Volunteering a future in Kyrgyzstan and Turkey

  • Published
  • By Capt. Benjamin Schaftel
  • 8th Airlift Squadron pilot
As our van slows to drop us off at a school outside Manas, Kyrgyzstan, we catch a glimpse of a shattered Soviet monument. Its presence reminds us of the ongoing struggle this great nation faces as it rebuilds following decades of Soviet hardship and abandonment. Inside, lead-based paint chips off classroom walls revealing thin layers of cracked cement, the only structural support that prevented the building from crumbling these last fifteen years. Our job today, like on any of our other visits, is to help rebuild a school that promises to give hundreds of children a future.

While deployed at Manas Transit Center, Kyrgyzstan, and Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, members of the 817th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron have continually and happily volunteered their time, energy and money to serve the local community.

During any given week, members of the 817th EAS enter the local community to re-build schools, visit hospitals and orphanages, play with children, landscape, and provide tours of the C-17 Globemaster III.

While the level of future American presence at Manas and Incirlik remains an unanswered question, this dedication to service will form lasting and meaningful relationships extending far beyond the terms of any lease. The 817th EAS is manned by the active duty and Reserve squadrons from McChord Field, and during this rotation, the primary unit was the 8th Airlift Squadron.

Following Kyrgyzstan's independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, education struggled immensely. Thriving education centers withered leaving barely a kernel of hope that they might one day re-open. One such casualty, an elementary school located roughly 30 miles from the Manas Transit Center, was abandoned and left to crumble.

After nearly fifteen years of sitting untouched, a group of teachers united and petitioned for any assistance they could find to re-open the school. Since then, volunteers from the 376th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron and the 817th EAS have adopted this school to help rebuild it. In the last few months, volunteers installed high-pressure drinking water pumps, doubled the number of useable classrooms, landscaped four acres of land, rebuilt a pool, and will soon complete another massive renovation that increases the school's capacity from 100 to 200 students.

In addition to Manas, members of the 817th EAS also continue to develop an extremely strong relationship with a local school for the deaf in Adana, Turkey. Even with the ban on sign-language being lifted in the mid-1990s, special needs children are often treated as outcasts and fall victim to extremely low levels of external interest and assistance. The 817th EAS visits the school about once a week to help paint, landscape and even serve as sign-language practice partners for the students.

Understandably, military interaction between the U.S. and the Kyrgyz Republic has remained minimal over the years. Despite these circumstances, the 817th EAS is able to share some aspects of the C-17 with the community. In June, deployed members of the 8th AS offered Kyrgyz government and media officials the opportunity to witness firsthand the C-17 perfoming an aerial refueling demonstration. After boarding a KC-135 stationed at Manas, they watched from just a few feet away as a C-17 conducted multiple contacts, also known as "plugs." Upon landing, the crew opened its doors and provided static tours to children, cadets and local leaders.

Highly visible service projects like these illustrate our desire to aid the Kyrgyz and Turkish people. Amongst the older population especially, the deep-seated mistrust of America, developed during the Cold War, softens each time we replace a brick at a school, sit bedside at a hospital, hold a child's hand at an orphanage, or invite people to see and touch the C-17. Asking how much longer the Kyrgyz Republic or Turkey will allow an American presence in their respective countries is only one question. Perhaps, instead, we should ask ourselves what we could do to further serve the people and their needs while the opportunities exist.