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Utahns give Afghans a lift

Troops, supplies from state are part of a big aid effort

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Amid the bad and worse news coming from war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan involving misdeeds of soldiers and the loss of American lives, one bright spot is emerging — the kindheartedness of U.S. soldiers toward the people of Afghanistan.

Among them are two Army helicopter units, the Utah National Guard's 211th Aviation Group attached to the 25th Infantry Division and the division's own 214th Aviation Group that have been operating humanitarian programs since flying into poor, isolated villages last spring.

Utahns have joined others in donating nearly 40 tons of humanitarian supplies to the people of the villiage of Jegdalek, Afghanistan, in a joint humanitarian effort by Utah's 1st Battalion 211th Attack Aviation Group and its Angels for Afghanistan program and a similar program sponsored by the 214th Aviation Group of Hawaii.

"Early on we started handing out candy, food and other things to women and children in the villages," says Chief Warrant Officer 5 Layne Pace. "The Provisional Reconstruction Team saw what we were doing and asked us to adopt a village. We adopted the remote village of Jegdalek, which had a history of being a center of the mujahedin when they were fighting the Soviets."

Although their primary mission is to support troops on the ground, the pilots and crews of the 211th knew they wanted to do more than strictly attack missions, said Pace, 50, a battalion chief in the Orem Department of Public Safety.

The 211th, based at Airport No. 2 in West Jordan, flies AH-64 Apache helicopters as the attack helicopter asset of the 25th Infantry Division. The 214th, the division's own, operates large cargo choppers, the CH-54, first used nearly 40 years ago in Vietnam.

After a lot of planning, including protection of the air crews and their choppers, a mission to Jegdalek was made on Aug. 8, with some 600 villagers showing up in the first hour to see what the Americans were up to. More came as the day wore on, Pace said.

"We estimate about 6,000 people are within the authority of the village. We always leave a lot of stuff with the village elders, and they give it out to others who can't come to the village that day," he said.

More gratifying to the soldiers than giving out shoes and toys is the medical assistance they have provided to children and adults. On their second trip to Jegdalek, some of the air crews noticed a young girl standing back; they discovered she had severely crossed eyes. After fighting some military red tape, they arranged for eye surgeons at the Bagram Air Base, one an American and one an Egyptian, to operate on her eyes. The successful operation did much to cement relations between the villagers and the Americans.

"Every time we land she comes and hunts us out," Pace said of the 7-year-old girl.

The 211th air crews have also helped numerous other children and, most recently, a man who was in danger of losing his left leg to infection by getting him antibiotic treatments at the base hospital.

Now their battalion surgeon has identified an 11-year-old boy who has a hole between two ventricles in his heart, making him so weak he can barely walk or run.

"We were hoping a local Utah hospital would step up and help him, but Loma Linda Hospital" in Loma Linda, Calif., "has an outreach center in Kabul, and they are taking him to California for surgery," Pace said.

"We hope he will have surgery in the third week of January. The people here find it amazing that we would go to so much trouble for an 11-year-old boy."

CWO5 Kerry Stauffer, South Jordan, works full time for the 211th as a maintenance officer and notes the difference in the lives of the villagers since the unit adopted Jegdalek.

"When we first flew out there we noticed the kids had no shoes and a lot of them had bloodied feet. We sat down with the village elders to find out the needs of the people. They needed coats, shoes and hygiene supplies, the basics," Stauffer said.

"One mission we took out a medical and veterinary team to give basic medical care to 120 men and 300 women. The veterinarians gave the crew chiefs a brief lesson on how to vaccinate and deworm animals." By the end of the mission, all the village's sheep, donkeys, goats and a few cows were vaccinated and dewormed, Stauffer said.

The 211th will be coming home in April or May and plans to leave behind as much good will as possible.

"We look at it this way, if we can affect the younger generation, 10 to 15 years from now, it will be good for the country," Stauffer said.

E-mail: lweist@desnews.com