Monday, July 21, 2014

Westover reservist brings cheer to Kabul orphanage

by Lt. Col. James Bishop
ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs

7/21/2014 - KABUL, Afghanistan  -- Three military vehicles rolled out of the International Security Assistance Forces compound on Friday, packed with more than 800 pounds of clothing, toys, and school supplies for Afghan children. And stuffed in the pockets of several ISAF troops were lollipops for the children.

The humanitarian items will be shared by PARSA, an organization serving the disadvantaged in Afghanistan through a wide range of programs, and Shamsa Village, an orphanage housing 52 children in a residential setting.

This was my first trip outside the cement-walled ISAF compound in three months. So I loved seeing everything: the chalk art along the ISAF's blast barriers depicting a dove holding an olive branch, the man selling watermelons from an ancient wooden cart, the herd of lambs being shepherded down a main thoroughfare in Western Kabul, the burqua-clad women. We drove around a traffic circle which had a massive sculpture of the open Koran in the middle. A few miles later, we passed people living in the remnants of a crumbling cement building that looked like it had been torn apart by bombs. We also passed the lovely, gated Baghi Babur park, its green hills filled with trees.

I was apprehensive about going. The day before we left, insurgents attacked the Kabul airport from several directions, and the ensuing gun battle lasted four hours. There had been recent rocket attacks, vehicle-borne bombs and a motorcycle suicide bomber near our compound in Kabul. After we left the relative safety of the Green Zone, traffic jammed to a halt and a motorcycle raced toward us, the driver glaring. But he passed by, and we weaved in and around traffic to the residential compound.

At the PARSA camp within a Red Crescent compound in Western Kabul, residents, teenage Afghan Scouts, and a dozen ISAF members formed a bucket brigade, transferring goods from two SUVs to a storage shed, laughing as they pitched bulging bags down the line - a sack of stuffed animals, baby clothes, shoes, a box of notebooks, blankets - under the hot Afghan sun.

"I loved being able to help the most innocent victims of the long war here," said Dr. Catherine Warner, Director of ISAF's Telecommunications Advisory Team, who organized the delivery. "Living and working at ISAF, we are limited in how much we can personally help the Afghans, but if we make a difference to even a few children, it's worth the effort."

Soon a group of 10 young children appeared, shy at first, then excitedly gathering around Lt. Col. Bridget Reynolds, who passed out lollipops. Although it was during Ramadhan, children typically do not fast. One savvy child filled his right pocket with lollipops and came back for more.

"Show me your pockets," Reynolds said. He opened his empty left pocket, smiling.
"It felt fantastic to get out of ISAF, see the kids, and take [needed items] directly to the organizations that support them," Reynolds said. "We got to meet the organizers and see their dedication."

After helping to stack the donated goods, PARSA project manager J. Reese Hume said the gifts will be helpful for both his organization and the orphanage they partner with, Shamsa Village. Hume, who is from the United States, has been living in Afghanistan for six years.

"I don't make nearly as much money as I could in the states," he said, "but I've never enjoyed a job as much."

What is the most fulfilling part to Hume? "Spending time with the kids," he said, some of whom come from "a horrible background" including opium villages, households where the children are tortured, sold for their bodies, or sold as slave labor.

It felt good - great - to know that the children here, at least, were protected in the compound. They would learn to read and learn a trade. The smiles were genuine from both the children and the adults. One Afghan interpreter, whose name I have to withhold for his own security, came out on his day off to help translate.

After filling the storage area with donated goods, some Afghan Scouts gave a demonstration in knot-tying.

The unloading complete, we passed out more candy, spoke with the scouts, played with four Labrador Retriever puppies, and visited the Afghan Garden Kitchen. The cafe is staffed by Afghan hospitality-industry trainees, another aspect of PARSA's program, which seeks to help older orphans and impoverished adults transition into the work force.

After an hour, it was time to head back. As the ISAF members prepared to leave, they shook hands with the older children, receiving a smile and hearty "Thank you" from each child.

(Lt. Col. James Bishop is deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan. He is Chief of Public Affairs at Westover Air Reserve Base.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Cape Ray Continues Neutralizing Syrian Chemical Materials

By Terri Moon Cronk
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, July 18, 2014 – Teams aboard the U.S. ship MV Cape Ray continue to neutralize materials from Syria's declared chemical stockpile, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters today.

Personnel aboard the ship began the chemical materials neutralizing process in international waters earlier this month.

“As of this morning, the crew has neutralized just over 15 percent of the DF [methylphosphonyl difluoride], which is a Sarin precursor,” Kirby said. “This amount has been verified by the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”

The second material to be neutralized is sulfur mustard, also known as HD.

The neutralizing technique uses field-deployable hydrolysis systems that mix the chemicals in a titanium reactor so they become inert. A safe pace of neutralization operations will increase gradually, Pentagon officials said. The process is expected to take about 60 days, officials added.

Italian officials loaded 78 containers of the Syrian chemical materials aboard the Cape Ray on July 2, and the U.S. government-owned ship left Gioia Tauro, Italy, and headed to sea with 600 tons of chemicals.

Syria delivered 1,300 metric tons of chemical materials for neutralization. The Cape Ray teams will neutralize 600 tons, and the byproducts, called effluent, will be sent to Finnish and German facilities to be destroyed, officials said. The remaining 700 tons of material will be delivered to commercial and government facilities in Europe and the United States for neutralization.

While the leftover neutralized material will be considered hazardous waste, it cannot be used to make chemical weapons, officials said.

Joint chemical weapons teams from the OPCW and the United Nations began securing Syrian chemical sites in early October, and the Syrian government gave up the last of its declared chemical stockpiles June 23.

The MV Cape Ray was modified and deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to dispose of the chemical agents in accordance with terms Syria agreed to late last year.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Afghanistan Dominates Dunford’s Confirmation Hearing

By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2014 – America expects its Marine Corps to be second to none, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee today, and if he’s confirmed as the service’s next commandant, he vowed, the Marine Corps would continue to live up to that expectation.

Dunford, currently the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, would succeed Gen. James F. Amos as Marine Corps commandant if the Senate confirms his nomination. The commandant also serves as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Marine Corps is the smallest armed service in the Defense Department and serves as a naval expeditionary force in readiness, Dunford said. “You expect your Marines to demonstrate courage, honor and commitment,” he added. “You expect a lot of your Marines, and you should.”

If confirmed, Dunford said, “I will ensure that Marines continue to meet your expectations and the expectations of the American people.”

The confirmation hearing was friendly, and many senators praised Dunford’s work in Afghanistan. The majority of the senators’ questions were about Afghanistan, and that country was also on the general’s mind.

“I’d also like to recognize the 1,817 Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and the nearly 20,000 who have been wounded,” he said. “Each day, the men and women of the United States forces in Afghanistan work to bring meaning to their sacrifice.”

When Dunford took command in Afghanistan 18 months ago, more than 100,000 American service members were in the country. Today, that number is 30,000, and it’s due to drop to 9,800 by the end of the year. “I think one of the most significant outcomes of our time in Afghanistan has been that we put pressure on the terrorist networks and al-Qaida and prevented another 9/11,” the general said.

As the numbers of coalition and partner troops declined, the security situation in the country actually improved, the general said, crediting the development of capable and credible Afghan forces. “In 2002, there were no effective Afghan security forces,” he said. “There is today an army and a police force of over 352,000, as well as another 30,000 Afghan local police that are capable of providing security to the Afghan people.”

Afghan forces gave the Afghan people the security needed to conduct elections in April and June, he noted. That security has also provided other signs of progress in the nation, he said. “We have, today, over 8 million children in school -- 2 million of those, young girls,” Dunford said.

Advances in health care, communications and road networks also have taken place, the general told the senators. “But I would say that the most profound thing that exists in Afghanistan today that didn’t exist in 2001 is hope,” he added. “The Afghan people actually have hope and confidence in the future that didn’t exist under the oppression and the tyranny of the Taliban in 2001.”

Dunford said he agrees with President Barack Obama’s decision to draw down U.S. forces to 9,800 through the end of the year. The president’s plan calls on U.S. force levels then to be reduced by half at the end of 2015, and essentially having a military presence only in the U.S. Embassy by 2017.

Post-2014, U.S. forces will be on the ground to conduct counterterrorism operations and to train, advise and assist Afghan forces, Dunford said. These plans still must constantly be validated, he added, and if the assumptions underlying these recommendations change, then the plan itself must.

One of his assumptions is that the full 9,800 Americans would be in Afghanistan through the end of the 2015 fighting season, the general told the committee. Other critical assumptions include the counterterrorism capability and the will of Afghan forces, as well as the nature of the threat.

“The counterterrorism capacity and the will of Pakistan also need to be considered,” he said. “The quality of political transition that we’re in the midst of has to be considered.

Finally, the international community’s support and commitment in support of the NATO mission has to be considered, he said.

“I think all of those are variables that would have to be considered when determining the adequacy of our force levels in the future,” he told the Senate panel.

No military leader has recommended that the United States draw down to zero troops in Afghanistan by 2017, Dunford said. “Every military leader would want to have the conditions on the ground and the assumptions be revalidated as a transition takes place,” he added.

Dunford also addressed a number of other topics, including:

-- The balance between readiness and modernization;

-- The effect of sequestration spending cuts on the force;

-- The lessons of Iraq for Afghanistan; and

-- The importance of Pakistan to stability in Central and South Asia.

Dunford also pledged to continue efforts to eradicate sexual assault In the Marine Corps.

“So the effect that we’re trying to achieve in establishing the command climate, the effect we’re trying to achieve in ensuring that we have bystander training and bystander intervention, the effect that we’re trying to achieve to ensure that all Marines are treated with dignity and respect, the results that we expect out of all of that and the results we expect from decisive leadership, is that we won’t have sexual assaults in the United States Marine Corps,” he said, “and I think that’s when we'll be satisfied.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Face of Defense: Airman Serves in His Fourth Service Branch

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez
455th Air Expeditionary Wing

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, July 16, 2014 – Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesus Yanez is the only member of his family to pursue the profession of arms. That’s not unusual.

But Yanez, deployed here from the Texas Air National Guard’s 204th Security Forces Squadron in El Paso, Texas, has answered his nation’s call not just once, but four times, first as a Marine, then as a sailor, then as a soldier, and now as an airman.

“It sort of just happened, being in all four branches,” said Yanez, a 455th Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron defender. “I didn’t even think about it until one of my friends mentioned it. From the Marine Corps to the Air Force, every branch has taught me something different.”

Each branch of service has been a steppingstone for Yanez. He started his military career in 1993 as a Marine at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, as a logistics Marine in charge of storing, distributing equipment and moving personnel.

“The Marine Corps instilled discipline and has influenced the way I am now. What I learned there I have applied to every branch that I have served. But each branch has also given me an attribute that has made me the person I am today.”

Although he enjoyed serving in the military he left the Marines after completing his four years of service. Two years later, he joined the Navy Reserve in his hometown of El Paso. He served from 1999 to 2001 as a master of arms, where he performed force protection duties that would later help him with his Air Force career. After he completed his time in the Navy, he looked for other opportunities to challenge him as an individual.

“I am the type of person who looks for challenges every day That is the reason why I joined the military.”

His next two opportunities were with the Army Reserve and the Air Force. While serving from 2001 to 2006 in the Army Reserve in Fort Bliss, Texas, as a heavy wheel mechanic, Yanez learned about the Air Force’s 204th Security Forces Squadron.

“I was asked if I would be interested in an active Guard-Reserve position with the Air Force,” he said. “This is something I was really interested in, and it would allow me to stay in my hometown. As a single father, this was a better option, because it avoided moving my kids to another place.”

Throughout his service in all branches, Yanez learned there are more similarities than differences.

“The camaraderie is the same. Regardless of branch of service, everyone always works together to get the job done. I have also learned that anywhere you go, if you take care of the people below you, they will take care of you.” As a noncommissioned officer with extensive life experiences, Yanez said, he is able to help the younger airmen in his unit.

“He brings ton of experience to the fight,” said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Eric Soluri, 455th Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron chief enlisted manger. “Younger airmen and NCOs look up to him, and he is the ‘go-to guy’ in his sector.”

Yanez said the airmen he leads often come to him to seek the perspectives he has gained. “I give them advice about the military and life. The military has given me so much, and I help them understand that if you give 100 percent to the military, it will give 100 percent back to you.”

While he’s had many opportunities while serving in the different branches, he loves his current job in the Air Force.

“As part of the combat readiness training center at my home station I am able to teach airmen and soldiers skills that will help them in the combat zone. Everything I have learned before, I now use to help everyone I train.”

Yanez enjoys the opportunity to prepare airmen coming up through the ranks. “I would not change the choices and experiences I have been through,” he added, “because they have made me who I am today.”

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bergdahl Returns to Regular Duty

By Claudette Roulo
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2014 – After nearly five years as a prisoner of suspected Haqqani network terrorists, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has returned to regular duty at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said today.

As the Army continues its investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture and disappearance, he is not restricted in any way, Warren noted. “He is a normal soldier,” he added.

An initial Army investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance in June 2009 did not conclude that he voluntarily left his installation, an Army official, speaking on background, said during a briefing last month. During his captivity, Bergdahl was considered “missing/captured” by the Defense Department.

Bergdahl completed the final phase of the reintegration process under the control of U.S. Army South, according to an Army statement.

The reintegration process begins as soon as a returnee is released and has no set timeline for completion, defense officials said during a briefing last month. In Bergdahl’s case, the reintegration process lasted about six weeks.

“He will now return to regular duty within the command, where he can contribute to the mission,” the statement said.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Votel Pledges Support for Special Operations Forces

By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, July 10, 2014 – Army Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel said he understands why some people believe special operations forces are feeling pressure from extended wartime service, adding that if he’s confirmed as the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command he’ll work to mitigate such issues.

Votel, who testified at his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, has been selected by President Barack Obama to succeed Navy Adm. William H. McRaven as Socom’s chief. Votel currently serves as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command.

“I firmly believe that special operation forces perform a vital function within the Department of Defense supporting our geographic combatant commanders and providing our leadership with unique solutions to challenging problems,” Votel told the Senate committee.

Special operations forces have been operationally very active and remain very effective, Votel said.

“Key to this, I think … has been Admiral McRaven’s focus on ensuring that we do address pressure on our force and families and provide them the mechanisms that allow them to continue to serve their country, but also take care of the needs that are generated by years of combat and years of service overseas,” he said.

Wartime pressures have been felt across the military, the general said.

“I do think there are some things that we ask our special operators to do, manners in which they operate, the secrecy with which they operate that do not allow them the normal opportunities to talk about things afterwards,” Votel said. “So I think we do have to address that aspect of it when it comes to our special operations forces and families, and making sure that we provide those appropriate outlets for them.”

The senators expressed concern that the NATO base contraction that is happening in Afghanistan leaves the special operations counterterrorism mission exposed. Votel said he has been following the planning closely, and assessed that “we have adequate locations at this time to continue to do the operations -- counterterrorism -- and partnership operations we need to continue to apply pressure against the networks that we are dealing with.”

Going forward, a significant number of special operations personnel will remain in Afghanistan post-2014. Plans for the follow-on Afghanistan mission Operation Resolute Support, call for a total of 9,800 U.S. troops, provided the incoming Afghan government signs a security agreement with the United States.

“Approximately 2,000 of those are special operations forces,” Votel said. “Of those 2,000, about half of that, just around 980 or so, are anticipated to be forces that would be directly supporting the [counterterrorism] effort.”

These efforts, he added, will involve continuing to do unilateral operations to keep heavy pressure on Al Qaida networks and those supporting them.

“Importantly, it will allow us to maintain the relationships with our Afghan partners that we have worked for many years and which we are seeing now come to full fruition,” Votel said.

The general said training the Afghan special operations capability is going well. “We are moving very quickly and effectively to make them partners on the battlefield -- not only their ability to execute operations, but the ability of their leaders to direct operations and properly supervise those,” he said.

Votel said he’s impressed by the Afghan special operations kandaks, or battalions, and he believes their trajectory is on the right path.

Turning to the danger posed by foreign fighters operating in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, Votel noted that such men undergo combat and then go back to their own countries where they are dangers to their governments and people. Africa is a prime example.

To help address that, Votel said the special operations community needs to continue to work with local forces to build relationships. The U.S. military, he added, needs to foster capabilities and look to share information and intelligence wherever possible “to better enable them to deal with the challenges of returning fighters to their countries.