PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — For the soldiers in the Religious and Cultural Advisory unit of the Afghan National Army's 203rd Thunder Corps at Forward Operating Base Thunder, Paktya province, Afghanistan, the more things change the more they stay the same.
The RCA's most recent civil assistance mission, which took place Feb. 27 to March 2, delivered cold-weather clothing, blankets, radios, cooking stoves and school supplies to the Jani Kheyl village.
The RCA Soldiers performed similar missions in the last three months to deliver supplies to local citizens in Gardez, Paktya province, a city right outside FOB Thunder.
Almost everything was different on this mission. The distance they travelled was longer and the route much more perilous. They unloaded the humanitarian supplies with little fanfare shortly after dawn while the grateful villagers who would normally greet them slept. However, much like the others, this operation displayed the RCA soldiers' desire to take more initiative and responsibility in their mission to provide a brighter future for the Afghan people.
"We've been working with the ANA on a daily basis preparing them tactically to be able to distribute humanitarian aid," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy L. Hancock, with the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion from Pleasant Grove, Utah, a mentor to the RCA.
"In the run up to this mission, we've gone out on six previous missions in the Gardez area where the ANA operated completely on their own. Our job is to provide developmental feedback and also provide a lot of the humanitarian aid supplies. They proved to us that they are capable of pulling their own security."
Hancock's view on the development of the RCA Soldiers was seconded by U.S. Army Maj. Christian Jenni of Orem, Utah, Company A commander with the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion., who is also a mentor to the RCA at FOB Thunder. Jenni praised the courage they displayed in navigating the treacherous mountain passes on the way to Jani Kheyl. Steep cliffs and sheer mountain walls flank the road through the passes and the threat of improvised explosive devices loomed large.
"This was a dangerous mission for them. They showed a lot of courage," said Jenni. "I was worried about my safety in an up-armored vehicle and they were at much more of a risk (in their vehicles) than we were. The ANA knew they were going into a dangerous area and they were still willing to do it," he said.
The RCA soldiers' bravery was not lost on the villagers they assisted. Shah Gul Haji, an elder in a nearby village who met with the soldiers to discuss the needs of the local residents, was overjoyed to see the ANA and the U.S. Army working together. Gul Haji added that no matter what the ANA soldiers do to help the villagers, the villagers are appreciative and will return the favor if the soldiers are ever in need.
Jenni also noted the fact that the ANA oldiers encouraged and inspired the villagers, particularly the young children, to strive for an education and a better life. He had the highest compliments for ANA Capt. Raz Mohammad, the commander of the RCA team that delivered the supplies.
"Capt. Raz Mohammad showed a tremendous amount of initiative to get his message out," said Jenni. "What better example do (the Afghan children) have than an ANA officer that travels a great distance to come and see these children and tell them to stay in school? He encouraged the children to get a good education, so they can contribute to their country and make it a better place, to become doctors so people in the area don't have to travel three to four hours to get medical attention."