Former Truro resident helping Afghan army gets its message out
MAZAR-E SHARIF - With an unprecedented effort underway to revitalize war-torn Afghanistan it is vital its people are well informed about the transformational changes.
Enter Truro native Sandra Arnold.
The U.S. Department of Defense civilian and Navy Reserve Ensign was selected as the first civilian Public Affairs Advisory Team member in the country to partner with Afghan National Security Forces to build a sustainable public affairs capacity in the Northern Regional Afghan National Police Headquarters and Afghan National Army (ANA) 209th Corps.
"It's such a different experience, number one," said Arnold, 34, about her new assignment.
"It's a once in a lifetime experience for me to be able to be one of the first teams to come in and train the Afghan National Army, because they are really starting from the ground up."
On Thursday, she celebrated the two-month anniversary of her year-long deployment in the impoverished country and is pleased with the small steps achieved so far tackling a wide range of challenges.
"When we came in here they didn't even know how to email," she said.
People were driving more than an hour to pick up documents and photographs by hand and delivering them to requesting destinations, a process that is simplified greatly by email.
Arnold is a deputy public affairs officer permanently assigned to Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, which she called a "writing intensive society" and was overwhelmed by the reality of Afghanistan's illiteracy rate.
"Before I came here I didn't realize how technologically challenged this county is and I had lofty goals," said Arnold. "I wanted to make sure they had this enormous communications plan that they could implement at the drop of a hat that we could use text messaging to get our emergency messages across.
"But then upon arriving here I realized approximately 10 per cent of the population is literate."
She said only 15 per cent of ANA soldiers are literate, which also poses a lot of challenges while instructing them.
Cellphone tower signal disruptions and Internet servers going down are also causing havoc for the three-person public affairs mentoring team.
Arnold said the Afghan army is growing and hopefully will soon be self-sufficient. She stressed the importance of a having a strong public affairs system in place by the time NATO forces pull out.
"They need to be able to gain the population's trust and respect and one way of doing that is through public affairs by telling the community what they are doing here, how you are protecting them, what you are doing to increase their safety, so public affairs will play a vital role in getting those messages out," said Arnold.
"You can do wonderful things all day long but if nobody knows anything about it, it doesn't have the same impact."
Arnold holds dual citizenship between Canada and the United States, but lived in Nova Scotia for 20 years where she attended school in Truro, graduating from Cobequid Educational Centre in 1994.
An internship while taking a paralegal course at the Nova Scotia Community College Springhill Campus lead her south of the border to Texas where she eventually joined the Navy.
She'll never forget the truly Canadian sight that greeted her when she first touched down in Kandahar, Afghanistan; an ice hockey rink without ice and a Tim Hortons with a line up out the door.
She has very fond memories of the years she spent in Truro, a community her sister Kelly and her three children still call home.
She said if it were not for the strong educational foundation she received from the local schools she attended here, she would not have been able to successfully pursue a career in public affairs.