PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Soldiers assigned to 2nd Security Forces Assistance Brigade, Forward Operating Base Sharana, gathered Aug. 2 at Forward Operating Base Rushmore for an evening of Afghan cultural enrichment in the form of an Iftar dinner at the National Directorates of
Security for Paktika Province's office.

What better a month to learn about, take in and embrace the culture of Afghanistan than the holy month of Ramadan, a month filled with tradition long rooted and enriched through the generations that preserve it?

"Some of my best memories while deployed have not come from combat," said Col. Dennis S. Sullivan, 2nd SFAB commander. "They have come from friendships I have built during my deployments as I worked with my counterparts towards a common cause, developing strong bonds and sharing our culture with one another."

For most of these Soldiers this was their first trip "outside the wire," and many did not know what to expect.

One behind the other they moved leisurely through the gate into the NDS compound. With each step, the distinctive clack of boot heals on pavement reverberated off the surrounding buildings that eventually gave way to an oasis.

Yards of garden paths lined in lush green vegetation speckled with flowers and embellished with fountains marked the midpoint of this journey.

"I really didn't know what to expect," said Pfc. Joshua Epps, an information technology specialist assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd SFAB. "It was nice. A lot of the times the news only shows the bad stuff, but it was nothing like what I have seen."

Epps recalls being greeted with handshake and smiles along the way.

The journey continued. The fading sun cast golden rays that refracted off nearby rooftops, silhouetting the Soldiers as they entered the NDS office, removing their boots as they waited to be seated.

Unfamiliar scents filled the foyer -- rich, sweet and spicy aromas permeated the nostrils of the awaiting guests, heightening their anticipation for the meal waiting in the adjacent room.

"This will be my first time eating Afghan food. I hear it is really good," said Sgt. Elsbeth Chavira, a supply sergeant assigned to HHC, 2nd SFAB. "I am grateful to have been presented with such a wonderful opportunity to experience so many new things in only one night. This is something I will remember forever."

Formalities were minimal. Soldiers took their seats sitting cross legged around the lavish banquette, while Sullivan and Gen. Mohammad Jasim, chief of the NDS for Paktika Province, took their places at the head of the meal.

Pleasantries were exchanged, and Jasim spoke of things he'll never forget, providing Soldiers assigned to 2nd SFAB with a brief overview of Ramadan and the Iftar meal.

"This meal breaks our fast; we eat the dates first as the prophet Muhammad did when breaking his fast," Jasim said.

A mullah's evening prayer filled the air. With hands tilted palms up and heads bowed, they marked the end of the day, bringing all Muslims from fast to feast. Iftar had begun.

In keeping with tradition, three dates were consumed, breaking the fast.

Afghan flat bread, rice, lamb, chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, watermelon and other menu items lined the floor as Soldiers passed along plate after plate.

After the meal ended, guests gathered in Jasim's office, where he fielded questions asked by the

Soldiers as they enjoyed chai tea, dried chick peas, Swedish toffees and almonds. Questions varied from "Was this meal typical?" to the importance of sharing Afghan culture with his American counterparts.

"I wish that we could have sat down together many years ago; I feel we could have avoided such a long war," Jasim said. "Understanding each other, sitting down face to face behind closed doors allows us to speak our hearts.

"Together, if we as humanity focus on the future, education, infrastructure and the people, all the negative will slowly be pushed out," he continued. "We must look at the character of a person, not their religious views or sex. I see that the Americans do this; you treat each other with respect."

The evening closed with these remarks from Jasim, and it was clear that not only U.S. Soldiers had gained from this visit but our Afghan counterparts as well.

"It was refreshing to see the quality of leadership the Afghans have at their top levels," said 1st Lt. Curtis Ballard, liaison officer assigned to 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment.