What independence means to me

By Staff Sgt. Amanda Dick
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

7/3/12 — In a few days, we, as Americans, will celebrate one of the most, if not the most, important date for the U.S. — our Independence Day.

As I figure out what I’ll be doing this Fourth of July, I also want to make sure I take the time to reflect on this most reverent of days.

What does Independence Day represent to me?

I mean, we’ve all been taught in school what led to our independence and how we achieved it, but what does it really stand for?

For me, Independence Day is more than just a day America gained its freedom. I learned from my Grandpa Randall, who loved to research our family heritage, that my family is deeply rooted in American soil.

The Randall side of the family emigrated from England on one of the first boats to the U.S. Our family is related to President Ulysses S. Grant, and one of our ancestors fought alongside President George Washington in Valley Forge. My family settled and fought for America’s independence, and for me, it’s pretty inspiring to know I have those roots.

However, that’s the beauty of being an American. It doesn’t matter if your roots are 236 years old or just a few days, we can all take pride in America and celebrate its independence.

One of the main reasons I joined the Air Force was to follow in my father’s footsteps and serve my country — to earn my place next to those who have served before.

While it’s not always fun or easy being in the military, I enjoy living the Air Force way of life. It’s truly amazing to know I’m a part of something bigger than myself.

For those times when life seems difficult, I think on my family and friends. Those are the people who get me through the hard days. Those are the faces I brought to mind while downrange recently. Those are the people whose lives I personally protect while in service to America, so that July 4th will always remain their Independence Day.

This Independence Day, I want to remember those who paid the sacrifice for America to gain her freedom. While we enjoy the company of our family and friends this Fourth of July, we should remember our nation was built on blood, sweat and tears.

Blood: The blood of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for America’s freedom, such as Army Private 1st Class James Arnold, who was killed in the Vietnam War. Though I didn’t personally know Arnold, as I reflect on the reason his name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., I am truly grateful and indebted to him for his sacrifice to this great country.

Sweat: The sweat of those who have worked hard to make America what it is today, such as the immigrants who toiled and labored to become citizens, or the settlers who moved west to create a life for themselves.

Tears: The tears of those who mourn for the ones lost to gain America’s freedom, such as the family of Capt. Francis Imlay, who recently paid the ultimate price during Operation Enduring Freedom. Again, I didn’t know Imlay, but I sympathize with his family and the families of the more than 6,000 military members who have died during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn. I am thankful for all they gave to help keep America free.

So, enjoy the fireworks, enjoy the food, enjoy the company, but also remember to enjoy the independence and freedom we have and take the time to reflect on what those two words mean to you.

On this Independence Day, remember we have freedom at its finest, but not without a price.

Photo: The American Flag is flown over Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 9, 2011. The flag represents America’s freedom and the many military members who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for U.S. independence. Americans will celebrate 236 years of freedom July 4, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Amanda Dick)

Never stop trying

By Master Sgt. Sonya L. Couture
438th Air Expeditionary Wing

As Sept. 11 approaches, I find myself once again in Afghanistan – this time for a year. This mission is different from the last. Instead of supporting missions to “seek out and destroy the enemy,” I am here to train members of the Afghan Air Force on how to do my job, Aircrew Flight Equipment. I’m also teaching them how to manage their people and resources as well as how to solve problems on their own. I assure you, it’s not an easy task with their lack of classroom education and cultural differences.

Thinking back on where I was and what I was doing on 9/11, I’m reminded of the pain and anger I felt at such a senseless act. On 9/11, I saw every one of “them” as the enemy. My anger was boiling over and I wanted all of them eradicated from this earth. I’m sure many others felt the same way as they watched the horrors unfold on the news, replayed repeatedly. What came to mind later as I calmed down were the millions of innocent men, women and children who had nothing to do with these acts of terrorism. I slowly began to realize that 9/11 was not the work of all the people who are Muslim or from the Middle East, but the work of small extremist groups. I reserved my anger for the ones responsible, the factions and groups of extremist Muslims who hate Americans and wish to see us die. I consciously decided it was not right to judge them all on the actions of a few.

However, on April 27 this year, nine of my friends and coworkers were killed by one of the Afghans we were training. It was by far the single, most horrifying experience of my life. My reaction of rage and disbelief was very similar to my feelings on 9/11. I felt an overwhelming anger that sickened me. Why did my friends have to die so senselessly? I felt myself looking at every Afghan I saw with pure hatred.

After the shootings, I struggled to regain my enthusiasm for what I was doing here. How could I help these people, not knowing if their secret agenda was to kill me? On my first day back to work it was clear that “my” Afghans had no such intentions toward me. The sadness and pain in their eyes told me what I needed to know. They feared I would hate them for their fellow comrade’s actions and decide to no longer help them. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t hold it against them. These men didn’t kill my friends. They were trying their best to do what any of us would want; to make a better life for themselves, their family and their country.

Weeks later during a conversation with my Afghan interpreter, I asked him if he thought his country would ever be able to get rid of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the war lords who ravage the country. Were we here for nothing, wasting our time and money? He asked me if the U.S. has ever been able to get rid of all its “bad guys”; those who rob, rape, and murder?

“No”, I said. “Of course not, but we will always keep trying to make it better.”
“That’s all we are trying to do as well,” he responded. His simple statement stuck with me. They should have the chance to try and make a better world for themselves, for the good men who are weak to become strong and capable of fighting the evil men.

I see the innocent children smiling and waving excitedly giving us the “thumbs up” as we convoy down the dirty streets of Kabul. We are hope to them and their future. I visit injured children in the hospital and absorb some of their positive, radiant energy they each have despite their injuries and constant struggles. These kids deserve to have a better life. The men I am training are trying to make this a better place for their families, the same thing we strive for every day and I am proud to be a part of it.

On Sept. 11, on an Afghan Air Force base, we will be reading the names of the 3,000-plus victims who died on that day and raising our flag in their honor. Who would have ever thought we would get to this point? As we pay tribute and honor to those who lost their lives on that day, let us not forget how blessed we are to be citizens of the United States. It is by the grace of God that we did not find ourselves born into a country such as Afghanistan where life is harder and more uncertain than we could ever imagine.

In February next year, I will be on my way home to my family. I will leave this country behind and wish them well in their endeavors to become a better, stronger country. Nothing can change what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, nor bring back the loved ones, family and friends who were lost then or during the war that followed. All we can do is continue to honor their memory, to never forget and to keep fighting for something more; a better world so this never happens again. We will never be able to wipe out all of the “bad guys” in this world….but that doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying.

Unique support team pulls together in Afghanistan

Lt. Col. Antonio Castillo, Commander of Regional Support Team Capital in Kabul, Afghanistan took some time out to share his perspectives on a unique team he commands in Afghanistan. Composed of Air Force, Army and Navy, this group started from the ground up.

“When Airmen attend Combat Skills Training they usually have a good idea about the job they will be performing downrange; perhaps they will be part of some type of training team, or will perform duties somewhere as an individual augmentee. However, for most Airmen tasked to fill Joint Expeditionary Taskings (JET), they may actually be surprised where they ultimately end up, and may discover they are not performing the mission they originally were intended to perform.

If flexibility is the key to Airpower, then this is a story about the flexibility demonstrated by the group of Airmen and Sailors who comprise Regional Support Team Capital.

Originally, I was slated to be a planner in Northern Afghanistan for an organization I’ve never heard of. When I called the personnel office in Kabul en-route for a ride to Camp Eggers, I discovered my original job no longer existed and that he would be doing “something else” which would be revealed to him later.

As I arrived at Camp Eggers in Kabul, I discovered that not only would I not be a planner in the North as he originally thought, but instead I would be commanding something called a Regional Support Team (RST) for the Kabul Capital Region. I immediately asked myself “what is an RST?”

I later discovered my team would be responsible for assisting Regional Command Capital and the Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan’s embedded teams with the facilitation of logistical and engineering requirements. In actuality the RST would have many functions; it would serve as CSTC-A’s forward presence in the Capital Region, as a liaison for various unresolved issues, and basically fill a wide variety of roles once performed by the former Afghanistan Regional Security Integration Commands (ARSICs), which were by design much larger and more powerful organizations than the RST.

Before any RST-related actions could take place there were a few minor obstacles that needed to be overcome; it was now Sept. 4, and the RST had to achieve initial operating capability by Sept. 20 and full operational capability by Oct. 21, 2009. We had no equipment, no offices, and no personnel assigned.

Additionally, I was a major at the time, a Political Military Affairs Officer serving as an RST Commander with four Army colonel Combat Arms counterparts. How could any of this ever come together?

With a notional list of names and equipment that were to comprise the RST, I spent two weeks reading all of the Army orders in the CSTC-A Joint Operation Center pondering the future of his command to be.

The original plan was for RST-C to be collocated with RC-C; a theory which made sense due to the support relationship between the two organizations. So I assembled support in order to conduct a site survey at Camp Warehouse, where RC-C’s Headquarters resided. However all this would change during a meeting when someone much higher ranking than me suggested he try the much more support-friendly Camp Phoenix as a home for the RST-to-be. To me, these were the marching orders I was looking for. As soon as this guidance was given, I gladly gave up his unauthorized chair in the JOC and corner bunk in the tent at Camp Eggers and began conducting site surveys at Phoenix.

The real irony of it all was that of an entire list of 12 personnel projected to come to RST-C, we only received one. Whatever happened to the original people who were supposed to comprise the initial RST remains a mystery; however the RST began to get more personnel, one here, two there, until it reached its current strength of eight. Each person came to RST-C under different JET taskings and all under different sets of circumstances.” — Lt. Col. Antonio Castillo Castillo

Below are excerpts from members who make up the Regional Support Team — Capital. Here are their stories:

“When I was first deployed to Afghanistan I was told I would be the Superintendent for engineers. Our mission was to mentor Afghan National Army on the various CE skill sets. We did this for a short period but then were told that our mission would be changing. We shipped several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to various Forward Operating Bases. Now I am the Superintendent for the Regional Support Team-Capital.”  — SMSgt Larry V. Keesee, Air Force, RST-Capital Superintendent

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“Prior to coming to Afghanistan I was not aware of my final destination. I originally was supposed to be assigned to an Embedded Training Team of approximately 15 people. Once I arrived at Camp Phoenix, I still had no idea as to where I would be assigned. After being at Camp Phoenix for a few days, I was informed that I would going to Forward Operating Base Blackhorse. However, prior to my departure, my Master Chief informed me that I had been slotted for a tasking to work with Regional Support Team Capital as their Information Technology Support NCOIC, and here I am today.” — IT1 Monica Spain, Navy RST-Capital IT/ADMIN/COMMO NCOIC

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“I came from ARSIC-W region where I did all kinds of jobs; from construction pushing dirt to mechanical work fixing Humvees’s and some electrical work. At times it seemed like I was just loaned help, but I took up the challenges as they came. My specific career field is Power Production with an Air Force Civil Engineering background. When I was re-missioned to Camp Phoenix I expected to be doing someone’s dirty work for a while. However I was lucky enough to land a job working at the newly formed Regional Support Team Capital. While here I’ve been lucky enough to travel to downtown Kabul and help with projects such as lighting for a university, classrooms for military staff college, among other projects which directly improve Afghan and coalition forces’ relations and security.

With a handful of personnel this shop was built from the ground up, literally. We started with a large tent-sized building and some computers lying on the floor! We now have a well-oiled machine. Working for this RST has been a great experience; my only regret is that I didn’t have more time to spend with a great group of individuals in Regional Support Team-Capital.” — Staff Sgt. Yurac Guzman, Air Force, RST-Capital Engineer NCOIC

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“I began my journey with ARSIC-West at Camp Stone. After working a Camp Stone and FOB Rescorla in the Province Farah, I was re-missioned to Camp Phoenix, Kabul. At that time, I was tasked to work with the 48th BSTB as their NCOIC In/Out Processing Liaison. Regional Support Team Capital serves as my alternate work area, where I am the pavements and heavy equipment operator NCOIC. I am happy to work with such a fascinating group of Navy and Air Force personnel. My experience here at RST-C has been a quite rewarding experience to present, and I hope to gain more insight prior to my departure next month.” — Staff Sgt. Harris, USAF

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“I am currently deployed to Camp Phoenix Kabul, Afghanistan as part of the Regional Support Team-Capital (RST-C). Prior to my assignment, I was stationed aboard the USS Bulkeley (DDG-84), home ported in Norfolk, Virginia. As our Nation fights, so does our Navy. The Navy thought it was necessary to support our brothers in arms with the global fight. And with the training and technical knowledge gained from Fort Jackson, Combat Training Course, I was forward deployed to Afghanistan. Apprehensive about my tour, I gladly accept my orders in support of the global fight. Upon arrival I found myself sleeping in tents awaiting permanent billeting and duty assignment. Well after two weeks of waiting, I was finally able to call RST-C my home. Despite the 3 man show, I was greeted with open arms by the then Major Castillo. Despite the lack of equipment and proper guidance, we managed to salvage whatever we can lay hands on to put an office together. And with the collaborative effort by all, we were able to set up RST-C, which now comprises of eight personnel. These personnel include engineering, logistical support, and Information Technology.” — LS1 (AW) Georgiana Johnson, Navy, RST-Capital Logistics NCOIC

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“I originally came to Camp Phoenix with a 19 man team to work in the Engineering office. Not too long into our time here, we got word that things were going to change significantly. Although, that was about all the information that we got at the time. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later, that some guidance finally came down as to what we were going to do. The team that had come to Camp Phoenix together was being dispersed throughout Afghanistan. I was tasked to support Regional Support Team-Capital because I was already working some projects in the Capital area. The already established SOPs for Project Management were completely shaken up. We had to re-invent the wheel in a sense in that we had to figure out where we fit in, who we report to, who approves the projects, and how to properly route the projects. This all had to be done while not decreasing the workload at all, and standing up a completely new team.  The team that I joined consisted of just two people, Maj Castillo, the RST-C Commander, and myself. We did not have much of a team and no office of which we could call ours. It was in this situation that I continued to accept new project request, line up transportation to make site visits, and manage all the projects that I had been working on since arriving at Phoenix. After showing up with one team and an already established project management process, I have had to join a completely new team and establish our own project management processes while integrating with Coalition partners and a truly joint team.” — 1Lt John Jaszkowiak, Air Force, RST-Capital Lead Engineer

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“I was tasked to Kabul about two months after returning from Korea.  Nobody really knew what the tasking entailed, and in fact there wasn’t much information about where in Kabul the tasking was.  It wasn’t until I was closer to Combat Skills Training when I finally was able to research and contact personnel at Camp Phoenix.  The tasking was to support Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, developing construction projects for the entire country.  However, what wasn’t known was how long CJTF Phoenix would be around.  Shortly after arriving on station, it became apparent that the engineering function I was to perform didn’t exist.  So, I made up a job for myself and began shipping cargo to Forward Operating Bases throughout the country, and also supported what was left of my original team with computer support and data management.  The cargo was primarily generators and HESCO barriers, but ultimately included whatever we could get out of our makeshift storage yard to support new and existing FOBs.  About halfway through the tour, it was decided that all of the engineering personnel would be split into the RSTs.  Having known the RST Capital superintendent and engineer officer, as well as the commander, I thought I would make a good fit in that team, and so lobbied to move to RST Capital. Thankfully, I was accepted.  Since the move to RST Capital, I’ve found a clear sense of purpose.  We are establishing construction contract procedures, fulfilling past obligations, and helping the Afghan people as much as possible with rebuilding their own security forces.  This makes the deployment worthwhile, and while I certainly miss being home, especially after such a short homecoming, having a sense of purpose, a good mission, and a good team certainly makes it easier.” — TSgt Marcinkowski, Air Force, RST-Capital Engineer NCOIC

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“During the initial 5 months of my 365 day tour, I served as the Logistics Officer for the 2nd Brigade/ 205th Corp in RC South’s Zabul Province. Having mentoring teams scattered about 14 Forward Operating Bases throughout Zabul’s varied and rugged terrain called for heavy reliance upon air support and joint coordination with the CSS Kandak for troop sustainment. I often took the advantage of opportunities to convoy out to remote sites with the ulterior motive of taking in the amazing geography of this country. It didn’t take long before I realized the South was a “hot bed” of enemy activity. Nonetheless, along with the upcoming transition to the Brigade Combat Team Force Structure came the rumors of me, along with many others being re-missioned from the south to Kabul’s Phoenix. Having enjoyed the autonomy of the small FOB environment and forming close bonds with my fellow service members, I did have reservations about moving to a new place/ new job with many unknowns. Upon my arrival at Phoenix and meeting my new team members of the RST-C, I was relieved to see such a small shop of high caliber individuals, willing to go above and beyond to facilitate the completion of whatever ANSF engineering and logistical requirements on the table. This is a higher echelon of duties and responsibilities that’s broadening my knowledge of many different things on a much bigger scale in which I’m very grateful for.” — Capt. Derek Wrench, Air Force, RST-Capital Logistics OIC

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An organization that was originally supposed to be comprised of Army personnel ended as one comprised of JET Airmen and Sailors, all who originally were assigned to others missions. Nowadays when you deploy you don’t know where you will ultimately end up or know exactly what you will be doing, but in the case of RST-C, the perfect storm came together and formed a highly cohesive and effective team that truly encompasses the meaning of flexibility.