The Fourth of July celebrations mean so much more to one BYU history professor who spent the past school year among people in the process of having their freedom restored.
Called up by the Army Reserves last year, Maj. Mark Choate left his classroom at BYU to serve for eight months as a historian for U.S. Special Operations Forces.
He traveled by air and ground to rural villages in 14 provinces of Afghanistan to observe the transition to self-governance. Based on his interviews with more than 300 U.S. and coalition personnel, he wrote a handbook for village stability operations. On his way home, the military awarded him the Bronze Star during a ceremony at Special Operations Command.
“The U.S military treats history as a very important part of learning and commemorating and improving upon what has happened in the global war on terrorism,” Choate said.
Though his handbook remains classified, Choate points out that democracy isn’t foreign to Afghans. Prior to the Soviet invasion, villages had a long tradition of making decisions through local councils called shuras. Not surprising, stability in the rural villages is best achieved when the NATO efforts help revive and empower that culture of local councils.
“Afghanistan was fairly stable for thousands of years up until the Soviet invasion and totalitarian regime,” Choate said. “The fabric of Afghanistan is still there. Building upon local shuras and regional development holds the promise of a stable Afghanistan in the future without a continuing coalition operation.”
Choate recalls attending one shura that was interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone. The disturbance was welcomed with smiles because it meant that the cell phone service — which had been disrupted in the past by the Taliban — was now back online.
His travels also brought him to parts of the country that only days earlier had finally been cleared of Taliban fighters. In one valley along the Helmand River, the road had been in disrepair for more than five years. As soon as the coalition’s “A Team” made repairs, Choate witnessed an instant flood of traffic pour in from throughout the valley.
“The liberation of the valley was like a scene from the liberation of France,” Choate said. “People coming out from the villages to thank the Special Forces, and then the trade and economic development and the exchange of ideas that followed, were just exciting to see.”
Choate enlisted in the Army National Guard at age 17 while at Yale College and then switched to the Army Reserves before finishing his Ph.D. in history from Yale. He joined the history faculty at BYU in 2001 and actually crossed paths in Afghanistan with a former student serving as a convoy commander.
“I bring back to my students the idea that world history has not ended,” Choate said. “We can still contribute; we can still be a part of history.”
This 4th of July, Choate is grateful to be reunited with his family on the home front.
"I have always been patriotic, but now I have a deeper appreciation for the price of freedom," he said. "Our special operations forces are sacrificing and accomplishing so much to help our Afghan allies in their own battle for independence.”
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