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Altman: Navy captain’s book celebrated by Afghan students, leaders

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Published:   |   Updated: October 7, 2013 at 11:38 AM

Hours after the book “Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs” won the 2013 Gold Medal for Reference at the Military Writers Society of America awards ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, last month, author Ed Zellem posted the news on his Facebook page and the congratulatory messages began pouring in from 7,000 miles away in Kabul.

Aside from being the place where people speak Dari (and Pashtu), Kabul is also the home of Marefat High School. Students there drew the illustrations for the book, which consists of old sayings that Zellem, a Navy captain assigned to U.S. Central Command, collected during his time in Afghanistan.

“Thanks Mr. Edward Zellem. This is a great news for Marefat High School. Congratulations!!!!” wrote Ali Yaser Shoayb, a student at Marefat.

“Dear Zellem, thanks for the good news. You are a beacon for Marefat. Zarbul Masalha has opened the way and hopefully it will go farther ahead,” wrote Aziz Royesh, the school’s principal.

When it comes to the old saying, “there’s an old saying,” nobody in the U.S. knows more than Zellem, at least when it comes to old sayings in Dari and Pashtu.

That’s because Zellem immersed himself in all things Afghan as a member of the AfPak Hands program, created in September 2009 to develop military and senior civilian experts specializing in the language, culture, processes and challenges of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

During that stint, he collected Dari proverbs, which led to the book, which led to the award and so much more.

His next book is a collection of Pashtu proverbs that were collected through crowd sourcing. That led Zellem to an appearance, via Skype, at Paiwand, Afghanistan’s first-ever social media conference.

He appeared right after Kabul Dreams, which Zellem said is Afghanistan’s most popular rock band.

“They were my warmup act,” he jokes.

But it all started with Zarbul Masalha, which “was one of the many highlights in the ... 2013 book awards ceremony,” said society president Dwight Jon Zimmerman, a New York Times best-selling author in his own right.

The society’s awards recognize “outstanding military-themed books in a wide range of categories from children to adult. The categories include fiction, nonfiction, spiritual/religious, poetry, business/how-to, and others,” Zimmerman wrote on the society’s Web page. “I am particularly proud of Captain Zellem’s award which received praise from officials in the Afghan government.”

As proud as he is for himself, Zellem says he is even prouder for Afghanistan.

“There were about 50,000 people in Afghanistan tweeting it around like crazy,” he said of the award announcement. “That the Afghan proverbs on the book award was the most gratifying part. The Afghans need all the inspiration they can get right now. People should be paying attention to them as people, not as targets, or trouble makers. We should be paying attention to their culture. There are a lot of things that can be respected about their culture.”

Zellem is quick to point out that he hasn’t “gone native.

“There are things I don’t like about Afghan culture,” he says. “The treatment of women by some of the more traditional people. I don’t like the ethnic prejudice,”

But those things are beginning to change in Afghanistan, says Zellem.

“We are finding that the young people are abandoning those ways,” he says. “Since fall of the Taliban young people are much less prejudice and much more open to equal treatment of women.”

When asked if those changes will be sustainable once the bulk of U.S. forces leave Afghanistan in 2014, Zellem answers not as a Navy captain, but as an author.

And of course, with an Afghan proverb.

“Shab dar meean ast Khodaa mehraban aft,” he says.

“That translates to, ‘even in the middle of the night, God is kind,’” says Zellem. “What that means is that, to Afghanistan and everyone, there is always hope that things will work out. It is a very meaningful proverb.”

 

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Green Beret retires: Speaking of honors, congratulations are due to Michael Rodriguez, who recently medically retired from the Green Berets after 21 years, leaving the Army as a sergeant first class.

The congrats aren’t for leaving but for being named a Fellow by the Explorers Club.

Rodriguez, 39, was honored for “The Effects of Atmospheric Pressure and Elevation on TBI,” a study he conducted during a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro with the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, an organization run by a retired Navy captain from Palm Harbor named Dave Olson.

Rodriguez suffered traumatic brain injury several times during his years of combat and training, which affects his memory and cognitive functioning. It also makes him suffer from often debilitating migraines.

The study found that, while there were no particular benefits of high altitude, more importantly, there were no limitations for those with TBI either.

“I was able to tolerate it as we climbed Kilimanjaro,” he says. “The study was done over a five-day period to get to the top, which was something I didn’t know would happen.”

Rodriguez says that when it rains and the barometer drops, some of his neurological symptoms get worse.

“This is a big finding,” he says. Mountaineering experts strongly recommend that those with traumatic brain injuries not climb.

“But this shows that we can climb mountains despite the injury,” he says.

Being named a fellow by the vaunted Explorers Club is a huge honor.

“Fellowship is reserved for those who have distinguished themselves by directly contributing to scientific knowledge in the field of geographical exploration or allied sciences,” according to the club’s website. “Such accomplishments usually are evidenced by scientific publications documenting fieldwork or explorations.”

It’s a huge point of pride, says Rodriguez.

“It shows you don’t need a whole bunch of letters after your name to contribute to science,” he says.

 

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Honor flight goes ahead: Despite the tumult that greeted a group of World War II veterans from Mississippi heading to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., last week, or perhaps because of it, the path has been cleared for the Honor Flight of West Central Florida’s 13th trip to the nation’s capital, which leaves Tuesday morning from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The flight, via an Allegiant Airlines charter, will take 80 WWII veterans to the memorial.

Like all national parks, it was shuttered Oct. 1 by the shutdown of the federal government, but a kerfuffle that took place that day when members of the Greatest Generation arrived and barriers were moved seemingly cleared the way for Tuesday’s flight.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s office sent Honor Flight officials an email explaining what happened.

“Carol Johnson, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, said the accommodation for Honor Flight vets was not a change in policy,” according to the email. “The Honor Flights are being granted access to the WWII memorial to conduct First Amendment activities in accordance with National Park Service regulations applicable to the National Mall and Memorial Parks. ... This is consistent with the (Department of Interior) Closure Determination and Notice issued” Oct. 1.

So now that the flight is a go, director Barbara Howard is urging people to come out to the airport and greet the veterans on their return.

She is urging people to show up about 8:45 p.m. for the arrival scheduled for 25 minutes later.

Free parking will be available to attend the welcome home event.

For information, go to www.honorflightwcf.org, email info@honorflightwcf.org or call (727) 498-6079.

 

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Death in Afghanistan: The Pentagon announced the death of a soldier in Afghanistan last week.

Staff Sgt. Thomas A. Baysore, Jr., 31, of Milton, Pa., died Sept. 26, in Paktya Province from wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire during combat operations. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky.

 

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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