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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 20, 2011

Growick finds common ground in Afghanistan

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — The stark divide over the virtue of war has been lost in a wash of gray, but the simple difference between good and bad is clear to Ben Growick

Just before Christmas, he came back after more than a year in Afghanistan and says of the war there, “I’m for it and I’m against it.”  Of whether it has been a success or not, he says, “Yes and No.”

He is unambiguous, though, about the value of helping what he sees as good.

As a petty officer in the Navy, he signed on to what was first a six-month tour with a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Afghanistan — it later became a nine-month tour and finally finished after 14 months.

PRTs developed out of a program started by the Army in early 2002 that posted Coalition Humanitarian Liaison Cells, known as “chiclets,” in a few areas around Afghanistan and charged the soldiers with assessing humanitarian needs, working on small reconstruction projects, and establishing relations with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

All PRTs in Afghanistan are now under the command of the International Security Assistance Force, which NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, took control of in 2003.  Of the 27 total teams spread over four regions of the country, the United States leads 12, according to NATO.  Most of those teams of over 100 include at least 88 members of the military, to provide security, and civilian workers from the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development, and the United States Department of Agriculture, according to a 2008 report from the United States Government Accountability Office.

“The operational activities of the American PRTs have evolved considerably since early 2003… by abandoning the idea that the PRTs should play a major role in coordinating humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, and by partially shifting the emphasis from quick impact projects designed to win hearts and minds to the rehabilitation of vital infrastructure,” says a 2005 report from the Danish Institute for International Studies.

“PRTs recognized their need for good relations with provincial officials and tribal leaders and behaved accordingly,” wrote Robert Perito in a 2005 report for the United States Institute of Peace.  “Troops assigned to PRTs were more culturally sensitive than those in combat units.”

Growick described his work as being, essentially, a bodyguard for the civilian workers who were there to teach Afghans about governance, agriculture, and economy.

He described approaching a village as talking with the elders and offering them assistance through translators.  Ninety percent of the time, he said, they were eager for help.  Those who didn’t want help, he said, most likely didn’t want to attract ill will from the Taliban.

“They watched us like hawks,” he said of enemy combatants.  “We didn’t want to bring harm to locals.”

He and fellow soldiers stood guard in uniforms that weighed 80 pounds; they learned what to look for.  He called the gut instincts that they honed “spider senses.”

Certain gestures and movements from insurgents would pique suspicion.  “They walked the same path too much and it was like, ‘Whoa, wait a sec,’” he said, then, “The spider senses kick in and we pull out.”

One of the disconcerting elements of Afghan life is that everyone carries weapons, Growick said; children carry weapons to protect their families.  “You have to wait until it’s too late most of the time,” he said of taking action.

Boys as young as 12 routinely work to support their families, Growick said.

“The girls stayed at home.  They did housework, chores,” he said.  “The boys were the ones getting educated.”  When the American troops pulled into a village, though, the kids came pouring out of the school.  They’d pull on the soldiers’ shirts and ask for pens and paper.  “My mom sent me a few packages of pens more than once,” he said.

The mountainous northeast is harsh and barren, Growick said, with no running water and no electricity.  The kids relish beach balls and “soda is like gold to them,” he said.

“I respect how good we got it, compared to over there,” Growick said.  “We got it so damn good.”

For decades, all the Afghan people have known is war — “They want to change their country,” Growick said.  He helped to train some men so that they would be able to protect their own villages.  “They looked like scary dudes,” he said, “but they were good people.”

Growick saw “too much” combat, he said.  “That’s one reason I don’t want to go back.”

He was given an Army Commendation Medal and an Army Achievement Medal, but, he said, when an Afghan boy marked with burns on his arms thought one was a toy, Growick let him keep it. 

Helping people and developing trust was worthwhile, he said, concluding of the whole experience, it was “A lot of good, a lot of bad.”

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