By Peter Sessum
Hollywood loves a good war movie. They focus on invasions or combat, but the reconstruction doesn’t make the box office, or headlines. Like many other vets, I can name a number of soldiers, units and commanders that set back the reconstruction efforts. But people like (then) Captain John Geise were doing a lot of good.
So there I was, in Kandahar…no shit. For a few months of my tour I was part of a group trying out the “Team Village” concept. The idea was to would send out Civil Affairs (CA), Psychological Operations (PSYOP) and Counter Intelligence (CI) to visit villages in the area and talk to the locals. In a meeting with village elders, the team would conduct an assessment of the village and its demographics.
CA would compare the number of villagers to the number of wells and decide how many they would have to dig to reach their target ratio. They would also want to know how many school age children and look at the schools to see if the buildings needed repair.
PSYOP would be finding out how the village got their information and distribute radios and PSYOP product. We would also have our loudspeakers blast messages to the village during our visit. One PSYOP soldier would stay out of the meeting to conduct PSYOP product analysis. In other words, making sure the leaflet or poster made sense to the locals. It is mildly embarrassing how ineffective our products were.
We didn’t have CI on the team, but we did do passive intel gathering. If the number of people went up, then people were moving in. Depending on their tribal affiliation, it could mean that the Taliban was staging a force in the area or that members of a minority tribe felt safe to return. Our route took us to roughly 300 villages every 45 days.
We filled out daily reports, but once a week we would identify the village with the most need we had visited that week. That village would get a second visit, and this time we would bring the docs. The medical team trusted us to tell them where to go and they would do the rest.
There was a little coordination that went into it. We had to get out early, before the people were out in the fields or it got too hot. We had to line up our vehicles, go to the Romanian compound to pick up their nurse, then grab the interpreters. Geise was in charge of the mission and before we would roll out he would give the same speech.
“If you think someone is faking, it is because they are. Don’t get mad, just carefully explain how much medication to take for the symptoms they are claiming and give them what they need. I brought plenty of extra just for this reason, we won’t run out.”
Sometimes, in America, we take our access to resources for granted. If my child has an upset stomach, I can find something in a couple rooms in our home. If there isn’t any, a bottle of Pepto is minutes away at probably a dozen places less than a mile away. There are no drugstores in rural Afghanistan. Some villages had not seen a doctor in years and have no access to over the counter medications. So when we would tell the village elders that we were setting up an aid clinic for the day, everyone in the village showed up. Each person in a household had a different “ailment” looking for treatment.
For security purposes, Geise limited us to two hours on the ground. That line of medics had a sense of purpose I had never seen in a battalion aid station. Some villages were lucky enough to get an optometrist, veterinarian or dentist to tag along for the day. Getting your first set of glasses at 50 years old would be a life changing experience. The eye doc would do an examination and we would deliver the glasses on our next time through the village.
It wasn’t without challenges. The Romanian nurse didn’t speak English and our interpreters didn’t speak Romanian. She was also part of the female treatment team and all our interpreters were male. So Sweet, who was a doctor in Afghanistan before taking the more lucrative job of interpreter, would sit outside the door and listen to the Afghan woman. He would translate that into English for a female Romanian officer, who would translate that into Romanian for the nurse. Questions and answers would go back and forth like that. Until each woman was treated.
Kids would get vaccinated and families would have medicine for the next time someone got sick. Occasionally, a person even got treated for an actual ailment. Before rolling out we would drop off humanitarian assistance and pass out stuffed animals and school supplies that were donated from the states.
In the six months I was with those medical missions we never took a fire. We did it without ever getting into contact. Those days also did more to combat the Taliban’s message than just about else the Team Village was doing. Who would you trust? The person holding a gun to your head or the one that would show up with docs and help your village and ask for nothing in return?
I don’t know how much official recognition Geise received, but those missions made a difference. This is one of those times when you leave a legacy, the people will remember your actions but never know your name.
That time later gave me some comfort in college. Anyone on campus critical of President Bush or the war would transfer their hatred to us veterans. I would ignore them knowing I did more for my fellow human than those entitled brats. It still feels good to have done some good.