Logistics Soldiers Improve Afghan School
By Spc. Claudia Bullard, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
NEW SALO KALAY, Afghanistan, Jul. 29, 2004 For members of Maj. Daniel Wilson's logistics shop, serving in Afghanistan means working mainly within the confines of Kandahar Airfield, making sure the members of Task Force Bronco have everything they need to successfully complete their missions.
Army 2nd Lt. Jason Johnson, left, and Sgt. 1st Class Michael
Noye build benches for a village school at New Salo Kalay, Afghanistan. Photo
by Spc. Claudia Bullard, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
So when the opportunity to improve conditions at a local school presented itself, Wilson and nine members of his team jumped at the chance to "get outside the wire."
The team's mission was to build a wooden floor and benches for a one-room school at New Salo Kalay, just outside Kandahar Airfield. The children had been sitting on a dirt floor with few school materials. Moved by their situation, Wilson wrote a letter home to obtain supplies from friends and family.
Wilson said he believes soldiers need an opportunity to understand why they're here and that both parties will benefit from the project. Not only do the students get some badly needed improvements to their school, but also his soldiers get a chance to make a stronger connection with local people.
"My soldiers sit inside all day," said Wilson, who stressed that though their work is vitally important, it is sometimes hard to see how it affects the Afghan people. "Their morale tends to drop. Getting them out doing a project like this reminds them what they are here for."
Once on the ground, village elder Hay Atullah and teacher Agha Jan greeted the team warmly. A gentle-spoken young man in his 20s, Jan said he gave up teaching for three years during the Taliban's harsh rule. Through the team's interpreter, Jan said he was "feeling very good" about the improvements. "Our government is so poor," said Jan. "We are very appreciative."
Jan said that during the Taliban rule there was no education in English and science, and children "got an education inside the house" from their fathers. The unity of villages was affected because of the cancellation of classes. Afghan schools are much like schools in rural America, which are often a center point for the community.
"We're really glad you are here," said Jan. "We are glad the Taliban is gone."
With the help of the village men, the team unloaded materials and equipment. Capt. Marek Ludyjan and Sgt. Jonathon Swigert set up the generator and a compound miter saw, while Afghan men and children gathered to watch Spc. David Fifeld cut the lumber.
Pfc. Sara Grotke, who was sitting with a group of boys pulling nails from their packaging, said she understands that her work in the logistics shop is essential to the mission in Afghanistan but was eager to volunteer because she felt like she was actually "doing something."
Grotke, who had previously gone out with a unit to search villages, said this mission was strictly to win hearts and minds. "The other mission I went on was more tactical. We searched for anti-tank weapons, (rocket-propelled grenades) and so forth," she said. "This time we're getting to know the villagers. Last time the village men were all in one place waiting for us to search their village. They were pretty tense. The difference here is, these villagers are getting to know us."
Nearby, 2nd Lt. Jason Johnson, assistant logistics officer, was building benches. "I was quite happy to come," said Johnson. "I was glad to get out here and do something positive." He said this day would be well spent in terms of getting the logistics shop to see "the big picture."
"It definitely gives us a sense of purpose," he said. "I don't think (the soldiers) feel they're just pushing paper anymore."
While the soldiers worked on the school, Wilson met with village elders. In an inner courtyard that lay between the school and the village mosque, Atullah invited Wilson to drink chai tea. The two spoke through an interpreter about daily life in the village. Atullah said his village didn't have many modern conveniences, but the villagers have a strong love for one another.
"Its amazing how happy (the villagers) are and how happy the kids are," said Spc. Kenneth Norris, whose job was providing security.
Pvt. Malorie Alonzo, who pulled security with Norris, said she was nervous at first about going outside the compound. During the visit she said, "I'm really glad I came."
Alonzo said she feels American soldiers should form their own opinions of the Afghan people after meeting them, not by hearsay and news reports. "Just sitting inside our office all of the time I think sometimes we can get the wrong idea about the people here," she said. "They are really no different than we are."
As Wilson, Swigert, Ludyjan and Sgt. Charles Duncan laid the last of the decking for the schoolroom floor, Johnson and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Noye, logistics section noncommissioned officer in charge, raced to get the last of the benches made. A few Afghan men, an interpreter and an Afghan National Army soldier joined in.
The heat was excruciating, but the team's morale ran high.
Wilson and Jan, obviously pleased, surveyed the completed floor and benches and made plans for future improvements. The team intends to bring mats, school supplies and paint for the walls in the near future.
Although the project took longer than expected, the villagers would not let the team leave without lunch. U.S. soldiers and villagers sat side by side for their meal. A long cloth was spread on the floor in the guesthouse and rice, okra and stew were served, along with the traditional bread.
Noye later said accomplishing this project shows that coalition forces care and keep their word. "We aren't the greatest carpenters in the world, but I think they saw we put our sweat and hard work into it. We are planning to go back and finish the girls' side," he said.
"We wanted to contribute something," he noted. "We do the logistics thing pretty well, but you can't really see the results. This you can see."
(Spc. Claudia Bullard is a member of the 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)