3rd New York Times Entry
Renovating for the Future
By Arnold Strong
Thanksgiving week provided a snapshot of the sort of work we do beyond our basic tasks of building the Afghan army and providing security.
We started the week with our first step in a humanitarian assistance project that we had been working toward for some time. In August, my commander Col. Jim Lyman and I met an Afghan-American woman, Salma Seraj, who runs a charity called Tomorrow’s Women and Children of Afghanistan. Revolving around the urgent need for improved health care for infants, proper maternity care for pregnant women, and the general improvement of pediatric medicine in her native country, Ms. Seraj, while based in Washington, D.C., does most of her work in Kabul. She spoke to us about the needs of a particular project here in Kabul, the Esteqlal (“Independent”) Hospital, the second largest in the nation’s capital. One of the wards needed to have new windows, plumbing and electrical work, but more immediately, it needed to be cleared of debris, cleaned and painted. Col. Lyman saw a way that he could help.
After writing a letter home to friends about the plight of these people, a fraternity brother from his alma mater, Oregon State University, contacted Col. Lyman, informing him that he knew how to help. As the president of a construction and engineering firm in the Pacific Northwest, he worked with Portland-based Miller Paint to donate 500 gallons of paint, tarps, brushes and rollers. Another fraternity brother was the C.E.O. of Blackwater, Inc., the defense contractor, who transported the paint and equipment overseas on one of their routine missions to Afghanistan. The end result of these efforts, after months of slow progress, was realized late last month.
About thirty of us from the Training Assistance Group and Kabul Military Training Center left after breakfast on a multi-vehicle convoy from eastern Kabul to the western side of town, an adventure itself. A large group of soldiers from the Afghan National Army, along with United States sailors, airmen, soldiers, officers and non-commissioned officers arrived to the wary looks of scores of patients waiting to be seen and doctors surprised at the size of our effort. After some hesitation to comprehend that we truly were there to assist in redeveloping a ward of the hospital on our “day off,” the administrator showed us a room full of stacked, rusting, old medical equipment, mixed in with broken wooden pallets, and items that could probably be considered hazmat — old bed pans!
The sergeants and petty officers, as usual, were ready for the officers to give them some general direction and then get out of the way; these men and women were ready to get to work. With the arrival of Ms. Seraj, our intentions were given a spokesperson that could cut to the chase, explaining to the staff that, yes, we were here as promised and were going to get the work done. With some quick guidance from the hospital leadership, we started.
Working on Esteqlal Hospital. Photo by First Sgt. Don Weber.
We removed the debris and separated it into “re-use” and “junk” areas, and rapidly broke into teams of demolition, clean, search and prep crews. The engineers tore apart the rotting the plywood structure in the corner of the largest room and removed the molded bathtub. The taller of us stretched our arms to reach the ceilings with scrub pads and Simple Green, wiping away months of dust and grime. Others sealed off the windows, door frames and heater units with tape while others prepared the painting materials. Within two hours we had removed the grime and started to see the potential of this building. Within four hours, we had a painting party that covered our hair with flecks of white primer and showed signs of progress. Within six hours, we had transformed the building inside and out.
The most essential element of this whole project was doing it hand in hand with our Afghan counterparts. The patients at the hospital and the staff saw that this was an effort of partnership. They saw that this was task that could not be accomplished alone, but only through rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty together. There is an unfortunate consequent to doing too much for a nation that needs help. Often it creates apathy and the expectation that nothing can be done without it being done for you.
Phase one was complete. Now we needed to commit to come back and put on the second coats of paint and get a commitment from one of the contractors to finish the plumbing and electrical work. It made for a great way to share “Black Friday.” In the words of First Sgt. Curtis Watts, “I give thanks that I’m doing this here instead of fighting other people over shopping deals in some mall back home.”
Two days later, I got the call. There would be a task-force-wide blackout. That could only mean one thing. We had lost a member of the task force.
Our flag was lowered to half-staff and we patiently waited for word from the south, to learn the details of the incident. On the following afternoon, I learned that we had lost Second Lt. Scott Lundell. A 35-year-old junior officer who joined the Utah Army National Guard comparatively late in life, Lieutenant Lundell was a husband and father of four who was killed as a member of an embedded training team, working with the Afghan National Army in the field against a resurgent Taliban. The engagement lasted almost nine hours.
At the memorial service held at our headquarters, Camp Phoenix, Lieutenant Lundell was eulogized by his own governor. As it happened, four state governors — Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, Jon Corzine or New Jersey, George Pataki of New York — were in Afghanistan visiting soldiers from their home states and had arrived only that afternoon. Kulongoski and Huntsman were here in Kabul, while Corzine and Pataki visited soldiers of Upstate New York’s 10th Mountain Division, headquartered in Bagram, to our North. Huntsman attended the service, and his calm, confident but somber voice recalled a servant of state and nation.
On the following day, we were visited at Camp Alamo by the two governors. Kulongoski had won re-election only weeks before. He has been a stalwart supporter of the Oregon National Guard and the military in general, having attended over 70 funerals of our fallen comrades and almost all of our mobilization and redeployment ceremonies. His encouraging words of support and news from home were greatly appreciated.
Since then we have been treated to the real start of winter. It has been snowing here for the past two days. It is cooling off, both heads and hands, mountains and valleys. The mountains that ring Kabul are white, hiding the dismal, dusty grey of wartime that lies just under the surface.