By Air Force Master Sergeant Leslie VanBelkum

The best friends you will ever have are the ones who have fought and sacrificed alongside you in battle.

Having served more than four years in Afghanistan, I have many lifelong friendships with members of the Afghan National Army that were developed under the worst possible conditions.

An Afghan proverb tells us, “The first day you meet, you are friends. The next day you meet, you are brothers.” I’m brothers with these Afghan soldiers because of the sacrifices we have shared to ensure a future for their families and for the American people. Shared sacrifice and pain bring people closer and not a day goes by that I don’t think about all the friends I have lost—American and Afghan—over the past 12 years. Not a day goes by that I don’t worry about my Afghan friends who are fighting for their nation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You will never forget the man on your left and right.

In September 2012, I returned from my most recent deployment as a member of the AFPAK Hands (Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands) program. I’m a language-enabled, culturally attuned advisor to the Afghan army. The mission of the program is to build enduring relationships between the coalition and the Afghan government. While there, I spent about seven months in eastern Afghanistan helping the Afghan army develop its first military intelligence company in that region. After that I moved to southern Afghanistan to be the military liaison between the coalition command and the Afghan army.

While a yearlong tour seems like a long time to most people, it’s really not enough time to build true friendships with Afghans unless you are very committed.

Developing friendships or relationships with foreign nationals can be at best comical and at worst challenging. In Afghanistan, friendships are more important than your rank or position when it comes to accomplishing the mission. Americans want to get right to work whereas most Afghans want to sit down, chat, drink some tea and get to know you. This drives Americans crazy because it is not how our military operates. I always developed a friendship with my Afghan colleagues before I started talking about work. Sometimes this took days, other times weeks. But in the end I was much more effective at helping the Afghans grow their skills than those Americans who didn’t take the time to develop those friendships.

How was I successful when others were not? Simple, I followed a few basic principles:

• Learn about the culture and people before you visit a country

• Mimic the actions of the locals

• Most importantly, listen to what the locals have to say

I was lucky enough to spend five months in language and culture training prior to deploying to Afghanistan on this last tour. Speaking a few basic phrases is a common courtesy. Being able to speak about my family, job, education or other simple topics in the local language really impressed the Afghans. During my free time, I often walked up to random Afghan soldiers and struck up a conversation. They were initially shocked, but then very curious and excited. They asked me tons of questions about where I learned Dari and about my family and my life in America. In turn, they told me about life in their villages and their lives in the army. This interaction allowed me to dispel a lot of negative rumors they had heard about Americans. I found Afghans to be a very forgiving people if the effort is made to correct a misunderstanding.

They were also amazed to discover the Afghan people have more in common with Americans than they have differences.

Additionally, during many meetings with Afghan generals I presented information in Dari. This greatly impressed the senior Afghan leaders, which led to tea and lunch invitations. Eating together is a very common way to develop friendships in Afghanistan, as it is in most countries. This interaction with everyone from the common soldier to the most senior officer provided me significant influence among the Afghan soldiers. My counterparts invited me to participate in multiple mission-planning sessions. I was a trusted friend.

Since they have been fighting in their homeland for more than 30 years, I encouraged them to develop their own plans, allowing them to work through the sessions and only assisting when they asked my opinion. I understood that they had a better understanding of the environment than I could ever hope to achieve. The Afghans greatly respected that I recognized their knowledge and abilities and this earned me many “brownie points.” I leveraged these brownie points when the coalition asked the Afghan army to assist with an operation in which the Afghans really did not want to participate. My friendship enabled me to convince the Afghans that participating in the mission was in everyone’s best interests. On several occasions, Afghan generals told me they would participate, “only because you are a true friend that cares about all Afghans … but as a friend you must accompany me on the mission.” So off I went as the American friend.

With my long history of serving with much of the high-ranking Afghan leadership, my language ability and my all-powerful beard, I became a mini-celebrity among the soldiers. They were convinced that I was half-Afghan. In truth, when I dressed in traditional clothes I could pass for a native. The soldiers started calling me Panjshiri or Nuristani—two groups of Afghans known for having lighter skin and blue eyes. More importantly, they are known as fierce warriors. My warrior abilities were tested on many missions alongside my Afghan friends.

However, with all my training and deployments no one is perfect. I still struggle at times. One of my friends in the Afghan army and I once had a 20-minute argument over my favorite type of fish. In Dari, one of two primary Afghan languages, the word for fish is “mahi.” During a discussion about what type of food we have at celebrations, my friend asked me about what type of fish I enjoy the most. I responded back in Dari that mahi mahi was my favorite fish.

Translated into English the sentence went, “My favorite type of fish is fish fish.”

Of course, Sergeant Major Esmat thought that I misinterpreted his Dari so he asked me again and I gave the same response. This continued on for another 20 minutes until he became furious because he thought I was being disrespectful by not answering his question. At this point I realized the confusion and had to explain to my friend that, in English, mahi mahi was a type of fish. We laughed at how ridiculous we had been and to this day, whenever I speak with him, he still brings up that incident and laughs.

I look forward to seeing my Afghan friend again and having many more laughs on my next deployment.

–Master Sergeant Leslie J. VanBelkum has eight deployments including humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions and Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which VanBelkum led a personal security detachment for Multinational Forces-Iraq J2 in Baghdad.