BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

Joining Forces: Women Veterans Speak Out – Cheryle’s Letter from Kabul

Posted by Joan Grey on March 12, 2012

Read the latest article of BPW Foundation’s Joining Forces feature that brings us the voices of women veterans telling their stories.

I am the division chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); Afghan Engineer District – North; Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Division.  We manage a contract that provides minor maintenance and repair for about 3,000 buildings at 302 sites across 350,000 square kilometers in eastern and northern Afghanistan. These are buildings that Coalition Forces built for the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP).  We are maintaining them until we turn them over to the Afghans.  80% of the contractor employees are Afghans, which helps build worker skills and stabilize the population.  Bottom line- if a man can support his family with a job, he doesn’t need to take money from insurgents and do their bidding – like shoot rockets/guns at Coalition Forces (CF).  Seems like it is worth the $300-$400 a month salary we pay them (which is enough for them to live on). My mission in the next year is to start turning over facilities for the Afghans to maintain.

There is certainly a tendency to want Americans to take care of them, too. It reminds me of the Eastern Europeans, both before and right after the Iron Curtain came down – “I don’t have it, you have lots, so you should just give it to poor little me.”  When it is life, safety and health projects, like a septic field, I’m all for helping them improve their lives.  When they like the guard tower that is being built on a neighboring compound better than the guard tower they have, I’m not building them a new guard tower. Forget it.

Afghans are widely acknowledged as great in masonry.  They are also respected in woodworking & carpentry.  However they are really weak in master planning, design, waste water treatment and ESPECIALLY electricity. The biggest challenge we have here is the unsafe electrical practices.  I visited an ANA barracks yesterday and the building’s circuit breaker box was located inside the bathroom, over by the showers.  The wall above the box was black from the sparks. Yes, we put a work order in to relocate the electrical box outside the bathroom.  Duh!

One challenge in turning facilities over to the Afghans is that the early construction projects by the CF assumed we could build state of the art facilities and help them catch up to the Western world.  Good idea to skip over already obsolete technology – except this is a country with 80%-90% illiteracy (males and females).  We can’t turn over any facility with a microprocessor in it; the Afghans don’t have trained workers to fix microprocessors.

So my job is developing/implementing a smart transition plan in a way that the Afghans can be successful.  The first step has already started – delivering training.  The craftsmen training we deliver starts with about 2 months of literacy training, to get the Afghans to about a second/third grade literacy level.  Then we teach them the work skills.

Meanwhile, CF have shifted to building what we call austere facilities–buildings that the Afghans are comfortable with and can easily maintain.  Air conditioners go into hospitals, but barracks get ceiling fans.  Kitchens might need to be separate from the dining room (like in Colonial days) if the burners are gas or wood fueled – Afghans like to cook over REALLY BIG flames.  Almost bonfires.

I’m learning a lot and focusing on what’s really important – helping out neighbors (world neighbors).  One of my guys was mobbed at the local ANA hospital by the Afghan Soldier amputees that found out he was American and wanted to thank him for everything he and America was doing to help Afghanistan.  He was amazed by the outpouring of gratitude from these Wounded Warriors.  He thanked them for their service to their country.

The stakes of the CF turning over security, O&M, everything to the Afghanis are high.  If we succeed, then Afghanistan is a stable country and stable countries are not a threat to the rest of the world.  If we fail and the Taliban and al Qaida come back, we’ll be fighting our way back into this country in a few short years.

Thanks for your support and for giving me the freedom to serve here in Afghanistan.

Cheryle Hess is a retired Army officer. She was working in the Pentagon when she decided to take a 1 year assignment in Afghanistan with the Corps of Engineers starting in July 2011. Cheryle’s son, Tom, is a soldier who is currently stationed in Kandahar. This was one of the first letters that Cheryle wrote home to let family and friends know about her experiences in AFG.


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