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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Friendship
by U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Landon Clifford
November 21, 2018

As the wind howled, a thunderstorm was rolling over the mountain peaks into the valley of Gardez, Afghanistan containing Advisory Platform (AP) Lightning. The sky was illuminated with lightning and thunder could be heard creeping closer every minute.

Un-phased by the weather, dozens of Task Force Southeast Soldiers and civilian advisors gather around a large bonfire. One by one, they pass a lighter and ignite a cigar as they overlook the city of Gardez from their mountain perch on AP Lightning. Since March of 2017, Soldiers of Task Force Southeast flock to this weekly gathering called “Cigar-Dez.”

Task Force Southeast Soldiers and civilians enjoy fellowship, cigars and a bonfire during the weekly gathering known as Cigar-Dez on Advisor Platform Lightning, August 3, 2018. Cigar-Dez was developed as a way to help civilian contract law enforcement professional advisors develop friendships with their U.S. Army advisor counterparts and to help relieve stress while serving in Afghanistan. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photos by 2nd Lt. Landon Clifford)
Task Force Southeast Soldiers and civilians enjoy fellowship, cigars and a bonfire during the weekly gathering known as Cigar-Dez on Advisor Platform Lightning, August 3, 2018. Cigar-Dez was developed as a way to help civilian contract law enforcement professional advisors develop friendships with their U.S. Army advisor counterparts and to help relieve stress while serving in Afghanistan. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photos by 2nd Lt. Landon Clifford)

On March 10th 2017, a combination of military and civilian support contractors founded Cigar-Dez to connect the residents of AP Lightning and build a community based on cigars and fellowship.

Randy Holliday, Senior Police advisor to the Afghan National Police and avid cigar enthusiast, was struggling to form meaningful relationships with his military counterparts.

Since the American Soldiers on AP Lightning primarily advise the 203rd Afghan Army Corps, and the former police officer turned contractor advises the Afghan Police, there was not a social venue that provided an informal setting to understand one another’s mission or get to know one another.

“Just like businessmen use golf as a way to talk about life or work, Cigar-Dez is a communal place for soldiers and police to come together to talk about life or work,” said Holliday.

Passionate about forming a club, Holliday initially paid for cigars for anyone wanting to join. To subsidize costs, Cigar-Dez participants started selling T-shirts, hoodies, and morale patches. There is even a smoke shop in Chicago who donates monthly.

Cigar-Dez has even helped bridge the gap with other nations as NATO partners participate when visiting AP Lightning. Recently, British Soldiers joined the club for a cigar and the comradery forged among participants built closer ties between NATO advisors and the Task Force Southeast staff.

Not talking shop, even if just for an evening, forms strong bonds that carry over to a professional relationships. “Cigar-Dez is a great way to relax and unwind,” said 1st Lt. James Pesola, a 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment trooper and Afghan National Police advisor. “I’ve bonded with civilians and Soldiers alike.”

From private to general, everyone is welcome. Any given Friday, 25 to 50 people will participate. “Cigar-Dez… is not about cigars. It’s about spending time with your fellow citizens. It was never about cigars, it is always about people,” said Holliday.

After 25 years on a police force in Florida, Holliday knows the importance of decompressing. Taking a step back allows Soldiers and contractors to refocus on the mission.

The overall vision of Cigar-Dez was summed up by U.S. Air Force Engineer, Maj. John Brindle, “Regardless of age, rank, or political orientation, you are welcome to come and enjoy a free cigar.”

As the evening rolled on, laughs were shared and tobacco was smoked. Friendships were formed among Soldiers and contractors alike. Even if just for a few hours, Cigar-Dez participants weren’t James “the 20 something armor lieutenant from the Northern Peninsula of Michigan,” or Chris “the former cop from Florida,” they were simply friends and members of a smoke club called Cigar-Dez.

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