A former Far North resident was among five New Zealand soldiers honoured during United States Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta's visit to Auckland last month.
Lieutenant Colonel James Kaio received a US Army commendation medal for his work as team liaison officer of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan, Afghanistan, in 2007 and 2008.
Lieutenant Colonel Kaio, who grew up in Kawakawa, currently lives in Palmerston North.
The rest of his family are in the Hokianga but his parents still call Kawakawa home.
The former Bay of Islands College student left school for the New Zealand Defence Force 21 years ago and says he has no regrets.
“Not at all - it's an exciting job, that's for sure,” Lieutenant Colonel Kaio says.
The New Zealand Defence Force has worked closely with the NATO contingent in Afghanistan for 10 years, he says. “We couldn't be there without all the support that the Americans give us - and they get a bit of kudos from us working with them as well, because we approach things differently."
He says the Kiwi culture of “get in there, get the work done, talk with the locals” is different to the way the Americans approach their work in the area. "We've been able to influence how the US actually runs its provincial reconstruction teams.”
Lieutenant Colonel Kaio was deployed twice to Bamyan. His second tour saw the once quiet area become “ramped up, significantly”.
Bamyan is a massive location, he says.
“It would kind of be like having bases in the Southern Alps. You're living at that altitude and there's bugger-all infrastructure.
“In the time we've been there we've definitely changed the landscape in the way that the locals get to live, but because of all the kinetic activity that's been happening around the rest of Afghanistan, the insurgents are looking for softer targets and because Bamyan was so well off, a group of insurgents has started targeting Bamyan as an area for operations.”
He says it would be hard for many New Zealanders to imagine the hardships many Afghans face day to day.
“At home up north there are some not well-off places, where they don't have all the luxuries that you would think New Zealanders would be privy to but even up there it's so well off compared to places like Bamyan and the places we're talking about operating in Afghanistan,” Lieutenant Colonel Kaio says.
“It's quite a humbling experience going to a place like that, then coming home . . . You go fishing, go to the beaches, there's nice countryside, people are friendly, we are very lucky, especially up north."
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