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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shorabak Garrison Swim and Water Polo Team’s First Practice

I was very excited today as this would be the day that organized swimming and water polo would be introduced to southern Afghanistan and Helmand Province. I had complete faith and confidence that Colonel Safi would come through with his end of our agreement by having the team ready and the pool filled with water. This was going to be an exciting day.

It was a very busy day and heavy workload for me at Marine Expeditionary Brigade Afghanistan and I did not have much time to think about the upcoming practice. I already had the workout plan written out and topics to discuss with the athletes before practice began and I even made sure that I called another section to borrow a vehicle as the vehicles in the G-3 were out all day.

All of a sudden, I realized what time it was. It was 3:15 in the afternoon and I was potentially late for the first day of practice! I called over to the Marines who were letting me borrow their vehicle but their vehicle was taken earlier in the day and was not returned yet. I called every section that I could recall having a vehicle but they were all gone due to a planning meeting aboard Bastion, an adjacent British Air Base to Camp Leatherneck. It was now 3:20 and I still did not have a vehicle. I had to find a quick solution to make it to practice and still get the gear for practice out of my tent. There was no way that I would make it in time.

Knowing that I had one last possibility before I was very late and had a long run to Shorabak. This would not have been a good way to start off our season…being late to the first practice. I went to see Sergeant Pugh in the Staff Secretary’s office. Sergeant Pugh looked at me with a smirk on his face after I shared my dilemma with him. After waiting for words to come out of his mouth, which seemed like minutes but in reality was probably seconds, I wanted to cry. The suspense was killing me.

Sergeant Pugh laughed and said “Anything for you Sir”. He handed me the keys with a smile and asked when I would have the vehicle back. I told him the vehicle would be back at 5:15. As I ran out the door, I asked what kind of vehicle I would be looking for. He told me that the keys were for the Commanding General’s vehicle. I quickly stopped in place and had a puzzled look on my face. Sergeant Pugh said that the vehicle was not needed until 6:00.

It was now 3:24 and I was still worried about arriving in time, how I was going to fit getting the equipment from my tent on the way to Shorabak, hoping that the vehicle was not going to be blocked in by other vehicles, and that I would have the vehicle back to Sergeant Pugh in time to drive the Commanding General. What would happen if the Commanding General’s schedule changed and they had to leave earlier? How would Sergeant Pugh explain that I borrowed a vehicle to drive to Shorabak to teach Afghan soldiers how to swim and play water polo while in a war zone to his boss or to the Commanding General? So many thoughts going through my mind with only six minutes before the first practice started. I should have been focused on the upcoming practice.

At 3:25 I arrived at the vehicle all sweaty and attempted to enter the vehicle on the passenger side. Not one of my smarter moments but would be par for the course for me. I quickly corrected myself and drove to an area near my tent.

At 3:26 I left the car on and door open, ran into the a very dark tent with no flashlight, probably waking all of the Marines sleeping who worked during the night hours after tripping over a chair, and grabbed the bags I had set aside.

After a semi-successful sprint to and from the tent, I was back in the vehicle and was onward to Shorabak. As I was passing through the “Friendship Gate” which was a gate ajoining Camp Leatherneck and Shorabak Garrison, manned only by Marines, they were about to wave me through thinking I was the Commanding General. I rolled down the window and showed the Marines my identification card. The Marines smirked and waved me through. So there I was, at 3:28 driving around in General Nicholson’s vehicle, now with witnesses.

I arrived at the Shorabak Garrison pool at 3:29. With lots of sweat dripping down and about 30 seconds of breathing room, I quickly grabbed the bags and walked up to the pool. As I was stepping through the barbed wire, I realized that I did not see anyone on the pool deck. As I arrived on the pool deck, I looked at the surrounding area and did not see anyone approaching the pool which was not filled. At 3:30, I was disappointed, sweating, and in dire need of a drink of water, I started walking towards Colonel Safi’s office to find out what happened.

When I arrived at his office at 3:35, Colonel Safi waved me in. His office busy, and the officers in his office looking at me in anticipation of why I was there, I neatly placed my bags and sat down. Colonel Safi wanted to me to stay and drink chai. As impatient and confused as I was, I wanted to ask him where all of the athletes were. In my limited Farsi skills I told asked Colonel Safi to wait a moment to see if I could find a linguist. At 3:39, Colonel Safi said not to worry about it and he would speak in English with me.

Colonel Safi asked me how the practice was coming along and if I needed any help from him. He then told me that this was such a great thing for the Afghan soldiers, Shorabak Garrison, and the Afghan National Army. He also told me that the pipe was fixed and then broken again when the pool was partially filled. I proceeded to tell him that there were no athletes there. Shocked and irritated, Colonel Safi got on the phone at 3:49 and called another colonel, some of his other officers, and his sergeants major. Colonel Safi told me that the team would be at the building shortly and then we could begin practice.

At 4:01 a captain came into the office and reported to Colonel Safi that the team was all present. Colonel Safi waved him away and asked me if I needed anything help with anything else. I told him that I would appreciate if he would come to the meeting for a few minutes and tell the team his expectations and give them encouragement. He agreed and we walked out of his office, still filled with officers waiting to speak with him about important things.

Once we walked out, a linguist that worked with Hakim was there waiting. Hakim was busy with his work and asked this nice older gentleman to assist with today’s practice. It was very important to have a linguist at today’s practice because a lot of the spent would be speaking with the team. Most other practices I could get away with using hand gestures and my limited Farsi skills. I spoke with the older gentleman briefly while Colonel Safi spoke with his soldiers in his conference room. I briefly explained to the linguist what we would be discussing with the athletes and emphasized to ask me any questions if needed. Colonel Safi explained what a great opportunity this would be for the soldiers, Shorabak Garrison, Helmand Province, and Afghanistan.

Colonel Safi finished speaking with the team and promptly left. At 4:21, I spoke with the team about what was in store for the program, what to expect at practice, and what my expectation of the athletes ere. Some of my expectations included being at practice on time, hydrated, mentally and physically prepared, giving 100 percent at all times, listening, and completing homework when I give it. At 4:32 I wrapped up my short speech and asked the athletes if they had any questions. There questions were:

1. What is swimming football?

2. How is it played?

3. Why were they selected for the team?

4. What if they were stuck at work and could not make it to practice on time or not at all.

5. Will they get uniforms?

6. Who do they speak with to be on the national team?

7. What if they cannot read or write? How do we complete the homework?

Very valid questions. I quickly answered the first two questions by showing a few photos, taking out a cap and ball for everyone to touch, and explained the basic rules. All of the athletes were satisfied with my response. I then explained that I do not know the exact criteria used to select the team but they should take that up with Colonel Safi. They should always strive to make it to practice, even if they are late. My emphasis to the athletes is that this is a team sport and the team is only as strong as its weakest player. If teammates are missing, it will adversely affect practices and the team’s progress. I further explained that I would provide all of the required gear and at the next national team tryouts they can compete for a place on the team. And my for my final response, I told the athletes that the homework was a requirement and if they needed help, the athletes should get help from one of their teammates who could read and write.

Because we were almost out of time for the practice, I closed the meeting at 4:43 by reiterating to them how challenging the practices would be and how I would push them to their limits. All of the athletes shook their heads up and down like they all had it and it would be easy. After the meeting concluded at 4:45, many of the athletes came up to me and told me what great swimmers they were and how they think the practices would be fun and basically easy. I showed them my appreciation for speaking with me and said I would see them tomorrow. We will see how easy they will think the practices are after the first day…

During the drive back to Marine Expeditionary Brigade Afghanistan at Camp Leatherneck, I could not help think that even though I was disappointed that we did not practice in the pool today, it was a successful practice. We will see where this new adventure leads us.