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Hill commander leads the way in Afghanistan

Members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team check on the progress of a school construction project Aug. 4 in the Paryan district of Panjshir Province, Afghanistan.  Once completed, the school will accommodate children from several villages in the province. The children are currently attending classes in makeshift tents overlooking the construction site.  The project is one of several being monitored by the PRT.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

Members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team check on the progress of a school construction project Aug. 4 in the Paryan district of Panjshir Province, Afghanistan. Once completed, the school will accommodate children from several villages in the province. The children are currently attending classes in makeshift tents overlooking the construction site. The project is one of several being monitored by the PRT. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

Teresa Morales and 1st Lt. Lee Turcotte discuss the progress of a school construction project with contractors Aug. 4 in the Paryan district of Panjshir Province, Afghanistan.  Ms. Morales, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed from Portland, Ore., and Lieutenant Turcotte, a civil engineer from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., are members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team. The school project is one of several being monitored by the PRT. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

Teresa Morales and 1st Lt. Lee Turcotte discuss the progress of a school construction project with contractors Aug. 4 in the Paryan district of Panjshir Province, Afghanistan. Ms. Morales, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed from Portland, Ore., and Lieutenant Turcotte, a civil engineer from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., are members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team. The school project is one of several being monitored by the PRT. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team director Ben Lowenthal (left) listens in Aug. 4 as Senior Master Sgt. Roger Smith and Teresa Morales discuss the concrete joints being used at a school construction project in Afghanistan. Ms. Morales, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is deployed from Portland, Ore. Sergeant Smith is deployed from Langley Air Force Base, Va. Once completed the school will accommodate children from several villages in the province. The children are currently attending classes in makeshift tents overlooking the construction site. The project is one of several being monitored by the PRT in the Paryan district of Panjshir province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team director Ben Lowenthal (left) listens in Aug. 4 as Senior Master Sgt. Roger Smith and Teresa Morales discuss the concrete joints being used at a school construction project in Afghanistan. Ms. Morales, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is deployed from Portland, Ore. Sergeant Smith is deployed from Langley Air Force Base, Va. Once completed the school will accommodate children from several villages in the province. The children are currently attending classes in makeshift tents overlooking the construction site. The project is one of several being monitored by the PRT in the Paryan district of Panjshir province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi)

PANJSHIR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (AFPN) -- Whether crawling over dirt mounds to inspect a school, hiking mountains 9,000 feet above sea level or handing out stuffed animals, members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team are pushing progress in Afghanistan. 

"It's a very unique job," said Lt. Col. Christopher Luedtke, PRT commander who deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. "No day is ever the same here in the Hindu Kush."

A combined team of Airmen, Soldiers, U.S. civilians and Afghans make up this PRT north of Kabul. They support the construction of micro hydro plants for electricity generation, new roads, bridges, wells, schools, district centers and even a radio station through Task Force Cincinnatus, Combined Joint Task Force-82 and the International Security Assistance Force. Since 2005, a Panjshir PRT has delivered radios, cement, humanitarian and medical aid throughout the province.

It's a job that requires lots of energy, said Teresa Morales, an Army Corps of Engineers civil engineer, who visits the various construction sites. She climbs over piles of bricks and bounds up partially-constructed stairs to conduct inspections of PRT-funded projects.

"I try to be as thorough as possible during the inspections," she said. "Sometimes that takes up a lot of time, but it's important because the earlier you spot potential problems, the easier it is to fix them."

The construction projects are funded by the PRT, but contracted to Afghan businesses. This means all the work is done by the Afghans themselves.

"That is a win-win situation," said Colonel Luedtke, who added that all projects are worked through the local district managers and other officials. "The Afghans have control over the project and they build it themselves, which instills pride too. They invest the time into it, so they want the project done right."

Of course, doing something right takes a little bit of time. When a need is brought to the attention of the local officials and the PRT, it can take about six to nine months for a project's completion. The PRT helps with contract negotiation, planning, inspecting and the gathering of resources. But it is the Afghans who put it all together.

"For a long time they used clay for their buildings," said Ms. Morales, "so the buildings weren't built to last. Since we're supplying them with bricks and cement now, the workers have had to adapt to the new material."

First Lt. Lee Turcotte, a civil engineering officer from McGuire AFB, N.J., said he and Ms. Morales are impressed with the Afghans' work.

"They work very quickly," he said, pointing out that all the work needs to be completed before the winter comes, which can be very harsh in the Hindu Kush. "They listen to our recommendations too. They are proud of their work, and they should be. These schools, bridges and micro hydros are very important to them."

When not visiting construction sites, the PRT members also are providing humanitarian and medical aid for the local citizens. The Panjshir PRT benchmarked a cement self-help program. Loads of cement are delivered to local district centers for distribution on community projects. The team also may load donkeys with rice, tea and personal hygiene kits to be carried over mountains to remote villages.

"We always try to bring something to the places we go," said Capt. Kevin Kubly, medical officer for the PRT who is deployed from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. "There is always a need for whatever we can bring."

In all, more than $30 million in projects have been spearheaded by Panjshir PRT to increase Afghans' capacity for governance, security and development.

Whether PRT members are on a hill in a high mountain village to meet with local elders and leaders, or driving along to a construction site, they always make the effort to establish relationships with the people they contact.

"If I'm waiting around at a site and I notice a couple kids, I'll go over and talk to them," said Senior Airman David Weidman, who is deployed from Altus AFB, Okla., and provides transportation for the team. "I'll hand out pens or candy and try my best to communicate with them."

Colonel Luedtke said he's most impressed with how his Airmen have adapted to the unique mission at the PRT.

"Where in the Air Force do we train specifically for this kind of work?" he asked. "The truth is, there is no specialized PRT training. Everything we do is based on the basics of all those leadership classes and lessons we get along the way in our military career," he said.

"All of us came here with specialized knowledge about our career fields, but at the end of the day it comes down to all of us trusting each other, respecting each other, doing our best every day and instilling a can-do attitude to solve ill-defined challenges."