In an effort to capture the spirit of Thanksgiving, a group of us convoyed out to a mostly American-staffed base elsewhere in the Herat province in Afghanistan and returned to our camp with containers of turkey, mashed potatoes and all the other traditional Thanksgiving luxuries.
Being one of only a few United States service members at Camp Arena, American amenities are in rare supply. We’re embedded among 1,600 Italian soldiers and airmen and a few hundred Spanish soldiers, so trust me when I say that having an American meal is an extremely extraordinary treat.
We were honored that a chaplain, actually the chief of all chaplains in Afghanistan, Army Chaplain (Col.) Brent Causey, and his chaplain assistant, Army Sgt. Maj. Chris Patterson, flew in specifically for our little dinner.
Though his presence was humbling, I admit that my mind strayed as Chaplain Causey said grace. My mind wandered to memories of a shura I had attended the day before, where Herat’s governor and other local officials met with central Kabul government officials to address education concerns in the region.
Despite vast improvements to this land, Farah province’s deputy governor Mohammad Youris Rosouli explained that hundreds of schools here do not have electricity or access to drinkable water.
When I was a child, my classrooms were almost always hardened structures with chalkboards, desks, chairs, and we certainly had electricity and potable water fountains throughout the school. These are things I never even thought about.
In hindsight, it’s clear that I should be thankful for the seemingly insignificant blessings I had during childhood and continue to have today.
In fact, when I visit my children’s schools in England and my in-law’s schools in Japan, I see a majority of older students listening to iPods and texting on mobile phones.
My point is that in fortunate societies around the world, we have much to be thankful for, both on America’s day of Thanksgiving and the other 364 days of the year.
Even though it is not evident in all areas of Afghanistan, I learned at that shura that education across Afghanistan as a whole is improving vastly.
According to Omar Azize, representative for the Afghan Minister of Education, nine years ago, fewer than 1 million boys were enrolled in a total of 3,400 public schools, and there were only 20,700 teachers nationwide.
Currently, there are more than 7 million children enrolled in 12,000 general schools. Of those, 2.5 million are girls, a sight that was very rare a decade ago. In addition, the number of teachers expanded eightfold, bringing the number of educators into the public school system to about 170,000. Thirty percent of those teachers are female.
Nearly 65,000 students are also studying in 24 higher education institutions, also a rare sight in years gone by.
With continuing cooperation between local governments and Kabul — backed by dedication from people such as those who gathered at Camp Arena to celebrate Thanksgiving — the situation in western Afghanistan should continue to improve for the families of today and generations of tomorrow.
This is the second in a series of Tech Sgt. Kevin Wallace’s columns that we will feature in Voices.
Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace is a U.S. Air Force photojournalist serving in Afghanistan. He was born in San Luis Obispo and attended Cuesta College.