By Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 4, 2007 - Afghans and Americans bump, set and spike during weekly rounds of volleyball at this forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan, providing an opportunity for the local citizens to see U.S. airmen and soldiers in a setting different from that outside the wire. "They get to come here on the base and see us relaxed and in our (physical training) uniforms, a lot different than how we look when we are out on convoy," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Frank Comer, a civil affairs specialist with the Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team, who attends every game held in a sand pit here. "They get to see that we, too, enjoy a good game of volleyball."
The airmen and soldiers are part of the Laghman PRT, which serves as an administrative unit of international aid to the area via reconstruction projects, humanitarian aid delivery, and security backed by national and coalition forces. The PRT engages with key government, military, village and religious leaders while monitoring important political, military and reconstruction development. Team members also make efforts to provide outreach to the citizens they're helping.
Hence, the volleyball games, the brainchild of Army Staff Sgt. James Miller, another civil affairs specialist with the PRT. During the many convoys through various villages, Miller noticed a familiar trend: the youth were playing volleyball.
"It wasn't uncommon to see nets strung between two trees or two poles stuck in the ground and kids playing," Miller said. "It got me thinking that maybe one way we could connect with the locals was to invite them onto the FOB and get some friendly competition going between the Americans and Afghans."
He approached the airmen running the morale, recreation and welfare programs at the FOB and asked if he could incorporate the Afghan and American game into the base's volleyball season. The airmen were enthusiastic.
"It wasn't a problem to include these games in our season," said Senior Airman Eliceo Dejesus, a services airman for the PRT deployed from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. "Volleyball keeps everyone happy, and including the Afghans is even better because it allows for us to interact with them, too."
Even though the Afghan students rotate from different villages each week, the Americans have yet to actually claim victory against any of them on the court.
Yet, they insist they are winners every time.
"Sure, they beat us severely every week," Comer admitted, "but we come out winners because we're establishing relationships. Sometimes the local elders attend the games, too, and we're able to talk about construction updates and potential projects."
Miller said he likes to approach the young men who play and ask what they would build first if they were governor of the province?
"Their answers provide insight into the communities' needs," he said. "They say they want schools, roads and medical clinics. Just recently, we were asked for a library. That was a first, but it's good to know what they want and need."
The volleyball games will continue until winter, but will most likely start up again once the weather warms up in the spring, which is a good thing, according to Jahedi, director of the Laghman Youth Society.
"When the Americans come out into the villages in their armor and with their guns, the people can't really look at them and know them," he said through an interpreter. "The villagers don't know who (the Americans) are, what they are doing, why they are in that village. But since we play volleyball, the Afghans are happy to come here. They are happy to see that the Americans are here to serve Afghanistan and to help the country. That is what they are doing."
(Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein is assigned to U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs.)