November 23, 2004
On patrol with 3-116th Infantry in Afghanistan
By Staff Sgt. Mark Turney
CHAKI, AFGHANISTAN-- On the barren crescent of a dusty hill in Northern Afghanistan, the children of Chaki (pronounced chalk) met Americans for the first time. It may have changed all their lives.
The seven plus hour ride over rough terrain had weighed heavily on each of the men. The dirt roads were hardly roads at all, just heavily potholed track marks through the mountain desert. “Thank God I have another kidney”, said one of the sniper team members from the back of an Army five-ton truck, “I think I just lot one on that last bump.”
Elements of the Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment from Leesburg Va., moved through Chaki late in the evening of Nov. 4, took up defensive positions and prepared their mortars in the dark and geared up to spend the night overlooking the Afghan village. The wind was blowing straight through their desert camouflaged clothing and no fires would be lit this night to combat the below freezing temperatures.
“Everybody gather around for your watch schedule tonight,” said Sgt. Barry Hale, a 17-year veteran from Pulaski, Va. Radio watches would be two hours and perimeter security patrols would be one. They would go on all night and were the first line of defense in a possibly hostile country.
The change in the wind’s direction predicted the soon-coming morning light and each soldier was already up. The smell of hot coffee filled the air from a large cooking pot that had been prepared by their non-commissioned leader Sgt. First Class Patrick Gleason, from Woodbridge, Va. Each man could be seen warming his hands around the steaming cups while wiping the sleep from his eyes.
It wasn’t much later that the first of the children began to appear on the edge of the defensive perimeter.
“From previous experience with other kids here, I knew we had to get them away from the camp,” said Sgt. Allen F. Wanser, a Winchester, Va. native and father of three boys. “It’s tough. We are trying to build a rapport with them but this is could be dangerous for us and for them.”
Each time the soldiers walked closer the children would run back down the hill. Then they would creep back up as the soldiers retreated.
“I felt like they were just curious,” said Sgt. David L. Draper, a 10-year veteran from Independence, Va. “They were as curious of us as we were of them.”
However correct Draper might have been, the children would always shy away even as the now intrigued soldiers called out to them.
Originally called to help shoo the children away, the units Pashtu speaking interpreter began to call to the children, imploring them to come up the hill.
“Why should we,” called a young boy safely away from the strange men. “All you will do is beat us.”
“It seems as though all these kids know is brutality,” said Wanser. “I’ve seen grown men throw rocks at them (the children) and beat them with sticks.”
“It seems as though they are taught that we are monsters or something,” said Draper. “The only way they will know differently is to talk to us."
The soldiers, through the interpreter, kept calling out, calling the boys forward, wanting just to meet them and talk.
Step by step over the span of 10 minutes, the boys came closer, yet always seemed on the verge of dashing away. Slowly, one of the older boys came forward and was offered a piece of candy and a warm handshake.
Seeing this, the other boys came sprinting up the hill and rapidly the crowd grew from five boys to 10, then 15 and more. Each boy was talking, answering questions; a few of them even tried their English with the foreigners.
“We go to school 4 hours a day,” said a child who called himself Hasmat while showing the soldiers his tattered English and Biology books. “Each class is 30 minutes and we study math, geography, English, Persian, Pashtu, Dari and Biology.”
“What do you do at night?” asked on of the Americans.
“We play, watch TV and listen to radio,” said 9 year-old Muhammed.
“Why were you afraid of us?” asked another soldier.
“You’re human, I’m human”, answered Hasmat in a show of bravado that he believed perhaps less than the Americans. “I was never afraid.”
Yet Draper noted, “I reached out to pat one of the kids on the head and he winced, expecting a blow. That really turned my stomach.”
“What would you like to do with your life?” asked Draper, who wants to return to Virginia and open a Christian counseling center for children.
To this the children looked dumfounded and the responses were slow in coming.
“We are very happy that someone asks us this,” said Matiza after a very long pause and a little prodding from the Americans. “This is something we never can speak with our parents about. They don’t seem to care but I would like to be a Doctor or an Engineer.”
“Do you know I feel sorry for the kids here,” said Draper. “The adults had the chance to change their world and they didn’t. At home we say ‘Children are our future’. That’s true here too, only more so.”
Soon after this, the soldiers did what they have done a hundred times before. They brought out their pocket digital cameras and started taking pictures with themselves and the children. The children marveled at the images and crowded around laughing and wondering in awe.
“We’ve never seen something like this before,” said Matiza gaping open mouthed at his image. “If you take our picture, maybe will you bring it back to America?” he asked.
As the evening grew on, the soldiers were called back to work and the children were called to their homes for dinner. The few stragglers were eventually chased off by the Afghan National Army soldiers.
Summing up the afternoon with the kids, Draper said, “I felt so sorry for them all. I wanted to give them everything I had but all we had were candy, some pens, pencils and water. I hope we showed them some compassion and that they will understand America is a friendly nation.”
“Yeah,” said Hanser, “The U.S. offers them so much more than the Taliban ever could.”
For the children, Hasmat summed it up best, “The changes you bring are good. You help improve the economy; school and university is back and we have a new government. I know that you are here to bring us peace.”
The 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, Virginia Army National Guard is headquartered in Winchester with units from Bedford, Leesburg Manassas Warrenton and Woodstock, Virginia. Mobilized on March 1st, 2004, the unit is stationed in Bagram and Ghazni, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as a part of Combined Joint Task Force 76. For more information about this story or for more information about the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, contact Capt. Jim Tierney at firstname.lastname@example.org.