Robert Carlson, a branch chief in the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, is also a Brigadier General Select in the U.S. Army Reserves. In May, he was called to active duty to serve as the chief of staff for the U.S. Agency for International Development delegation in Kabul. Below is part of a letter he sent to work colleagues about his experiences in Afghanistan.
I’ve been in Afghanistan approximately six weeks and have traveled the entire country from east to west and north to south. Afghanistan is very rugged with harsh environmental and primitive, subsistence living conditions. Daily temperatures this summer in the southern and western parts of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan and Iran are consistently over 110 degrees, with steady winds that feel like a hot blow dryer and cause perpetual dust clouds. I have not seen one drop of rain since I arrived.
After completing many weeks of pre-mobilization training with USAID and the military, I was deployed on June 24th for Afghanistan. What a shock to the senses when I arrived in Kabul! Besides the heat and air quality being quite oppressive, everything was in a state of lock-down due to security concerns posed by the Taliban. I quickly jumped into an armored SUV and headed through the city to the US Embassy. Many stretches of the drive were reminiscent of the movie “Mad Max,” with an apocalyptic backdrop of bombed out buildings and piles of rubble, armed guards and military vehicles positioned every 50 meters along the main road and multiple security check-points.
Within the first week of assuming duties as Chief of Staff of USAID, I went on three missions with the Ambassador to various locations around the country. In one instance we started taking incoming mortar rounds during a meeting – quite the wake-up call! In another area our helicopter had to take evasive maneuvers to elude potential incoming fire – rough on the stomach if you don’t like roller-coaster effects! Quite a contrast to what I’d been doing a month early — sporting a coat and tie and working in the air conditioned offices of the NRC.
My typical work schedule is 6 1/2 days a week, 14 to 16 hour days. The days are long and nights are short, and the weeks seem to run into each other after awhile. It’s very easy to lose your sense of time here. I’m fortunate to have a private 8×12-ft room with a small toilet, sink, and shower. Most of my military brethren are two to three persons per similar living area with no latrine facilities in the room. My room is in a “container” building surrounded by sandbags and concrete barriers, and the roof is reinforced to protect against mortar fire.
As part of my job, I attend a lot of the high-level meetings with visiting U.S. Senators, high ranking military officers and Afghan government officials. Often the focus of these discussions is on the US’s ability to help build capacity among the Afghans to become self-sufficient after we withdraw. However, corruption and graft within the government, ethnic tensions, an ongoing insurgency and a very low national literacy rate are very challenging issues.
Still, I am happy to be here serving my country in a way quite different than how I was serving while working in the NRC. I do hope to be home and back at my office soon.