War on Terrorism

Thursday, November 19, 2009

U.S. Forces Warm Hearts, Minds in Afghanistan

By Air Force Capt. John T. Stamm
Special to American Forces Press Service

Nov. 19, 2009 - I felt like a bean-bag being tossed about in the cab of our pickup truck as our convoy traveled several bumpy miles off the main road, deep into the Hindu Kush Mountains of the Panjshir Valley, Nov. 15. The winter air was thin and crisp, and the normally raging river was barely more than a trickle now, snaking around ice-covered rocks that had been completely submerged a couple of months ago. This was the provincial reconstruction team's sixth of several planned missions here to provide material assistance to remote areas of the valley before the harsh winter sets in. On this day, we were headed into the northernmost district of the valley, Paryan, to the villages of Dakhawak and Chawny. With us we brought coats, blankets, gloves, hats, coal-burning stoves, school supplies and hand-made quilts.

Upon arrival, we decided to stage at a split in the road leading to each of the villages. A man atop a horse was the first to greet us. Dressed in traditional style, complete with a turban, or "lungi," he and his steed looked as if they had just vaulted out of a Hollywood movie.

Although medium in stature, the man commanded a great deal of respect, as if he were an ancient warrior returning from a battle repelling would-be occupiers. Perhaps, I thought, he was one of the five brothers known as lions, who, as legend has it, were the first to settle in and protect the valley?

After a short conversation with one of the provincial reconstruction team's interpreters, the man rode off in a cloud of dust to inform the elders of the villages to send assistance.

As the dust settled, a man and three boys appeared from a dwelling on top of a small mountain overlooking the road. They brought with them a pot of tea and several glasses, and offered us a drink. We graciously accepted and shared some locally made bread and pastries we had picked up along the way.

A crowd of children had gathered up on the nearby mountain. Like a modern-day Santa Claus, Navy Master Chief Petty Officer William Goforth, who works in civil affairs for the team, disappeared behind one of the trucks and reappeared with a large duffel bag. Goforth and an interpreter gathered the children and, with the help of several other team members, began distributing hand-made quilts, gloves and stuffed toys.

Most of the children were cautious. Some smiled. All were curious.

Up in the mountains, there aren't many visitors, especially not different-looking, uniformed visitors bearing gifts. But their reluctance soon waned as they began playing games of catch with us, and playing with the new volleyballs just handed out. Some accepted the challenge of a strange new contest called thumb-wrestling, while giggling and laughing in new, warm clothing.

The elders and residents soon arrived and assisted with the unloading of the goods. They stacked and divided everything evenly between the two villages. The elders even made sure to let us know of other villages in the area that were in need of supplies. They thanked us and invited us into their homes, promising to serve us as their "best guests."

Perhaps the most inspiring moment came when a young man named Shawaki stepped forward to introduce himself in almost perfect English. A high-school student in Kabul, Shawaki was visiting his family, who lived in one of the nearby villages.

Shawaki asked us what country we were from. Army Staff Sgt. Danielle Sempter, a medic with the provincial reconstructiuon team, replied "America."

"Ah, America!" Shawaki exclaimed. "Afghanistan's best friend."

(Air Force Capt. John T. Stamm serves with the provincial reconstruction team public affairs office in Afghanistan's Panjshir province.)

No comments: