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Afghanistan experiences won't be forgotten

Nomadic Kuchi girls walk through an abandoned Soviet-era artillery range where they lived.  International Security Assistance Force troops patrolled the village October 2007. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Nomadic Kuchi girls walk through an abandoned Soviet-era artillery range where they lived. International Security Assistance Force troops patrolled the village October 2007. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Female Afghan students cluster around the door of their Kabul school.  International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Female Afghan students cluster around the door of their Kabul school. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Male Afghan students sit in their Kabul classroom.  International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Male Afghan students sit in their Kabul classroom. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

A villager watches an International Security Assistance Force patrol pass through his village October 2007. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

A villager watches an International Security Assistance Force patrol pass through his village October 2007. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Female Afghan students sit in their Kabul classroom. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Female Afghan students sit in their Kabul classroom. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Female Afghan students listen in their Kabul classroom. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Female Afghan students listen in their Kabul classroom. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

The school’s janitor sits outside a classroom in a Kabul school. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

The school’s janitor sits outside a classroom in a Kabul school. International Security Assistance Force troops visited the school Aug. 5, 2007, to deliver school supplies. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Afghan boys watch an International Security Assistance Force patrol pass through their village October 2007. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

Afghan boys watch an International Security Assistance Force patrol pass through their village October 2007. (ISAF photo by Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff)

BOLLING AFB, DC -- The Kuchi girls walked across the trash-strewn ground where they lived. Their colorful clothing offered a bright contrast to the debris and the tan terrain surrounding their nomadic tribes' home on a former Soviet Army artillery range.

This image exists now only in my memory and photograph, but this type of life continues for the Afghan people. Nearly 7,000 miles separate Bolling AFB from Kabul, but distance isn't the only thing separating Afghans from Bolling Airmen.

It has been almost four months since I returned from an April-October deployment to Afghanistan. The deployment showed me the importance of a commitment by the international community and America to rebuilding a nation torn apart by almost 30 years of unceasing warfare.

The International Security Assistance Force in Kabul was my home. Most of my time in the public affairs offices involved writing and rewriting news releases which told about ISAF's many successes in reconstruction and security. Most of my time didn't require me to leave the compound...a fact that made my wife, back home in northern Virginia, very happy.

However, two trips "outside the wire" illustrated the desperate conditions the average Afghan children--and their families--endure every day.

It's hard to imagine always living in fear for one's life or safety. Yet, the attacks by Taliban extremists make life difficult for the Afghans. Both trips for me required traveling in a convoy wearing full battle rattle. Everyone in the convoy was always vigilant for any potential suicide bombers or improvised-explosive devices.

My first trip was to photograph delivery of supplies and toys to school children in Kabul. Each classroom was packed with students, and I was surprised at the high number of female students to male students. They sat in old desks that paired females with females and males with males. The walls were bare except for a chalkboard. The ever-present dust made keeping the classrooms clean an impossible task. This wasn't anything like what one would see in an American classroom--no computers, television, DVD players...the necessities of modern education targeting the visual generation of Western society.

Outside, students walked the dusty, bare ground, sometimes with bare feet. They were either going to another building or carrying a bucket to draw water from the hand pump. There was no grass field for the students to play with the soccer balls we brought.

The Afghan government and teachers have made strides with the schools improvements, but it was evident there was a lot more work to do. Without the financial support of the international community, the progress in improving the Afghan educational system would suffer.

The second trip came unexpectedly. A British Army patrol unit northeast of Kabul requested a group photo because they were scheduled to rotate back home in two weeks. After the shoot, the Royal Air Force flight lieutenant accompanying me asked if I wanted to go on a foot patrol through a local village. Since I had eight hours before my movement back to camp, I accepted the offer. The mission was to meet with the local malik (village leader) to see if he had any humanitarian requests or security concerns.

We loaded ourselves in several armored cars for the trip to a neighboring NATO camp to start the patrol. The Afghan interpreter wore a scarf over his face during the trip to filter the dust that enveloped the inside of the vehicle.

A long walk through dry, dusty and barren fields led us to the village, which seemed to be made of tan mud. Barefoot boys greeted us; the girls went into their homes. Near where British soldiers stopped to radio back to camp laid rows of manure drying in the sun. Dried dung serves as a fuel source for the Afghans.

We waited for the malik to arrive. Working fast to take photographs meant me being lax in being aware of my surroundings. After kneeling down to take one photo, the patrol leader--a British Army sergeant--advised me to be careful where I knelt. He pointed out a discarded hypodermic needle on the ground, along with a lot of other debris.

During the meeting, the malik requested more humanitarian help from the international community. His villagers needed medical attention. The patrol leader asked him how the community well ISAF built was working. Fine, the malik said.

After the meeting, the patrol headed to the other side of a hill to walk through a village of the nomadic Kuchis. The Kuchis lived on the abandoned artillery range for several years because they had no place else to go, according to the patrol leader. The village contained bullet-scarred concrete buildings that illustrated the extent of decades of conflict. Trash littered the ground; the odor of two dead dogs rotting in a stream was obvious as the patrol crossed the bridge.

After several hours, the patrol and I returned to the safety of the British camp. An after-dinner convoy took me back to ISAF headquarters. A week later I was on my way home.

More than 120 days have passed since my return. Currently, America is in the midst of a presidential primary election season. Talk is focused on the candidates and their positions concerning topics, such as universal health care, the economy and the war in Iraq. We barely hear how the Afghan people are still struggling to make a better future for themselves, with the help of the international community and its military members. Afghanistan is becoming, as many are describing it, the new "Forgotten War."

In fact, The Washington Post carried a story Feb. 8 about NATO troops in Afghanistan. It quoted Afghan President Hamid Karzai commenting on this.

"If Afghanistan were given more attention, I would be very glad and thankful, but it is not right that Afghanistan is forgotten. ... We are grateful to all NATO members who continue to aid in whatever way they can," the Post quoted President Karzai as saying.

I haven't forgotten it. The images of Afghan children and how they live and study will always be with me. My hope is that as we move forward in our lives our leaders heed the words of George Santayana, U.S. philosopher and poet:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."