Saturday, January 24, 2009

Afghan Ronny on the Radio

I first encountered Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita in September of last year at breakfast in the dining facility at Camp Eggers, Kabul. He was a man in civilian clothing whom I had never seen before, and he was reaching for a breakfast burrito on the steam table. “My advice,” I told Rokita, almost reflexively, “is that you skip the burrito.” Most of the breakfast fare here is decent, but not the breakfast burrito. It features what appears to be a soft, flour tortilla shell; but that casing, upon handling, actually feels like the stiff cylinder of cardboard that makes for the centerpiece of a toilet paper roll. Within the shell is a concoction with the consistency of tapioca pudding, the color of aged egg yolk, and the taste of an exotic, spiced chalk.

Rokita took a burrito anyway, a choice he later regretted; but when he turned to me, surely wondering who the hell was I to have the audacity to tell him what to eat, I noticed he was wearing a baseball cap with the name of my home state, Indiana, stenciled on the front. “Are you from Indiana?” I asked. Rokita looked surprised. I suppose he was waiting for me to tell him that his hash browns were inedible. Instead, he said, “Yes, I am. Are you?” And at that we started small talk, as native Hoosiers are wont to do, and sat down to chat some more while we ate.

Rokita was visiting US military bases in both Iraq and Afghanistan with a few other state secretaries to investigate if military personnel had adequate access to absentee ballots for the upcoming election. He was delighted to hear that I not only had received my ballot from the Howard County Clerk in Kokomo, Indiana, but that I had mailed it the previous day. I was impressed with Rokita’s professionalism as he made no mention of the candidates on the ballot, or what I thought of the players in the upcoming election. All that interested him was the ease with which I was able to obtain an absentee ballot while deployed in a war zone.

I met with Rokita later in the day as at breakfast, shortly after he confessed that he should have taken my advice on the burrito, he told me that he would like to meet any other personnel at Eggers from Indiana, as he had gifts of state flags that he would like to distribute. I found a Navy petty officer I know who resides in South Bend, and we joined with Rokita to receive our flags and run them up the flag pole for a photo op shortly before he left the base. As he was departing, Rokita asked me if there was anything his office in Indianapolis could do for or send to the military personnel at Eggers.

The situation at Camp Eggers

Although Camp Eggers is a base situated in the capital city of a country at war, and although IED strikes and rocket attacks are not nearly as common here as in other more restive areas of the country, danger still exists. Just last week, a suicide bomber with a carload of explosives detonated himself and his load along the perimeter wall of Eggers, inflicting many Afghan casualties in addition to killing one US soldier and severely wounding another. It was the biggest blast so close to home since Eggers was settled as a military base several years ago. Personnel from Eggers cannot leave base unless we are on a trip essential to our work, which means we are restricted to base for much of our time here. I live in Kabul, but I feel that I know only those parts of the city I regularly drive past, and I know those areas only by sight.

Although personnel at Camp Eggers are for the most part isolated from the rest of Kabul, our existence is not one of discomfort. We have hot meals, usually enjoy hot showers, and can exercise in a well-equipped gym. I must share a room with another officer; but I can buy internet access for my personal use, and a small military exchange here has most of the toiletries I need, along with snacks that I should do without. We even have a Thai restaurant on base, with an authentic Thai staff that looks to be suffering in extremis from the winter cold; as well as a small pizza restaurant. We are comfortable, especially when compared to the military personnel forward deployed to more austere bases found in remote Afghanistan. And even those forward deployed personnel are living pretty comfortably relative to the millions of poor Afghans who regularly go without food, proper clothing, and decent shelter.

A few times every month military personnel from Eggers embark on a humanitarian mission and visit a needy area of Kabul where we distribute donations of clothing, food and toys sent to us from people in the US. Oftentimes we are lacking toys, so I suggested to Rokita, when he asked what he could do for us, that he recommend his office staff collect toys and send them here so that we would have gifts to distribute to Afghan children. Rokita was obviously touched that I requested toys for the local children instead of comfort items for myself and the other Americans. I can only assume that he didn’t notice the availability of Thai cuisine on base and the stack of Snickers bars on my desk. Regardless, in emails subsequent to his visit, I coordinated with Rokita and his staff the logistics to get toys collected by his office in Indiana to the children of Kabul. I distributed most of the holiday stock his office sent to a refugee camp filled with Afghan families recently returned from Pakistan who were living in the most squalid conditions I have seen since I left the house I shared with six other male friends my senior year at Marquette University. I photographed several of the children with their toys, and sent them to Rokita’s office where they are now posted on the Indiana Secretary of State website at the link below.

A short statement on official visitors to places like Afghanistan

The title of this article speaks of a recent appearance by Afghan Ronny on the radio, an episode I will address shortly. First, though, I would like to give an opinion on the propensity of public officials and military leaders to travel long distances in order to ascertain exactly what is happening in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan where American military personnel are fighting wars. These trips can be categorized as fact-finding missions, or junkets, or boondoggles, depending on your point of view. As a deployed Naval officer who has met, while in theater, his congressman, his home’s secretary of state, and several Admirals with collars full of stars, I support most of these visits. These people are responsible for the policy decisions that eventually determined my deployment to Afghanistan, and they are responsible for supporting me and the overall mission of the US military while I am here. I am not sure what these visits cost the American taxpayer. I’m not even sure if all the visitors I have met traveled on the government dime. But whatever the cost, and to whomever, I applaud the travel.

You simply cannot fully appreciate the situation here from a chair in the United States. Additionally, a minority of senior public officials these days have military experience. They, along with the senior military officers based in the US, need to see first-hand what a war entails, and how a war progresses. They need to hear stories directly from the personnel who enact the executive and legislative decisions of the country. They need to see how a conflict and US policy decisions affect the local populations that absorb the brunt of any war’s violence. And since these dignitaries all have to fly into the theatre of war on military airplanes, most are able to experience the joy of travel in Air Force C-130s and C-17s.

Now about the radio appearance

But about my radio spot. A few weeks ago, a staffer from Secretary Rokita’s office contacted me and invited me to participate in a radio show Rokita would host on AM 1430 in Indianapolis. Rokita wanted me to talk about the toy donation program for Afghan children that his office supported, and also to speak about my situation in Kabul. Those who know me are aware that the only thing I enjoy more than hearing myself talk is to hear myself talk to the media. I quickly sought and received authorization from my commanding colonel to participate on the condition that I mention his name and excellent leadership while on the air. I also alerted family in Indianapolis and Kokomo, Indiana to tune into and tape the segment that I was sure would serve as the platform from which I would launch my own media career after broadcasters recognized my eloquence and brilliance. My sister Therese assured me that procuring a tape of my “performance” would be simple, as her husband, my brother-in-law Steve, is the sales director for the station.

When I called into the show on January 21st and spoke to Rokita during the newsbreak before my segment, he asked if I would mind responding to callers while on the air. No problem, I said, thinking to myself that it was an excellent way to start bonding with my future loyal audience. But I will admit that I also wondered if anyone listening would have questions for me. It’s not like I am a celebrity. Not yet, anyway. But my first few minutes went well. I cannot remember all of what I said, only that I did most of the talking; and when I finally shut my mouth Rokita went immediately to a commercial break.

I could hear the station staff over the phone during the break, and someone announce that one and then two callers were on hold. Unbelievable, I thought. The residents of central Indiana so quickly have recognized my genius and affability, and are calling to speak with me after only a few minutes on the air. I braced for the first caller, wondering what I might be asked. I rehearsed answers to possible questions about my educational background, my motivation, my idyllic childhood and adolescent years in Kokomo. Then Rokita introduced the caller: Therese, my sister. And she didn’t ask me anything at all, but proceeded to tell the listening audience what a nice and service-minded guy I am. She judges me short on brilliance, but high on benevolence. Not bad, I suppose, and I was thankful for her comments; but I wondered how this use of precious airtime was going to further my budding media career.

I was able to ramble on myself once more shortly after Therese hung up. Again, I cannot remember exactly what I was saying, only that I was doing all the talking and Rokita, bless him, did not interrupt me. But then, after another monologue of several minutes, I heard a dial tone and realized that my precious connection to AM 1430 was no longer patent. I have no idea when the phone line disconnected, nor what of my disquisition my audience had missed. I furiously dialed to reconnect with the station. I reached Rokita again, and he laughed off the disconnection and told me not to worry about the interruption as he was going to commercial break at about the time I suddenly dropped from the airwaves. I knew I couldn’t let the severed broadcast disrupt my focus and concentration, as my second caller now awaited a conversation with me. Rokita chuckled as he introduced her, saying something like “I think you know this caller as well.” It was my mother.

Most mothers, having not seen a son for twelve months and surely worrying about him that entire time since he was deployed to a war zone, would probably spend the first few moments of a phone call, even one conducted in public over the radio airwaves, inquiring about her son’s well-being. Not my mom. At least not during this call. She and select friends of hers also had been sending me toys for Afghan children; and, after the briefest of salutations to me, she used her airtime to let central Indiana know what items where appropriate and inappropriate for delivery to Afghanistan. After a minute or so, Rokita managed to verbally muscle both my mother and I into a moment of silence, something that had been nearly impossible for him to accomplish with my family up to that point in the show. He slyly asked my mother if there was anything she wanted to tell the audience about me, perhaps a story of my childhood or teenage years. I quickly interjected at that point, insisting that my mother was to say nothing even remotely controversial. I am a physician and I have a professional reputation to uphold, and my mother maintains a reservoir of facts about me that, if revealed, would cause a congressional confirmation committee to collectively gasp and ask for a recess. Thankfully, another commercial break then intervened.

I felt obliged to end my segment of the show by thanking Rokita for allowing my family to turn his radio program into a verbal Willy reunion. I also assumed that my brother-in-law at 1430 AM had arranged for my sister and mother to be the only callers on the show. Not so, my sister told me. She did not even know that I would be taking callers until Rokita announced the open phone lines when my segment began. My sister then called my mother, who reportedly was driving around Kokomo with my father as they could get the broadcast in their car but not in their home, and told her to call the station. Both reported that they had no problem getting through to speak to me. I guess I wasn’t drawing as much of the attention of central Indiana as I had hoped.


Gloria said...

Is there a podcast of the show available somewhere? Or maybe we can have a special "listening" get-together when you get back! (In fact, we're excited to see the "live" version of you soon. :) )

sandra said...

Jeff thinks I'm losing my mind because I'm lol by myself in the living room reading your blog.

Counting the days till we see you!


Texas Tom said...

Looking forward to having you back too. When are you returning to the States?

Anonymous said...

Not really funny, except to your friends maybe.

It could be they are just being nice, as they feel sorry for you.

Anonymous said...

Well I think it is funny...and I laughed :) Take care Ronny, and keep writing. Great to hear from you. Anne in AK

Anonymous said...

Afgan Ronny is gay.