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A story of service in Afghanistan

Navy Reserve Cmdr. Greg Schlichting, of Woodbury, is surrounded by Afghan locals while conducting an engineering survey for a new bridge and road during his deployment, which ended last fall. Schlichting has been sharing stories from his experience in Afghanistan with Woodbury-area organizations and churches. (Submitted photo)

Greg Schlichting has a story to tell - and 6,000 photographs to illustrate it.

Schlichting, an assistant Woodbury fire chief and Navy Reserve commander, served in Afghanistan for about one year. Schlichting, 46, was assigned to a Marine unit that advised the Afghan military and was involved in counter-insurgency efforts in an eastern region of the country.

Since his deployment ended in October, he has sifted through some 6,000 photographs he took in Afghanistan and created slide shows that he has used in presentations to Woodbury civic and church groups. Other local groups have asked him to speak in the coming weeks.

"It's a good story for people to understand that the servicemen and women over there are making a difference despite the fact that things are deteriorating on a security level," he said.

The Woodbury Bulletin talked with Schlichting about his experience.

WB: You said you had followed the news out of Afghanistan before you went, but what was your first impression when you got there?

GS: My first impressions were what a destitute country it was. And we just were passing at that time between the main airport through Kabul, and this is the main population center.

I was struck by how many people were doing nothing, that had no jobs, that were just waiting for time to pass, and the conditions in which they were living. It was pretty eye-opening.

WB: Explain what your job was.

GS: My assignment was deputy commander of the Regional Core Advisory Command, and we are the combat advisors to the Afghan National Army 201st Corps. About one out of the five main segments of the Afghan military we are the advisors to. And as the deputy commander, I worked for the Marine colonel, and our collective unit of multinational and joint forces was about 850 personnel.

WB: What were you doing as part of counter-insurgency efforts?

GS: Counter-insurgency is an effort to help the population understand that the government can provide the security and the services that they need and to try to turn their allegiance from supporting the insurgents to the government.

Within that mission we provide some basic government services - health care, food, shelter where we can - and most importantly try to rebuild an infrastructure that is nearly nonexistent - electricity, roads, water.

Very few outside of the main population centers have any access to electricity, so to start to bring electricity it helps the population understand there's a government service they don't otherwise get. The Taliban doesn't provide electricity.

So counter-insurgency is to try to help the population understand that it is better for them for their long-term interest to align themselves with the government."

WB: What did you find was the biggest challenge to accomplishing those efforts?

GS: When I first arrived in Afghanistan, I was struck by how many different nations' militaries were at work and how many civilian agencies were present. And what was remarkable was that there was a very weak connection between all of those.

One example was I connected with a California non-government organization that was working in a small area of our overall area. He had never had the opportunity to link up with the U.S. military, let alone the Afghan government, and he was doing some good work. That was a realization to me that this guy, dollar for dollar, is doing a lot of great work to win over that small village, that small valley, to help them have better education, some effective jobs, but he wasn't linking that to anyone else.

So by helping that one village, it was turning the neighboring village against that one, creating a rivalry ... If we can somehow form a network where the military work, the Afghan government work and the non-government organizations somehow have a unified strategy, now you start to make a longer-lasting difference because you're working together.

WB: So the challenge seemed to be more logistical?

GS: Coordination, I would say. Logistics is definitely difficult for the private organizations, just because the mechanisms are so broken. The military has a great lift capability, so we can bring things in by the plane load ... but it's difficult to prioritize unless you have this coordination between the different organizations.

WB: What is the biggest misconception we have here about what's going on over there, in terms of the work that's being done?

GS: What I have found in talking to people since I've been back is the perception is that we are focused on combat operations in Afghanistan. While that's an important part and clearly an increasing part over the last couple of years, it isn't the final strategy. It's just a part of the game.

The combat operations are necessary to provide basic security, but the long-lasting game is about development. It's about helping the Afghan government be independent in its operations and the Afghan people having a legitimate hope for the future that they could provide for their families, that there's an economic capability, that there's a level of security and education that they can depend on.

Those are the operations that are going on at the same time that are much more significant but don't seem to make the headlines in the news.

WB: You've said the children's attitudes were an indicator of how well you were doing.

GS: When we had a chance to pass through a village and we would try to make sure that the gunners in our turrets would have a friendly face on them. They would wave, they would smile. Where appropriate we would take our sunglasses off so that there was a less-intimidating presence.

If we would get waves and smiles back from the children, we had a pretty good sense that there was a level of freedom in that village that allowed those children to wave, that there wasn't a Taliban presence that threatened the safety of the children.

Conversely, if we pass through villages where there still was a heavy Taliban presence - maybe not active, maybe in the shadows - but still a Taliban presence, the children would have their hands in the pocket, they wouldn't look us in the eye and we would pass through with hardly a glance. The adults would glare, the children would look away and we knew that that was a village that still had a pretty heavy insurgent presence.

... Now, we would rarely go into a village that had Taliban presence just to shake hands. That would be a little reckless. But it would help us gather the intelligence on what phase that village might be in. If we had done our work beforehand, where we had provided some aid, some government services, and started to shape the population in that area to be more receptive, then we would start to see that warming up, but we would still have to go through and establish that initial security.

Once that security was established, the basic services were starting to be provided, now we can move into that village and there would be the smiles and the waves.

The challenge for us would be to sustain it. It wasn't enough for us to do it once and to establish a level of security once. We would need to have a permanent presence in that area so that the population felt safe.

WB: Talk about the Woodbury care packages. Where did they go, what was in them and what was the response?

GS: There were two big shipments that came from Woodbury. One was from employees that sent packages over last Christmas, so Christmas '08, and in the packages were a collection of children's toys, school supplies, and Woodbury pencils and pins.

They were shipped out and I held onto them for a while because we didn't have a ready place, but shortly after we started forming a relationship with a particular school and especially a school. And I brought those care packages in one day when we didn't have any military humanitarian support, all we had was Woodbury care packages.

This was a school of 200 or so students. And we just had a few packages, but enough pencils and pieces that we were able to lay them out and to give every student something. Maybe it was just a pencil, maybe it was a stuffed bear, and we tried to do it age appropriate. But every student that day got something from the care packages from Woodbury, and the response was overwhelming.

They had nothing. They were sitting on dirt floors and classrooms that had windows that were broken out. They didn't have chalkboards, pencils or books. And here, suddenly, they had paper, they had a couple children's books and toys that we gave to the Afghan military with us to present.

It had a pretty positive influence. We already had some success in that village. They were friendly to us, but this cemented the relationship.

WB: Did they know what to do with the items they were given?

GS: The younger ones that got pencils, the teachers explained to them. Or where it wasn't clear - there were a couple of children's books - my interpreter explained to the class.

And as we went from class to class, we had a chance to deliver a bit of a message about the U.S. presence and the Afghan long-lasting presence. What the goal was and obviously it was different for the very youngsters to the old, but we were able in the midst of this to engage the children with the message that they were able to bring back to their families, hopefully, that would bring a level of peace on why we were there and what we intended to do.

Shortly thereafter, my [Woodbury] neighborhood, the neighbors got together and one of my neighbors, Chad Martin, went house to house and collected the same type of school supplies and sent those over, so we had a refreshment of supplies mid-year, mid-'09.

And at that time we had a chance to do more significant work in this particular area. ... Again, we had at that time enough governmental supplies - flour and raw materials - to bring in the western world, to bring in the toys and the school supplies is something that they really don't have access to in any other way. So it kind of cemented the relationship.

WB: It's more than a goodwill gesture, it seems like it's strategic.

GS: Well, there's a strategic element, clearly, as the whole strategy for us is to help win over the population for the Afghan government. So there is a strategic nature to it, but there is just an equal amount of humanitarian aspect to it, to provide a goodwill to a people that for 30 or 40 years had nothing but violence and oppression, to know that there's somebody halfway around the world that cares enough about them to have sent the materials. I think that makes a difference, too.

WB: When you left, what were your impressions of U.S. involvement there and of the mission? Did you leave confident that it's headed in a positive direction?

GS: I left confident that the leadership in Afghanistan knew what needed to be done. What concerned me, however, was that it wasn't implemented yet. There was still a lot of disconnect between the different operations.

The successes that we saw needed to be replicated 1,000 times in some holistic way. The doctrine and our example show that you can have success, but the long-lasting part is the hard aspect, and if you don't have a strategy that plots out where you need to get 10 years from now, you're going to wander.

When I left it wasn't clear that that strategy was in place yet.

WB: Would you like to serve in that capacity again?

GS: If I were given an opportunity to do the same thing, I would go tomorrow. ...There is a profound sense of value to being able to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people that you associate with. I'm not talking about just the population, but the Afghan military as well, the interpreters. They are so appreciative of the work that we do.

It was a tremendously rewarding experience to be there and to give them access to resources that were available, but beyond that just to help them learn to do things for themselves in a more effective way.

There's a lot of work to be done, and frankly it was difficult to leave knowing that.

WB: You received a Bronze Star.

GS: The Bronze Star was in recognition for the overall effort of my tour there, which included some successes in the counter-insurgency effort in the area that I was responsible for.

WB: How did you measure those successes?

GS: The successes that my team was able to bring to Afghanistan were measured in terms of territory and population that formed an alliance with the government and turned their back toward the Taliban. And it was a combination of combat operations and humanitarian relief and a partnership with my Afghan counterparts that provided that success.

Maybe I would emphasize the latter because the combat operations, frankly, for the U.S. military are pretty easy. It's not trivial by any means and there's obviously great cost [with combat operations], but I think my personal successes were far greater in the relationships that I was able to build with the Afghans on a personal level that allowed us to make progress in ways that otherwise couldn't have been done.

WB: You have an interesting story about a Woodbury lapel pin that was worn by an Afghan soldier.

GS: In our last opportunity to engage in this school, we went there with my final Woodbury gifts that had come from care packages, and we had laid out all of the gifts that were going to be presented, so that the whole school could kind of see it.

And one of the gifts that came in a care package from Woodbury was a small bag of lapel pins that had Woodbury's oak tree and the Woodbury logo. And the intent was for us to help the Afghan soldiers to distribute the gifts to the school children.

The next day arrived and I was walking along the base - the Afghan army base - and coming from the other direction was one of the soldiers that had come with us. I noticed above his left pocket was one of the Woodbury pins. He had taken it and he had no idea really what it was, but he had put it on his uniform in the same way that he would put (on) a medal of honor. And he was walking around proud to have been associated with a U.S. operation.

It was a proud moment to see Woodbury displayed in such a manner, despite the fact that it should have been given to a child versus a soldier. [Laughs] But he was clearly very proud of the relationship and the association with the U.S.

That's pretty powerful because the relationship with the [Afghan] national army with the western force is a fragile one, and here was a soldier - a 20-year-old soldier - walking proudly of that association.

WB: You had mentioned that a Woodbury flag flew over there.

GS: Woodbury had sent a flag to travel around Afghanistan. In association with an American flag, when I had an opportunity I raised the flag of Woodbury over whatever territory we were in. ...The idea was to show my Afghan counterparts the support of my hometown, and that was important to me, too. So in the deserts of eastern Afghanistan, it was flown from watchtowers, it was flown from the desert floor and points in between.

WB: How difficult is it to transition back into civilian life at home?

GS: For me the transition was easy, mainly because of the widespread support of my colleagues, my family, my friends, my neighbors that were gracious in allowing me time to ease back into society.

When I arrived back in Woodbury on a Sunday and I was sitting at home thinking about what am I going to do tomorrow, there was only decision and that was to come into work. I came into work the very next day. Again, it was an easy transition because of the support and kindness of my colleagues and friends.

The difficult part has been the loss of connection of the soldiers that are still there, but most especially the Afghans that I had formed pretty close personal relationships with and have very difficult ability to communicate with now, so that's been the most difficult part.