By Sue Webber
There are 64,000 U.S. troops still left in Afghanistan. There are also still 110,000 contractors working in the country.
Mark Peterson of Hopkins was one of those contractors. From March 2009 to April 2011, he was a regional operations coordinator at DynCorp International, training Afghans to be police officers. Peterson talked about his experiences at the Feb. 26 Golden Valley Rotary meeting.
“It was an interesting experience; I learned a lot,” Peterson said. “I have a renewed appreciation for the military.”
Though he had no military background of his own, Peterson brought a wide variety of experience to the job. He retired as a lieutenant in the Minnesota State Patrol in 2009 after 25 years of service. Peterson has an undergraduate degree in education, and in the past was a media spokesperson for the State Patrol.
In Afghanistan, Peterson was a mentor embedded with a military unit from Illinois.
“They took me to districts and I mentored command staffs,” Peterson said. “I mentored on logistics, personnel, finances, operations and training.”
For example, he said, “We needed to make sure they had enough firewood for the winter and make sure people were getting paid.”
He even taught a class on personal hygiene.
At the Gardex Regional Training Center, Peterson spent 18 weeks working with 350 people who wanted to be cops. Police officers in Afghanistan will earn just $180 a month, he said, but it’s the only job many of them are able to get.
“I was always armed,” Peterson said. “We wore full tactical gear and helmets. We got shot at regularly. But we didn’t engage in kinetic missions. We defended ourselves.”
He found that many of the other American contractors came from the South and Southeast parts of the U.S. and were primarily police officers.
“A lot of people quit their jobs and do these short-term contracts,” Peterson said. “A lot of the troops are leaving, but contractors are still coming in. You’re still paying for that.”
One of his biggest worries, he said, was catching a bug of some kind.
“The medical facilities are terrible,” he said.
His schedule primarily consisted of working, exercising, and being subjected to the heavy metal music choices of the young men with whom he worked, said Peterson, who is 59.
“You can’t drink; no beer is allowed, “ he said. Ironically, he added, “You can get as much heroin as you want.”
He came away from the experience with some definite impressions.
“A lot of people in the world don’t like us, but they want what we have,” Peterson said.
He also noted that the Afghan culture is “very oppressive to women.”
“Women can’t leave home without permission,” Peterson said. “They must wear burqas.
They can’t talk to men. If their husbands die, they can’t work or drive.”
Life expectancy for men is about 45 years, he said.
Some Afghans were “afraid they would be injected with Christianity,” and Peterson said he found the Afghan people to be “corrupt on many levels.”
“But that’s acceptable to them because it’s the way they’ve always lived their lives,” he said.
Peterson was able to talk to his wife regularly while he was away, and to maintain contact with his three grown children.
“We Skyped a lot,” he said.
These days, Peterson shares his experience with a new audience. He works as a hall monitor at Hopkins High School, and occasionally makes presentations on the Middle East to classes at the school.