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Greg Mortenson with school children who raised $8,000 in a Pennies for Peace program
Greg Mortenson with school children who raised $8,000 in a Pennies for Peace program

"Three Cups of Tea" brings hope to Fort Drum

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This month, planes are leaving Fort Drum's Wheeler-Sack airfield with soldiers bound for Afghanistan. About 4,000 troops of the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade are a part of President Obama's surge announced late last year. With roadside attacks and bombings up in Afghanistan, the departure is a painful one for many Fort Drum families. But recently, the author of the best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea, paid a visit to the spouses of Fort Drum's officers. Greg Mortenson builds schools in Afghanistan. As David Sommerstein reports, he brought a sense of hope and purpose to an Army base that's been ground down by repeat deployments.

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Jeanine Gable and Carrie Gonus - military spouses with a personal connection to Afghanistan.

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If turnout's any sign, people at FortDrum are hungry for good news.  Almost 500 people packed inside the base commons on a sunny day to hear Greg Mortenson.

At Fort Drum, Afghanistan is personal.  The 3rd brigade just returned from a year there, just as violence was intensifying.  The 1st brigade's shipping off now.  Drum headquarters is scheduled to follow in October.

Organizer Heather Sutton says Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, is a must-read.

As spouses, we spend so much of our time hoping the phone doesn't ring, finding comfort in each other, that when we read a book like that, I think we automatically need to and want to see the positive.

Greg Mortenson's story is so compelling - and such a bestseller - perhaps because - behind the hard work and daunting obstacles - it's simple.  Mortenson stumbled into a remote village after a failed attempt to climb a mountain.  He got to know the villagers.  They said they wanted a school for their girls.  He built it.  Almost two decades later, he's still building schools in the region.

Sutton says the story makes an instant connection with military spouses.

They want education for their families the way that we do here and so it humanizes a country that otherwise all we hear is the bad, the terrors, and just, the negatives.  To me, it gives me chills and tears in my eyes to think that they're just like we are, they just happen to live somewhere that we don't get along with.

The subject can hit too close to home for some.  Jeanine Gable's husband just came home from Afghanistan with the 3rd brigade, which suffered severe casualties.  She says she could only read parts of the book.  It was too hard.

Even just listening to the weather report for Afghanistan was hard on certain days, too, y'know.  When you've got a husband, especially with the 3rd brigade and what it was going through over there, sometimes you just don't go looking for more information about the region.

Mortenson is an innovative messenger.  He's written a children book version of Three Cups of Tea.  His program, Pennies for Peace, encourages  American school kids to collect pennies for kids in Afghanistan.

Carrie Gonus, whose husband will likely deploy this fall, says it gave her daughters a personal connection to what their father will be away from home for.

For them to come home and say, mom, do you know for a nickel they can buy a notebook or something, they were very excited to help and, physically, to see that penny pile grow and grow and grow and for the kids to know what a difference they're making, is incredible.

I cannot put into words the magnitude of what Mr. Mortenson has done for children.

After an introduction, Mortenson takes the stage to rock-star cheers.

What's so incredible about the Three Cups of Tea phenomenon is that the Pentagon is embracing its lessons in Obama's new war strategy. 

We weren't allowed to record Mortenson's speech.  But he gave a very similar talk in North Carolina.  And like he did at FortDrum, he described an e-mail he got from General David Petraus, the military's top commander in Central Asia.

He read Three Cups of Tea last year.  And he said there were three important points from the book that he wanted to impart from the troops.  Now being a military general, he summarized them in three bullet points.  He said, number one, we need to listen more, number two, we need to have respect, and number three, we have to build relationships.  You don't have to like people.  You don't even have to get along, but you do need to build relationships and start listening to people.

Not coincidentally, the New York Times recently reported female soldiers are being trained to accompany foot patrols so they can talk with Afghani women.

And if you still don't believe Mortenson has the Pentagon's ear, President Obama has announced he'll share money from his Nobel Peace Prize with Mortenson's Central Asia Institute.

At the end, schoolchildren presented a check for 8,000 dollars and one cent to Mortenson, money for schools in Afghanistan, raised penny by penny.

The scary news continues to come from Afghanistan - bombings in Kandahar over the weekend, a defiant Taliban.  As FortDrum buckles down for a year in which its troops will play an integral role in the future of this war, Mortenson's visit was like the early spring sunshine outside.  It brought hope.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein at Fort Drum.

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