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Published February 06, 2014, 10:58 AM

Speaker recalls humanitarian trip to Afghanistan

On Scott Gottschalk’s first day in Kabul, Afghanistan, he encountered his first dust storm. A red haze blotted out the sun in the city of 7.5 million and left a terrible taste in his mouth. Kabul is the largest city in the world without a sewer system and the dust tests out at 27 percent fecal material.

By: David Luessen, Forum News Service

On Scott Gottschalk’s first day in Kabul, Afghanistan, he encountered his first dust storm. A red haze blotted out the sun in the city of 7.5 million and left a terrible taste in his mouth. Kabul is the largest city in the world without a sewer system and the dust tests out at 27 percent fecal material.

“That’ll leave a crappy taste in your mouth,” he said.

Gottschalk, an agricultural consultant, was invited to speak by a N.D. Pork Council member at the 42nd annual Pork Producers Convention at the Gladstone Inn & Suites on Tuesday after that member’s wife saw him speak at another event. Gottschalk speaks more than 60 times a year on various topics ranging from faith to agriculture.

Gottschalk worked in the International Division of Land O’ Lakes Inc. and had volunteered for a humanitarian assignment to Afghanistan to help a warlord build a dairy in his home village in 2006.

From Kabul he traveled across the mountains with his interpreter, “Doc,” to a village in the Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border. While there he said the villagers would approach his interpreter and ask why the U.S. soldiers could not find Osama bin Laden. They would all point in the same direction and say, “He’s right over there.”

“I was there in 2006. The compound that Osama bin Laden — (where) our (Navy) SEAL Team 6 took him out, they say he moved there in 2005,” he said. “When they said where that compound was, I took out a map and showed my wife my assignment had been 17 miles away from there in the direction they pointed.”

Working in Afghanistan

Gottschalk traveled and worked without a military escort. Doc (whose real name was so long that Gottschalk could not remember it all without checking his notes) was a professor at the University of Jalalabad and was paid $30 a day in a country where the average income is $50 a year. Doc was not only paid for his interpretive skills — which Gottschalk said were lacking — but also to protect him. One of his protection duties was to walk 50 feet ahead of him in case they encountered landmines.

“He would sacrifice his life for me. Thirty bucks a day — who in this room would, for $30 a day, take their shots with that game of landmines,” Gottschalk said.

Gottschalk said his trip to Afghanistan was delayed twice, the first because of a kidnapping and beheading, and the second due to a suicide bombing. Before he left he was told he had almost no chance of survival if he was kidnapped. His options would be to stay with the captors and be beheaded or try to escape to Pakistan. A last resort would be to claim he was a Canadian citizen, which would give him a slightly better chance of avoiding execution. For that reason he was told to leave his camera at home.

“I would be marked instantly if I acted like an American tourist and took a picture,” he said. “The Taliban figures out in a real quick hurry that you’re not one of them.”

Despite the warnings, Gottschalk was still able to bring back pictures. By sheer coincidence, when he landed in Kabul he ran into an old friend, Guy Ewald, who was working as a grape consultant in the country. Ewald gave him a camera and showed him how to sneak photos with it.

“‘You have to go back to the United States and debunk the myths that they have been feeding our people for all these years. Tell the real story,’” Ewald told him.

Gottschalk asked, “Guy, I thought I’m going to die if I take pictures?”

Ewald replied, “You might, but I’m going to show you how to do it.”

Gottschalk wore typical American farm clothes at first and Doc pleaded with him to wear the pirhan-tumban, the traditional Afghanistan garb. Instead he hired a bodyguard for $35 a day who came equipped with a loaded AK-47. After a few days he became paranoid about having an armed guard with him and conceded he’d wear the clothes. Afghanistan men are typically shorter than their American counterparts and very thin and malnourished. Gottschalk said it was very difficult to find clothes for “the fattest man in Afghanistan.”

Gottschalk said Americans take the quality of their healthy, safe food for granted, and while there he had to be very careful about what he ate. The butchers in Nangarhar had no refrigeration and meat would hang in shops for days on end. On his trip to the market to find his new clothes he was happy to find a vendor selling raisins and gladly bought a bag for 2 cents, thinking they would be OK. As he began eating them Doc came running to tell him to stop because in Afghanistan raisins are used for livestock feed. As Gottschalk began explaining to him how raisins are a common food in America, a dog walked up and urinated on the pile of raisins he had just bought his bag from. Further down the street he noticed a goat defecating in another pile of raisins.

“I got the crappiest taste in my mouth from my raisins. The truth is, I have never had Raisin Bran ever again,” he said.


In the end, the dairy was built. Fifty Russian black and whites — similar in appearance to Holsteins — began producing milk that was so ultra-pasteurized it could be set on a shelf for a year in 100-degree daytime temperatures and still be safely consumed after a year. The calves were malnourished at first and when Gottschalk brought out a scale to show them exactly how much they should be eating they were amazed at how much more feed it would take to produce enough milk. He said the problem was a starving village would be very hard pressed to take food off their own plate and give it to a cow.

Gottschalk was dismayed at first because the warlord had $2 million to spend on the project and could have built an efficient state-of-the-art facility. Instead he built a simple facility that did not have electricity, and employed 250 villagers to take care of the cows at $2 a day. The jobs the warlord provided saved the village he once tormented.

“That’s when I understood why he needed to do it his way and why my way wasn’t going to work in Afghanistan,” he said. “You just take the chance that there are good in people and I believe there is good in that man. Now is he still a drug warlord? He probably is, I can’t say.”

Gottschalk said he was not only proud of the work he did in Afghanistan but he was proud of the American service men and women in the country. He said that the American soldiers stood taller than soldiers from other countries, treated the people with respect and received respect in turn from the Afghanis.

“If you have a nation that is struggling, that has been under the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s terroristic rule, and you go over there and you teach them to raise livestock that will feed dying children, and you extend a hand, do you think their babies are going to grow up to hate you and want to kill you or they’re going to grow up to love us and respect us?” he said. “Somebody has got to stop the behavior in this world and start putting a hand forward and helping some people.”

The dairy was completed but the trials were not yet over for Gottschalk. On his return trip the only thing he brought back was a butter churn, and had considerable difficulty traveling from Afghanistan to America through four international airports trying to explain to each airport’s customs officials that the butter churn was not a bomb.

A more serious problem was that foot-and-mouth disease had been found in Afghanistan’s livestock. On his way into the country he had left behind a change of clothes at an airport in Dubai and threw all his other clothes away. He also had to quarantine himself in his house for 10 days because humans can harbor the disease in their lungs. His wife, Astrid, whom he hadn’t seen in a month, had to stay away from him in the house they shared. Astrid runs a 1,000 cow dairy of her own and a simple kiss on her way to work with the cattle could have started an infection.

Allan Carlson, a veterinarian from Alexandria, Minn., said if foot-and-mouth disease were to take hold in the U.S. it would cost the livestock industry at least $100 billion in losses.

“It’s been a threat for years but they’ve done a good job of controlling it,” he said. “We have a national program for foreign animal diseases but the threat is real … A visitor going unknowingly through a cattle farm, that’s all it would take.”