DISPATCHES
Bright Light in a Dark World
by Rob Schultheis
Dec 22, 2010 | 973 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“Nearly everyone in America, every environmentalist, every nonprofit organization, and most of the people in Telluride, buys real estate of some kind with the thought of selling it for more than they paid for it.”

 – Tom Chapman



Actually, uh, NO, Tom, old boy.   

I don’t know what planet you hail from— maybe that out on the solar system’s edge with the funny name—but most of my friends I know get their money the old fashioned way: They earn it, by working.  It may stiffen your spine and puff up your chest to imagine that you are marching at the head of a vast legion of similar souls, but it just ain’t so.

But I guess we move in different social circles, you and I.  Your comment made me think of the Army Civil Affairs soldiers I got to know in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last few years. This sergeant I met while he was serving on a CA team in the Koh-i-Baba Mountains northwest of Kabul, for instance.  The great majority of CA troops are Reservists, part-time soldiers with jobs and careers back in the States, and when this Sergeant wasn’t serving overseas, risking his life building  schools and bridges, running clinics, getting food  to refugees and helping jump-start local economies in the midst of ambushes, i.e.d.s  and suicide bombers, he worked a small farm in the rural South, moonlighting as an EMT and sheriff’s deputy to make ends meet.  Because the Civil Affairs branch of the military is underfunded and undermanned, he had been called up repeatedly after 9/11, one 12-month hitch after another, and he and his wife and children were sinking deeper and deeper into a financial hole, because his sergeant’s pay didn’t measure up to the income from his three jobs stateside.

Here’s what kind of a man the Sarge was: When his team built a new village school to replace one the Taliban burned back in the pre-9/11 era, only to discover that the Army hadn’t budgeted enough money to buy desks, chairs and school supplies, he rallied his teammates and began working to make up the difference. They dug deep into their own pockets, emptying their wallets and raiding their savings accounts back home, but when they pooled their resources they found that it wasn’t close to enough.

The Sarge and his teammates knew how disappointed the villagers would be when they found out.  They were members of the Hazara tribe, the poorest of Afghanistan’s poor, and they had suffered terribly when the Talibs and their al-Qaeda and Pakistani Army allies had captured the area. Thousands of civilians had been massacred, and the Hazaras’ traditional capital, the ancient Silk Road town of Bamiyan had been leveled, every building blown up or burned; even the giant stone Buddhas that overlooked the valley, built by the Hazaras’ ancestors and a symbol of the tribe’s proud history, had been destroyed.  Now the new school, a small shining light after years of darkness, was going to end up a cruel disappointment. 

The team members e-mailed their relatives and friends back home, asking them to raise whatever money they could, and the results were miraculous. One church in Texas raised $20,000 with a single bake sale, and more money came in from yard sales and jarfuls of pennies from small town elementary school kids. The folks back home began buying masses of pens and pencils, notebooks, art supplies and teaching aids.

Meanwhile jobless Hazaras in the area hired by the team were sawing and hammering away, manufacturing desks, chairs and tables.

Now the question was how to get the precious supplies purchased by the fund-raisers in America to the children in the village.

There were still bands of Taliban lurking in the mountains nearby; the soldiers had recently discovered a huge cache of weapons, AK-47s, RPGs, mines, explosives and ammunition, hidden away in a canyon a few miles from Bamiyan, waiting to be used in guerrilla attacks on the Hazaras and their liberators.  The road from Bamiyan to Kabul was still dangerous for convoys; it passed through the Ghorband Valley, a stronghold of Taliban sympathizers where al-Qaeda Arabs mingled with the roadside crowds, glaring at Westerners bold or crazy enough to drive through. 

I was there the night a C-130 flew in from a base north of Afghanistan.  The teammembers were gathered out on the airstrip above Bamiyan along with their comrades from the local Hazara militia, survivors of the tribe’s long war against Taliban and al-Qaeda.  There were no lights.  The CA team commander spoke into a radio, talking the C-130 in.  One of the CA soldiers aimed at infrared beacon out into the darkness.  We heard the engines of the C-130 grow louder and louder, and suddenly parachutes were blooming in the murk, settling to the hard-packed earth of the airstrip without a sound….

The next morning the new school opened right on schedule.

Little Hazara boys and girls, dressed by their parents in celebratory hues of butterfly wings and rainbows, stood in line nervously as the boxes from America were off-loaded from pickup trucks and opened.  The armed Hazaras beamed and the villagers and teachers cheered as the children filed forward to get their supplies. When she neared the front of the line one tiny girl burst into tears and tried to run away, and you knew instantly that she was remembering another day when other strangers with guns had roared into the village in pickup trucks and forced the people to gather outside their houses.

Had she watched the strangers seize her father and slit his throat (the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s favorite form of execution), or her older sister dragged away screaming by laughing Arabs never to be seen again?  It was hard to take, even in the midst of all the happiness.  One of the teachers gently led the girl back, whispering in her ear, and when her arms filled with notebooks and pencils, paints and brushes, even a couple of cheap plastic toys, you could read in her joyous eyes the hope that we all have, frail and flickering but still alive, for a better world in the future.  I was standing next to the CA commander, a tough fearless can-do man with a sense of duty like iron, and tears were running down his face.  “Dust in my eyes,” he muttered.

Yeah, and in mine too….

But I can see you’re getting bored, Tom.  Who cares about people like the Sarge, who place duty, honor and lending a helping hand to strangers over really important things like speculating in land and making money while proving how ridiculous concepts like wilderness, beauty and the common good are?

 Actually, you’d be surprised how many people out there are like the Sarge; not enough maybe, but a whole lot, and a whole lot more who hear their stories and think,  I’d like to be like that;  maybe someday I’ll ride to the sound of the guns and the cries of those innocents caught in the path of war, famine, plague, flood….  These are the men and women who hold back the darkness for the rest of us,  keeping this world of ours from sliding over the edge of the precipice into Hell,  while people like you play their little games,  pile up their play money and croon over it lovingly.

Whatever floats your custom Cabin Cruiser, bud.

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