Thursday, January 29, 2009

Corrections: thankless and rewarding

When we got back to Camp Nathan Smith from the patrol into Dand, I was buzzing. The entire event drew such a high degree of focus from me, I was still coming down when we were told the bad news: there was a comms shutdown. An IED strike had hit a joint Canadian-Afghan foot patrol, and there was a critical Canadian casualty, although not VSA (Vital Signs Absent).

Between the high of the patrol and the sobering shock of the wounded soldier whose name we never learned, I'll admit I wasn't paying too much attention when LCdr Babinsky told us we could stash our PPE in our quarters before going to watch Afghan prison guards being trained. If I hadn't been so absorbed in my own thoughts, I'd probably have dismissed the Corrections training photo-op as filler put on to the schedule between the end of the patrol - which could have been anytime, given the realities of what can happen outside the wire - and dinner. I certainly wasn't expecting a great deal from the experience.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The first surprise was leaving the camp. Or, more accurately, leaving the Canadian side of the camp: the ANP have their own compound attached to, but separate from the Canadian portion. Jean Laroche, LCdr Pierre Babinsky, Maj Vance White and I walked through a big metal door on a big metal gate, the officers loaded a magazine into their sidearms as per SOP, and we approached a decent-sized white building with a sign on the wall that read "Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team Training Centre."

Inside, we discovered a Correctional Service of Canada officer training a cadre of Afghan prison guards. The first thing I noticed was that if the Terp couldn't speak fluent Maritimer, he could at least understand and translate it for the students. The instructor was a solidly-built man wearing black leather gloves, khaki cargo pants and a camp shirt whose demeanour I could have mistaken for military had it not been for the greying goatee he sported, and the CSC patches on the sleeves of his shirt. He was booming out instructions on handcuffing techniques in a voice used to command, encouraging and correcting as required.

The recruits were a mix of young and old Afghan males in olive and grey uniforms, and they were obviously new to this aspect of the training. As it turned out, this was their very first day learning these methods. They messed up quite a bit, and the instructor repeated again and again: "This is your first day. At the end of two weeks, you'll be able to do this in your sleep." The older ones were far more vocal and assertive than the younger ones were, but there were a couple who seemed better trained, and they were acting as assistants to the class. All deferred to the Canadian, though - he'd obviously earned their respect.

I watched as the instructor put them through their paces, answered their questions, then got down and did pushups with them: "1...2...3...4...hold it...hold it...5." He then set them to sweeping and mopping the dust from the mats on the floor of the training room before sending them home for the day. He said he had to head back to his room for a moment, but he'd meet us back at the mess tent for a coffee and answer any questions we might have.

"Only nine months, eh, Vance?" he called to the camp PAffO as we walked away.

"What's that all about?" I asked.

"Oh, he doesn't do media stuff. This is the first interview he'll have done since he's been here."

When we met back at the mess tent, I finally caught his name: Kevin Cluett. He's one of four Canadian corrections officers in all of Afghanistan: one works with the national government in Kabul, one is a senior leadership mentor for the local prison warden and supervisor of the crew at the KPRT, and two are mentors and trainers to the guards at Sarposa prison. Kevin is a trainer.

With twelve years as a Corrections Officer, he had to undergo a competitive process to earn his one-year slot here at the KPRT. He's been on the ground since May of 2008, but was also involved in the Roto's training at CFB Wainwright prior to deployment. Correctional Service of Canada's ultimate objective in the mission is to work with the Afghans to get their prison system up to international standards. "Not to Canadian standards, mind you," Kevin's careful to stress, "to international standards."

What he's teaching is a six-week Basic Officer Training Program. It's broken into three phases. Phase 1 is a mix of mostly classroom lectures: communication skills, human rights standards, the Afghan constitution, first aid, etc. Phase 2 is what we were watching: control techniques and practical situations. A CF instructor also provides basic weapons training to the guards as well. Phase 3 deals with more complex problems: cell extractions, aggressive prisoners, riot control, and the like.

The course is being taught to all the guards at Sarposa. That's right, Basic Training comes after they're already working. Welcome to Afghanistan, where letting the perfect be the enemy of the good would mean nothing ever got done.

Kevin's biggest challenge, he says, is getting proper time to mentor the guards in the prison itself. Right now the Corrections Officers are only allowed out to the prison for two hours at a time, three times per week. That's not enough, according to Kevin, who's working right now on getting approval to do more.

The training proceeds slowly. Most of the guards have little or no literacy skills, and many of them lack a good deal of the physical coordination we take for granted. "Remember, they didn't grow up playing sports like we did," Kevin told us. Apparently jumping jacks were a sight to behold when they first got started. And without reading or writing skills, they can't document anything they do.

While the trainer's job is tough, the trainees have it even tougher. Working at Sarposa is dangerous. But they're grateful for the Canadian help:

“Building the capacity of the corrections sector is important for Afghans. We want to thank the Canadians from the KPRT for everything they have done to support us,” said Colonel Abdullah Balwar, Director of Sarpoza Prison. “The prison staff is eager to learn and want to improve their skills. Through training and mentoring delivered by Canadian officials, I have seen a significant increase in professionalism.”

With the uncertainty of what comes next after the Canadian mission's "end date" of 2011, one of the priorities for the CSC personnel is training Afghans to be trainers themselves. "That way, the process continues, even if we leave," Kevin explained.

Kevin said the job is frustrating, but incredibly rewarding. He told us a story about one of the first days of Phase 1 classroom training. As Kevin was starting the lesson, he noticed one Afghan guard shifting and fidgeting in his seat like he couldn't sit still. Kevin asked the Terp to find out what was wrong. The man's response was an eye-opener: "I'm twenty-eight years old, and I'm so happy - this is the first time in my life sitting in a real classroom with a teacher and books!"

This is what motivates a man with a wife and two kids at home in Nova Scotia to put in for a three month extension of his year-long tour: so that he can see the last of the trainees he started with finish Phase 3.

"It's about finishing what I started," Kevin said. "For the average person used to North American standards, you come in and say 'these guys have so much to learn.' But if you'd seen them since the beginning of their training - they've come so far..."

When the average Canadian hears about our mission in Afghanistan on the television or radio, or reads about it in the newspaper, he likely learns of fighting. No, he likely learns of Canadians dying in an IED explosion, since that's really all that seems to attract the public's attention these days. With very few exceptions (and congrats to Darah Hansen, who was at Camp Nathan Smith at the same time I was for telling this story as well), the picture Canadians see of their nation's work in one of the poorest, neediest countries in the entire world is nothing but an incomplete sketch.

Civilians like Kevin Cluett work tirelessly side-by-side with their military comrades, often on longer tours, with very little of the political turf-war interdepartmental infighting that characterizes the story in Ottawa. On the ground, the Whole of Government team - DFAIT, CIDA, CSC, CivPol, and everyone else - rolls their eyes at the inside baseball being played by the bureaucrats around Parliament Hill.

Then they roll up their sleeves, grab their Terp, and with no public fanfare, thanks or admiration, they get to work. Well, here's one big THANKS, with a good deal of admiration: Bravo Zulu, Mr. Cluett.

* * * * *

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Blogger Dave in Pa. said...

"I'm twenty-eight years old, and I'm so happy - this is the first time in my life sitting in a real classroom with a teacher and books!"

Now instead of morbid dwelling and pontificating on casualty numbers, wouldn't that be a wonderful title for an article at the Globe & Mail or the Star, talking about what Canadians are achieving for the people of Afghanistan!

1:46 p.m., January 29, 2009  
Blogger membrain said...

Great stuff. Choked me up there for a moment. Linked to it. Keep up the great work Damian. Thanks so much.

12:44 p.m., January 30, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am sorry Kevin that I didn't seek you out more after we got back in the world. We both chewed on the same dirt over there and it left a shitty taste in our mouth when we got home.
I had my head space and timing to sort out but I should of made time for you. The fucking stigma and bullshit effects of it all still remains to this day, 12 years after returning home. Family cannot understand and besides it is way too much for them to handle let alone comprehend.
Fuck brother, I never thought the last time we would see each other would be in Kandahar Afghanistan drinking a Tims at the boardwalk on base. I was talking to my mother who said she spoke to your mother. I learned you were boots on the ground at the same time but heading back. I was one of the two Griffon gunships that escorted the chinook your were on from FOB Nathan Smith to Kandahar Air Field. What are the odds on that shit happening, right, wtf? Two Newfie boys from small town Stephenville Newfoundland who hadn't seen each other or hung out in over 20 years, meet up in war torn Afghanistan, thousands of miles away. I remember you had to call your wife Sandra right away, LOL.
I am writing this 5 years too late after your death and should have written you before that. I mourn your passing everyday because had I of taken the time to reach out, instead of shutting myself down, I could of helped you through this shit.I will never forgive myself for that. I struggle everyday and it sucks ass, but I soldier through as best I can. Some days are bad and some are worse but those like us will always be in shadow just a step or two away from the unreachable light. That last normal day of my existence was the last day of my deployment. The man I was before then remains there in theater and I don't know who the fuck I am since then. Everyday home, all I could think about was going back there to feel normal again. That is fucked up brother and no one can understand that except another brother in arms.
Enough bitching, sorries and stories. I hope you are in a better place now my friend and you have the well deserved peace you have sought after. You are in my thoughts every day as are others like you who have suffered in silence for too long. I don't know where people like us end up when all is said and done. Heaven for climate and Hell for company, who knows but someday I will see you on the other side Kevin (Bird Dog) Cluett.

3:40 p.m., March 09, 2022  

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