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Paratroopers Return to Afghanistan, Note Dramatic Changes

By Spc. Chris Stump, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Nov. 4, 2004 – In just over three years, Afghanistan has made tremendous strides in security and reconstruction -- such great strides that the country's citizens were able to participate in a safe, democratic election last month.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, patrol a village in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan. Photo by Spc. Johnnie French, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Along the road to a free society, the Afghans have had a partner in the U.S.- led coalition and the units that support the large coalition.

Some units most familiar with Afghanistan -- and all that has changed within it in the last three years -- are with the 82nd Airborne Division.

With the call-up of 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, to assist with election security, many paratroopers were afforded the opportunity to see how the country has changed since their last deployment here in the summer of 2002.

Then, the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda remnants was still in its early stages, and civil affairs missions were just getting started, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Lahoda, a platoon sergeant with the battalion's Company C.

The paratroopers spent their previous deployment actively searching for the enemy, making way for the stability that would be needed to start the reconstruction process. The humanitarian and civil affairs-type missions that started a little over two years ago have greatly impacted Afghanistan. This has caused many soldiers who have seen the "before and after" to think about all that has been done to bring the country to where it is today.

"It seems people are more affluent now; people are much more friendly to coalition forces than they were the last time I was here," said Lahoda. "I think the humanitarian aid and civil affairs efforts have made a huge difference in how the Afghans feel about us being here."

With the focus of missions going from strictly combat operations to a combination of combat and civil-military-assistance missions, the coalition has made tremendous progress in gaining the confidence of the Afghan people, which has helped lead to the country's first democratic election.

"If you treat a child or an infant, it goes a long way to help and gain the trust of the people," said Lahoda.

During the last few years of trust building, Afghanistan has changed within itself, not just toward outsiders like the coalition. With the eviction of the Taliban, many Afghans have begun embracing what they had been denied during the Taliban's rule.

Since the first time Spc. Matthew Popejoy was here, girls are now going to school, women have started to shed their burkas, and many have taken the opportunity to earn a living by becoming entrepreneurs or working for the coalition.

"Everything is so much more built-up here," said the company's team leader. "The people are friendlier, ... and look like they have a little more money in their pockets."

The changes the paratroopers have seen are definitely more than positive improvements on coalition installations. The changes that have occurred since the ouster of the Taliban have touched nearly everyone the infantrymen have seen during their current deployment.

"It's kind of mind-blowing," said Popejoy. "When I got here (this time) I didn't recognize the base. And when I went out the gate into Bagram village, I saw how much it had changed and how the people looked different."

Making a difference for the better is why many appreciate what they've come here to do. And with the Oct. 9 presidential election running smoother and more safely than many expected, those who have been a part of operations here from nearly the beginning have much to be proud of.

"It's a great moment in history to be a part of," said Lahoda. "You don't get to be at the edge of that very often."

(Army Spc. Chris Stump is assigned to the 17th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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