Increasing violence in the Mideast may be just as depressing as divisiveness in Washington these days, but talking to Jonathan Stamper, an Army Reserve sergeant who just returned home to Hermosa Beach from Afghanistan, is just the opposite.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula High School chemistry and physics teacher, whose redeployment last January came less than a year after returning from a 12-month stint in Iraq, discovered pockets of optimism in a country ravaged by decades of occupation, radicalism and war.
For example, Stamper, 47, grew to admire a young Afghan platoon leader fighting alongside the 4-23rd Infantry Division Battalion (nicknamed “Choctaw”) that Stamper, a Civil Affairs specialist, was attached to.
“(The Afghan soldier) was like 24 years old,” Stamper said during an interview last week at a coffee house in Redondo Beach, the city of his birth. “One of his brothers was killed in the conflict. He had an uncle who was killed or hurt way back when they were fighting the Russians. And he had another relative involved in another conflict.”
In a life and genealogy torn by “constant violence,” Stamper said, the young platoon leader remained upbeat and cheerful. “He was always willing to laugh and smile and say some funny stuff, some really funny stuff.”
Ask the soldier why he was sitting down, Stamper said, “He’d say, ‘So I don’t have to stand up.’” Ask him why he was lying down, and he would quip, “So I don’t have to sit up.”
When a day’s clearing a mine field proved unspeakably brutal, the young Afghan would say, “This has been a bad day; but we will keep going.”
Despite the increase in incidents of Afghan soldiers killing U.S. troops (called “green on blue” deaths in military lingo, Stamper said), he saw numerous occasions where Afghan soldiers cheered Americans on and saved their lives.
“They are willing and able to fight the Taliban, but they can’t do it alone," he said. "There aren’t enough of them.”
Intensely gracious and compassionate
Stamper’s admiration for the Afghan patrol leader’s buoyant nature may have been a reflection of his own positive attitude toward everything from teaching chemistry to serving his country, something his late father had always wanted him to do.
He is also intensely gracious and compassionate, a man who was so struck by how burdened Afghan women are by having to wear suffocating burqas, he actually bought one in Kandahar and tried it on.
“I could just feel the oppression,” he said. “I had to take it off; I couldn’t imagine wearing it all the time.” That sense of oppression was one of the reasons Stamper set out to offer a commercial enterprise to one small group of Afghan women.
Stifled in the male-dominated country, women—a huge number of them widows—must labor in secret to provide for themselves, he said. If they are caught breaking Sharia law, which prohibits them from making a living or going to school, they risk slaughter by the Taliban.
One of only 60 Civil Affairs specialists in the country, Stamper's job was to help Afghans find “Afghan solutions for Afghan problems,” he said.
Likening Civil Affairs to “the Peace Corps side of the Army,” he also hoped to assess ways that future non-military groups, including the U.S. State Department and USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), could help grow and maintain a sustained economy. This will be a difficult chore, he admitted, when U.S. troops pull out in 2014 and can no longer offer security.
Not one to be stopped by impossible odds, Stamper chose to import an idea of his that had worked in Iraq, where he provided women with lap looms for weaving wool into scarves and other saleable items.
“The difference was that in Iraq, we actually got to talk to the women and deal directly with them,” he said. “In Afghanistan, it’s such a male dominated society, you barely even see any women, and if you do, you are instructed to not approach them, or shake their hands. You’re very limited.”
In the case of the lap looms, which he obtained through the generosity of his church, Anza Avenue Baptist in Torrance, Stamper depended on the Army’s FET team (Female Engagement Team) to distribute the looms and advise the women.
“We had to have women (soldiers) on our team,” he said, because, while male soldiers are forbidden to search Afghan women, another female can. “The tough part was that if the Taliban got wind of (the loom idea), the local women would be punished severely, so it was very hush-hush.”
These scarves are sold online at KandaharTreasure.
Afghan scarves were among the treasures Stamper brought home for his wife and sister, as well as for Mitzi Cress, his Peninsula High School principal.
Cress’s scarf is black and gold—"the school colors!" she said with special emphasis. Thrilled and touched Stamper had thought of her, the principal said she can’t look at the scarf without “imagining the life experiences these women had and how this talent they have has given them a voice.”
The long black scarf, which is embroidered in gold on either end, is “obviously a special Afghan pattern,” Cress said. “It’s exquisite, just the detail.”
She sometimes rubs her hand over the pattern just to pick up the vibe of the women who often risk their lives to simply eke out a living.
The lack of defined enemy lines
Another deadly obstacle in Afghanistan, Stamper said, is the lack of defined enemy lines. Taliban “blend into the population,” a situation Stamper compared to “the wild, wild west.”
Even when talking to unarmed farmers and sheepherders, he kept his hand on his sidearm. “The sense of danger,” he said, is everywhere.
Although Stamper did not see combat in Iraq, his battalion’s mission in the notoriously dangerous province of Kandahar was quite another story.
The Army Rangers and their Afghan equivalents were assigned to repopulate Jogram, a tiny village that had been home to about 40 families. Forced out by the Taliban, the terrified villagers had fled into the desert, their town strewn with improvised explosive devices.
The U.S. soldiers were to clear the explosives, escort the residents back, and prevent the Taliban from returning.
Clearing the IEDs was extremely traumatic, Stamper said. It was a delicate operation which had a line of nervous troops following a soldier waving a metal detector across the ground and marking a safe path with powder sprinkled from an Ajax canister.
One anxious misstep blew the legs off one Afghan soldier and killed another. In the first instance, despite the risk of stepping on another land mine and drawing fire from ever-present Taliban snipers, Stamper shielded the wounded man with a sheet while medics applied tourniquets and helped transport him on a stretcher to a waiting helicopter.
He remembers thinking to himself, “I'm 47 years old, I'm C.A. (Civil Affairs), and I'm dealing with kinetic—they call (combat) kinetic activity," he said.
In the instance where the soldier later died, Stamper tried desperately to save the Afghan’s life, bandaging his legs and bundling him in his arms to a helicopter.
Praised for his courage
Although his memory of the event is sketchy, Stamper does recall the man’s face, the “horrible” extent of his injuries, and his own need to keep his wits about him. Praised for his courage by his commanding officer, he later saw a film of the incident, which had been caught by a surveillance balloon.
Oddly, neither combat stories nor the deprivation of outpost duty dominate Stamper’s recounting of his six months in Afghanistan. Still, living in tents, the treacherous dawn patrols, the 120 degree heat, the lack of air-conditioning, the “water bottle showers,” the MREs—“all prepackaged, lots of salt … a bunch of calories. It’s pretty bad.”
He’d much rather talk about his interaction with Afghan farmers, especially those who grow poppy, the most lucrative crop in the country. Poppies are converted to raw opium and later distilled into heroin.
“The sad thing is, for the same plot of land, if you grow poppy, you can make 10 times the amount than (if you grow) wheat,” said Stamper, who tried to persuade farmers to grow alternatives such as pomegranate trees and saffron.
Since pomegranate trees take a long time to mature, Stamper suggested producing saffron in the short term. “But a lot of these farmers say, ‘I’ve got to eat now! I’ve got to feed my family!’” he said.
Plus, the Taliban orders the farmers to grow poppy, he added, and farmers are afraid to stand up to them.
On a lighter note, the Reserve sergeant, who packed an M-16, loves to talk about Afghan children, how inventive and playful they are; how he would surprise them with toys he loaded into his backpack: harmonicas, little dolls, kites and “mouth harps, the kids love those.”
Stamper's illegal smuggling activities
That brings us to Stamper’s smuggling activities, something he managed with help from home.
One of his brainstorms was to recommend to poppy farmers that they grow tomatoes, squash, spinach, kale and fruits for the marketplace while transitioning to saffron and/or pomegranate crops.
“There’s so much red tape to try to get Afghan seeds for fruit and vegetables, so I wrote my church, and said, ‘Hey can you send some seed packets for these families?’”
His pastor, Brad Pixley, said, “Sure, but what about customs?”
Stamper suggested they send him more toys and use seed packets instead of paper for stuffing. His illegal activities delighted his Army buddies, who swooned when the boxes arrived, “Oh, look at all these seeds!”
Likewise, Stamper’s sister sent him fishing poles after he discovered while fording a river on patrol that catfish were plentiful. And his wife, Eva, answered his longing for something green by sending potting soil and grass seed.
But when his platoon leader saw the small plot, he asked Stamper if he could use it, explaining that he wanted each soldier going out on patrol to remove their boots and walk barefoot on the grass.
When asked why, the platoon leader said, “Because, if you die today, you can say the last thing you did was walk on American soil.”
Stamper, who lives in Hermosa Beach with his wife and three Jack Russell Terriers, is back on American soil for good—and reveling in it.
If a call came to serve again (he’s in the Army Reserves until 2015), Stamper would tell them “to take a hike,” he said. “I’ve had enough.”
Small things utterly delight him, like walking his Jack Russells—dogs so intelligent he has to spell some words to outsmart them—and simply talking about his day with his wife. She's also a chemistry teacher at Palos Verdes High School. “Can you imagine the dinner conversation?” he laughed.
An ecologically conscious type who makes his own compost and plans to trap rain water in a cistern, Stamper hates to even close the blinds for films in his science classes.
"Look at the clouds today!"
Just as he once marveled at the radiant sunsets while taking rude bottle showers in Kandahar, this native son who went to Miraleste High School and Long Beach State can’t get enough of the green trees, blue sea and azure skies of the South Bay.
“Look at the clouds today! Aren’t they gorgeous?” he’ll rave to his Peninsula students.
He’s just as passionate about safety, always cautioning students to wear goggles, take extra precaution with experiments.
“I value life so much,” he said. “I’ve seen so much death and ugliness. I treasure my students, they are like my family.”
He also uses his war experience as teaching tools.
“Today I spent a good 25 minutes talking about one of the driest subjects on earth; it’s called significant figures," he said. "And I drew on my experiences in Afghanistan.”
The subject had to do with estimating the area of a field, and at one point, Stamper asked, “Am I boring you?”
“No, no!” was the unanimous response.
Anecdotes not only make Jonathan Stamper’s chemistry and physics classes popular, they fit with his lifetime goal: “Basically, I want to be the best teacher I can.”
Everyone at the school is thrilled to see Stamper in classes again, Cress said. From his stint in Iraq to his deployment in Afghanistan, Stamper's experience has brought the war home to her in a deeply personal way.
"I’m just so darn happy … so thankful Jonathan is back,” Cress said.