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A Different Kind of Service


One teacher shares lessons from Afghanistan.


By Tim Smart


Relationships, coaching, mentoring—these words drive my focus each day in Kunduz Province in northeast Afghanistan.

It’s a beautiful, mountainous area where the valleys are heavily cultivated and sheep and goats consume most of the wild grass. Melon fields and fruit trees grow along the province’s major north-south highway, which is a lane-and-a-half and mostly paved.


Tim Smart is a major in the National Guard, on leave from his job as a middle school special educator in Portland, Oregon.

Photo: Sayed Zafar Hazin, Ana

Nearly all of Afghanistan’s 10 ethnic groups are represented here, but the majority are Tajiks and Uzbeks, not the Pashtuns from whom the Taliban draw most of their support. This province is anti-Taliban and generally friendly to westerners.

I have been here since last June on a 12-month tour, helping the new Afghan National Army (ANA) sustain its operations with fuel, food, training, water, and ammunition. I am away from my wife of 21 years and my three beautiful children, living in a dangerous, remote region.

Despite 20-plus years of military training, nothing could have prepared me for being here. It is learn as you go.

In the States, I am a special education teacher who helps students build on their strengths to overcome their struggles in reading, writing, and math. In a way, my work here is very similar. Patience is a daily theme.

The Afghan National Army was formed from groups of former anti-Taliban guerrillas, officers educated by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, and anti-Soviet mujahideen leaders. Long-term planning is a new concept for them. In their recent past, what you had in your pocket is what you survived on, so events several months away are irrelevant. As with my middle school students, I relate long-range goals to the current situation to make it relevant.

There isn’t much open warfare here, but I have gone on combat missions with the ANA, mostly apprehending anti-government fighters, demonstrating presence, and gathering information. We also participate in missions to separate warring factions.

Only 10 to 15 percent of my time is spent helping with community-building and schools, but that work is especially important to me. I am drawn to the children, always looking for ways to help a school.  The smiles we get when we visit make the long separation from my family bearable.

Of the 250 schools in Kunduz province, 143 are outdoors. They have one-tenth of what they need in the way of paper, chalkboards, maps, and teachers. At one school I visited, the building was one room of about 1,000 square feet, with 200 students in four classes all learning at the same time. About 42 percent of the country’s 5,800 teachers are female, as are one-third of the students. 

Children in Afghanistan desire to go to school, and their families want them to. Five years ago, there were 15 schools in the provincial capital, but now there are 134. Where the Taliban are strong, school burnings are common, but here, we have had only four. Of course, that is four too many.

There is a drastic need here to support and nurture the next generation, the children. First, they need peace and stability. Then, they need to advance economically so they can spend time and effort on education. Today, the country is so poor that most children have only a few years to study be-fore they must go to work as farmers, herd-ers, and shopkeepers. I am amazed at how resilient the people are, considering how much war and hardship they have seen. I have certainly learned more from them than they from me. 

My Guard duty has led to some surprising moments that fill me with hope. A few years ago, I taught an angry young man. He and I worked through his frustration and difficulty in academics, one subject at a time.  We began to connect once he saw he could trust me. Military training helped me handle his outbursts calmly and settle him down.

After I was called up last year, I started exercising to get into shape. (I’ve lost 60 pounds!) One day, I walked into the gym at the base where I was training and heard a familiar voice: “Mr. Smart, what are you doing here, sir?” My former student and I were both amazed. He had joined the Guard and is now serving in Kabul.

Seeing how my former student is making a difference reminded me that I am, too.

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February, 2007