Special Assignment: Growing Hope

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Thursday, May 5, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga.--- Members of Georgia's Army National Guard left Augusta for Afghanistan last week to begin a unique mission. They're heading to one of the most dangerous places in the world with a weapon in one hand and a shovel in the other. It's a mission aimed squarely at growing hope.

They are engineers, teachers, veterinarians, marketing experts and farmers. They are also fathers and sons and soldiers.

Col. Bill Williams III commands Augusta's 201st Regional Support Group.

"Standing before you is America's best and Georgia's finest," Williams tells a crowd of friends and family gathered in a gym at Fort Gordon.

The men and women are all hand picked for a unique mission in Afghanistan.

Carl Chandler looks like he would be more comfortable riding on a tractor than he does stand here in uniform.

"Um, my family's been farming for five or six generations now, so I grew up doin' it," he says.

Chandler is from Commerce, Georgia. He may only be 22 years old, but he's had a lifetime to learn about making things grow.

"I've been doing it since I could walk, basically."

Now, he'll get to do it for a nation that's been struggling to find its own footing through war after war. Afghanistan has lost generations of farmers and the knowledge they once had.

That's where some specialized training comes into play. The team got a crash course in agriculture, courtesy of The University Of Georgia. They put the troops through some unusual paces. From clipping hooves to milking cows. This mission requires it. But there's a risk involved here too. In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban controls every aspect of life including what people grow. Trying to change that can be fatal.

Dr. Steve Brown understands that. His team at UGA knows what a tough challenge it will be.

"You're over there, fighting a war against a very serious enemy but at the same time you're trying to build the country. To stabilize the country," Brown says.

Master Sergeant Dale Simpson says it's a perfect mission for these citizen soldiers from Georgia.

"As you know, we've been at war for going on 11 years," Simpson says. "We can go head to head with these guys but we'll be there for a long, long time if we try to do that. So what we're gonna do is go right to the people. The people are the battlefield and we're gonna win the people over and deny the battlefield to the enemy."

It's even more personal than that to the young farmer from Commerce. Carl Chandler says it's about giving back.

"It is. I love it. I've had people help me out on my farm when I started out, whenever I was younger. Just gettin' started out and having advice and everything and people were there for me. It's a good chance to help people out and return the favor."

They'll do it a long way from home, in a place where the Georgia state flag is often considered an enemy flag. Helping people who may never see these rolling hills of Georgia, but who may one day, share in its bounty.

The 201st is the first National Guard unit from Georgia to do this kind of work, but it won't be the last. The soldiers will be there for a year, or one growing season. The next group of soldier-farmers will start training at UGA this fall.

They unit even learned some of the local language. That's part of the training too. They taught them to say "assalamu aliaikum" which means peace be upon you.

They're all hoping this remains a peaceful mission.

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