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American Exceptionalism In Practice

The following article is reprinted with permission of Spalding Education International, a non-profit organization dedicated to literacy.  Spalding has developed a phonics-based, scientific method for teaching people to read and write English.  (In fact, I learned via The Spalding Method, they’ve been doing this for a while!)

The article is by Sean Stoddard, another Arizonan, and is about his service in Afghanistan.

During each of my tours overseas, I had the opportunity to teach and train service members, third coun- try nationals, contractors, interpreters, and anyone else who would or had to listen to me. When we were deployed to Afghani- stan, I was selected to train the Afghan National Army in Military Police Skills and Tactics, how to be a soldier, and basic important life skills. I was in charge of a training team that consisted of US soldiers and sailors and interpreters.

The Mission
I was fortunate enough to be able to select my team, and I selected only those who desired to make a significant change in Afghanistan, and not only for the present. I believe that if we are going to be away from our family and friends, we need to make our time worthwhile and change the world. I believe we did, and I am proud of my team. I stay in contact with them and will always have their backs.
The base we were on was named after two American soldiers who were killed by Afghan soldiers. The environment was difficult tactically, physically, and environmentally. Being away from our families would take an emotional toll as well.

Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto
When we arrived in Afghanistan, the Afghans’ base was primitive. They had a few Port-A-John’s, transient latrines, and showers. None of them worked. The floors were covered in a quarter inch of human feces. The showers had chunks of rock and concrete at the base so that people did not have to shower standing in the human waste. Of course, that’s when there was water, which was rare. Electricity also was rare which axed the possibility for lights, air conditioning or heat. Anyone who lived, served, or worked on the base was subject to sometimes debilitating sickness.

I remember many of the Afghan soldiers looked at us with disdain. Many had never seen an American face to face and, due to a lack of formal education, had only heard terrible things about Americans.

Changing the Environment
All these factors distracted from our mission of training the Afghan Army. Working with outstanding leaders, such as 1LT Scott Breseman and Captain Mike Pratt, we were able to completely change the environment. Many new buildings were constructed under Scott’s leadership. Running water, pumps, generators, electricity, heaters, AC units, beds, lockers, uniforms, a small store, a barbershop, working showers, shower heaters, cleaning materials, a chow hall, computers, printers, chairs, and much more were requisitioned and supplied.

All of the listed items and many more required training by us. That may sound strange, but many Afghans had never seen toilet paper, or other items we take for granted.

Winning Hearts and Minds
We could tell we had a long way to go in not only fixing infrastructure, but also in earning the hearts and minds of our Afghan partners. But we had a mission, and we wanted to change the world. Scott worked to improve the physical conditions, which improved the psychological state of the Afghan soldiers and significantly assisted our ability to train, Mike was busy ensuring the water on the base was clean, training the Afghan soldiers in the basics such as using soap, which they had previously not used, cooking food, covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze etc.

If you think that all we do is push out trained soldiers when we partner in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, we are working to train, influence, and simply make a better world. It is an honor to serve in the US Army. It is an honor to work with so many talented and motivated people who want to make a difference in the world, not only in the immediate future, but for generations to come.

The Afghans would share stories of fighting the Russians, and how the Taliban has hurt, or in some cases, killed their family members. Some would display scars from fighting the Taliban. They yearned for the day they could have a free country and did not have to worry about the Taliban.

A Teaching Moment
When we first got there, we needed to get rid of the old toilets to make way for working toilets. I remember speaking to several of the Afghan soldiers and telling them what we needed to do. I could tell that they certainly did not want to move the toilets. I explained that it was important and would make a difference in their lives. I could tell that they still did not want to move them. Then the thought came to me that if the tables were turned I would think, here is this American ordering us to move these awful toilets; something he would never do himself.

At that point I decided to prove them wrong. I grabbed one of the toilets and began to move it. I had made it about four feet or so from the hole the toilet had covered (not far enough) when it erupted spewing human waste. But I knew that they were watching and this was a teaching moment as is every second of our lives. I continued with the mission. The Afghan soldiers followed suit, and we got it done.
It was disgusting, humiliating, frustrating, and wonderful.

These soldiers not only got a great laugh and a story to tell, but they learned that we were not there to destroy their way of life, but to do anything we could to help them. As we emotionally connected with the Afghans, we grew together and soon those who hated us when we got there grew to love and respect us for giving up our time to travel 7,000 miles to help them. This was only one example of thousands of different experiences that I, and my fellow service members, experienced on a daily basis.

I would have an “Ask an American Anything Time.” The questions Afghans would ask ranged from “tell about how you get married” (which included dating, courting, and different types of weddings) to why did the United States arm the Taliban.

Teaching English and More
We held history classes daily and related the terrible things the Russian Army did to the Afghan people. We explained that the Taliban were once freedom fighters and the US armed them to fight the Russians.
One of the problems Afghanistan has had is a lack of education. I have been blessed with parents who cared about my education and sent me to good schools like Franklin East, West, and Jr. High in Mesa, Arizona. While there, I learned the Spalding system which I not only use to teach my daughter (and hopefully her future brothers and sisters), but also to train service members and people in remote places where schools have not been located in decades.

SEI Helps
I asked my mother, Debra Stoddard, Spalding Executive Trainer, if she could help me with a couple of programs I was running in Afghanistan. One of the programs was a “Train the Trainer Program.” One goal was to train US soldiers so they could teach the Afghans English. A second part of the training was to train Afghan soldiers and leaders in English using The Spalding Method.

It was important for them to learn reading and writing in their languages first and set time for that. Additionally, I explained that although I speak English as my primary language, I did not want them to learn English because I speak it, but because English is considered the international and business language. If they learn English, they can travel and read signs in airports throughout the world. The chances of getting out of poverty are much greater if they learned the international language.

I asked my mother if she could get any materials to help me train the Afghans. She spoke to people at Spalding Education International (SEI). I had learned through the Spalding program so I knew it worked. SEI kindly donated phonogram cards and CDs for training the Afghans. Many on the base were pessimistic that I could teach Afghans how to read and told me that there was no way that people could learn how to read within a year or so.

Using Spalding, not only did we teach them within a year, but I had students who would go back to their barracks and practice. Within only about five weeks they could not only pronounce the words they came in contact with, but also they began to understand the words in basic children’s books and other resources I found.

When the time came to leave Afghanistan, it was emotional. We had trained and partnered with thousands of Afghans. Their physical environment was significantly improved, their emotional environment had improved, as had their knowledge in everything from history to personal hygiene to defending themselves from attacks, to math, science, biology, ethics, literature, physical fitness, cooking, cleaning, motivation, and many other areas of life. They grew to love the United States of America and what it stands for.

Passing the Torch
Before I left, I selected the very best, most motivated Afghan soldiers and donated the Spalding materials that Spalding had donated. I also made them a CD of me going through the flash cards with and without saying the phonograms.

The program was a success. “Train the Trainer” is on going and Spalding is being taught Afghan to Afghan.

I could write a book about my experiences. I have spent years of my life doing this, and it is difficult to sum it up in a short document. There is so much to analyze, and so much I learn each deployment. Each time I come in contact with the best and the worst, the brightest and those intent on destruction. It is an incredible journey, and I thank you for the part that Spalding played in my life, for the tools it gave me to help and to touch the hearts of those who have touched mine.


1 Erich Sielaff { 10.13.11 at 10:54 am }

I had to read this twice in order to take it in. This is the reality of hardship and character, and it is a universe apart from the cultural narrative and the rank obliviousness about this extraordinary nation that produces men like Master Sergeant Stoddard. When you juxtapose this against the latest sewage spewing out of the mouths of many in the OSW crowd, it is almost overwhelming. There is a metaphor there for us to ponder, but I am not sure I want to linger there. Thank God for the USA. Heaven knows what the world would be like without the past 235 years of the presence of this nation on planet Earth.


2 Jeff Edelman { 10.13.11 at 9:44 pm }

I don’t know why. But, for some reason the movie, Educating Rita, comes to mind.


3 Scott { 11.25.11 at 11:36 am }

Thanks for this excellent article. If you ever slow down to write that book I would gladly read it. Thanks for all you do and for protecting me, my wife, and children.


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