Computers? Forget it. Notebook paper? Nope. In fact, when the children of Ghazni, Afghanistan, get to attend school, five pens are sometimes shared by an entire village.
Or that's how it used to be, until St. Paul's Cub Scout Wolf Den Pack 209 in St. Petersburg launched Operation P.I.G. — Pens in Ghazni.
Tony Forte, 47, the Cubs' den leader, learned of the need for pens through Navy Cmdr. John Doolittle. Doolittle and Forte's kids attend school together. Plus, Doolittle served as St. Paul's Tiger Den leader to a group of 14 first-graders ready to enter second grade and move up to become Wolf Den members. The plan was that Doolittle would move up with them, but that was before he was deployed to Afghanistan.
A Navy man of 19 years, Doolittle had spent time in the Balkans, Kosovo, Iraq and Africa. This eighth deployment was his first to Afghanistan. He asked Forte to step in as the Pack 209 Wolf Den leader.
"He was going to Afghanistan. How could I say no?" Forte said.
Doolittle took charge as commanding officer of PRT Ghazni, a team of Navy, Army and Air Force members who work with Polish forces, the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help the people of Ghazni rebuild.
Doolittle saw children eager to learn, but they had no school supplies.
Back home in St. Petersburg, Forte and his Wolf Den assistant and wife, Michele, asked the Doolittle family how they could help. Doolittle's father told them his son didn't want anything for himself but would like composition books and pens for the children of Ghazni.
"I came up with the idea of a fundraising merit badge," Forte said. "The troops love acronyms. I came up with Operation P.I.G. for 'pens in Ghazni' and left the rest to the kids. They laughed when I said we'd see who was the best pig."
In four weeks, the Wolf Den had gathered 20,000 pens. Boxes stacked up in Forte's garage.
"It was crazy how it took off," Forte said. "Kids went to neighbors, and parents helped them contact local companies like Bic. … At one point we wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into."
Doolittle knew the difference a pen could make in children's lives.
"To have my wife, kids, family, friends, and neighbors all rally around Operation P.I.G. in St. Pete was extremely rewarding," Doolittle e-mailed from Afghanistan. "I could not be more proud of the boys in Pack 209 at St. Paul's Church, specifically the Wolf Den.''
About $800 in postage and two months later, the pens started showing up on resupply helicopters at Forward Operating Base Ghazni. "We have nearly handed them all out at this point," Doolittle said.
The Fortes spent almost $400 of their money to help pay freight costs. Only click-type pens — 350 pounds of them — were sent because of concerns that pen tops would get lost. The 5,000 with tops that had been donated were given to neighboring Woodlawn Elementary School.
"As a parent, it was moving to see kids impacted by something as simple as a pen," said Michele Forte, 42. "The (Afghan) children are so motivated to find our military guys because they've heard about the pens. Mightier than the sword.''
Wolf Den members all earned community activity badges. Tops among the Operation P.I.G. collectors were Shane Farmer with 10,564 pens, Zane Forte with 7,372 and Sean Doolittle with 742.
Doolittle's team didn't stop with passing out pens in Ghazni. They carried them on multiday missions through mountain passes.
"Handing out pens out in Senga Masha, a village in Jaghori District, involved a six-day driving mission to get the pens to those kids," wrote Doolittle. "A ballpoint pen in this region is considered 'technology.' We drive all over this province, and everywhere we go, the Pashtun kids are always asking 'qalum letfan, qalum letfan' — pen please, pen please."
Doolittle described how it felt to see his team passing out the pens from home.
"Absolutely phenomenal to see the reactions of the children here when they had something to write with and, if they were lucky, even a notebook."
The Wolf Den received a thank-you note from Doolittle and photos of the children with their pens.
"You can imagine the excitement this creates with parents, tribal elders, and of course, the kids,'' Doolittle wrote. "Pack 209 is well-represented in Afghanistan."