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NEWS | Oct. 31, 2007

Spreading education: Reservist helps build university in Afghanistan

By Staff Sgt. Jeff Kelly 315th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

As a Charleston reservist sat across the table from the Afghan foreign minister in Kabul, Afghanistan, she wondered to herself, "How did an ordinary girl from Oklahoma end up here?"

Senior Master Sgt. Linda Sturgeon, 315th Mission Support Squadron chief of education and training, was deployed for six months to Kabul, Afghanistan, and assigned to the National Military Academy of Afghanistan. Although she might think of herself as an "ordinary girl from Oklahoma," her accomplishments in war-torn Afghanistan reveal her as someone much more extraordinary.

Representatives from the Army's West Point Military Academy and the Army Reserve have taken on the task of developing a four-year degree awarding military university in Kabul, Afghanistan, that will mirror the standards of West Point. Sergeant Sturgeon served as a liaison for the English department at the institution and was the only Air Force representative imbedded with the Army team.

"I worked as a liaison, but we wore so many different hats that we all had more than one job," said Sergeant Sturgeon.

Sergeant Sturgeon kept an eye on the National Military Academy cadets while they were in field training, monitored cadets during rifle training, assisted in procuring funds for the hiring of additional teachers and even scavenged supplies and uniforms from wherever she could. This already sounds like a full schedule, but it only scratches the surface of what she was responsible for and was able to accomplish while she was there.

While performing her primary job, Sergeant Sturgeon worked directly with the university's English department procuring books and supplies for new students, and was instrumental in starting the process of obtaining a second English laboratory for the school.

She also processed visa and passport applications for a 15-member team of cadets who traveled to America to compete in the Sandhurst Competition held at West Point in Pennsylvania. The Sandhurst Competition is a military tactics contest that military academies from around the world compete in annually.

However, one of the most admirable feats she accomplished while deployed was assisting with the raising of funds to hire four additional English teachers for the university. Two of the four teachers hired were women -- which is a huge step forward for the school and for women's rights in Afghanistan.

Less than 25 percent of all teachers in Afghanistan are female, and the estimated literacy rate for females there is around 15 percent. Every female that is allowed into the education system in Afghanistan, whether as a student or as a teacher, is helping to narrow the educational gender gap there.

"It was great to see the women hired," said Sergeant Sturgeon. "To watch the process of them being hired and being groomed into good professors was fantastic."

Sergeant Sturgeon also volunteered to go out on humanitarian missions to remote villages in Afghanistan to help Afghani people who lived in poverty. Many times when traveling on these missions, the humanitarian teams had to rely on Afghani security for protection, which could be unsettling at times.

"It was a little unnerving, but very worthwhile," said Sergeant Sturgeon. "Seeing kids with no shoes and frostbitten toes running up to us and us giving them shoes, even if they didn't fit, or a shirt or coat, or even a doll, meant so much to them."

Sergeant Sturgeon thought of her own grandchildren while bringing supplies to the local children. Helping the people of Afghanistan by volunteering for these missions had an important effect on the local populace, but it provided a benefit for Sergeant Sturgeon as well. Being able to see the remote mountain villages gave her a better understanding of the types of situations many of the National Military Academy students lived in before attending the school.

"When many of the students received word that they were chosen to come to the university, they had no transportation, so they would walk from their towns to Kabul ... which could take weeks sometimes," said Sergeant Sturgeon. "It is a totally different culture and way of life. They were so happy to be clothed and to be able to shower and have electricity."

The deployment was a positive one for Sergeant Sturgeon and that fact is recognizable as soon as she begins talking about her experiences there. She displayed a broad, proud smile for nearly an hour as she recounted her memories of the people she met in a volatile country 7,500 miles away from home.

"I was so honored to get to know them because they were so thankful to all of us Americans," said Sergeant Sturgeon. "Getting to know their culture, because they were so personable, was the highlight of the entire trip. I was one of the few people there who was able to interact with the Afghani people. They were so respectful and so thankful that we were there."

The Army leadership Sergeant Sturgeon was imbedded with showed their thanks for the amazing job she performed by nominating her for four medals. She was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon with a gold border for her diligent service while deployed.

While the medals were very much appreciated, Sergeant Sturgeon believes that the knowledge she helped some very deserving people is the true reward for her time spent in Afghanistan.