A dozen Nebraska Army National Guard soldiers are in the middle of a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. But their mission is more about farming than fighting.
Amidst the barbed wire and barricades of the U.S. military’s Forward Operating Base Gardez in eastern Afghanistan sits a barnyard. Some soldiers don’t see it at first, since it is hidden behind a few buildings. But they hear the chickens, goats and sheep.
“I do get a lot of looks, a lot of questions about why we have a barn on base,” said Sgt. Beth Ramsey, a Nebraska Army National Guard soldier from Lincoln who starts each day by feeding and taking care of these animals.
It seems like odd work for a veteran soldier who’s done two stints in Iraq as a Blackhawk helicopter crew chief. But on this deployment, Ramsey is part of what the military calls an Agribusiness Development Team or ADT. She wears many hats in this role. She uses the barnyard animals during demonstrations and classes for local Afghans. As the only female on the team, she runs education programs for Afghan women. She’s also the team’s forestry specialist.
“My main job is working with them on their orchards, their tree nurseries, their harvesting techniques, what they do with their produce after they harvest it and better ways to keep it good until it gets to the market,” Ramsey said. “Also deforestation projects, trying to get people to understand that they need to stop cutting down the trees, that the trees have a value without cutting them down.”
Ramsey and the 11 other soldiers who make up this team have been in Afghanistan since May. It’s an assembled unit of soldiers chosen because of their backgrounds in areas like horticulture, livestock, environmental science and marketing.
“(We are) interacting with the Afghan government personnel and the Afghan business community in helping them to understand some of the techniques and practices that they can use in the future that will help them actually continue to develop their agricultural community in making it that much more profitable,” said Lt. Col. Guy Moon of Omaha, the officer in charge of this ADT. “Then they can address some of their food security issues and then hopefully get to a point where there’s a surplus of the agricultural products that’s being grown here, and then they can actually make money doing it. So the intent is both food security, making sure that all of the families here have the right nutrition, and also future business opportunities, small business opportunities for the farming community.”
The soldiers live and work in the rural province of Paktia. It’s about the size of Rhode Island, with diverse geography and diverse ag products. There are mountains and valleys, and crops like corn, wheat, clover, potatoes, apples, pears and nuts. Water is often hard to come by and farming practices are far from modern. One community may share a single tractor and people carry buckets of water to irrigate fields.
“If you took Nebraska’s agriculture and then subtracted about 100 years, maybe 150 years, that’s probably still better than what you see in Afghanistan,” Moon added.
“When you’re talking about teaching a community to plant crops in rows, we don’t have a wheat drill over here to show them how to do that with,” Capt. Kevin Janousek of Omaha said. “So you have to get innovative and use things like sticks that are measured an inch long to poke in the soil to plant these seeds in a row. It’s challenging, but at the same time, it’s been interesting to be able to stop and have to think differently than what we’re used to in the U.S. as far as farming techniques.”
In her work with Afghan women, Ramsey goes out into the province and holds classes for women in schools and houses. She teaches subjects like vegetable gardening, composting, chick rearing and how to sew harvesting bags. Ramsey said cultural norms are a challenge.
“We’re very sensitive to the fact that their culture is different than ours, so we don’t push the issue,” Ramsey said. “There are some districts that I just can’t work in because of security problems or because the men just don’t want their women to gather to learn. But there are plenty of districts in Paktia province that are willing to educate their women, so I can work with those women, the hope being that once I’ve educated the women who are allowed, those Afghan women can then educate the other women who are not allowed to interact with us.”
There are other challenges. Roads are bad, and ADT soldiers often travel by helicopter. It’s a dangerous area, with Paktya province located on the border with Pakistan. The team often travels by helicopter and always with a security detail. So far, the Nebraska soldiers say they have not come under fire.
Agribusiness Development Teams have been in Afghanistan for a number of years. But with the withdrawal of U.S. troops coming in 2014, this is a mission in transition. There’s an urgency to help Afghans learn how to help themselves by understanding and accessing available resources.
“In the past, we had the ability and the funding to do a lot more direct support where we would actually provide funds and provide resources for projects as well as do hands-on training ourselves,” Moon said. “As the transition has progressed, we have kind of pulled back from that direct support role. What we’re trying to do is to put Afghans in front of Afghans, so it becomes their program. They take ownership in the training and even in the governmental processes and the proposal processes.”
“We’re trying to take them from just feeding themselves, feeding their families, to be able to have some type of cash crop,” added Lt. Col. Will Prusia, the first commander of this ADT team. A foot injury forced him to return early from the deployment to his hometown of Bellevue.
Agribusiness Development Team missions require a significant investment of resources, an investment Prusia says is worthwhile.
“I think if we can get them to stand on their own, then we don’t need to invest as much capital, both human and monetary capital, to continue to assist a Third World country,” Prusia said. “Maybe the lessons that we’ve learned and the investments we’ve made will pay dividends for the Afghan people themselves and they won’t be as reliant upon us or the international community to assist them in even just providing the basics, and maybe they will become a country, a people who can contribute outside their own borders, versus just trying to take care of themselves.”
The Nebraska ADT soldiers are expected to come home next March. Sgt. Beth Ramsey won’t return with her barnyard animals, but she’d like to bring back something else.
“I have made some connections with some of the Afghan women here,” Ramsey said, “and I keep joking that one of the ladies, I’m going to stick (her) in my duffle bag and bring (her) home with me. Because she’s just so much fun to be around and she’s also about five foot flat, so I think she would fit in my duffle bag.
“But I think mostly what I look back on is the people that I’ve met and hopefully that I’ve made an impact on their lives for the better,” Ramsey added.