6.20.2010

Guest Post: Father's Day in Afghanistan

Courtesy of Bob T, a Wisconsinite, a combat advisor, and a friend of the blog:

I have been in Afghanistan for a few days now and have had several interactions with Afghan National Army officials.  As a Combat Advisor, my primary task is to build rapport, learn, and use soft skills to push the Afghans towards a system of self sustainment.  To get there, though, I have to sit around, drinking large amounts of Chai (not the Americanized stuff...the real deal) and talk about the important things in life like family, the weather, and World Cup soccer.

Before I go to my forward operating base in a few days, I am learning more about the Afghan chain of command and making connections down here before I am separated by giant mountains and distance. I had two conversations today, both with ANA Col's, that seemed to fit nicely into the Hallmark holiday that we call Father's day.

The first was with Colonel Nazeem, a Supply Officer.  I wished him a happy fathers day. He knew that it was an American holiday and wanted to learn more about it.  I told him that it was a day that we thank our fathers for raising us.  He kind of smiled, asked if I was a father (which I am not), and then began a story that almost brought me to tears.

He stated that "Being a father is good...perhaps the best thing that anyone can do...but as with anything that brings great joy, it can bring great pain."  He has 8 children, 3 boys, 5 girls.  He told the story of his two eldest boys.  Both were translators for the United States.  Both were killed by the Taliban in the last year.  One of them was kidnapped, presumably tortured for information, and then killed.  The other was killed by an IED as he was traveling with an American Marine unit 4 months ago.   He then said that his eldest daughter is nearing completion of school and will become a translator herself...and he is very proud of her.  He finished by saying "Father's day is every day...every day is filled with joys and every day is filled with pain, I am joyful my boys did so good, I hurt thinking I will not see them grow old."

This conversation hit home with me.  He lost two boys to the Taliban, yet is proud and excited about his daughter joining the coalition...as America debates whether or not this war is worth the cost, both in US lives and treasure, we cannot forget the sacrifices so many other fathers have made to make Afghanistan safe.

Another conversation later in the day was an interesting cultural lesson.  This time it was with the Commander of the Forward Supply Group, Colonel NB, a man with 7 children, a beautiful wife, and a great sense of humor.  Again, after using up the little bit of Dari that I know, I used the translator and wished him a happy father's day.  Again, I got that little smile and then a response that shows the greatest strength of the Afghan people: their focus on the family.   Col NB said, "For Afghans, every day is father's day.   In America, when your parents get old, you put them into retirement homes or send them away.  In Afghanistan, from the time a male is 18, his duty is to take care of his parents.  They spend half of their life raising us, we are obligated to do the same.   I would rather live on the streets than allow my parents to go hungry once... " He then quipped, "We have many children, so we can be taken care of well. " In America, we look at 18 as a time to be free.  We are free from our parents, free from our community, free from what we view as chains that tie us to our families. In Afghanistan, they look at 18 as the opporutnity to strengthen those chains.

I have been in Afghanistan for 5 days, yet I have experienced things that will forever affect my perspective on the world.  Today, Father's Day, is one of them.

- Robert Thelen, III