On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, sitting in a small Cessna about to go airborne, the pilot suddenly slowed the plane and aborted the takeoff. He said he had received orders that all flights had been grounded and that any airplanes that did not comply would be shot down by the Air Force.
The United States was under attack.
At the time, my job had been with the Arkansas Forest Inventory and Analysis survey program monitoring plots on the Mississippi Delta. I spent the rest of that day tracking my crews working in the field, and like the rest of the world, tried to comprehend the events as they unfolded.
A few years later, after seeing so many young soldiers lose their lives in Iraq, I had the urge to help in the fight against terrorism. That led me to join the U.S. Army Reserves and train as a military police officer. After receiving my commission as a second lieutenant, I joined a civil affairs battalion because I knew they were going to Afghanistan.
I studied the culture and natural resources in the area of the Paktya province in eastern Afghanistan [under Taliban control] prior to my deployment there in 2009. Access to this rugged, mountainous region is extremely difficult. As the only forester in my unit, I needed to understand what I could bring to the people of the province to help improve their lives. Forests in this mountainous region are very important to the local economies. Villagers had natural resources available to them, but those resources were depleting from heavy localized use and the impacts from more than 30 years of war. The possibility of bringing projects to the villages that the locals could take control of and use to supplement their low income became a popular idea.
But before I could help, I knew I needed to gain the trust of the local villagers, meaning I had to make the first move in good faith. I sought out the village elders and local leaders in each of my six assigned districts. My team and I set up weekly meetings with district sub-governors and, as time passed more and more elders came hoping to voice their villages’ needs. As I learned how the locals used the surrounding forests, the civil affairs teams began to introduce projects, including technical training in mechanics and masonry for young men, nursing training for young women, and instruction for tree plantings.
As a forester, I worked with local villagers to improve their lives and become self-sufficient. As a soldier in a war zone I was hit by improvised explosive devices – IEDs – rocketed, ambushed and sniped. I learned what it felt like to lose soldiers who were standing next to me to an enemy ambush. If I hadn’t trusted my gut instincts and completed my final mission in 2010 as scheduled, I would have been in the barracks at the time a suicide bomber attacked. Still, I decided on a second tour, from 2011 to 2012.
Why go back? Afghanistan needs help recuperating, and much of the expertise needed to manage the natural resources in that country has been lost. Like other countries, there is a need to focus on sustainability for the long term and provide the greatest benefit for the Afghan people.
Alberto Moreno is now a supervisory forester with the Rocky Mountain Research Station and is based in Ogden, Utah.