Although the U.S. is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the war is not over for more than 60 members of the Kentucky National Guard in Frankfort.
They were honored in a farewell ceremony Tuesday at Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church as they prepare to go to Afghanistan in the next several weeks in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The members – officially Agribusiness Development Team 4 – will focus on teaching Afghanis how to be agriculturally self-sufficient in a war-ravaged nation.
“This is a unique mission to the National Guard,” said Capt. Stephen Martin, a spokesman for the Kentucky National Guard.
“Active duty is not able to fulfill this because of our unique civil experience … we’re relying on civilian-acquired skills.”
Martin said a third of the team is made up of Kentucky Army and Air National members with extensive backgrounds in agriculture.
While Martin said volunteering was an option, Sgt. Maj. Theresa Rea, the senior female adviser, said those like her with farming backgrounds are typically sought for missions of this type.
“I was told to join,” said Rea with a laugh.
“What they do is they’ll look at the different soldiers we have in the Kentucky guard and see who has agricultural experience, who has an agriculture background … who has the specific skills to fulfill these positions, and then they’re usually asked to fill these positions.”
Rea grew up on a farm in northern Ohio, and lives on a 5-acre self-sustaining farm with her husband and kids in western Kentucky.
But the team isn’t just interested in Rea’s farming skills. As the senior female on the mission, she will help with the team’s Women’s Empowerment Program.
The program has women on the agricultural team work with the Afghani Director’s of Women’s Affairs department to teach women civilians certain trades like beekeeping, canning, food presentation and managing small poultry farms.
Martin said the program helps widows or women that have to make a living on their own, but Rea said it also teaches husbands and wives to share jobs, even if the jobs are old-fashioned.
“When you think back to the pioneer days when women stayed in the cabin to do the women stuff, that’s what we’re doing,” Rea said.
“They know how to farm; they just don’t know the newer methods … we hope to just empower them with their rights—their natural born rights—to feed their families and to feed themselves … and rebuild and repair from war.”
Rea said it will be a different experience to be in a place where men and women aren’t seen as equals.
“It’s going to be interesting because I’m the first female command sergeant major here in Kentucky, and the first female who’s going to go in and command element positions … they’re going to have to deal with me,” Rea said. “But it’ll be interesting because we’re in their country; we’re their guests.”
Tuesday’s ceremony was two weeks after the Obama administration announced it had accomplished its goal of withdrawing 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 as part the plan to end American combat by 2014.
Obama said he will withdraw another 23,000 by the end of this summer.
The team is heading to Camp Atterbury in Indiana this week for training. It is expected to leave for the Qandahar province in Afghanistan in several weeks and is scheduled to return in nine-10 months.
Before leaving, team members said they’re cherishing their time left at home.
Sammy Woodson, 23, said he’s anxious about leaving his new wife Megan and the home they just bought, but going overseas is part of the job. He’ll be working as one of the team’s intelligence analysts.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Woodson said.
The Frankfort resident said he’s been visiting his favorite local eateries to suppress any cravings he gets overseas.
“We always go to Casa (Fiesta),” he said, as he and his wife laughed.
Sgt. Jeremiah Qwiek of Louisville is also preparing to leave home for Afghanistan. His wife Ashley, who’s also in the Kentucky National Guard, served time in Kuwait, and Jeremiah said he’s ready for his turn.
“It’ll be nice to work with the people over there and actually see what’s going on,” Qwiek said. “I’m happy it’s a humanitarian mission.”
As someone who knows what it’s like to have a spouse overseas, Jeremiah had some advice for his wife while he’s gone.
“Pay the bills on time.”
The AP contributed to this report.