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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Marjeh and Now Zad

Major Chris Curran set me up for a trip to Marjeh and Now Zad with a group of VIPs. I was excited for this opportunity as it would be first time to see any of Helmand Province since I arrived in November and I am able to leave the daily grind at work, even though it is only for a few hours. I made sure all of my gear was set and went to the airfield at Bastion to catch my first ride in an Osprey. While waiting for the Osprey, I met Tony Perry from the Los Angeles Times. He was taking his final trip with the 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade Afghanistan before he returned to the United States. He was a very nice gentleman who took the time to write about what the Marines were accomplishing here. It was quite enjoyable hearing about his yearly trips to the war and his fondness for the Marines. Ironically, he lives in the San Diego area, heard about the Afghanistan National Water Polo Team, and actually wanted to write a story about the team. It just shows how small of a world we live in. We had to meet all of the way in Helmand Province, Afghanistan for us to share our stories when we live so close to each other in the United States.

The ride on the Osprey was quite exciting as my time in Marine Corps aircraft is little compared to other Marines or my daughter Isabella (Who has more flight time in Marine Corps aircraft than I do). Other than cargo transport, I have flown in US Army Blackhawks. And since the Osprey is the future of Marine Corps aviation, it was nice to actually know what it was like. It was a great experience.

Our arrival in Marjeh was very interesting. We landed in the middle of a villager's farm and walked to the forward operating base nearby. Upon entering the base, I felt for the Marines and their living conditions. These Marines did not have heating or air conditioning; laptop computers; a laundry service; easy access to hot showers; refrigerators; or anything that would be a comfort of home. Even though our living conditions here may seem austere, it does not compare to what the Marines on the ground deal with every day. Knowing that the Marines would not have much, I picked up an any Marine/Soldier box from the post office and dropped it off with a Marine upon our arrival. Even though the Marines there were tired of visitors showing up, I think they appreciated the boxes that I and others brought.

After speaking with a few Marines, the party we came with wanted to walk into the town. As we left the base, I saw a teacher conducting classroom instruction in an outdoor setting. He had about 20 children being very attentive, even though a bunch of Marines, other military personnel, and two civilians (One of which was Tony Perry) were walking right behind their "classroom". It was nice to see that regardless of any situation, to include that just a few days before there was heavy fighting in this area to include the street we were on, that someone takes the time to hold classes.

While continuing to walk down this street, I saw many locals sitting, talking, and watching. Of interest, I saw a little boy, about the same age as my son, Westy, sitting next to a motorcycle. I do not know if at the ripe old age of 4-5 he knew how to fix a motorcycle or if he was just pretending to. Either way, I could imagine Westy doing the same exact thing if he were sitting next to a motorcycle back home.

Marjeh was quite beautiful compared to many other areas I have been in Afghanistan. It was very green and had some beautiful flowers in the fields. It also seemed like a friendly community to those who lived there and to outsiders.

As I was walking with a few of the young Marines way ahead of the group, a young girl hesitatingly came up to one of the Marines who was clearing the area. Knowing that the Marine was focused on making sure that the area was safe for the upcoming entourage, I motioned for the girl and her family to come to me. The first thing I did was say hello in Farsi. I then asked how she was and what her name was in Farsi. Before I even finished what I was saying (Regardless of the fact that I am positive my accent was horrible), I realized that I was speaking in Farsi to a native Pashto speaker. Just goes to show how not mentally there I was. But as a high quality "Staff Officer" that I am, I quickly pulled a lollipop out of my cargo pocket and handed it to her. Her look of horror that an American was speaking Farsi to a Pashto speaker quickly went away and a smile quickly emerged. As she went to grab the lollipop, I saw a very bad burn to one of her arms. I quickly asked one of the Marines what their unit's procedure was for treating local national children in this area. He responded by saying the unit corpsman could provide limited treatment there or we could send the girl to the base. The Marine quickly called for a corpsman and he arrived very promptly. After the corpsman assessed the wound, he took out a bandage and carefully wrapped her burns. With the help of a linguist, he explained to the family that they should bring her to the base the next day for more extensive treatment. As the child smiled, ate her lollipop, and had a handful of candy that she was sharing with others, the crowd of over 30 locals to include family and other villagers swarmed the corpsman to touch and thank him. It was quite an amazing site to see that they were so appreciative of what one corpsman could do. The long lasting effects that one person can have…

A short while later, we returned to the forward operating base and boarded the Osprey. This time, we were heading to Now Zad. Once we arrived in Now Zad, we visited a bazaar. The bazaar was very similar to many others I have visited in Afghanistan. However, some of the shops were closed due to a big shura (Meeting) that was being held. We then entered a local school. What was so impressive about this school, other than the amount of kids that were in the classrooms, was that there was a classroom full of girls. It looked like the girls were receiving the same curriculum as the boys, which in my mind was a great thing. From afar, I watched the teachers try to finish their classroom instruction amongst all of the visitors walking through the classrooms. I just sat and marveled at the simple school and how much these teachers were achieving. I then thought about how progressive this community is by having such a large class of girls. On our way out, I asked one of the Marines at the local unit about the girls' classroom. The Marine said that sometimes there are so many girls in that classroom that there is barely even enough room to even move around. I am glad that the families are sending all of their children to school, not just the boys.

As we were waiting for our transportation back to the landing zone where the Ospreys were waiting, I noticed that there was a football (Soccer) field. It was a very simple construction. Someone cleared away all of the rocks from the dirt and erected two goals out of wood. There were a few children around and I wished that I would have been prepared with a ball. Why was I not prepared? I just did not think that I would run into a football field, with children on it, in the outskirts of Now Zad. Just to reassure everyone, if there was a pool in Now Zad, I would not have been prepared either.

I am very appreciative that Major Curran set me up on this trip and that Major Benson and Major Lesniewicz covered my work for me while I was gone. It was great to see the villages in these areas and it reminded me of why it is so important for the western world to be helping in Afghanistan. These villages are the future of Afghanistan. This is why education, dreams, hopes, and heroes are so important.