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ESSAY- Frontline of freedom: Local reservist learns lessons in Afghanistan

Published April 24, 2008 in issue 0717 of the Hook

Lee Payne with Afghan soldiers
Photo Courtesy Lee Payne

Sal-lay now tan tabreek! Happy New Year! 

March 21 marks the 1387th Afghan new year-- 1,387 years since the Prophet Mohammed was born. The Afghan soldiers have the day off today, and so we-- their coalition forces military mentors-- have a light day. 

Working with the Afghans has been its own unique challenge. They're hard working and enthusiastic, but also in some ways they're living in the past culturally and militarily. I've been reading the book 1776 by David McCullough, and a connection might be drawn between the soldiers of our American revolution and these warriors.

McCullough mentions the different standard of hygiene among the Revolutionary soldiers as well as how some of them would wander back home to help on the family farm-- not, as he puts it, because they were undisciplined or disloyal, but merely because they had not been used to "someone telling them where to be at each and every moment." Although unlike our colonial soldiers, the Afghans have lived most of their lives in some sort of military conflict, they do not possess the same idea of military discipline that U.S. forces have developed over time.

One man I'm working with as the Operations Officer of the 3rd Brigade, a brand new force in the Afghan National Army (ANA), told me about his village in the northern part of the country. He speaks proudly of his home, describing how it's covered with trees and rivers, very different from where we currently are in Gardez. Here we operate at 8,500 feet, and there's hardly a tree to be seen.

He has three wives and 11 children, and he's separated from them while he performs his duty here in the eastern part of the country. He was shocked to find out that at 29 I'm not married, and now nearly every time he sees me he wishes that I "am to be married by next time you come to Afghanistan." Unfortunately, I donʼt think Afghanistan will be ready for a non-military visit for some time to come.

The hospitality of the Afghans is certainly one of their endearing traits. Each time we meet, they offer chai (hot tea) and snacks of raisins, soy nuts, or almonds-- all grown in Afghanistan. There's a running tally among the American military advisors of how many cups of chai we've consumed. These people are intelligent and ready and willing to strengthen their country and military against the Taliban threat. They're glad to have the assistance of NATO and the coalition forces.

I came here under the misconception that ethnically the people would look much like the Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or Bahraini people I've worked with at other times in my military career. I realized my mistake as soon as I arrived. Not only are these people not Arabs, but they are a diverse combination of the many ethnic groups throughout the country and serving in the Afghanistan National Army. I witnessed this first hand when I was invited to their gym facility and saw a red headed/bearded Afghan bench pressing. There are also many soldiers with a distinctly Asian appearance, and that makes sense when I remember that this was one of the warring grounds for Genghis Khan and shares a small boarder with China.

Our Forward Operating Base (FOB) is co-located with the Afghan Garrison, although we eat, sleep, and have office space apart from each other. I work with an interpreter who is an Afghan national. Omar speaks Dari, Pashto, English, and Urdu. It honestly makes me feel sheepish to be able to communicate effectively only in English. 

Time to start studying. My goal is a decent knowledge of Spanish before I leave here as well as enough Dari to get by reasonably well.

In general this FOB is pretty decent. We have a good gym, excellent food, and most of us have our own small single room. But I have to say that coming from my civilian existence as a reservist in Charlottesville has been a tough transition. In the military I've lived in these conditions before-- some less comfortable-- but not since leaving active duty and moving to Charlottesville. It really makes me appreciate my house and the Charlottesville community even more than I did while living there.

At the most basic level of mental health, what I miss most is not being able to just go where I want when I want. It's the freedom to go out to dinner or go for a run by the river that's hardest to deal with. Looking over the walls here feels somewhat like Iʼm in a sort of jail, and it has made me realize the true punishment of prison is the lack of freedom of movement-- the sense of confinement must be far more mental than physical. 

But as time rolls on here, Iʼll have more opportunities to leave the base either on Humanitarian Assistance (HA) missions or other operations. Those, combined with the knowledge of when Iʼll be leaving and what's waiting for me back in Virginia, will be more than enough to keep my spirits up through the months ahead.

That and drinking more chai. The count is up to 12 cups so far today.

A marketing manager at Sperry Marine, Lieutenant Lee Payne got his chance for chai when he was recalled to active duty in the U.S. Navy for a year-long tour in Afghanistan.



I hope you will send this on to Lee. My hygienist, Sarah, is Lee's girlfriend and she and we miss him much. Every time I see young men like Lee and read their correspondance I keep thinking of the phrase: "where do we get young men like this?" The answer is that they are the opitmumy of young American society. They love their country and have vowed to serve, despite the danger and the horrors. God Bless Them All.

posted by Dr. Marvin Franger at 4/26/2008 12:25:59 AM

Lee, you are amazing and I love you!

Your sister-Helen

posted by Helen at 4/27/2008 7:05:55 PM

You truly make us all proud to be americans!

posted by andie at 4/28/2008 1:34:43 AM

Nice article Lee, but I've got to come clean with you. That guy with the red beard that was working on the bench press was really me. Sarah wanted me to look in on you to make sure you hadn't gone completely primal out there in the wilds of Afghanistan! Be safe & hurry home!


posted by Jamie Hill at 4/28/2008 9:08:12 AM

Thinking of you back home, Lee. With all you're dealing with, I think you'll win next time we go toe-to-toe.

Come home safe, buddy. We're very proud of you and miss you tons.

posted by Luke at 4/28/2008 4:26:45 PM

Dear Lee, As a mother of an Airman who recently deployed to Afghanistan I want to thank you for your insight into what life is like over there for you. I do get calls and e-mails from my son who is a JTAC, but usually we can't speak long enough for me to get a sense of what he is going through. I'm proud of you Lee. Thank you for serving our country and I pray for your safe return. I also pray that other Americans will read your essay and remember that America is the greatest country in the world and that we are the great protector, through strong young men and women like yourself. (Say hi to Don and tell him I love him if you see him)--with utmost respect, SrA Carp's mom

posted by Patricia, SrA Carp's mom at 4/28/2008 8:20:57 PM

Lee,I am SO proud and only wish that Pop Pop could be here to read that wonderful essay. Stay safe and come home . We miss you and love you so much. Love you Grannie

posted by Mary John Payne at 4/28/2008 9:18:29 PM

Hi Lee,

I just read your article and am so proud to say that I know you. It was a reminder of what is happening across the world and how at times we are so oblivious to what is happening. I feel so selfish that I have some of those freedoms you were speaking of and pray that you will have that time back soon. Can you believe that in less than a month my son will be graduating? Where does the time go? Stay safe. We'll be praying for you.

posted by Kimberly Kemp at 5/8/2008 7:36:58 PM

Great write up. Sorry it took so long to respond. We are thinking of you Lee. Stay low and keep it safe. Linda and Michael say Hi!

Thank you.

posted by Terry (Sarah's Dad) at 5/16/2008 9:07:42 AM
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