Kevin Dial will never forget the day he and others serving in the National Guard were invited to a party in Afghanistan.
He recalled his fellow soldiers dancing with Afghan men from the local community.
“That kind of engagement on the one-to-one level when you put down your weapons and you take off your body armor, that put a face of America that I know made a difference to not just my soldiers, but to the local Afghan leaders,” he said at a Salem City Club meeting Friday
Dial, a retired colonel, and Jerry Glesmann, a retired sergeant major, both served separate, one-year tours in Afghanistan with the National Guard and shared their experiences with the city club.
When Dial arrived in Afghanistan around a decade ago, his unit from Oregon was assigned to do construction in the country’s eastern region. His unit was comprised of a wide spectrum of people including construction workers, city engineers, pastors, journalists and store clerks.
The construction mission, he said, brought a mix of boredom and adrenaline.
“The day-to-day monotony of washing your uniforms and taking care of your place, and then getting suited up, rolling in out of the gate and going into the most dangerous environment you could have imagined and then coming back, trying to turn it back off, get some sleep before you go back out again,” he said.
His unit built mess halls, munition storage and a technical school that taught subjects including carpentry, masonry, welding, veterinary medicine and horticulture.
“These skills, they’re not something that can be destroyed by a bomb or a fire. They reside in the people and in the minds of our Afghans,” he said.
They were also assigned to train an Afghan National Army unit and constructed their bases, outposts and checkpoints to build infrastructure on the southeast border to stop the Taliban from crossing over.
Dial said he was most proud of building an orphanage in the community, a project that had been started by a previous unit. Local leaders had expressed that the planned orphanage would be an important development for residents, so he and other soldiers picked up where the other unit left off and finished building it.
They provided residents chickens, sewing machines and training to start home businesses. One soldier started a “female engagement team,” he said, so she could talk with women who lived in the community.
The unit also built two catchment dams for water and infrastructure to pipe it into fields, which extended their growing season by two to three months. “That doubles variability to produce food and produce funds that can come back into the communities,” he said.
For Glesmann, his team’s mission changed en route to Afghanistan. His unit’s first task was to provide vehicles, weapons and equipment to the Afghan National Army unit. They also taught more than 60 Afghan soldiers how to drive.
Weather conditions in Afghanistan were at times hazardous, with sandstorms being a common occurrence in the southern region. “The more extreme one was the heat and carrying on an extra 80 to 100 pounds on a four-to-eight-hour foot patrol,” he said.
He recalled one day returning to their airfield after a mission and noticing a 10-year-old boy wearing an Afghan National Police shirt. Glesmann asked his interpreter to find out the boy’s reason for wearing it and was surprised by his response.
His dad was an Afghan National Police officer who’d been wounded, and the boy had to wear his dad’s uniform and gun to help defend the police station. “He was fighting for his family and freedom,” he said.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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