News: Deployed Service members Volunteer, Make a Difference
Story by Capt. Michelle Lunato
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghansitan - Being deployed to Afghanistan certainly does not invoke images of comfort. Service members and civilians work long hard hours. They eat in over-crowded cafeterias. They live in plywood huts or tents on bunk beds or cots. They bundle up from the cold mountain air. They are cautious of the ever-present threat of incoming rockets. To most Americans, this is sacrifice. However, to many Afghan people, this is luxury.
How can there be such a disparity? Well, it is all a matter of perspective when one considers that what Americans call war, has been daily life for the Afghan people for years.
When there are limited job options, long hours equal money and the opportunity to provide for a family. A cafeteria means an abundance of food, which is rare. The mere fact of beds and no dirt floors speaks for itself. Being able to bundle up from the cold is a wonderful feeling for someone who has suffered a never-ending chill. And worrying about a falling rocket within an area protected by a fence and armed guards is immensely less stressful than an area with no protection at all.
With these things in mind, a number of servicemembers and contractors assigned to Task Force Thunder, the signal mission throughout Afghanistan, decided to use some of their non-working hours volunteering to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people.
This effort, known as Operation Care, is comprised of military and civilians who are deployed to Bagram Air Field. They come from different services, a number of units and a variety of countries. Some people help regularly, some periodically. The faces change as units rotate in and out of the base, year after year, but the all-volunteer organization has maintained its presence since 2003.
What started as a few care packages and a handful of humanitarian aid missions has turned into a regular operation, said Army Lt. Col. Robin Hossfeld, a logistics liaison for National Guard Affairs, and a former president for Operation Care. “It all started because people just wanted to help.”
And that is exactly what the volunteers enjoy still, years later, said Hinesville, Ga., resident and Operation Care’s outgoing vice president Army Sgt. Natanisha Hershberger, 359th Theater Tactical Signal Brigade’s Joint NetOps Control Center supply sergeant. “We just like giving, seeing the smiles and knowing that we are able to make a small difference in the community.”
However, to get those smiles, the volunteers put in a lot of man hours. Each week, hundreds of boxes, full of donations from across the world, are mailed to Operation Care volunteers. Those boxes must then be emptied and sorted and prepped for future events. Events, which range from a patrol through a village to donations handed out at a base hospital, must all be coordinated with another agency. Since Operation Care is NOT an official mission at Bagram, all of their actions must be in conjunction with another function, said another former Operation Care president Air Force Maj. Susan Kennedy, deputy commander for the 577th Expeditionary Prime Beef Squadron.
Volunteering to make a difference via Operation Care may not be an official mission, but it is what I will remember most about my deployment, said Mesquite, Texas resident outgoing president Army Master Sgt. Carolyn A. Suazo, information assurance and computer network defense noncommissioned officer in charge at the 359th TTSB’s JNCC. “It makes me feel like I'm contributing more to the COIN [counter insurgency] operation, and the smiles and gratitude are just so heartwarming and humbling.”
The impact that our servicemembers are making by volunteering is substantial, and that is why I support them in doing it, said Task Force Thunder commander, Army Col. Chris Kemp, 359th TTSB. “They are giving out something the Taliban never can - hope.”
Fearing the Taliban doesn’t stop the Afghan people from accepting the aid they need nonetheless, said an Afghan man who regularly seeks day labor at Bagram. “They will kill us no matter what… It is better to get the help, come get the stuff – so we can help our families.”
Having this kind of impact on society, is exactly why other units team up with the Operation Care volunteers, said Army Lt. Col. Dan Godbee, surgeon for the Special Operations Task Force. “One of the biggest reasons you go out in an insurgency is to build good relations.”
On a number of Special Forces’ missions, Operation Care volunteers accompanied the SF troops to help distribute the donated clothes, shoes or food to Afghan people right in their villages. This kind of act does more than show the Afghan people that the United States wants to help, said Godbee. “It shows them that we are not just some country that is far away. We are real people, and we care.”
Yet, Afghanistan’s harsh terrain, combined with the volunteer status of the organization, makes it hard for Operation Care donations to make it to remote villages. This is where other units and countries help is critical, said Suazo.
They go out to places that many of us have never even heard of, she said.
Unlike official humanitarian aid, there are not layers of paperwork to get Operation Care’s support, said Hossfeld. “We don’t care who [or where] you are. If you are in need, you can have our stuff.”
This outreach is not only for the Afghan people though. Many of the collected donations are sent out as care packages to deployed servicemembers at remote bases. Some of our comrades are in pretty austere places, and we need to support them, said Operation Care volunteer Air Force Master Sgt. Lori Noble, a heavy equipment operator with the 577th EPBS. “We need to take care of our own folks who are out there on their own, and let them know we're here to help them too.”
Between mailing off care packages, sorting shoes/clothes by sizes/sex, and organizing the actual events to distribute the generously donated supplies, this still doesn’t count at work, said Salisbury, Md., resident volunteer Army Warrant Officer Wanda Washington, a network engineer at the 359th TTSB’s JNCC. “This is a stress reliever at the end of the day because you know you are doing something good for someone else.”
So whether the volunteers donate their time, effort and skills to relax, help other Nato forces or aid an Afghan family, it is all part of the war here, said volunteer Greenville, S.C., resident Army Sfc. John Hembree, a project manager with the Future Operations section of the 359th TTSB’s JNCC. “It's not all about fighting. Operation Care shows others that there is another side to this war.”