Rebuilding Afghanistan: From Sun Up to Can't Stop

Afro.com, News Report, James Wright Posted: Aug 04, 2006

If there was ever the idea that working in the war zone in Afghanistan, whether it be in Kabul, Heart, Kandahar or any of the points of interest, is easy, make no mistake about it; work is the order of the day

When Kim Pugh, who works as a civilian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Afghanistan District, was asked to summarize her experience as an African American in Afghanistan, she said, "Work."

That was the common response of those interviewed in Afghanistan who are working for the military as civilians for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or as contractors. Rebuilding parts of the war-torn country and building parts of it require a great deal of effort, time and study.
The same could be said for military personnel.

Master Sergeant Eric Johnson, of North Carolina, an 18-year veteran of the Army, said that often his days might run into each other.

"I usually start work at seven in the morning after I go get some breakfast," he said. "Then, I may have to go out into the field to assist the commanders at a site we are working on. Depending on where the site is, I could be on the road or in a plane for up to three hours.

"Even after a trip like that, I have to do more paperwork on my findings. And then, I have to attend meetings-some of which are planned and many which are not.

"In the evening, I generally don't have meetings so I do paperwork, talk to the new people who have come to us from the States or Iraq, and catch up on my e-mails. Sometimes I am looking at the resumes of people who are interested in coming to Afghanistan for the Engineering Corps until two in the morning. Of course, I start again at 7 a.m."

Johnson is considered one of the top enlisted men at Afghanistan District Corps. He is a confidant of Commander Christopher J. Toomey, serving as an adviser to him on many issues and making sure that the work gets done.

Johnson has a bachelor's degree and is very close to getting his master's in business administration. He has two more years in the military and plans to retire.

He said he wants to work for a civilian company when he finishes and teach, if possible.
There are no hard numbers on how many Blacks are working in Afghanistan because the military does not keep numbers in that manner. However, in the Army, one-third of the enlistees are Black, 1.5 percent of the officers are Black and it is believed that given the specialization of the work, the number of civilian employees in the Engineers Corps is small, also.

While Johnson's hours may seem brutal to the average American, one must consider the task that he, and the other Blacks, have volunteered for. Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world and has little infrastructure in terms of paved roads and highways.

Blacks perform a wide range of duties, from drawing and constructing bridges and roads to serving food in the mess halls. These jobs require great attention to detail and concentration.

Russ Davis, 49, a civilian employee of the Engineering Corps, is a graduate of the elite prep school Phillips Exeter Academy, Wesleyan College and holds a master's of engineering from the University of Utah.

He is the project manager with the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. He works also with the Coalition Forces Command-Afghanistan. Wearing so many hats can be stressful.

"When I first told my wife I wanted to go to Afghanistan, she was against it totally," he said. "She eventually came around to it, realizing that it would help my career and this was something I wanted to do.

"My days here are full. There is too much of what needs to be done.

"You have all of these balls juggling all the time. The key is dealing with the pace of the juggles."

Davis has an early start to his day. He goes to the gym at Qalaa House, where the Engineering Corps is headquartered, and works out from 5-6 a.m.

His schedule starts at 7 a.m. and generally goes until 8 p.m. He has a round of meetings, paperwork and field visits.

He said he is constantly on the go and often has to drop one project for another.

"The reason why I work so hard is because I have higher aspirations," he said, without giving details.
Neither Pugh nor Stella Lejeune, a civilian employee of the Engineering Corps, would comment extensively on their work except to say that they are busy all the time and it is stressful. Pugh works in the Office of Contracting while Lejeune works with operations.

Blacks have the added stress of dealing with politics and racism on their jobs.

Racism and politics

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military by executive order, which established the military as a leader in diversity in terms of opportunity.

Many Blacks in Afghanistan readily admit that they have it much better in the military than in the civilian world. The military is structured, and one gets promoted based mainly on performance rather than on politics-at least at the enlisted level.

Lt. Col. Vance Purvis, 46, is the product of a military upbringing. He said the military is all that he knows in terms of work and he is proud of that.

"My grandfather was in the military and so was my father," he said. "There was no pressure to follow in their footsteps but I did.

"I got my degree from Winston-Salem State in North Carolina, but I took ROTC courses at Wake Forest. When I finished college, I wanted to go into military intelligence.

"When I told my commanding officer, who was White, that I wanted to go into military intelligence, he looked at me strangely and said 'Son, we reserve that for others.'

"When I pressed further, the officer said that my 'kind lacked the kind of skills needed to excel in military intelligence.'

Vance said that he learned the skills necessary and became one of the first Black counter-intelligence military officers in the Army. His work takes him all over the world.

He has been to Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, back to Iraq and back again to Afghanistan. He said there is prejudice in the military but it can be overcome.

"I have never felt that I cannot advance by merit," Purvis said. Citing former Secretary of State Colin Powell and General Lloyd Alston, who is in line to be the 18th Airborne Commander, Purvis said that hard work and persistence are the keys to success in the military.

"When I tried to be a military officer, they said I had a speech impediment," he said. "Instead of trying to exert my Blackness on that, I worked to do what was necessary to be qualified for the job. I love the fact that I am a Black soldier-a Buffalo soldier.

"The military has been very good to me and they have used my talents well."

Purvis said he knows how to play the system and has made adjustments.

Vance's optimism is not shared.

Army Captain Tim Page was blunt about the racial situation in the Army.

"It is better than it was maybe 40 or 50 years ago, but you still have some problems," Page, a Chicago native, said. "There are only a small percentage of officers that are Black, so that level of understanding Black enlistees and Black officers is just not there.

"There have been many times that I have been the only Black officer in a meeting. There have been many times that a Black non-commissioned officer will come up to me and say that he is having problems with a White officer and I have to intervene or try to defuse the situation."

Page said that Black officers still have problems moving up the ranks, with Black generals being at 9 percent. None of the generals are at the rank of Lt. General Karl Eikenberry, who oversees the total theater in Afghanistan.

Page said that politics plays a role in anybody getting to the level of Eikenberry, not just Blacks.

"Don't be fooled by it, the Army and the military in general is dominated by politics," he said. "It's who you know and who likes you.

"I have seen some officers who screw up consistently but if the commanding officer likes you, he gets to stay around. That generally does not apply with the Blacks, though.

"It seems if you are Black and you make a mistake, it can be held against you."

Eric Johnson agrees that racism exists, but he said that Black non-commissioned officers and Black officers should do the things that are necessary to move ahead.

"I made a conscious decision to go to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and get into the jumping school," Johnson said. Ft. Bragg is the place where the Army paratroopers train.

Johnson said that few Blacks volunteer for that assignment because they consider it dangerous or are discouraged from doing so.

"One thing about being a jumper, if you do and are good at it, nobody will mess with you," he said. Pointing out the leading officers of the Army who have been at Fort Bragg, he said "that sometimes as a

Black you have to go out of your way in order to move up."

There are no Black generals in Afghanistan. There are less than a handful of colonels and a number of captains and lieutenants.

It is believed that about a third of the non-commissioned officers are Black.

Johnson said that there are no NAACP-like organizations in the Army, to whom minorities can complain. The Army does have an equal opportunity office, he said, but it is encouraged that the racial issues be resolved at the lower levels.

Dealing with racism and politics constantly, Blacks have to have an outlet. That is difficult in a country like Afghanistan with no history of connections to Africa or African people.

Limited recreation options

Blacks in Afghanistan who are in the military or served in civilian capacities do not have many options on or off their bases.

"The only time we get to socialize is church," Pugh said.

Pugh said that there are only a small number of Black women in Afghanistan. While friendships do form, work and the fact that they are constantly moving around prevent these friendships from becoming substantive.

"There is no 'Girls Night Out' for Black women," Pugh said. "We just don't do that.

"We have too much work to do."

She admits that on occasion, the Black women will get together to watch a movie. But that is on occasion, Pugh said.

Lejeune said that Black women do their own hair and do not bother to deal with the beauticians in Kabul. The beauticians tend to Afghan women, "But they do White women's hair," Lejeune said.
Lejeune said that the products to do Black women's hair are in the commissaries, so that helps.

To stay in shape, Pugh said that Black women exercise by themselves.

Black men, however, have a set ritual. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and depending on assignments, Saturdays or Sundays, Black men get together on the basketball court at the Qalaa House complex to play basketball. The players are from Camp Eggers from across the street.

There are usually about 16 Black men who are regulars such as Captain Tim Page, military contractor Pearson Jermaine or Sergeant Ernest Lee. They are joined by others, sometimes a bold Black female.
Players substitute in and out of the game, but Jermaine, Page and Lee stay on the court. There are no referees so when a player is fouled or commits an offense (traveling), an opposing player will call it and the play starts over.

That sometimes leads to trash talking, which can sometimes be brutal.

"We talk trash to each other and put down each other's game," Page said. "We argue, but we realize that it is all in fun.

"When brothers are deployed, they are deployed with their basketball shoes."

Page said that playing basketball is a good way "to get out and exercise and relieve some stress." He loves basketball, he said, and he has been playing since he entered the military 17 years ago.

"In terms of recreation, this is it," he said. "We have no regular 9 to 5 jobs, so we make the adjustments.

"This is it."

Page said that "75 percent of the players are enlistees and 25 percent are officers." He said that means almost nothing when it comes to playing the pick up games and that the players have learned to communicate on different levels.

An enlistee may check an officer on the court but still has to answer to that officer the next day, Page chuckles.

Jermaine, a native of Miami, said that even though the men argue, it is all in good fun.

"Playing basketball helps us get past the craziness," he said. "It is a positive release.

"We fuss at each other on the basketball court but we realize that it is all in the game."

Major Sergeant Reginald Kirkland does not play basketball, but is a serious poker player. He plays poker every Thursday night with officers and enlisted men.

"We have a lot of fun doing it," Kirkland said," and I am the best poker player here."
Davis said that he relaxes by sending a one page note via Internet to his family, telling them about the latest developments in his career.

Johnson reads magazines and watches television to relax.

Privates Burton and Watkins keep themselves entertained by talking about the latest fashions and gossip about what is going on at the base.

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User Comments


Mike Jones on Aug 08, 2006 at 15:25:44 said:

Well, I am not sure what you are getting at here, but frankly... the tone of your article is setting back racial relations more than advancement.

I remember a while back when the war kicked off that a few black politicians claimed there were inequities in acquisitions into the military with minorities being the majority in combat arms MOS's. This controvercial discussion was dismissed quickly as it was simply not true. In fact, the opposite was and I believe still is true.

Regardless, thanks for your journalism and coverage of stories of minorities in our military. I just feel there is more of a positive spin than you think. Then again, that doesn't sell.

Thanks,
Mike

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