Chris Hernandez is a former U.S. Marine and a Texas National Guard soldier. During a tour in Afghanistan, he worked alongside the French Army. His first novel "Proof of our resolve" (here on Amazon) was recently released (with some French soldiers near an U.S. Chinook helicopter on the cover). To develop, he also wrote a great post on his personal blog about "Working with the French Army" (click here for the context - in French). U.S. perceptions about the French Army, military operations in the Kapisa province and other subjects, here we go for a quick interview!
First, briefly introduce yourself.
I'm a 24 year veteran of the US military. I served 6 years in the Marine Corps Reserve, then switched to the Texas Army National Guard. I've been an infantry weapons repairman, marksmanship coach, tank crewman, cavalry scout, and military intelligence soldier. In civilian life, I've been a police officer for 19 years. I'm married with several children.
An about your tour in Afghanistan with the French Army?
I served as a member of the intelligence community in Afghanistan, at Firebase Morales-Frasier, Kapisa province (located in the north-east of the country), from February to November 2009. During that time I worked with a few Légionnaires, the Mountain Troops, and the French Marines.
Where do common American perceptions (or for some of your fellows) come from about the French military? Is it humor or a real "bias"?
It is sometimes simply humor, but sometimes it is real bias. When I was younger I held the same bias. During my childhood I heard many negative comments about France. I was in the U.S. Marine Corps during Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1991) operations in Iraq, and I remember reading a journalist's comment about the coalition of troops preparing to fight the Iraqi army: "Yes we have allies, but when the war starts the French will probably just say they're there to cater [serve food] to the troops." We heard frequent remarks about France's open resistance to anything American, and the French military's alleged cowardice. That obviously wasn't true, but when someone hears it enough, they think it's true.
Now that I know firsthand how good the French military is, sometimes I still can't convince Americans of it. Even if those Americans never served in combat or even in the military, they'll still insist the French can't be good soldiers. The French have been fighting in Afghanistan for years, they've more than proven their bravery and skill. But some Americans refuse to accept it.
Have you discussed with other American soldiers who fought with the French Army? They have ta similar perception?
Almost every American soldier I knew who worked with the French has the same opinion I have. I heard Americans complain about the higher level French headquarters soldiers, but I never heard an American in Afghanistan speak badly of the individual French soldiers.
Do you think there is a "French touch", a specific way for the French Army in Afghanistan and in other operations, as often said in France?
As far as actual operations go, I don't know that the French carried out operations differently than Americans did. One of the surprising things to me was how easily Americans could embed with French troops, because our methods of operation were so similar. I don't recall any difficulty going on missions with the French, other than trying to keep up with the Groupement de Commandos de Montagne (GCM, moutain commando group). Those guys were in amazing shape, and I wasn't. They nearly killed me during mountain climbs on a couple of missions.
Without betraying military secrets: what do you think about the action of the French military in the Kapisa province? Which results for the COIN campaign?
We had two complete COIN successes when I was there. The Alasay campaign (in a specific valley of the province), and the October 25th Battle of the Afghanya Valley. I was in the French company commander's vehicle for that mission (it was featured on France 24 TV, you may have seen the video). Those missions were almost perfect, and made major contributions to the COIN fight.
However, the Afghan culture is so set against foreign intervention I don't know if those missions made any lasting impression. Imposing peace and democracy in Afghanistan is incredibly difficult, and I don't know that any COIN strategy will accomplish those tasks. I thought the French had an excellent military and CIMIC operation (Civil Military Cooperation) in Kapisa, but if the people don't want what we're offering, it can never be fully successful.
What were the 2 surprises for you after many months with French military troops?
I was surprised to see the Chasseurs Alpins wearing American patches. I had heard many times, including from the Gendarmes I worked with in Kosovo, that many French don't like Americans. The Mountain Troops wore American patches, were extremely friendly and seemed to enjoy working with us. That was unexpected.
Another surprise was the firepower the French took on almost every mission. The VABs with 20mm guns, AMX-10 RCs, mortar teams, Milan teams; the French never seemed to travel light.
And your best remembrance with French troops?
I have many good memories of going on missions with the Marines. But the best memory was probably the Battle of Alasay. I had served in the military for almost 20 years before that mission, and it was the first time I had been on the offense against the enemy. I rode as a gunner on a US humvee during the advance, and had a great view of the battle. It was amazing. Seeing French, Americans and Afghans in combat together was inspirational. No other experience in my life compared to riding into the Alasay with the Mountain Troops, fellow Americans and Afghans. I felt like we were unstoppable.
To conclude, why did you write a book about your experience in Afghanistan?
When I returned from Afghanistan, I was angry. I had some very bad experiences there, and one of them in particular made me feel like the bravery and dedication of the troops was being wasted. I needed to get that feeling out, and that was probably the major motivation for writing the book. But I also wanted Americans to have a realistic view of the war, and to understand that it's being fought by regular guys. Anything about Special Forces is very popular in America, but during my service in two wars I saw ordinary men, in extraordinary circumstances. I wanted people to know that some of the regular men and women around them did some pretty amazing things for their countries.
So, thank you Chris for this interview and see you soon!
MAJ 1 : with some great photos by the author : "Photos of French and American troops in Afghanistan"
"A French sniper and me in the back of a VAB French armored vehicle after a mission. I’m wearing a French camouflage uniform with American flags because their camouflage was way better than our ACUs in that environment. That’s a French Marine Regiment patch on my left shoulder. I was proud to wear it. Also, the “horns” in my hair are from the helmet pads pushing the top of my hair down".
"Me on a mission with the Mountain troops. I proudly wore the Mountain Troops patch until the French Marines came in and threatened to beat me severely for not wearing theirs. Photos by Thomas Goisque".
And many others...