SAN ANTONIO – November will mark the 12th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan.
Even as the war winds down and U.S. troops withdraw, many Americans are still serving in Afghanistan in an advisory role for NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
San Antonio native Air Force Maj. Jason Oatley just returned home from an ISAF mission that was focused on helping the Afghan National Security Forces build their own air force.
Maj. Oatley and other ISAF advisers were tasked with teaching the Afghans how to fly and maintain their aircraft, building the country's air force from the ground up.
"There was no Afghan Air Force prior to the United States coming in and helping them establish that," Oatley said. "It takes a long time to go from no actual air force to something like the U.S. Air Force has so we're really looking to get them that good starting ground and then we work from there."
As a C-130 pilot, Oatley had already been to Afghanistan to fight, this time he was sent there to teach, serving as an adviser to an Afghan colonel. Oatley said his first job was earning the colonel's trust.
"They don't know anything more about us then we know about them so you try to find common ground with them," Oatley said. "I found common ground with a lot of the guys because we had a shared background in flying. It's really a step-by-step process because you've got to gain their trust because they want to know they can trust you."
Everyday Oatley left the relative safety of the U.S. Air Force base in Kabul to work on the Afghan controlled base, relying on a translator to communicate.
Oatley and other ISAF advisers have gone from holding hands to watching the Afghans take a lead role.
"If you look back even the past two years, we've gone from having to have a pilot in every cockpit to now they can get up in the morning and launch aircraft on their own," Oatley said. "They'll do all of it 100 percent autonomously and it just comes down to us kind of smoothing out the rough edges. The adviser mission at this point is to sit back and let them actually do the work and we'll give inputs as necessary where we think we can improve a process or make something safer."
Serving first as a combatant and then as an adviser has given Oatley a new appreciation for the Afghan people and the struggles they face.
"You can't help but begin to care about these people when you learn they're just like us, just trying to raise their kids. They want a better life, they'd like to have their kids walk to school every day and not be under the threat of an attack," Oatley said. "They want a better life, they want to be successful in what they do."
While they have a long way to go, Maj. Oatley believes the Afghans will be ready to stand on their own when the time comes for U.S. and NATO forces to leave.
"A lot of people think it's a lost cause. When you go over and work there for six months you have to believe that it's not a lost cause. You have to believe in it to actually go and make a difference," Oatley said. "From a personal standpoint you try to do everything you can to give them their best chance of succeeding. It's a long road to get there from where they started 12 years ago, it's not something that you fix overnight."