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A U.S. forester in Afghanistan

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Share the Experience Grand Prize Winner Katherine Hawkins Bridger's photo taken during a camping trip to the Teton National Forest.

Alberto Moreno, a U.S. Forest Service supervisory forester, stands in the Spin Ghar Mountain
range at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Khyber Pass, known as one of the
oldest mountain passes in the world. (Photo courtesy Alberto Moreno)

Posted by: Alberto Moreno, Rocky Mountain Research Station, U.S. Forest Service


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 infamous day tracking my crews working in the field, and like the rest of the world, tried to comprehend the events of the day.

 

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.

 

Share the Experience Grand Prize Winner Katherine Hawkins Bridger's photo taken during a camping trip to the Teton National Forest.

The view of Afghanistan for Albert Moreno focused on natural resources, such as this
comfier-junior stand in the Jaji District of that country. Moreno, now a U.S. Forest Service
supervisory forester, served two tours in Afghanistan and worked with locals to show
them how their forests can work for them. (Photo courtesy Alberto Moreno)

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.

 

Share the Experience Grand Prize Winner Katherine Hawkins Bridger's photo taken during a camping trip to the Teton National Forest.

An Army unit makes their way to Dangdang village in Pakistan, a 2,000-foot climb to more than
8,000 feet above sea level. U.S. Forest Service supervisory forester Alberto Moreno, part of
that unit, served two tours in Afghanistan working with locals to help develop projects that
will enhance their natural surroundings and boost the local economy.
(Photo courtesy Alberto Moreno)

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.

US Forest Service
Last modified September 11, 2013
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