After weeks of planning, a major goal of many members of OMLT III was finally realized yesterday when we were able to visit and hand out school supplies to some Afghan children. Shortly after we arrived into Afghanistan we started receiving care packages from our friends and family, and from random families we have never met who simply want to show their support for troops deployed overseas. In fact we started receiving so many care packages that many of us were receiving more items than we could use for ourselves. Nobody wants to waste to throw away any items that families back home have spent time and money to send to us, so we would share our friends and other soldiers on our base. Still many of us were fortunate to continue to receive more items than we knew what to do with.
Our Command Sergeant Major, CSM Sullivan, met some folks on our base, Camp Mike Spann, who had gone to visit and distribute school supplies to local schools. They revealed to him that the process is relatively easy, and just that you should have an Afghan Army or Afghan Police force presence when visiting the school. He presented the idea of collecting supplies and toys to give out to a local school. I and a few others on the team were very excited at this idea, and jumped at the opportunity to try and help local kids. Many of us put out the word to those who have been sending us care packages, that if they want to send us something instead of sending us things of which we may already have, send us some school supplies so that we could share with local kids. In my case my mother put the word out to her church, Yoked Lutheran-Presbyterian Parish Church of White Sulphur Springs MT, and I started receiving several boxes from my mom through her church. I also put a not up on my blog in September, saying that we had a goal to distribute out supplies in mid October. A couple other websites, milblogging.com and the Sandbox, with much larger readership linked to my blog and soon after boxes from all across the United States started arriving to my little B Hut.
I went on leave in October, and was originally expecting that when I returned that our planned school visit would have occurred without me. Unfortunately different mission requirement and other reasons the school visit kept getting pushed back. So I was surprised to find that the school visit had not happened, but more surprised at the number of boxes I had received while I was away dedicated towards helping Afghan kids.
The supplies in all the boxes that we collected ran the gamut of notebooks, pencils, sharpeners, glue, crayons, rulers, scissors, as well as several boxes of kids toys (mostly stuffed animals).
We have been outside the wire a fair number of times, and fortunately have never been shot at, sometimes though I would return feeling as though we had not accomplished much or made much of a difference. So I when I returned from leave I was anxious to get out there and visit some kids. So it was frustrating as each week a different issue would come up pushing our school visit back. Last week it looked as though we would have an opportunity to set up and execute our school visit, however Eid which was a three day Muslim holiday began on Tuesday.
In September we spent several nights in the Chemtal district, camped out at the Chemtal Police station during the 2010 Afghan elections helping our ANA pull security in the area. We noticed that there was a school, the Waliasr Secondary School of Chemtal district, within a quarter mile of the police station. Our Afghan Army Battalion had not been operating in the area too much after that, however a Military Police unit from Nevada that has helped us on past missions had begun mentoring the Afghan National Police that are based at the police station. This past Sunday they were going out to visit and mentor their Afghan police officer, so I and two other members from my team tagged along with the goal of visiting the school to try and see if they would be willing to receive from gifts from us.
During a lull in the mentoring, I ventured over to the school along with a police officer, a couple more soldiers, and my interpreter to see what we could find out. Upon arrived the school was fairly deserted of kids, as the morning session had recently let out.
Monday morning we linked up with the MP’s again, utilizing their Max Pro MRAP which has a lot more internal cargo capacity than our M-ATVs. Due to our team being all male, I sought out to bring a female along with us as I knew that we would be at the school when the girls would be in session. Unfortunately my team was a bit short staffed as some of the guys had already arranged to work with our ANA soldiers, so I had the female Captain who would be joining us work as a vehicle commander from my vehicle. This necessitated me to ride as a gunner for my vehicle, which was unique change and a different way to see Afghanistan.
Our six vehicles arrived at the school a bit before 10am, and as I had told the principle I would be the first to greet her when we arrived. As I had promised her the day prior I arrived with several trucks of soldiers, and they were waiting patiently outside the gate of their school and were looking forward to sharing with her school the gifts that we had brought. I asked her to come out to our truck so that we could come up with an idea of how to best distribute the supplies to the kids. My goal was to find a balance between disorganized chaos and regimental discipline so that kids and soldiers could have a good time together. The principle recommended an empty room for us to bring the supplies and set up. The idea was discussed about letting the kids cycle through the room and take an item, however she kept insisting that it would be better if we distributed the items to the kids in the classrooms.
We first tried to present to the teachers items which we knew that we did not have enough for all the students, and would we felt would be better used by the teachers at their discretion; scissor, rulers, glue, etc. Surprisingly the teachers were a bit reluctant to accept our gifts to them. When our soldiers began entering the classrooms I got my biggest shock of the morning, as I was slapped in the face with the fact that Afghanistan is a totally different culture than what we are used to. The guys on my team politely entered the classroom with the boxes of supplies, along with a teacher and Afghan Police officer. For the first classroom I stayed behind and let others pass out the supplies, but I was surprised to see some of the girls in the classroom covering their faces with their head scarves or bowing their heads. I was expecting to see more smiling or excited faces, instead I think with the girls in the classrooms at least I saw more nervous faces. Granted having a bunch of strange men enter your classroom, some of whom were still wearing their body armor, and all of us wearing at least wearing our pistols was probably intimidating in itself. Add into the fact that in Afghan culture the sexes are still very separated, I could see how the young girls may have been a bit nervous.
As our soldiers went through and distributed to at least one notebook and three pencils to each girl, I took the time to try and address each class. I wanted to share with them that these items were gifts from our families in the United States and were gifts to them to help them with their education. As we feel that education is the future to Afghanistan, we hope that these gifts can help them or someone in their family in succeeding in school. I told them that we expected nothing in return from them, however if they ever did want to try and thank us the best thanks would be their smiles and waves when any of our vehicles ever drive by them.
While we were inside passing out actual school supplies, the guys who remained outside the school perhaps had the most fun of the day. All kinds of little kids started showing up to the school wondering what was going on. Those curious kids, became the lucky kids as they received stuffed animals and pieces of candy. I was relayed stories of how some of the crafty kids would get a piece of candy, put it in their pocket then run up to a different soldier asking for a piece of candy. Other kids were little helps to some of the soldiers helping to pass out the toys and candy to their friends or brother and sisters.
After we had visited each classroom and ensured that each girl had at least one notebook and several pencils, we still had a box almost full of notebooks, and over a thousand pencils in another box. We knew that we would not have enough notebooks to ensure that students in the afternoon class would all receive something. So we decided to leave the remaining boxes of items with the school staff, and hope that it would get passed along to the neediest of students.
All in all we felt that our school project was a success. Later in the day one soldier who wasn’t able to go on the mission asked how we would be able to tell if it was a success or not via some sort of military bench mark or goal. While in the back of our minds we secretly hope that giving of the supplies will help the kids and their families trust the US and other forces in the area. What it came down to whether or not that does happen, we all just wanted to give some gifts to some kids to hopefully help them with their education. Plus following the old adage that it is better to give than receive, a lot of smiles and senses of accomplishment were brought to the soldiers from the Minnesota and Nevada National Guard as passed out the various items.
As a final note we would like to say thanks to anyone who helped us out by sending boxes of school supplies, toys, and candy that we were able to share with the Afghan Children.