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PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Two years ago, President Barak Obama called on Americans to make volunteerism and community service a part of daily life. These days, Soldiers of Task Force Falcon answer this call to service during their deployment to Afghanistan. Although the deployment itself comprises one aspect of volunteerism, the Soldiers’ time spent with Afghans living around Bagram Airfield underscores their commitment to community service.
Most Tuesday mornings, U.S. Army Capt. Rachael Neff, an intelligence officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade/Task Force Falcon, 10th Mountain Division, hurries down the sidewalk along the main road on Bagram Airfield. The Coal City, Ill., native dedicates her free time on Tuesdays to a literacy program for Afghan children involving volunteers, both military and civilian.
“The volunteers help the kids review their ABCs, practice their printing skills, practice letter recognition,” Neff said, “We also review some basic math- which is a universal language.”
An outdoor classroom set up next to the Egyptian hospital hosts the literacy program, which began as an offshoot when Bagram villagers brought their children with them to the clinic. When Neff enters through the gates next to the facility, she’s greeted by a group of young Afghan children.
“Hello! How are you?” they asked in English while thrusting out small hands for a handshake. Young girls, wearing brightly colored scarves around their heads, toting smaller siblings and encouraging them in Dari to give the English greeting. Little boys crowd around to ask Neff, “Do you have pens?”
It doesn’t take long to notice most of the children speak English fairly well. Not only do most run right through the alphabet, they also count to 10, recite the days of the week- and ask a lot of questions.
“Are you married? How many kids do you have? Boys or girls? Old or young?” the kids quiz Neff.
“They’re a lot of fun,” Neff said, “The kids are really cute and they really want to learn. That’s what keeps me coming back; (the kids) really want to know more.”
Neff isn’t the only one coming back to help. Thursdays and Sundays, a group of female Task Force Falcon Soldiers meet at the headquarters building and go to the outdoor school together. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays are women’s days, while Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays are men’s days to visit.
U.S. Army Spc. Michelle Huggins, a chaplain’s assistant with Headquarters Support Company, TF Mountain Eagle, 10th CAB/TF Falcon, 10th Mountain Division, volunteers with the kids as often as possible.
“I wish I could go every day,” said Huggins.
Huggins claims Queens, N.Y., as home, but said she understands the Afghan children’s situation from her own experience growing up in Trinidad.
“I’m from a country where people are less fortunate. These kids are not as fortunate as other kids, so I understand what they’re going through,” she explained.
During her first day volunteering, a young boy approached Huggins and asked if she had a pair of socks for him.
"That just got to me,” Huggins said, “In America, kids will ask you for a PS3 or a whole bunch of other things. This little boy just wanted one pair of socks to wear. We, as Americans—even me—we have so much of everything. You can see it even here (at Bagram). Go to the dining facility and see how much food left on plates gets thrown in the trash.”
Huggins pointed out it’s not the material things or even the school the kids look forward to most.
“They enjoy the time that you spend with them. The time you spend with them brings them joy- and that brings me joy,” Huggins said.
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Emory Lussi, a chaplain for Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 3, Marine Aircraft Group 14, agreed.
“I’m here every day,” said Lussi, a native of Jacksonville, N.C., as he held 2-year-old Husnah, a little girl with large brown eyes.
“The literacy program isn’t so much about having the children learn English,” Lussi explained. “They learn English, but it’s more about inspiring the desire to learn, so they can take what they discover here and take it further.”
Yet, Lussi acknowledged, the literacy program also yields other results.
“The Afghan people who come here with their children see the Americans interacting with the kids. So, they see for themselves that we can relate and that we want to help; that we care,” said Lussi.
Standing by the dry erase board, marker in hand, a girl named Nazila carefully practices writing the alphabet in upper and lower case. But, Nazila wants to move beyond the letters to complete words.
“How do you spell arm?” Nazila asked one of the volunteers, and then carefully spelled out the word. Focused on the task at hand, she drew a stick figure of a person, sketched a line from the body part and continued her line of questions, “How do you spell head?”
When asked why she comes to the literacy program, Nazila shrugged.
“I like learning English,” she said. “I know many English words.”
But, when asked what she’d like to do when she’s older, there’s no hesitation in her response, “I want to be a journalist.”
Nazila said she also goes to school in Bagram and when she’s not in school, she comes to the airfield to practice her English. She stood up straight, and pretending to hold a microphone began her delivery, “I am Nazila, I am a journalist from Bagram.”
In the meantime, Nazila returns to the literacy program to practice her English and learn new things from the volunteers.
Surrounded by young Afghan girls every time she visits, U.S. Army Spc. Kimmy Emery chatted easily among the group and smiled when one of the girls gave her an enthusiastic hug.
“Mostly, I volunteer because I just like kids,” said Emery, a supply specialist with HSC, TF Mountain Eagle, 10th CAB/TF Falcon, 10th Mountain Division. “But it’s also part of my village’s belief to help when you can. Where I come from, a lot of people live in poverty.”
Emery, who now calls Chicago home, originally hails from Kenya.
“But, I’m also Muslim, so I understand them.”
Although sharing this understanding helps communication, Emery said the Afghan children behave like most other children, “They’re kids. They want to have fun and talk to you (and) have you spend time with them.”
Both Huggins and Emery plan to continue helping the Afghans living around Bagram, even after their return to the United States.
“These people are less fortunate,” Huggins said. “But they are still people. They need some help right now to get on track.”
Emery quickly added that it’s not all about what material things a volunteer can offer.
“Time means something to these children,” Emery said. “They get so excited to see you show up. That’s something they’ll remember.”
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