U.S. Air Force Maj. Benjamin Schumacher understands Afghanistan better than most Americans. He was selected and trained to be an expert on all things Afghan—the language, customs, culture, government, and military—in his advisory role with the Afghanistan–Pakistan Hands Program under the Joint Staff.
The AFPAK Hands Program grew out of the need for a counterinsurgency strategy, not just to defeat the enemy, but also to create the right conditions for a peaceful society and civil governance.
“The mission there is more complex than just achieving victory and leaving,” Schumacher said. “You have to establish security.”
Of Schumacher’s three deployments to Afghanistan (prior to which he also served in Iraq), two of them were AFPAK Hands deployments. His job was to be among a cadre of personnel who understood the complexities of how Afghan society works and to put that understanding to use by providing expertise in financial, organizational, and resource management to the Afghan government, military, and security forces.
“You have to have a certain mentality to be able to help," he said. "You have to be a good communicator, listener, and collaborator. You need to have open mind and work with them as partners and equals.”
In his advisory role, Schumacher traveled to various locations throughout Afghanistan and worked closely with the locals at each destination. During this time, he cultivated many personal relationships and became more immersed in Afghan culture, from which he developed an affinity for the Afghan people and a heart for serving their needs in that war-torn country. He sought out ways to help, and through the Air Force chaplain’s office, was connected with Missionaries of Charity, the organization founded by Mother Teresa.
“There’s obviously a lot of poverty and people in need [in Afghanistan], and the chaplain’s office already had a lot of connections to various charities that support the locals and establish good relationships. For me, it was something extra—an opportunity to volunteer, to give back.”
It was also an opportunity to get participation from the homefront, specifically, his daughter's Girl Scout troop. They worked together to have clothes, toys, school supplies, and other items sent to help supply an orphanage and school for the disabled in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“It was very positive for her and her friends in her troop," Schumacher said. "For children who wonder, ‘What’s my dad doing so far away?,’ this is a good way for them to know that their parents aren't just going into a black hole, so to speak—that their dads and moms are carrying out an important mission and that the kids have a way that they could help, too.”