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Face of Defense: Airman Returns to Afghanistan as Mentor

By Jason Nelson
Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SMART, Afghanistan, July 23, 2012 – Air Force Maj. John Matthews was assigned to the Pentagon after a successful tour in Afghanistan, and soon volunteered to return.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Afghan brothers wait for their father to come out of a community meeting in Afghanistan’s Zabul province. Photo courtesy of Air Force Maj. John Matthews

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

“My first tour involved mentoring the Afghan National Army as they developed their own internal infrastructure,” he said. “We were able to establish a bank, administration shops for the army and other programs that helped them to function better as a professional organization. I left after that deployment feeling that I had made a real and lasting difference.”

So when the opportunity came up to return to Afghanistan as a mentor, the Pittsburgh native left the comfortable confines of the Pentagon in hopes of making another lasting impact on the Afghan people.

“It was different this time around, in that we received extensive language training,” Matthews said. “That, coupled with my knowledge of the local culture, would hopefully help as we continued to mentor the Afghans through the development of government infrastructure.”

Matthews was selected to be the mentor for the Peace and Reintegration Program in Zabul province. A key facet of the security stabilization plan in Afghanistan, reintegration is a way for former and active insurgents to rejoin their communities. The Afghan-led program has had an immediate impact, and its success has directly decreased the number of enemy combatants in the region. The major said he has worked hard in Zabul to ensure the program would achieve its goals of reducing insurgents and helping to mend fractures in communities.

“The program is effective, because it allows Afghans to reach out directly to other Afghans,” he explained. “By conducting small [meetings], talking directly to village elders and showing the local population the benefits of reintegration, we are able to achieve greater success.”

Earning the trust of the local population was one of the first hurdles that Matthews had to overcome as he worked with the local peace and reintegration team. By building on mutual goals, he said, they were able to see past glaring cultural differences and come up with creative and effective solutions.

“Every time that I visited with them in their office, every day that I was willing to come to them to make the project work, I could sense that there was a level of trust being built,” he said. “I dressed as they did, ate with them and respected their needs and wishes. I didn’t want to force my ideas when it was they who were most likely to understand the best way to proceed.”

Now, with his deployment concluded, Matthews said, he hopes to bring the lessons he learned home with him for future deployments. A meeting with community leaders early in his tour made a lasting impression, he said.

“We were outside waiting for [the meeting] to conclude when I noticed a young boy holding his even younger brother,” he said. “They were obviously waiting for their father to come out, and I wanted to take a picture. It wasn’t until after I had taken the picture that I noticed the look of despondence in their eyes. They lacked hope. A year later, I feel like their government, and this program, is giving them the hope they both need and deserve.”

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