Rebuilding with golf

Sunday, August 1, 2004

ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- Most of the reconstruction work in the village of Asadabad involves providing schools with necessities like textbooks and facilities, equipping a hospital and establishing a radio station that broadcasts messages on safety and security. But sometimes there are jobs that need more.

That's why Maj. Scott Wiesehan decided the village needed a driving range.

Serving with an Army Reserves Civil Affairs Unit, Wiesehan's mission is to coordinate the efforts of local government, international relief agencies and the military in a village where children are left without much adult supervision.

He needed to find a way to address multiple problems.

Problem one: A horde of children crowds the base every morning begging for money and candy.

Problem two: The morale of the soldiers at the base suffers as Afghan guerillas try to subvert the reconstruction process. Wiesehan wrote, "A few nights ago they fired five 107mm rockets at our camp. No one was injured, but the rockets were close. Yesterday one of our vehicles down south hit a mine, and a young soldier lost his leg and two others were injured. This stress and danger is punctuated by long periods of waiting and boredom."

Problem three: Family and friends back in the United States want to contribute to the effort. Some have already sent school supplies and first aid kits, but they wanted to do more.

To address all three problems the major decided to set up a driving range where soldiers could relieve stress swinging golf clubs and Afghani children could earn money retrieving and washing golf balls.

All it took was an e-mail. The first to respond was the Estes Park Golf Course in Colorado, where the head golf professional is married to Wiesehan's cousin.

Golf pro Mark Miller had just ordered new range balls and was happy to donate the 1,200 used balls, as well as dozens of golf clubs.

Friends in Oregon collected more balls and clubs, as did the retirement community of Saddlebrooke near Tucson, Ariz., where Wiesehan's parents live. In no time, thousands of balls and hundreds of clubs had been shipped to Afghanistan, far more than needed in Asadabad.

Wiesehan began shipping the surplus equipment to military bases in other Afghani cities -- Jalalabad, Bagram, Herat on the Iranian border.

"These balls and clubs are now circulating all over Afghanistan. What I did not anticipate was: one, that I would get so much stuff, and two, that the Afghanis would take to hitting the golf ball so well," the major says by e-mail. "They are naturals at it because they play cricket, a sport that takes tremendous hand-eye coordination."

In a country where an adult wage is $2 a day, a child can earn 50 cents for shagging a bucket of balls. The boys were so anxious to earn their fortunes that on the first day at the new range they refused to wait for the Marines to quit hitting before running out to retrieve the balls.

The major writes, "The Marines looked like they were digging in for an artillery attack. Talk about a bunch of overswingers. Balls rained down in all directions over the little canyon next to the base. Suddenly the earth spit forth boys, and they were scrambling like mad all over the rocks to get the balls. No persuading would get them out of the way -- they would just dodge the balls as the came."

Wiesehan outfitted the boys with helmets and tanker's goggles after that.

But one boy couldn't join the others; the 10-year-old is blind. Other children lead him around and look out for him. Wiesehan found a special job for him -- counting the balls into the baskets.

"I think he may have a curable condition," the major said in late April, "but there is no medical care here."

Within days he had arranged to airlift the boy to an American hospital in Bagram. "He was very brave as the huge Chinook helicopter landed while an Apache attack helicopter buzzed overhead," he wrote.

Unfortunately, physicians at the hospital determined the boy's condition was not treatable. Many tears -- American and Afghani -- were shed upon his return to Asadabad.

Such setbacks bring discouragement. Another day the major wrote, "It was a hard day at our clinic. A boy and a girl with head gunshot wounds. The 5-year-old boy died. We were able to medivac the girl, but the bullet had passed through her skull. There is such carnage here. It has taken a toll on our docs -- they have kids the same age as these.

"The country is beautiful and ugly at the same time. Nothing is for sure here, and the threat of danger lurks in the back of your mind all the time. When we are in town we check for snipers, as we drive down the road we look for wires to mines."

Wiesehan and his Army Reserves unit usually enter a country after the major fighting has ceased and rebuild what has been ravaged by war. But in Afghanistan it was not war that ravaged the land, but the Taliban, resulting in some of the most primitive living conditions on earth.

Schools have no plumbing or electricity, no textbooks, not even furniture.

Wiesehan has a particular interest in education; in his civilian life he is a junior high social studies teacher in the Portland, Ore., suburb of Canby. His son, Theo, begins teaching at Saxony Lutheran High School in Cape Girardeau this fall.

"Imagine being in a school with only boys. There are 50 students in a room smaller than my classroom, with no furniture. They sit on the dirty floor in 95-degree temperatures," he writes. "The teacher is easy to spot; he has a big, bushy beard and a stick that he hits the kids with. If they misbehave at recess, the teacher doesn't bother to chase them down with the stick. He simply picks up a rock and throws it at the student."

It's even worse for girls.

"Girls are outcast here from when they are little until they are adults," Wiesehan writes. "They are chased away by the boys, and few women are ever seen in town."

But that is changing. The Americans have brought in computers to teach female high school instructors. And little girls hover around the lone female soldier with wide-eyed fascination; they're not accustomed to seeing a woman who exhibits such confidence or who is treated with the same respect as men.

One morning the girls gathered to see a particular female soldier who had taken them under her wing, but she was off the base. The major tried to explain to them that she would not be returning that day, but the girls insisted on waiting. As he spoke with them, he noticed their bare feet -- filthy, cracked and bleeding.

His morning agenda changed as he filled a basin with water and collected soap, towels and Neosporin. One by one, he gently washed the girls' feet and rubbed soothing medicine on their wounds. They sat in silent disbelief that anyone cared enough about them to treat them with such kindness.

From his 19 years of training Wiesehan never expected he would travel halfway around the globe to teach children how to brush their teeth. But one morning finds him doing just that, with each child using the first toothbrush he has ever owned (or even seen).

The major looks into the beautiful, trusting eyes of the children and shakes off the discouragement that the war brings. It is for these children and their future that he is there.

David Cox is the editor of the Villager Journal in Cherokee Village, Ark.

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