carry about 200 pounds of gear with me. I’m definitely bulking up, and will need some new suits when I return.

Thanks again, as I’ve said before I couldn’t do this without you. I’ll give you more information as I have it. Feel free to forward my emails to those who may not have received them. Raise a cup for me at Starbuck’s and I’ll hurry home.

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03.20.2006

I apologize if I haven’t reached you yet, but I’m on the way to Afghanistan.  My basic role will be to work with the US ARMY training the Afghan National Army in Logistics… I’m currently part of a group of 14 Navy Supply and Medical personnel, and we’ll be in various parts of Afghanistan, preparing the country to assume the duties of National Defense.  We have at least 150 Navy folks going right now, performing various different missions, and I understand we’ll join about 4,000 National Guard troops, and all go over together.  I’ll be learning Dari and Pashtu, as well as the use of Army equipment, before I head over in May.  I’ll be “in-country” for a year, and will not be back in Jacksonville until at least June 2007, and it may be August before I’m available for beer and war stories.  This was not part of our plan, but I do know that this will be an incredibly rewarding experience, and I’m sure in the future I’ll count this as one of my most significant periods of my life.  I’ve been in Mississippi for over a week now, getting steeped in ARMY life.  My hair is shorter than it’s been in 11 years, and the days start around 5 am.  We’re living in cinderblock barracks, with 17 guys in my room.  The bathroom and showers are in a building 100 feet away, which seems like a mile when it’s 45 degrees before the sun rises.  I’ve been issued my desert camouflage uniforms and battle armor (helmet and flack jacket), and we’ll start training with weapons next week.  We carry our M-16 (machine gun) and M-9 (9mm pistol) everywhere around the camp here… even in the mess hall or barbershop.  This is a little different… might be good training for going back to Springfield, though.  In general, the ARMY is treating us really well, and is appreciative that we’re going along with them to help.  They’re going to teach us how to do the job, and make it back… and I’m appreciative of that.  Tomorrow we start defensive driving training with HUMVEEs!  I think that will be a blast. Everything is in flux, but it looks now like I’ll get to Afghanistan in late-MAY.  It’s about a 7-day trip, and I’ll have to carry about 200 pounds of gear with me.  I’m definitely bulking up, and will need some new suits when I return.

I’ll give you more information as I have it.  Feel free to forward my emails to those who may not have received them.  Raise a cup for me at Starbuck’s and I’ll hurry home.

 

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03.25.2006

It’s been an interesting week at Camp Shelby.  My mother and step-father drove up from the Alabama coast on Sunday for a quick visit.  We’ve spent several days learning about the Afghan culture, and have had a brief language overview.  Dari is the predominate language, and is a dialect of Farsi, which is spoken in Iran.  There are a number of other languages, but most folks should understand it.  Unfortunately, the small amount of Arabic I learned in Bahrain is of no use, except for “hello” which is still “Salam” or “Assaalam Alaykum”.  I had a class on HUMVEEs, and will start actually driving tomorrow morning.  It’ll be a blast, but the ARMY HUMVEEs have poor visibility and I’ll be wearing 60 pounds of Kevlar and a helmet, so don’t try this at home.  I missed Brandon’s 5th birthday Monday, but I think he had a good time.  We talked on the phone twice, and he seems okay.  I had my 37th birthday Wednesday, and got 2 presents from the ARMY… a brand new M-16 A4 (sub-machine gun), and a M-9 (9mm pistol).  The only problem is that we have to carry them everywhere… (to breakfast, the bathroom, etc.), unless someone watches them for us.  We’re now figuring out how to divide up “babysitting” duties for these new pieces of gear.  At least I did manage to get to Hattiesburg yesterday for a steak.

The attached picture is of me at Camp Shelby… getting used to my M-16, M-9, and “Battle Armor”. Afghanistan is about the size of Texas, with plains at about 500 feet above sea level, and mountains up to 25,000 feet.  The temperature ranges from -4 to 118 degrees, and for 120 days during the summer the wind blows constantly, up to 110 MPH.  The Hindu Kush is a majestic range and the Pamir Mountain range, as the highest plateau, is considered “the rooftop of the world”.  They’ve had a terrible drought for the past several years, and there’s not much flowing water now… except when the snows melt in the late Spring, causing floods.  It is beautiful, but the dust and weather make it a tough living environment.

Thanks again, as I’ve said before I couldn’t do this without you.  I’ll give you more information as I have it.  Feel free to forward my emails to those who may not have received them.  Continue to have a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

 

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04.03.2006

TO ALL:[if this is the first update email I’ve sent you… I’ve been involuntarily mobilized by the NAVY, and am heading for Afghanistan mid-MAY for a year to help the US ARMY train the Afghan military].

It’s been a crazy week… lots of early mornings (getting up before 5am) and late days.  My delicate Realtor hands are getting toughened up with gun oil and rough metal.  [note: what I didn’t write at the time, was that I’d gotten my finger caught in a HUMVEE and ripped the end off.  In “ARMY-speak” my comment was that it bit me.  Of course, not wanting to miss any training we did some combat first aid, and I drove with a bloody rag wrapped around my hand, completing my HUMVEE driving qualification.]  I’m losing track of what day it is, since we’re going 7 days a week.  I will have Easter off, and will see my family and kids at my folks’ house near Mobile, AL.  We’ve had an advanced CPR class this week, culminating in giving each other IVs (see photos).  It was actually more fun than scary, and might be a useful skill.  The biggest frustration is the “hurry-up-and-wait” time.  I spent 12 hours on the rifle range Friday, to shoot twice for 15 minutes each time.  Also, the Navy isn’t in control of this evolution, and we’re concerned the Army won’t spend the time to understand our skill sets.  I still have no idea of where in the country I’m going.  I just know I’ll be operating outside of my experience parameters.  Hoo-ah!  [Army speak for really messed up, but you can’t change it, so accept it].

The big excitement here is the awesome iPod my wife and mother-in-law sent for my birthday!  So cool… I had no idea, but of course I’m new to this “free time” concept.  I’ve just downloaded James Blunt’s album, and got the first 2 seasons of “Office Space” from a friend here.

Business is still moving, even though the market has stayed a bit soft.  My partners have gotten 3 properties under contract in the last week or so, and I’ve got 4 new listings coming up.  It’s not enough to stay on the “Top Producer” sign at the office (my name comes down this week), but it helps.

Thanks again, as I’ve said before I couldn’t do this without you.  I’ll give you more information as I have it.  Feel free to forward my emails to those who may not have received them.  If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list.  Continue to have a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

 

 

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04.09.2006

 

I can’t believe I’ve only been gone for a month.  The military mindset has painfully set in, time clearly no longer has value.  It is so unbelievably hard to get anything accomplished, and we’re now resigned to it.  We’ve been working/training about 10 hours a day seven days a week for awhile, and it’s difficult to tell what day it is.  Some of the training is fun, though.  We’ve spent the last week learning how to teach through interpreters.  As comfortable as I am with public speaking, it takes some concentration and practice to change your rhythm.  I’ve done a bit more HUMVEE driving, including getting to drive on dirt roads one night, in a small convoy with my friends and no “adult” supervision.  Today we started land navigation, where we try to find points in the woods with a compass, map, and alternately with GPS.  Tomorrow we’ll do the same via HUMVEE.  It really makes you feel out of shape to trek a couple of miles through the woods with 60-70 pounds of gear.  I’m definitely going to need some new suits when I return.  I’m getting a lot stronger, but I can tell I’m not 18 any more.

Hope all is well in the real world.  I appreciate the emails, and will try to respond when I can.  Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them.  If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list.  Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

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04.19.2006

Great week!  I spent an incredible amount of time frustrated with the general confusion, lack of order, and loss of control over my environment, but I got to see my kids for 55 hours, and didn’t get more than 10 feet away for more than 5 minutes!  Candace and the kids arrived at my barracks here at Camp Shelby on Saturday as I was finishing training across the base.  They watched as 44 of us arrived on our dusty, battered 20 year old Blue Bird school bus to our simple living quarters.  I slung my rifle on my back, dismounted the bus, removed my helmet and goggles, and walked up.  Brandon and Emily managed to recognize their Daddy without hair, and encased in camouflage battle armor, and ran up shouting DAADDDIIEEEE!  The hundred or so fellow warriors nearby turned to watch, and as they told me later, to witness the perfect seminal moment of what family means to a deployed service member.  I don’t know about them, but it certainly was the perfect moment of being a Dad for me, and one I really needed.  I scooped the kids up in each arm and walked over to Candace to give her a kiss and wish her Happy Easter.  Unfortunately, no camera, so you’ll have to picture it on your own.  We then went to my folks place near Pensacola and hugged my Mom, step-dad, sisters, brother-in-law, and nephew. The rest of the week involved shooting, driving, sweating, a little bleeding, and some cursing, but everything was made right last weekend.  The attached photo is from my office, who closed 2 transactions for me this week, and are listing 2 more tomorrow… thanks Vickie!

Hope all is well in the real world.  I appreciate the emails, and will try to respond when I can.  Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them.  If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list.  Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

 

 

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04.25.2006
I’ve got a slight reprieve from hanging out in the woods. We’re spending 9 out of 11 days learning how to defend a Forward Operating Base (FOB) from the bad guys. The place where we’re camping is a mock up of one of the smaller bases set up throughout Afghanistan. It’s good training, hope the real one isn’t so dangerous. We’re really ready to get things moving, and get in-country. Our proficiency with the equipment is moving at a pretty fast pace. We’re just concerned about the Navy being involved in ground warfare. 60 days doesn’t replace 15 years of learning how to think like a Soldier. They’re planning to send 10,000 Navy Sailors to the desert this year, not exactly what I signed up for.

The attached photo is of me taking advantage of some down time at the FOB. The huge pile of gear underneath me (except the black backpack) is everything I have to wear. I’ve also attached a letter my sister, Marea, sent me. Hope you like it.

Hope all is well in the real world. I appreciate the emails, and will try to respond when I can. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

 

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04.25.2006  [Letter from my sister]

 

 

A Promise to a Soldier


I think of you as you march to preserve my freedom, and I promise you this.

While you stand against injustice, I will stand for justice in our community.

While you rebuild cities, I will continue to lay the brick and mortar to give our family and community a safe place to live.

While you help those in need, I will fulfill the needs of our family.

And while you strengthen our country, I will keep your loved ones strong.

So when you return we can combine our strengths and take our family and country to new heights.

We fulfill our duties with parallel hearts.

You are never far from me and we share the courage fit for a pride of lions.

Hold that courage as you go and return with the knowledge that you have the support and love of the pride.


With Love,
Marea Haslett

 

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05.02.2006
I’ve recently gotten several emails which were concerned about the lack of testosterone in my latest updates, yes some were rather berating. Don’t read this if you’re sensitive about the realities of war, this one is for the guys…

I officially had my grenade launcher mounted on my M16 semiautomatic rifle today! You’ll notice it in the “Cigar” picture (I realize it’s a small cigar, but it’s one of the rough hewn, Clint Eastwood type, Backwoods cigars my office mate, Todd Jarvis introduced me to in Jacksonville). It hangs on the front underside of the barrel, forward of the ammunition magazine, with the additional trigger. It will effectively propel a 40mm High Explosive grenade up to 400 meters with a 5M kill radius, and a 15M casualty radius. You are not supposed to use live rounds for training at a distance less than 165M, because of the large danger zone. It’s a bad-ass weapon, and looks pretty impressive. I also have now mounted an awesome laser optical sight.

We’ve spent the last week practicing mounted convoy operations. Mounted, to the Army means in a vehicle. We have been driving around in a caravan of 4 HUMVEEs, with large automatic weapons on top (see me on the M240B… 7.62mm in the photo above), and have engaged targets as they presented themselves. Unless you’ve been hunting on your own land in the South, you’ve probably not experienced the thrill of shooting large from a moving vehicle. To ramp up the fun meter, we would periodically spot an IED (Improvised Explosive Device – “bomb”) in the road ahead. Then we’d quickly (and safely) dismount the vehicle (with loaded weapons), and engage snipers and other insurgent ambush targets with direct fire. One of the great things about this, is not only has the Army given us some great combat survival training, but they have repeatedly been impressed by our motivation, willingness to learn, and performance in these drills. We have successfully completed a number of missions with our Army brethren, and we’re building a good relationship.

After driving the course, we prepared to defend our base from an attack. The enemy was engage for a while from the guard towers, and soldiers who advanced to the perimeter firing line. We then deployed a reaction team, see the “Arkansas” National Guard photo, who went to mop up the invaders. Unfortunately, soon after I snapped the photo, I was a casualty in the mortar attack… see one of the mortars exploding in the last picture. I was waiting to provide medical care (I got to initiate an IV in one of the Commanders the previous day). The instructors wanted to take the medics out of commission, to see how unprepared soldiers would perform.

I had an amusing commingling of my worlds last week… I was discussing the status of a listing with one of my business partners, when a mortar attack began. We laughed as I explained I was hitting the deck to take cover, and would need to catch up later.

I miss you all, but am doing well. I now know that I’m going to Kabul, and will be job hunting when I get there. They have me slated to work in a warehouse right now, but I can’t imagine that’s the right fit. I leave in about 2 weeks, and it takes about 7 days to get there.

Hope all is well in your world. I appreciate the emails, and will try to respond when I can. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.
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05.16.2006
We’re finally done with our training! Most of the last 2 weeks has been packed with very long days, often 6:30am until 11:30pm. We were granted a reprieve at the last minute to head home to give our families one last squeeze, and I am writing this email from Jacksonville. Candace and the kids are still asleep, and I’ll be brief since they need whatever time I have left. I’m driving back to Camp Shelby, Mississippi this afternoon, and fly overseas on Thursday. I takes about 20-something hours to get to Kyrgyzstan, where we’ll wait for the flight into Afghanistan. Once we arrive, we’ll convoy to Camp Phoenix, my new home (should take 6-7 days to travel there). I’ve got 200 pounds of gear I’m carrying in country, and some other stuff I’ll have shipped when I get my address. The flight should be interesting… only every other seat will be filled, due to the excessive weight of the baggage, and we’ll carry all of our weapons (rifle, pistol, knives, etc.) on board. It’s a chartered 767, and I wouldn’t recommend attempting to commandeer it.

I should have good email connectivity when I get there, but there may be a delay in the next update.

Hope all is well in your world. I appreciate the emails, and will try to respond when I can. I’ll forward my address when I get it, and will start coordinating ways to share the support you’ve given us with the other troops and the Afghan people. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home. Emily’s getting up… gotta go.

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The following selection of notes or poema were either not sent home, or weren’t shared with a broader audience… there was no point in sharing this level of danger and anxiety with my family and friends.

 

My wife says I’m in God’s hands.
I don’t know what that means,
But I’m going off to war
And it means many things.

My kids still need their Dad,
And my wife her special friend.
We don’t want to change that
As we watch our reality bend.

I’ve got to keep the faith
And perform as I’ve been trained,
So I’ll return home at the end
And with God’s hands be saved.

5/16/06

 

[written from my 5 year old son’s perspective]

There’s not enough time,
I need another day
To say goodbye,
In my own way.

My Dad has gone,
And I don’t know why,
I just see how
My Mommy cries.

He’s cut all his hair,
And wears uniforms.
He’s talking strange
And isn’t home.

I know he’ll come back,
But I don’t know when.
I think I’ll hug my Mom,
And wait until then.

5/16/06

 

19 May 2006:  I did get a Guinness in Shannon, as we spent 2 hours on the ground refueling our plane on the way to war. After another 8 hour flight we landed in Manas, Kryzygstan at an old Soviet airfield in the middle of nowhere. The U.S. Air Force greeted us as we climbed out of the plane with our bags and weapons, and noticed the foreign aircraft, the snow capped mountains, and the Security Force locked and loaded scanning for any threat. We were no longer at Camp Shelby. One of the security guards was carrying a M203 grenade launcher like the one I have, but he had ammo. The up-armored M1114 HUMVEEs had a M240B machine gun in the turret. It was cool, but you know, a little scary. We had arrived in the combat zone. My 365-day clock and combat pay started that day, 19 May, 2006!

20 May 2006:  Manas was interesting. There was a “Green Bean” coffee house with wireless internet, so I could Skype and email home in a peaceful environment. We also got 2 beers a day at “Pete’s Place.” The beers we ordered were hearty Russian ones which provided plenty of alcohol for the night. After 24-hours, we were back on another plane heading for Bagram Airfield, near Kabul Afghanistan. This time it was a C-17, a huge cargo plane in which we sat sideways, with full body armor (they like to shoot at the planes on the way in). Our descent to the airfield was aggressive, clearly not a commercial flight. Then we were in Afghanistan. Ironically, our first day in-country was Armed Forces Day, 20 May.

We sat around forever, waiting for the busses. While waiting in line for lunch, I overheard one of the locals say “Al Hamdu Lila,” which Candace and I had heard constantly when we lived in Bahrain. Everyone had said this culture was different (Persian, not Arab), but I realized suddenly that it would be very similar. A wave of familiarity crashed over me, and comforted me somewhat. I hadn’t been armed in Bahrain though. This was different. The busses were finally ready, we all drew one magazine with 30 rounds for our M16s, and boarded the 2 busses. It took 2 hours on bumpy dangerous roads to reach Camp Phoenix. We were incredibly uncomfortable, both from the gear and sardine-like loading, and the danger, since we couldn’t get out to defend ourselves. An attack several weeks earlier had killed some Canadians on this road, and we were scared being sitting ducks. We made it though, without incident, and unloaded our gear into dusty tents in a war zone.

21 May 2006:  At about 11:50 the next morning, while we were hanging out, a Vehicle Born Bomb exploded just outside the gate. I was in MAJ Mark Rinaman’s office (a friend from Jacksonville), and the blast shook his CONEX box. We got outside to see a huge cloud of smoke billowing from just over the perimeter wall, and then we ran for the bunkers. He said “Welcome to the shit.” Later that evening, I sent out an email update… not mentioning the attack, but to let people who connect the dots know I was okay. We saw video of the exploded car on CNN the next morning, 2 civilians and the bomber were killed. He was targeting a convoy like the one I had arrived on yesterday, but had prematurely detonated. Wow! We’d experienced our first VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device). I again experienced déjà vu, since the first night Candace and I had moved into our rented house in Bahrain a bomb exploded about a mile away. We felt the concussion pass through the house, rattling fist our front windows, then the rear. After a few minutes, once we’d finally starting breathing again, we poked our heads outside. Our American next door neighbors came out, introduced themselves, rated the bomb as an “8” and invited us in for drinks. They explained that, although that bomb had been a “good one”, it was not a rare event and not aimed at us. The locals, in protesting the Bahraini government would get a full kerosene cylinder, put a tire around it, and light it in an abandoned field. Nice explosion, no real damage. Of course, here they’re aimed at us.

Back at Camp Phoenix, we were pretty shaken, but had had a great wakeup call. Any Navy folk who had not realized we were in a war zone were really clear now. Several guys had been running on the track, and were almost knocked over by the concussion, it was pretty close. That night, shots rang out about 1:50, and then at 3:30 there was an explosion. An IED (Improvised Explosive Device) had been found on our main road outside the gate, and detonated by ISAF (International Service Armed Forces).

22 May 2006:  Things were calm for most of the next day, but then the evening was interrupted by shots coming over the wall. The sirens blared, and again we rushed for the bunkers. I was in the PX with several friends, and the bunkers were full when we got there. Bob Wallis and I crammed into a hole under the stairs of a Soviet building, and waited for the confusion to clear. We heard 2 explosions nearby and hunkered down into a ball for about an hour. The Giant Voice (loudspeakers) warned us to stay in our bunkers, but after a while we unfolded, helped get water and information to the folks in the bunker, and talked with the KBR employees. We never found out what the explosions were, but it seems the shots were coming from a battle between rival American contracting firms (read: mercenaries)… how screwed up is that?

23 May 2006:  We threw all our bags on a 5-ton truck, and got on the back of another for the 7km trip to FOB Alamo at Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC). It was an incredibly bumpy trip, made worse by our anxiety level. We all had our weapons locked and loaded, and were on high alert. The route was “RED”, and we had 2 gun trucks and a third heavy machine gun mounted on the 5-ton with the gear. We arrived without incident, though to an austere but peaceful base, which was our new home.

29 May 2006:  Emily woke up at 1am in Jacksonville on Memorial Day. About the same time an accident occurred in Kabul near the Ministry of Defense, where I was in a meeting. By noon local time a full scale riot had erupted, with 1,500 people, and I had to escape on routes that were turning “BLACK”. We never saw the demonstration, leaving through a back gate, but were on high alert, expecting to have to shoot our way home. By the end of the day, 20 Afghans were dead, and at least another 120 injured, mostly by the Afghan National Police (ANP). Everyone was under lockdown for the next 36 hours.

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Back to the “Public” story

05.21.2006

I’ve made it to Camp Phoenix! I’m on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, and it was a quicker trip than expected. We spent about 70 hours traveling from Camp Shelby, Mississippi to here, with a 24 hour layover in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The airfield at Manas was an old Soviet era military base, complete with vintage cold war posters. Our flight in-country was uneventful, but culminated with a very aggressive, non-commercial airline-like approach and descent. We didn’t see any Soviet tanks until we got to Afghanistan yesterday. Really interesting driving through the bombed out countryside. They’ve definitely seen a lot of war in the last 3 decades. The weather is nice, about 85 degrees, but really dusty in the afternoons. It’s 5,900 feet above sea level, and I’m sure that will hit me as I start running again.

We’re getting settled in this week, and learning about our new jobs. Everything is in flux now, but that should settle out shortly. At least the email/internet is good, and the food is good. There are also lots of people from everywhere. I’ve seen soldiers from Korea, France, Hungary and Romania, but there are many more countries represented than that. It’s going to be an interesting year, just don’t pay much attention to the news, I’ll fill you in on the truth when I return.

Hope all is well in your world. If you see my daughter Emily today, wish her Happy Birthday (it’s her 3rd). I appreciate the emails, and will try to respond when I can. I’ll forward my address when I get it, and will start coordinating ways to share the support you’ve given us with the other troops and the Afghan people. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

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05.3120.06

I’m working now at the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan. I’ll be responsible for the personnel management of 300 U.S. service members, and keeping tabs on another 500 coalition Soldiers (British, French, Canadian, Mongolian, Romanian, and Ghurka). My primary function, however, is as mentor to the Afghan National Army for personnel management of the approximately 15,000 new recruits we’ll train in the next year. Our base is housed in an old Soviet facility, which the Taliban occupied until November, 2001. We bombed the heck out of the place, and now we’re steadily rebuilding it, and using the site to help train Afghanistan’s future peacekeepers. I understand clearly now why this mission is named Task Force Phoenix… since Afghanistan is emerging from it’s ashes. I promise to send a few pictures next week. The area is very dry and dusty, but it is beautiful in some ways. There are numerous mountains near us, and we’re at about 7,000 feet. The food is better here than at Camp Phoenix, and I intend to kick up my workouts.

I’m not traveling much with my job, but I do meet daily with my Afghan counterparts, and have had 2 meetings this week at their Pentagon, the Ministry of Defense. I drove for the first time today, and can’t quite explain how poor the roads are. I have a video I’ll share when I return. It’s like Mexico City on partially paved roads with lots of guns (huge potholes, heavy congestion, and lots of donkey carts). As you’ve seen from the news, I’ve had an exciting week, but we’re okay. I certainly realize I can’t let my guard down, but I’ll be fine. I’m settling in and making myself at home. I do finally have a mailing address:

Jon Singleton (NO RANK)
TAG, 41st BCT
Camp Phoenix
APO AE 09320

I’ve got an espresso maker and grinder coming over, but can always use coffee. I’m setting up a barista to share espresso with everyone here, and also with any visiting CNN reporters, or dignitaries. I had a meeting today which included 3 Afghan Generals and a Defense Minister; and a member of Parliament visited the base. I’m sure it will come in useful. We can also use any toiletries, or Bath and Bodyworks type stuff. I promise to share any goodies.

Hope all is well in your world. I appreciate the emails, and will try to respond when I can. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

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click here for the next in the series

 

Afghanistan Part 2

 

When God guides me back
I’ll see you again.
When that may be
We’ll wait and see
I can’t wait until then.

When God guides me back
I’ll be done with this war
And what it was for
But we’ll wait and see
How I feel about it all then

When God guides me back
I’ll return to your arms
You’ll protect me from harm
But I need Him to see
To my safety ‘til then.

6/2/2006
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06.06.2006

TO ALL:
[if this is the first update email I’ve sent you… I’ve been involuntarily mobilized by the NAVY, and am working in Afghanistan for a year to help the US ARMY train the Afghan military].

It’s been a quiet week here, which has been a nice change. The place where I’m working is far enough away from the Colonels and Generals that we have some autonomy, and are somewhat relaxed. There is a lot of work to do, but we watch movies in the courtyard almost every night, and as lame as it sounds, I’ve enjoyed playing horseshoes. The U.S. command doesn’t allow any Americans to drink alcohol in Afghanistan or Iraq, although the Brits and Canadians do drink on this base, and the French, Italians and Germans have bars and restaurants less than a mile from us. I have realized that if I smoke a cigar, while drinking a near-beer, the nicotine provides almost the same effect. Cigars are in short supply, though. I’m heading back downtown tomorrow to the Ministry of Defense, and will look for cigars at the Coalition Headquarters. The weather’s been great. Kabul is high enough that the average is only in the 90’s during the summer. I’m also close enough to the mountains that the dust storms haven’t hit us directly. But I am going to freeze this winter. It doesn’t really dip below zero, but it’ll be cold walking 50 feet outside in the snow to shower or brush teeth.

I am no longer in limbo. I’ve landing in a great job, which has way exceeded my expectations. There was no firm plan for us coming here, but I seem to have ended up in my briar patch. I’ve been using my post to reach out and find other Navy folks in the country, and am developing an information network. I’m also digging in to my role as mentor to the Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel management system, and enjoying the interaction. The first photo “KMTC S-1” is of (L to R) myself, Lieutenant Colonel Shamsuddin (my ANA counterpart), Ajmal (my interpreter), Chief Warrant Officer David Conrad (who I’m relieving), and Sayyed (who works for LtCol). On Thursday, after an Afghan Army intelligence brief, I’ll have lunch for the first time with LtCol Shamsuddin in the ANA Officer’s Dining Room. Most of the Soldiers here are deathly afraid to eat the Afghan food, but I don’t seem to have that much sense (the preparation is impressively un-hygienic). I loved the food when we lived in Bahrain, and the Afghan restaurants in DC were great. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The second photo “Tank Rubble” was taken right outside our back gate. This was damage we caused to the Taliban in 2001, and I included an Afghan guard posing in front of the destroyed Soviet tank and vehicles. He was really excited to have his picture taken with his AK-47 (he’s much happier than he looks). I’m going to print it and bring it to him. I’m living in a strange world.

Everyone’s support has been incredible, and I hope this email intrusion isn’t unwanted. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

Jon Singleton
Skype: 904.302.6006
Fax: 904.980.9243
jon@singleton-group.com
(this contact information will continue to be valid, regardless of my travels, through 2007)
You can reach The Singleton Team in Jacksonville at: 904.421.3580

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06.13.2006

The winds have started. During the summer, Afghanistan experiences the “Wind of 120 days,” which whips the dust across the dry plains and gets into everything. The dust storms hit in the afternoon, and make being outside difficult. It’s not as bad near the mountains here in Kabul as it is in the lowlands to the South and West. But, it has made it harder to watch our evening movies in the courtyard area. We had a nice reprieve Thursday night, though and watched 2 John Wayne movies (while smoking cigars, of course). First was “The Alamo,” since our base is actually called FOB (Forward Operating Base) Alamo; and then we saw “Rio Bravo” which I really enjoyed. Our work week is based on the Islamic calendar, with the Sabbath on Friday. We work Saturday through Thursday afternoon, and Thursday night is our “virtual Saturday night.” Doesn’t it make you wish you were here, dodging dust storms to catch John Wayne films, cigars and non-alcoholic beer.

I made it to the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force – part of NATO) base down the road last week and found a small selection of cigars at the German PX (Post Exchange). Unfortunately, they don’t sell coffee, liquor, or tobacco products to non-Germans. So I had to muster up enough German to convince a couple of German soldiers to buy several for me, and accept payment in dollars vice Euros.

I’ve safely made several trips around Kabul, and have gotten a couple of greatly appreciated packages from home. The first picture is of an incredible flag that the students of Southside United Methodist Church made and sent to me. Brandon just graduated from the pre-school program there, and Emily will be there for 2 more years. What I think is so wonderful, is that many of our close friends’ children made it for me, and a lot of parents signed it with prayers and words of encouragement. It’s hanging here in my room, and I plan to fly it over the base on the forth of July. The second picture is of a mid-afternoon sandstorm here. Looks like fun, huh? Candace had an exciting week back home, as Charlie Crist stopped by our house as a campaign stop in his race for Florida Governor. She enjoyed it, and we thank our Councilman, Art Shad for including us.

I’ll compile a more comprehensive list of items for care packages over the next week, for both U.S. service members, and Afghan charity contributions. We’re working now to finish construction on a school we’ve built in the neighborhood, and the group here has organized several clothing drives. More on that to follow.

Everyone’s support has been incredible, and I hope this email intrusion isn’t unwanted. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

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06.16.2006

ALL:

In response to questions about what to send for me and my Army and Navy friends here in Kabul, I’ve comprised a list of things we’d most like to receive from friends and family who’d like to send something. We do have reasonable accommodations, and are well taken care of, but like things that remind us of home. We do have some access to basic supplies… There are a number of small U.S. stores we travel to a couple of times a month, when we go to meeting at other area bases, but selection is limited. No one should feel in any way obligated… we’re just having a good time creating a little Americana in this foreign land.

Unlike my previous Navy deployments, we’re here for a year, so we need different stuff.

Here’s my newly revised U.S. care package list (pick and choose, as you wish):

Coffee (Bold, African, Indonesian, New Guinea, etc), Regular and Decaf
Tea (Green, Black, etc.)
Cookies, home baked goods
Cigars (Dominican, Honduran… Corona size or larger)
Basic toiletries, particularly any NEW product (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, shaving cream, body wash)
Kleenex
Sunscreen
Hand Lotion
PILOT G-2 pens
Over the counter stuff (Visine, Sudafed, Ibuprofen, Benedryl, Neosporin, etc)
Wet wipes (good for cleaning off all the dust)
Specialty food products (like hot sauce)
Magazines (Men’s Health, Details, Gear, Newsweek, GQ, etc.)
Hand Sanitizer
Good books (best sellers, classics)
DVDs (any great or new movies, TV series, etc.)
New music (store-bought, copies, or iPod/MP3 selections)
etc., anything that you want to add

Mail to:

Jon Singleton
TAG, 41st BCT
Camp Phoenix
APO AE 09320

Postage will be charged from your city to New York, NY. Military transport handles it from NY to Afghanistan. Total shipping time has been 1-2 weeks this month. Everything goes through military customs. The only prohibited items are:

Alcohol
Firearms
Pornography
… I’m sharing whatever comes in, and we all appreciate the packages (there are about 120 Americans at my base now). The support is great.

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06.24.2006

TO ALL:
[if this is the first update email I’ve sent you… I’ve been involuntarily mobilized by the NAVY, and am working in Afghanistan for a year to help the US ARMY train the Afghan military].

I experienced my first graduation of recruits this past week. This was “Kandak” (or Company) 51, and they had just finished 10 weeks of training. The Soldiers had been recruited from their provinces across Afghanistan, and had come to the Kabul Military Training Center, where I work. Here the U.S. mentors the headquarters and the Boot Camp instructors; the Canadians mentor the advanced Soldier training; the French mentor the Officer Candidate School; and the British mentor combined Company level tactics. Every 4 weeks or so, the process reaches completion, we have an elaborate ceremony, and a fresh group of Afghan Soldiers heads South to the front with the Taliban, et al. Our job here is fairly serious, since these guys will go straight into combat operations. The graduation is fun, though. The first picture is of the Soldiers marching past. The second is a glimpse of the celebration dance.

Everyone who will be working here for the next year has finally arrived. This is a unique evolution from a business perspective. Effectively, the old group is 4.0, and the new group is 5.0, and with a staggered 1-2 week turnover, the whole organization is wiped clean and new again. Corporate history is quite a challenge, as is continuity. I like the people and my place in the organization. I’m a Department Head, working directly for the Chief of Staff, and the Commander of the Training Assistance Group (TAG). I’ve managed to land the one job that allows me to work as the key information broker, which also helps me protect the 19 Navy folks with us. As you may have realized, I have not been happy with the Navy management of this mission, and here I can ensure everyone’s housing, job assignment, leave, pay, and performance evaluation are at least done fairly. Although I miss being home, I am in my element. The old folks leave this next week, and we’re ready to take the reigns and have a little more elbow room.

As part of the transition, I’ve also moved into a single room in a sort of condominium constructed of railroad boxes. This CONEX housing is unique, but actually quite comfortable. The rooms are air conditioned, have internet and will have cable TV. Unfortunately, the rooms are only 56 square feet, like a small stateroom on a Navy ship. I was without my own internet for about 10 days during the move, making this update a bit tardy. The final picture shows my home.

For my last bit of excitement this week, I was just notified I’ve been selected for promotion to Commander. It will be about a year before I actually pin on the new rank, but it’s definitely significant for me. It’s the equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel in the other services.

Thank you for the packages and support, I’ve already been able to help provide some necessities to people here. Let me know if these attachments are to big, and I hope this email intrusion isn’t unwanted. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

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06.30.2006

Hope all is well at home. I really appreciate the emails and support packages from everyone. In some ways I feel more attuned to some of the nuances of my friends’ and family’s lives than when I’m home and focused only on my own world. I realized earlier this week that when this adventure is over, I’ll have spent 4 years away from the U.S. Three of those will have been in Southwest Asia (Bahrain and Afghanistan), with another cumulative year at sea, or in port. The fact that that’s over 10% of my life kind of hit me. But, I think all Americans need to spend some time away to truly appreciate what we have, and what we don’t. I feel some other countries have a stronger sense of value and virtue than we do as a whole, and this experience is changing my priorities, as I realize what things I value most. I hope these updates are helping others see the impact our foreign policy has on people and communities, both to us and the countries to which we’re deployed. I also hope they demonstrate some of the importance of our actions, even though the personal impact and sacrifice may be hard.

I have spent most of my week with my Afghan counterparts. I’ve spent a good bit of time drinking Chai, eating rice and lamb, exchanging small gifts, and hopefully getting tangible work done. For lunch, they have two main menus. Some days they have meat and rice, and others they have rice and meat. There is a salty yogurt on the side (to mix with the rice), the vegetable is usually beans, and they serve watermelon for dessert. On Wednesday’s, however, I’ve now realized they have a special meal (it’s the end of their week, since Friday is their Sabbath). The Wednesday rice has carrots, onions, and raisins, it’s a much better cut of lamb. The dessert is Qicey, which are chilled, sweet, yellow apricots. I’ll have to ensure I don’t miss Wednesday lunches, because I’ve gotten pretty bored with the U.S. Chow Hall. Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but I haven’t gotten sick, yet. The biggest sanitary issue is they don’t like to use soap to clean dishes… or refrigerate the meat. It is fresh… but I’m only brave enough to eat in the Officer’s Dinning Hall. I’m obviously just trying to build up my immune system.

Yesterday, I went to see the ranges we have around here with my friend Kevin. Lots of 4-wheeling through a wild area. It’s a combination of extremely poor villages, minefields, old Soviet hideouts (carved into caves), and shooting ranges (for everything from pistols, to RPGs, to tanks). We encountered one set of Americans, who were being gently harassed by locals, who wanted the brass from their spent shells… while they were still shooting. We talked to them, through our interpreter, and moved them a bit away from the firing line. We then found some Germans, who seemed to want to shoot grenades the wrong direction… toward the road, instead of at the targets. Had to explain the finer details of the range to them.  [What actually happened, is that while we came over the crest of a ridge, a mortar exploded 75 feet ahead to our left.  Kevin was driving, and as he gunned the truck down into the valley, I searched with my rifle to see who was attacking us.  We had another vehicle behind us, and our goal was to find cover and survive the ambush.  It turned out to be some idiots who didn’t see us coming.  They just wanted to blow up some old 82mm rounds.  We tried our best to express our displeasure through a translator, but I don’t think we really got the point across.]  The first photo is of the range area… lots of mountains. You see a range tower and foxholes in the foreground. Our Ford Ranger is on the left. Everything will be covered in snow this winter. The second picture is Kevin and me in front of a huge Junkyard. That’s a row of tanks behind us, and a few buildings that got destroyed in the wars in the background.

Most of the previous Soldiers have now left, and I’m finally getting more maneuvering space in my office. I’ll finally be setting up my desk this week, although I try not to get trapped there much. It’s very close to the Colonel’s office, and I need to spend time with the Afghans. I have a Sergeant First Class, who is there to handle immediate issues.

Condoleeza Rice was in Kabul this week. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s President is having a tough time, and she was here to bolster support. It’s a tough balancing act: he can’t be successful if he’s seen as a puppet of the U.S. Afghanistan also remembers that the U.S. forgot about them after we helped them defeat the Russians in the 1980’s… leaving the door open for the Taliban.

Thanks again for all the support. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them, I just want to ensure this email intrusion isn’t unwanted, we have too many demands on our time as it is. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

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07.04.2006

When I arrived in Afghanistan, my children’s preschool sent me a flag the kids had made during the year. We flew it over the Camp today as part of our Independence Day celebrations (yes, I got approval from the Commander to fly this non-traditional flag). You can see the red stripes are not solid lines, they’re the hand prints of my friends kids!

Happy Fourth of July from Kabul, Afghanistan!
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07.16.2006

My apologies for the delay since the last update. The pace has picked up here dramatically, but it’s been in a good way. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice have both been through Kabul in the last two weeks, and there’s a lot of focus on speeding up the building of the Afghan National Army. I wrote my first letter to the General of the Afghan Army (Bismullah Khan) last week regarding some issues, and am now fully engaged on the particulars. Life is good here, though. The busier I am, the quicker the year will pass. We are also acutely aware, that we must do our job well, so the U.S. isn’t still here in 10 years.

We had another graduation Thursday, and sent about 500 Soldiers to Helmand province, where most of the fighting is taking place. Several classes are underway now, but, the new class starts this Thursday, and we’ll see the a batch of fresh new faces. I spent some time out on the ranges again today, checking out the training taking place out there. The first photo is of some of the ruins, that are now used as makeshift shelter during training. Today, the tanks and artillery were firing. The tank in the second photo, I think, is an old Soviet T-62, which was in production in the 1970’s. The third photo is of me with the town of Pol-e-charkhi in the background.

Hope all is well at home. We all really appreciate the emails and support packages. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.
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07.21.2006

Our thoughts and prayers are going out to our friends under fire in Lebanon and Israel. I’ve visited Haifa, Israel twice, and have civilian friends who are trying to evacuate Lebanon now. I understand living in a war zone a bit better now, and would be terrified if my children were here, and if I wasn’t heavily armed. It’s bad enough as it is. It’s interesting to the Navy Sailors here to watch events unfolding on CNN, and not be a part of them. With the Army, we are dug in, and holding our position. If I was on a Navy deployment, I would have been repositioned to the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, or Eastern Med last week. But, here we continue our mission. I’m glad the US waived the fee to evacuate Lebanon, most of us don’t realize there are approx. 3 million Americans of Lebanese descent, and many visit their families during the summer.

The week here has been business as usual. We’re mostly fighting corruption and bureaucracy, which was passed down by the Soviets, and tempered by civil war. My challenge is to reengineer the Afghan Army personnel management system, while simultaneously helping the Army grow by 500%. Should keep me busy for awhile. General Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (NATO) visited us yesterday, and we have a full docket of dignitaries coming through in the next few months.

I climbed to the top of the “Ghar” this morning… the highest mountain nearby (see the first picture). We started from an elevation of about 6000 feet, and ascended another 1500 feet. Great workout! I’m going to have to get in better shape so I can make the climb more gracefully. It’s kind of like doing a stair stepper for 60-90 minutes, but with gunfire in the distance. It helps you move along better. I’ll send a picture from the top next week. The second photo is a streetside shop. Most of the buildings look like they’re going to crumble, but the Afghans do a great job making these little mud huts work. Also, I had a great curry dinner with the Ghurkas last night. They’re fierce warriors from Nepal, who like to cook and sing when they’re not fighting. The attachment explains their history with the British Army, and the knife they’re famous for using as their primary weapon.

The support packages have been great, and have helped a number of Soldiers and Sailors get a taste of home. The toiletries keep us from having to brave a convoy trip to the nearest PX. Hope all is well. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

History of the Ghurka Khukri

 

click here for the next in the series

 

 

 

Afghanistan Part 3

 

07.28.2006

Hope this email finds everyone well. We’re just working here, trying to stay out of trouble. The bad guys seem to be closing in everywhere, and we’re watching the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah with a cautious eye. My friends have made it out of both countries, but we’re concerned about the ramifications. I don’t think it will spread here, although Al-Qaeda is trying to make the connection with the greater global tension. Hopefully, their previous denouncements of the Shiite community (including Hezbollah) will prevent their success with that strategy. Our global perspective here is enhanced by the fact that we’re working with a truly international coalition. One of my good friends, is an English barrister (lawyer) and was recalled by his Army Reserves as Major in the British Army. I have two other friends who are officers in Canadian regiments, and a couple of other officer, who are in the French Army. We’re also serving here with Romanian, Croatians, Ghurkas, New Zealanders (Kiwis), Germans, Italians, Dutch, Bosnians, Mongolians, Macedonians, Koreans, Australians, and a host of others. Most are on active duty, but some like me, were recalled to duty by their various countries. Any individual sacrifice really is a small part of an enormous response to a global issue.

I’ve had a number of small political battles this week, as the Afghan Ministry of Defense has tried to install an extra layer of bureaucracy. I’ve argued that any additional layer of “the government trying to help” may destroy some of the gains we’ve made. My Afghan counterpart now has permission to skirt the roadblock that would have stopped our progress. I saw David Cameron, the heir apparent to Tony Blair, on Wednesday. It is cool being in the center of something meaningful and exciting. In our jobs we’ve now worked through most of the petty issues, and are now fairly focused on the mission. We’ve got 2 months down, with a lot to go.

I’ve attached 2 photos of me climbing, and at the top of the “Ghar” last week. It’s not the top of the world, but the top is nearby, in the Hindu Kush mountain range. The sun rises over the hill as you’re climbing, and the view is pretty spectacular from the top. Fortunately, it’s not too windy as you traverse the knife edge near the top. I’m going up again next week.

We continue to be greatly appreciative of the support packages from home. Additionally, I need to know if any community or church groups are interested in donating children and adult clothing for those in need in Kabul. Send me an email, and I’ll provide a list of what we need. Hope all is well. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

08.06.2006

Greetings again from the front. I’m am now officially amazed and humbled by the way this email journal has spread, and will be interested to know by the time my work is done here, how many people it’s been forwarded to. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

My main battles here have been philosophical power struggles with the bureaucracy of both the coalition and the Afghans. I’m working hard in a struggle to help the country regain footing, and establish a self-sustaining defense force. I’m not sure those in charge are interested in the US having an exit plan, though. Afghanistan enjoys the money that keeps flowing in, and I think the US enjoys the future benefit of an economically dependent economy. We’re giving the country $2 Billion worth of M-16s and HUMVEEs, both of which are expensive to maintain, and have parts (and ammunition) provided by the US. The AK-47s the Afghan army currently uses are incredibly reliable, but the ammo primarily come from the former Soviet Union. I would think roads and power grids might do more to kick start the economy, the lack of which seems to be the real fuel for the insurgency. At least we finally got some up-armored HUMVEEs to drive here, and I now have driven one through our local war zone. It feels more comfortable having the protection than in our usual Ford Rangers, but they are a more attractive target.

I helped pass out clothing Friday at a school in one of the nearby villages. The kids were great, and I enjoyed talking with them in Dari. They are really friendly and very poor. The first photo is of some of the girls getting clothes and toys. The second and third are of me with some boys who were being goofy and having a good time. The donations we need most are clothing, particularly for cold weather, since Winter’s approaching and will be brutal. Socks, shoes, gloves, coats, long pants and shirts. Please send nothing advertising Alcohol, U.S.logos or flags, or religious symbols or sayings. Any articles should be in good condition. Girls clothes need to be modest, nothing sleeveless, no shorts. Just ship them straight to me:

Jon Singleton
TAG, 41st BCT
Camp Phoenix
APO AE 09320

Hope all is well at home, we really do appreciate the wonderful support and prayers. Feel free to forward my emails to anyone interested who may not have received them. If your email is kicked back by my SPAM filter, resend with the word ADD in the subject line, and I’ll add your email address to my approved list. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me and I’ll hurry home.

08.14.2006

As you know, the war continues. A friend in the States asked me the other day how I felt about the Terror plot that was thwarted in Great Britain. “That’s why I’m here.” I wish I had great hope that our efforts in the “Global War on Terror” can bring a lasting peace, but I don’t. I do know that I’ve got a small part of the effort, and am trying to engage as well as I can. On the local front here, we had a graduation of a class of recruits Thursday. This was a blessed event for us, because the 600 soldiers had already had 3 small riots, and we were glad to see them on their way. I spent the really early hours of Thursday morning ensuring they were paid before deploying to Herat (in the West) and Pol-e-charkhi (near us in Kabul). It was a little exciting, because a number of them were not getting the full amount they expected, and I had to explain through my interpreter why. It actually went really well, but we were prepared for it to get ugly. The only point that got hairy was a bit later, as I was discussing the pay process with about 30 agitated guys, I realized there were no other coalition soldiers around. I was able to resolve their confusion, however, and was glad I didn’t have to resort to brandishing my weapon. I may have mentioned, I’m living in a slightly different world here.

I managed to drag a number of my Navy brethren up the Ghar Friday, and I’ve attached the photo from the top (I’m in the back left, no hat and very little hair). I’m sending it to “Navy Times,” which hasn’t acknowledged the contribution Sailors are making here and Iraq. That oversight frustrates us a bit. The climb really is a great workout, both for your lungs and legs. The altitude (up to 7,400 feet) really makes you work hard. It will be covered with snow by late October, so we’ve got to get the workout in now.

Everything else is fairly routine here. The food is good and steady. I work about 10 hours a day, and have a bit of time for relaxing and watching a movie or reading in the evening. Through Skype, I actually can talk with my family every day, which is incredible. And through email, I get pictures of the first day of school, and other key events. With iTunes, I’ve been able to watch the second season of “Lost,” and I’m looking forward to this season of “The Office” and “Weeds,” a Showtime series I got hooked on. It is strange to think that we have about 9 months to go, but if this were a Navy cruise, we’d be home next month. Also, we would have enjoyed some time in foreign ports, yet I haven’t had a beer in 90 days.

I’d like to send a special thanks to several organizations who’ve recently sent support packages: The River Club, Suwannee, GA; Christ Church, Jacksonville; Watson Realty Corp; San Marco Preservation Society; San Marco Garden Club; and to my numerous friends and family members in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, New Jersey, Maine, Oregon, Texas, Delaware and California. Hope I haven’t left anyone out. We really appreciate the support and prayers and hope to make you all proud. Also, a friend of mine, Mike Rathburn in Jacksonville, has set up a blog to help document this journey. Surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. I’ve been hesitant to go online with this, but I’ll be interested to see your feedback. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.

 

 

09.01.2006

Sorry for the delay since the last update. Everything has been fine here, just a variety of issues with the internet and our schedule conspired to prevent an update. Life has gotten incredibly routine and monotonous. We’re slightly relieved by the fact we’ll have 6 months down next Wednesday, but can’t believe we’ve got 9 months to go. If this were a Navy cruise we’d have channel fever, as we neared our homeport. The redundancy is broken continuously by the confusion and conflicting direction we receive from our higher headquarters, so in a sense that’s a blessing. We start many days in wonderment at the new directives and non-guidance we’ve gotten. The underlying reason is not malicious, it’s just that we’ve been charged with tripling the size of the Afghan Army in two years, and my group is the one who’ll actually make that happen. To accomplish this, we’re tripling the number of boot camp recruits were producing, with very few resources, and our higher headquarters is having difficulty understanding all the moving parts. So we’re dealing with crushing facilities, personnel and logistical challenges in a country ripe with graft and corruption. The roads are dangerous, so travel is difficult. And the military often has a crippling hubris that places the most importance at the highest headquarters and the least at the lowest. This empowers those the furthest away from the problem with the feeling that they are most capable of appointing the solution. It’s no different than government or a corporation. At least I understand it, having served from the flight deck to the Pentagon, and from the Fortune 500 to sole proprietor.

Aside from the frustration, I really do enjoy my job. I feel that I can make a contribution to improve the overall management of this National Army, and that if I weren’t here, no one else would have the will or drive to do the specific things that I will. Being Navy, and having been selected to potentially my terminal rank, I don’t temper my arguments. I’m careful to always be respectful, but I’m not here to please anyone, I’m here to accomplish a mission, and need no recognition other than a ticket home at the end. That’s been greatly liberating, and powerful for me and the group here. It’s been amusing to watch the reaction of Army guys who thought I could be pushed around.

Thankfully, I heading to Qatar for R&R at the end of the month. The timing’s not great, since it will be during Ramadan, and that will limit most activities in town. But, I’m going with my closest friend here, and we look forward to relaxing by the pool and having a beer (although the temp has been in the 110’s and humid… referred to as in the “teens”). We’re doing fairly well on coffee, but cigars, new music and movies are in short supply. Everyone appreciates the care packages, and I’m looking forward to documenting trips to the villages with donations from my family and friends. I’m also surprised and humbled by the fact you have all been interested and willing to go on this journey with me.

Surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. I’m interested to see your feedback. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.

 

 

09.11.2006

We’re having a reflective day here in Afghanistan, on the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. We’ve been raising flags for family and friends for most of the day, and had a ceremony this morning to reflect on the tragedy and the beginning of the global war on terrorism. Our camp flag, now that the flag raisings have been completed has returned to half-mast, not for September 11th, but for 4 recent US casualties. As you’re aware, the enemy activity has increased, and Kabul has gotten fairly dangerous. The situation hasn’t really changed for us, but the news media has finally picked up on it, so now you know, we’re really in a war zone. Of interest to us is that the buildings in which we work were occupied by the Taliban until the US airstrikes in late 2001. Some are now rubble, but we’ve created the birthplace of the new Afghan National Army out of the remains. Symbolizing our efforts to help Afghanistan rise from it’s ashes, the overall Army group for this mission is called Task Force Phoenix. We’re clear on why we’re here and what we’re doing.

The coalition is dealing with a number of issues here, almost 5 years from the overthrow of the Taliban. The opium poppy crop this year is phenomenal. It will produce 30% more heroin than the world consumed last year. This is providing a lot of cash for the anti-government forces, and they’re investing heavily in defeating our efforts. The public infrastructure in most of the country is in bad shape. Roads are poor, electricity is rationed in Kabul, there is a severe drought in the farm lands (although, clearly the warlords provide irrigation for the poppies). The Taliban keep burning the schools, particularly those that educate girls. Finally, President Hamid Karzai does not have control of much of the South and East provinces of the country. So we’ve got some challenges. The world has finally realized in the past few months that the violence has escalated here, as predicted a year ago. I just hope the resolve follows to do the right thing, and finish what we started. I know if we don’t the global Anti-US violence will continue.

In our efforts to ensure future peace here, we applauded the graduation of the Company Commander’s Course last week. I’ve attached a photo of Lieutenant General Kareemi addressing the class of Officers, explaining that they represent Afghanistan’s ability to sustain the Army by providing professional leadership training (I’m not in the photo, in case you’re wondering). General Kareemi is the Director of Operations for the Ministry of Defense, and is directly responsible for building and deploying the Army. The course is run by the French, who I enjoy serving with, and discussing politics. They’re good soldiers and people, even if their government drives us crazy.

I’ll include more info in the next update about the people and life here in Afghanistan. One of my local friends was talking about an “Indiana Jones” themed party downtown this past weekend… some things are relatively normal. And life is good here for us, all things considered.

I’ve added the Task Force Phoenix Newsletter on my blog at www.jonsingleton.com, where you can also read past updates, see the pictures and post comments. Feel free to forward this email to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.

 

09.25.2006

I’m on the way out the door to Qatar for some desperately needed R&R, but realize I’ve been out of contact. Watch, over the course of the next week, the rumors of Bin Laden’s death, the PR campaign Afghanistan’s President is doing (UN, US, Canada), and the friction between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the US.

God Bless, I’ll write again shortly. Thanks for all the support.

Surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. I’m interested to see your feedback. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.

 

10.06.2006

I’ve just returned to Kabul after a relaxing week in Doha, Qatar, where US service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are able to spend a few days by the pool to escape the violence and tension of the combat zone. It was a really nice break, even though the travel was tough. We set out mid-morning last week in an armed convoy, for the hour and a half trip to Bagram Airfield, just North of Kabul. Once there, a friend and I checked in to the R&R office, checked our weapons and body armor, and grabbed cots in the transient personnel tent. The rest of the day was occupied by exploring our surroundings, trying to find a computer and a phone (with less than a 60 minute wait), and shopping for necessities for the trip. We were really excited to find an ATM… we have no access to finances at our Camp, although we can cash checks if we convoy to one of the larger bases nearby. We got half-way decent pizza for dinner, and slept in the tent with about 50 other Soldiers that night. We’d brought sleeping bags, and fortunately it didn’t get too cold that night (high 50’s). The next day, we took a 0745 bus to get to a brief on the trip to Qatar which commenced at 0930, and were then told to return at 2030 (8:30 PM) for a 2330 (11:30 PM) flight on a C-130. This is a great example of the military “hurry up and wait” concept. However, we were really enjoying the complete lack of responsibility (my cell phone only rang twice), so this was fine. At 2330 we boarded the least comfortable aircraft the military has for troop transport, and sat sideways in cramped cargo netting for 5 1/2 hours. We arrived in Qatar to another 3 hours of “processing” before we reached our tents, where we slept for a few hours. It was still all worth it.

The sleeping tents in Qatar are inside of warehouses, so they can be properly climate controlled. The temperature was around 115 and humid while we were there, but the sleeping quarters were about 68 degrees. There was room for about 80 people in each tent, but the bunkbeds were very comfortable, and we each had full lockers. The area was set up to allow some privacy as well, so the sleep was good, and quiet. Each night in Qatar, everyone can purchase up to 3 beers, and there are areas for hanging out, playing pool, and listening to music. Some of the younger Soldiers get discouraged, because 3 beers isn’t really enough to “party,” and the male to female ratio is about 50:1. The pace was fine for me and my mid-30 crowd. We mostly enjoyed being able to lounge around in civilian clothes, although it took some time to get used to not carrying weapons. There was always a slight panic when we’d get up from dinner and feel like we’d lost our pistols.

Since we’re in the middle of Ramadan, there wasn’t much to do in town. Most of the scheduled events had been cancelled, but I made it to the beach, where the water was almost 100 degrees. We hit a mall in Doha, which was very nice. Had a great Arabic dinner and hung out in Starbucks for awhile, where they had my favorite brew as the daily special. It was really refreshing to see all the expatriate (mostly British) families with kids running all over the place. Normally, it would be annoying to have kids running wild, but here it underscored the minimal chance of bombs blowing people apart. The base in Qatar has a Chili’s, a Subway, a Burger King, a pool, a great gym, a spa and miniature golf course. We took advantage of each, and I read 2 books, and chilled. We left Qatar at 0600 (with a 0300 showtime on what was supposed to be our 4th day). Another 5 1/2 hour flight on a C-130, and another night in Bagram. We navigated a particularly explosive Kabul to return to a number of crises in the office, and our rest and relaxation was clearly over. I have survived the week, and my job and employees have grown. I still feel a bit reenergized, and ready to tackle the next 4 months before I get another break.

It seems in the news: rumors of Bin Laden’s death may be exaggerated, Pakistan’s President Musharraf is literally under attack as he returns to his country, and Afghanistan’s President Karzai made his case to the US, UN and Canada and returned home. Iraq may actually be safer than Afghanistan now for US service members, which is good news if you have family members deploying there. We’ve also stepped up our actions here to accommodate the threat. The photos I’ve attached are of me in the back of the HUMVEE on the way to Bagram (strange being in the back, since I usually drive); then inside the C-130; four wheeling across the dunes; and the beach in Qatar.

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.

 

 

10.19.2006

It’s been another relatively quiet week in Kabul. The weather’s definitely getting colder, it’s been in the 70’s during the day and 40’s at night. On Monday the low is forecast for 32 degrees. Fortunately, we have heaters in our rooms and they’re surprisingly well insulated. To give an idea of the routine, most of my day is spent in meetings with Afghans, with my interpreter, discussing personnel issues in Dari, as the population increases at our training center to 6,500 students, and 3,000 staff members. Each Monday, I run a convoy downtown to the Ministry of Defense to plan the next weeks and months of training and distribution of Afghan Soldiers across Afghanistan. That day starts with getting and preparing the HUMVEEs and weapons around 0730. We brief the convoy, and head out on the roads toward downtown. As we drive, particular attention is paid to the pedestrians and other vehicles, as we dodge in and out of traffic looking for aggressive behavior and known IED threats… bombs are being placed in motorcycles, bicycles, cars, SUVs, donkey carts, etc. It’s a bit tense, but the trip is usually over in about 30-45 minutes. This past week, as we were finished with the meeting, and manning the vehicles for the trip back, we heard an explosion nearby. It turned out to be a suicide bomber on a motorcycle, that had been intercepted by the police. Fortunately, he detonated early, and no one was killed. We took an alternate route back, avoided the site, and made it back to safety without incident. Just another day in the “A.” It’s a delicate balance for those of us not used to being in ground combat… the inclination is to not want to leave the safety and bunkers of our base camp. But, if you stay hunkered down, you get stir crazy, and can’t do your job as effectively. All things considered, the month of Ramazan has been less explosive than we feared, and we’re hoping the threat will die down more once Winter really sets in. The camaraderie that this type of experience builds has been eloquently described by the French author, Antoine De Saint Exupery (who wrote “The Little Prince): “We had met at last. Men travel side by side for years, each locked up in his own silence or exchanging those words which carry no freight -till danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same family. They wax and bloom in the recognition of fellow beings. They look at one another and smile. They are like the prisoner set free who marvels at the immensity of the sea.” We’ve gotten so close, that even when we’re sick of each other, we’d want no one else by our side, or watching our back.

This next week will mark the end of Ramazan, and the “Enid” holiday. Most of the country will be spending time with family celebrating the end of this month of fasting and spiritual reflection. The Taliban and other anti-Government forces have been observing this in their own special way, but have not been as successful as they hoped in disrupting things in the face of increasing coalition actions. They are, however making it difficult for us to help rebuild the country. Many of our road building and other projects have been slowed as a result, and NATO has needed to increase combat operations. It does feel like we’re making progress, though, even if it seems to be moving at glacial speed.

To break things up, I went to a German restaurant last night at a NATO base about a mile away, and ate a great meal off porcelain plates with metal silverware (only the second time I’ve had the luxury after 5 months in country). Tonight, the Canadians threw a “Newfoundland” party, complete with Moose meat hors d’oeuvres and music by “Great Big Sea,” which is one of my favorite Celtic Rock bands. Ironically, it reminded me of the States, and the night my wife and I had seen the band play at an Irish festival in Baltimore with good friends. We’re also planning a Halloween party for next week, although our costume choices are somewhat limited. For those of you who joined my wife and I at my farewell party in February, it may be surprising to know that today marks my halfway point of this mobilization… I’ve just got another 7 1/2 months before I return. Yes, this feels like a really long deployment.

The Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy came out to visit with us today. He’s the top Enlisted Sailor in the Navy, and this was a big deal for us, since it signals that the Navy is clearly interested in the work we and the 11,000 other Sailors are doing here, and in Iraq, Kuwait, and Djibouti (Africa) on the ground in combat zones. I’m really glad to see the top active duty leadership addressing our issues, and trying to ensure we’re recognized for this unique Naval contribution. The Navy is running most of the sections here for the Army, and our Colonel spoke in glowing terms about our performance. Maybe now the Navy Times will actually include us on the weekly chart showing where the Navy is deployed (right now there is no indication we’re serving at all in these areas on the graphic).

The care packages have been great, and are greatly appreciated by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and me. Also, great donations have come in from Alabama, Georgia and Florida… although I need more from Jacksonville. So far the count is 43 boxes of clothes, with only 2 from Florida, but I hear more are on the way. We’ll be handing out the Winter clothes in the next few weeks and I’ll send photos. The Afghan Lieutenant Colonel I mentor doesn’t understand why we need to help the refugees, so I’m going to take him with us to hand out the contributions. He wanted a box for his kids, but he his children have shoes, and he needs to see how poor the villages are. Also, we got a great package of coffee, and Starbucks cups and lids from the Starbuck’s in Foley, AL. I’ve attached a photo of the staff with the contents… raising a cup for us. I’ve also attached a photo of me with Lieutenant Colonel Shamsuddin, my counterpart, at a flower garden here at the Training Center… there is some foliage here, it’s not completely desolate, it just requires a lot of water and attention, and my kids got a kick out of seeing flowers taller than Daddy.

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Hope all is well with you. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.

 

Another privat journal entry

20 October 2006: We’re waiting for a rocket attack, which we’ve been warned may be coming. It’s close to midnight and my weapons are clean and oiled, all my ammunition is clean and dry, and my gear is ready. I’ve been reading, but it’s time for sleep, which I hope will be uninterrupted.

 

11.03.2006

Things continue to be quiet (or at least quiet in the news reports) here in my corner of the world. Afghanistan has just finished celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, the celebration of breaking the fast of Ramazan, and unfortunately many of our student recruits have stretched a 3-day holiday to about 12-days so far. The coalition has taken this time to take care of training and administrative tasks, and verifying that the gunfire around us has been celebratory and non-threatening. My Afghan counterpart traveled to Herat for 10 days to see his mother and children, and just returned yesterday. Family is incredibly important in this culture, and he is recharged. We had a party as well last Thursday, but to celebrate Halloween. I wore a suit I had tailored here, and pretended to sell remote mountain-side real estate. I had a good time, and the event was great for morale. This update email is my small world addition

-In the last update, I mentioned the package from Starbuck’s in Foley, Alabama. As I was enjoying and sharing a cup of Kenya AA Bold roast, Captain Miner, who works in the Operations area asked where Foley was. I explained it’s near the coast, East of Mobile, and was seriously affected by Hurricane Ivan, and grazed by Katrina. He then told me, that he had been traveling through the panhandle last Fall, helping repair Home Depot stores following Katrina, and had stopped in Foley. While there, one of the Starbuck’s associates needed help removing part of a tree from her roof and driveway. He and three others brought chainsaws, and cleared the storm debris from her home… and now perhaps we were drinking her coffee in Afghanistan.

-We’ve received another 8 US Navy personnel at our command, bringing our Navy total to 1/3 of the US forces. It’s nice to have a huge helping of our Navy culture infused in this Army command, and we’ve gravitated to many senior leadership positions. This is a good mission for our service since it’s a training vice combat oriented mission. It’s been personally nice for me to get these new personnel, since one of them will be working for me as an administrative Chief. Ironically, we served together 9 years ago in Bahrain, and were a bit surprised to run into each other again here in the desert.

-The season’s have changed to point where I can see Orion rising in the midnight sky, which gives me the same comfort I feel in Jacksonville’s Winter sky. It helps greatly having some things familiar, especially celestial, since the terrestrial here is so foreign. Robert Frost wrote in “The Star-Splitter” of Orion’s pull being so great a neighbor burned his farm down for the insurance money, to buy a telescope so he could see it better. I just want to show my kids how to recognize it.

-Finally, my father and I have run and completed 5 Marine Corps Marathons since 2000. He lives in California, and although I live on the opposite coast, we’ve enjoyed relating our training stories together as we prepare each year for the marathon in Washington, DC. Obviously, I couldn’t run this year, but Dad really wanted to continue the tradition, and registered this Spring while I was in pre-deployment training. I’ve been tracking his progress during the Summer as he’s prepared for the race, which was this past weekend. The only way I could join him this year was to run in the gym at the same time. So, I called him at 7:30 EST, as he was warming up to wish him luck, and then at 5:45 pm (Afghanistan time) I got on an elliptical trainer with a copy of the course map as he was starting in DC. We both did 26.2 miles (with his being much tougher) and finished within an hour of each other. And our tradition continues. I’ve attached a photo of my father and me at the completion of the October 2001 Marine Corps marathon, when the course passed by the recently attacked Pentagon 3 times.

-One last comment, in response to John Kerry, 8 of us were discussing his gaffe last night. We realized that only one of the group (a 25 year-old Air Force Officer) had no Post-graduate degree, and we could have easily been sent to Iraq instead of here. Maybe that’s not statistically significant.

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Hope all is well with you. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.

 

click here for the next in the series

 

Afghanistan Part 4

11.10.2006

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month, the guns fell silent on the Western Front. This marked the official end of World War I (in 1918), in which almost 5 million Allied Soldiers died. In America we now celebrate the day as Veterans Day, paying homage to living Veterans, whereas Memorial Day commemorates the fallen. In the Commonwealth of Nations (UK, Canada, Australia, and 50 other former British colonies) it is celebrated as Remembrance Day and symbolized by red poppies, from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” which has become the focal point of ceremonies across the world remembering this day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die.
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

-LtCol John McCrea (Canadian Army), 1915

I’d like to give my thanks to the many veterans who’ve served and are serving our country. I’m just another on a very long list to accept and carry the torch. The photos are of poppies at Flanders Fields, which is in Belgium, and poppies at a remembrance ceremony. The news of the elections and the power shift on the Hill don’t affect us much here on the ground in today’s conflict. We’re still here to serve and sacrifice, and hope to politicians think about why we’re here and give us the tools and direction to do our job.

Thanks again to those of you who’ve come before me, and serve beside me.

Jon

————-

LCDR Jon Singleton, US Navy
41st Brigade Combat Team
Kabul, Afghanistan
——————————————————————–

I want to hold my kids
be in their wiggly embrace
feel their childish warmth
but in some other place

They are not welcome here
its too cold and hard and dry
and you dont want to have your kids
where the bullets fly

I want to hold my wife
have her lie here next to me
feel sweet rhythm of her breath
as she finally soundly sleeps

But she is oceans away
we wont hold each other tonight
from the other side of the world
we’ll both just grip our pillows tight
(and hope to make it through the night)

11/17/2006
11.20.2006

Hope all is well at home post-elections. We were thankful that we weren’t subjected to the campaigns this year, yet still got to vote. To answer the many questions we’ve received about any change in things here, we don’t expect anything to be different during our tour. With Rumsfeld’s departure, and the change in Congressional leadership, it opens the door for a reanalysis of strategy. We definitely welcome change, but think it won’t happen soon. It was cool to see Charlie Crist win, since he’d made a campaign stop at my house in Jacksonville this summer (visiting a few families of deployed service members). So we’ve now got great photos of the incoming Florida Governor with my wife and kids. I also had a couple of other friends or acquaintances win their races.

Two weeks ago we went on a mission to deliver backpacks of school supplies to Paktia Kot Middle School. As the photos suggest, it is a very bleak environment, with no windows, doors, electricity, plumbing. Some of the classrooms are in UNICEF tents. The kids, however are great, and the teachers are doing everything they can to teach the kids. Jacksonville and everyone else have done a great job of sending donations. So far you have provided over 50 boxes of clothing and school supplies for the Afghan children and some adults. Thank you for your support. Every box for the Americans and coalition reminds us of home, and steels our resolve to be here. Every box for the Afghans makes this country a little bit safer for us, and removes a few potential Taliban recruits. We’re heading to a village in a couple of weeks to pass out clothing, and it’s starting to get pretty cold, so it’s just in time.

I had the pleasure of addressing the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce Military Appreciation luncheon via video last week. My boss and family were in the audience as I let the 1,200 attendees know how important an asset Guardsmen and Reservist employees are. It sounds like the event went well, and I hope the CEOs present treat their military employees well. Honor and loyalty have no greater meaning than they do to a veteran.

Everything’s fine here, we’re just bracing for the holidays and weather. It’s always difficult being away from family, but realize that we’re here because our country needs us to be here. We’ll stand our watch until relieved by our replacements. We could use some extra coffee and chocolate, and keep us in your prayers. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.
12.08.2006

Winter is here! That does mean that walking to the shower in the morning, or the bathroom in the middle of the night includes donning fleece and a hat (see the first photo… the path to the shower/bathrooms). But, we’ve got to weather the winter before we can go home in late-spring. The low’s been in the teens for over a week, and we’ve had several days of snow, which has now mostly melted. The mountains around us are all white, though, and the effect is gorgeous. As you can see from the pictures, it also has softened the harshness of the barbed wire, and reality of the surroundings. Also, hopefully it means the bad guys will slow down their attacks, which should make the next few months a bit more tolerable. We’re doing our best to observe the holidays, although that does highlight the fact that we’re not at home with our families. KBR (who provides our contract services) threw a fantastic Thanksgiving spread, with all the fixins. It was funny to see the huge influx of Italians and Germans (who don’t live here), joining us and our resident coalition partners for the feast. It was also really nice to get a rare 2 days off, since our regular “low-tempo” day is Friday (the Muslim holy day). We’ll be erecting and lighting a Christmas tree in our courtyard next week, and gearing up for Christmas. I think the separation may actually be harder for our families, due to the incessant reminders of the season at home. For us, it’s just colder as we focus on the mission at hand; and we’ve got to make it through Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter before we come home.

It’s been a good week for me, personally. I prepared a 171 page bilingual document last month, outlining the manpower and management changes that we needed to make in order to dramatically increase our production of trained Soldiers for the Afghan National Army (ANA). The manual was fast-tracked up to the Chief of the Afghan Army, who approved it in it’s entirety! We’re now ahead of where we thought we’d be in the approval process, and are working to implement each of the 400 or so recommendations. Also several days ago, I was in our weekly ANA staff meeting without my counterpart, the Personnel Officer, who had gone downtown to another meeting at the Ministry of Defense. When his turn to deliver the personnel report came, I surprised everyone by delivering it myself to the General in Dari. I don’t speak the language well, but the effect was great. My US Army boss asked the General if he could understand me, and he said “why yes, he just told me that Colonel Shamsuddin is in another meeting, and gave his report.” At least it created a stir in an otherwise boring meeting. I may have a future in real estate transactions with Persians in Florida. Speaking of real estate, by the end of the day, I may have finally divested of the next to last investment project I’ve had going since I deployed. I had the misfortune of being involved in 4 real estate projects when I got mobilized, and am really looking forward to simplifying life upon my return. We’ve taken a loss, but it’ll be worth it to not worry about liabilities and unexpected costs. The experience has also helped me learn a lot professionally about cash reserves and motivation required to get involved in real estate investment. I think my advice will be more conservative as I assess those qualities in my clients.

Everything’s fine here. We greatly appreciate the support, care packages and prayers; and can use more of all three. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.
12.13.2006 [A poem to my wife]

I have a letter you wrote months ago
but it still smells like you
the words you shared keep me warm
when the cold has chilled me through
and though I’m half the world away
I feel I’m lying next to you.

 

12.18.2006

Hope everyone is enjoying the shopping and chaos at home. We’ve been really busy here, but it’s been in a good way. I’ve been going back and forth to the Ministry of Defense a lot, but there’s been a nice piece to the convoys. We normally are hard pressed to make it back to our Camp in time for lunch, so we’ll stop at another Camp on the way. Today, for the first time I had a great Thai green curry meal, at the Kabul International Airport. I haven’t had Thai since I had it at my favorite place in Jax in February, just before I left for training. The British Royal Marine with us almost ordered a beer, but decided not to rub our countries’ different policies in our noses. We’ve had tons of dignitaries come to see the training and mentoring we’re doing at the Kabul Military Training Center. Although, Ambassadors and 4-star generals regularly visit, most of us have been most excited by meeting Senator John McCain, who was here Saturday with some fellow Congressmen. In the first attached photo, which I didn’t realize was been taken, I was attempting to explain why a former Naval Aviator was in a landlocked, mountainous desert in ground combat duty. I feel like while I’ve been here, better questions are being asked by the leadership about what’s important to achieving the success of Afghanistan. And there’s something exhilarating about experiencing CNN moments, where you realize you’re at one of the focal points of the world’s attention (especially when it’s not for tragic reasons).

Something you may not understand at home, is that many Soldiers here want to get in the action, engage the enemy, and hopefully emerge victorious. A friend of mine headed out on a mission last week to the Pakistani border, partly to test his mettle. After 2 days of resupply missions, he bedded down at a small Forward Operating Base (FOB) that normally only has 2 US occupants. At 2am, they were subjected to a barrage of mortars and machine gun fire from a mountain slope 800 meters away. He and the rest of his 12 man crew manned the walls, and counter attacked. They were outside the range of M-16s and M-4s, so he used a Soviet Dragonov sniper rifle to mark the Taliban targets he saw with tracer rounds. The 50-cal gunners then engaged each target until the attack stopped. In the end, it appeared at least 30 Taliban had planned to attack, and then storm the FOB. Fortunately, none of our guys were lost in the hour long firefight. He is an Augusta, GA attorney, who was called out of the inactive reserves to come here for a year. He’d always wondered how he’d perform if it got ugly, and is glad he found out. Although I spend a bit of each week out in dicey areas, I’ll be happy to miss out on that excitement, and make it home in one piece. The third photo is of me and another friend on a mission.

We delivered an enormous amount of clothing to a local refugee village last week. I don’t have many photos to share yet, but have included one of a boy carrying his baby brother (who’s wearing shorts and has no shoes) through the snow. Thank you for the shoes! Unfortunately, I was consumed by my traffic control duties, and couldn’t take pictures, although I’ll get copies soon. The villagers were incredibly grateful, and appreciate your generosity. We’ve also been overwhelmed by the care packages sent for the Soldiers. My Aunt Charlotte has become a local legend here, and she and her friends sent 1,000 cookies, which arrived yesterday. We’ve also been blessed by a continuous stream of goodies and necessities to help us prepare for the holidays. Thank you all for the support, care, prayers, notes, thoughts, babysitting, and love.

Everything’s fine here. We greatly appreciate the support, care packages and prayers; and can use more of all three. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.
12.25.2006  Letter to a child who wished for WORLD PEACE for Christmas

Michaela,
Thank you for wishing for peace for Christmas. I’m wishing for peace too. I live in Jacksonville, FL with my wife and kids. Brandon, my son will be 6 in March, and Emily, my daughter will be 4 in May. Now I’m in Kabul, Afghanistan, where I’ve been since last May, and I’m working with the US Army to help Afghanistan become a peaceful place. It’s hard work, and I’m just one of many people working to help the country, but it’s a very rewarding thing I’m doing. I didn’t ask to come here, but I got a phone call one day saying the country needed me. And now it’s Christmas Eve, and I’m about 10,000 miles away from my family. But, the cool thing is that it’s snowing outside, and I think I’m going to have my first real “White Christmas.” The attached photo was taken today in our courtyard, with me standing with “Shamsuddin,” the Afghan Army man I’m helping. He’s not a Christian, he’s Muslim, but I’ve been telling him all day about having a “White Christmas,” and have shared Christmas cookies and Hot Chocolate that were sent here from my family at home.

Afghanistan is a country that’s had war for most of the last 30 years. The American military is here working with the British, French, Canadians, Germans, Dutch, Australians, and people from many other countries doing many things. We are rebuilding roads and schools. We’re training the Afghan police and military. We’re helping the Afghan President and Parliament pass laws, and provide peace and prosperity. I now have friends from many other countries, and have learned to speak some of many other languages. This will probably be one of the most important things I’ve done in my life. Unfortunately, I do miss my family terribly, but I will get to visit them next month. I chose to stay here for Christmas so some of the younger Soldiers could go home for the holidays instead. My kids don’t understand yet, but they will when they’re older. My absence this year will make next year’s Christmas incredibly sweet, and has helped all of us understand that the family is the most important thing of all. My work here is to help the families in this country have the peace we have in the USA.

The most important thing the Soldiers here need is your Christmas wish, and for more people to feel that. Unfortunately, making the world a peaceful place requires a lot of work, and that’s why we’re so far from home right now. But, we’re trying, and really appreciate your caring and support for us while we’re here. Thank you so much for the gift from your heart, it’s really touched me this Christmas.

Merry Christmas,


Jon

—————————————————————————————–


Lieutenant Commander Jon Singleton, United States Navy
Training Assistance Group, 41st Brigade Combat Team
Kabul Military Training Center, Kabul, Afghanistan

12.25.2006

Merry Christmas,
We may be 10,000 miles away from home, but at least we have a “White Christmas” here in Kabul, Afghanistan, it’s been snowing now for 24 hours, and everything is covered in snow. I know many Americans want the troops to all be home, but we are here in the pursuit of peace, and have much more work to do. Although it’s hard missing the holidays with family, I chose to stay here for Christmas so the younger Soldiers could go home. I opened presents over the phone with my wife and kids last night (today will be too crazy for a focused phone call), and have opened presents from the rest of my family this morning. Even Santa found me, hanging a bag of goodies on the door to my CONNEX room that I found this morning. I think this whole experience is going to make our next Christmas sweet in a way that civilians can only imagine in childhood dreams.

The spirit of Christmas is alive and well at our camp. Thanks to the employees of a Starbuck’s in Foley, AL, the dining facility will be brewing 6 lbs of Christmas Blend today. For the record, Starbuck’s stores and employees in Jacksonville, FL; Foley, AL; and Texarkana, TX have donated almost 40 lbs to us here at Camp ALAMO. I have about 20 coffee drinkers coming through my office each morning enjoying and appreciating this and the donations that come from family and friends. We also received a Christmas donation of 400 cigars from Swisher International, based in Jacksonville. Over 2,000 cookies have come in from you, and I’ve delivered them to both our US forces and our British, Canadian, and Security Force Soldiers who rarely receive packages or sweets. Thank you for your thoughts, prayers, packages, donations, babysitting and everything.

Last night, by the campfire, I enjoyed the best cigar of my deployment, a Cuban Cohiba, that arrived from “Santa.” I’m listening to a Christmas CD that a friend sent, drinking Christmas coffee, and wishing you all a great Christmas.
01.12.2007

Lots of news of changes this week in prosecuting the war on terror. Unfortunately, everyone needs to understand it’s likely to get worse, before it gets better. This week we’ve been involved in air strikes in Somalia, and have moved aggressively against Iran. The US Embassy in Greece was rocketed this morning, and other actions are sure to be below the news cycle radar. Things will get interesting with the change in leadership at the Central Command. I served under Admiral William Fallon as we launched air strikes from the USS Theodore Roosevelt against Slobodan Milosevic’s government in the former Yugoslavia in 1995. He’s very hands-on, and should quickly learn what is happening on the ground.

Our efforts in Afghanistan have been more subtle. From our perspective it seems as if things are moving very slowly, until we reflect on the changes since we arrived 8 months ago. The bureaucracy can be extremely frustrating, yet during the course of my year, we will have moved most of the Afghan National Army to a force able to move tactically and strategically, in ethnically diverse units. On the national level, they will have graduated to computer automation in the next few months, facilitating tracking and analysis of issues on an almost comprehensive level. This from a nation that’s literacy is less than 20% and where few have ever seen a computer. These are huge accomplishments, but are almost impossible to see when focusing on the daily obstacles. To report on some of this, I was interviewed on a radio program (Troop Talk) on Sunday that was broadcast in Jacksonville, as well as across CA, TX, FL MN and OH. And it looks like I may join that and other shows periodically. You can hear the show by going to the 01/07/07 podcast at http://www.trooptalkradio.com/listen.php (I’m in the first hour).

We have received fantastic donations through the holiday months and plan a clothing and school supplies drive in coming weeks. I’m way behind on individually thanking everyone, but will get to you at some point. Hopefully, we’ll have better photos to share this next time. The events tend to be a bit chaotic, and it’s difficult to balance the role of benevolent donor while staying alert to security issues. It doesn’t leave much time for taking pictures. Your generosity is greatly appreciated.

I also really appreciate everyone’s help keeping my real estate business going for the year. Although gone for 10 months, my team and I closed $4.2M in sales. It’s been a tough year in real estate, and I’ve been concerned about rebuilding business when I return next summer, but it’ll be much easier with the help and support I’ve received while deployed. Thank you!

Everything’s fine here, just a bit cold (5 below zero’s the record low so far). We greatly appreciate the support, care packages and prayers; and can use more of all three. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.
01.22.2007

Things have been really busy here. I’ve been traveling throughout the Kabul area, and visited Herat, near the Iranian border last week. I’ll be out of contact again for several weeks as I travel, so don’t be alarmed by the delay in getting the next update. I traveled to Herat with my Afghan counterpart, Shamsudin, my boss, and several others from our Afghan leadership team to see the operations there near the border. It was a great trip, and I only wish that I could have spent time in the town, instead of just at the military facilities. There are some beautiful places and historic sites, that unfortunately we just can’t experience. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return in 10 years and enjoy a bit more than barbed wire and military chow. The photo is of me and my traveling companions at the airport in Herat, hoping our trip back to Kabul wouldn’t be canceled.

The bad guys have gotten testy lately, as the NATO forces have shut down many operations. It appears they’re under pressure to attack, and they haven’t been terribly successful. To step up the attacks, one would be suicide bomber attempted to attack our nearby base, Camp Phoenix last week. As he hit the main gate, his vehicle failed to detonate. Before he could connect a secondary detonation cord, “Rambo”, an Afghan fixture at the front gate, pulled him out of the car and handed him over to US authorities. Rambo’s family was killed by the Taliban, and since Camp Phoenix opened, he has volunteered to stand guard daily at the front gate. We finally gave him a uniform this year and stared paying him a stipend. Several US Soldiers stand with him every day, and he assists in looking out for the unusual, and in putting an Afghan face on our efforts here. He’s always supported the US, and has felt he owed a debt for our exiling the Taliban. Last week he repaid that debt. The car was packed with 250 pounds of explosives, and 10 US Soldiers were nearby as he thwarted the bomber. After the area was cleared, the bomb did detonate, and the entire front gate was destroyed, with the blast shaking my office 5 miles away. His actions were captured on tape, and the US is considering how to best reward him for the lives he saved.

Everything’s fine here, and our tour is starting to wind down (about 100 days left in-country). Thanks again for the support, care packages and prayers. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home.
02.20.2007

I’ve finally returned to Afghanistan from a quick trip home with stops in Kuwait and Germany. It’s amazing how long it takes to move around a combat zone. The cool thing is you can easily go to Baghdad or the Horn of Africa, but it takes time and a lot of patience. I left here on a Tuesday morning. I’d arranged a convoy of 2 Humvees to take three of us from my camp to Baghram Airfield, which is about an hour and a half drive Northwest (just North of Kabul). We arrived to check-in around 11:30 AM, found a bunk for our gear, and grabbed some lunch. There was a briefing for us at 2 PM, and then we turned in our weapons, etc. about an hour later. The next required event wasn’t until 7:00 AM the next morning, so we chilled. After breakfast, we boarded a bus at 7:00 AM to go to the passenger terminal. We arrived an hour and a half early for our flight briefing. At 9:00 AM, they told us our flight to Kuwait would be around 9:30 PM, with an 8:00 PM showtime. We did what we could to pass the time. We flew out as advertised, and arrived in Kuwait around 2:00 AM. We spent the next 2 hours unloading the plane, waiting for busses to take us to the base, and in transit. When we got to the main base in Kuwait, we spent another 3 hours getting “welcome to Kuwait” briefs, and guidance on what not to do upon arrival back in the States. For example, after 9 months of driving in a combat zone, I’ve gotten really good at driving in the wrong lane, and playing chicken with oncoming, but unarmed traffic. My wife really didn’t want me demonstrating this in our mini-van. Finally, around 7:00 AM, I chose sleep over breakfast, and we had dinner before our next muster at 6:00 PM. At 6:00 PM, they told us to show back up at 8:00 PM, and then we flew out at 11:30 PM. We flew 6 hours (over Iraq) to Frankfurt, Germany. After a 3 hour layover, we flew 10 hours to Atlanta. The flight to Kabul had been in an Air Force C-17, which has pretty good room. The flight to Atlanta was in a chartered DC-10, with the seats installed closer together than my knees could handle. I slept some, but it was rough. We arrived in Atlanta at 8:00 AM, and wound through customs and the military entry point for about an hour. A number of emails have circulated following a 60 minutes story on the USO greeting arriving military in Atlanta and Dallas with large groups of applauding travelers and volunteers. I walked through the applause with fellow service members from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the effect is extremely powerful. The first instinct is to wonder “Wow, I wonder what those guys did to deserve that greeting,” and then realize “hey, I’m one of those guys.” Once through the gauntlet, I went to the ticket counter. My flight to Jacksonville wasn’t for another 8 hours, but fortunately I was able to change it to 12:00 PM. By the time I arrived, I was exhausted, but still somehow had plenty of energy to get through the concourse to my family. I don’t think I plowed anyone over, but really can’t be sure, as seeing the kids clouded all rational thought. As I reached the main part of the airport, Brandon, my son saw me from 50 feet away and started a “road runner” sprint into my arms, with Emily trailing him. He later said “Daddy, I’ve never run that fast before.” I collected both kids, dangling 3 feet off the ground and walked several feet to close the gap and kiss my wife. It was the first time I’d seen the 3 of them in 9 months.

We had a great time playing, both at home and briefly at Disney World. Candace and I got some time, but the focus was completely on the kids, who don’t really understand all of this. The longest I’ve been away from home was 4 days before this. At least now, after my visit, they both know that things will be normal again soon. Also, they were 2 and 4 years old when I left. They’ll be 4 and 6 when I return, since I’ll have missed everyone’s birthday twice. At least I’ll only have missed one Christmas and Anniversary.

The trip back was similar, but with a 56 hour layover in Kuwait. I’ll try to never complain again about a 4 hour layover. I’ve returned with new energy, and the realization that the final 3 months in-country will go quickly. I’ve got several projects that I’ve got to complete before my departure, and will be focusing on that, rather than the fact I’m still away from home. I am, however, beginning to start planning my return to real estate, and will soon add to my current portfolio of 8 listings. I’ll be back at work in July.

Everything’s fine here, and thanks again for the support, care packages and prayers. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home
03.02.2007

I’m definitely starting to feel that my time here is winding down. This is a wonderful feeling, and will be great for my family (and friends) who’ve been concerned for my safety and the separation from my wife and children. It’s bittersweet, though, because there are a number of things I haven’t been able to accomplish. I’m well aware that the full measure of my (and this Brigade’s) contribution won’t be known for years. I’m also clear that in broad terms, I’ve accomplished my goals of enriching myself, and contributing to the emergence of democracy and security in this country, which will support our national security at home. But, I’m in the middle of one last big project, and am beginning to realize I may not have the time or energy to finish it. I’m also aware that I have to start planning to revive my business at home, while maintaining focus on continued survival in a war zone. Just a juggling act.

If you’ve sent an email or package in the last 5-6 weeks, bear with me. I had 600 emails when I got back from leave, and some awesome packages. My personal computer was off-line for awhile, and I’m working through the emails,etc. In regards to packages, although I’m down-sizing, there are a number of new Sailors and Soldiers here who will continue to appreciate your donations. The list of items is still available under “Care Packages,” and they should be mailed to :

Jon Singleton (or unit Commander)
TAG, 41st BCT
Camp ALAMO
APO AE 09320

This way they’ll be given to the service members even after I’m gone.

Unbelievably, you have sent almost 400 boxes of donations for Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen through me, including over 1,000 cigars and 150 pounds of coffee. Additionally, you’ve sent 100 boxes of clothing and school supplies which have been donated to the Afghan people, mostly to children. For Christmas, I received, shared and posted about 500 Christmas cards, and I’ve been able to obtain and distribute about 1,000 calendars and 1,000 postcards to my fellow comrades. About half of these donations have been through organizations, such as OperationLoveBox and AnySoldier.com, but the really good stuff came from you. Thank you!

I know Afghanistan has been at the top of the news cycle for part of the week. This is mostly media driven, and regardless of events around VP Cheney’s visit, the mission continues and hasn’t changed. Getting noticed by the news is generally a bad thing, but hopefully it will provide us with more resources to finish the job properly here in Afghanistan. This is a complex place and requires time and money to get it on it’s feet. We’re obviously not quite there yet.

Everything’s fine here, and again we really appreciate the support, care packages and prayers. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home
03.09.2007

Afghanistan is a complicated place. Ajmal (pronounced Ash-mal’), my interpreter is the sole bread winner for his family. His father was a Colonel in the Army and was killed by the mujahideen in the 80’s during the struggle against the Russians for Afghanistan. The Russians were doing what we’re doing now, although using different sometimes brutal tactics, and his father was part of that new establishment. I’m very aware that since America supported the mujahideen (as the enemy of our enemy) in their victory over the Russians, we were also partly responsible for his father’s death. He’s been working with the American’s here at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) for 4 years now, since the Special Forces were here. The Taliban and al-Qaeda used this facility, and my office is next to the one used by Osama bin Laden. My counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel Shamsuddin (pronounced Sham’ su-deen) was mujahideen, as was Osama bin Laden until 1988. Twenty years ago, we all may have been on different sides, but today we’re all working for the same cause. Ajmal feels that his father was also supporting the same cause, working for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan, and doesn’t see the shifting alliances as odd. I’m glad, because we have to trust each other completely and at times he’s closer to my rifle than I am. As the oldest, he’s supporting his Mother, two sisters and brother through his job translating and interpreting for the coalition. At 26, he earns as much as a General in the Army and it would be impossible to do my job without him. We believe his mother is dying of cancer and he’s running the household, while funding his siblings’ education. It’s a significant burden, but in typical Afghan fashion, he thinks nothing of it.

Shamsuddin laughs at me when I discuss danger or any current fighting. He tells me this isn’t fighting. Fighting was just after the Americans came in in October 2001, with hundreds of Soldiers pushing from one mountain to the next, with bombs exploding in front and behind you. Shamsuddin’s background is artillery, so he really does have expertise in blowing things up. As a tie in with current events, Mullah Obaidullah who was just captured in Pakistan, had been his prisoner in November 2001. He had tied him up, and was in the process of gathering information when he received the order not to hurt him, since he was a mullah (or member of the clergy). Ismullah Khan, the warlord then governor of Herat (on the western edge of Afghanistan) finally directed Shamsuddin to release him. Mullah Obaidullah later negotiated the surrender of the Taliban to the Northern Alliance in 2002. Ismullah Khan is now the Minister of the Interior.

We had a great clothing and food drive last Saturday, and I’m trying to get the story printed in the Jacksonville Times-Union to thank everyone for our success. Several tons of donations were sent, including some from our friends children’s birthday parties, Southside Methodist, Episcopal Middle School, Boy Scout Troop 106 and others, the Girl Scouts Gateway Council, Burdette Ketchum, and Watson Realty, among others. We went to a refugee village near us, where 185 families who’ve been displaced by war are living. An international organization also allowed us to deliver 2 tons of rice, flour, and other food items, making this the most successful relief mission I’ve participated in. As you can see from the photos it was snowing like crazy, which made it more fun, and a bit safer since the poor visibility kept others from seeing us as a target of opportunity. The first photo is of me with some of the kids. In the second, I’m posing with one of the village elders in front of the village

Everything’s fine here, and again we really appreciate the support, care packages and prayers. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home
03.23.2007

We’ve just celebrated the Persian New Year “Nawroz”, which means “New Day” in Dari. The Persian calendar is a solar calendar which begins on the vernal equinox, and the new year is 1386. On a more personal level, we’ve been very concerned about violence in conjunction with the holiday, and explosions masked by celebrations. Fortunately, it’s been quiet. We’ve actually had a couple of days off because Afghanistan has taken this time as a national holiday, which has been awesome. Luckily my birthday fell on this time off, and that made the long weekend even better. We’ve spent today reading and catching up on domestic chores. I made sun tea in a jar I scavenged and cleaned and we’ve socialized outside. It’s been nice having time to recharge.

We’re trying to finish up our major projects with the Afghans, and prepare to hand over the operation to our replacements. It’s pretty disruptive having a complete personnel turnover of an institution, and the HR piece alone is huge. Since that’s my part to handle, I’ll be really busy until the last day. On the Afghan side, the numbers of recruits we’re training keeps getting bigger. By the time I leave, we will have mentored the training of 25,000 Afghan National Army Soldiers and Officers. Since the total number in the Army is only ~35,000, that’s a huge number. The first photo is of myself, Ajmal, and LTC Shamsuddin (both of whom I wrote about in the last email) distributing Soldiers after the last graduation. I’m also trying to finalize my business plan for returning to real estate in Jacksonville in 4 months. The tricky part about deploying when you work on commission, is that even though your employer keeps your job waiting, there’s no guaranteed salary to return to. So my wife and I have been planning on a 6 month period of little income. The pieces are starting to come together, but it’s complicated. I did have the opportunity to submit my first offer on a property in awhile this week, thanks to some very loyal customers, and I’ve referred out a couple of new listings this month.

Last weekend the Florida Times-Union ran an article I wrote regarding the humanitarian mission we conducted at the refugee village. You can read the article here: http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/031707/neR_8565776.shtml. Jacksonville was not alone in donating clothing and school supplies for Afghan children, or for US service members. I’ve received donations from 13 states, and we all really appreciate everyone’s contributions… especially the latest influx of Girl Scout cookies. We’ve all had to increase our workouts, though to balance out the Somoas and Thin Mints. In the second photo I’m wearing my body armor, while ordering an Espresso at the Green Bean coffee shop at Camp Eggers in downtown Kabul. Thought you’d enjoy seeing a little civility in a combat zone.

I’m heading to bed early tonight. Vanderbilt, my alma mater plays Georgetown in the NCAA “Sweet 16” at 3:30 AM local time, and I’ll be watching it on the Armed Forces Network. GO DORES!

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home
03.31.2007

Today is the birthday of the prophet Mohammad (pbuh) on the solar calendar, and the Persian world is praying and reflecting on his life and teachings. Interestingly, it’s also the anniversary of his death, and Shia (Shi’ite) Muslims particularly celebrate the symbolism of the circle of his life. In Islamic teaching, the prophet offered humanity a perfect example in all facets of life, much as Jesus has for Christianity. His God, or Allah, is the same God Christianity and Judaism observes; and in Islam, Jesus is revered as a prophet, but not as the messiah. Muhammad lived among his people and taught them about the belief in one God, ethics in everyday life and the importance of education in leading an exemplary life. In this regard, some of his famous sayings are “Seek knowledge even unto China”, “acquire knowledge, for he who acquires it performs an act of piety; he who speaks of knowledge, praises God: he who seeks it, adores God.” He also declared: “The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr.” [information gathered from the Ismaili website – http://www.amaana.org/ismaili.html]. We can only hope that reflection on his teachings can help stem the incredible violence ravaging Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine today.

We’ve had another nice weekend at Camp Alamo. A professional Air Force band “Maxx Impact” played here Thursday night, and put on a great show. We had food provided by the coalition, including the Italians from a Camp down the road, and everyone had a great time. It would have been nice to have had real beer, and our sweethearts with us, but hopefully we’ll enjoy that soon. It’s amazing to see a band play, and be able to have a shared experience with them, such as being deployed together to a war zone. My wife and I saw “Hootie and the Blowfish” near the peak of their career in Bahrain, and then partied with them afterwards. In a war zone, the band doesn’t hop on their tour bus and escape at midnight, because there’s nowhere to go. As they wait for the armed convoy to leave the next day, they hang out as fellow normal people, and it’s pretty cool. The band also played at the local village, and for the Afghan Soldiers at the adjacent Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC), see attached press release.

Although my time is getting shorter, I’ve still got a ton of things to do. I’m responsible for all the paperwork for over 100 people (Army and Navy) to demobilize and head home. Additionally, I’m pushing for another 40% increase in the staff of KMTC before I leave. I sent several requests to the Afghan Minister of Defense Thursday, and will be spending much of April developing a comprehensive plan for new manpower requirements as our training mission has changed. I’m also spending time working out so I’ll have something tangible to show for this year as an accidental warrior. All this is designed to keep time moving, but it already seems to be slowing down. I fear the last two months of this fifteen month deployment may be the longest.

I hated to see Vandy robbed of a win last week to Georgetown in NCAA’s “Sweet 16”, but at least Georgetown was good enough to progress to the “Final Four”. Of course, I’ll be cheering for Florida tonight against UCLA. GO GATORS!

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read past updates, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home
04.08.2007

Happy Easter!
My wife and I are excited, because today is the last major public holiday I’ll miss. As we started this endeavor 13 months ago, we broke the time into milestones. Some have always been important to our family because of holiday rituals, such as a neighborhood parade and cookout on July 4th, or a regular gathering with kids and parents after trick-or-treating on Halloween. Other are more obvious because of their place in the public psyche, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. At the end of this, I will have missed lots of holidays, one anniversary, and everyone’s birthday twice in my immediate family (including my own). Fortunately it’s almost over, and we can’t wait to get our life back to normal shortly after the end of the school year. We have planned to have some time for me to reintegrate with the family, and realize there will be some new routines that we’ll all have to get used to. The kids are looking forward to me coming home, but won’t trust for awhile that I’m home for good. And then I’ll have to restart my business.

My team of U.S. Soldiers is beginning to disband. The lady who’s been in charge of my office for U.S. issues is flying home, hopefully in time to see her son who’s heading to Iraq. She’s also returning to plan a wedding to a fellow Soldier she met here, just one of the many positive things that have happened during this deployment. There are a few more Soldiers leaving before I do, but the Navy contingent is almost next in line, and we’re trying hard to tie up loose ends.

My main celebration of Easter was actually on Good Friday. Since Friday is normally our day off, we had an Army chaplain meet a group of us on top of the Ghar (a 1,500 foot mountain nearby), where we held our service. The turnout was great with 40 people participating, and the chaplain’s assistant jokingly complained that he can only get 4 people in a service at 1:30 in the afternoon in the chapel, and here at 6:30 in the morning on top of a mountain, we had 40 show up. But, location is everything and the service was powerful. Sadly, there was no wine, just grape juice. The first photo is Chaplain Werner during the service. The second is a friend an me near the peak.

Hope all is well at home, and I hope your Easter has been enjoyable and reflective. I look forward to being there soon.

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read them, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home
Another private journal entry:

16 APR 07: It’s been a strange day. The convoy was dicey, and I’m not sure why. Part of the problem was with the radios and equipment. As we rolled outside the gate, we got split up by another SECFOR convoy, which meant the two British trucks couldn’t really see us. Visibility was poor, because of a dust storm, and they were following us because they didn’t know the way to MOD. Traffic was terrible, and I spent most of the time carefully scanning the road and rooftops, with my hand on my rifle ready to jump out shooting. It was one of the few times I haven’t been wondering if we’d be attacked, just when. Strange feeling, but something in my experiences over the past eleven months told me things weren’t right. We actually made it to our meeting safely, and made it back without incident. We did have one man run out in front of the HUMVEE causing us to skid ten feet before stopping short of hitting him. We were sure he was going to detonate a suicide vest and destroy the front of our vehicle. But he didn’t. It was just a tense day. Ten Afghan policemen were blown up just north of us. Maybe we appeared ready for action, and they chose a different target. I’m just glad to have made it home to my camp. I wonder if I’m just on edge because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I really want to make it home in one piece. But, my weapons are clean and ready to use. I can’t let my guard down this close to the end. It’s almost 10pm now, and I’m really looking forward to a quiet night. We watched a movie outside and smoked cigars, and are now praying we won’t have a rocket attack. Just life in the war zone.

 

04.27.2007

First things first, my tour is not being extended to 15 months “boots-on-the-ground”. The news from the Pentagon regarding extensions only applies to Active-duty Army. Fortunately accidental warriors such as myself, will be able to return to our normal lives as planned after only 15 months (training, plus 12 months boots on the ground). I should be home just before Memorial Day, and will spend June reacclimating to family life and traveling.

We’re definitely winding down, and preparing to turn over everything we’ve been working on to our replacements. I’ve got about a week of work left, and will leave Camp Alamo. We’ll spend several days doing paperwork here, and then fly to Manas, Kyrgyzstan for a few days. From there, we’ll fly to Norfolk, VA (hopefully with a brief stop in Shannon, Ireland for a pint of Guinness), where my demobilization will take a mind-numbing 12 days. I can’t wait to return to the world where once again, my time has value. We’re loading up our iPods and planning to work out so we don’t go crazy with all the hurry-up-and-wait time. It’s hard for me, since as an entrepreneur at heart, I can’t stand doing nothing.

Complicating the turn-over, things are still going full-speed here at the Kabul Military Training Center. I’m working on my fifth change to the manpower structure, and can now claim to have increased the authorized personnel from 1,400 to 3,400 Afghan Soldiers, NCOs, and Officers. We’ve trained 25,000 Soldiers since I arrived, out of about 40,000 currently in the Afghan National Army (ANA). Through our mentorship, the ANA have taken ownership of planning and management, and I know they’re more capable as a result of our efforts. I’ve also learned that I have a fairly good capacity for learning languages. General Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was here this week, as was Admiral Fallon, the Commander of the Central Command (encompassing Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East). I had a chance to talk with Admiral Fallon, with whom I served in combat off the coast of Bosnia in 1995 when he was the USS Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group commander and I was flying helicopters in combat support.

Afghanistan is gearing up to celebrate Mujahideen Day tomorrow with a huge parade in Kabul, which may receive world-wide coverage. It commemorates the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Since they won’t let us carry weapons to the parade, and we don’t trust the security, we won’t be in attendance. On the humorous side, we’ve been amused by a widespread rumor that people are catching a fatal virus through cell phone calls from Pakistan. The Minister of the Interior actually made several public announcements to calm fears of answering calls from strange numbers, and the story made our local military paper.

Hope all is well at home, I look forward to being there soon.

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read them, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home
05.04.2007

I’m almost at the end, but not almost home yet. I’ve been packing, trying to get all my gear in 2 duffle bags, a rucksack, and a carry on, and I’ve finally got it. I’ve given away a ton of stuff this week, and am ready to go. I’m very excited to have gotten through my year here, and to still have tested negative for Tuberculosis (it was a very real possibility). In about 36 hours, I’ll leave Camp ALAMO for Camp PHOENIX, 5 miles away. There I’ll reunite with the other 150 Navy folks I trained with in Mississippi, and we’ll spend a couple of days ensuring our paperwork’s in order. Then we’ll go to the Kabul Airport and fly to Manas, Kyrgyzstan, where we’ll wait a couple of days for the weekly flight back to the States. I should be back on US soil about a week from now! It’s going to take about 10 days in Norfolk to process us out, and finally, I should be home by Memorial Day weekend. My iPod is loaded with tunes, the last 3 episodes of Lost, and a couple of other TV shows. I’m working on building my patience level back up, because I’m going to need it for the trip. I’m not sure when I’ll have internet access, but I’ll let everyone know when I’ve made it to Norfolk.

The Afghans have been great, and they presented me and several others with certificates of appreciation at last week’s Soldier graduation ceremony. In the first photo, I’m holding up the certificate in front of the 1,600 graduates and saying “Jawand” which in Dari translates roughly to “for life.” The second photo is of my boss and I with the guide-on standard (flag) he made and presented to me. I’ve served as the 41st BCT, TAG S-1, so this is the flag for my group. I’m sure you can appreciate our lovely bullet-pocked office building in the background.

Hope all is well at home, I look forward to being there soon. Let me know if you’re in Norfolk, unfortunately I’ll have some free time as I’m trying to get the Navy to out-process me faster. I’ll keep you posted on the trip.

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read them, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home

05.17.2007

Well, I’m on my final flight home, and excited but a bit anxious about everything. It took six days of travel to get to Norfolk (with two days of briefings and clearing customs at Camp Phoenix). In the final days, two people I’d worked with were shot a mile from our camp by a deranged Afghan Soldier (they’re still alive, but two of their coworkers, who I also knew, were killed). And, there were two rocket attacks along the road to the Kabul Airport. We were really glad to get out of there. With the travel and 5 days in Norfolk, I’ve had some time to decompress, but realize that after trying to be a warrior for the last 14 months, I’m not quite back to normal yet. I’m just greatly relieved to get back to my kids and family, and can’t wait to just be Dad for awhile. The kids are vibrating with excitement, and I’m sure will talk non-stop about all the new things they can do until they pass out from exhaustion. It’s been a long year, they were 2 and 4 when I left, and they’re 4 and 6 now.

It surreal being back in the States. The grass and trees and salt air are great (we went to Virginia Beach one night, and the Naval Base is on the bay). People really don’t know what to say though, since all the news is so negative. The reactions while I’m in uniform are fairly strong, and mostly are very positive. A pilot bought my coffee at Starbuck’s this morning, and then turned out to be the Captain on my flight home. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at home, but at the same time am a bit nervous. I’m fortunate in that I didn’t see heavy fighting or trauma, and believe I contributed to the development of Afghanistan, but I’m looking forward to getting past all the stories and back to my pre-war self. Don’t worry though, I do have a lot of stories to share.

My business is already on the road to recovery, but I’m putting off full-time work until July 1st. I’m returning to about eight listings and one property under contract, and will be implementing a new business model I’ve sketched out over the last year. I’m looking forward to getting back to the industry and will be also doing a bit of speaking to professional groups about this past year in Afghanistan and how to keep your business going. On the Navy side, I’ll be back to drilling with Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, where hopefully I’ll be able to provide lessons I’ve learned from deploying with the Army in a combat zone. It’s been a good experience overall, and maybe I’ll write about it someday.

I would be really interested to know how many people these emails have been forwarded to. Between my wife and I, the address list is about 350, but I think the real number of people who’ve shared my experiences is much higher. If you could, send me a note and just let me know how many folks you’ve regularly forwarded these to. I really appreciate that so many people have been interested, and writing about the experience has been cathartic and has helped me use you all as a touchstone of normality. Reading about births and job changes has reminded me that my world consisted of more than barbed wire and bullets, and thankfully that the ubiquitous weapons were temporary.

If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read them, see the pictures and to post comments. Feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it. Raise a cup of Starbuck’s for me, and I’ll hurry home

05.30.2007

This is probably the final update. I’m finally home, and have had a little over a week to settle in. My kids are ecstatic to have Daddy back to play with them, and my wife is relieved to let go of some of the reigns, and the anxiety that’s gripped her during my time in the war zone. Candace wanted to share this photo with you of me cutting the faded yellow ribbon that’s been on a tree outside our home. I’ve returned to some of my old haunts, and things haven’t changed much. Some new babies, new spouses, and new jobs, but overall I feel like I’ve just hit the pause button on my life for 15 months. My friends did a great job setting up a homecoming, and it made me feel like a hero coming home. About 15 friends and coworkers met me at the airport with my family as I arrived, and then another 50 friends and neighbors lined our street as we came home. I had no idea they were so media savvy, but thanks to their efforts, you can see the footage and read the article from the First Coast News (http://www.firstcoastnews.com/video/player.aspx?aid=100119&bw=) and the Florida Times-Union (http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/051807/met_170711975.shtml).

The homecoming has been a bit overwhelming, but things are settling down. I’m spending almost 6 weeks getting back to being a father and husband, and visiting family and friends before jumping back into the grind. It’s a bit surreal going from dodging suicide bombers in Kabul to dodging careless drivers in Jacksonville, but the transition is going well. As I get back to work, I’ll also spend some time speaking with groups about our efforts in the Global War on Terrorism, and how businesses and Reserve and National Guard employees can professionally survive a mobilization. I’ll be converting my website to real estate in the next couple of months (it won’t happen immediately though, if you still want to read the postings) and will update my other main site (www.RevitalizeJacksonville.com) with my current and new listings.

I’m looking forward to getting back to real life soon, but am going to wait a little bit longer. I’m really appreciate of the unbelievable support, packages, and prayers which have all helped us deal with this unexpected deployment. It’s given me a new perspective on priorities in life, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with family and friends. Thanks again for all of the help. If you’ve missed updates you’d like to read, surf to www.jonsingleton.com to read them, see the pictures and to post comments. If an email of your’s is kicked back by my SPAM filter, just resend with the word “ADD” in the subject line, and I’ll receive it and add you to my list.
12.25.2007

I’ve been home for a little over 7 months and have meant to send a recap for months, but allowed numerous opportunities to pass because the time wasn’t right. I can’t describe how great it is to be home for Christmas. I spent last Christmas near Kabul (see attached email), and was proud to serve while some of the younger guys went home for the holidays. It was hard missing everything at home though, but that has just made this year unbelievably sweet. The kids are phenomenal, and Candace and I are very thankful for what we have. All I’ve really wanted this year is to be home with family, and you can see from the attached picture things are pretty much back to normal.

It does seem like Christmas has started badly in Jacksonville. We had a huge explosion in a chemical plant that killed several people including a member of our church, who actually lived in my house years before we moved here. A neighborhood church burned down Sunday morning, but thankfully no one was hurt. We have a very close community, though and will all do what we can to ensure the affected families are cared for. More than anything, I have a different perspective. Family and friends can help us through anything, whether the challenge is combat, cancer or traffic.

My Afghanistan blog will be back online soon, and will be included on my website (www.JonSingleton.com) as I relaunch it in the next few weeks. I keep getting constant reminders of my time there, and my interpreter Ajmal actually called me yesterday from Afghanistan to wish me a Merry Christmas. Business is looking good, and we hope the interest rates will continue to drop and spark more real estate activity this Spring. I really appreciate all the support during my sojourn overseas.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your families.
04.11.12009

Men’s Easter Breakfast speech – Southside United Methodist – 4/11/2009

DISCLAIMER — This is an emotional spiritual testimony, and I’m a somewhat uncomfortable witness. If you think you’ll be offended by this Christian message, stop reading. Otherwise, I’m happy to share my story.
I’d like to thank Dale for asking me to speak today, and everyone for coming, including my son Brandon, and my father-in law Les Bennett. Many of you know me, but for those who do not I’m Jon Singleton, a member of Southside Methodist, along my wife Candace and children Brandon and Emily. We live several blocks up the road here in San Marco. I’m a local Realtor, and also, as I’ll elaborate on, a Commander in the Navy Reserve.

It’s a strange irony to be standing here speaking on Holy Saturday, because I’ve always had a problem with serious Christians, and never really understood this whole Faith thing intellectually. Although I’ve spent most of my life in one form of limbo or another, I’ve always maintained the illusion I’ve been in control. I’ve seen Faith as a crutch, as something for people without confidence in themselves or their abilities. Or, more pertinently as the dogma of those without the ability to think and discover for themselves.

Part of the irony is that my father was a Presbyterian minister, although not by the time I was old enough to really start to know him. He was drawn to the clergy by a strong calling to help others, and spent time fighting bookies in the East Bronx, and later battling racism in Birmingham, where I was born. By the time I was 6, he was at odds with his white congregation because of his activities in black churches in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Although still ordained in the Presbyterian church, he left organized religion, and unfortunately was not able to share it’s positive attributes with me. I grew up attending churches infrequently, and without much spiritual foundation. When I was 13, I moved to rural North Georgia, and was surrounded by people who were convinced I needed saving, but who couldn’t adequately communicate the reason with me, and didn’t really understand it themselves. I felt they were small minded folks merely parroting the rote drilled into their heads. I now realize I just wasn’t ready to hear their message.

As I said, I’ve always been in control, or at least thought I was. Though life has continued to present obstacles and setbacks, those minor failures always catalyzed new resolve for me to overcome them with vengeance, and greater success. I’ve always felt I was the guide, and my confidence and ability to conquer hardship was all I needed. In college I faced my first major challenge by almost failing and losing my Navy scholarship to Vanderbilt in my Freshman year. I persevered and graduated on time. I later left Naval Aviation under a dark cloud, and was sort of excommunicated to the Middle East for a couple of years. I returned to a great assignment at the Pentagon. I then left active duty and moved to Jacksonville, and struggled to find a new career. I finally hit my civilian stride and rose to the top 1% of the real estate profession. I started buying investment and renovation properties, and putting together bigger deals. In 2005, I purchased (and mortgaged) a million dollars worth of real estate in Springfield, and was projecting hundred of thousands of dollars of income for 2006. God had a different plan.

I’d never understood how God’s plan might be different from mine, or why he would be particularly concerned with me, or whether he was a specific entity, or how it all worked. I also never really understood Christ, as the son of God, or man. I always suspected that maybe some Roman or Greeks, or Germans, or Brits had used his story to garner power for themselves. I’d never accepted Jesus Christ as MY personal savior. Instead I’d gleaned wonderful philosophical lessons from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddism, Hindu, and Shinto, but hadn’t really grasped the big one. I’d confused morals with ethics, and didn’t understand you’ve got to have FAITH, and it’s based on SPIRITUAL not intellectual belief. And, maybe you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to believe, and stop focusing on external influences. You’ve got to know, that there is a plan. I always thought relying on faith meant losing my choice and free will. I thought it meant giving up and giving in. I now know it means I can release the anguish anger and anxiety and actually live.

On February 4th 2006, I got a phone call around 10:30am. It was one of those great Saturday mornings with the family when you’re trying to figure out the funnest thing you can do with the kids. We’d eaten and were caffeinated, and the day was ours to explore. The voice on the other side of the phone said “Commander Singleton, you’re being mobilized to go to Afghanistan for at least 12 months… and then he said a bunch of other stuff… it’s and IA assignment in support of OEF for NAV ELSG… Commander, do you understand what I’m saying?” At that point Candace, who knew it was a phone call from the Navy, and had seen the color drain from my face, asked what in the world was going on. I waved her off (one of the few times in my marriage I’d actually done that), and digested what I’d been told. As a reserve Commanding Officer, I’d made that phone call to a number of Sailors, but not for a 12 month deployment, and not to Afghanistan. The country is landlocked, and is 650 nautical miles from the nearest navigable body of water… and I was going 6000’ above sea level to a mountainous desert carrying a rifle. It didn’t make sense to me.

The next 4 weeks were a blur, as I cancelled every commitment I had in life, and then on March 5th, I said goodbye and left. I joined 174 other unhappy Sailors in Norfolk, all shell shocked and confused, angry, sad, etc. Of all the Navy friendships I formed and forged, 2 were particularly remarkable on my path to Christ. On about day 3, I discovered that Sam Roundtree had received only 3 days notice to come from a very senior civilian position in Japan (which he was able to extend to a little over a week with considerable effort). I asked how in the world did he manage to deal with this. “Jon, we cried about it and prayed about it, and I realized, I guess God’s got something I’ve got to do in Afghanistan”. I’d never considered prayer to deal with things, and this thought and message bounced around my head for, well, several years now. The second was Kevin Bivens, who helped me gradually wrap my mind around Faith and Fate in guard towers, hunkered in bunkers, around campfires, on the road and under fire. Through him I came to understand the quiet trust and calm that only He can bring.

Many of you know of some of my specific experiences in Afghanistan. You can see the pictures of the slideshow and can read my day to day journal online. Looking back, the most significant part seems the enormous chunk of time it involved, to which my son and father-in-law in the audience can attest. As the pictures on the screen show, I was engaged. I was in the neighborhoods and the villages. I spoke Dari and Pashtu with the Afghans, and poor Spanish, German, French and Italian. I was completely engaged in the military, driving Humvees, and bearing big weapons (although they never did give me grenades for my launcher). I interacted aggressively with the coalition, and was a reasonably good Soldier. I realized I was there for a reason, though unsure what it was.

Although, I received awards for my military and humanitarian service there, I don’t know that that’s why I was sent. I do think I was able to do some good for both the Afghan Army and the refugees, and was able to raise awareness in the U.S. of their plight through my email journal and clothing drives. I don’t know that that’s why God really sent me, though. I think it may have been in part because I was never able to understand Faith in a book, or release control on my own. I suspect it may have been to start a year long journey that would lead me to the top of a mountain in Afghanistan on Good Friday 2007. We could only scale the 1,500 foot climb on Fridays because the Gharib Ghar was located on a huge shooting range in our backyard. So COL Lyman arranged for a Good Friday service instead of Easter Sunday, and Chaplain Werner came from Camp Phoenix, and we started climbing around 6am. At the top, Chaplain Werner started talking about Jesus and the cross and the dry desert and mountains around Jerusalem (where I’ve been). And the people wearing robes, and persecuting those who believe in other Gods, and the lack of electricity and convenience, and the goat herders and shepherds, and we were transported back 2,000 years. He talked about Faith in God and forgiveness of sin, and I was filled for the first time with an immeasurable amount of love and hope and faith and acceptance that I was here for a reason and that it was to serve my Lord. Some of us are thicker than others, and I couldn’t hear it here, so He sent me there. And then clearly back here so I could share it with you.

It’s changed everything. I have trouble with some of the praise songs and sermons now. It’s just that when I hear “When I’m found in the desert place/Though I walk through the wilderness/Blessed be your name” or when Bruce preaches from Psalm 23 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I will fear no evil,” it all hits a little close to home, because it’s not a metaphor for me… I’ve wandered in the desert and have been in the valley of the shadow of death, see, I have pictures to prove it! But the message helps, and it does because it helped so much in Afghanistan. There were times when I’d talked with my family, but was about to go on a convoy on a mission. We’d hear a large explosion in one direction, and double checked the mounted weapons on the HUMVEEs and ammo. We briefed the crew and rolled, waiting for an attack, but praying we’d come through it. I realize at that point I had finally developed a deep faith, because I’d accepted that God would bring me home. At some points I wasn’t entirely sure whether it would be my home, back to my family, or His home, but I knew it would be alright. That feeling has stayed with me as I’ve faced financial fear in the past year as my profession’s been hit by the global economic meltdown. I know it’s going to be okay. Now I’m not sure about the specifics, about my car, or house, or health. But, I know God will bring me home. And since my wife is now at my side spiritually too (or I’m finally at hers), I know we will be fine together. Praise God for bringing me to Him, and for letting me share this with you. Thank you.

 

 

 

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