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PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan - U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Mark Lazane, a native of Apple Valley, Calif., works to win the hearts and minds of the citizens of Paktika Province -- not with weapons and ammunition, but with words and imagery. At the same time, Lazane counters insurgent propaganda by showcasing the positive things currently being done in conjunction with the Afghan government. Lazane is a public affairs officer with the Paktika Provincial Reconstruction Team. (courtesy photo)


PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan – It is often said the military community is a small world.

However, it’s still extremely rare for two servicemembers from the same town to stand next to each other on the battlefield.

Even rarer is for two people to meet each other for the first time in a war zone and realize they grew up on the same street.

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Mark Lazane, a native of Apple Valley, Calif., and a 2000 graduate of Apple Valley High School, and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Demetrius “Denny” Lester, also a native of Apple Valley, Calif., and a 1988 graduate of Victor Valley High School, are fighting a war together, 8,000 miles from their hometown and had never met despite having grown up on the same street in Apple Valley, Calif.

“It’s crazy how we can be 8,000 miles from home, in the middle of Afghanistan, but have old driver’s licenses that both say Havasu Road,” said Lazane. “I guess I had to come all the way around the world and into harm’s way in order to meet my neighbors.”

Lazane and Lester are both members of the Paktika Provincial Reconstruction Team; the only two Air Force members of a joint unit that includes U.S. Army Soldiers, U.S. Navy Sailors and several civilian development and governance experts.

They operate in Paktika Province in southeast Afghanistan. The province lies on the volatile border of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federal Administered Tribal Areas, a hotbed for insurgent activity.

The Paktika PRT’s mission is to help stabilize Afghanistan and legitimize the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through governance, development and agricultural initiatives.

As senior team members, Lazane and Lester are vital to their 130-man team and are often called upon to fill a variety of roles for the PRT.

“Lester and I do a lot of things here that probably aren’t specifically mentioned in our job descriptions,” said Lazane. “It’s dangerous, it’s time-consuming and, oftentimes, it’s physically-taxing work. But we’re slowly making a difference for the people here and there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel for the wonderful people of Afghanistan. You can see hope in their faces.”

Lazane and Lester help in a unique fight: the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, fought not with weapons and ammo, but with words and imagery. At the same time, they counter insurgent propaganda by showcasing the positive things currently being done in conjunction with the Afghan government.

“To hear insurgents tell it, there’s not a lot right with Afghanistan right now,” said Lazane. “But that simply isn’t true. Part of our job here is to highlight things that are going right in this province, how the [Government Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], still in its infant state, is working hard to take care of the people. We have to combat the negative propaganda put forth by insurgents and help show the reality of the situation: Things are slowly progressing.”

In addition, Lazane and Lester have helped forge relationships with individuals from around the globe, a job they’re convinced is made easier because of where they grew up.

“We constantly work with people from different countries that have cultures and customs much different from our own,” said Lester. “Because of where Lazane and I were raised, we are often better able to work with people of different backgrounds, and that makes us better at what we do. The High Desert we grew up in was very diverse; you couldn’t help but interact with people of different backgrounds on a daily basis. That translates well to what we do here. Ultimately, this war is about building relationships and connecting people with their own government. We’ve made a lot of friends here because we weren’t afraid of other people perceived to be different from Americans. They didn’t seem as foreign to us.”

Lazane and Lester first met during their grueling predeployment combat skills training held at Camp Atterbury, Ind., last November, during one of the coldest winters on record for the region.

Upon arrival to their training, the Airmen were told what they thought would be a six-month deployment was, in reality, a full year away from home.

“We both showed up for our deployment thinking it was a six-month assignment, as many Air Force deployments are,” said Lazane. “That timeframe changed for us upon arrival, when we were told the deployment was for a full year. It was surprising, but this is what we signed up for, so we just put our head down and went to work.”

The situation may have been worse for them if they didn’t have the hometown connection, said Lazane.

“Knowing I’d be serving with a guy who came from the same place and knew the same people made it a lot easier to adjust to operating in a deployed environment,” said Lazane. “Because of where we were both raised, we had a lot of the same ideas and morals based on where we grew up. We also knew a lot of the same people, like teachers from high school. Those connections helped to develop a quick friendship that continues today.”

In the nine months of their current tour, Lazane and Lester have gone on a combined 175 missions outside the wire.

Lazane and Lester were taught the dangers of Afghanistan the first day they arrived at Forward Operating Base Sharana, when they stepped off the plane and were given their first task: to facilitate a memorial service for a fellow servicemember who had been killed that same day on a mission in the province.

The memorial service helped paint a realistic picture of their surroundings, said Lazane.

Unfortunately for Lester, after four combat deployments, memorial services for fellow servicemembers aren’t new.

“It’s something you never get used to, no matter how many times you have to go through it,” said Lester. “Losing a fellow servicemember is never easy.”

One specific incident that happened to Lester and Lazane illustrates the fact the area they’re operating in is anything but safe.

One of their many duties with the PRT is to make sure their unit members and activities are highlighted for a global audience.

This makes it essential for Lazane and Lester to often be away from their base for long periods of time to document unit members working at different outposts throughout the region.

On one such mission, at the onset of a fierce fighting season in the province, Lazane and Lester were documenting the actions of their team members at an outpost close to the Pakistan border.

Just before they were to wake up and prepare for a mission with their teammates, an explosion shook their living quarters.

“It was the loudest explosion I’d ever heard,” said Lazane. “The resulting blast shook the entire room and forced all of us to scramble out of bed and prepare to defend the base.”

Lazane and Lester had been given front-row seats to a complex attack involving a suicide bomber and a large group of insurgents who pelted the base with indirect mortar fire, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, some of which had landed just a few meters from where they had been sleeping.

Although Lazane and Lester are in the Air Force, for that incident they were awarded an Army Combat Action Badge for engaging, or being engaged by, a hostile enemy.

“It’s dangerous out here, but someone has to get the message to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” said Lester. “It just happens to be Lazane and I who received the task for this counterinsurgency mission.”

Though it may not be the safest of occupations, Lazane and Lester wouldn’t have it any other way.

Though they share the same hometown, military branch and deployed unit, in many ways Lazane and Lester are opposites.

Perhaps the biggest difference is school affiliation.

“Lester graduated from Victor Valley High School,” said Lazane. “I went to Apple Valley High School across the valley, so naturally we give each other a hard time. For instance, a few weeks ago, he made sure to read aloud the results of the Bell Game to me.”

Another difference between the two is where they currently reside in their military careers.

Lester, a 22-year Air Force combat photographer, is on his fourth combat deployment. Lazane, a two-year veteran, is serving his first.

“It’s been a great ride, but it’s time to turn the page and go to another chapter in my life, which includes a lot more family, friends and personal time” said Lester. “Four wars is enough for me.”

Lester will retire immediately following his deployment.

Lazane, on the other hand, has 18 more years until retirement could be a reality.

Regardless of where each stand in their military careers, they’re working together to bring peace and prosperity to this war-torn province in southeast Afghanistan.

For two people from the same street, seemingly impossible things often become possible.

In July, Lazane returned from his government-mandated mid-tour rest and recuperation leave; Lester had already begun his leave.

While Lester was on leave, Lazane received an e-mail from his mother in Apple Valley, titled, “Look who’s here.”

In the message was a photo of a smiling Lester and his family, flanked by Lazane’s mom and dad, in Lazane’s own living room.

It truly is a small world, after all.PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan - U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Demetrius “Denny” Lester, a native of Apple Valley, Calif., hands out candy to Afghan children in Paktika Province. Lester and the Paktika Provincial Reconstruction Team work to win the hearts and minds of Afghanistan citizens -- not with weapons and ammunition, but with words and imagery. At the same time, Lester counters insurgent propaganda by showcasing the positive things currently being done in conjunction with the Afghan government. Lester is a public affairs noncommissioned officer with the Paktika PRT. (courtesy photo)


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 November 2010 23:40


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