3 out of 4 stars
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Unconventional Chaplain: Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan 2002-2003 is written by Chaplain (Colonel) Andy Meverden. Raised in Wisconsin, Meverden is a full-time civilian pastor and part-time National Guard chaplain. When the idea of him being deployed to Afghanistan is raised in 2002, this citizen-soldier knows that duty calls. Having served and trained in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard for twenty-eight years, he is too much a soldier not to answer that call. He deploys with the Green Berets, or the ‘unconventional soldiers’ as they are known. His story is told chronologically in six parts, from Part One (‘Getting Ready’), covering the preparation and training for deployment to Afghanistan, to Part Six (‘Getting Home’). It also includes some thirty photographs.
The book gives the reader a taste of what operational life was like for soldiers in the field. It highlights the centrality of their mission to train the new Afghan army in the hope that it could act as a bulwark against the return of the Taliban to the area. We get a glimpse of why this is required; nearby soccer pitches still bear the outline of the stoning-pits used by the Taliban to put to death those deemed guilty of religious infractions. Small wonder that locals worried about the prospect of a Taliban resurgence once the Americans had gone home.
The aspect of the book that I enjoyed most, however, is the description of Chaplain Andy’s individual role. While the pastoral care of his soldiers is a big part of that, it is by no means the whole story. Andy involves himself in the humanitarian side of the battalion’s mission which is to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan population. He teaches Afghan students English, sources food, clothing, and medicines for an orphanage in Allahuddin, and organizes medical treatment for local civilians. He also takes responsibility for rebuilding relations with the local community when a military training accident results in the death of four Afghan children. The chaplain brings all his humanity and creativity into addressing the situation through the Afghan tradition of ‘Maharamona’.
The book has one or two elements that I didn’t enjoy as much. There are more than a few spelling errors and typos scattered through its pages that need weeding out. Additionally, the phrase ‘culturally appropriate’ is used too often in the book for my liking, particularly in the context of men exchanging hugs or kisses. I got the point after the first couple of times; after that, its repetition became mildly irritating.
I am giving this book 3 out of 4 stars, deducting one star for the errors mentioned above. I would recommend the book to young people and adults who enjoy memoirs, particularly memoirs with military or religious themes. There are no swear words in the book, nor any material related to sex. The book is written from the viewpoint of a Christian pastor, but that should not deter people from other faiths or none from reading it. The author is sensitive to the fact that some people have different beliefs than the ones he holds; I don’t foresee anyone being offended by this book on religious grounds.
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