By Sharonda Pearson, 401st AFSB Public AffairsDecember 13, 2013
KANDAHAR AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- With an estimated 25,000 people stationed here in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the more than 900 Other Country Nationals and Third Country Nationals work for AFSBn-Kandahar, 401st AFSB Army Field Support Brigade.
To Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Roy Speaks, those personnel are more than just "faces in the crowd," they represent camaraderie and improved support to the Warfighter.
"We depend on the OCN and TCN workforce to do some of the hardest jobs in support of the U.S. Warfighter, ranging from washing Stryker vehicles for nearly 36 hours to meet Customs standards, to securing our compounds and equipment," said Speaks, who heads the combat deployed support battalion consisting of more than 4,300 Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians and contractors.
Speaks believes that the dedication and diversity that OCN and TCN employees bring to the organization is often overlooked.
"We sometimes take for granted the hardships these individuals and their families endure when they volunteer to serve in harm's way. Many of them go years without seeing their families because they are the sole source of financial support and can't afford the loss in pay," he said. "It's also very hard for our OCN and TCN partners to communicate with loved ones due to security restrictions, so we have internet and phone banks set up at each of our AMC [Army Materiel Command] provided housing areas."
Muraleedharan Kollankandy, a quiet, unassuming man who only stops working long enough to say hello and offer a quick smile, says it's his passion to serve that helps him endure the more than four years he's spent away from his family.
"It's not about the salary, even though I am thankful to make a good salary. It's about being able to serve people," said Kollankandy, who is a billeting clerk providing cleaning and laundry services for the battalion. "When the mission is done here, I hope to continue serving U.S. Soldiers in other locations. It is humble work, but serving others gives me personal satisfaction and I'm willing to help in any way I can."
Kollankandy, who worked numerous odd jobs in his home of Kerala, India, says being offered the chance to come to Afghanistan four years ago has improved his family's quality of life.
"I was recruited by an agent while escorting a longtime family friend to his interview to come to Afghanistan. The agent asked me if I was also interested in the opportunity. At first I said no because I didn't know what to expect or how safe I would be. After some thought and discussion with my family, I decided to pursue the opportunity," he said. "My being here has been financially beneficial for my family and has helped me provide a better life for them. It's been life changing and a true blessing."
Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall, it is hard to overlook Pillai Swaminathan when you enter the gate of the AFSBn-Kandahar compound, but it's the perfect salute and heartwarming smile that never seems to fade that most people at the battalion remember about the man jokingly referred to as the "gentle giant."
Swaminathan, who works as a security guard at AFSBn-Kandahar, says working for the U.S. Army augmented his pension from serving nearly 26 years in the Indian Army and allowed him to build his dream home and pay for his children's advanced education.
"I will never forget what the opportunity to work for the U.S. Army has allowed me to do for my family. It has allowed me to give my family a good life. I can put both my children through college and also help take care of my extended family," Swaminathan said. "I served 26 years in the Indian army and retired as a Sgt. 1st Class. My family is proud of me for serving our country, but they are even more proud that I've had the chance to work for the U.S. Army."
Swaminathan says after nearly three decades of being separated from his family for extended periods of time that his next stop is home when he leaves Afghanistan.
"After I leave I will go home and relax and enjoy life with my family, which I've never had the chance to do before. I was away much of the time while I served in the Indian army. Then, I was in Kuwait for five years and now Afghanistan for almost two. It's time to go home and enjoy my family," he said.
Traveling nearly 2,600 miles from Kosovo to Afghanistan, Kenana Veliu, a supply specialist for AFSBn-Kandahar, says that being able to support the Soldiers who supported his country during the Kosovo War is worth the hardship of being away from his family.
"My dream was to work with American people. You supported us in 1999 during the war in Serbia and we'll never forget it. I come to work every day and give maximum effort to the Soldiers we serve because of the respect we have for the U.S.," Veliu said. "We don't ever want the Soldiers to be delayed in going home because they are waiting on us to finish our mission. That's unacceptable. We are going to support the Soldiers as much as we can with whatever they need."
Veliu says that Kosovo is still unstable from the recent war, so the prices for the basic necessities, such as medical care, food and gas, are often unaffordable, so being in Afghanistan has minimized his family's financial burdens.
"In Kosovo most people can't afford the extra luxuries like televisions or cell phones because the price of your basic necessities is so high. Salaries are too low and expenses are too high, so working here allows me to be able to send money back to home to help take care of my immediate and extended family members. In our culture, if there is only one person working, then it is their responsibility to take care of the entire family."
Despite cultural differences, language barriers, or varying life experiences, there is one commonality when you ask Speaks, Kollankandy, Swaminathan and Veliu about their reasons for serving in Afghanistan: family.
"I've seen my family one time in the last four years, and, I would spend the next four years away from them if it meant I could continue to provide a better life for them," Kollankandy said.
"The most important thing to me is family. I've sacrificed being close to them to serve in the Indian army and now to work for the U.S. Army, but every sacrifice was worth it because of the life I was able to provide for them."
While Veliu's family is never far from his thoughts, he says the many friendships he has made help him endure in spite of any hardships he may face.
"The contract partners, DA civilians and military all work together in the same place to support the Warfighter. We work well together here at AFSBn-Kandahar and we do whatever is necessary to support the Warfighter--we are a family," he said.
Speaks said making every member of the team feel like family is part of the culture he's worked to instill since taking command in July 2013.
"This tour will total nearly 48 months I've served in combat since 2003, which means I've been away from family nearly 50 percent of the time for the last 10 years. So, I understand the importance of the people you work with every day becoming your surrogate family," Speaks said. "That need to function as a family is intensified in a combat zone. We must be more than a team, taking the same side in a game or contest; we are a group of people who are closely related by sacrifice and commitment. At the end of the day we are a family and the OCN and TCN personnel play a significant role in our success. We trust these individuals and welcome them to 4th battalion as part of the family business."