CAMP KRUTKE, Afghanistan – Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Johnny Wilder carefully observes his students as they train each day and offers guidance where he can. But when one student approaches to ask a question, Wilder cannot give him the answer he needs -- not because Wilder does not know, but because he cannot understand Pashto. All of Wilder’s students are Afghans.
Through an interpreter, Wilder learns the Afghan wants to know if he is married and if he has any children. It is an unusually personal question for a class about basic construction, but Wilder laughed it off.
“That’s how they get to know you,” he said. “I’m trying to teach them what an inch is, and they keep bringing up [my] personal life.”
In Afghan society, Wilder said, trust is important to a student-teacher relationship. Though the questions his students ask seemed strange and daunting at first, he added, he quickly realized they have their own methods of learning.
Some instructors find it difficult to adjust their mentorship styles to students’ learning abilities, but for Wilder, it is nothing new.
Wilder enlisted in the Navy in 1990 and has served for more than 23 years. He first served with Support Unit 4 in Atlantic City, Ill., and joined Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15 when his first unit deactivated in 1994. Over the course of his career, he estimated, he has mentored hundreds, if not thousands, of students.
In the past, Wilder said, Seabees came into the Navy to learn a skill or trade in the construction industry. Senior enlisted Seabees would pass on their trade and shape the new Seabees into professionals. But the dynamic began to change, he said. More Seabees were arriving in the fleet with experience and newly developed techniques. Wilder noted that in the past construction work was more physical. With new technology, however, the craft involves more thought processes.
“A lot of Seabees today are so advanced when they get in,” Wilder said. “Now we have people who will come in and take the lead on building projects because of their experience as a civilian. You can take a third class [petty officer] and put him in charge of a project just because of his expertise.”
Wilder added that the Navy has been quick to embrace the influx of experience.
“You have to change and move on. The Navy is about being aggressive and modernizing,” he said. “You can’t keep depending on the past to get the job done in a modern world.”
Wilder said he also believes that a good teacher is an even better student. He continues to listen and learn from his young Seabees, and he attributes his success as a mentor to his willingness to listen.
“With technology, things change,” he said. “The younger generation is picking up this technology and teaching it to us.”
Wilder is now using that knowledge and experience to help train Afghans.
Starting with the basics, he slowly increases the level of difficulty. Beginning with basic units of measurements, he moves on to explain different types of materials and their function. He then teaches the students how to read blueprints. Only then are they ready to learn actual construction techniques. Wilder calls it a “crawl, walk and then run” approach.
Wilder acknowledge that teaching Afghan students presents challenges, but he added that he sees some promise.
“Afghans are curious,” he said. “They have some people that really want to learn. The ones that really want to learn try very hard.”