War on Terrorism

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Aviators Answer Afghan Teacher's Call for Help

By Army Spc. Monica K. Smith
Special to American Forces Press Service

Jan. 20, 2010 - Army Sgt. Matthew West said he didn't know what to think when a rock came flying at him while guarding his Black Hawk helicopter at a landing zone on Camp Kiwi in central Afghanistan's Bamyan province. "Children throwing rocks isn't unexpected out here," said West, a crew chief with the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade's Company A, Task Force Knighthawk. "You never know what people really think of you out here so I just assumed it was another kid taunting us."

But this kind of rock throwing was different; the rock had a note attached to it. The note indicated that the boy taught an English class in Bamyan province. The child, who spoke excellent English, was requesting school supplies to help him teach his class.

"His English was really good and I thought, 'Why not help a kid who wants to educate others?'" West said. "It's part of the whole 'winning the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan,' and what better way to win the minds than by educating them? So, when [our flight] got back to Bagram, I talked it over with some of the guys in my company and we decided we wanted to help them."

One of the soldiers West talked to was Army Spc. Sean Noonan, also a crew chief in Company A, Task Force Knighthawk. Noonan took the lead on the project, gathering school supplies, clothing and candy, to donate to the Afghan people in Bamyan. Three weeks later, they had enough boxes to fill the back of a Black Hawk. They began planning a mission to return to Bamyan.

"When I heard West talking about what happened ... I just felt like we should do something to help them," Noonan said. "I think a lot of the time, as soldiers, we get carried away with performing the combat portion of our mission. I think it's good to remember we're also here to help the Afghan people – and in this case, we can help their children receive a good education, or at least give them the supplies to continue their education."

When the two Black Hawks landed at Camp Kiwi on Jan. 13, the temperature read minus 10 degrees. The air crews moved the supplies from the back of their aircraft to a large storage container belonging to Padre Leon O'Flynn, chaplain with the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team.

"There's a girls school here that has 2,000 students and a boys school that has more than 3,000 students," O'Flynn said. "These supplies will go far to help them. There's nothing they don't need or won't use. The school supplies and clothing will be gone quickly. We try to get to the more remote villages too. Every little bit we receive helps."

Though the soldiers didn't have the opportunity to hand out the supplies personally, before leaving Camp Kiwi, they took time to talk with the children who live in Bamyan. One teenager, 18-year-old Qugamali, who also teaches English classes in Bamyan, said they are learning in school about Japan and how the United States helped Japan recover after World War II.

"Right now, Afghanistan is backwards, but maybe we can be like Japan," Qugamali said. "The Americans come in and help us become secure. The Taliban can't make Afghanistan secure."

Noonan said he was surprised at the quality of Qugamali's English as they continued to talk. But what was more surprising, he said, was the students' comprehension of what is going on in their country.

"I know education here isn't what it is back in the states, so I was surprised to hear him make the comparison between what we're doing here to what we did in Japan," Noonan said. "It's good to know that the people here, even if they're children, understand that in the end, we're here to help their country."

As Noonan and Qugamali continued to talk, Qugamali said he wants to become a journalist.

"To be a journalist in the future you must know three languages," Qugamali said. "If we have the [school supplies], we can learn. Otherwise, it is very hard for us to learn. It is good that we have help."

(Army Spc. Monica K. Smith serves with 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade public affairs.)

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