SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- It was part of the international relationship building he spoke about to the graduating pilots from Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, Aug. 9., here that has propelled Lt. Gen. (Ret.) John Bradley into a post-military career passion.
During his service as the chief of Air Force Reserve and commander of Air Force Reserve Command, he made multiple trips to Afghanistan to visit reservists deployed to the region under his command.
Hearing about the great need for humanitarian aid for the war-torn, impoverished people all over Afghanistan, he and his wife, Jan, decided they would fill an empty C-17 Globemaster III with blankets, shoes, cold weather clothing and medical supplies during a scheduled trip in 2007, he said. In all, he delivered 40,000 pounds on 14 cargo pallets. During that fateful trip, an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent accompanied him to a small village near the base to hand deliver the goods. The area was primitive, he said, littered with trash and mud thatched housing. The homes have no glass in the windows and no kitchen, except for a hole in the center of the dirt floor where all meals are cooked on a "camp fire" style flame. The place they consider a bathroom is a hole in the earth, and the town has one well where water is drawn. "It's heart wrenching to go there and see the extreme poverty that exists in Afghanistan," Jan said. "I love to go there and be immersed in their culture. The Afghan people are very gracious and hospitable. They are grateful, hardworking and patient, but they are tired of war. We hope that what little we do has a positive impact on some of the most disenfranchised people in the world. They deserve a better life."
As Bradley was handing out supplies in late 2007, surrounded by young boys, he said his attention was caught by a little girl wearing sandals, ragged clothing and a red head covering, fighting her way to the front to meet the man in the uniform. She spoke Farsi, and pointed at his feet.
"I was handing out blankets in this village, and this little 9-year-old girl came up to me and begged me for some boots like the ones I was wearing," he said. "It was December, and she was cold and wearing sandals, which is very typical. Her name was Lamia, no last name. She's never been to school." Bradley said not being able to help her at that moment weighed on his mind for the rest of the trip. Once he returned home, he shared his experience to his wife, and how he promised to send Lamia a pair. Jan immediately went out and bought items to stuff four boxes to send back, including four pairs of boots, not knowing what size she wore. They mailed the boxes to the OSI agent with a request to find Lamia -- armed with only a picture and a personal note to her. "They found her and her uncle, brought them to the base with a local policeman, fed them and gave them the boxes," he said. In the letter he wrote "I was glad to meet you, Lamia, I hope these things help. I'm going to be back in a few months ... and I would love to see you again." On the subsequent trip, Lamia and her family were again brought to the base where her family was treated to a meal with Bradley at the dining facility, 15 boxes of supplies and a bicycle.
Bradley said he never forgot about his experience. Upon his retirement in 2008, he sat down with his wife regarding what they would do after the Air Force. Remembering the joy of dealing with Lamia and her family, the very short conversation turned into a small non-profit organization to build schools in Afghanistan - the Lamia Afghan Foundation. "She is our inspiration," he said. "We see Lamia every time we go. Her family is very poor and live in atypical Afghan mud house in a rural village with no running water, electricity, no glass in the windows, heat or bathroom in the house." The Bradleys go to Afghanistan twice a year and spend one month. The April 2013 delivery of humanitarian supplies marked their seventh trip and more than two million pounds of food, clothing, blankets, boots, shoes, school supplies, medical supplies and equipment for distribution around Kabul area schools, hospitals and refugee camps.
"The only way to combat extremism is to fight the desperation of illiteracy and poverty with education and economic opportunity," Jan said. "Military might cannot fix that."
The foundation he and Jan established also concentrates on the education of young Afghan girls, though they build schools for both genders. Working with the Afghan minister of education, they coordinate every trip and determine current needs and possible new school locations. They provide the teachers, books and curriculum, and the foundation provides the building, furniture and supplies. They are currently working on building their sixth school. "I believe education is the key to the future in Afghanistan," Bradley said. "I believe in educating boys as well. Boys have all the opportunity in the world in Afghanistan, and girls don't. "When you educate a boy," he said of his worldwide concept on education, "you educate a boy. When you educate a girl, you educate a family." He explained these girls will grow up to be wives and mothers who teach their boys how to treat women the right way. They will teach their girls the importance of education, so they can lean skill, get a job and help support their families.
"After we do this for a couple of generations, the culture over there might change some," he said. "It's gonna take a long while to change the culture. It's a sensitive subject to talk about changing cultures for people. They need to make some changes relative to women and women's rights. Education is what will make that happen."
One hundred percent of the foundation money goes to building schools and humanitarian aid, as the Bradleys support all of their own travel and living expenses from his own pocket. They said they feel this helps across the board for both the Afghan people and the United States by helping win hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
"It's a miniscule part of it, but we think what we do is important to our American national effort there," he said. "I think I owe something back. This nation has been very good to me. This Air Force has been very good to me. I've been blessed." To accomplish this, the Bradleys have become citizen experts on the Denton Program, a government program which allows private U.S. citizens and organizations to use space available on U.S. military cargo planes to transport humanitarian goods to countries in need.
"It is really difficult to get this stuff over there because it is a complicated process," he said. "It goes over on C-17s and it might get there in a couple of weeks or two to three months. It all depends on whether there is space available on the airplanes. It's been a great program for us and we've enjoyed doing it." According to the Denton Program office, the general said they have shipped more humanitarian aid than any other non-government entity in the country. Another trip is planned for the Bradleys in near future. They are working 12-hour days collecting items to fill cargo planes already in route. With two million pounds of humanitarian supplies and counting, it all started because a little Afghan girl wanted a pair of boots.