By Jan Schultz
The Imperial Republican
Afghanistan may not be the place most people would want to spend 11 months.
But, for SFC Eldon Kuntzelman and other Nebraska Army National Guardsmen, there is a feeling of accomplishment after working one-on-one with Afghani farmers for nearly a year.
The mission of the Guard’s Agri Business Development Team had several goals, one of which involved the generosity of Chase County farmers.
Eight donated grain bins from this area were dismantled in August, 2008, then the sheets of steel were shipped to Afghanistan, where they were reconstructed.
The bins will be a godsend to the Afghanis, where storage of grain is generally unheard of.
Kuntzelman, who lives in Imperial, said while they didn’t get everything done there they had hoped to after arriving Oct. 6, 2008, it was gratifying to see how quickly the Afghani farmers took to what they were being taught.
“It was amazing,” he said.
“Having never seen this type of storage before, they understood” such things as contamination and other storage issues, Kuntzelman said.
And, they even learned how to reconstruct the grain bins themselves that came from Chase County.
The Afghanis had to put up the bins themselves without any of the Guardsmen there on site.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, though.
Kuntzelman said the plan was to help them get started reconstructing the first one in late May. But enroute to the site, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded nearby, killing three U.S. soldiers and an Afghani. His Guard unit was then sent to that area to help.
“That ended our chances of helping on that bin,” Kuntzelman said.
After that, the Guard unit was required to go out in more secure vehicles, which weren’t going to be delivered for two weeks.
But, then, as they sat there with everything put on hold, Kuntzelman suggested bringing the Afghani farmers into Bagram Airbase and teaching them how to reconstruct the bins right there.
And, that’s what happened.
“We walked them through it and how to set them up right there at the base,” he said.
The Guard team was never able to actually help with the reconstruction on any of the sites where the eight bins went up.
But, they did get the chance to see them afterwards, and Kuntzelman gave the Afghani farmers high marks.
“They did a good job putting them up,” he said.
Walls several feet high were built around them for security. It will also help with the strong winds in that country.
In most cases, the bins are being shared by several farmers in provinces close to the U.S. base at Bagram.
The bin reconstruction wasn’t the only project the Agri Business Development Team had in Afghanistan.
Education on different planting and drilling techniques was emphasized, he said, trying to get them away from the broadcast (by hand) method of planting.
Planting equipment is scarce there, and many still use animals.
In northern Afghanistan where they were headquartered, the farmers grow corn, wheat and edible beans on the same schedule as the crops here.
Wheat is planted in the fall, with harvest in June or July.
However, the Guard unit, all who have ag backgrounds, discovered they were planting their corn in June and July, resulting in corn cobs about six inches long and with field corn kernels the size of popcorn.
“We talked to them a lot about planting earlier,” he said.
One farmer he knew did, planting about 20 acres by hand.
“It was looking pretty good when we left,” he smiled.
Kuntzelman was also involved in helping get a new grape vineyard established for a blind farmer.
Kuntzelman said they went in and tore out all of the grape plants that weren’t producing, added trellises to get the plants off the ground, drilled a well and added drip irrigation.
He also helped in another village where 18 greenhouses were built for growing food. Some of the profits realized from the produce sales will be used to upgrade the greenhouses, such as adding generators, and for seed for the following year.
He also had a part in the design work for garden spaces that will be built near schools to grow fruit trees and grapes. With some of the labor provided by the students, profits from the gardens will help fund school repairs.
Two of the members of his team also taught animal health at two of the Afghan universities.
Kuntzelman said the only real danger he felt was sometimes at night during rocket attacks.
The first one that hit after they arrived landed about 40 yards from where he slept.
“Rocks from it hit our building,” he recalled.
But, being further north than much of the conflict, they were never shot at, he said, but were always mindful of watching for land mines and IEDs.
While the fighting is intensifying in the south, and there are requests for a surge of 40,000 more U.S. troops, there is humanitarian work like that of the Nebraska National Guard Unit going on in Afghanistan, too.
And though it may not be as newsworthy, the work of the Guard’s Agri Business Development Team is great news to the Afghani farmers.
And it will continue.
Although the Nebraska unit is gone, another one from Kentucky has now moved in to continue this work for the next three years.
Kuntzelman said he would like to go back and see the progress that will result from the work he and his unit did there.
He has fond memories of the farmers they met and, of course, the children, who always ran to them asking for anything the Guardsmen would hand over, especially candy and ink pens.
“We made a lot of good friends there who didn’t want us to leave,” he said.
Kuntzelman, who got back to his home in Imperial Sept. 17, will remain on leave until Nov. 22, after which he’ll return to work. The 22-year Guardsman, who’s also served a tour in Iraq, will return to monthly drills in December.