Editorís note: Lt.
Robert Thelen of Oconomowoc is serving a one-year tour of duty in
Afghanistan. On a monthly basis, he will update the Oconomowoc
community on his actions and the happenings in Afghanistan. You can
read his letters exclusively in the Oconomowoc Enterprise.
By 1st Lt. Robert Thelen III
Special to the Enterprise
Recently, a few members of my team and I visited a local hospital to
give out some goodwill, including the first
donations from the Oconomowoc area.
We went there to spread some
cheer, but we also had a focus, two boys who were far from home. We
brought backpacks full of shoes, paper, pens, a dry erase board with
markers, a dinosaur, some sodas and candy. At first, the boys were
very shy, didnít want to look us in the eyes, and barely cracked a
smile. I sat down and with my interpreter, talked with them for a
few minutes. Their brief life stories and the events that brought
them to Gardez will stick with the members of my team forever. This
is their story.
Fadah Mohammad and Nazar Mohammad
spent their entire lives in a small village in Ghazni, a province in
eastern Afghanistan. They are both goat herders. We talked at length
about the goat herding profession, which, to a young Ghazni boy, is
a point of great pride. They are responsible for 500 goats.
In the communal ethos that governs
much of Afghanistanís rural area, the children watch the villagersí
goats, get them water, make sure they eat and protect them from the
many dangers of the Afghan mountains. Goat herding is far more
complicated than it sounds. Goats donít get branded to keep them
separated; the boys just know which one belongs to which family. It
is a skill they just learn. They look after the goats of 25
families, and somehow, they know who owns each and every one of them
with no identification.
>>view slideshow of Thelen's
Fadah and Nazar are cousins and
have known each other their entire lives; they are like brothers.
They look out after each other and rarely spend a day separated, but
their lives are different.
Nazar has the gaze of a man many
times his age. Although he is 15, he acts like he is far older,
because he has had to be an adult since he was very young. His
father was killed ďa long time ago,Ē and soon after that, his mother
passed away from an illness. He has lived with his brother and has
had to work since as long as he can remember.
Goat herding is more of a
free-time job for him, because he works as a heavy laborer in the
farm fields during planting and harvesting and does odd jobs around
the village. Because of this workload, he is unable to attend
school, something that almost hurts to hear. The closest school is
too far away for him to attend, and no one nearby is sufficiently
literate to teach him. He wants to be a doctor, but with no
educational possibilities, it is unlikely he will ever leave his
Fadah, 14, also a goat herder,
lives with his family and attends school. He is proud of his ability
to count and read and was quick to show it off (much to Nazarís
dislike). I gave him a wristwatch, and he beamed with a smile that
he quickly covered up so as not to show too much emotion to a
stranger. In his 14 years, he has never left his village other than
to take his goats to find grass and water.
Then, a few weeks ago, his
perspective, and that of his best friend, forever changed.
Both young men were out with their
herd in the villageís valley when fighting between the Taliban and
Coalition Forces broke out around them. They remember gunfire for a
few minutes, rockets streaking over head and being afraid. But they
could not abandon their goats. They were true shepherds, staying
with their flock until a flash and the pain. It is unknown which
sideís mortar landed feet from Fadah and Nazar, but munitions know
A mortar does not distinguish
between good or bad, man or women, soldier or child. The mortarís
shrapnel sliced through Fadah and Nazarís cores. Both were bleeding,
unable to move, with wounds to their legs, groins and stomachs.
The Coalition pushed the Taliban
back and found the boys in the field, crying for help. The Afghan
National Army called in a medivac, which came in the form of an
American Blackhawk. For the first time in their lives, Fadah and
Nazar would leave the valley. Since no one in their village has
anything more than shortwave radios for communication, it would take
half a week for word to reach their grieving relatives that they
were alive - in critical condition - at an Afghan hospital.
When we showed up a few weeks
after this harrowing event to give them some basic school supplies,
they were so grateful that they could barely speak words. When asked
if they wanted anything, they quickly said no.
Children with nothing to their
names wanted nothing. We have the means to get just about anything
for them, but even when prodded, they did not want anything.
The gifts we had given them were
more than they have ever had in their lives. They will likely give
most of it away to family members and friends soon after they get
home, and when they have outgrown their shoes, they will pass them
on to their younger brothers, so they too may enjoy them. But on
that day, they were kings.
After an hour with the boys, they
were finally smiling and joking around. They trusted us, and for a
moment, they did not fear for the future. For that moment, they were
just boys. For those few minutes, the differences between us
vanished in the light of the similarities.
These two boys reminded me of my
cousins - smiling, joking and having a good time. My team and I left
with our hands empty, our hearts full, some holding back the tears
from this experience.
Soon, with a pair of backpacks full
of toys and school supplies, and, to the envy of every other kid,
shoes on their feet, Fadah and Nazar will begin the 200-kilometer
journey back to their village. Nazar will return to school, and
Nazar will return to his brother and continue to survive. Both will
return to the friends and family they have missed with a story about
the world outside their village - a tale that includes a ride in a
helicopter and some crazy Americans that visited and talked about
goats for a few hours.
In war, we sometimes forget that
there are people between the good guys and the bad guys. This was
one of their stories. Some veterans of the Afghanistan Campaign will
speak of major battles, firefights and ambushes. I will likely speak
of my times advising Afghan soldiers, drinking chai and discussing
the finer points of goat herding with injured Afghan kids. I really
do love this job!
First Lt. Robert Thelen can be reached at