Recently Captain Scaribay and I trained three Turkish OMLT’s (Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams) at the Turkish Camp Dogan. We had been told that all the Turks could speak and read English, so we sauntered on over to teach a nationality that we had never worked with totally unconcerned with the challenges of language.
Bad intel. About a third could speak a reasonable amount of English, another third understood a good bit of what was said but found it difficult to discuss it in English, and a good third of them couldn’t speak a lick of English. For us, who are used to working with and through interpreters, you would think that the situation would not be that difficult. But we had no interpreter. The team leaders, Lieutenant Colonels, had to interpret for their men. This was incredibly time consuming compared to using an experienced interpreter. The Turks themselves were very interested in in-depth discussions on nearly every point, which made for a great learning experience for them; it also made a one hour class drag into three hours.
Still, they did well.
I had not seen Camp Dogan since early May, 2007. Even then, I had only seen what I could from just inside the gate. I had a significant emotional experience there that I mentioned on a post, describing two young Afghan children who appeared to be about two playing with what I imagined were their only toys… made of mud. The field where I had seen them playing is now occupied by a new home. In fact, on the road next to Camp Dogan there has been a significant amount of construction. Kids still hang out at the ECP (Entry Control Point,) but the ECP itself has changed considerably and Camp Dogan itself has changed as well.
Being my first real experiences with Turks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was amazed at the cleanliness and order of the Turkish headquarters. There was a soldier on duty whose job it was to mop up any footprints as soon as they were made. At least that’s how it seemed. We were shown in to the Commander’s office which was very nicely appointed and served beverages immediately upon arrival. Coffee (Turkish, strong) for me and chai (also Turkish and strong) for CPT Scaribay. When it comes to flavor, the Turks don’t play. We were to find the same to be true of Turkish food.
We had also been told that our accommodations were taken care of as well, but the Turkish Colonel seemed surprised that we were intending to stay with them during the course. He quickly issued a series of orders in Turkish and the aid went scurrying off. We were then shown to the classroom where we would conduct the training. It was, in the words of CPT Scaribay, “the safest classroom ever.” We were to teach in a bunker which had been equipped as an MWR by the Turks. There were several seating areas arranged with sofas and matching chairs, and a few tables. The Turks have a certain flair for decorating, and antique weapons hung on the walls while floral displays adorned brick niches. It had the air of a manly hunting lodge. A coffee and tea bar complete with bar stools graced one side of the room. The bunker/lounge would serve nicely. It was a break from conference rooms or tents.
The Navy Captain who was in charge of arranging for the in-country ISAF training for the OMLT’s left, and we were shown to another office to wait while our accommodations were arranged. Of course, there were more beverages. Turks don’t skimp on hospitality, either.
When our room was ready, the young aid came and led us to the quarters. They were brand new, not yet plumbed. Inside were two beds, a small table and two chairs. The beds were made. We dropped our rucks and helmets and were soon off to walk around and see the camp.
One thing I noticed was that the Turks are extremely well-disciplined. Whenever an officer or senior NCO neared them the soldiers stood at rigid attention, fingers straight as opposed to our curled-fingered position. The officer rank was fairly easy to read, but the NCO rank looked very similar to U.S. Air Force rank, upside down chevrons curling under a symbol comprised of a wreath topped with a crescent and star. The Turks also marched groups of soldiers as small as four. Physical training was often done at the squad and platoon level, with formations running around their 1K track that wound around the small camp. Of all the forces in Afghanistan, the Turks behave most like an army encamped.
We learned that the camp was occupied not only by Turkish soldiers and airmen but also by Albanians and Azerbaijanis. We marveled to see that ordinary soldiers occupied tents with no cots. A soccer game was in full swing on a small soccer field in what looked to have been a fenced-in tennis court… fully lined with astro-turf. Goals had been built into the ends. It was perfect. Nearby, on a volleyball court, the JV warmed up their soccer skills, apparently awaiting an opportunity to play.
We had been told that the Turkish chow was good. It was not. It was excellent. Amazing. The best food I’ve had in Afghanistan, edging out the turkmani palau at Bala Hissar. “Great,” I said to CPT Scaribay, “Now I’m going to have to find a good Turkish restaurant in Cincinnati. Do you know what the chances of that are? There may be one, and I may never find it!”
The Turkish mess hall had several fairly large LCD TV’s hung from the ceiling. Turkish TV is an eye-opener. It is surprisingly like American TV, with really good production values. The commercials were telling as to the economy and scenes of (like American TV, idealized) urban life in Turkey. You can tell a lot about a society from its commercials. While the production values of the commercials were excellent and the scenes and attire were quite western, most of the commercials were fairly serious in their intent, either selling hard or setting an ideal. I prefer humorous commercials, but the insight into Turkish society and the portrayal of the values was interesting.
A few minutes into the meal, the TV’s were muted and suddenly everyone rose. CPT Scaribay and I instinctively rose as well. A senior NCO loudly spoke a sentence, which was repeated by the assembled. He spoke another, which was also repeated. The Sergeant then indicated an individual, who spoke a short sentence which was answered with a one-word shouted response from the soldiers and officers. Then everyone sat and resumed their meal. This was to occur at every meal. CPT Scaribay and I likened it to the singing of the “Big Red One” song by the 1st Infantry Division at Ft Riley. All of the Combat Advisors-in-training there used to just mumble most of the words except the words, “Big Red One” whenever they came up in the song. On the second day we asked one of the senior Sergeants with whom we were eating about the ritual. It is apparently a prayer of thanks for the food.
After dinner we walked back to where we were billeted and observed the Turkish troops living normal garrison life in Afghanistan. As we stood near the prefab building our eyes caught movement. At first glance it was a cat; black and white.
“I don’t think that’s a cat,” said Scaribay.
“It looks like a…,” I began.
“Rabbit? That can’t be a rabbit,” returned Scaribay.
“I’ll be dipped. It’s a FOBrabbit. A frabbit,” I continued.
“That can’t be a wild rabbit,” he pondered.
“I’ve never seen anyone keep frabbits in Afghanistan,” I offered.
“You wouldn’t think of it, would you?” he asked.
“Nope. First time.”
The next morning I was to see that there was not one, but five fully grown frabbits and some wee frabbits as well… which is, after all, the way of frabbits.
Working with the Turks was another excellent experience. They were professional, worked hard to understand the concepts completely while fighting through a language barrier, and applied their existing knowledge to the situation. They certainly brought enthusiasm to the task as well.
On the second day, during a break, I noticed Turkish flags being hung in a decorative way with another flag, which was quickly determined to be the flag of Azerbaijan. We noticed troops marching in formation and music that we thought was coming from a building, but was in fact being broadcast over loudspeakers. I don’t know if it was the national anthem of Azerbaijan, but it was certainly a very patriotic song about Azerbaijan. We could tell because the booming male voice said, “Azerbaijan” a lot. It turned out to be Azerbaijan’s Independence Day. Soon, that song was stuck in my head.
Soon enough, we had to bid the Turkish Army, Air Force and Navy personnel good bye and head back to the ranch. The Turkish hospitality was excellent. They really went out of their way to make us feel welcome. The food was truly excellent, and even the beds were the best I’ve slept in on either tour. The mattresses were like futon mattresses. I almost offered to buy it from them. All of this is rare in a country where we are sometimes very lucky to get a cot in a tent with a gravel floor. None of this should be construed to mean that the Turks live in luxury; they clearly don’t. The camp was fairly austere, and the Turks are serious soldiers, but our hosts made sure that we were well taken care of. It was truly an interesting experience. It will probably be repeated before I leave this country again. New experiences, new people to meet and work with, new challenges in communicating ideas…
… and the legendary Frabbits of Dogan.