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Afghanistan, the Defense Industry, and Berklee Converge in Austin
You never know when and where chapters of life will intersect
This post is a slight detour from my usual format, but I recently had such a fascinating “small world” episode I couldn’t resist writing about it. Given how my life and career path resembles a Roomba traversing a living room, there are a lot of chapters of my life, and a surprising number intersected during a recent work trip to Austin, Texas.
Growing up, I always associated Austin with music — who didn’t, right? We’ve all seen Austin City Limits over the years.
Despite my time in the music business, I didn’t visit Austin until November 2016, and that trip was because I was covering a defense technology conference as a journalist.
At the time, the city was emerging as a major tech hub, to the point that the Defense Department launched an office of the Defense Innovation Unit there. Known then as DIUx, for experimental, DIU is an office charged with finding and maturing commercial technologies that could have defense applications, and since 2016 I have frequently reported on DIU.
I returned to Austin in September 2022 to cover another defense technology conference, and last month I graduated to the status of “moderator” at the Fed Supernova defense technology conference in the city.
While drinking from the firehose of panels about defense innovation, advanced manufacturing, AI, and autonomous technologies that make someone from Generation X think about movies like “War Games” and “The Terminator,” three other chapters of my life converged in the city.
During the first morning of the conference, I popped out of the keynote speech in the Capital Factory into the lobby and saw a familiar face among the attendees. I had to double check his nametag to be certain it was who I thought it was as I had not seen him since late October 2012, just a few weeks after I moved to Afghanistan for NPR.
I knew him as Lt. Col. Whit Wright, commander of the Army’s 1-91 Cavalry Squadron. I had embedded with his unit in Logar province to report on how the Army was progressing with helping Afghan forces secure the strategically significant province and train the Afghans to eventually take responsibility for security in the province. You can read/listen to that story here.
At the time, the United States and Afghanistan had not agreed on a new security pact that would allow U.S. forces to remain in the country after the end of 2014 when Operation Enduring Freedom and International Security Assistance Force missions were to conclude.
Thus, the goal at the time was to have Afghan forces ready to be self-sufficient by the end of 2014. As it later played out, the countries did sign a security agreement and U.S. and NATO forces remained in the country until 2021, but Afghan forces weren’t ready and able to maintain security seven years after the initial target date of withdrawal and handover.
It was evident in October 2012 that it was going to take years, if not decades, for the Afghan security forces to be anything resembling self-sustaining and able to keep the Taliban at bay without substantial intelligence, logistics, and other support from the United States and NATO. During my embed, I went out on a morning patrol with 1-91 troops in Baraki Barak, a part of Logar province where Afghan forces were struggling against dug-in Taliban fighters. Here’s an excerpt from that report.
A mile or so to the south of the base, 2nd Lt. John Alulis leads an early morning foot patrol through frost-covered fields to the village of Wawakel.
"As of right now, our mission is to kind of help the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] stabilize the district, so that come the final American withdrawal, they can take over," he says.
The Afghan forces include the army, police and the intelligence agencies. Despite the urgency of getting them trained and in the lead, there are none to be found on this patrol.
That's in no small part because of the surge of insider attacks. At least 60 NATO personnel have been killed this year in confirmed cases of Afghan security forces turning their weapons on coalition troops.
The platoon pushes on across a small stream and through the soft dirt of barren fields. Alulis ponders whether having Afghan forces on patrol with them would increase or decrease the level of threat they face.
"It's all based on the personal relationships that they have with locals," he says. "Sometimes they can be unpopular because their fire discipline isn't the same as ours — they like to shoot first and maybe ask questions after that. They perform well and badly, all on the same patrol."
That last line, “They perform well and badly, all on the same patrol,” summed up so much of Afghanistan and the security forces.
Anyhow, I spent a little more than a week with the 1-91 at three different bases in Logar seeing the mixed bag of security in the province. Forward Operating Base Shank stayed true to form and took incoming rocket or mortar fire each day I was there, continuing what was something like a 30-plus-day streak.
You can read more about that whole embed in this post I wrote last October on the 10-year anniversary of that embed.
But what’s relevant here is during that embed, I spent a fair amount of time with Lt. Col. Wright, who was candid and clear-eyed about the state of security and the Afghan forces in the province. He made no attempt to dress things up or sell me a narrative that in any way deviated from the facts on the ground.
Anyhow, I hadn’t seen him since that embed, so running into him in civilian clothes (he retired from the Army and is in the private sector) in Austin was a shock.
We ended up having a long coffee to reflect on Afghanistan and what’s happened in our lives since October 2012. Suffice to say, it was a heavy conversation that I wasn’t expecting to have during that visit to Austin.
I continued with my work of attending conference sessions, doing interviews, and gathering material for my day job. As one does at these events, I attended a networking reception hosted by one of the many companies attending the conference.
There, two more chapters of life intersected. One was Wellesley, Massachusetts, the town where I grew up (and where I will be doing a book talk Sept. 25).
One of the people at the reception lived in Wellesley and we ended up deep in conversation about the town, comparing notes from our time there. A lot of the conversation was about which schools were still open and what grades they housed as that was in flux when I was growing up as I ping-ponged between elementary schools.
He had grown up in a neighboring town and was a few years younger, but the Massachusetts memories were flowing.
As we discussed my hometown and what has and hasn’t changed over the years, a guitar player sat in the corner of the room providing background music for the event. When the party wrapped and the guitarist was packing up, I turned to him to ask about his amp — once a gearhead musician, always a gearhead musician.
We fell into conversation and quickly found we had many lines of intersection. He attended Berklee College of Music and completed his studies just before I joined the faculty as assistant professor of music production and engineering.
It turned out that Mark worked as the administrative assistant in the MP&E office — known as L-20. We ran through the names of the other faculty members in the department we both knew — sadly a few are no longer around.
Then, we got deeper into the weeds. Joe Stump, the shred-metal guitarist I had worked with at Room 9 recording studio in Boston on several of his albums (and who gave me the moniker, “Mr. Picky”), had been one of Mark’s instructors and was the evaluator for Mark’s practical exam — apparently it was a rough session.
Mark then mentioned that he was also a photographer and had recently shot photos of Susan Tedeschi sitting in at a club in Austin. And Susan is about to release a 25th anniversary reissue of her album “Just Won’t Burn,” for which I did most of the engineering back in 1997 at Rear Window Recording studio in Brookline — yes, that’s me with the long hair in the photo in the CD liner notes if you have a copy lying around.
In the middle of the conversation about Boston music, one of the defense industry people passed by and I switched back to a day-job conversation about innovation and the defense department. It wasn’t a code-switching moment, but the career equivalent — switching from one professional field language to another in the blink of an eye.
So, within about a 24-hour period in Austin, Texas, I relived much of my life: the town where I grew up, my time in the Boston music scene, teaching at Berklee, my radio journalism career and time in Afghanistan, and my post-Afghanistan life covering the defense industry.
Interestingly, the one person I was hoping ahead of time to see in Austin was out of town. The Iraqi journalist who fixed for me a few times in Baghdad relocated to Austin seven or eight years ago, and I was hoping to catch up with him. However, he was back in Baghdad visiting family.
So, I wasn’t able to bring the Baghdad thread in my life into the Austin mix. And I still haven’t made it to South by Southwest…
Lastly, thanks to everyone who has come out to my book events to date and who has purchased, read, and rated Passport Stamps on Amazon or Goodreads. If you have finished the book, please take a moment to give it a review/rating to help me climb the algorithms.