Murrysville man rebuilds villages, regains trust in Afghanistan
The war in Afghanistan can seem like an endless blur of grim headlines chronicling roadside bombs, insurgent movements and civilian casualties.
There are other narratives at work, however, that might be just as important in the long run, driven by organizations like Spirit of America and people like Matt Valkovic, 27, of Murrysville.
Spirit of America is a privately funded nonprofit that assists U.S. troops on the front lines by helping the local residents, supplying them with radios, school supplies, cold-weather jackets, shovels — the basic items they need to build a functioning society out of the rubble of a war-torn land.
The organization is supported by donations from foundations and individuals — about 15,000 donors across the country. Since its creation in 2003, donations to date are estimated at between $17 million and $18 million. Last year’s contributions were approximately $3 million.
In Helmand Province, perhaps the poorest province in Afghanistan, even small things can make a big difference.
“We talked to a Marine who said, ‘A pencil is like a Ferrari for a kid.’ It’s like the coolest thing in the world, you know?” says Valkovic, a field representative for Spirit of America.
“A kid here (in the States) would think an iPod or an iPad is the biggest deal, but for an Afghan kid, getting a notebook is their version of getting an iPad. He can write and draw and learn to read.”
Effective counter-insurgency operations depend upon gaining the trust and cooperation of the civilian population. Spirit of America staffers are embedded with combat units — like war reporters — so they can find out exactly what Afghan civilians need.
“Basically, we’re the only nonprofit that actually works in a directly collaborative manner with the guys on the ground,” Valkovic says. “We’re there at the forward operating bases, going on patrol with them and facilitating our support.”
This support can involve supplying sewing machines to Afghan widows, enabling them to make a living, or supplying shovels and boots to workers clearing the all-important canals of brush and debris.
Valkovic, an ex-Army officer who served in Iraq, just returned home from Helmand Province, where he was embedded with a unit of Marines.
“We were able to get 2,000 layered jackets, knit caps and socks to Afghan kids,” he says. “We’re able to get school supplies sent to schools there. This is the first time since prior to the Soviets (invasion in 1979) that schools are opening at this rate. Because of the security, the province has really improved. The tribal elders feel safe enough to tell the villagers that their kids can go to school.”
Spirit of America was founded by a Los Angeles businessman, Jim Hake, as a response to 9/11.
“I wanted to find some way to help the perception of America and Americans in the rest of the world,” Hake says. “It took awhile to find something that would actually be useful and make a difference, as opposed to a feel-good (story) by a business guy in Los Angeles.”
He heard about soldiers who were getting friends and families to send blankets, shoes, clothing and other items from home.
“They were really doing this on their own initiative,” Hake says. “They wanted to help the people in the villages where they were serving, and build better relations with them. … I thought, from a pure human standpoint, that’s how things often work.
“I thought if we could make it easier for our troops to build those relationships with local people, that would have benefits on many levels. That would really demonstrate what I think of as the little ‘s’ spirit of America — the initiative, the optimism, the generosity of the American people.”
Military units in combat zones have requested everything from solar-powered water purifiers to swing sets. Among the most requested items are school supplies, radios and Polaroid cameras — an obsolete technology that’s surprisingly useful in remote Afghanistan.
“How do you strike up a conversation that’s not about a military operation, or a search?” Hake says. “If a Marine or soldier takes a photo of a child and gives it to him as a gift, that provides an opening for an interaction that’s qualitatively different than what we might think of as a traditional military action. Many kids have not had a photograph taken of them before. This is an interaction from which a better relationship can be built.”
There are many aid groups in Afghanistan, some affiliated with the government or military, some not. Spirit of America attempts to fill in the gaps between these groups’ efforts. Its close working relationship with the military enables the organization to assist in remote, dangerous parts of the country that aren’t settled enough for other groups to operate.
Spirit of America projects
There are Spirit of America operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. Donors can choose which projects they want to support.
“If they wanted to buy school supplies to buy for a village in Helmand Province, all their money could go to that,” says founder Jim Hake. “When you go to our website, there are a number of projects featured on our home page. When they choose a project, 100 percent of their funds goes to what’s needed in that project. We’ve offered people their money back when it wasn’t needed (any longer) for a specific project.”
Here a short list of projects needing funding:
Help our troops equip and train Afghan midwifes: Almost half of all deaths of women ages 15 to 49 in Afghanistan result from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these deaths could be prevented with increased access to maternal health services.
Warm winter clothing for Afghan children : Children need jackets and blankets to continue to stay in school during the winter months.
Children’s books for Afghanistan : Afghanistan has one of the highest proportion of school-age children in the world and also one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. Giving children books in their native language (Dari-Pashto) improves reading for even those children who aren’t able to attend school.
Swing sets for Afghan kids : Despite their circumstances, Afghan kids want an opportunity to go to school and play with their friends.
Give radios to help Marines open minds and defeat the Taliban: The Taliban want to isolate Afghans so they are ignorant about events. Radios will help defeat the Taliban by providing a connection to the outside world and offering better information.
Details: www.spiritofamerica.net .