Messaging is a key component in winning the hearts and minds of those in the Middle East, as well as ensuring people back home stay informed about what’s happening overseas. On May 30, the 122nd Public Affairs Operations Center of the Washington Army National Guard mobilized for active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the rest of the Guard, the 122nd is made up of soldiers who have civilian day jobs and then work in public affairs for the Guard during training and on orders. These 22 soldiers left their jobs, family and friends for 10 months to help tell the multinational and joint military stories in the Middle East.
The Army’s deployment plan split the 122nd in two segments – 16 soldiers to work with Special Operations Forces in Iraq and the other six to assist with the Resolute Support, NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Col. Stanley Seo of Kenmore is a captain in the King County Sherriff's Office and commands the 122nd. "Remember," Seo would say with a grin, "work hard, have fun, stay safe and take care of each other!"
Following mobilization training in Texas, the unit headed to their assigned locations in Kuwait and Iraq. For the six traveling to Afghanistan, they endured an uncomfortable five-hour flight from Kuwait, avoiding Iranian airspace. The crowded C-130 transport plane landed at Bagram Airport and once there, the jet-lagged group shifted their duffle bags across the hot tarmac and boarded helicopters headed for Kabul.
Flying over the countryside, the group caught glimpses of an ancient pastoral landscape with alternating patches of green plants and trees within mudbrick enclosures. As the aircraft climbed higher up and into a valley, acres of primitive brick factories each with a smoking chimney and neatly stacked bricks left drying in the sun came into view. Closer to the city, flat-roofed rural homes and farms gave way to more modern concrete buildings intersected by urban roads and infrastructure.
At an elevation of approximately 6,000 feet, Kabul is Afghanistan's largest city with five million people. Through a smoky haze, the poorer neighborhoods of blue, green and grey dwellings climbed high into the craggy mountains surrounding the city, each of their precarious foundations carved into and taking advantage of any weakness in the rocky terrain.
After landing in Kabul at the Resolute Support Headquarters’ helipad nicknamed the "Soccer Field," the soldiers moved their numerous bags out of the rotor dust into temporary housing co-located in between densely packed NATO enclaves. Much like a small international village, oddly shaped streets meandered around two- to three-storied prefabricated buildings, which were surrounded by fortress-like concrete blast walls. The concrete walls protect offices, meeting rooms, shops, restaurants and dormitories for more than 40 NATO nations, including the United States. The narrow streets at Resolute Support Headquarters (RSHQ) were alive with diverse groups of service members. As the combat clothing varied, so did their languages.
Leadership assigned Capt. Benjamin Burbank and Capt. James Deakins of Spokane and Yelm, respectively, the task of manning the day and night positions in the media situational awareness room at RSHQ. Burbank, a technical writer by trade, blended in seamlessly with the multi-media, high-energy environment in the situational awareness room during the day. Deakins, former commander of the 2nd Battalion, 146th Field Artillery Regiment, also found himself comfortable processing and verifying media input from all over the U.S. and Afghanistan at night.
In the situational awareness room, Burbank and Deakins act mostly as information filters. They take in a large amount of information and break it down into clear and concise statements to make the facts more easily digestible for decision makers. Afghan advisors who work there are also an important part of the process because they ensure that incoming or outgoing cultural nuances are not lost in translation.
"Working at NATO and USFOR-A headquarters is a great opportunity to interact with military and civilian advisors from all over the world," Burbank said.
Both captains, in their alternating shifts, work together as an efficient team to identify and craft important public affairs messaging for RSHQ and NATO commands.
Staff Sgt. Michael Tietjen of Stanwood, a Seattle police officer and Army photojournalist, received orders to assist the NATO/Italian Command and the 207th Corps of the Afghanistan Special Forces to develop public messaging.
"Essentially, I am a conduit and facilitator,” Tietjen said. “I work with and advise all of the organizations in the western part of Afghanistan to get information to the people and the government in a factual and timely manner."
Maj. Eric Trovillo of Yelm is tasked to assist the NATO/German Command and the Afghan Special Forces 209th Corps with their public messaging.
"There are many different dynamics here, working with other nations’ soldiers,” Trovillo said. “I like working with the local Afghans who wish to make their country a better place.”
Trovillo, a state technician who works at the Construction and Facilities Management Office on Camp Murray, now works in concert with the Germans and Afghans not only getting the local event information back to RSHQ but also crafting outgoing messages as accurately as possible.
Seo and Master Sgt. Neal Mitchell, a Veterans Affairs contractor from Oak Harbor, received an assignment at the Combined Joint Psychological Operations Task Force (CJPOTF). Seo assumed command of CJPOTF and Mitchell took up his job as the manager of the Afghan social media team. The task force is a respected and long-standing NATO organization, which utilizes television, radio and social media to broadcast news, information and messages across Afghanistan.
At CJPOTF, Romanian, Italian and Czech Republic soldiers, as well as highly specialized civilians who are experts in media operations, have for years run and managed the infrastructure.
“The beating heart of the institution is that here at CJPOTF; Afghans speak authentically to Afghans,” said Mitchell.
Day and night, local broadcasters transmit the day's important events. Afghan related topics such as human trafficking, police, army and government efforts to defeat ISIS-K as well as the most recent peace talks with the Taliban are all discussed and debated.
As the team settled into a work routine, the initial confusion evaporated and the soldiers with the 122nd began to better understand the bigger picture.
“With time, uncertainty transitions into clarity and that is what has happened for us in Afghanistan,” Seo said. “We now understand the need for the international commitment as well as for the necessary achievement of a political settlement which will not only ensure the safety of this nation but for the rest of the world.”