The Edmond Sun

November 8, 2013

Edmond veteran uses education in continuing fight for freedom

Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Most war stories, it seems, involve American men, weapons and immediately quantifiable valor.

This story involves the use of brains and books to further the fight for freedom in America’s continuing, longest war.

In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes and founded Afghanistan, according to the CIA World Factbook. The nation served as a buffer between the British and Russian empires until it won its independence from national British control in 1919.

During the 1970s, a coup and a communist counter-coup crushed a fledgling democracy. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to bolster the communist regime, sparking conflict. A decade later, after suffering mounting losses from the internationally supported mujahedin rebels, the Soviets withdrew.

In 1996, the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, a hardlined Pakistani-sponsored movement. A few years later, terrorists hijacked airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on U.S. soil.

U.S. intelligence linked the terrorist plot to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, which maintained training camps in Afghanistan. A U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban. As of 10 a.m. Friday, 2,153 Americans have died and 19,464 have been wounded during Operation Enduring Freedom, according to the Department of Defense. The war dead have included heroes from Edmond and many other communities in Oklahoma.



‘IT WAS MY DUTY’

Edmond resident James Wilhite was interested in the military since he was a child. He wanted to continue his education while serving and he joined the Army Reserves in 1966.

Wilhite’s initial experience of being a teacher was through the military. In 1969, he attended a drill sergeant academy and was assigned as an instructor there.

“It gave me the chance to stand in front of a group with confidence,” he said.

He remained in the reserve because of the sense of brotherhood that was developed, and much of what he was doing could crossover to the teaching field. Wilhite, professor emeritus from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, spent 26 years in higher education.

In 2003, Wilhite was called to serve his country with the Army in Afghanistan. He said the jolt is tough to put into words.

“To say it was a shock is an understatement,” he said. “However, it was my duty to answer the call.”

Wilhite’s task was no small order — organizing the Afghan military academy, a university equivalent with no allotted budget and no full-time staff. Other challenges included working with the tribal factions to agree to a common outcome. And he was given less than a year to complete the job.

He spoke about his team.

“I compared it to putting everyone in a rowboat and rowing across a wide river,” he said. “Not everyone pulled their weight and some faced the opposite direction but at least kept their oars out of the water. Others were volunteers that just wanted to see this mission succeed.”



‘I KNOW, BA BA’

Wilhite said the state of education in Afghanistan before work began was extremely limited.

“They were trying to re-establish their higher education system but it was a slow process,” he said.

About 6 percent of the Afghanistan population is younger than age 55, according to the most recent estimates in the CIA World Factbook. About 28 percent of the people age 15 and older can read and write, and of those 43.1 percent are males and 12.6 percent are female. School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education) is eight years — 10 years for males and six years for females.

In 2004, 352 candidates applied for the first class of the National Military Academy of Afghanistan; in 2012, there were almost 6,000 applicants, and the current enrollment is up 3,000-plus. Current faculty number 300-plus, up from the initial 25 faculty. In 2009, women were admitted.

“It is forecasted that the National Academy of Afghanistan will be as large as West Point in two years,” Wilhite said. “Not bad for starting without a paperclip.”

The academy offers seven languages, Wilhite said. One candidate he visited with spoke five of them. He told the American he would become fluent in the other two.

“I said, ‘Do you know how important it will be for you to speak seven languages?’ His reply was, ‘I know, Ba Ba (Dari for “father”). One day I will be president of Afghanistan.’ These cadets are the top 1 percent of the students academically so that was not an unusual dream.”

The plain-spoken Oklahoman said he hopes the Afghan military will be successful, but expects the organization will experience major growing pains. Afghans consider him to be the “Father of the National Military Academy of Afghanistan.” He is also revered as an exceptional goodwill ambassador for America.

The rest of the retired colonel’s story is part of his book “We Answered the Call: Building the Crown Jewel of Afghanistan.” His story will also be told via a film. The draft screenplay has been completed and he is currently seeking financing for either a full-length film or a documentary.

For more information about Wilhite and to buy his book, visit the website of Tate Publishing: weansweredthecall.tateauthor.com.



marks@edmondsun.com | 341-2121, ext. 108