Soldier serves with big heart, helps Afghan children
June 7, 2012
BAGRAM, Afghanistan (June 7, 2012) -- On one blustery Sunday morning, Spc. Helen Jeschow is enfolded in a bright blue wave of burqas the minute she walks through the gate, as women enveloped head-to-toe in the traditional garb of the region rush to greet her. She stoops to hug and kiss the kids, cooing at them through the interpreter, Alex.
One woman passes her three-month-old baby into Jeschow's arms, beaming as Jeshcow kisses its little head and cuddles it. Another reaches into the folds of her garment and produces a ring, which she hands to Jeschow, who resists the gift at first but is soon obliged to accept.
The Egyptian Field Hospital, opened in 2003 and run by the Egyptian government, treats thousands of Afghan patients every month, free of charge. The hospital has its own secure entrance onto Bagram Airfield, so Afghans come from far and wide to seek help for an unlimited range of ailments. Children make up about one-third of the patients, and are usually accompanied by their mothers or other female caretakers who typically will not speak freely to the male doctors and pharmacists.
That was a niche Jeschow discovered she could fill.
Jeschow, a native of Greensboro, N.C., said she volunteers at the Egyptian Field Hospital on Bagram Airfield every Sunday for selfish reasons.
"I do it for my own morale," she said, standing amid the plain brown plywood huts that serve as the hospital's rooms. "It's a great way to start a new week."
Those who work with her tend to disagree, saying Jeschow is about as selfless as they come.
"She just goes over there to put smiles on faces," said U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Mace, of Florence, Kan., a team leader for Jeschow's unit, the 340th Tactical Military Information Support Operations Company, an Army reserve unit out of Garner, N.C. "It started off as her going over there for work, but her good spirit took over and she started going over a couple times a week, just volunteering."
After several months of regular visits she earned the trust of the local women, who now don't hesitate to come to her to relay their needs and concerns to the hospital staff. Jeschow also gathers donations of school supplies and toys to give away to the children as they leave the grounds each afternoon.
Through those interactions, Jeschow has become a sort of matriarch to a large, loosely connected group of Afghan women and children.
"She has been a very good addition here," said Egyptian Army Maj. Amir Sameh, the public affairs officer and interpreter for the Egyptian Field Hospital. "She has a very good heart, and has a very wonderful message that she wants to send to the Afghan people."
Jeschow's interaction with the Afghan populace is a heart-warming sight in a country where Coalition Forces and Afghans have had to overcome many challenges to their relationship for the last 10 years.
"She is always keen on distributing warmth to the Afghan people with a smile and words," said Sameh. "We are very happy to support her."
"It's in my heart to help others," said Jeschow. "It's something I've done since I was young. It makes me happy to see others happy."
"She has always been very giving," agreed her mother, Donna Fasani, speaking from Wayne, N.J. "It's always come naturally to her. She calls her family and friends back here and asks us to send stuff to the kids there, instead of her."
Jeschow backed up her mother's claim when asked what she would want people to know about what she has been doing in Afghanistan.
"I would want all the people back home to clean out their closets, and anything they don't need or haven't used in a year -- send it over here because I know people who could use it," she said.
Fasani is quick to point out that she was not thrilled when her daughter informed her she would be joining the Army.
"To be honest I was upset," she said. "I had an uncle who was killed. But when Helen puts her mind to something she's going to do it."
Jeschow explains that she didn't join the Army for any lofty purpose.
"Most people want to hear the answer 'I did it for my country.' I don't normally give that answer because I was already serving as a public school teacher," she said. "I taught kindergarten and first grade. I had been teaching for six years and was looking for a part-time job. The Army not only offered part time hours, but also a signing bonus and college loan repayment program. I did it for the part time career opportunity."
True to character, she has turned what was on the surface a business decision into an opportunity to bring a little joy to a corner of the world that desperately needs it.
"Just her being able to find time to go down there and volunteer like that -- it's something special," said Mace.
"She's always taking on more than she can handle," laughed her mother.
"I wish everyone had the chance to come here and see the impact they can have on people," said Jeschow. "We're here in a war zone, but this is something we can look forward to."
"The only challenge is getting the time to come here and having a good explanation to give my chain of command of why I'm coming here," she said as one of her young friends, a little girl named Sode Jan who had been showing up every week just to spend time with her, timidly clung to her hand.
Jeschow switched her grip slightly, to cradle little Sode's hand more firmly.
"Any excuse in the book I can think of will get me here."