Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Alive and Well in Afghanistan

I’m still alive and well in Afghanistan. Working twelve hour days, six days a week, the days seem to blend into each other and I’m often amazed at how quickly a week passes by. The operations here in Afghanistan never cease to amaze me. From the day I arrived here, I’ve been surprised by the number of planes that fly in and out of Bagram. It boggles my mind to think about the daily organization that goes into getting food, water, and electricity to the 32,000 people who live and work on Bagram. I don’t even like to think about disposing of the waste of so many people. There is no plumbing system in this part of Afghanistan so clean water has to be trucked in, while sewer water (what they call black water) has to be trucked out every day. While living conditions are certainly not worthy of being displayed on “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” (especially since they have crammed so many people into this base), I’m pretty certain that even at Bagram, we enjoy comforts that most Afghans have only heard of or read about. I’ve been able to take a hot shower every day since I’ve been here, every room I have worked or been in has air conditioning, I've not had a problem getting internet or phone access, and as a single male college student I'm actually eating better here than I do at home.

Providing water and electricity to Bagram is just one aspect of the planning. The movement of 135,000 US and NATO troops and cargo come through Bagram since it is the major hub in Afghanistan, most everything and everyone is processed through here. Because of this, Bagram never sleeps. When you go out at night, there are almost as many people out working and walking as during the day. It sometimes gives me a headache to constantly be surrounded by people and machines at work. At times, I have wondered whether all of this working and busyness is for a purpose. If there is a purpose, isn't the main purpose of war to destroy and kill? Recent newspaper articles about the war Afghanistan have not helped either. However, amidst all my doubts, I have had several experiences that continue to give me hope about our efforts here and the future of Afghanistan.

I had been looking for opportunities to interact with and serve the locals since I’ve been here. This opportunity came in the unlikely form of teaching the Afghans English. South Korea recently built a Vocational School on Bagram which provides a year of free training (to include food and transportation) to young men who have recently graduated from high school. They are selected by their high school principals to come here and if they pass all requirements to include an interview with the South Korean staff, they are admitted. For the past month I have been teaching English to the locals for two hours every week. It has been an extremely rewarding experience. I am by no means an English teacher, but the young men are so eager to learn that it makes it easy. When we break into groups to converse with them, I hardly have to say anything, because they have a million questions to ask me. I was humbled when they asked me why I was here in Afghanistan. I was a little ashamed to say that I was here because my country sent me. I think they were hoping I would say that I came here to help them and their country. The longer I am here though, my motivations for being here are changing. Each of them expressed their desire to rebuild Afghanistan. I was impressed that not one of them said they wanted to develop their skills and their English so they could come to America where life would be easier. Each of them desires to stay in Afghanistan to help establish stability. I come away from our weekly English lessons always feeling like they have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them.

Every year 85 students are admitted to this vocational school. This may seem like a small number compared to all of the Afghans who lack skills and education, but I believe it is a promising start. This is not the only school which has been established to help Afghanistan. I was glad to read in a recent article in The New York Times that the US military is investing in education for the Afghans to help fight the Taliban. (See New York Times, Sunday, July 18, 2010, “Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice). The article explains how the military is listening to Greg Mortensen, a climber from Montana who has built over 150 schools in Afghanistan, mostly for girls. (If you haven't read it yet, I highly reccomend "Three Cups of Tea" which is about Greg Mortensen and his efforts here. Truly an amazing story). I truly believe that one of the best ways to fight evil is through dispelling ignorance and teaching the truth about the world to the youth.

Another experience I recently had not only strengthened my hope for Afghanistan, but for the world in general. The South Korean staff of the vocational center invited all the volunteer English teachers to a luncheon. I thoroughly enjoyed the Korean food, but even more, I enjoyed the company. I was impressed with how committed the South Koreans are to teaching the young Afghan men. They were so appreciative to us for helping them teach English that they presented us with a gift – a really nice manicure set which is actually a dire necessity in this environment. After lunch, the head of the school gave a small speech telling us about their commitment to help the young men achieve their dreams. He also emphasized how important it is for us to work together as Americans and South Koreans to help the Afghan people. At the end, he asked one of the US chaplains to pray. The chaplain prayed for the school, the staff, the students, and the country of Afghanistan. As I pondered the scene, I was overcome with a feeling of peace and hope. Here were representatives of two better-off nations coming together to pray for a less-fortunate nation. Although I don’t believe we will see world peace tomorrow, it is experiences like these and meeting people from other nations like this that give me great hope about the future of our world.

The other day, my mom asked me what the people in Afghanistan think about America being here. I didn't really have an answer for her, so I decided to ask some of the locals I've become friends with. One of my friends who manages the cleaning of our dorms said before we came he could not visit his family because the Taliban would stop him when he traveled to take his money or shoot at him. He also said he could not attend school before we came here. Another of my friends who manages the workers at the dining facility said he believes most people are grateful the Americans are here because things have become safer and freer. He said he hopes we are here to stay to continue to help them establish stability. I was grateful to hear this directly from the locals because it dispelled many of my doubts that we are achieving success here in Afghanistan. In fact, the more I interact with the locals that work on base, the more optimistic I become about the future of Afghanistan and America’s presence here. Their happiness and optimism about the future is contagious. I realize that I am speaking to locals who work on an American base and who are in a safer region of Afghanistan, but it helps me to know that our efforts here are at least helping some people.

If you keep up with the news, you know that there is credible evidence that the Pakistan harboring the Taliban to some extent. Just as the media was criticizing the US for continuing to give aid to Pakistan, terrible monsoon rains hit Pakistan killing as many as 1,600 and displacing hundreds of thousands of others. Over this past weekend and throughout this week I was amazed as I watched tons of food aid being delivered to our flight line to help Pakistan during this disaster. I felt privileged to help load the food onto the aircraft that were making special flights into the flood stricken areas of Pakistan. This experience increased my hope once again for our world. In spite of a war that is taxing the US military like never before, in spite of hard feelings the US might have toward Pakistan for harboring the Taliban, the US did not hesitate to provide food aid to a country we still call our ally, Pakistan.

As you can see, after the experiences I have had over the past month I can't help but be positive about our efforts here and the future of Afghanistan. I don't believe war is ever a desirable course of action, there is always going to be death and destruction, but I am convinced this is not one of those traditional wars of destroying and tearing down. There is much building up going on, at least from my standpoint.

My recent interactions with the Afghans have also helped me develop a deep respect for the Muslim religion. Many of my biases toward the Islam religion have changed dramatically. My next blog will be devoted to what I have learned about Muslims and their religion. Most of the locals will be celebrating Ramadan from August 11 – September 12. Ramadan is a celebration of the month in which the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad. This is a month of fasting from sun up to sun down, repentance, increased prayer, and increased charity. I am excited to learn and experience a little bit of the Ramadan celebration over the next month.


  1. Chauncy,This was very interesting and informative ! Thank you for taking the time to write what you have learned and your feelings. It's good to hear from someone I trust. We are anxious to hear that you are home safely and look forward to your blog on Muslims. We hope to see you when you get back!

  2. Hey Chauncy! I don't think you even know me, but I went to high school with you, and you are fb friends with my friend David Shepro. Anyway, this blog entry was AWESOME! Probably your whole blog is awesome too! I'm so glad I stumbled upon it! Thank you so much for serving our country, and with so much heart and thought. Thank you also for writing this all down where we Joe Schmoe's can learn about it from a first-hand perspective. I particularly struck by your description of the South Koreans and Americans praying together over a struggling country. I wish I could have been there! Thank you for your good work, and your hard work. You are doing GREAT things!