PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Many soldiers have laced up their boots and planted them firmly in the arid dusty soil of today’s modern combat zones. Pushing through long deployments and enduring things imaginable only to those who have lived them.
Articles pressed in black and white, distributed worldwide, complimented with television news reports that broadcast combat operations into the comfort of your living room feed off the live action of our soldiers on the ground.
But often times it’s what’s not seen by the masses that soldiers cherish most, those heartfelt moments and those times when a soldier knows they have experienced something great and largely unforgettable.
Friendly greetings from villagers, children playing and those enduring friendships built through time spent getting to know those closest to you are all examples.
“Some of my best memories while deployed have not come from combat,” said Col. Dennis S. Sullivan, commander of 2/10 Security Forces Assistance Brigade, Forward Operating Base Sharana. “They have come from friendships I have built during my deployments as I worked with my counterparts towards a common cause, developing strong bonds and sharing our culture with one another.”
And what better a month to learn about, take in and embrace the culture of Afghanistan than the holy month of Ramazan, a month filled with tradition long rooted and enriched through the generations that preserve it.
Soldiers assigned to 2/10 SFAB gathered at FOB Rushmore waiting anxiously to enter through a narrow metal gate separating them from an evening of Afghan cultural enrichment in the form of an Iftar dinner held at the National Directorates of Security for Paktika province’s office, Aug 2.
For most of these soldiers this was their first trip "outside the wire" and many did not know what to expect.
One behind the other they moved leisurely through the gate into the NDS compound. With each step the distinctive clack of boot heals on pavement reverberated off the surrounding buildings that eventually gave way to an oasis. Yards of garden paths lined in lush green vegetation speckled with flowers and embellished with fountains marked the midpoint of this journey.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Pfc. Joshua Epps, an information technology specialist, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2/10 SFAB. “It was nice, a lot of the times the news only shows the bad stuff. But it was nothing like what I have seen.”
Epps recalls being greeted with handshake and smiles along the way.
The journey continued. The fading sun cast golden rays that refracted off nearby roof tops, silhouetting the soldiers as they entered the NDS office, removing their boots they waited to be seated.
Unfamiliar scents filled the foyer - rich, sweet and spicy aromas permeated the nostrils of the awaiting guest, heightening their anticipation for the meal waiting in the adjacent room.
“This will be my first time eating Afghan food, I hear it is really good,” said Sgt. Elsbeth Chavira the supply sergeant assigned to HHC, 2/10 SFAB. “I am grateful to have been presented with such a wonderful opportunity to experience so many new things in only one night. This is something I will remember forever.”
Formalities were minimal; Soldiers took their seats sitting cross legged around the lavish banquette, Col. Sullivan and Gen. Mohammad Jasim, chief of the NDS for Paktika province, took their places at the head of the meal.
Pleasantries were exchanged and Gen. Jasim spoke of things he’ll never forget, providing soldiers assigned to 2/10 SFAB with a brief over view of Ramazan and the Iftar meal.
“This meal breaks our fast, we eat the dates first as the prophet Muhammad did when breaking his fast,” said Jasim.
An electrical crackle cut through the air filling it with a Mullah’s evening prayer, hands tilted palms up, heads bowed, the end of the day was marked, bringing all Muslims from fast to feast, Iftar had begun.
In keeping with tradition three dates were consumed breaking the fast, Afghan flat bread, rice, lamb, chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, watermelon and various other Afghan menu items lined the floor as soldiers passed along plate after plate.
The meal ended but, the night was young. Guests gathered in Gen. Jasim’s office, where he fielded questions asked by the soldiers as they enjoyed chi tea, dried chick peas, Swedish toffees and almonds. Questions were broad ranged and varied from, "Was this meal typical?" to the importance of sharing Afghan culture with his American counterparts.
“I wish that we could have sat down together many years ago, I feel we could have avoided such a long war,” said Jasim. "Understanding each other, sitting down face-to-face behind closed doors allows us to speak our hearts.”
“Together if we as humanity focus on the future, education, infrastructure and the people all the negative will slowly be pushed out,” continued Jasim. “We must look at the character of a person, not their religious views or sex, I see that the Americans do this, you treat each other with respect.”
The evening closed with these remarks from Gen. Jasim and it was clear that not only U.S. soldiers had gained from this visit but our Afghan counterparts as well.
“It was refreshing to see the quality of leadership the Afghans have at their top levels,” said 1st Lt. Curtis Ballard, the liaison officer assigned to 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment.