VASILIEVKA, Kyrgyzstan – The youngsters at Solnyshko preschool in this impoverished village near the border of Kazakhstan were excited to see the American men and women from the nearby air base.They giggled and clapped their hands. Fidgeted in their seats. And waited as patiently as any preschooler is able when the promise of gifts and perhaps even candy is just a few formalities away.
“They’re always happy when the Americans come,” the school’s principal, Manzura Kushbaeva, said through an interpreter.
But it didn’t start out that way.
The volunteers, many of them on deployment in Kyrgyzstan from Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, have been making regular trips to the run-down village, dropping off desperately needed humanitarian supplies or helping with ongoing refurbishment of the deteriorated Soviet-era elementary school.
“Each time we’ve been here they’ve been a little less timid,” said 1st Lt. Andrew Hardy, a KC-135 co-pilot based at Fairchild who is nearing the end of his first Kyrgyzstan deployment. “At first, they wouldn’t hang out with us. Now, they’re holding our hands.”
The humanitarian mission, a blend of formal U.S. foreign aid and volunteer efforts of military servicemen and women, has become an increasingly important focus for the Manas Transit Center, a strategic supply and refueling route for NATO operations in nearby Afghanistan.
American distrust runs deep in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic struggling with internal political turmoil pitting pro-Moscow hard-liners against pro-democracy reformers. The hard-liners are wary of the U.S. military presence; the reformers have been more open to American help and interaction.
The country itself is struggling, too.
Poverty is rampant. The average family income is the equivalent of $440 a year, according to the U.S. State Department. Roads and other critical infrastructure, most of which was built by the Russians prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, are deteriorating from lack of maintenance. Amenities such as indoor plumbing remain a luxury.
The people of Kyrgyzstan, however, continue to hold on.
The Solnyshko preschool is an example.
A former elementary school abandoned in 1991 following the Soviet collapse, it was reopened as a preschool in 2003 by Kushbaeva, whose family members are helping repair the sturdy-looking two-story brick building.
Enough has been restored to serve 75 students, ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 7, but at least half of the building remains largely unusable. Windows are missing. Floors and interior framing, unprotected from the elements for two decades, have rotted.
Drinking water is drawn from a hose dangled into a large cistern behind the school, and students must traipse into the backyard to use a brick outhouse even during Kyrgyzstan’s notoriously harsh winters.
Yet the school has a waiting list of families wanting their children to be enrolled.
“When they go on to kindergarten and elementary school from here they already can read and write, and speak two languages (Krygyz and Russian),” Kushbaeva said. “The teachers in kindergarten want them as their students because they are so prepared.”
Many of the students spend 10 or more hours a day at the preschool because their parents must commute to Bishkek, more than an hour away on rough roads, to work.
On Monday, the Manas volunteers traversed the deteriorating and washed-out roads to Vasilievka in vans loaded with winter coats and blankets donated by hundreds of Spokane-area churches and families, many of them with ties to Russia, as part of a drive organized by KHQ-TV.
The youngsters stood in line to get fitted for coats, then played in the schoolyard with balloons brought by the volunteers. Blankets and stuffed toys were put in the nap room, and extra coats were set aside for family members and other needy residents of the small village.
Kushbaeva showed the volunteers the progress made since their last visit. She also put in a request for any writing paper they might be able to spare, explaining that while she’s got enough crayons and writing instruments for each of the students, paper is tougher to come by.
Earlier, the base was able to arrange for $10,000 in new windows to be installed in refurbished portions of the building.
In a village where dirt roads are regularly traversed by donkey-drawn carts and many of the houses appear to be falling apart, the school stands out as a fixture of hope.
“Every crew that comes out here goes to the schools,” Capt. Aaron Sands, a Fairchild-based KC-135 pilot deployed at Manas, said while taking a break from inflating balloons for eager kids. “It’s kind of cool.”
Humanitarian aid is now among the designated missions of the air base and is expected to triple in the coming year, said Col. Dwight Sones, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing.
More than 50 humanitarian projects involving Manas personnel already are approved for next year, said Major Eliott Safdie, who oversees the base’s Theater Security Cooperation division. Among them are major improvements to a women’s shelter and Bishkek’s school for the deaf.
Although base commanders openly acknowledge that they hope the efforts improve America’s image among the Kyrgyz population, and that it demonstrates the U.S. military’s appreciation for allowing use of the air base, there’s a purpose that goes beyond the potential for political benefit.
It helps keep servicemen and women balanced and prepared for their eventual return to civilian life, said Chaplain Lt. Col. Richard Dickinson, who helps coordinate volunteer efforts at Manas.
Wartime deployment requires servicemen and women develop “warrior” mindsets, the mental preparation necessary to carry out their roles and assignments, Dickinson said. But at some point, they’ll return home, and Dickinson said he’s convinced that volunteering for humanitarian missions eases the transition from one mindset to the next.
“One of the appeals of the humanitarian mission is it gives every serviceman the opportunity to help,” the chaplain said, “to get off base and hold an orphan or a cancer patient.”
Regardless of whether the volunteer efforts ever produce a political advantage, Dickinson said, they provide a needed military benefit for the men and women who are asked to make monumental wartime sacrifices.
For the Manas volunteers, the experience has left a lifelong impression.
“In my life, with college and my military focus, I’ve been pretty lousy when it comes to community service,” said Hardy, the Fairchild tanker co-pilot. “But this has been pretty rewarding. I’ll definitely be looking at more volunteer opportunities when I get back.”