Master Mike Friello: Memoir from Afghanistan

AAU National Taekwondo Chair Mike Friello had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan with seven other AAU delegates to mentor Afghan coaches, athletes and leaders about how run sporting events in their country, as well as put on sports clinics. Upon his arrival back to the United States, Master Friello wanted to share his experiences with the AAU community. Here’s his memoir he compiled and wrote.

By: Mike Friello, AAU Taekwondo National Chair

Wow!  What a trip!  As many years as I have been involved with both Taekwondo (since 1968) and the AAU (since around 1985) and all the wonderful places I have been fortunate enough to have visited which includes most of the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Spain, Italy, Germany (3 times), and the Netherlands (3 times) this was by far the most rewarding week and work I have had the pleasure to provide.

Never, and I mean NEVER did I imagine such a life-changing experience.  When I was first personally invited, by General Zahir Aghbar, President of the Afghanistan Olympic Committee, to ‘visit’ Afghanistan I was truly at a loss for words—as you can imagine.  It’s not quite the same as being invited to visit Rome or to attend the Super Bowl in Miami—of which I’ve done both.

After all, the only impression we here in the US have of Afghanistan is what we see on the television news channels or read in the daily newspapers.  And the ‘picture ain’t so rosy’.  Death and killing.  IED’s and landmines.  A people who appear to be overwhelmed with but one thing-war and at its most brutal.

And here was the head of the National Olympic Committee inviting me to ‘come visit’.  “Share your knowledge and experience in sports administration with my people.  Help us to become better at what you and the AAU seem to do so well.”

I had already begun to formulate my thinking on this matter, but I also wanted to discuss this with my family, associates, and friends.  And not one had anything supportive to say.  I don’t blame them.  They were only looking out for my well-being and welfare.  But I had this nagging feeling.

I’ve been involved with the martial arts since 1968.  It has always been a big part of my life, if not my entire life.  During my first ten years with Taekwondo, it carried me over many trials and tribulations that we all go through during our beginner years.  For me that was 18 through 28.  There was something ‘nourishing’ about putting the day behind me and basking in the privacy of my martial arts classes.  I met my wife through Taekwondo!  We met when she entered my class at a local community college.  All four of our boys also trained in Taekwondo for a minimum of ten years each.  And so Taekwondo allowed me to pursue my passion, my work, and still spend quality time with my family.  Later Taekwondo became my full-time profession and my entry into the AAU family of sports.

With all that Taekwondo had/has provided me, how could I say no to the opportunity to give something back to my art/sport?  And so, I made the commitment to go to Afghanistan. And I’m so grateful I did.  Don’t get me wrong, the trip was perhaps the most challenging I have ever undertaken.  It began with my flights from Albany, NY to Detroit and then again on to Atlanta, where the entire AAU delegation would meet and continue our journey together.

Atlanta to Dubai was, by far, the longest flight I had ever taken and I was blessed with a middle coach seat for the 14 hour leg!  As it turned out, this was the easy part!  After landing in Dubai we were notified that Kabul had encountered one if its’ heaviest snowfalls in years and that our three hour flight to Kabul was postponed.  That postponement turned in to a 31 hour layover in Dubai airport!  Needless to say, our spirits were somewhat diminished by the end of this time.

Relief finally came Sunday morning (we left the states on Thursday!) at 3:30 AM.  Just a quick 2.5 hour flight on Saffi Air and we were there—Kabul Airport.  We were met by a military/embassy entourage that actually drove right out onto the tarmac, collected our baggage, and took care of everything that needed to be done inside the airport so that the arrival transition went as smoothly as possible and it was off to the ‘base’—home of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and our home away from home for the next several days.

We were very fortunate (we were told repeatedly) to have the VIP accommodations on base.  These turned out to be metal containers (like you see on transport ships) that had been converted to living barracks.  Each was about 8 feet wide by sixteen feet long.  They contained twin bunk beds, a clothes rank(no closets), an eighteen inch high by 12 inch wide set of two drawers (our dresser), a desk complete with military computer for internet access (VIP remember) and a bathroom about 3’X5’—which really made the entire room a VIP accommodation.  Unfortunately for me I had no hot water day one and NO water at all day 3, but hey– what the heck we were living large by military standards.

Probably the most difficult part of the trip was being on military schedule the entire stay.  Every minute of our time in Afghanistan was strictly regulated from 7:45 AM—walk to mess hall, 7:20 walk back to barracks, 7:30 meet in front of barracks, 7:45 depart for Olympic Training Center, arrive Center 8:15 AM. begin clinics at 8:30 AM.  12 noon break for lunch and prayers, 1:30 PM restart training, 4:00 PM finish training, 4:15 PM gather at main hall.  4:30 leave training center for ride back to base.  Arrive base 5:00 PM.  5:30 gather outside barracks. 5:45 walk to mess hall.  6:00 PM dinner.  6:45 walk back to barracks.  And on and on!  By 8:00 PM you were damn well ready for bed in your cozy, warm, twin bed so you could repeat Days 2-5!

Another strange part of the trip was our military escorts—God bless them.  Each day we convoyed to and from the base to the Training Center in ‘armored up’ vehicles while wearing flack jackets and helmets for the ride through the city of Kabul.  With bullet-proof glass and five inch thick steel doors (that were really hard to open and close because of the weight), two military guys armed to the teeth, and an array of technical equipment whose primary job was to block incoming frequency signals designed to detonate IED’s, just coming and going was an experience!  Can’t say enough for the troops though.  Solid professionals who are there for a minimum of one year at a time—hard to complain about a lack of hot water in your own private bathroom.

Training was the whole purpose of the visit and Master Tubbs and I just had the times of our lives working with 30 of Afghanistan’s Taekwondo athletes and coaches every day.  I guess that we were most fortunate in that our group was more than well versed in Taekwondo.  And they could kick like horses!  But most impressive was their determination and enthusiasm.

Our athletes were always the first ones there and not just on time but early each day for lessons.  Most mornings General Aghbar would invite the AAU delegation into the main headquarters building for tea while waiting for the athletes to be transported from their living quarters to the Center (and I can’t imagine what they were like).  But Master Tubbs and I immediately went to our training hall each morning to find the Taekwondo athletes already there and beginning various warm-up routines.

While most of the groups from the other three sports being offered had their share of ‘beginners’, with perhaps some lacking the discipline or drive to excel, several of our athletes were ‘National Team Members’ and at the very least outstanding Taekwondoists.  It was really hard to discern between athlete and coach!  Of course by the end of day 2 some would mention ‘I’m only a coach not an athlete’ to Master Tubbs’ arduous training regimen.  But they ALL hung in there for the full 8-9 hour training day every day!  Both Master Tubbs and I were very impressed with the top 6-8 in the class.

One of the more pleasant surprises of the training was the inclusion of 6 females in the class.  I was led to believe, prior to the trip, that there was very little chance that we would be working with any females because there were no female AAU coaches scheduled to make the trip.  Most readers understand the strong division drawn between males and females in the predominately Muslim countries of the world.  Women do not socialize with men.  Women are sometimes excluded from the educational system, are not allowed to drive, and on and on.

As it turned out there were MANY female athletes included in all the sports training sessions.  This can only be attributed to the work and beliefs of General Aghbar.  He firmly believes that one hope for his country having a future lies with sport.

The vast majority of Afghanis are under the age of 30, I believe.  And General Aghbar firmly believes that he can dissuade these young people from the violence that is Afghanistan today by giving them something to do other than being violent.  And that something is sport.  Contrary to popular thought in Afghanistan, General Aghbar also espouses the concept that women deserve an equal voice in all things!  You can not imagine how truly revolutionary this thought is in Afghanistan.  But he has put his beliefs into action through his position as President of Afghanistan’s Olympic Program.

I’d venture that females made up a good one-third of all 144 attendees from throughout all 34 Provinces.  And in our communal forum type meetings they were extremely outspoken—a tribute to what has already been accomplished there.  So yes, we had six females in our Taekwondo group and they were all excellent-one being a National Team Member.

Our week in Afghanistan was a truly eye-opening experience.  As stated earlier, so much of our perception of the country and the people has been force-fed to us by the media.  And none of it has been good—absolutely none of it.  This is far from the reality of Afghanistan.

Yes, yes, yes there is a war going on over there.  Many of our young sons and daughters are making the ultimate sacrifice for their country over there.  The sanitary conditions in Afghanistan would make most US citizens simply shudder!  But, there is another side to Afghanistan and its people.

These are a warm, loving, and extremely generous bunch of people.  They have spent the last 30 years embroiled in one war after another.  As a result the country is the 3rd poorest in the world (per capita income is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1100.00).  A full 70% of the population is illiterate.  There is no infrastructure.  Most homes and buildings have no heat in the winter and they are forced to burn everything (and we were informed everything means everything) for warmth.  And yet each and every person greeted us personally as we passed (a simple nod of the head while placing your right hand over your heart).

These are people like you and I, who get out of bed each day, make ourselves as presentable as we can, and go out into the world to provide for our loved ones.  They are a social group of people who love to talk and sing, and dance (only men dance in public—women watch and talk).  Our Taekwondo ‘students’ were cheerful, excited, and enthusiastic throughout their entire time with us.  And they were also among the most respectful, I might add.  These really are a people who need our help.

The best (and hardest) part of the trip for me was spending the last 45 minutes we had left with our students wrapping things up, taking the time to talk about Taekwondo and its value and responsibilities outside the competitive environment, and simply saying “Good Bye”.  It was quite the emotional time for me.  And the students were absolutely overwhelming in the praise and gratitude for the training.

Gift exchanges are a really, really big thing in Afghanistan.  I was more than aware of that before we left and agonized for weeks over what kind of gift(s) I could/should bring.  But I had second thoughts. The AAU Taekwondo Program donated about $2500.00 worth of training equipment to the Afghan Taekwondo Federation for use at the training (about 40 various sized kicking shields/pads) and beyond (100 pair of forearm and shin-instep pads that I envisioned going out to the Provinces).  And so I ended up not buying any additional gifts.

By weeks end, however, I wanted to literally give these students the shirt off my back—and so I did.  I awarded two of my personally embroidered doboks (uniforms), two of my National Team Warm-ups, and several Taekwondo shirts.  The Students presented Master Tubbs and I each a beautiful Afghani scarf in the colors of the Afghan flag, a very nice stone piece of artwork in the shape of Afghanistan–outlining all of the Provinces as well, AND a gift for my wife to bring home which consisted of matching necklace, bracelet, earrings, and ring all made of a an Afghani green colored stone!  Knowing I would only have a day and one-half at home before Valentine’s Day this looked really big to me.  Just kidding, but how thoughtful was that—a gift for my wife.  Like I said these are most wonderful people!

I’ve been asked many times this week; “would you go back”?  First let me say that we were inundated with a similar question by the Afghani athletes and media.  “Will you be back to continue this work and support for Afghanistan or is this just a one shot deal”?  After everything I’ve seen and experienced in Afghanistan during this trip, I have found a new additional purpose in my life—how could not go back?