The Daily Astorian's reporter Tom Bennett has returned home from Afghanistan to report on the National Guard and other soldiers with North Coast and Oregon connections serving there. This is his final dispatch.

Two loud booms echo out from the top of a nearby mountain. A squad of American soldiers patrolling a neighborhood jump down into a sunken road for cover until they can find out who's responsible for the explosions.

The children tagging along with the troops pay no attention to the commotion, and keep up their pleas of "mister, mister - chocolate?" until they're shooed away.

A large group of women and children crowd the entrance to a temporary medical clinic hosted outside Kabul. Virtually all are wearing blue burkhas, the all-covering garments that became a symbol of oppression under the fundamentalist Taliban, and which are still common today in this conservative Muslim country.

A photographer prepares to snap photos of the crowd, expecting them to turn away and hide themselves. Instead, many lift their children up for the camera.

An Afghan interpreter accompanying a group of American soldiers on patrol grumbles "I hate kids" after chasing away yet another pack of children demanding candy - then gently gives first-aid to a frightened young girl with an injured thumb.

Welcome to Afghanistan.

"Diablo," the interpreter at Camp Phoenix outside Kabul, gives some advice to a group of troops heading out on a foot patrol around the base.

"You need to keep in mind to respect the culture - you don't have to yell and scream at people," he said. "You can't win hearts and minds by yelling at people and pointing weapons at them."

The patrols are part security sweep, part hearts-and-minds effort, aimed both at creating goodwill among local citizens and enlisting their help in keeping tabs on suspicious individuals.

The troops prove good ambassadors on their three-hour patrol, but for every friendly child waving or giving the thumbs-up, there's another demanding candy or money or pens, until it's easy to understand that almost as quickly as they've learned the universal greeting "salaam" - peace - and "tasha kuhr," or thank you, soldiers also pick up "burra, burra," the local equivalent of "scram."

Traveling through crowded Kabul during rush hour, worries about suicide bombers are briefly displaced when a small Toyota is spotted with what appears to be a young boy behind the wheel. Looking closer, one sees he's sitting in his father's lap, and with good reason - there are 12 adults and kids packed into the vehicle.

("How many Afghans can fit into a car? Always one more," is the standard joke among Americans.)

Some odd imagesEfforts to bring the troops a taste of home create some odd images, like in the mess halls where the soldiers, their weapons at their sides, dig into their meals surrounded by paper Easter bunnies. (The troops are quick to rate the offerings at the dining halls of various bases, even though they're all run by the same contractor).

The monotony of the mess hall is broken by fast food outlets selling Blizzards and Big Macs, and office shelves and tables are loaded with cookies, coffee and other contents of care packages sent from home.

In some cases the supply is so heavy that soldiers give away the excess to local Afghans. But at the same time many also worry that Afghanistan has become America's "forgotten war" in the bitter national debate over Iraq.

Some National Guard members say their bosses eagerly supported their first trips overseas, but are less enthusiastic facing the disruptions at work as the soldiers head out on their second or even third deployments.

A caring missionThen there's the impact on service members and their families back home. Army National Guard chaplain Lt. Dennis Stahlwecker of Albany hears it firsthand.

"The soldiers come to me to vent," he said. "There have been people who have received 'Dear John' letters, who have had divorces - that's difficult for me to see."

Other soldiers in Afghanistan see combat alongside the Afghan National Army troops they're training, and admit they relish the adrenaline rush that comes with being under fire - even one soldier who admitted that his mother thinks he's working as a mechanic far from the front lines.

As a chaplain, Stahlwecker doesn't even carry a weapon - something that worried him when he first arrived in the country last year. But like other members of the military he learned to adjust.

"I go out with the troops in town," he said. "Sometimes I'm nervous, but it also builds my faith."

Dean Perez of Astoria worked closely with Afghan Army soldiers during his first tour in 2004-05, but was assigned to administrative work for his second tour with relatively little contact with the ANA.

Then a phone call came in to Camp Phoenix from an Afghan soldier threatening to blow up himself and his four sons in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul unless he received attention for his battle wounds. The soldier, a sergeant major, had suffered a serious injury to his legs last fall when his truck was hit by a roadside bomb.

He was treated by Canadian army doctors, but after being sent home to his village of Bagram-i outside Kabul, received almost no attention, or pay, from the Afghan Army.

Perez organized a visit to the sergeant's home, with medical supplies, food and blankets, and a Camp Phoenix physician's assistant. He also coaxed the soldier's commander to accompany the group, to show the man that his own army was taking care of him.

"We respect his patriotism to his country, and know that this is the least we can do," Perez told the sergeant, who showed his anger by denouncing the ANA as corrupt but expressed gratitude for his commander.

Finding fulfillmentSgt. Brian Sheldon, an Oregon National Guard member from the Tri-Cities in Washington, said he finds fulfillment helping build schools and mosques, transport Afghan troops and police and perform myriad other tasks for Task Force Phoenix.

The basic rules of counter-insurgency are to clear an area, hold it, rebuild it, then engage with the local population, Sheldon said.

"We're really good at step one," he said of the U.S. military's role in Afghanistan, but he said the rebuilding part gets too little attention.

"I get the chance to do steps three and four," he said. "I'm not into the fighting part, I'm into the winning part."

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