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Minnesota National Guard
Sharing care packages with Afghan children

Hoping for candy but happy with a smile or a chance to try out their English, Afghan children flood the streets every time a US military truck drives by

Montana native and Minnesota National Guard Capt Marc Rassler saw an opportunity to reach out beyond what his job asked of him
ontana native and Minnesota Army National Guard Capt Marc  Rassler, 35, put all the extra items sent to soldiers to good use and  convinced friends and family to send school supplies to the hundreds of  poor children living where he’s stationed in Afghanistan
Montana native and Minnesota Army National Guard Capt Marc Rassler, 35, put all the extra items sent to soldiers to good use and convinced friends and family to send school supplies to the hundreds of poor children living where he’s stationed in Afghanistan (Photos courtesy Mark Rassler)

Like other soldiers, Rassler regularly receives a flood of care packages — both from family and from strangers — while he is deployed

Surrounded by extreme poverty, Rassler decided to put the care packages to good use, collecting all the extras and giving them to Afghan students

"Every school here needs something," Rassler said "There's never a shortage of children here in Afghanistan They swarm us every time we go out on the streets"

Not satisfied with just handing out extra toothpaste, soap and socks, Rassler invited friends and family to join in his mission

He requested school supplies on his blog, which is linked to a military website He's added blog readers by sending thank-you notes to those who donate items to soldiers through a nonprofit group called Soldier Angels

Rassler, who grew up in Livingston, said people from across the United States — many of whom read his blog but he's never met — responded from Texas, Florida, Wyoming, New Hampshire and New York

Most surprising was the overwhelming support from tiny White Sulphur Springs One Sunday, his parents Donna and James Rassler mentioned their son's project to their church congregation

The community of less than 1,000 people jumped at the chance to help out

Word spread beyond the Presbyterian and Lutheran church to the entire town People quickly donated enough notebooks, rulers, crayons, markers, pens, pencils, sharpeners and other school basics to fill 10 boxes

"It's quite a small community, so I wasn't expecting much," Rassler said "Their response was just overwhelming"
Soon the unit had a new, but welcome, problem on its hands — where to organize and store all the school supplies and toys until it could be taken to the schools
Rassler joined the Army National Guard while attending college in Minnesota

Though his passion is flying Black Hawk helicopters, Rassler hasn't piloted a single aircraft while deployed in Afghanistan

Previous tours landed him in Kosovo and Bosnia in 2005 and in Iraq three years later

He stumbled into the job in Afghanistan last winter when a command spot opened up at the last minute With no wife and family to worry about, Rassler was able to step in

His three months of training focused as much on learning Afghan language, culture and etiquette as the job tasks that awaited him

Even given his education and his experience in Iraq, Rassler said he was surprised to see how rigidly Afghanis followed Muslim traditions Instead of just head scarves, many women wore burqas and went out of their way to avoid contact with men

Since May, his job has been training Afghan soldiers, preparing them to take over once American forces step down their presence

Rassler said most of the men are already good fighters His training instead focuses on turning them into a functioning army — creating systems to keep records, teaching them to plan ahead when ordering supplies, food and fuel

"It is a challenge here," he said "Patience is the key to the game here For every step we make forward, we'll make another step backward or sideways

"I'm trying to teach my guys that we're not trying to turn them into a Western army, we're trying to make their system work"

When it came time to distribute all the donations, Rassler kept his overall mission in mind

Just as he hoped to make Afghan children trust Americans, he also wanted to connect the developing Afghan soldiers with the people living in the town

So he invited Afghan soldiers to join them when they took the two-ton truck full of school supplies to the Waliasar secondary school in the Chemtal District, near where the battalion was working

The school is a basic 5,000-square-foot building
Thousands of children attend classes there in three shifts, taking advantage of every moment of sunlight

Girls are in one shift, older boys in another and youngsters who often play outside waiting for class to start take the third

Rassler describes the school as a scene from "Little House on the Prairie" The chalkboards are at least 30 years old and often teachers don't have chalk to use
Students don't have textbooks

In some classrooms, students don't have desks or chairs In others they cram in to share tiny plywood tables

"They are lucky if they get four hours of education a day," Rassler said "The teachers work on reading and math — whatever they can fit in during that time"

To seem less intimidating to the children, Rassler took off his body armor while inside the school But for his and his soldiers' safety, they kept their guns by their side

The soldiers carried box after box into each classroom, making sure each student had a notebook and six pencils, along with a barrage of other school basics

The experience also opened Rassler's and the other soldier's minds to the cultural differences between the Afghanis and Americans

For example, many of the notebooks were spiral bound and designed for right-handed Americans But in the Arab world, they write from right to left and therefore have an easier time with legal note pads or spiral notebooks designed for lefties

Rassler was surprised at the students' reactions — he expected eager swarms of students and huge smiles However because they were handing out supplies to a group of girls, they shied away, never looking the soldiers in the eyes and often hiding their faces

Outside younger students waiting for instruction to start were more enthusiastic as soldiers handed out supplies and candy that they often keep in their pockets

"It's easy to forget, you want to extend a hand to someone, but when the girls get to be teenagers they shy away," he said "Still you could see the wheels turning inside They were so excited about what they could write on that piece of paper"

Even after the delivery, the boxes continued to poor in

With the end of his unit's tour approaching, Rassler and his team took to the streets again to hand out both school supplies and toys

Because schools can't afford to pay the heating bills, classes are closed down during the winter months So instead, Rassler sought out the Bibi Fatemah Orphanage on the east side of Mazar-e-Sharif

Roughly 150 kids age 6 to 10 spend their days at the orphanage The building is too basic to provide them a place to sleep, so most of the children stay with friends or relatives in the neighborhood

The children quickly lined up and were each given at least one notebook and one toy

Rassler said sadly the children have little use for toys, the orphans have no place to keep them Many families can't afford electricity and they certainly aren't going to spend what little money they have on batteries for toys

The children seemed to appreciate the notebooks the most They clutched the paper in their hands and raced off to draw in the orphanage courtyard

"I talked to the kids through our interpreter and told them that the one thing we ask in return is that when you see our trucks driving by to smile and wave," Rassler said

The orphanage director explained that far more needed than toys were warm coats and food

He asked that Rassler speak with the US military's infrastructure unit to see if they can add more room for the orphanage to house homeless children He also asked if an army doctor could drop by to check on some of the children

Knowing his time in Afghanistan is nearly over, Rassler is working with his replacement to continue his side project in the schools The unit made sure some school supplies were left behind to get the new group started

"It's truly amazing that when you put word out, so many of the folks in the United States want to help in any way they can," he said "If nothing else I hope we brightened the day of some children"

February 6, 2011
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kim Skornogoski at 791-6574, 800-438-6600 or kskornogoski@greatfallstribunecom

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