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The finer points of goat herding: An update from a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan

Sept. 10, 2010

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.

>>view slideshow of Thelen's latest pictures
from Afghanistan

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.

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 village again.

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 no allegiance.

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 rgthelen@gmail.com.