Benny Castillo says he has developed a new respect for the way Jersey drivers handle themselves on the roads.
While we have issues with road rage and people driving like they need to get where they’re going yesterday, there is, on some level, rules that everyone follows, he says.
That was definitely not the case in Afghanistan, where Castillo, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Ocean County College and former dean of its School of Social Science and Human Services, spent a year’s leave of absence from the college, trying to help train Afghans to be police officers in their country, and help bring some peace and stability to that war-torn country.
“Over there, I saw stoplights but they were never on,” said Castillo, who retired in 2003 after spending “25 years, 10 months” in the New Jersey State Police, much of it at the Police Academy as an instructor. “You’d cars taking a lane wherever they wanted. You'd see four family members on a bicycle," the same bicycle, he noted, and none of them wearing helmets.
And traffic circles, that staple of Jersey roads?
They were just chaos, Castillo said.
“When traffic would jam up, they’d just reverse direction to get around the circles,” so you'd have cars going in both directions around the same circle at once, said Castillo, who lives in Point Pleasant but first moved to Ocean County from Carteret in the 1980s, living in Whiting and then in Toms River.
Castillo, who worked for a contractor, was stationed in Kabul as part of a unit of nine people, most retired police officers, embedded with the Marines. They were there to train the Afghan police in good techniques of law enforcement – such as not dragging someone out of a vehicle and beating them for some infringement of the law, not an uncommon sight there, Castillo said.
And while he spent his time teaching, Castillo said he returned to New Jersey, and to the classroom at OCC, in August, with a whole new perspective to share with students in his criminal justice and homeland security courses.
"You just don't realize how much you take for granted," he said.
Castillo, who has been an instructor at Ocean County College since 2004, said going to another country to teach has been something he wanted to do for a while.
A fellow police officer told him about the opportunity to go to Afghanistan. The timing and the situation were right. So Castillo took leave from OCC and stepped into a world that he never imagined – a world where few people drive and even fewer know how to read or write.
“The literacy rate is very low there,” Castillo said. But it’s not just the literacy rate that struck him; the lifestyle of the Afghan people was very primitive as well. Cars and trucks are few, and teaching police officers involved teaching them to how to drive, and how to drive a manual transmission, so they could use patrol vehicles.
Castillo realized just how different their world was when one of the Afghan police trainees tried to climb into the truck through a window – the man had no idea there was a door or how it worked, he said.
“These people are primitive,” he said. To teach them to drive a manual transmission, he set up rocks on the ground to represent the clutch, brake and gas pedal to get them used to the idea of the pedals before they got behind the wheel.
Teaching the Afghan trainees, however, involved more than just showing them how to drive a patrol vehicle. A language barrier – they spoke Dari, Castillo and most of the other contractors spoke English – was only overcome by use of interpreters, and not everything was easily translated. Sometimes it wasn’t translated at all.
“I tend to try to joke around,” Castillo said of his teaching style. But sometimes the interpreters would tell him his jokes would actually come across as an insult, and they wouldn’t translate them, he said.
The differences in the cultures were striking, Castillo said. In the U.S., he said, we think nothing of our freedom to disagree with our government, our laws and even to question our Constitution. In Afghanistan, the idea of disagreeing with the Afghan Constitution, which is based on the Koran, is simply unheard of, he said. The mindset there is you must obey because it comes from the Koran, he said.
The inability to communicate adequately through words left Castillo and the others in his unit trying to read visual cues to see whether anything they were teaching was getting through.
“Part of me was saying, ‘I wonder if we’re making any difference at all,’ " he said. But at times he would see a look or a recognition in the faces of the trainees. “I think I was able to at least make a connection.”
It's difficult to know for sure because "there isn't that loop of feedback," like a professor might have with students, or where he can see the results of the work he and his unit did. In the end, the Afghan police are “going to have to come up with their own way to do things,” Castillo said, to make the situation workable and to have any hope of bringing some peace and stability, which is the main thing residents there want.
The most difficult part about being away, aside from missing things like White Castle burgers, good pizza, and the beach – Castillo said he went to the beach on his second day home – was being away from his family, especially sons Jason, 31, and Matthew, 25, and missing holidays and family events. Matthew graduated from graduate school at Rutgers while Castillo was overseas, and was searching for a law enforcement job.
“It was hard not to be available to be there to give advice,” he said. Skype and email helped bridge the gap, he said, but it was still difficult.
“I don’t know how they did it back in Vietnam,” he said.
The constant concern about safety was stressful as well. There was no such thing has hopping on his motorcycle and taking a ride -- one of his favorite things to do back home, Castillo said. Every trip off the base was conducted with extreme care, and there were a number of times where Castillo and his unit were confined to their base for a week or more because of warnings of threats against the Americans.
“I carried two guns,” Castillo said, an M-9 pistol and an M-4 rifle. “That’s more than I carried in my time in the state police here.”
Even when they did travel off the base, “you were always on the lookout for a suicide bomber,” he said. Several times his unit just missed being in harm’s way, missing an event “by a half-hour or so either way,” Castillo said.
He was used to a certain level of constant watchfulness when he was a police officer, but the level of alertness in Afghanistan was far above anything he'd ever experienced as a police officer, he said.
Training exercises were always conducted with U.S. Marines keeping watch from a hill above the area, their weapons trained on the Afghans in case the students decided to turn on their teachers, he said, especially as the number of incidents where the Afghans were attacking U.S. soldiers began to increase.
According to information available through Friday, 2,000 American military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since the U.S. first went to war there in October 2001.
"It was always in your head that they could turn (on you)," Castillo said.
“I always thought I didn’t take things for granted,” Castillo said. The lack of freedom there – especially the inability to come and go as you please – really hit home. One of the first things Castillo did when he got home was to jump on his motorcycle and take a ride, he said.
Even though that meant driving at the Jersey Shore.
“Believe it or not, there is order to Jersey Shore traffic,” Castillo said with a laugh.