U.S. Troops Improve Quality of Life for Afghan Villagers

 By Staff Sgt. Marti Ribeiro, USA
 Special to American Forces Press Service

 BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, March 7, 2006  - To an American soldier, stepping into Mollai is like stepping back in time -- mud huts with no indoor plumbing or electricity built into the side of a mountain across from their main water source, a mountain stream.

But this is everyday life for the inhabitants of this small town in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

Mollai, consisting of six small villages with about 4,000 people, is self-sustaining with water, food, religion and education. But coalition forces have joined with the village inhabitants to improve their quality of life by building schools and irrigation systems, as well as providing humanitarian assistance through the distribution of rice, beans, clothes, shoes and school supplies.

Soldiers from Task Force Sword recently visited the town and conducted a three-part mission to inspect current construction projects for quality control, to conduct a civil affairs assessment of the village, and to distribute humanitarian assistance items.

The main reason for the visit was to inspect current progress on the construction of a girls school, task force officials said. The school will educate elementary through high school and will house more than 300 students.

Girls schools are still a new concept in Afghanistan. The Taliban prohibited girls from attending school during its reign.

But since 2001 when U.S. troops ousted the Taliban, girls schools have been showing up all over the country. The demand for these construction projects requires the U.S. military to hire building contractors. However, these contractors also help out locals by hiring village inhabitants to complete the work. "This helps boost their economy," Army Lt. Col. Gary Russ, TF Sword civil affairs officer, said.

"Twenty-one of the villagers have been hired to help build the school," the chief village elder said, speaking through an interpreter.

Task Force members monitor the six-month project continually during the construction process. "We typically visit a project like this about five times during the construction phase," Army Sgt. 1st Class Alfonso Gonzales, construction inspector for TF Sword, said.

During a recent inspection, village elders expressed concern that the school would not be large enough to hold all the female students in the village. Through the use of an interpreter, Russ and Gonzales negotiated with the village elders to construct a larger school.

"We've already programmed the budget for this project, so unfortunately we are unable to change at this point in the construction process," Russ said. "But there are other ways to resolve this issue."

So Russ worked with the elders to develop a plan to construct a larger school with the help of the local villagers. "If you can donate time and labor, I think we can get this accomplished," Russ said to the chief village elder.

The elder agreed that if the villagers and the contractor work together, they can build a larger school.

While the quality control/quality assurance team conducted their inspection, the civil affairs team spoke with villagers through an interpreter to assess quality of life for inhabitants of Mollai. "We talk to them about health issues and other things regarding quality of life," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Weston McAuslan, leader of the 405th Civil Affairs team attached to TF Sword.

When the task force completed the construction inspection and civil affairs assessment, it moved onto the humanitarian mission. Soldiers unloaded Humvees full of rice, beans, shoes, school supplies, toys and candy for village elders to distribute.

"We empower the leadership by giving them the authority to distribute the items," Army Sgt. 1st Class Elrado Mason, TF Sword civil affairs noncommissioned officer in charge, said.

Many of the items came from donations from churches and support groups back in the states. "Most of the shoes we gave out today were donated by the soldiers of Task Force Sword," said Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Thomas E. Killgore, who helped distribute the goods to the village elders.

"It's great to be a part of something like this," Killgore said. "Three separate missions came together as one team and worked in one cohesive motion."

(Army Staff Sgt. Marti Ribeiro is assigned to Combined Joint Task Force 76.)