|By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Pintagro
Task Force Spartan Public Affairs
|FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan, Oct. 25, 2006 — The plight of Khost children seeking an education touched many American hearts during Operation Enduring Freedom VII, none more profoundly than that of Army Sgt. April Kay Martinez, a 26-year-old chemical operations specialist assigned to C Company, 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, Task Force Spartan.
The native of Green Bay, Wis., said she first took an interest in the challenges confronting area schoolchildren during discussions with Aziz Rahman, a Khost resident who operates a bakery and café on FOB Salerno. Rahman told Martinez in early spring about the state of the Khost school his daughter attends.
The plight of Afghan students attempting to learn and teachers struggling to educate them touched her.
“The students don’t have books to learn from and the teachers don’t have books to teach from,” she said. “A lot of times they just have to do everything from memory.”
“I felt really bad,” she recalled. “In the states we have everything. All the kids need to have the latest gadgets and all that. The kids here are so desperate they’ll take anything.”
The chemical specialist, who works alongside communications personnel at the Directorate of Information Management facility on base, promptly took matters into her own hands. A regular correspondent with individuals and groups supporting deployed military personnel, Martinez mobilized her network of contacts on behalf of needy Khost children.
Most soldiers ask potential stateside donors for snacks, personal care items or entertainment materials; Martinez solicited books, school supplies, writing instruments, art accessories and small clothing items.
Organizations such as Blue Star Mothers of America – which sent 25 boxes of school supplies – as well as motivated individuals, contributed to the collection. “One lady in Ohio went around to discount stores shopping for school supplies and small toys.” When postal costs developed into a concern, Martinez said, “I sent her a check for the shipping.”
The chemical specialist also took advantage of an often overlooked source of charitable contributions: deployed soldiers.
“If somebody said ‘why did my mom send me crayons or 500 pens?’ she’d take it for the kids,” observed Army Sgt. Heidi Kay Ritter, a satellite communications specialist with C Company, 3rd BSTB and Martinez’s best friend. “If there was candy lying around and nobody was claiming it, she’d scoop it up and say ‘this is for my kids.’”
Martinez tapped fellow DOIM staffers and soldiers throughout FOB Salerno for a variety of writing materials, snacks and personal care items.
Within a few months, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed chemical specialist assembled an enormous collection of notebooks, writing and construction paper, markers, pencils, pens, chalk, watercolor paints, glue, stickers, staplers and rulers as well as candy and toys.
Martinez coordinated with Civil Affairs personnel serving on base to arrange delivery of the supplies to needy area students. After a few desultory attempts to distribute the materials to local schools during scheduled Civil Affairs events, Martinez brought Army Capt. Al Tofani to the DOIM facility to inspect her stockpile.
Tofani, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., who heads the Civil Affairs Team responsible for Khost Province, discovered an enormous cache of educational materials upon arrival. “I think he was pretty surprised by what he found,” Martinez said. “He was happy to see how much we had.”
“The boxes were stacked to the ceiling,” recalled Army Sgt. Raymond M. Navarro, a communications network technician working at DOIM. “I didn’t realize how much was there until I heard a loud noise one day. When I went into her office area, there was stuff all over the place.” Colleagues hastily repackaged the scattered educational loot and restacked the fallen boxes.
Tofani quickly realized the enormous scale of the stockpile and the logistical task at hand. Ultimately, Martinez said, Tofani and his team “scheduled a mission just around my stuff.”
An initial delivery in early October shipped 10 boxes of supplies to Khost Civil Affairs centers. Tofani and team members plotted a larger mission for the third week in the month.
A four-vehicle convoy of DOIM volunteers and Civil Affairs Team members departed FOB Salerno carrying more than 40 boxes of supplies the morning of Oct. 17. The chemical specialist’s school and personal materials, loaded into some 43 boxes, filled the entire bed of a Humvee.
Martinez and the Civil Affairs Team delivered roughly half the boxes to each of two Khost schools. Team members distributed backpacks to young students at each facility. Martinez and assistants downloaded boxes of supplies, toys and clothing items, arraying the materials in a line for distribution. Volunteers filled children’s backpacks with treasure as the young students passed through the lines by class.
Around 500 5-to 14-year-old students received backpacks and assorted educational materials during the first stop.
The convoy pressed on, arriving at the newly constructed Darmani Girls’ School in early afternoon. Martinez, fellow volunteers and Civil Affairs Team soldiers distributed backpacks and school supplies to an additional 650 young students during the second stop.
“At first they were a little cautious or shy but as they got through the end of the line there would be smiles and they’d try to talk to us and everything,” Martinez said. “At the end, after we gave everything out, they were playing with the toys and smiling. They were so happy.”
“Most of them smiled,” said Navarro, who participated in the errand of mercy. “They were conversing, smiling and looking through their stuff.”
“I had a couple handfuls of pens, pencils and stuff, and I kind of got mobbed by the kids,” the native of Mayville, N.Y., added with a smile.
Martinez met with the Khost provincial director of education, teachers and a group of “Star Pupils” at the Darmani school. The Green Bay native talked to the girls through an interpreter and queried them about their accomplishments and plans.
Teachers asked the Wisconsin volunteer about her efforts and the supplies she assembled. “They asked us about all the supplies and where we got the stuff,” she recalled. “They were amazed the people would send stuff all the way from America. They were very appreciative.”
Martinez plans to make a final delivery before rotating out of the theater with her organization in late winter. The chemical specialist accumulated another box and a half of supplies within a week of the previous delivery.
Efforts to solicit further donations continue apace. Stacks of note cards and envelopes cover her desk and fill vacancies in any available compartment or office crevice.
“Every day I go in to talk to her and she’s writing another letter,” Ritter said.
The correspondence, which Martinez prefers to conduct in writing since “it’s more personal” than electronic messages, flows in both directions. The chemical specialist sends back photos, “thank you” notes and letters detailing accomplishments achieved due to donors’ generosity.
Martinez’ efforts inspired not only the children touched by her educational gifts, but the people around her.
“I thought it was really encouraging to find someone who was trying to help young children,” said Ritter, who served during two previous OEF rotations. “When we first got to Bagram during OEF I, the kids didn’t go to school. I think it’s great they’re trying to improve themselves – the older teachers helping the younger ones and now a female teacher. I think it’s outstanding.”
The Khost educational effort did not mark Martinez’ first humanitarian venture. As a teenager and young lady in Wisconsin, she volunteered at daycare centers, a nursing home and a hospital. Her compassionate instincts remained untamed by the Army and Fort Drum. Martinez and Ritter delivered treats and presents to abandoned dogs and cats at the Watertown Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals facility just before Christmas in 2005.
The pair visited pet and discount stores in Watertown, purchasing catnip, assorted treats and small toys for the abandoned kitties and pooches. Ritter, a country girl from Iowa who loves dogs, attended to the K-9 guests while Martinez visited the cats.
“She went through each cage systematically, opened the cages, put in the catnip and toys, and played with them for a while,” Ritter said of her friend’s visit to the cat cages. “They were all meowing and standing in the cages. I was so proud.”
According to Ritter, the volunteer efforts on behalf of Khost schoolgirls and Watertown kittens represent a common compassionate thread.
“April’s a very caring person,” she said. “If she sees a place where she can help out, she always does.”
“She loves kids and pets. She can’t help but love cute things and give them all sorts of attention. She’s a kindergarten teacher trapped in ACUs,” Ritter added with a smile.