Winter has arrived in Michigan. In weather very similar to that of Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, I have come from the cold and entered the cold. My leave taking of Afghanistan is nearly complete. I am home physically. However, parts of me are still embedded in the U.S. military unit of soldiers, airmen and warriors. I was told by many of my friends in Afghanistan that the return home would be difficult.

It is.

We servicemen use the word decompression so that one may enter once again the civilian world that we were once comfortable with.

I am back at my USDA career. I chose to stay busy rather than take time off. My supervisors here in East Lansing have been gracious: “Take as much time as you need before coming back to work.” So I have chosen to be busy rather than figure out what to do with a lot of down time.

I often state that what was important to me was completing my tasks while in Afghanistan. I had the primary task of teaching the Comprehensive Agricultural Class, then to some extent representing the U.S. government as a Contracting Officer Technical Representative. Thirdly, I provided our commanders with agricultural assessments during my nine-month assignment.


We delivered 110 certificates of completion for the ag course, and I felt that made a big difference so that when they went home, they would understood some of the science behind agricultural production as they talked with farmers in their villages. As it were, the next-to-last lesson was one of extension which answered the question, “Now that you have learned these skills, how do you take them back to your communities?”

At the end of my assignment, I visited with the Afghanistan Minister of Agriculture, and on the last day in country, I said goodbye to the U.S. Ambassador at the U.S. Embassy. My unit, the Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team, all 70-some of them, bid me farewell before I left for Kabul. As a sign of solidarity with the unit, I will wear my desert army combat boots until mid-April when they all return home to Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.

My wife, Sandy, wrote to me nearly every day using e-mail. She kept up the house, paid the bills and still worked full time. Often soldiers will tell you that the spouse at home in the states has a difficult job too, and I agree.

My supervisor Kevin Wickey at NRCS is now the State Conservationist in West Virginia. He was not home when I reported for work on February 1. But he did call me the next day and welcomed me back from my assignment. He hired me, encouraged and supported my career, and he told me to not be afraid to stay in touch. I will do so.

For my office colleagues, nearly all part of the Ecological Sciences Staff here at the NRCS state office, they welcomed me home too. And they reported that they were glad I survived, and they were happy I can take back from them some of my assignments that I did routinely before leaving in April 2006.

I called my two sons, and they are fine, as is my sister and brother living in Washington State. On a sad note my father, Jack Gangwer, died during my travel through Dubai and Europe on my way home. Dad has been in an extended care facility and hospice care for quite awhile after having been diagnosed and treated for brain cancer about three years ago. He was 78 years old and fully knew that he was ready for the next part of the journey. He was a Christian man with a solid belief. I am quite different from my father, but there are many parts of me that are just like him. I think that’s the case for everyone really.

I have written this column for about 15 years now, and in these columns are recorded the travels to many places in the world. I have had the privilege of working in remote areas in some of the poorest parts of the world. My Afghanistan assignment was a lengthy one and like every other assignment, I am changed. I’m not sure to what extent yet.

But if you will, write to a soldier somewhere and tell him or her that you are grateful for his or her service in a foreign land. When a helicopter is downed or a street battle is fought, think of these soldiers’ service so that we can be safe here. Despite whatever one’s politics may be, the soldier on the ground or in a combat airframe is doing his or her job, one day at a time, until those desert combat boots are taken off for the last time. PD