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Colonel's Story Brings Book to Life for Students

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2009 – In a quest to expand their understanding of the world they live in, a group of California high school seniors turned away from their textbooks to indulge in “Three Cups of Tea” and a video conference with an Army colonel.

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Army Col. Christopher Kolenda, a former task force commander in Afghanistan, answers California high school seniors’ questions from the Pentagon during a video conference May 18, 2009. Kolenda worked with the author of “Three Cups of Tea” to help to get schools built in Afghanistan. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley

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Reading “Three Cups of Tea,” which tells of author Greg Mortenson’s dedication to bringing education to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was part of what officials at Olympian High School in Chula Vista, Calif., call the Senior Common Experience. Every senior read the book in English class and discussed it in other classes.

“Reading the book for the Olympian Senior Common Experience was designed to help develop a spirit of giving and a greater sense of global awareness among our seniors,” said Steve Rodriguez, one of the school’s English teachers. “The senior class has tackled the project with great enthusiasm throughout the year.”

One part of the project was an ongoing effort to raise $12,000, the amount needed for Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute to build a school in Afghanistan. The students raised $3,000 toward that goal.

The check will be presented and students will get to show off other book-related special projects they’ve been working on all year when the project culminates tomorrow night with the Senior Showcase. Before making their presentations, however, there was one final opportunity yesterday to gather as much first-hand knowledge as possible in a video conference with Army Col. Christopher Kolenda.

Kolenda was a task force commander in Afghanistan from May 2007 through July 2008. He read the book on his wife’s suggestion. Kolenda said he’d seen much of what Mortenson details in the book firsthand. He was so impressed that he contacted the Central Asia Institute, never expecting to hear back, he told the students during the video conference.

“A couple weeks later, I got a note back from Greg Mortenson,” Kolenda said. “We began a dialogue which resulted in two schools being constructed while I was there, and then he’s got two more schools going into that area right now.”

That area is the difficult terrain of the Kush Mountains, a rural part of Afghanistan, about 150 miles north of Jalalabad near the Pakistan border.

“There were no paved roads, no cell phones, no flush toilets, no running water, no telephones, no television, very little electricity and no health care system,” he told the students. “Things that we take for granted in terms of school buildings with great libraries and computers and teachers, they just didn’t have that.”

More than 90 percent of the schools in the area of about 190,000 people were open-air schools, which meant they had class outside, underneath a tree, in the open air or underneath a tarp, he added.

The situation was compounded by a lack of school supplies. Teachers were writing on a single chalkboard propped against a tree or even in the dirt, he said.

But this also gave Kolenda and his soldiers a means to reach out and build bridges. The children wanted to go to school, and the village elders wanted to rebuild their communities.

“We recognize that [with] the past 30 years of warfare, education has really suffered in Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s part of the reason why you have radicalism, why you have insurgency in that area.

“I’m convinced that an educated society tends to be more peaceful,” Kolenda added. “Educated young men tend not to resort to violence to solve problems. Communities that educate their women tend to have lower infant mortality [and] tend to be more peaceful societies.”

To work toward that goal, Kolenda first reached out to the elders in the village of Saw. In the summer of 2007, it had been a hostile village where attacks against coalition forces were originating.

“The Afghan army went to the village of Saw and met with the elders and they came back and told me how the elders really wanted schools [and] really wanted an education for their children,” he said.

On the next visit to the village, the Afghan army rolled in with truckloads of school supplies. The elders then presented Kolenda with 100 thank you notes from the children for the supplies. They also reiterated how important educating their children was and that they lacked a school, he said. So when Mortenson asked Kolenda for possible locations to build a school, Kolenda had no trouble answering the question.

One of the neat things about Mortenson’s schools is that the local people are in charge, he added.

Too often, he explained, aid organizations will plop down a structure using outside labor and without really coordinating with the local people. “In a place like Afghanistan,” he said, “where being able to protect your village and having control of your village [is important], a lot of [people] will resent that outside effort at development.

“The Afghans have a saying: ‘If you sweat for it, you will protect it,’” he added.

When local residents make it their project, the villages feel a great sense of ownership, he said. And in every village where Mortenson has built a school, he added, violence has decreased, because development of the villages beginning with the schools creates a new sense of hope.

Before, the elders had lost credibility because they couldn’t bring jobs, money and services to their villages. The radicals, however, could bring in money. But they also brought violence.

“By working together with the elders and bringing development and jobs and benefits to the village, the elders began to [regain] credibility in the eyes of their people,” Kolenda said. “A young man could now be presented with a choice: you can make money by building your community, or you can make money by destroying it.”

More often than not, they chose the first option, he added. These gains then allowed Kolenda and his team to work with the elders on security and governance issues.

What Kolenda’s team and Mortenson helped the villagers achieve by reaching out and helping them build schools was hope for a brighter future.

“Education is one of those key things … that brings a community together where the elders can pass a brighter future to their children and grandchildren,” Kolenda said.

Rodriguez said he is proud of his advanced-placement English students who kept Kolenda hopping with an hour’s worth of meticulous questions.

“I thought my students did a great job this past week using their intellectual curiosity and analysis skills to develop questions for the video conference,” he said. “And I thought they demonstrated poise during the actual video conference.”

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Related Sites:
Olympian High School
U.S. Forces Afghanistan

Click photo for screen-resolution imageOlympian High School seniors in Chula Vista, Calif., participate in a video conference with Army Col. Christopher Kolenda from their library May 18, 2009. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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