Their civilian lives could not be more different, a city treasurer, a cop and a factory worker. But when they put on their uniforms and landed in Afghanistan, they shared common ground.
Back from the front lines on two-week leaves after serving six months training Afghan troops and police, the three local Army National Guard members have witnessed the struggles and successes of what was once considered the forgotten war, but no longer is.
More American soldiers are dying there than in Iraq, and the future of Afghanistan is anything but rosy, according to a draft of the almost completed National Intelligence Estimate and comments made earlier this week by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The war effort, Adm. Michael Mullen said, has been headed in the wrong direction for the last two years and will not improve until a new strategy linking Afghan and Pakistani issues is working.
Economic and political headway is also crucial, Mullen said.
None of this, of course, is news to the Guard members home on leave. They have witnessed corruption and its crippling impact on the struggling young democracy.
The dishonesty flourishes among senior Afghan officials, said Staff Sgt. James C. Parks, a car parts factory worker from Niagara Falls.
"Once the Afghan police recruits finish training, they get 9mm handguns and AK-47 rifles. There were some weapons left over and wound up being sold to the black market by Afghan commanders," Parks said. "You also see the Afghan generals using the Afghan police. They rent them out as bodyguards. It's a lot of corruption."
At least part of the solution, Parks says, is to send more military advisers to work with the recruits. "If there were enough, we could mentor the Afghans the right way," he said.
But it's more than a question of mentoring.
It comes down to two very different cultures with different value systems, according to Master Sgt. Edwin Garris, a Buffalo police officer.
"Our honor and ethics and morals are totally different. For an Afghan elder or a person of a particular ethnic group, they feel they deserve more than everyone else.
"A police chief may think he deserves money from the officers employed in his province because he's the most senior, the elder and the most educated, which doesn't say much because he has a third-grade education," Garris said.
What Westerners have to accept, he said, is that not all of our values will be embraced by a civilization that has done things differently throughout history.
"The key is they are not American citizens, and we can't expect them to accept our way of life and ethics," said Garris, who supports U.S. plans to increase troop levels in the coming months and believes the mission can succeed.
Since 300 Guard members from Western New York arrived in Afghanistan in late March, as part of the biggest call-up and deployment of New York State Guardsmen since World War II, they have seen many successes and some casualties. It will, they say, be a long struggle.
"There's no permanent victories or permanent failures," said 1st Lt. Robert G. Ortt, the North Tonawanda city treasurer. "It's an ebb and flow."
Their journey has taken them through many experiences that include firefights and deaths of friends, distribution of school supplies and chocolate, and a traditional Afghan feast.
They all seem to agree, though, that the Afghan people need to take control of their own destiny.
"Foreign armies do not win insurgencies," said Ortt, 29. "The people have to support the government, not us."
For that to happen, he says corruption needs to be reduced so that it does not cripple the Afghan government's ability to provide basic services to the people.
If stability is not achieved and coalition forces leave too soon, Ortt said, Afghanistan would revert into a safe haven for terrorists, "where the worst of the worst in the world" will go to plot the destruction of their enemies.
>His first firefight
Ortt's first combat experience occurred a few months after he arrived in Afghanistan.
"We were on a convoy, 12 or so Humvees on May 25, out to the Maruf District, which borders Pakistan, and we knew there was a chance for contact since we don't have a big presence there. We caught some insurgents off guard," Ortt said.
The enemy, on foot, was outnumbered and outgunned, but fought for two hours before the Afghan police and U.S. soldiers cleared the mountainous area.
Usually when insurgents are taken by surprise, they flee, Ortt said. But not this day.
"We later received intelligence a Taliban leader was among them and they had to defend his honor. That's their custom," said Ortt, whose vehicle came under direct fire. "We put enough fire down on the hills, and they ended up retreating.
"There was a bit of scariness. But at no point did I remember fear during it. There was an exhilarating adrenaline rush, and your training really kicked in. You get intently focused. After, you think, 'Holy cow, did that really just happen?' "
A battle can be a unifying experience, but that does not happen all the time and old rivalries can resurface, according to Parks.
His experiences of ethnic and tribal friction among Afghans, he said, put him in mind of racial strife in the United States.
"We were at a police substation and some of the Hazara guys were telling us that the Pashtun guys are the bottom of the barrel," Parks said, talking about two of the major tribes that populate Afghanistan. "But if you're Hazara or Persian, you have to fight for almost everything you want. The Pashtuns are the upper class."
If a Hazara gets the chance to make life difficult for a Pashtun, Parks said, it happens.
"A Pashtun police officer said he wanted to quit because the Hazara commander wasn't giving him his paycheck on time," he said.
Parks, 43, said he tries to play the role of diplomat and promote Afghan patriotism.
"I tell them not to quit, hang in there," he said. "I tell them you have to fight for your country."
That fight proved heartbreaking for Parks on the morning of June 21, when he was preparing to train recruits at the National Center for Police in Kandahar city.
"We got a message that Team War Hog was hit, and they knew it was 4 KIAs [killed in action]. I couldn't train. I was mad, I was upset," Parks said, explaining that three of the slain New York Guardsmen were in his squad.
To this day, Parks is haunted by the death of Spc. Nelson Rodriguez-Ramirez of Rochester.
"He became a father in January just before mobilization, and we let him stay at home so he could see the birth of his baby," Parks said.
Spc. Anthony Mangano and Sgt. Andrew Seabrooks, both from Long Island, were the other two victims from his squad and are also often on his mind.
"Mangano wrote to Hershey and they sent us a big box of chocolate. Every time we got in front of a police substation, the kids would come up and say 'chocolate, chocolate.' Mangano, the nice guy that he was, would give out the chocolate, and we all helped him," Parks said.
Garris, 43, returned home for his leave from Kabul with vivid images of U.S. soldiers serving as goodwill ambassadors.
"It's the everyday soldier that is actually responsible for our success. We've put in wells, delivered a lot of food and clothing, and books and pencils to schools," Garris said, repeatedly stressing that Buffalo Niagara can be proud of roughly 300 local soldiers who are there.
What stirs his heart the most, Garris said, is that many of these soldiers from the 2nd Squadron of the 101st Cavalry have written home and received school supplies that are distributed to Afghan children.
There are challenges, as well.
"Sometimes there are limitations because of the language barrier. It's difficult," said Garris, who coordinates mission objectives between the coalition forces and the Afghan military. "Not everything you want to say translates well into their language. You have to talk it through with the translator and eventually they get it."
And that is not the only challenge.
When Parks first arrived last March, he said he was astounded to see people living in mud huts and lacking access to clean water. At least in Iraq, where he had also served, people lived in concrete structures.
"What gets me is you see Afghans going to the creek and drinking water out of the creek. You see cows, goats and sheep drink out of the same water. Then a little farther down, maybe not even a mile in the same creek, you'll see people washing their cars and farther down from there, people are drinking from the creek," he said.
If more Americans could see that firsthand, Parks said, he is certain they would have a greater sense of gratitude for what they take for granted in this country.
>Grateful for leave
Within hours after returning home last week, Garris was making plans to take his family out to dinner. His wife, Cynthia, called his arrival nothing short of a "miracle." His three daughters were ecstatic and wept.
Yet, Garris says he is ready to return to Afghanistan.
"I tell my wife and my oldest daughter all the time that this is what I really enjoy, being a soldier. I think it's the camaraderie of it," he said.
Ortt, who headed back to Afghanistan Wednesday, shared his war experiences at a gathering at Stephen Sikora Post 1322, American Legion, in North Tonawanda.
He, too, spoke of his gratitude for small blessings.
Because he lives with Canadian soldiers from a forward operating base in Kandahar, he said he was able to watch last year's Stanley Cup playoffs -- even though he was 8,000 miles from home.
Ortt also spoke of the commitment he has seen from Afghan police officers, some of whom went without pay for three months earlier this year. Most still came to work.
"Some of them just believe in a better Afghanistan," said Ortt, noting "much of the progress that's being made [there] doesn't make the six o'clock news."
His best memory, the one he says he will never forget, is of a feast he attended at an Afghan police substation in the northeast section of Kandahar about six weeks ago.
"The Afghan commander and his men invited us to their substation for a sit-down Afghan style dinner. They held no expense back. We had watermelon, ram, steak, goat, lamb, pomegranates. There were grapes, flatbread and rice," he said of the elaborate meal.
What touched him was that "these guys don't have a lot of money and don't eat like that a lot of time," but were unsparingly generous.
Parks, a husband and father of two older children, said he is still readjusting to the 8 1/2 -hour time difference and jet lag.
"My family, my mother, that's what I enjoy. I enjoy driving down the street and not being afraid of getting blown up," Parks said.
And though Parks is home until Thursday, he says his thoughts are never very far from the Afghan police recruits he trains.
"You get good ones and you get bad ones. The ones that are really good, you wish you could spend more time with them and get them really trained up. The lazy ones are just there for the paycheck," he said.
For Afghanistan to flourish with lasting peace, Parks says, the key is economic stability.
"They want factories," he said. "They want work for the poor people."
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