December 28, 2010
Name: CAPT Mark Rassler
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Livingston, MT
Milblog: To Afghanistan and Back
After weeks of planning, a major goal of many members of OMLT III was finally realized recently 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. 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 any items that families back home have spent time and money sending to us, so we would share with our friends and other soldiers on our base. Still, many of us were fortunate enough 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 you just need to have an Afghan Army or Afghan Police force presence. CSM Sullivan presented us 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, and jumped at the opportunity to try and help local kids. Many of us put out the word to those who have been sending care packages, that if they might want to send us some school supplies that we could share with local kids. My mother put the word out to her church, Yoked Lutheran-Presbyterian Parish Church of White Sulphur Springs, MT, and I started receiving boxes. I also put a note up on my blog in September, saying that we had a goal to distribute our 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 at my little B Hut.
I went on leave in October, and expected that when I returned our planned school visit would have occurred without me. Unfortunately because of different mission requirements and for other reasons the school visit kept getting pushed back. So when I returned I was surprised to find that it had not happened, but was even more surprised at the number of boxes that had come in while I was away.
The supplies ran the gamut -- 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, though sometimes I would return feeling as though we had not accomplished much or made much of a difference. So after my 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.
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 much after that, however a Military Police unit from Nevada that has helped us on past missions had begun mentoring the Afghan National Police based at the police station. This past Sunday they were going out to visit and mentor their Afghan police officers, so I and two other members from my team tagged along with the goal of visiting the school to see if they would be willing to receive 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. The school was fairly deserted of kids, as the morning session had recently let out. Fortunately the teachers were still there and the principal was gracious enough to receive us. I explained to her that our unit had collected school supplies, mostly paper and pencils as well as a few toys, and wanted to donate them to her and the children of her school at a time that would be convenient to them. She explained to me that her school operated in a couple shifts, with Girls in the morning till about 10am or so, and Boys in the afternoon starting around 1pm. I asked if it would be okay if we returned the following day, and to my relief she said that would be great. She only asked that we arrive later in the morning as the girls would be completing some tests.The next morning we linked up with the MPs 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 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 riding as a gunner, 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 principal, I would be the first to greet her when we arrived. As I had promised, I arrived with several trucks of soldiers, and they were waited patiently outside the gate of the 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 principal recommended that we bring the supplies in and set up in an empty room. The idea was discussed that we let the kids cycle through the room and take an item, but she insisted that it would be better if we distributed the items to the kids in the classrooms.We first tried to present to the teachers some items which we knew we did not have enough of for all the students, and which would be better used at the teachers' discretion; scissor, rulers, glue, etc. Surprisingly the teachers were a bit reluctant to accept our gifts. 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 an Afghan Police officer. For the first classroom I stayed behind and let others pass out the supplies, and 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, but at least with the girls I saw more nervous faces. Granted, having a bunch of strange men enter your classroom -- some wearing their body armor, and all of us wearing at least our pistols -- was probably intimidating in itself. Add in the fact that in Afghan culture the sexes are still very separated, and I could see how the young girls may have been a bit nervous.
As our soldiers went through and distributed at least one notebook and three pencils to each girl, I took the time to 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 key to the future for Afghanistan, we hope that these gifts can help them or someone in their family succeed in school. I told them that we expected nothing in return from them, however if they did want to thank us the best thanks would be their smiles and waves when any of our vehicles drive by them.While we were inside passing out 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 at 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 later 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 helped the soldiers 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. 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 they would get passed along to the neediest of students.
As a final note, we would like to say thanks to everyone who helped us out by sending the boxes of school supplies, toys, and candy that we were able to share with the Afghan Children.