FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan –
“How long have I farmed? Off and on, I guess you could say all my life,” said Ken Parsons, a 60-year-old civilian agricultural specialist from Lancaster, Ky., with the Kentucky National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team 4.
“Well, I farmed and I taught,” Parsons said. “I worked for the federal government for the Farmers Home Administration for four years, [but] I worked mostly teaching and farming.”
Parsons is a retired agriculture teacher of nearly 28 years at Garrad County High School in Lancaster. He is now deployed to southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province with ADT 4 after officially retiring in January 2012.
“I’ve got one guy over here over here, I had his kid in school,” Parsons observed. “But the enriching part about it is that everyone here is a Kentuckian.”
So, how exactly does a retired school teacher end up in Afghanistan?
“One night back in August , a Warrant Officer [named] Mike Condon who's a former student just drove by my house and he asked me if I wanted to go to Afghanistan. I said ‘well, I haven’t really thought about it.’ But the more I thought about it and the more we kind of talked…I decided that this was something I would like to try to do,” Parsons recalled.
“I was about ready to retire, I had just about felt like I’d done all I could do teaching. You reach a place in your career where you kind of feel you need to do something else, and that’s where I was,” he noted. “I was at the point where I needed to change, and this has been one heck of a change. It’s been quite an experience.”
“I got involved because they said I was needed…because I believe we all owe something to our country,” Parsons said. “I hope that I’m paying that back some way. I hope I’m doing something to help.”
“I think the sheer amount of what I would consider abject poverty [shocked him most about Afghanistan],” Parsons observed.
“The Afghans that I have met, all of them seem like pretty decent kinds of people. And I guess the poverty is because the 30 years of war that they’ve been involved in,” he explained. “I feel in my heart that the majority of them are good people.”
Being away from home has had its lessons for Parsons.
“Well, I’ve learned that I have pretty good coping skills. Much better than what I thought I might have,” Parsons said.
“I’ve learned that the Army life is a life that has to be for a young person. A person my age, I can’t do the things that young guys can do. Of course, young fellas and gals don’t have the experience in agriculture that I do, so I realize that’s what I’m over here for,” he added.
Parsons briefly summarized the duties of being an agricultural specialist in Afghanistan.
“Well, we’re subject matter experts. We collect data and give our opinions about what is supposed to happen. Sometimes it’s pretty involved and detailed, sometimes it can move at a glacial pace,” he explained.
At home, Parsons has a wife, Leann, and two grown-up children, Matt and Leah, each with one child of their own. Matt, a veteran who served in the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 138th Fires Brigade for 12 years, previously spent time deployed in Kuwait in 2005 with four of ADT 4’s members.
“It’s kind of funny because they come up with some crazy tales about my son, and I know my son can be…sometimes a little bit different,” Parsons noted.
“I think it’s a testament, to be quite honest with you… to the staying power of the soldiers that are over here. And I know that this is a tough thing for a lot of the soldiers to do,” he added.
“Staff Sgt. Parsons… had a reputation for being a comedian, and I’d say that Mr. Parsons seemed a little bit more reserved,” recalled Lt. Col. Andrew Bates, a 43-year-old Louisville, Ky., resident who served with Parsons’ son in 2005.
“But over the time that he’s been here, he’s started to display a little bit of twinkle in the eye,” Bates joked. “Then you can see a little of where Staff Sgt. Parsons got his mischievous attitude.”
Bates, who serves as ADT 4’s liaison officer, coordinating efforts between other military units and Afghan government officials, had good things to say about Parsons’ work so far.
“Mr. Parsons has a great ability to quickly gain the respect of the Afghan agriculture officials based on his experience and his obvious knowledge of the subject matter,” Bates said.
Parsons reflected a little about the difficulties faced on a deployment.
“I don’t know if this is something that would do if I had a young family,” Parsons said. “This is incredibly hard to do, [but] I’m not in that circumstance. My family is up and gone.”
“As far as family, this is between my wife and I. She’s been a very big supporter of mine in this entire thing, and I’m very, very thankful for that,” Parsons recalled. “She misses me, but we talk nearly every day on Skype. That makes it a lot easier,” he added.
“I think this is a good unit,” Parsons observed. “We’re doing some things that are very helpful. We’ve got a few wins under our belt now, [though] we’ve kind of had a little bit of a slow start.”
“But I think that’s only to be expected. We’re the first ones here, laying the foundation,” he added.
Parsons reflected on the impact of the ADT missions briefly.
“I haven’t been up in the eastern part of Afghanistan, but it’s my understanding that those folks up there really benefited from the [previous Kentucky] ADTs,” Parsons mentioned. “They have gone from doing just rudimentary type endeavors to doing some pretty high caliber agricultural types of work up there.”
I think it’ll be a long time before we see that down here, but it’s got to start somewhere. We’re the ones who are starting it,” Parsons said.
Going home, Parsons discussed a few of his future plans.
“When I go home for good, I’m probably going to buy myself a pickup truck. I think every 15 years, a person ought to get themselves a pickup truck and mine is 15-years-old,” Parsons noted.
“I plan on doing a little bit of farming, maybe with some of my former students… and trying to be around my grandkids as much as possible…but I’m a retired person after this year,” he added.
“Sometimes I wonder if the things I do over here, if it will have an effect that I’ll be able to see in my lifetime,” Parsons concluded. “I do think that we’re doing some good. I really believe that, [but] that harvest may be reaped several generations down the road.”