BRIGHTON — During his nine months driving a truck in a military caravan in Afghanistan, Spc. Andrew Kwiatkowski was surrounded by mountains, sandstorms, bombed-out buildings and the desert dust that became a clay-like paste when it rained.
He also was surrounded by poverty. Children lined the streets begging for food, water and two American luxuries: Pepsi and pens, Kwiatkowski said.
When he needed a reminder of home, he was able to turn to the letters of Kristen Smith, 10, a fifth-grader at Seton Catholic School and a fellow Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner.
"All I wanted was a letter, because it was that important for someone from home to sit down and tell me what’s going on and how things are different at home," Kwiatkowski said.
Soldier and student were reunited March 12 when Kwiatkowski spoke to fifth-grade classes at Seton about his experiences in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province from March 2008 to January 2009. He served with the New York Army National Guard’s 27th "Orion" Brigade, and he was assigned to the Alpha Company 427 Brigade Support Battalion Logistical Task Force.
During the Seton visit, Kristen presented Kwiatkowski with a shamrock plant, while Kwiatkowski showed Kristen and her classmates photographs of the Army base where he had lived and of scenes from Afghanistan.
Kwiatkowski and Kristen had initially connected at a Mass during which Kwiatkowski and others were honored. Kristen approached him to ask if she could write him as a pen pal.
Kwiatkowski said he welcomed the correspondence.
"When I was her age, that’s when (Operation) Desert Storm had happened, and I was writing soldiers over there," Kwiatkowski said, referring to the U.S.’s first war with Iraq in the 1990s. "Now, a couple years later, I’m getting letters. It’s weird how everything comes around."
Kwiatkowski, a 2000 graduate of Brighton High School, said he had enlisted on Sept. 7, 2001, as a way to pay for school, not knowing that four days later the U.S. would be attacked by terrorists. He now lives in Williamsville and is studying health and human services with a focus in community mental health at the University of Buffalo.
In her letters to Kwiatkowski, Kristen wrote about Rochester’s weather and the sports she played, soccer and basketball. Kwiatkowski said he liked hearing how school was going for Kristen, and how she scored a game-winning shot for her basketball team. Kristen said she enjoyed learning about Afghanistan.
"He said the mountains were really pretty, and that was interesting, and that there were animals there," she said.
While speaking to Seton students, Kwiatkowski tried to explain some of the cultural differences, including the role that women play in Afghan society, "They will sell their girls to get out of debt"; the importance of hospitality, "They will welcome you into their home and will give you the best seat in the house"; and the relative laxness of the rules of the road, "Coming back to the states and driving here was a little bit difficult."
Kwiatkowski showed the students pictures of sandstorms, sunsets and a very large camel spider. He also showed them pictures of jingle trucks, which are privately owned and brightly painted trucks that jingle as they move due to the many chains hanging from their bumpers.
He also showed the students pictures of the people of Afghanistan, and tried to describe the poor living conditions faced by many of the country’s residents. While serving, Kwiatkowski took part in humanitarian initiatives, including helping to distribute shoes that had been sent by Lourdes parishioners. Troops also have built an orphanage and organized other forms of humanitarian aid, Kwiatkowski noted.
"It’s the third poorest nation (in the world), but they have cars, and they have cell phones," Kwiatkowski said.
Jack Milko, 10, a fifth-grader at Seton, said he never knew that Afghanistan was such a poor country. He said he was interested in Kwiatkowski’s descriptions of the culture and scenery of Afghanistan and the tribal roots of the Afghan people.
"I found interesting that they didn’t really speak Arabic," Jack said.
Maria Costello, 11, a fifth-grader, said she found Kwiatkowski’s photos of daily life interesting.
"I liked the ones with all the people in them," Maria said.