For U.S. Army Major Todd Schmidt, it all comes back to a quote attributed to Joan of Arc: “All battles are first won or lost in the mind.” Preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in 2004, then-Captain Schmidt knew he would encounter poverty and illiteracy on a scale unknown to most Americans, and he figured he would want to do something to help for humanitarian reasons. When he got there, he found that helping made strategic sense as well.
Schmidt is the founder of Operation Dreamseed, a nonprofit organization that started as an effort to distribute school supplies to kids in Afghanistan. Schmidt said he talked to his mother, an Indiana schoolteacher, before his deployment about organizing such an effort. Once deployed, he saw that the need was clear.
“No chalkboards, no desks, no chalk, no tablets of paper, nothing,” he says, recalling the first schoolhouse he saw in Afghanistan. “They’re literally sitting in rows on the floor, no glass panes in the windows, drafty schoolhouse that’s been gutted. We knew there was a real need here, and if we started providing basic school supplies, we’d be making an impact.”
Schmidt says he saw a way to meet that need by tapping into the generosity of the thousands of Americans who send care packages to the troops. “We were receiving these care packages,” he says, “and everybody that sent us something, we’d send them a note back saying, we truly appreciate your patriotic support for us and what we’re doing over here. You don’t know us, but you took your time and your energy to contribute this great gift. But if you really, truly are committed to helping us, we’d appreciate if you send school supplies.”
Schmidt says that American soldiers “really do have everything we need over there . . . we have Burger King, we have Pizza Hut, we have Subway, Green Beans coffee . . . they do everything they can to make sure that soldiers have a little taste of home. Even soldiers that are in some of the more remote forward operating bases . . . we still have much more than the locals have.”
Schmidt says that shortly after he started asking for school supplies in his thank-you notes, they started arriving in large quantities. “Before we knew it, we had filled a metal shipping container with school supplies,” he says. “We’d take them out on missions and distribute them to the schools.”
Operation Dreamseed grew from there, and at a fundraiser in New York City last month, Schmidt announced that the nonprofit is now sending school supplies to Iraq, Kosovo, Nicaragua, and Colombia, and has broadened its work in Afghanistan to include bigger projects.
One of those projects is the construction of science lab at a girl’s school in Kandahar. On this project, Operation Dreamseed has partnered with another nonprofit working in Afghanistan called Afghans for a Civil Society. ACS was founded by Qayum Karzai (Hamid’s brother). His wife Pat Karzai volunteers as the organization’s U.S. administrator.
“There are a few girls’ schools in Kandahar, but none of them have a science lab,” Pat Karzai says. “So we’ve been working with Operation Dreamseed on getting some budgets together and talking to some science teachers to learn what would be needed to supply it, what it would take to build it, and my husband is in Kandahar looking for a location — to choose the best girls’ school.”
Both Schmidt and Karzai spoke of the resistance they’ve encountered from factions in Afghanistan that remain opposed to girls’ education. “It’s very unfortunate, especially in the south,” Karzai says, “but if more NGOs and aid agencies came into the area and started doing more work, it would help with the insurgency. As long as people stay away and don’t help with development process, nothing can change.”
Schmidt insists that efforts like Operation Dreamseed engage a crucial battle space in the war on Islamic extremism. “To begin to break down the walls and begin to build the kinds of personal relationships we needed to build with the [Afghan] villagers,” Schmidt says, “my thought was, let’s reach out to the children. Children will make a friend at the drop of a hat, and it might be easier if we were to interact with kids and use that as a bridge to the adults.
“When you’re fighting for the minds of Muslim youth, education is one of your biggest tools for that,” Schmidt says. “We’ve received as much support from liberals as from conservatives because they get it, they understand that Joan of Arc quote, that ‘All battles are first won or lost in the mind.’ When people can question authority, and they can begin to express ideas, and they are connected to the rest of the globalized world . . . that offers a measure of prevention against tyranny.”
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.