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Missouri National Guardsmen Work to Win Hearts and Minds of Afghani Farmers

posted on November 3, 2009

Next Wednesday, America will pause to honor those who answered the call to serve in the nation's armed forces. For some, Veteran's Day amounts to little more than a day off from work. But for others, including millions of World War II veterans, who are losing the battle with old age at a rate of more than 1,000 per day, the national holiday has deeper meaning.

Market to Market joined an airlift this week of more than 350 World War II Veterans on a pilgrimage to THEIR memorial in Washington D.C. and we're proud to bring you their story on next week's show.

These days though, American troops are battling the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But U.S. troops don't always use conventional weapons.

Nearly two years ago, a group of National Guardsmen from Missouri beat their swords into plowshares in hopes of winning the hearts and minds of Afghan farmers. And, as David Miller explains, the soldiers deployed "agricultural weapons of mass PRODUCTION" in Afghanistan.

On a cold January day in 2008, this group of Missouri National Guard soldiers is participating in a training exercise at Camp Atterbury in Indiana. Their convoy is attacked by other U.S. soldiers acting as insurgents, and their unit suffers mock casualties.

The exercise is designed to prepare the men for a mission deep into the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Though heavily armed with state-of- the- art weapons, their mission isn't to intercept the Taliban or find Osama Bin Laden. Instead, they will help Afghani farmers increase their crop yields, improve the health of their animals and add value to their raw agricultural goods.

Master Sgt. Larry Godsey, Marshall, Missouri: "...they made the announcement they were looking for people with an ag background to do this particular mission, to go over to Afghanistan and, and at the time, we thought help farmers, teach them how to farm. And because of my educational background I thought that would be an interesting mission to go on. I kind of, I kind of kept quiet about it. You know you never want to volunteer to go anywhere."

At the end of January, 2008, Master Sergeant Godsey, a 20-year veteran of the Missouri National Guard, left his wife and three daughters for a one-year deployment in Afghanistan. He joined nearly 50 other volunteers who made up the 935th Agri-business Development Team or ADT. Deployed to Nangarhar Province, the team would be less than 50 miles from the Pakistani border and Osama bin Laden's suspected stronghold.

The soldiers at the core of the unit were chosen because of their agricultural backgrounds. The military capitalized on Godsey's rank, education and current job as an economist at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, and put him in charge of assigning projects to various team members.

The idea for the ADT was conceived by retired Missouri National Guard General Charles Kruse, now president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri National Guard General King Sidwell, and Director of the Army National Guard General Clyde Vaughn.

Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, Army National Guard: "I can't tell you how proud we are of you. This is a huge priority. You stand right on the cusp of making a huge difference in Afghanistan. "

Though there are now Agri-business Development Teams from several states, Missouri's National Guard was the first to be tasked with improving the quality of life for Afghani farmers.

At first, the soldiers thought they would be teaching basic farming techniques but after arriving in Afghanistan things changed.

Master Sgt. Larry Godsey, Marshall, Missouri: "... those farmers had been farming the same way for 2000 years. They, they know how to farm. They're good farmers. ...We thought we were going to be more on the education side. We thought we were going to teach them how to become 20th century or 21st century farmers, but that really wasn't the case. "

The members of the ADT realized local farmers were way beyond the need for basic education and that techniques used on large U. S. farms would be inappropriate for the smaller operations terraced into nearby mountainsides.

Working with local and regional government officials, projects were identified and arrangements made with local contractors to begin construction. Each project was approached with the idea of replicating the job at another location. Funding for the effort came from money set aside to rebuild the war-torn country.

A variety of projects were undertaken including stocking a local veterinary clinic with new equipment, building a slaughter facility for local producers and working out the details for a fish hatchery. Not unlike U.S. farmers trying to capture more of the profits from their labor, the men of the Missouri ADT hoped their work would help break the cycle of Afghanis selling their raw commodities to nearby countries and buying the processed products back at higher prices.

Sergeant Russell Pierce, from Mayview, Missouri, a cattle rancher and row-crop farmer, was placed in charge of the fish hatchery project. After searching the internet for information he began work with the Nangarhar Fish Producers Association.

Sgt. 1st Class Russell Pierce, Mayview, Missouri: "Even when I started that, it's hard to get out of the, you know, 21st century American mindset where you're saying, 'well we need to, you know, get some electronics this and and, ahm we need to computerize that or get aeration pumps'... Their power grid is is very poor; to a point that they don't even count on it."

Some thought was given to upgrading an existing hatchery but it was determined the facility was in a flood plane and a new location had to be found. When the ADT left in late December 2008, negotiations for a new facility just outside of Jalalabad were in progress.

Once in Afghanistan, the ADT considered the knowledge they were imparting might be used to grow more opium poppies, the main ingredient in the illegal drug heroin. But after asking local farmers about the issue they were assured poppy growing was a criminal problem not an agricultural one.

Master Sgt. Larry Godsey, Marshall, Missouri: " wheat prices what they were this past year wheat actually was more profitable than poppy. So that probably helped us I don't know...But I guess you have to look at it in terms of incentives. There's a reason why people grow poppy and, and typically they grow it, number one, either because that's the only alternative they have or, number two, is because they're being forced to grow it.

The focal point of the mission became water management for electrical power generation and irrigation.

To help bring electricity to rural regions of the country the team completely refurbished two hydroelectric dam. The generating plants now supply power to the nearby villages of Sengani and Omarkheyl and to the small grain mills installed at each dam site.

Larry Godsey, Marshall, Missouri: "They don't know who we were and by going into these communities and getting them electricity or getting them a wheat mill or a corn mill or whatever it's you know its winning the hearts and minds and that's what we were trying to do."

The one project Godsey and his team thought might help the most was the installation of check-dams to hold back spring melt water. The water would then be available for irrigation during the heat of the region's sweltering summers when the mercury often passes 130 degrees. Three optimal locations were found high in the nearby mountains.

To reach these sites, the team often would drive several hours and, once the trail became too rough for vehicles, walk several more.

Sgt. 1st Class Russell Pierce, Mayview, Missouri:"...I think there were times that we were in areas that were um definitely not exactly friendly to US Forces but because of who we were and what we were doing and the reputation that we um built quickly among those individuals over there. We got away with a lot of stuff we shouldn't have."

Gratification aside, ADT members are quick to count the cost of their mission against the benefits of their work. Despite the Pentagon's commitment of more than a million dollars Godsey continues to weigh the risks and rewards.

Master Sgt. Larry Godsey, Marshall, Missouri: "I enjoyed the mission, it was dangerous, it was challenging, um, it was frustrating at times, but it was one of those missions where you really felt like you were making an impact. And you're doing something for people and you felt like you're making progress. And so do I want to go back? Yeah, I'd go back. I don't know if I want to go back for another year but I'd go back."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: Afghanistan agriculture farmers military Missouri National Guard news