Civil Affairs Soldiers Assist Afghan Students, Leaders
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 18, 2002 A civil affairs soldier recently returned from Afghanistan said education is the most important issue in improving that country's future.
"All facets of life over there need help," Army Capt. Britton London said. "But personally, I think education is most important because it's going to help Afghanistan's young."
London is a civil affairs team leader from the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C. During a recent interview in the Pentagon, he described the role of civil affairs as establishing relationships between the U.S. military and local populations.
"Our job is to win the hearts and minds of the people, to make the job easier for the people who are shooting to do their jobs," London said. "We ... let them know we're here for genial purposes. We want to help them."
One way London's team helped was by providing school supplies for students in the Orgun Valley region of Afghanistan.
The captain explained his team began visiting schools to help UNICEF and the U.S. Agency for International Development estimate how many children were attending. The aid organizations were surprised by the high attendance rates reported, he said.
"They never knew how many students there were," London said. "They never anticipated all the boys going to school and all the influx of the young girls going to school."
London and his team repaired many local schools and even built some from scratch, but they wanted to be able to do more to help the kids learn. The team's medic, Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen, came up with an idea to call home for donations of school supplies.
He said he believes people at home were eager to help, but hadn't been sure how. "Friends, family and churches were awesome in sending books, pens and notebooks," London said. The postage was sometimes higher than the cost of the supplies, "but it was worth the effort." He said he's proud to have been a conduit for their generosity.
Andersen said the support team members received from their loved ones also made it easier to deal with the months of separation. "My family sent a lot of letters. Every one of them said, 'We're proud of what you're doing. We support you,'" the sergeant said. "And every one of those letter would be inside packages full of things to support the mission we were doing."
The civil affairs team also helped establish a functioning civil government in the area. Team members would meet weekly with the local shura, a group of elders from surrounding villages that would decide on local laws.
"We established positions for minister of education, minister of health, (and) minister of finance," London said. "We tried to teach them how to vote, how to build their own communities. It was something I never thought I would be doing."
He said it was strange to be in a room with men old enough to be his grandfather who all looked to him for advice and guidance.
"We were just trying to do the best we could," London said. "I learned a lot about myself and about people in general."
Team members were not fluent in Pashtun, the local dialect, but they tried to learn enough to be polite. "You try to learn a little bit just to show them you at least want to learn about their culture," London said.
The team employed a local man as translator for day-to-day business. London and Andersen said they became extremely close to the man, Manowar Shah.
They said it's these personal relationships that will save Afghanistan from becoming home to terrorists again.
"The day I was leaving, Manowar Shah ... cried, and he kissed me on the cheek, and he said, 'I love you. You are my brother. Thank you for your help,'" London said. "That's just an example of American-Afghanistan unity."
Andersen said America and the international community are "on the right track" in Afghanistan. He believes assisting in the education process and helping to rebuild the government and infrastructure are the right things to do.
"All those things combined are going to keep Sept. 11, 2001, from happening again," he concluded.