By Michele Bourdieu, with photos and captions by Erik Campbell
Editor's Update, Dec. 9, 2010: Keweenaw Now was asked to remove several photos from the original version of this article for security reasons.
CALUMET -- U.S. Army 1st Lt. Erik Campbell of Calumet, who recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, is a different kind of soldier.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Erik Campbell spent some vacation time in Calumet with his parents, Anita and Paul Campbell, after his recent return from a humanitarian assignment in Afghanistan. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)
In 2008, shortly after graduating from Northern Michigan University with a major in International Studies (including overseas study in Morocco) and ROTC, Campbell spent a year in the Army's Infantry Officers Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He spent three months of that year in Army Ranger School specialized leadership training before being sent to a remote area of Afghanistan, in the Shaunkrai Valley, about 100 miles from Kabul.
Since Campbell's unit (the 10th Mountain Division) was already in Afghanistan when he returned to Ft. Drum, New York, after his training course, he flew to his Afghanistan assignment alone. On arrival at Bagram Airfield, he actually ran into his former National Guard unit from Calumet (1431st Engineering Co.), who were about to return home.
"I saw some friendly faces," he said.
The area of Campbell's assignment included a number of villages the Army wanted to influence through communication and humanitarian aid, with the help of USAID (United States Agency for International Development). The Army's hope is to establish trusting relationships with local leaders so that the villagers won't be allied with the Taliban.
"We figured they were on the fence," Campbell said. "We didn't know if the Taliban was communicating with them, because they were so close to the Pakistan border."
One idea was to build a road in the area and have the villagers work on the road. It would provide employment for people from eight villages.
Campbell noted an important part of his assignment was to develop relationships with local police departments, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan border police.
"We worked with those three bodies, and we tried to partner up with them as much as we could and to give these guys a mission," he said.
Some types of aid would be given to the people through the local police, in order to give them a better image.
It was essential to develop a relationship with the village elders, who usually trusted the Afghan military more than they did the American soldiers, Campbell noted.
"Once you got into these villages you'd try to summon the elders," he said.
This was important, he explained, because without elder support people wouldn't come out of their houses and speak to you.
Campbell's team worked closely with a group of American anthropologists working in the area.
"These guys knew all about the culture. They knew the language, and they would just help us get to know the people and what's going on in these villages."
One anthropologist working with Campbell's team was making a reference guide for the area. Like the Army team, he was working with a USAID developer.
Campbell soon realized how valuable the Ranger training was for his job of bringing humanitarian aid to Afghan villages. He first had to communicate with Afghan village leaders through an interpreter in order to find out what sort of projects were needed. These could range from books for a school to bridges, wells, roads, etc.
Campbell said he made his own reference guide of names and phone numbers of the elders. Most of the elders had cell phones or access to them.
"You have to have a tool kit," Campbell said. "You can't be one-dimensional. You can't just have the ability to pull a trigger. You must be able to communicate, inspire and provide guidance."
Campbell said his job involved leading a fire team of about five soldiers from his platoon of 35 into a village to find out what sort of aid the people needed. Each time he takes a team into a village, a 360-degree perimeter of vehicles surrounds it for protection.
"The main mission was humanitarian over there," he said. "It wasn't an active war where I was."
Nevertheless, the danger of a Taliban attack -- especially the possibility of being hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) -- was still present.
"That's the number-one killer," Campbell said.
One of these, with 75 lb. of explosives, did hit a vehicle in his convoy; but, thanks to the protective technology of the vehicle, no one was killed, although the gunner, positioned on top, had a concussion. The vehicle is called an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protector). Campbell described it as being like a Brinks armored car. These large, bullet-proof vehicles also protect against IEDs.
Here our mission was to bring a U.S. State Department representative to a meeting regarding the district government. Communication and cooperation with these local officials was just as important as getting along with the village elders. Here you see the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protector) vehicles we used for daily patrols parked as we waited for the meeting to finish.*
Campbell said the Infantry Officer Training he received was conventional, but the Ranger leadership training taught him to adapt -- to be flexible as well as decisive.
"It's not a conventional war anymore, so it takes leaders that know how to communicate," Campbell said. "You need to be able to turn off this conventional way of thinking 'He's the enemy.' It's not black and white. He might be with the Taliban, but at this time he's what we have so we have to work with him."
Campbell spent three months in Afghanistan and said he would like to return to work there again.
"That's my job," he said. "I think the Army needs good people to be in these leadership positions -- people that understand you need to communicate. It's not always going to be a fight."
*The Afghanistan photos in this article, and captions by Erik Campbell, are printed with permission. Please note that photos by visiting photographers are copyrighted and you must seek their permission for re-use. For Keweenaw Now photos, please see our policy under Creative Commons.
President Obama visited some of the American troops and Coalition partners at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan Sunday, March 28, during an unannounced visit for a discussion with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. See the New York Times article. See also the video of President Obama's speech: "My job here today is to say 'thank you' on behalf of the entire American people," Obama said to the troops.
Keweenaw Now says "thank you" to Erik Campbell for his humanitarian work and for the interview, photos and captions.