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Weeki Wachee man's task is to win minds, hearts of Afghans

BROOKSVILLE — The Afghan man was angry at the U.S. Army.

Someone in a military vehicle passing through his village outside of Bagram had tossed a water bottle and it had broken two panes of glass in his modest home, he said.

Ed Campbell listened, taking notes and then a photo of the windows. Sent by an Army commander to learn why U.S. forces were facing hostility in the village, he also heard about a shortage of wood in the hamlet.

His report to the commander went to the Army's Civil Affairs division and soon, the man got $20 to replace his glass and the village received a truckload of wood.

The next time U.S. forces came through the village, Campbell recalled, residents offered cheery waves instead of single-finger salutes.

The experience, he said, shows how helping one person can make a big difference. "The whole village takes on the attitude,'' he said.

As the United States refocuses on Afghanistan with an order from President Barack Obama to send 30,000 more military personnel to the war-torn country, Campbell is an example of how diverse this initiative has become.

The 57-year-old from Weeki Wachee is heading back to Afghanistan on Sunday for another stint as a walking contradiction in terms. He will be an armed civilian on the front lines of an amorphous guerilla war, trying to win over people whom the military sees as potential terrorists and targets.

Campbell is part of the Human Terrain System, a 2-year-old Army program that links anthropologists, social scientists and other civilians with soldiers to assess the political, cultural and economic situations they encounter.

The goal is more practical than academic: help the military help the locals, making it less likely they will help the insurgents.

Critics say social science and the military should not mix, but the Army maintains the combination works. "The net effect … is often less violence across the board and fewer hardships and civilian deaths," Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said.

Campbell, a former cop who has more than a decade of foreign security experience, calls it "the Army's version of community policing."

"The people love it, the military loves it, and it's working," he said.

• • •

Campbell, a native Chicagoan, knew early on he wanted to help keep the peace. He was with the Markham Police Department in Illinois from 1972 to 1986. After three years as an officer in Key West, he moved to Weeki Wachee and worked for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office until 1992.

He later was an airport police officer in Clearwater and then sold cars in Crystal River before seeing an ad for security workers in Bosnia for a company called DynCorp Aerospace Technology. He had to check a map to remind himself of the country's location. It was 1996 and by then he was married with two children.

Within months, he was supervising 250 Serbian and Croatian police officers as a liaison between the police and the United Nations. From 1998 until 2003, he trained police in Kosovo and Macedonia.

Campbell was home just a few weeks in 2003 when Tom Moselle, a buddy from Kosovo, called. Moselle now was with the U.S. Justice Department, setting up police training centers in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. How quickly, he asked, could Campbell get there?

"Ed is the kind of a guy you want to be with in tough situations,'' Moselle said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "Whether it was in the austere environment of postwar Kosovo or the uncertain and dangerous environment of Afghanistan, we had some tough situations to deal with."

Campbell recalls arriving in Afghanistan and being struck by the abject poverty of the people and the barren beauty of the land.

After a year, he was back in Florida, working as an assistant circulation manager for the Times in Citrus County. Six months later, his phone rang again.

This time, another company, United States Protection and Investigations, wanted him to help protect contractors working on the so-called Ring Road in Afghanistan, a stretch of highway connecting the major cities and a key part of rebuilding efforts.

Campbell supervised security for a 76-mile stretch of the road, escorting managers and meeting with local police, military and religious officials. His convoys and camps came under fire several times, he said.

As the bullets and rocket-propelled grenades flew, Campbell remembers wondering: What am I doing here? Is it really worth it?

But there were rewards beyond a six-figure salary, he said. "I felt I was doing something good and I needed to finish it."

• • •

In September 2008, Campbell got a call from Mike Warren, his former boss in Afghanistan who was now with the Army's HTS program. He thought Campbell would be perfect for the effort.

"Ed understands people," Warren said in a e-mail. "He is honest and direct. He can work with the U.S. Army to get things for the Afghans and work the Afghans to get information and projects completed."

Campbell arrived in Afghanistan last May. He is based at Bagram Air Force Base and travels with a team of 15 to 20 people in a convoy of armored vehicles. He works in full camouflage and armor and carries a gun, but he is still a civilian.

He sits down with village elders on dusty mats in their mud huts. They serve tea; Campbell often brings cookies. After the pleasantries are exchanged, he gets to the point: What are your issues?

Most of the elders, he said, are honest men who clearly care for their people. They want desks for schoolchildren, better seeds for crops, medical supplies to fill bare shelves in the clinic, and new roads and wells.

"When I do come back and they've gotten something, I'm like a hero," Campbell said.

He has been effective in getting American experts to train members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police in the areas of marksmanship and medical care, Warren said, and he helped persuade those two forces to work together. "Ed was able to show the military how joint patrolling would help give the locals confidence in their own government," Warren said.

Campbell got to spend the holiday season at home in Weeki Wachee with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Christine, a nurse in Brooksville, and son, Kenny, who is in the Air Force.

He says he has a year or two of foreign service in him and aims to retire at 60. But for now, he is eager to go back to help spur more events like one before he left.

Villagers, he said, contacted Afghan police and turned over insurgents in their midst. That shows that efforts like his are working, he said. "We've gone in and done good things for these people,'' he said, "and they know we're on their side."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Weeki Wachee man's task is to win minds, hearts of Afghans 01/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 12:25am]
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