American Forces Press Service
July 15, 2009 - Some schoolchildren and U.S. forces are getting better facilities in Afghanistan. Within the next few months, primary school students in Panjshir province's Shutol district will trade in their tent and temporary classrooms for a new school with a real roof, blackboards and desks.
The Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team, in coordination with the provincial government, is overseeing the construction of the Golbahadin Shahid Primary School, a $208,000, two-story, 16-classroom school on the property next to the existing Shutol Primary School.
It is the latest of multiple coalition projects to improve Afghan schools. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the opening of the Peshghur School for Girls, also in the Panjshir Valley, while visiting the country today. The future "depends very much on our children's education," he said at the ceremony.
The Golbahadin Shahid school is expected to draw some 3,000 students from throughout the district, offering three sessions per day to accommodate the number of students, based on gender and age. Now, more than 500 children cram into the weathered Shutol school each day, after walking at least a half hour to get there, officials said. The new school will serve a broader area of the district, where many students attend class under tents or in abandoned buildings.
Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Flaherty, team engineer, has spent the past nine months overseeing the new school's construction.
"As a parent, one of the most rewarding aspects of this deployment has been facilitating projects that will help Afghanistan's next generation," he said. "We've seen a lot of children attending class outside, under tents, in the rain, snow, heat and cold. I'm happy they'll finally have a better place to learn."
The team is overseeing 12 education projects worth $2.8 million, including nine schools, two dormitories and a multipurpose building that will be used as a library and laboratory.
Afghanistan Education Ministry officials say half of the Afghan population is younger than 18, and Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of school-age children in the world -- about one in five Afghans is a primary school-aged child. In addition, 1.7 million girls study in primary schools across the country, but only 30 percent reach fifth grade, compared to 56 percent for boys.
Meanwhile, some U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan also are getting better accommodations.
At Bagram Airfield, the Pat Tillman USO center recently reopened after 30 days of reconstruction. With free food, Internet and phone service to the United States, the USO strives to create a comfortable place for servicemembers to relax after combat operations or awaiting transportation throughout the region, said Anthony L. Young, director of USO Afghanistan.
"Since the doors first opened, the USO has serviced approximately 250,000 visitors, which created an enormous wear on the facility and the need to refurbish the fixtures and electronics," said Kevin Meade, vice president of marketing and communications for USO Southwest Asia.
Improvements include restoring the building's exterior, adding an outdoor deck, refinishing wood, painting, installing new doors with fixtures, and adding handmade curtains, comfortable leather seating and an outdoor movie theater.
The USO center provides servicemembers with upgraded wireless Internet, video gaming systems, large-screen televisions, 15 satellite telephones, 12 laptop computers, a library, a café and indoor latrines. The center was dedicated in memory of Tillman, who put his career in the National Football League on hold to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Tillman was killed April 22, 2004, in eastern Afghanistan. The USO center was dedicated to him April 3, 2005, to celebrate and honor Tillman and all servicemembers who sacrifice for their country.
In Logar province, Task Force Chosin soldiers from Battle Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, have worked hard to create a nice place to spend their limited down time at Combat Outpost Baugess with the recent opening of a Morale, Welfare and Recreation center. The center boasts 10 computers, five phones and a television.
The company started out with little more than a few trailers and a perimeter of dirt-filled barriers. Since then, they have built bunkers, showers and observation towers, and made the entrance point to the post more secure, all the while running near-constant missions into the surrounding area, said Army Capt. Jason Wingeart, company commander.
"Even with all we've accomplished out here, it's been a real challenge," Wingeart said. "It's important to be able to communicate with friends and family, and for the last two months, we've only had one phone for the entire company."
The one phone Wingeart refers to was not used exclusively for morale purposes; it also was used for the company's daily business.
"Soldiers will always adapt to what they have, and they've done extremely well," he said.
"We built the morale center because we really needed to get some phones out here," said Army Sgt. William Martinez, an infantryman with Headquarters Platoon, Battle Company, and one of the soldiers entrusted with building the facility. "It'll be nice to have the ability to call home so the guys can call their wives [or] call their mothers.
"We also have several computers," he continued. "With the MWR computers, you can access [social networking sites] and that is the only way a lot of these guys talk to their families."
The MWR isn't the only way troops get an emotionally rewarding morale boost. The post also is expecting a new generator soon. The generator will power refrigerators for the kitchen, allowing the cooks to store more perishable foods to feed their troops.
"All the food we have here is T-rations and [unified ground rations express meals], which are just like T-rations, but they come with their own heaters," said Army Cpl. Jason Huft, a cook with Company E, 1-32 Infantry, who is attached to Battle Company.
T-rations are a prepared meal that comes in a sealed container and are heated up before serving, similar to a giant TV dinner.
"You can see whenever we serve just T-rations, without fresh food, the look of disappointment on the soldiers' faces," Huft said. "But when we get to add in the real food, it's a whole different attitude. Meals are one of the main things most of the guys out here look forward to."
"We are really starting to settle in out here," Wingeart said. "We're really looking forward to the food when the generator gets here, and with the new MWR, soldiers are able to work on those important connections back home."
(Compiled from Combined Joint Task Force 82 and Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team news releases.)