Two years ago, farmers in a district of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, harvested poppies that dotted the countryside, ready to turn them into opium and ship them around the globe, feeding the drug trade and lining the pockets of the Taliban.
Today on that same countryside, farmers are harvesting the world’s most expensive spice—saffron—and helping deny the Taliban funds from the sale of drugs, which drives a wedge between the insurgents and the local population, and aids the U.S. military in its counterinsurgency mission.
The saffron was provided by Spirit of America, a nonprofit organization that provides needed resources—everything from wheelchairs and school supplies to farming tools and sewing machines—to help U.S. troops aid the Afghan people.
Army Sergeant Major James McDowell stood in one of those poppy-dotted fields in Helmand Province and saw a problem—the poppies were propping up the Taliban in the village. He had heard of Spirit of America after the nonprofit helped other troops in Afghanistan and thought the organization could help. But he wasn’t sure how exactly to wean the farmers off the poppy crop.
So McDowell, 49, of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, went to the farmers themselves looking for a solution. “I said to one of the farmers, ‘Aren’t you tired of the Taliban…?’” remembered McDowell, who is currently stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“He got a little angry. It hurt his pride. He had never thought about how they were abused by the Taliban.” McDowell, who is as humble as he is good natured and quick-witted, asked the elders and farmers if there was another crop they could grow in the often inhospitable terrain. The crop would have to meet certain important criteria. It would have to require little water, a scarce resource in Afghanistan, it would have to be hardy and able to grow in southern Afghanistan’s soil, and, above all, it would have to be profitable to make it worth the farmers’ efforts.
Was there such a crop? Yes, said the farmers—saffron, a crop many had learned to grow in Iran, where some had fled after the initial Allied invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
“Being the astute New Yorker that I am, I said, ‘What is saffron?’” McDowell said of the crocus-like plant that is made into the world’s most expensive spice. About six months after his exchange with the elders and farmers, McDowell, who was selected in 2007 as a CNN hero, says shovels and other tools started to pour in. Soon after that, Afghans were unloading boxes of 40,000 saffron bulbs and planting them in the dirt, thanks to Spirit of America. Forty thousand bulbs soon became 80,000, and after awhile there were about a million.
“Now instead of poppy, I see saffron,” McDowell said. “It’s changed the entire agricultural balance in Afghanistan.”
Afghans in that section of Helmand have changed their perspective on the U.S. troops there. They are no longer viewed as foreign occupiers. They are, instead, partners.
“Spirit of America is quite an organization…. Spirit of America backs the Afghan people through the [troops],” said McDowell.
Scenes like the one recounted by McDowell, are hardly rare instances of the work of Spirit of America, founded after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Marine Captain Ken Bomongcag, a civil affairs officer with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment stationed in Nawa since May, counts at least three projects made possible through Spirit of America, including the shipment of sewing machines that Afghan widows use to make and mend clothing to earn money and a full-scale television production suite that, once up and running, will allow the local government to air public affairs shows.
One item Spirit of America shipped stands out. Bomongcag remembers watching as about a dozen wheelchairs were distributed to those who needed them.
“Many people were either carried in or they crawled in. Some were brought in wheelbarrows. They really needed the wheelchairs, and our team was able to assemble them on the spot. It’s something I won’t forget because the people had a strong need for them,” said Bomongcag, 31, who is originally from Redwood Shores, California, but lives in Northern Virginia.
Susi, 49, of Long Island, New York, believes strongly in Spirit of America’s mission.
“I think what Spirit of America does is convey exactly what its name says. It’s about more than war; it’s about what we do in peace. It recognizes that the key to preventing future conflict whether in Iraq or Afghanistan is that the people are educated about what the world is like outside of their country and what America really means,” Carusi said.
Conveying that to Afghans was the job of Gus Biggio, a major in the Marine Corps Reserve and a self-described shutterbug who served as a civil affairs officer with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, in Nawa in 2009.
Biggio showed Afghans what it was like to have their photo taken, most for the first time, and along the way got to know the people whose photos he was taking, often with donated exposures of Polaroid film sent to Afghanistan by Spirit of America.
“When we first got there people were cautious and reserved. But we had an excellent group of interpreters, and I’d say, ‘Explain to this guy that I’m going to take a picture of him [for me] to keep and then take another one for him to keep.’ As they started seeing the picture develop they were impressed and intrigued. But the faces they would make were stern and unsmiling,” Biggio said.
So, Biggio, 39, who walked the mostly dirt and gravel roads in Nawa, sometimes in 115-degree heat, retook the picture.
“A lot of faces just beaming from ear to ear,” he said.
Smiling Afghan partners like those photographed by Biggio are significant signs of progress, not just friendly faces, troops say.
And it is Spirit of America’s mission to continue to aid in that progress.
Michael Catalini is a contributing editor at the Baltimore Sun and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University studying government.