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The Benelux role in Afghanistan

Oct 8, 2009

By Rachel Parks (USAG Benelux)

Over the last six years, NATO has served as a joint, allied command for the war in Afghanistan, and members of the Benelux community have played a prime role in that mission.

Currently, several members of the Benelux community are deployed in support of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Servicemembers from the SHAPE International Military Police, NATO Communications and Information Systems Services Agency, 650th Military Intelligence Group/Allied Command Counterintelligence, Armed Forces Network Benelux and USAG Schinnen Directorate of Public Works are among some partnering with a variety of nations in Afghanistan on a rotational basis.

Each member of the Benelux community who deploys with NATO fills a vital role within their respective national service, as well as one within a larger international picture.
Members of NATO's Communications and Information Systems Service Agency, who deploy from SHAPE, facilitate communications between NCSA headquarters and members of the ISAF staff.

One such member of NCSA, based at SHAPE and currently deployed to Afghanistan, is Maj. Pedro Espinoza.

Espinoza said the deployment within the international community in Afghanistan can be very similar to living and working in the international community at SHAPE.

"Every weekend there seems to be an international event. You get to see different cultures and leadership on both a personal and professional level, and you get to expand your horizons, as well," he said.

"Everyone supports the goals and directions of ISAF and the Commander of ISAF. Everyone also takes a lot of pride in their nation, but we're all on the same team and working to the same end," added Espinoza.

The exchange of information on a NATO deployment does not just pertain to one set job. Because 28 nations are members of NATO and 14 additional non-NATO countries contribute in some way, the deployed Servicemembers learn about international procedures and policies across a wide cross-section from the different militaries of the world.

"It's really an exciting environment to be in. You might think you have an answer, and then a co-worker from another country shares something. Now you have something else to put in your kit bag to overcome a future challenge," said Espinoza, as he recalled some of the most positive aspects of serving in a joint environment.

Espinoza added that the ability to train with members of other militaries serves NATO deployed Servicemembers well. While most nations go through some sort of training with their own element before they deploy, once they reach their destination in Afghanistan, they often take part in joint training with their international counterparts.

"We do international training that deals with the mission. We do joint training because we have a joint team. You could have a Canadian, a German, a Belgian, an American, all on the same team," said Espinoza. "You feel confident and prepared on the national level, as well as the international level.

"No matter what nationality you are, people have the same professional goals and they have the same hopes and dreams. We're all proud of what we're doing and honored and humbled to be part of the NATO mission," Espinoza continued.

One of Espinoza's coworkers is Hauptmann Werner Mueller-Goldau, a member of the German Army. Mueller-Goldau said the opportunity to serve in a deployed capacity with NATO was a very exciting event, one that challenges and enriches the lives of those who are able to take part in such a mission.

"You will see if you're serving in an international environment that all nations have their own culture. You will see that each nation has a different approach in their military culture. You are also out of your normal chain of command," said Mueller-Goldau. Being outside of one's own national element is part of the learning environment he added.

"Sometimes at the beginning, it can be a surprise, but you learn a lot in a matter of days or weeks," added Mueller-Goldau.

The group of international military police who deployed echoed the same ideas. While the deployment to Afghanistan is relatively short, they spend their time working with other military representatives from around the world in law enforcement related tasks.

The group of military police represented the NATO international and inter-service community by sending an American Soldier, an American Airman and a British Soldier on the deployment. The group said they find that working in an international environment is always unique, but that Servicemembers from around the world are always able to find common ground and work toward a standard goal, and in the meantime, learn new techniques or procedures that they can then incorporate into their own careers.

And due to the relatively short rotations from SHAPE, there is not only a limited amount of time to learn new lessons but a limited amount of time to complete the job deployed Servicemembers are filling.

Cpl. James O'Brien, the British SHAPE MP in Afghanistan said that working in the deployed environment with NATO has been a unique and sometimes challenging experience.

"You're working closely with various nationalities over a short period of time, and you really start to understand how people work," said O'Brien. He added that due to the nature of military police work, if there is an incident of some sort, even if it's something as minor as a traffic violation, there can be several different nationalities and cultures involved.

"In a situation like that, a lack of understanding and tolerance could create serious issues," O'Brien added, as he noted that working within the NATO environment at SHAPE, as well as in Afghanistan, has allowed him to build on his experiences with people from a variety of cultures.

Senior Airman DeJuan McWilliams, another SHAPE MP, is taking part in his first deployment with NATO. He spoke about the learning process he has gone through in the months he has been deployed.

"I've learned a lot from the Servicemembers from the many countries that I work with. Hopefully, when I deploy again I'll be able to use the things I learned here to help build on the experience I have already," he said.

McWilliams added that he and other native English speakers have taken on the unique role of unofficial tutor during the deployment.

"I'm able to contribute when it comes to helping my coworkers with the English language. Since there are only a handful of us working together, we form a pretty strong bond in a short period of time," he said.

And while there are some similarities between a NATO post in Europe and a NATO post in Afghanistan, there are also differences. Mueller-Goldau said the main difference he has noticed between his job in Afghanistan and his job in Europe is the speed of events. "The main difference is the tempo. It's very quick here, and there are many new tasks in a short time. If you're serving here you have to rely on people and you build very strong relationships with your team. The camaraderie here is very strong," he added with pride.

In addition, while deployed Servicemembers from around the world build professional and personal partnerships with their international counterparts, Espinoza said that people might be surprised to learn that there is also a partnership of sorts with local members of the Afghan community.

"Every so often, the Afghan personnel here have a market type event where people can go out shopping. They can send something home to their family and it helps the economy here. So it's not just the NATO countries that partner, but there is truly a partnership with the Afghan locals," he said as he described another unique aspect of the deployment.

Espinoza and Mueller-Goldau stressed that the experience of deploying in support of NATO and ISAF has allowed them to expand their horizons and increase their skill sets through personal and professional experiences they might not have in a one-nation setting.

They both said the support they receive from their respective chains of command makes the entire deployment run smoothly. And they added that the families of those who deploy within NATO are a large part of the success of the overall mission.

"Many of us volunteered to come down here and be part of the team that supports NATO and the mission. For all of us down here this is only possible with support from entities that we regularly interface with, as well as family and friends. Their families support them and are proud of the mission and it's a lot easier to focus on our job because of that multi-faceted support," said Espinoza.

As operations continue in Afghanistan, the partnerships forged from NATO and the experiences gained in a joint environment can only help to strengthen the country and the ties between militaries and Servicemembers from around the globe.

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