Staff Sgt. Lenice Redmon said he thought he'd seen poverty during his military anti-drug missions in South America.
Then he went to Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan was the worst place I'd been to" in relation to the poverty of its citizens, said Staff Sgt. Redmon of the 369th Signal Battalion. He returned to Fort Gordon on Aug. 8 after a six-month mission in the villages near Bagram.
More than two decades of war had left village inhabitants destitute, he said.
His main task there was to provide a communications link for an Army civil affairs unit from Knoxville, Tenn. That unit built schools, clinics and water wells in villages within a 50-mile radius.
Staff Sgt. Redmon said it was not unusual to see people using a small murky pond as a bath, a drinking pool or a toilet - all at the same time. A pothole in the road filled with water could often be a drinking source, he said.
"They took their drinking water from ponds that had green fungus growing in them," he said. "Some people would walk a half-mile to get water. They didn't think about sanitation. They just wanted something to drink."
Other aid has come through the building of schools. Children would attend classes in bombed-out buildings with no desks, no chalkboards and no school supplies. The teacher had no books or classroom materials, he said.
Boys and girls do not attend classes together, and in one village, he said, the girls sat outside on the ground while teachers used a makeshift chalkboard on one of the village walls.
"Kids always asked for pens," he said. "They would write in the air to signify pens."
Staff Sgt. Redmon said the units received shipments of clothing, school supplies, blankets and other items from churches and nonprofit groups such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts; however, because of the tremendous need, there was never enough.
"Something that was garbage to us was something they could use," he said, telling how one man wanted the plastic covering that came on a load of blankets to put on his house to cut down on the sand and dust blowing through the windows and cracks in the walls.
Money to help rebuild the country has come from a variety of sources.
U.S. taxpayers have provided $500 million since October for relief and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this week. He pointed out that another $1.45 billion has been authorized for reconstruction activities during the next four years.
Spain and South Korea also have built hospitals, Mr. Rumsfeld said, and Japan has pledged $500 million to help rehabilitate Afghanistan.
Civil affairs units are working in 10 different regions of the country, and so far 48 schools have been built and 75 wells have been dug to provide drinking water.
When Staff Sgt. Redmon arrived, he said he was met with skepticism.
Taliban propaganda had led villagers to be fearful of the Americans, and Staff Sgt. Redmon admitted his own apprehension of villagers armed with AK-47s.
"At first, I thought all Afghanis were bad, but it was the local Taliban," he said.
It didn't take long for villagers to become friendly.
The unit was often swarmed by groups of children who were interested in high-tech items such as digital cameras and cell phones used by the group. Many of the children just wanted to be around the Americans.
Staff Sgt. Redmon said there was a 2- or 3-year-old girl who would follow him. Not being able to hold his entire hand, she would grab one of his fingers and walk around the village with him.
He said he's glad he made the trip.
"It made me know how blessed I am," he said.
He hopes to return in five or six years to see the progress the country has made, but, he said, a part of him is sad.
As he thinks about the little girl who followed him around and who cried when she found out he was leaving, he wonders about her future.
"I don't know if she will have a fair opportunity to build a life when the Americans leave," he said. "I feel bad."
"It made me know how blessed I am." - Staff Sgt. Lenice Redmon, on his six months in Afghanistan
Reach Charmain Z. Brackett at (803) 441-6927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.