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Sergeant from Heuvelton advises Afghan troops

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HEUVELTON — Eight and a half hours ahead and nearly 7,000 air miles away from the north country, Sgt. Christopher J. Scott is fully immersed in the revitalization of Afghanistan.

“Nothing is routine. Anything can change at a moment’s notice,” Sgt. Scott said Thursday from an undisclosed location in Helmand, the largest of 34 provinces in Afghanistan, where he serves as a logistics adviser with the Embedded Training Team, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

Sgt. Scott’s regiment is part of Regimental Combat Team 5, 1st Marine Division, which works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to protecting the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces and enabling Afghan forces to assume security responsibilities within its area of operations to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.

A 2003 graduate of Heuvelton Central School, Sgt. Scott spends his days “shana ba shana” with the Afghan National Army. The Dari saying he has heard since he arrived in December translates as “shoulder to shoulder.” Afghan forces say it’s a way to describe someone’s work ethic and shows the effort they put in with others.

“My role, really, is as an adviser. I work in the logistics section, which covers their supplies, transportation and maintenance orders. Beans, bullets and Band-Aids is kind of what we use as the simple term in the military,” he said. “Coordinating transportation from location A to location B. Coordinating special equipment required for that task. Stuff like that.”

Residing in a location including a main Marine base and Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Sgt. Scott advises members of the Kandak — what he describes as the Afghan equivalent of a U.S. military battalion — on how to improve the efficiency of its military and security.

“My job is to advise their military on how to improve on how they do things, so they can have 100 percent control of the country,” he said.

Sgt. Scott said finding ways to build rapport with Afghan soldiers is something he’s been trained to do and very important to obtain their trust.

“They’re very independent. All we really do is advise. We really don’t do for them. We just help them figure out the best solutions to do for themselves,” he said.

Before arriving in Helmand, Sgt. Scott underwent both culture and language training. He said he was very surprised to learn for himself what Afghanistan is really like.

“The biggest thing is their culture and their way of doing everyday things. There are a lot of different tribes, with the Pashtun tribe being the very dominant tribe throughout the country. In their way of doing things, they place a lot of stock in their elders, for example,” he said. “The respect they have for their elders is like gold. What they say goes. I wasn’t expecting anything like that.”

The landscape, too, is different from what he expected.

“Fall time was as expected — a lot of sand. But we’re rolling into spring now. I can look from where I am and see green fields and totally bloomed trees. I see farmers getting their wheat every morning,” Sgt. Scott said, adding that a local “bazer,” or marketplace, sells modern items such as soda and cupcakes. “As primitive as you’d expect it to be, they’re doing pretty well.”

Despite the availability of Coca-Cola and Hostess snack cakes, the region he exists in is not as westernized as others in the area, Sgt. Scott said.

“There aren’t a lot of cars, but I’ve never seen as many motorcycles. Everyone’s got one. It’s nothing to pass a motorcycle with a family of five just going up the road, doing whatever they have to do,” he said.

People in Afghanistan “get along,” he added, “as they have before we got here and will for long after we’re gone. They’re used to us having a presence. It’s similar to Iraq. Get them on the right track and let them do their thing.”

When asked to describe a typical day, Sgt. Scott laughed.

“One day I could be advising them on the best way to fill out forms and order truck parts and the next day I could be trying to figure out how to get water supplied to one of their outer positions. The next day could be helping them update their ammunition count,” he said. “And, there’s the unfortunate case when all of those can wrap into one day, and that makes for a long day.”

The Marine base sits just over a berm from the Afghan National Army camp. Inside the Afghan camp are several sections, including administration, operations, intelligence, logistics, medical and communications.

“Each of us on the team has a counterpart in each one of those sections. We kind of stick to their culture in the daytime, because everyday American culture can be offensive. In the American office, we can kind of be ourselves. It’s a simple walkway through the berm to our shower facilities, dorm and mess hall,” he said. “They have the same amenities, but we try not to do anything that would take away from them. We respect their boundaries and stay engaged during the day, but as with anything or anybody, there’s a place to draw the line.”

While most Marines have little contact with the Afghan troops outside of military duty, Sgt. Scott goes the extra mile.

“About once a month, I’ll sit down and have dinner with them. They’re very hospitable people. What they’ll do is, for one tent they live in, one person will go out and get food for three. They’re always offering us their rice and bread, their meats and fruits. It’s almost like when you’re trying to be a good host and will offer anything.”

The idea of face time with the people Sgt. Scott lives and works with is nothing new. Back in Heuvelton, his family emphasized eating meals together growing up, and it’s something he’s trying to continue with his wife, Courtney, and 16-month-old son, Evan, back home on a North Carolina military base, where he’s stationed.

“We’re pretty fortunate to have some good amenities with our MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) tent here. Computers, Facebook and all that. In our office, we have a phone I can dial the DSN line and get Fort Drum and access any 315 number,” he said.

With Mother’s Day today, he said, he’s reserved some time to call his mother and stepfather and father and stepmother, as well as his in-laws, in St. Lawrence County.

“Most of the time when I make a call home, it’s to my wife and son in North Carolina, about twice a week. But I might email or take a night and call my parents or family and friends back home. I try to spread it out equal so everyone gets a chance to hear from me.

“I’ll be calling Mom on Sunday. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am, I wouldn’t hear the end of it. I’m keeping my schedule open Sunday.”

Sgt. Scott said his career in the military wasn’t something he’d planned.

“I was coming up towards graduation without anything in line. I wanted to get out of the area and do other things,” he said, indicating that the G.I. Bill and military benefits were attractive. “I decided to see where it went and what I’d do with it.”

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