Air Force Master Sgt. Irene Mason heads the line of AF-PAK Hands graduates preparing to leave Baltimore-Washington International Airport for posts overseas.
WASHINGTON (April 23, 2010) – “It’s been my experience my whole career, that if you go into a country and you make an effort to speak their language, it has an enormous impact,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program inaugural class on Nov. 12, 2009.
Roughly five months later, the first group of 32 soldiers and airmen from a cross section of career specialties boarded their plane at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, near Baltimore, in the late hours April 21 and departed for Kabul.
The servicemembers have completed a rigorous 16-week training program consisting of culture and intensive language training at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, Calif., followed by service-specific deployment training.
In short, the idea of the program is not to reinvent the wheel each time a new servicemember replaces someone returning from a deployment, but to have a cadre of military and civilian experts that will rotate into key staff and leadership positions that are in-theater and the continental United States to provide continued expertise in support of U.S. objectives in the region.
Their training has prepared them to be a cadre of AF-PAK experts, providing long-term continuity to foster better relationships with Afghans, Pakistanis and allies across the joint, interagency and multi-national spectrum. The program itself falls under the direct oversight of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The training was intense,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class David Jorge, a father of five. Jorge is the only Army enlisted member in the first deployment cycle.
“We truly leaned on each other a lot during the training,” he said. “Actually, I don’t think any of us could have made it on our own.”
Jorge is one of the 12 graduates from the very first course and he will focus on working with his Afghan counterparts on improving their counter improvised explosive device capability and training during his AF-PAK Hands tenure.
“Knowing the language and culture are critical elements to the mission’s success,” said Jorge, who’d studied the Dari language.
One of Jorge’s classmates, Air Force Maj. Christy Barry, a civil litigation lawyer from Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C., also volunteered for the program to be deployed at the same time as her Army captain husband, Seamus, who’s currently a lawyer deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghansitan. But, that’s not the only reason she volunteered for the program.
“I see this as a way to be directly involved, have my hands on and be a part of history,” said Barry, whose previous deployment experience includes a year-long tour working with an Iraqi review board on detainee operations. “I think this is a great program and wish we, as a military, would have thought of it sooner in this war.”
Soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guard members assigned to the program will serve a three-to-five-year commitment with the overseas tours of duty in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Members can expect to pull two to three one-year tours overseas during the duration of their assignment.
“My wife doesn’t love the idea of me being gone. She is supportive and understands though, and sees me breaking ground as a part of this program,” Jorge said.
There are approximately 280 in-theater positions, predominantly officers, but including several senior enlisted members as well, with a handful designated for Pakistan. Currently, nearly 180 servicemembers are in training and the goal is to have more than 800 in the program once it’s fully manned. Upon arrival in Afghanistan, the group will receive additional language and counterinsurgency training. From there, they will spread out to various parts of the country for immersion with their Afghan counterparts.
Jorge believes the program will make a positive impact in the theater of operations.
“If we are used in the theater the way we are intended, I honestly believe, we and this program, can make or break the war,” he said. “Only time will tell.”