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Captain Makes Mark in Afghan Culture

TARIN KOT, Afghanistan -- With his rugged beard and long hair, Air Force Capt. Nick Plante is not your typical servicemember serving overseas in Afghanistan.

Dressed like a local national to help facilitate positive interactions with locals, Plante serves as the Afghan Hand for Multi-National Base Tarin Kot.

"The Afghan Hands program was designed to take experienced and motivated servicemembers and use them to build relationships with Afghan partners," Plante said.

As the focus of the war in Afghanistan shifts from fighting to ensuring Afghan National Security Forces are capable of maintaining things on their own, the need for effective liaisons increases. Plante recognized this and jumped at the opportunity to work in a rarified field.

"I was set to go to a regular staff job in Germany when I saw the request come out to public affairs officers asking for volunteers. From there I just started training," Plante said.

Plante spent four months engrossed in language training and cultural seminars as well as current counter insurgency operations before deploying to Afghanistan as an Afghan Hand.

"It was very difficult to learn a different language, but I wouldn't classify it as a burden," said Plante. "Anything new is difficult, but it is what you make of it."

With the same enthusiasm for his training, Plante quickly stepped into his role and began working with the Afghanistan Peace and Re-integration Program.

The APRP is a three-phase process designed to bring former insurgents back into the community as productive members of Afghan society.

The first phase is Outreach, where local leaders put the out word that insurgents can lay down their arms and have their grievances addressed peacefully.

The second stage is Demobilization, where former insurgents register with the program and turn in their weapons.

"Finally there is community recovery, which brings small grant projects to the community, and the communities acceptance of the former insurgent," Plante said.

Plante spoke with humility about his role in the reintegration program.

"I want make it clear that the Afghans have had the success with the program and I have been honored to help them through those successes," Plante said.

With more than 100 re-integrees enrolled in the program the success speaks for itself.

"I have been here for ten months now," said Plante," and when I came here in October there was hardly any outreach; it was all centralized."

"But what the Afghans have done is help themselves. They have developed a plan and began to reach more people with the outreach program," Plante said.

Plante spoke on the lessons learned from working so closely with Afghan partners.

"To tell you the truth I think I got lucky. I think I have the best job," said Plante. "The Afghan culture, especially here in the south, is one built on respect. If you treat people here with respect you have already accomplished 70 percent of your fight."

Through partnership, Plante has seen that the battlefield isn't the only place to win.

"This job has given me a better perspective. Things are not all about killing the enemy and kinetic operations," Plante said. "When you think about counterinsurgency there are a lot of kinetics, but the APRP is an opportunity to take people off the battlefield and win the fight without bloodshed."

Plante will soon be returning home after a successful deployment.  Though Plante plans to have the typical wind down and relax time when he gets home, he is also eager to receive more training to better work with Afghans and will be attending a masters program upon his return home.

When asked about his family Plante said, "We all serve over here, but our families also sacrifice when we leave and I appreciate their support."

With just a few weeks left before he returns home Plante has been busy saying goodbye to his Afghan counterparts and though he may be leaving the country, he is also leaving a legacy through the friendships formed and goals accomplished during his stay.

Sarkhatib Mohammad Shah, Uruzgan Provincial Peace Committee Chairman, spoke of his friendship with Plante.

"Nick is a very brave and excellent person. He is more than a friend to me, he is a brother," said Shah. "He has spent a year working with us and we have accomplished so much. Though we are sad to see him go, we are happy he will get to see his family, and proud to have known him."

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