By Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 16, 2007 - Whether crawling over dirt mounds to inspect a school, hiking mountains 9,000 feet above sea level, or handing out stuffed animals, members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team are pushing progress in Afghanistan. "It's a very unique job," said Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Luedtke, PRT commander who deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. "No day is ever the same here in the Hindu Kush (Mountains)."
A combined team of airmen, soldiers, U.S. civilians, and Afghans make up this team north of Kabul. They support the construction of micro hydro plants for electricity generation, new roads, bridges, wells, schools, district centers and even a radio station through Task Force Cincinnatus, Combined Joint Task Force 82 and NATO's International Security Assistance Force. Since 2005, a Panjshir PRT has delivered radios, cement, humanitarian and medical aid throughout the province.
It's a job that requires lots of energy, said Teresa Morales, an Army Corps of Engineers civil engineer, who visits various construction sites. She climbs over piles of bricks and bounds up partially constructed stairs to conduct inspections of PRT-funded projects.
"I try to be as thorough as possible during the inspections," she said. "Sometimes that takes up a lot of time, but it's important because the earlier you spot potential problems, the easier it is to fix them."
Construction projects are funded by the PRT, but contracted to Afghan businesses. This means all the work is done by Afghans.
"That is a win-win situation," said Luedtke, who added that all projects are worked through the local district managers and other officials. "The Afghans have control over the project, and they build it themselves, which instills pride too. They invest the time into it, so they want the project done right."
When a need is brought to the attention of the local officials and the PRT, it can take about six to nine months for a project's completion. The PRT helps with contract negotiation, planning, inspecting and gathering resources. But it is Afghans who put it all together.
"For a long time they used clay for their buildings," Morales said, "so the buildings weren't built to last. Since we're supplying them with bricks and cement now, the workers have had to adapt to the new material."
Air Force 1st Lt. Lee Turcotte, a civil engineering officer from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., said he and Ms. Morales are impressed with the Afghan's work.
"They work very quickly," he said, pointing out that all the work needs to be completed before the winter comes, which can be very harsh in the Hindu Kush. "They listen to our recommendations too. They are proud of their work, and they should be. These schools, bridges and micro hydros are very important to them."
When not visiting construction sites, PRT members also provide humanitarian and medical aid to the locals. The Panjshir PRT benchmarked a cement self-help program. Loads of cement are delivered to local district centers for distribution on community projects. The team may also load donkeys with rice, tea and personal hygiene kits to be carried over mountains to remote villages.
"We always try to bring something to the places we go," said Air Force Capt. Kevin Kubly, medical officer for the PRT who is deployed from Elmendorf Air Base, Alaska. "There is always a need for whatever we can bring."
In all, more than $30 million in projects have been spearheaded by the Panjshir PRT to increase Afghans' capacity for governance, security and development.
Whether they are on a hill in a high mountain village to meet with local elders and leaders, or driving along to a construction site, the PRT members always make the effort to establish relationships with the people they contact.
"If I'm waiting around at a site and I notice a couple kids, I'll go over and talk to them," said Senior Airman David Weidman, who is deployed from Altus Air Force Base, Okla., and provides transportation for the team. "I'll hand out pens or candy and try my best to communicate with them."
Luedtke said he's most impressed with how his airmen have adapted to the unique mission at the PRT.
"Where in the Air Force do we train specifically for this kind of work?" he asked. "The truth is, there is no specialized PRT training. Everything we do is based on the basics of all those leadership classes and lessons we get along the way in our military career.
"All of us came here with specialized knowledge about our career fields, but at the end of the day it comes down to all of us trusting each other, respecting each other, doing our best every day, and instilling a can-do attitude to solve ill-defined challenges."
(Air Force Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein is assigned to U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs.)