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Calls from Afghanistan

Retired Lt. Gen. John Bradley, former Air Force Reserve Command commander and chief of the Air Force Reserve, and his wife, Jan Bradley, visit Afghanistan, where they've begun building three schools for Afghan children. They also created the Lamia Foundation, named after a little girl Bradley met in 2007, which provides clothing and food to Afghan children in need. (U.S. Air Force/Courtesy photo)

Retired Lt. Gen. John Bradley, former Air Force Reserve Command commander and chief of the Air Force Reserve, and his wife, Jan Bradley, visit Afghanistan, where they've begun building three schools for Afghan children. They also created the Lamia Foundation, named after a little girl Bradley met in 2007, which provides clothing and food to Afghan children in need. (U.S. Air Force/Courtesy photo)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- For retired Lt. Gen. John Bradley, former commander of the Air Force Reserve Command and the 442nd Fighter Wing, Whiteman AFB, Mo., and his wife, Jan Bradley, a single deployment to Afghanistan was a life-changing event.

In December 2007, John Bradley was about to go on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan. He said he heard about a volunteer effort at Bagram Air Base (Afghanistan) that involved providing humanitarian aid to women and children who received medical care at a nearby base. This organization, called Operation Care, handed out humanitarian aid in their free time. Bradley said he wanted to get involved and help the organization.

So, in the months prior to his deployment, Bradley and his wife went through schools, churches and donation programs, including civilian thrift shops that sell gently used clothing.

"We brought it all home and began to fill my garage and my basement. We practically had a goodwill store going at my house," he said with a laugh. "Over the course of a few months, we had collected 40,000 pounds of donations and Jan had boxed up all the items almost entirely by herself."

As Bradley's deployment approached, he worked with reservists at a nearby aerial-port squadron who generated 14 pallets using the donations. The pallets then boarded a C-17 Globemaster III and headed to Afghanistan.

"The Denton program, named for a senator from Alabama, allows any nonprofit organization to use space-available military aircraft for transporting supplies to people in need," the general said. "That's the great thing about it - anyone can do it."

When Bradley arrived in Afghanistan a few months later, he spent a day working with Operation Care where he headed to a local village to pass out blankets, kites, jackets and other supplies to children.

That's when Bradley said he first saw the little girl pushing past a group of boys - something he said is unusual to see in Afghan culture.

Petite, 9-year-old Lamia approached the general and asked for nothing more of him than a pair of warm boots for the winter - a pair just like his. Bradley didn't have a pair of shoes for Lamia, but he promised he'd send her some when he returned to the U.S.

"When I got home I told Jan about her and showed her Lamia's photos," he said. "So we went out and bought four boxes of things for her - including four different sizes of boots because she didn't know what size she wore - and some blankets and sheets."

Bradley sent the boxes to Afghanistan and asked military members in the region for help delivering the items to the little girl. Lamia and her uncle returned to the base with the servicemembers, where they went in to a small shack that the office of special investigations worked out of. There, they fed her and her uncle and gave her the boxes to open. An interpreter read the letter to Lamia.

In it, the general wrote:

"I was glad to meet you, Lamia, and I will be back soon to see you."

When Bradley returned to Afghanistan in 2008 to visit the deployed members of the 303rd Fighter Squadron and 442nd Maintenance Group, he worked with local military members and Afghani police to find Lamia.

"A policeman in the area told me he had seen her out occasionally looking for firewood in the town. I don't know if it was true, but he also told me she hadn't eaten in three days," he said.
This time, Bradley and his wife had brought to Afghanistan 15 boxes of collected donations and a bicycle for Lamia.

"She was just thrilled with everything we gave her: A purse, clothing, even lotion - last time I was there, her face was very chapped - she was thrilled to see me too," he said.

A few months after he returned from Afghanistan, Bradley and his wife took a short trip to New York City. He was about to retire from the Air Force Reserve and the two were discussing their plans after retirement.

"We really wanted to devote the rest of our lives to helping the people of Afghanistan," Jan Bradley said.

She said she had grown to love the people she heard about each time her husband went on a deployment.

"I have an emotional attachment to these children in Afghanistan," she said. "Once you see the extreme poverty they live in, your maternal instinct just takes over. They don't know what they don't have, so they smile and they're happy."

The Bradleys have collected hundreds of pictures of children they've met over the years.

"They are all over us when we're there," the general said. "They have the most beautiful faces you've ever seen. Their faces may be filthy and dirty, but they are beautiful."

In 2008, the Bradleys decided to start a non-profit organization for Afghan children named after the little girl that inspired them. They called it the Lamia Foundation.

Since General Bradley's retirement in 2008, he and Jan Bradley have been back to Kabul, Afghanistan three times - most recently in May - and occassionally, they receive calls from Lamia and others they've met while overseas.

"Now, we try to go twice a year," he said. "We work with the military people on their off time to hand out stuff there. We are just trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people."

Education, the Bradleys said, is the single most important thing they can do to make a different in Afghanistan. They said they believe this so much in fact that the Lamia Foundation is currently in the process of building three schools southeast and east of Kabul. Two of the schools, they said, will be for female students only while the third will be for underprivileged students currently attending a nonreligious school in a mosque.

John and Jan Bradley said they realize the risks involved with building an Afghani school.

"Some schools have been attacked," the general said, "but we believe the areas we're building these schools in are relatively safe. We're asking the villages to protect schools and have them locally maintained and secured. We believe the elders (believe in our cause enough) that they will protect them. The reality is, there is always a threat. "

But the education the children will receive, the Bradleys said, far exceeds the risks.

"If they can read, write and think for themselves, they will be less susceptible to extremism," Jan Bradley said. "They will have more opportunities for growth and free will.
They'll be able to say, 'I can be a carpenter, engineer or doctor! I can read and understand math.' Women will know how to read labels on medicine and know how to better take care of their children."

John Bradley said he knows it will take a while to change the culture in Afghanistan, but the difference it will make is immeasurable. Even domestic violence toward women, which is a prominent concern in the Middle East could be greatly reduced by educating children and women.

"Educated girls eventually become mothers," he said. "Women have a great influence on children's education - particularly boys since they grow up to be men. Educated boys will know how to treat women right."

Women, Jan Bradley added, will also attain more freedom to make their own choices because they will have more options with their education and careers.

Although the Bradleys work primarily with educating women and children, they said they have an even greater vision.

They said they are currently working on several projects with hopes of bettering living conditions in Afghanistan. They are now members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, which Jan Bradley said empowers women throughout the country. Additionally, they are working with a project to provide travel sewing machines and fabric to women and train them to sew in order to create a business selling items at the local bazaars.

"We are also working on a soybean project," she said. "In the project, farmers are trained to plant soybeans, which are a sustainable agricultural product for them. This is a great thing because it will directly address the country's problem with severe malnutrition."

John and Jan Bradley have been working with universities and nonprofit organizations to gather donations to bring on future trips to the Middle East. In the past two-and-a-half years they have shipped 500,000 pounds of humanitarian aid donations to Afghanistan.

The greatest need, Jan Bradley said, is for school supplies.

"Kids there sit on the ground or in old shipping containers and go to schools in crumbling buildings," she said. "Kids may have a pencil and two or three sheets of paper, but that's it. The kids love toys, but a kid will turn down a toy or a pair of shoes for a pencil and a piece of paper. What does that tell you about the burning desire of these children to learn? A lot!"

Jan Bradley said her dream is to build partnerships with U.S. schools and get the kids involved in what's going on around the world. Students completing secondary education in Afghanistan want to be like high school students in the U.S., she said.

"They want to know about America and American students," she said. "The students in Afghanistan are kind, generous, patient and extremely hard working. You don't get to hear these stories because you only hear about the suicide bombings. You don't hear about the wonderful projects going on over there."

The Bradleys have not forgotten their roots. Ultimately, the general said, making Afghanistan a better place for the people, will also make it a better place for the U.S. troops on the ground.

"A while ago, a Navy chaplain e-mailed Jan from his deployment," Bradley said. "He told us how he was stationed at a remote location in Afghanistan with some Marines who hadn't been able to take showers in five or six weeks, so he was asking if we could send some baby wipes to them."

Sending a few boxes of baby wipes wasn't enough for the Bradleys. Instead, they solicited donations and received 8,000 pounds of baby wipes.

"Fed Ex helped us out by sending them to Atlanta, and then when military air wasn't available, DHL sent them overseas, at no cost to us, to Camp Leatherneck," John
Bradley said proudly. "It makes us feel very good. We want to do anything we can to help our folks and make their lives a little better. I just can't imagine going that long without a shower.

"The work with the Afghan people is helping win hearts and mind, maintaining security, building a better government and will hopefully bring our troops home sooner."

Jan Bradley said their ultimate goal is for the Afghan people to have self-respect and peace.

"The country has been through 31 years of war," she said. "For some people, that's all they know - oppression and illiteracy. The people of Afghanistan are no different than anyone else in the world. They want to live in peace, have a roof over their head, a good job, clean water, medical care and an opportunity for their children to be educated."

For more information on the Lamia Foundation or to find out how to donate visit www.LamiaFoudation.org or search Lamia Foundation on Facebook.