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Posted 1/20/2012

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By Paul Giblin
Afghanistan Engineering District-North


KABUL, Afghanistan -- Eight U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees distributed two dozen boxes of donated jackets, hats, gloves and other winter clothes to a large orphanage on Jan. 14, a day when heavy snow fell and the temperature reached 32 degrees in the Afghan capital.

The delivery, which was made using armored vehicles, was the first of several planned deliveries in a program the employees have dubbed Operation Warmth.

A group of civilian and military employees launched the program in November at the first sign of winter weather, said Raelene Hampton, the chairwoman of the volunteer group within the Corps of Engineers in northern Afghanistan.

The employees solicited donations from co-workers, family members, church groups and school groups and other charitable organizations from their hometowns across the United States and Europe, said Hampton, who also serves as chairwoman of the clothing drive. The donations included hand-made knitted caps, newly purchased jackets, as well as new clothes donated by several U.S. retailers, including Kmart, Old Navy and Target, she said.

The group also collected toys, socks, shoes, blankets and other goods. The group, which is based at the Afghanistan Engineer District-North headquarters compound in Kabul, separated and bundled the donations according to the intended recipients' genders and ages. In all, they collected about 100 boxes of goods.

Seven Corps of Engineers employees traveled with a well-armed security team and a translator to make the deliveries at Tahya-e-Maskan Orphanage, which is west of the city center.

The employees: Nesar Ahmad Asdaq, a senior program manager for administration and customs; Air Force Maj. Mike Brannon, who serves as deputy for training and transition for Afghan forces within the Operations and Maintenance Division; Eunice Ford, who's the chief of project management for Operations and Maintenance; Hampton, who serves as an equal employment opportunity specialist; Marissa Smith, a program analyst; Jack Sztuk, who's the facility manager; Nicholette Yerkes, an administration support specialist; and Lt. Col. Terri Wise, who's the district's senior intelligence officer.

They met with Ahaj Sayeed Abdullah Hashimi, the general director of government-run orphanages for Afghanistan's Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled. Hashimi is a well-known government reformer and an advocate for improving the country's orphanages.

His biggest challenge is overcoming corruption that is embedded at nearly every level of government in Afghanistan, according to a profile that appeared in The New York Times on Dec. 31. He's noted for making unannounced inspections at orphanages around the country and removing, or at least trying to remove, corrupt administrators.

Hashimi thanked the Corps of Engineers employees for the contributions, and said he hoped their visit would bring more awareness to Afghan orphans, many of whom lost parents during long wars against insurgent and Soviet forces.

"I know that in the last decade, your government has supported Afghanistan," he told the group through an interpreter. "We are seeing development in Afghanistan. I hope there is more attention on the orphans, because we don't see much."

The Afghan government oversees 35 orphanages throughout the country, he said. Combined, they house and educate 8,600 boys and girls up to 18 years old. Foreign support, particularly from the United States, has helped him improve both the buildings and the quality of instruction at the facilities, he said.

At Tahya-e-Maskan, which houses 500 children, students take classes in subjects including English, Turkish, math and computers, plus several trades such as tailoring, carpentry, auto mechanics and electronics.

Many orphans leave the facilities prepared to pursue college degrees in teaching and engineering, Hashimi said. Some have since returned to become teachers at the orphanages. Other orphans leave at 18 to pursue careers.

The Corps of Engineers employees visited two classes that were in session -- English and math. They met both the instructors and students, and spoke with them in English. Brannon, who speaks Dari, also spoke with the administrators, instructors and children in their native language.

The classrooms were crowded, but well equipped with school desks and dry-erase boards. The classrooms were well lit, clean and well maintained. However, they were cold. As snow fell outdoors, the children wore jackets and hats indoors.

They wore just socks on their feet, and a few were barefoot, because they leave their muddy shoes and boots in a semicircle outside the building's main entrance. Inside, the walls were decorated with laminated posters of President George Washington, slain Afghan national hero Ahmad Massoud, and reproductions of classic paintings from around the world.

Hashimi also showed the Corps of Engineers employees the children's living quarters, which as the director pointed out, needs new doors and windows that close tightly, new flooring, and new heating and air conditioning systems. The lobby and stairways in the buildings were wintery cold, but the sleeping rooms were warm. Each room is equipped with a wood-burning stove with exhaust pipes that mostly channels thick black smoke outdoors. The rooms have ceiling fans for cooling during summer months.

The Corps of Engineers personnel looked over rooms equipped with metal bunk beds and cabinets. The rooms accommodated 12 students each. The beds were made and the rooms were neat and clean.

Hashimi outlined other needs: A new building is needed for an on-site clinic that currently is housed in a building that should be used for vocational instruction; artificial turf is needed to replace the much used natural grass athletic field, which is alternately dusty or muddy, depending on the season; and additional beds, furniture and linens are needed for the dormitories.

Afterward, Ford said he was moved by the experience. "You really see the need for additional assistance," he said. Smith said she was heartened to make a positive impact on the children, even it was just a small impact, she said.

"When I went into the bedrooms, I choked up. It was so poor and so simple, but it was clean. It was so empty, just the basics -- mattresses, sheets, blankets," she said. "But the poverty compared to our kids in the States, it was really hard for me. And I've seen poverty in Nicaragua, because I grew up there."

Hampton said the group of volunteers hopes to expand Operation Warmth to women's prisons, because in Afghanistan young children frequently serve sentences with their mothers because men typically don't raise children.

Most of the Corps of Engineers personnel are on temporary assignments from their home districts or bases. Ford and Sztuk are from the Jacksonville District in Florida. Smith and Yerkes are from the Portland District in Oregon. Hampton is from the Europe District in Wiesbaden, Germany. Brannon's home base is Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Wise's home base is Fort George G. Meade in Maryland. Asdaq is Afghan and lives in Kabul.