Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Art of a "Care Package"

Students at the Shamal Peran School anxiously awaiting the handout of pens that were specially shipped all the way
over to Afghanistan from the good folks at Bedford Federal Savings Bank
While it'd be foolish for me to attempt to personally mention each and every thoughtful soul that has taken the time to send members of the 3-19th ADT a reminder of home; I would be remisce in my duties as a grateful recipient of countless packages if I failed to at least highlight a few.

A few of the literally 500+ boxes of
Girl Scout Cookies sent to the 3-19th ADT
After reading the creative wordsmanship used on several customs receipts, I feel that some should consider a career in politics or lawyering. While there hasn't been anything illegal shipped over per se, much excitement has come from the anticipation levels associated with the thrill of opening a new box of goodies. At the time of writing this- June 30, 2011; an astounding 111 packages have made their way onto FOB Salerno addressed to "1LT Bart Lomont". With return addresses from California to Connecticut; and of course a dominant majority from the generous folks in the Midwest, I have truly been humbled by the remarkable, genuine interest that so many share for our team and mission.

Last fall, as we first arrived FOB Salerno, the initial inquiries began coming in from the usual suspects (with a mother and five older sisters, I often quip that I've been blessed with six mothers). It didn't take me long to realize that there was very little that we here on FOB Salerno actually "needed". With a stocked dining hall featuring all the fresh fruit and energy bars a man could ask for, I really couldn't think of much more that I'd like. Never one to turn down a good offer; I replied with a request for two items that would satisfy two of my vices: coffee and cigars. Since they don't allow alcohol in the country of Afghanistan, I figured that I'd may as well comply with the old adage life's too short for cheap coffee...

Buy Local
Some of the 430 packages of popcorn sent by
MSM Trucking and Weaver Popcorn
One of the unintended benefits I've noticed after receiving all of these packages is the opportunity for my tastebuds to explore uncharted territory. From Willa's Shortbread Cookies in Nashville to Peet's Coffee out of Berkley and heaven forbid I forget to mention My Grandma's Coffee Cake from New England, I'm exhausted just thinking about the culinary road trip the members of our team have taken throughout this past year- all without leaving the comforts of FOB Salerno. Cigars, from different outlets across the country (although the majority came from Stogies at Copper Creek in Jamestown, CA) have also come in. While there is no way I could ever drink all of this coffee or smoke all of these cigars alone, the packages have done wonders for my social life as well ;-)

As my strategic reserves started to fill to capacity with coffee beans and tobacco leaves, I decided it was probably best to flip the switch on the shipments of stogies and coffee. Instead, included with my "halt shipping" instructions I included a list of needs for a local family here in the Khowst Province. The family had tragically been the victims of a firefight in the local area, with four children all having severe injuries as they came in to the FOB Salerno Hospital. From blankets to childrens jackets, over 20 packages came in just in time for the Christmas holiday. Much to my dismay, after confirming with the family that they would be coming into the hospital for future therapy visits, they were never seen again. Fear not though, as you might imagine there are plenty of other needy folks around the Khowst Province. After several months of determining a worthy recipient, the goods were delivered to a local girls school and I'm told that the reaction was that of extreme gratitude.

The Middleman
While I have to say that I've thoroughly enjoyed partaking in a fine cigar or imbibing in a tasty cup of coffee; it wasn't until I started passing some of the goods I'd received out to friends here on the FOB that I learned the truth behind the statement "to give is better than to receive". Actually, I think I had the best of both worlds in this sense, as I was able to enjoy both the joy of receiving the package in the mail and also the joy of passing the goods out to their needy recipients.

As the 3-19th ADT is one of the only groups currently deployed from the Indiana National Guard, the generosity of Hoosiers has been truly overwhelming. This was especially noticeable around Christmas time, as the packages literally came in quicker than we could pass them out. The most popular items we've recieved would have to be girl scout cookies and popcorn, with shipments of those two numbering in the 500's!

Teddy Bears for the Troops
Another group that I've grown quite close to through this deployment is that of "Teddy Bears for the Troops", started by a young girl named Faith in Lafayette, Indiana. Ironically, Faith and I actually met back in 2008 when I paid her a visit in Lafayette to present her with Lt. Governor Skillman's Hoosier Rising Star award. It's funny how things work out, immediately after hearing that I was going to be a part of a deploying unit, the packages started to flow in from Faith and her group. I believe Faith has now sent over five large boxes, filled with her signature stuffed animal and a note from a student, for us to pass out across FOB Salerno. As you can see in the photos, a few have even made their way into the hands of locals. While many of our men won't admit that they still sleep with their teddy bears, I'll gladly concede that the personalized bear Faith sent over sleeps within an arms reach each and every night.

A Deserving Home

The most recent "joy of giving" sensation I've had the opportunity to experience came just this past weekend. I've mentioned my Ugandan friends in past blogs, a group of devoted men that are some of the friendliest fellows you've ever met. The Ugandans are here on FOB Salerno as contractors, working as escorts for any local Afghan national who does not have clearance to walk the FOB on their own. I first met this wonderful group of men through church, as they grace the congregation with their gift of song each and every Saturday evening during our 5:30PM mass.

During a conversation with one of the Ugandan men, he inquired about the possibility of me finding him a used laptop computer. I told him that would be very difficult given our current location, but in the meantime he should save his money and that I would keep my eyes open. As fate would have it, less than a week after this conversation with my friend Thomas "The Bell Ringer" (his duties at mass), I was contacted by a friend back in Portland, Indiana who was looking for a place to send four used laptop computers. As you might imagine, I was just a bit excited by this proposition and immediately responded that I had just the place for her computers.

It appears that the John Jay Center in Portland was looking to upgrade their computer systems, fortunately for my friends here they were thoughtful enough to seek a new home for their old computers rather than scrap them as so many of us might have done. After a few days of coordination with the folks back in Indiana, four laptops made the two week journey over here to Afghanistan.

As I brought the men in to our office to present them with their new computers, they didn't have the slightest idea as to why they had been summoned to the ADT compound. In their typical innocence, even after sitting down at each of the computers we had laid out for them, they still didn't assume that the computers were theirs for the taking. As we informed them that the computers had been sent from Indiana all the way over here for them, instant shouts of joy ensued. The picture below shows their reaction much better than any words could describe...

Genuine Gratitude - the group of Ugandan men's reaction upon hearing that the computers were theirs to keep

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Monkey? In Afghanistan??

Inquisitive school children of the Mandozai District look on as composting tools are distributed to farmers

I can't help but laugh when receiving the ever so popular question- "What's a typical day like over there?" Bless the countless hearts who have been so inquisitive to learn the work that many are doing here, but the fact of the matter is the word "typical" doesn't actually exist in this part of the world.

Perhaps a better question might ask- "What does a random day over there look like?" Random is a word that can fit into nearly every description of life here in Afghanistan, for good reason. The very mention of the word "typical" might confuse the mind to assume some sort of stability is also present. While stability is an end-state that many are striving for, I would not go so far as to say that it exists at this point in time.

Wednesday started off as a typical mission, we rolled out of Forward Operating Base Salerno in our million-dollar MRAP vehicles and set the GPS computers for the Mandozai District Center. The training of choice for the Mandozai farmers this week was composting; where they learn the benefits of recycling their waste products and even get to take home a few new tools from the training seminar.

As we arrived the district center, I overheard a few of the security forces guys in front of me talking about a monkey. Low and behold, as I approached the front gate of the compound I was amazed to find a monkey on a leash. Heaven only knows where this Afghan Uniformed Police officer found his new pet, but from the looks of the photo- it doesn't appear that dogs need fear losing their title of "man's best friend" to monkeys here in Afghanistan any time in the near future...

Take a look at those incisors!

After regaining our composure, the few of us involved in the actual training portion of the mission made our way into the district center. As we arrived, we were greeted by Wali Bad Shah, the Agricultural Extension Agent for the Mandozai District. Wali is one of the better agents we have in the province, a very intelligent man. Actually, I'd be willing to put his grammar up against a few of our team members.

In planning for a training seminar, the goal is to minimize any US involvement. Standard procedures call for notifying the extension agent a few days in advance, then allowing him to coordinate the meeting location and attendees. On the day of the training, members of the 3-19th ADT meet the extension agent and his farmers at the agreed upon time and location and all parties are happy...typically

Due to a slight error in coordinating Wednesday's mission, we had a bit of time to kill before the training started as we awaited the arrival of ten more participants. As I was taking a few photographs of the attendees, I noticed a young boy carefully studying my every move.

One icebreaker I've found quite successful thus far has been showing the subject of my photos the actual image I have just captured. It's hard to imagine, but more often than not this is the first time that some have ever seen a photograph of themselves- much less instantly on an LCD screen.

Zingham and I
After showing this young, timid boy his photo; I invited him to come to the back of the room while we passed the time. Declining with a smile, he obviously felt much more comfortable in his current location amongst his fellow tribesmen. After a bit of coaxing from our charming interpreter Ajmal, my new friend Zingham finally obliged to come to the back of the classroom.

Using my best Pashtun (it's good for a few laughs), I asked his name and age, which village he was from, his father's name, etc... the usual introductory phrases. Zingham was a 9 yr old boy, from the Mandozai District, who lives on a wheat farm. As we continued our conversation, I inquired why he wasn't in school. I was shocked to hear that he was skipping for the day in an effort to take home the free tools attached to our training, but can't say that I question his logic.

The discussion between Zingham and I went on for about ten minutes. About half way into it, others in the class started to take notice that the youngest attendee was getting all of the attention. The longer we spoke, the more people came to listen in, and the more shy young Zingham became. Ajmal- our always humorous interpreter, decided to lighten the mood a bit during a lull in the conversation. After several minutes of the others all speaking Pashtun, a roar of laughter erupted and poor Zingham's face turned as red as a fire engine. Apparently after learning that I had five sisters and Zingham had four brothers, Ajmal encouraged Zingham that it might make sense for he and I to work out a trade!

Within a few minutes, the ten additional farmers we had been waiting on arrived and the training began. Wali Bad Shah did a wonderful job lecturing to the 25+ farmers in attendance, covering all the benefits of compost that he had been instructed upon just a few months ago during the training we held for all agricultural extension agents at Shaikh Zayed University.

Surprisingly enough, students in the Mandozai District of Afghanistan are no different than students in Manchester, Indiana- the portion of class that draws the most interest is always the hands-on section. The granite faces of many of the elders in attendance usually creep into a grin when the time for tool distribution begins. This smile is for good reason- they each take home a set of five different garden tools immediately following the training seminar.

The tool distribution portion is also the segment that draws the largest crowds from outside of the classroom. On any given day, 35-40 men are usually lingering around the district center in hopes of finding work or conducting other business. Couple this with the release of several hundred school children, and a mob can quickly result if the hand-out is not conducted in an orderly fashion. It never fails, just as we begin to pass out the tools, the school children miraculously begin to appear from behind every tree and building in sight.

The crowds in Mandozai were very well behaved though on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was the Afghan Uniformed Police who were causing the problems. This isn't the first time we've had an issue with the local police trying to take home a few of the items intended for farmers, but it was definitely the most aggressive group of officers we've ever encountered.

As I said earlier, our intention during these missions is to stand back in the shadows and allow the agricultural extension agent to conduct his training and also distribute the related take-home supplies. After watching three attempts by Wali Bad Shah to thwart off the soliciting police officers, we had no choice but to move in and assist the unarmed extension agent in ridding himself of the pesky officers loaded down with AK-47's. Ultimately, four members of the ADT set up a perimeter around the distribution area in an effort to ensure that Wali Bad Shah could distribute the tools to their intended and deserving recipients- the farmers who attended the training seminar.

From L-R: Mandozai Ag Ext Agent Wali Bad Shah, SSG Steve Gilland,
Afghan Police Major Budokhan
When the distribution ended, there were four remaining sets of tools that were now the property of the Mandozai District. Wali Bad Shah asked if we would be willing to escort him back to the district center, in an effort to avoid another confrontation with those were supposedly in place to "serve and protect". After placing the remaining tool sets in the safety of the extension agents office, we offered to drop into the local police chief's office to discuss the recent alarming behavior of the officers on duty.

Staff Sergeant Steve Gilland, a police officer in a rural Ohio town when not wearing his military uniform, conducted the majority of our conversation with the local police chief- Major Budokhan. The look on the police chief's face said it all, no interpreter needed, he was deeply disappointed in the actions of his officers. Within minutes of our arrival into his office, the chief called for one of his aides to bring in the perpetrating officer.

By this time, I have to admit that my heart rate was beginning to escalate. The same man who was loaded down with two AK-47's and a pistol was now heading into the office to answer to his boss and those of us who brought his actions to the attention of the chief. Fortunately, before the officer entered the room he had already been stripped of all his weapons. After a few choice words from the Chief (the interpreter chose not to translate) the guilty party snapped to attention, removed his bandoleer filled with ammunition, and was escorted out of the chief's office.

The Chief later informed us that this man would be fired from his position as an Afghan Uniformed Police officer and also placed in jail until he was ready to apologize to Wali Bad Shah for his earlier improper coercive actions. In an effort to foster improved future relations, Major Budokhan offered us a cup of chai. As tempting as his offer was, we respectfully declined in an effort to minimize the amount of time the 30 other members of our team were sweltering outside in the 102 degree heat as they secured the perimeter of the district center.

This was yet another great example of the unique capabilities that Agribusiness Development Teams, fielded by National Guardsmen with a broad range of civilian expertise, bring to the fight here in Afghanistan. After mentioning his background in civilian law enforcement to Major Budokhan, Steve Gilland gained instant credibility and respect from the police chief.

Call it an unexpected mentoring opportunity or anything else you'd like, I'm just going to call it another random day (with a monkey) here in the Khowst Province of Afghanistan...

Zingham got his tools afterall...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Phase III Complete

Just a few students came out to catch a glimpse of Abdul Jabaar Naeemi, Governor of Khowst Province

As promised, it is high time to provide another update on the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project. The Governor was bumped last week due to the tragic loss of a friend and great counsel to our ADT, but alas- we shan't keep the Governor waiting any longer...

Colonel Chis Toner and Governor Naeemi discuss the Future Farmers of
Afghanistan project during a briefing at Shaikh Zayed University

The program as originally designed calls for four distinct phases. Phase III, the mentorship phase, has recently come to a close here in the Khowst Province. During this phase, professors from Shaikh Zayed University left the comforts of campus life and headed out to work with the masses among our six pilot high schools.

The mentorship phase was also the portion where agricultural extension agents from each district in the province visited the schools to train their local farmers on the new equipment. Think of it as a take your parents (or local farmer) to school day. As curiosity in the community began to grow, neighbors were very interested to get inside of the fenced-in areas to see for themselves just what exactly those pesky Americans had been working with their youth on.

We first learned several weeks ago that Governor Naeemi was interested in receiving a first-hand account of the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project. Details were extremely vague at that point, but we did know he wanted to get out amongst the people to receive his update rather than have those involved come to him. As the Governor's visit came closer, we learned that he would also be accompanied by the Brigade Commander, Colonel Chris Toner.

One of the most important aspects of the FFA project to Governor Naeemi is the collaboration among different "line directors" within his government. Think of a line director as a cabinet member in terms of the American government model. The formation of this project required agreement between three different men, in a culture that is quite territorial- that can be a feat within itself. Highlighting the line directors collaboration, Governor Naeemi requested to visit Shaikh Zayed University to learn more about the project and even have the chance to speak directly with members of the Faculty of Agriculture who were deeply involved in the mentoring phase.

Both Governor Naeemi and Colonel Toner were extremely pleased with what they learned during their trip to campus. Colonel Toner actually has some credibility to speak about the past in this area as he was previously here as a Battalion Commander during 2006-2007. Toner was very impressed with the progress being made, stating "What our ADTs and this university have done with this forward-looking partnership has been phenomenal, and provides real hope for the agricultural future of the people in this area." 

Dried goods from one of the solar dehydrators

As the summer heat is now in full-swing, it is not uncommon for the five-day forecast to read above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire five days. After some creative re-engineering, the resilient groundskeepers at several of the schools have found some very innovative ways to keep their greenhouses ventilated.

Virtually all of the schools are now taking their produce to market- a giant step forward for the project. With these profits re-invested within the farm, the ever-popular question of sustainability is addressed. Not only are the students receiving instruction on the obvious agriculture-related topics here, but a significant opportunity for these students to learn the intricacies of small-business finance has also presented itself.

For the last several months that the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project has been around, the Dean of Agriculture from Shaikh Zayed University has produced a weekly report for our team to summarize both his faculty's work as well as provide photographic evidence of training taking place. Below are a few excerpts from the latest report, this was actually the final report of the mentorship phase so the numbers shouldn't grow too much higher as the entire project comes to a finish.

117 - # of Teachers trained by Shaikh Zayed University  
567 - # of high school students trained - total (438 males / 129 females)
6 - # of high schools selling agriculture products in local markets (6 of 6)
13 - # of Agriculture Extension Agents trained by Shaikh Zayed University
 42 - # of local farmers trained at school sites by Agriculture Extension Agents
3 - # of Line Director signatories to project

Ready for Market
 The culminating event in the mentorship phase consisted of an examination at each of the six schools. Participating students were evaluated on the practical use of a greenhouse, procedures for utilizing a drip irrigation system, the rearing of chickens, and even the preparation of compost.

An astounding 90% of the students tested agreed that the training they received was "practical and worthwhile". Those of you reading this with an education background might pick-up on an extremely positive theme with results such as these- the students are excited and see value in their studies. 

While time here on the ground is starting to count down for the members of the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team, the "rookie" season of the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project will also come to a close. With engaged students and even an interested populace, those from the 4-19th ADT should have great relationships and a sturdy foundation in place to go on and do even greater things for the people of Khowst Province.

Final Exam Time- Children from Gharghash High School taking their end of course examination under a shade tree

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thank You, John

John in his always playful spirit, while assessing plants in the Terezayi District Center on February 19th, 2011.

This week's update was orginally planned to outline another update on the Future Farmers of Afghanistan project. Recently, the Governor of Khowst Province- Abdul Jamar Naeemi, visited Shaikh Zayed University to , but after receiving an email last night from a good friend's widow- the Governor's update will have to wait...

This past February in my Rolling Out the Red Carpet post, I mentioned a gentleman named John Harrington who came to work with our team through his work with the Afghan Water Agriculture and Technology Transfer (AWATT) program.

Just as I was preparing to head out of the office yesterday, my Outlook new email notifier popped up. The message was sent from a woman's address that my brain did not recognize, but the subject line featured a familiar name that struck a chord in my heart. Holding my breath, I left-clicked on the email box fearing the worst...

I'm not certain exactly how long it took to read the few sentences contained in that email, but I will say that it felt like time stood still as my entire body started to absorb the news I feared most.

Tragically, while riding his bicycle home from work on Monday afternoon, John Harrington was killed in an accident. In the email, sent from his wife whom I've never met, she explains "He was biking home from work and was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was hit by a car. "

One of the Guys
John first visited our team in late January, just several days after I departed FOB Salerno for my short trip back to the States. During his time here with the 3-19th ADT, John literally wrote the book on our forestry initiatives. As no organic member of our team had any background in forestry, John's wealth of knowledge was welcomed with gracious arms.

As I returned in mid-February, I have to say I was shocked by the extremely kind words so many members of our team used to describe John. I guess you could say that I was guilty of judging a book by it's cover when I first saw John's picture (wearing a flannel shirt, propped up against a giant tree with one hand on his dog) attached to his bio and curriculum vitae. Civilians working in development often get a bad reputation (many deserve it) but John was quite the exception.

While working in Afghanistan with the AWATT program, John was officially based out of Kabul. Always the adventurer, he loved to marvel us with stories of he and other friends escaping the confines of their government compounds to sneak out on "freedom-runs" around the city.

John made a second trip to FOB Salerno on February 16th; it was during this visit that I was finally able to meet the man so many had raved about. Within minutes, I immediately understood why so many were attracted to his outgoing, magnetic personality. In many cases, "PhD" would better stand for "Pile it Higher and Deeper", but this could not be father than the truth for John.

Under John's guidance that third week of February, we received our first shipment of trees. If I recall correctly; 4,000 trees in total made the journey onto the 3-19th ADT's demonstration farm from their original nursery in Jalabad.

Captain Randy Cuyler, the annoited "Tree-Man" for our team, had a chance to really get to know John as they worked hand-in-hand to outline our programs. Randy and his wife had actually been planning a trip to visit with John in his northern New Mexico home this fall.

I guess you could kind of compare the process of "getting to know" somebody here on FOB Salerno to speed dating. With considerably few other distractions, you really can get to know a person quite well in just a few short days. Before we'd even finished lunch on John's first day here, he and I had already established our common bond- running.

The Johnny Appleseed of Khowst Province
John was what many might refer to as a freak of nature, an ultra-marathoner. Within days of returning back to the States this spring, John participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon. Of the countless stories he told, one in particular comes to mind when I think of his extraordinary endurance. Supposedly, while undergoing a stress test during a routine doctor's physical, John was instructed to climb aboard a treadmill. John claimed he had told his doctor of his dedicated cardio routine, but apparently nobody had ever seen the treadmill maxed out on both speed and elevation- twenty minutes into the test, with such little increase in heart rate. By the time John finished the test (his doctor pulled the plug), seven cardiologists had gathered in the testing room to sneak a peak at this phenomenon.

Several months after John's departure from Afghanistan, he continued to keep in touch with members of our team. John was actually in the process of assisting one of our interpreters, Nick, gain acceptance into graduate school at New Mexico State University- where John served as Superintendent of the Mora Research Center for the school's forestry department.

After learning that another team from Indiana would be replacing us this coming fall, John volunteered his services to meet them at Camp Atterbury in an effort to prepare them for Afghan reforestation. John truly enjoyed helping others, free of charge, for the good of the cause. Doc Harrington had a gift for sharing his talents with others, and he found a way to make his instruction interesting- the mark of a true educator.

John genuinely cared about the safety of each and every soldier here in Afghanistan. Each time we'd correspond, he'd sign off with a "please take care of yourself and the others, I am counting on you." He'd do the same in emails with other team members as well, each time he wrote our safety was his number one concern.

In my most recent email exchange with John, I inquired about his willingness to be a part of a running team in the "Bourbon Chase Trail Run". After learning the details of this 200 mile, overnight adventure through the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, John was more than willing to fill one of the twelve required runners positions. 

While John obviously won't be filling one of those twelve positions, rest assured that a team will still be assembled in his honor. It is through John that I've learned the greatest takeaway from distance running- the people you surround yourself with. John constantly encouraged younger runners to "slow down and enjoy their surroundings" and on many occasions was known to ruin his own pace in an effort to ensure a new runner might finish a race for the first time.

John discussing local forestry issues with the Terezayi
Ag Extension Agent Haji Mohammed on Feb 19th. 
It seems quite paradoxical that after running through the streets of Kabul, training in the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif without the first trace of security, and finally traversing the hills of Khowst Province here with the ADT; John would ultimately be called home while doing what he loved- biking through the tranquil mountains of northern New Mexico.

John will be dearly missed by so many across the world, his work has literally spanned several continents. Future generations of Afghan people will reap the benefits of his work for decades to come, as will countless students and an equally impressive number of runners. 

We on the 3-19th ADT would just like to thank John's family for sharing him with us over the last several months, it has been an honor to work with such a true gentleman. The world is truly a better place because of the work that John Harrington accomplished during his short 49 years here. Up until this point, we have been extremely blessed with a safe mission. I never would have imagined that our first loss of a teammate would occur back in the States.

In many cultures it is appropriate to plant a tree in memoriam for the deceased. What do you do for a man who has built forests?

John doing what he did best- educating. Here we are looking at the barren hills of the Terezayi District.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Weekend to Remember

Randy, Andy, and I enjoying the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500.

"America is great because she is good, and if America ever
ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

Alexis de Tocqueville iconically coined the above quotation in his 1835 literary classic Democracy in America. This quote has long been one of my favorites; as you're forced to truly think outside the box to fully grasp its entire meaning.

As millions across the United States celebrated Memorial Day this past weekend, we here in Afghanistan checked off another holiday away from friends and family on our calendars. Patriotic holidays such as Memorial, Independence, and Veterans Days always cast an interesting feeling among service members. Rather than a picnic with family or a lake-outing with friends, Monday brought business as usual here on FOB Salerno.

Not all Americans were relaxing over this past weekend though. Through my NBC Nightly News podcasts, I've been able to keep up with the horrendous storms that have swept across so much of the United States.

Between last month's disastrous storms across the Southeast and last week's tragic tornado in Joplin, it seems that portions of the United States might now more closely resemble parts of Afghanistan. As I watched in sorrow for the many families who lost homes and business owners who watched their very livelihoods literally swept away, I noticed one distinct difference.

Within minutes of the storm's passing, countless volunteers immediately began lining up to assist in clean-up efforts. Just days after the storm, an orchestra of community groups had already formed in an effort to pull together and collectively overcome the crushing blow they had been dealt.

Unfortunately, this same "volunteer" mentality is all but non-existent when you take a look around the country I currently find myself in. In most tribal cultures, it is not uncommon to literally lay down your life for a family member or close neighbor. Notice I said "close neighbor"; if you think basketball rivalries are intense across county lines back in Indiana, take a look at the tribal feuds that have existed since the days of Alexander the Great in this region of the world.

I honestly can't say where Americans get their great sense of "giving back" to their communities or others in need. Perhaps our volunteer spirit stems from our strong national pride and faith-based communites as Tocqueville describes?

 "Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power."

Sounds like a valid explanation to me...

Greatest Spectacle in Racing
The Indianapolis 500, held each year over Memorial Day weekend, is without a doubt one of my favorite Hoosier traditions. Talk about legendary, this year happened to be the 100th anniversary of the first race ever held at the Brickyard.
While there was no way that the 60+ Hoosiers here on FOB Salerno were going to have a chance to attend this year's race, we at least got a chance to participate in one of the many action-packed events leading up to race day. The great folks at Panther Racing provided us an opportunity to connect live, via a satellite up-link, to students from the Hoosier ChalleNGe Youth Academy and race car driver JR Hildebrand during Armed Forces Day at the track.
Rather than going into detail about the event, I'll defer to Reggie Hayes, Sports Columnist for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Reggie was kind enough to do a follow-up interview with a few of us, as he thought this would be a great story to tell his readers over the Memorial Day weekend.
The editors at the New-Sentinel must have felt the same excitement for the article as Reggie, as the following article was featured on the front page of Saturday's paper-

Live from FOB Salerno
Garrett soldier misses Indy 500 to serve country
Due to Afghanistan deployment, Andy Bowman will have to skip big race for first time in 25 years
A column by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel

Garrett native Andy Bowman hasn't missed an Indianapolis 500 for 25 years.

This year, he has a slight conflict: He's in Afghanistan.

Bowman is a sergeant first class with the Indiana National Guard's 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team, stationed in Khowst province. Along with another area native, 1st Lt. Bart Lomont, from New Haven, Bowman was able to talk via satellite with JR Hildebrand, driver of the National Guard-sponsored Panther Racing car.

Asked what he missed most about home, Bowman said an ice-cold glass of milk.

“JR, I'd love to join you for that glass of milk,” Bowman told the driver, alluding to the traditional drink for the winner.

“There was a dare thrown out there for me to say that,” Bowman said in a phone interview with The News-Sentinel. “I had to do it. I look forward to meeting him in person one day. I think he's going to win it.”

Bowman pointed out that Panther Racing has finished second in the last three Indy 500s, with drivers Vitor Meira in 2008 and Dan Wheldon in 2009 and 2010.

The 100th anniversary running of the Indy 500 begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Bowman and Lomont hope to watch this year's Indy 500 via satellite, even if it's on tape delay. While both men live in Indianapolis now, they have long-standing connections to the Fort Wayne area. Lomont's parents still farm here.

Linking up with Panther Racing – and the National Guard connection – allows them to have a taste of home while on their one-year assignment. Bowman said he first attended the Indy 500 in the 1970s and says A.J. Foyt was his favorite driver.

“It's a family tradition,” Bowman said. “I have a lot of love for the Indy 500, that's my favorite race. I've been to a lot of other ones, but this is the one we look forward to the most. My brothers and I go, and the last several years, my wife (Jamie) has gone with me, too.”

Bowman caught a little heat from his wife for choosing milk as the thing he missed most from home, but he plans to make up for that when he goes on a short leave in about a week. His unit's assignment lasts until around mid-August.

Part of the reason Bowman loves the 500 is because of the honor for service that permeates the Memorial Day weekend event. Bowman, 51, has been in the guard for 29 years, but this is his first overseas deployment. He plans to retire soon.

“One of the things growing up and going to the racetrack that struck me was the patriotic spirit they have at the race,” Bowman said. “It's one of the most well-put-together displays of patriotism and respect for the holiday that there is. It's breathtaking.”

Lomont, 28, who graduated from Heritage High School, praised Panther Racing for scheduling the satellite link, which also included a question-and-answer period with cadets from the Hoosier Youth ChalleNGe Academy. The event took place on Armed Forces Day.

“Panther Racing has always been a huge supporter of the military, and they made it all possible,” Lomont said.

The 3-19th ADT is comprised of soldiers and airmen from the National Guard. The unit is helping Afghans to improve their agricultural production as the country deals with the aftermath of war.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at and see past columns at

I was delighted to hear, once again, of another small world experience that occured this past weekend. While my parents were attending a cousin's wedding on Saturday back in Ft. Wayne, they were introduced to Reggie Hayes- the author of the above column.

The actual race didn't begin until 8:30PM Sunday evening here in Afghanistan, but you can bet a few of us (the usual suspects) were tuned-in well in advance to witness the pre-race festivities. Between Florence Henderson, Jim Nabors, and the hair-raising B-2 bomber flyover; the centennial celebration was a very fitting tribute to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Ultimately, those of you who watched the race know that JR Hildebrand did not get to have that glass of milk after all. Coming into the final turn with the lead, JR had an unfortunate encounter with the wall and finished in second place. Still not a bad finish, especially for a rookie. Perhaps he just wanted to save that glass of milk until Andy Bowman can be there in person...

Remembering Heroes of Long Ago
At the recommendation of my good friend Innocent, I chose to spend the final hours of my Memorial Day by watching a movie. Anyone who knows me well might laugh at this thought, as it appears some of the Amish back home in Grabill keep better tabs on Hollywood's hits. That being said, I never could have guessed how appropriate today's movie of choice would turn out to be.

The Messenger, the story of Joan of Arc, challenged me to stop and think about the true meaning of "Memorial Day". Joan of Arc, like millions of others throughout history, died so that others might live- while fighting for a cause she believed in. I do have to say that chills ran down my spine as the movie ended, with the closing text summarizing the final scene- "Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431". Today just happened to be the 580th anniversary of that brave martyr's death.

It's funny how things work out, I can't help but think that it was more than coincidence that urged me to watch The Messenger today. As Memorial Day of 2011 came to a close here in Afghanistan, it was a great feeling to know that we've only got one more major holiday (July 4th) between now and our much anticipated re-deployment.

Fortunately, for members of the 3-19th ADT, we'll be celebrating Labor Day back among you all- in the land free and the home of the brave, the United States of America. It is people like you that Tocqueville references when he explains America's greatness is a result of it's good people. 

God bless you all and thanks again for your unwavering support!

Jim Nabors sounded better than ever, even in black and white. Back Home Again in Indiana had a whole new meaning this year...