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A white Christmas - in Afghanistan

Some S.C. National Guard soldiers will enjoy a white Christmas this year. The only catch is they had to go 7,500 miles to Afghanistan to see it.

About 130 S.C. Guardsmen are in Afghanistan, with the largest contingent - 60 troops - located in the eastern corner of Afghanistan helping to develop the country's agri-business.

Other troops are handling an assortment of jobs from running humanitarian aid efforts and pouring concrete, to serving as military lawyers.

For some troops, snow has been a part of the local mountain scenery for weeks, said Col. Keith Dunn, commander of the agriculture development team.

"With the weather as it is now, (we) fully expect to see more snow in coming days," Dunn said in an e-mail to The State.

The S.C. agriculture unit is based in mountainous Logar province, which borders Pakistan. The unit's mission is to assist provincial and district government officials in helping Afghans with all aspects of agricultural development, said Dunn of Columbia.

The troops' jobs are similar to those performed by Clemson University Extension Service agents, who visit with farmers offering tips on everything from battling bugs to marketing.

The unit reached Afghanistan in early November and will spend nine months there.

"The first few weeks have gone better than expected," Dunn said. "We have met all our military and governmental counterparts that are working similar missions. We have been out to districts and villages meeting provincial and district leaders as well as village elders."

So far, the troops are holding up well despite being separated from loved ones over the holiday stretch, Dunn said.

"We are excited about our mission and understand our role," Dunn said. "This helps keep morale up and things in perspective, knowing why we are here and what we expect to accomplish."

The unit is a mix of troops who have deployed before and those on their first overseas tour, Dunn said. The experienced troops are helping others get through the holiday, he said.

Despite a heavy workload, Dunn said the troops are anticipating the upcoming holiday.

They've decorated some small trees with ornaments and hung lights and Christmas cards around doors at their base, Dunn said.

A special meal at the chow hall is planned for the holiday, and the troops should get "a little time to relax."

In the country's capital Kabul, Col. Zeb Williams is back for his second Christmas in two years at Camp Phoenix, where he was based with the S.C. Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team.

Williams returned in October - just 16 months after the 218th wrapped up a yearlong tour in April 2008. Now, he's deployed with the Georgia Guard's 48th Brigade Combat Team, serving as the task force's senior military lawyer.

Williams of Columbia said he agreed to a another stint in Afghanistan because the Georgia Guard was short of senior judge advocate generals.

"I certainly didn't mind coming back and felt this was where I was called to be," Williams said in an e-mail to The State. "For all of its challenges, there is something extraordinary about this austere, windswept country."

When he isn't tied up with legal matters or is mentoring Afghan army lawyers, Williams helps coordinate humanitarian aid missions.

Since October, Williams has been involved with two missions that delivered coats, boots, shoes and blankets to a village near his base and to an orphanage.

Many items were collected by his church, St. Michael's and All Angels Episcopal in Arcadia Lakes, the Forest Acres office of Russell & Jeffcoat Realtors, and the Columbia United FC youth soccer team.

Williams' wife, Christie, who has helped the aid effort at home, said there's been extra effort in gathering children's clothing.

"Our focus was on the children, who often died from the harsh winters in Afghanistan," Christie Williams said. (The aid effort) "reminds me of the true meaning of Christmas."

When South Carolinians gather with families and friends this holiday, Dunn hopes they will take some time to appreciate what they have compared to the impoverished Afghans, most of whom live in remote villages where there's no electricity or even roads.

"Please remember the people we are here to support," Dunn said. "There are so many good people here that simply want to provide for their families and have hope for a better and more secure future for their children."

The U.S. military's mission in Afghanistan is going to take "a while longer to accomplish our objectives here," Williams said. He cautioned against a pullout of troops anytime soon, saying the United States needs to maintain its credibility in the region.

"Despite our missteps, the vast majority of Afghans I've encountered since 2007 are reasonable, peace-loving people who very much still want us here and are quick to say so."

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