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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Day of Water Polo in Afghanistan for 2008

Today was the final day of the first ever Afghanistan National Water Polo Team tryouts and of the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team's inaugural season. Even though the national team tryouts did not take place every day as planned, because of situations outside of our control, we were excited for the day. This week, I was running around trying to make sure everything was set, was enjoyed by all. I feel that this is a great thing for Afghanistan and know that all of the athletes feel the same way.

Whenever I saw the athletes throughout the week, their first question was how were they doing in the tryouts? Followed by, are they going to make the team? My response would always be that regardless if they make the team, they, their family, and their village should be proud of their accomplishment that they tried out for the team.

In addition to the last day of the tryouts, the last day of the season for the 201st Corps team, I am finishing teaching my first two college classes for Central Texas College, on Camp Blackhorse (A nearby US Army forward operating base), and I am finishing what will hopefully be my final master's degree class for Excelsior College, before I begin writing my thesis. I also had to work my job. For being the laziest person I know, I was quite busy this week.

The day started at 6:30, with going to meet with the S-1 staff at the 201st Commando Kandak. All of the staff was there early because of the flow of work. The S-1 Officer had many questions for me about this work and some new procedures that the 201st Corps wanted to implement. I assured him that he already had the processes in place and he just needed to show the 201st Corps G-1 what we were already doing and they will understand. He was still worried, so I told him that I would walk with him to the 201st Corps G-1 and speak with the G-1 Officer about it. Sure enough, the processes that the 201st Commando Kandak have had for five months now were the same processes that the 201st Corps G-1 wanted to implement.

With the S-1 Officer relieved that we were ahead of the power curve and the S-1 staff working hard on their tasks, I went to go get Ken Paprocki, a photojournalist from New York, by way of Nebraska. Ken was waiting for me at Camp Blackhorse. Ken and I came in contact through SPC Ocque. SPC Ocque was supposed to come and take photos of what we are doing and was never able to make it. She was very helpful by sending Ken our way. Ken was also with a reporter named Doug Grindle. Doug did not seem that interested in Afghans playing water polo or a national team tryout. He seems more of the type to follow US servicemembers around that are fighting the good fight. Since Ken and Doug were traveling together, Doug decided to bring his video camera to tag along. Maybe he will find something he wants to cover.

I first took Ken and Doug to meet the 201st Commando Kandak. I walked them around to the different companies and the headquarters staff, to speak with who they felt were interesting. The 201st Commando Kandak and its soldiers had been in plenty of battles against the Taliban and there were many good men who died or were wounded fighting against the enemy of Afghanistan. The Commandos were so interested in the attention and were eager to speak with Ken and Doug. Ken asked a lot of questions and took many photos.
The Commandos told Ken their stories and answered what he asked. After the first office that I brought Ken and Doug into, I realized that they would be in these offices for a long time, so I left Reshad with them to translate and went back to work for 30 minutes at a time, and would then return to introduce them to the new company or platoon.

I then took Ken to the Commando dining facility to get a feel of what the Afghan soldiers eat and the opportunity to meet more soldiers. So many Commandos came up to us that it was too much...we ended up leaving after about Ken spoke with Commandos for about 30 minutes.

After that I took Ken and Doug back to Camp Blackhorse. Knowing that Doug did not have an interest in the water polo story, I just told Ken that the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo team would be having lunch at the Camp Blackhorse dining facility at 1230. Since I was right there, I stopped by the dining facility (DFAC) to ensure that the DFAC manager remembered that we would be there today at 1230 and that there was a reserved table for us. He said we were all set, which made me quite happy.

But first I had to go back to the S-1 office to see on the status of tasks being accomplished. The S-1 Officer and I spent about 90 minutes together talking about some more S-1 work. Pay day was coming up and we had to make sure that there were no discrepancies in the pay documents.

Our rally point for the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team luncheon was at the 201st Corps' building. That is where all of the soldiers were going to meet me as the Afghan soldiers cannot go onto Camp Blackhorse, or any US base without an escort. Two weeks prior, I spoke with the base commander at Camp Blackhorse about my idea to bring the soldiers to the DFAC aboard the base to celebrate the end to a wonderful season. Once I arrived, at 12:00, the team was ready to go to Camp Blackhorse. All of the athletes knew that they were not allowed to bring anyone to this luncheon that was not on the team. However, there were 15 people there, which were not on the team, that were expecting to go. Additionally, I was told that the 201st Corps Commander plus his staff were going to come. I originally invited the 201st Corps Commander to the luncheon, since this was his team. When he was signing the participation certificates that I printed up (Steve Scott provided the template, of course) for the athletes, I discussed with him about attending the luncheon and that he could bring himself. He asked if he could bring some other people and I said no. I asked the Camp Blackhorse Commander if I could bring 30 on the base for chow, not 50.

After we got the group down to the appropriate size, we piled into vehicles and drove over to the parking lot across the street from Camp Blackhorse. During our drive there, some of the soldiers that were told they could not come tried to jump in the vehicles with us. They were told that if they came with us, that they would have to walk back without lunch. Not believing what I was telling them, they came anyways.

Once we arrived in the Camp Blackhorse parking lot, I had the athletes assemble in a "school circle" and listen to what the plan was and key things to remember, since none of them ever had a meal at an American military dining facility before: Everyone had to have their ID card when they walk in the gate, in a single file line, no weapons, that they would be searched by the US soldiers at the gate, remain in the single file line all the way to the DFAC, sign in on the roster, wash hands, not eat anything with a picture of a pig on the label, do not use their hands to get any of the food at all (Use tongs), sit at the table on the back wall, and have fun. Everyone said they understood and we were ready. We were just waiting on the 201st Corps Commander.

Once the 201st Corps Commander arrived, I explained everything to him quickly and he said he understood. He also tried asking if the soldiers he brought along could come as well. I told him that as much as I wish that they could, that we only have a table that seats 30 and the Camp Blackhorse Commander only allowed me to bring 30. He tried to convince me again but I politely told the general no.

Since we were all there, and it was now 12:25, I told everyone to get in a line, minus the Corps Commander, and to have their ID cards out. Some extra soldiers, and a few of the 201st Corps Commander's invitees, tried jumping in the line. I quickly got them out, and explained again that they could not come. I also told the athletes on the team if these extra soldiers did not get out of the line now, none of us would get to eat lunch here. Like I told them before and since they did not take me seriously, they had to walk back to their units, without lunch. As the Afghan National Army dining facilities were already closed, I am sure they were hungry until dinner.

Once the MP's at the gate gave us the go ahead, we started walking in. I went in first, and then the Corps Commander and the athletes were all searched and let in. Once the group was finished, we all walked towards to DFAC in a line. All of a sudden, the group was trying to walk everywhere, some were with me, some were trying to walk to the little trinket and DVD shops, and the rest were talking to some of their units' mentors. I abruptly stopped, had Ahmad Shah and Mohommad Osman (Both athletes on the team) tell everyone to get back in line, and told them to stay with the plan. We could not risk being kicked off the base.

As we arrived to the DFAC, everyone started in the door and followed the directions that I gave them. They all signed in, washed their hands, used tongs at the self service area, and went through the line, like they had done it 100 times before...Except that some of them forgot that they could not eat anything with a pig face on the label. Even the servers on the line even tried telling them, since some of the servers barely spoke any English, and neither did most of the 30 Afghans there, it was not fully communicated that the item contained pork and they should not eat it. As I saw this take place, I tried stopping it when it took place or when they tried coming to the table.

As the soldiers sat down at the table, it was actually very quiet. Everyone was eating and enjoying their food. Some of the US mentors came over and congratulated the team and shook their hands for their accomplishments. The athletes became very excited by this because they were proud of themselves and are rarely congratulated for anything that they do. Ken Paprocki was there and got to ask the athletes a lot of questions about their season, their story, and about their families. It was a very successful luncheon and I was happy to see all of the smiles and excitement of the athletes.

As we completed our discussions and eating, I told the athletes what they needed to do on the way out: Drop off the trays, walk outside, get in a single file line, and then walk out of the gate. This time, the process went a lot more smoothly.

I then brought Ken to spend some time with the linguists that we work with to hear about their lives. I left him there to go back to S-1 to do some work. After working at the S-1 office I went back to go get him. Ken was just hanging out there, making friends, and having an enjoyable time.

It was now time to go to the pool as Mohammad Tahir, the 201st Corps Sports Officer, coordinated an awards ceremony. I created certificates and had the 201st Corps Commander sign them. Mohammad Tahir also had the Pol-e-Charki Base Commander sign certificates that he made as well. Come to find out, this was a big deal for the athletes on the team. All the athletes made sure that they were there on time. The 201st Corps Commander was there, along with the Pol-e-Charki Base Commander, Ministry of Defense Sports Officer, a general from the Ministry of Defense, and an Afghan television crew. As each athlete received their certificates, you could feel all of the smiles. There was not an unhappy person there.

I thought my reward for this hard work was watching these athletes’ progression through a completely foreign sport. But the athletes had a surprise for me. In the middle of the ceremony, the athletes presented me with a ceremonial vest and hat, a vest for my son (A custom if one were to have a son), and two hearts with flowers attached to them. The only time I have ever seen these before is at an Afghan National Army, Change of Command Ceremony. I am told this is one of the highest honors and for days after the ceremony, Afghans from all over the base were asking me about my gifts. To further explain the gifts that were presented to me, watch this video.

After the ceremony, the athletes wanted to do an exhibition for all of the visitors. The athletes began their stretching and dryland exercises, completed a warm up of swimming and passing, and then I divided up the group into two teams and then they started a game. It was the first time that there were visitors watching the athletes play in game type situation, so the athletes were definitely giving it their all. We played five minute running quarters and the athletes would frequently sub out as they were quickly tiring.

After the exhibition game, I had to leave the pool for a while to go back to the S-1 to check on a project that they were working on and then go to the front gate to ensure that all the civilians were let in for the national team tryouts. I left Ken at the pool and I think he was having fun too. Leilani always says that I can make friends everywhere, including the bathroom. I think that Ken can make friends 100 times faster than I can, and in more austere locations. I think that he had an enjoyable day.

The final day of tryouts went very well. The athletes from the 201st Corps Swim and Water Polo Team were a little worn out from the full practice/game that they did before the tryouts themselves. The athletes had a good time and I made sure that after we finished our time in the pool, that I told everyone who participated in the tryouts that I was proud of them, their families should be proud of them, they should be proud of themselves, and what they were doing was the first step of something great for their country. I also told them that I would be in contact in the next 10 days with those who made the team. Those who would not make the team I encouraged to try out again next time and that it was not shameful if they did not make the team.

They all did not want to leave the pool but I told them that I had to go. It was late, almost dark, and I had to go back to work. I hope that I will be able to select and meet our team soon. They are such a great group of people who want to do something to make their country better. Even though they do not have the size, speed, or strength to take on the world's best water polo teams, they do have the heart needed to get the program to a high level. We will see where the future will lead us. After all, just a few months ago, water polo was unheard of in Afghanistan, and soon, Afghanistan will have its own national team.

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