Now, Sergeant Major Alan Callanan can look anyone in the eye
Command Sergeant Major Alan Callanan has had an exemplary 35-year military career in the Army, Army Reserve and National Guard. His rank is the highest possible for a non-commissioned officer and he’s served at several bases, including overseas in Korea, Germany and Panama.
But for the 59-year-old Carson City resident, who plans to retire later this year, there was always something missing.
He’d never served in a war zone.
He first enlisted in 1971 but wasn’t deployed to Vietnam. Korea, where he served on four different occasions, was a high-tension environment, but there was no war. And he wasn’t deployed to the Middle East.
And that’s why he volunteered to go to Afghanistan last year, saying he wanted to be able to look his soldiers in the eye.
“My career wouldn’t have been complete had I not served with the young men and women directly involved in this conflict,” he said.
His wife, Shane, and daughters Lindsay, 23, and Christine, 21, supported his decision, and the Guard honored his request, attaching him from the Reno-based 422 Signal Battalion to the 41st Brigade Combat Team based in Oregon. He didn’t know anyone in the unit, and most had already deployed before he began his accelerated training program.
On July 8, 2006, he arrived in Kabul and shortly afterward was stationed in Mazer-e Sharif.
The poverty in the country hit him immediately, families living in mud huts with few possessions. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “People can’t be living like this.”
Other contrasts gradually emerged. Meeting times for the Afghan National Army members were irrelevant, for example. They might show up for a 9 a.m. meeting an hour late and think nothing of it. On payday, he could expect many to disappear for a week or two at a time. They were taking their money home to their families, since there was no reliable postal system to do it for them.
Callanan’s job was to help train the Afghan National Army and to mentor its leaders, many of whom were in their 20s and straight off the streets. He said he would have liked to be on patrols, but he also did not want to be a hindrance.
“In retrospect, I’m not a young man,” he said. “The physical requirements are difficult.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t in shape. He was 190 pounds when he left for Afghanistan and by the time he returned he weighed 168 pounds. That, he says, was due to the heat and the heavy gear, which can weigh more than 70 pounds. And each day, during the hottest part of the afternoon, he went for a 4 to 6 mile run, even if the thermometer read 115 degrees. He could have done it when it was cooler, in the morning or at night, but he knew if he ever got into a battle, it would probably be during the heat of the day. He wanted to be ready.
As for the Afghan National Army, Callanan said there’s been progress, but it’s hardly ready to stand alone.
“They’ve got a long ways to go,” he said.
Another kind of progress he sees is the humanitarian work he and other American soldiers took part in. They dug wells, set up orphanages and distributed food and medicine.
Callanan returned from Afghanistan on June 30, and he now has another big mission. Prior to his deployment, he was Nevada’s only full-time employee for Nevada Project ChalleNGe. But while he was in Afghanistan, Gov. Gibbons and the Legislature approved a dramatic expansion of the program and now many more teens will be eligible.
The program gives “at-risk” youths an opportunity to earn their GED diplomas. It’s a tough, boot-camp type environment designed to prepare the students academically and mentally for their futures. In the last several years, the program has been open for 24 Nevada teens each year, who were then sent to a training base in Arizona.
Callanan, obviously, is a proponent of the program. He’s seen it change lives. But it’s not magic and many kids don’t make it through the difficult camp. To graduate 100 kids, they need to start with about 140, he said. One year, only four Nevada teens in a class of 12 graduated. Another year, however, 15 out of 18 students in a class graduated.
But even those who graduate are in danger of returning to the behaviors and the people that put them at risk in the first place.
“You can’t always straighten out 16 years in five months,” Callanan said. “I’ve lost a lot of them.”
Some opponents of the program expressed concern that it is merely a recruiting tool for the military. However, the program reports that, nationwide, about 15 percent of participants decide to join the military afterward.
• Barry Ginter is editor of the Appeal. You can reach him at 881-1221 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.