SHOR TEPAH, Afghanistan — “Thank you for this,” said Mohammad Qul, a principal at a school for boys. He paused. Teachers stood around him holding new school supplies. Three microscopes drew the most excitement – a 300 percent increase in the school’s stock. “And we are so sorry for her,” he added.
The “her” Qul referred to was the mother of fallen U.S. Marine Capt. Matthew Freeman, Lisa Freeman of Richmond Hill.
The Matthew Freeman Project: Pens and Paper for Peace provided roughly 100 pounds of school supplies that U.S. Army soldiers with C Company, 40th Engineer Battalion, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team delivered to the school Oct. 18.
According to the project’s website, Freeman called his mother two days before he was killed in action in Afghanistan and said, “Mom, the kids would rather have pens and paper more than anything, even food and water. Would you please start a collection and send them to me?”
His family saw to his wish.
As they entered the school’s courtyard, C Company soldiers were greeted by applause from children who waited in rows. Quiet, grateful and visibly awestricken, students filed by as soldiers – who couldn’t contain their smiles – handed out pens, pencils and paper. The reserved composure of the students gave way to laughter only after the soldiers, in full body armor, started tossing a pink flying disc.
“It’s definitely a feel-good thing,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Fontaine, a West Warwick, R.I., native, now the 40th Engineer Battalion noncommissioned officer in charge of civil affairs.
Organizations like the Richmond Hill-based Freeman Project provide items not covered by larger, U.S.-funded infrastructure projects. Missions like the one in Shor Tepah not only provide immediate assistance to recipients but also allow soldiers to interact with Afghan citizens and government officials.
Face-to-face events build a much-needed rapport with people U.S. service members try to help, Fontaine said.
“You can’t just show up and be respected,” he said. “It has to be something earned or deserved, or that precedes you.”
Fontaine coordinated missions to give supplies to students in each of the battalion’s five districts of responsibility.
Although long-term benefits lie in missions for charity, the direct impact on the student cannot be ignored. Qul said one pencil or pen can last a student two to three months, and glue can last twice as long.
After presenting supplies to Qul and his teachers, 1st Lt. Zachary Weigelt, a Missouri Valley, Iowa, native, now a platoon leader with A Company, told the faculty about Freeman and his family.
He held a picture of the Marine.
“I’d like to have the family here so we can thank them and the kids can thank them,” Qul said to Weigelt. “One day, we will have peace and they can come to Afghanistan and visit.”