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Paynesville Press - December 3, 2003

Local soldier helps to rebuild Afghanistan

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

In some ways, Thanksgiving this year was similar to ones in Jon Millner's past. Work was kept to a minimum, the food - ham, shrimp and turkey with all the trimmings - was great, and he took time to reflect on all the reasons he had to feel grateful.

But instead of spending the day at home with his parents and his brothers, Jon celebrated the holiday in a mess hall at a small Army base in Gereshk, Afghanistan, where he has been stationed since early July.

Jon, a PAHS 2001 graduate, is attached to the Army Reserve's 407th Civil Affairs battalion from Arden Hills. The unit's mission is to do whatever is necessary to help the Afghans rebuild hospitals, schools, and wells in the area and to hand out humanitarian aid and materials like food and water.

Jon hopes his deployment will end in July but believes Afghanistan has a long way to go in rebuilding.

Soldier in Afghanistan From his e-mails, Mary Millner knows her son's missions are dangerous: training with weapons, working with Army Special Forces troops, and skirmishes with Taliban forces. She knows things are dangerous when her son ends an e-mail with: "Pray for us. We are going to need it."

Because he is a certified nursing assistant and a pre-nursing student at St. Cloud State University, when Jon first arrived in Afghanistan he volunteered to help out at the base's makeshift clinic that he described as four stretchers and two medics.

Camels are a common sight in the desert surrounding Gereshk, Afghanistan, where Jon Millner's Army Reserve unit is stationed. When he's not working in the base clinic, Jon's missions take him off base sometimes into dangerous situations.

As it has become more difficult for his unit to work off base, Jon's commander gradually allowed him to spend more time working at the clinic, where medics treat everything from soldiers with colds to Afghans with gunshot wounds.

While he has had some positive experiences while working in the clinic, it is also in this clinic that Mary knows her son has seen the ravages of war up close. She wonders if the horrors that he has seen will somehow change him.

According to his e-mails, there are days when he is able to help someone, either in the clinic or during a mission, and he has reason to celebrate. Other days are not so good.

In mid-November Jon wrote, "Today I got to work on one of our guys. He got shot six times and somehow is still alive." In that letter, Jon said he was having a good day, amazed that the man had lived.

The next day, however, Jon wrote home in a different tone. His message was terse. Left alone in the clinic because the medics had to go on a mission, Jon wrote, "Today I had three gunshot wound guys. All dead. Executed. Non U.S. Heads half intact, I couldn't do anything for them." This was a note that he ended with "pray for us."

Jon's Family Like their son, Don and Mary, have ups and downs. Jon sends regular e-mails to his parents and to his brothers, Scott and Doug. Some-times he sends two e-mails a day, which can be reassuring, but sometimes - like when the computers on the base were down recently - Jon's family does not hear from him for days or even weeks.

Mary doesn't know which is worse. She clambers for information about Afghanistan, finding it more and more difficult to find since the situation in Iraq has taken the focus off from Afghanistan, she said. Information about attacks and bombings fuel her fear, while not knowing produces its own fear.

Jon is pictured here with his family.

Jon and his parents also worry that people will forget about the troops in Afghanistan. "Before I left I told some people that I was going to Afghanistan, and some of them said, 'Aren't we done over there?'" wrote Jon, who wants the world to know that there is still a lot to do in Afghanistan.

He doesn't think U.S. troops will pull out anytime soon, not when the people still don't have good medical care, clean water to drink, or even textbooks for their schools.

While the Millners are terrified for their son, Don beams with pride when he describes his son's ability to communicate with the locals in their own languages. According to Don, Jon always had a gift for languages and he has picked up seven of them with relative ease.

When Jon got to Afghanistan, learning Dari and Pashtu, languages spoken by local Afghans, as well as their customs, endeared him to the people of the community and made Jon's job easier, both in the clinic and on missions, said Don. In fact, Jon was recently assigned the task of teaching the languages to other troops.

The Millners are also proud that their son might have found his calling in the medical field.

When he returns home, though, Jon probably won't go back to nursing school right away, though he now wants to be a trauma nurse. He thinks his unit will likely deploy to Afghanistan again, and he doesn't want to start school only to have to stop again.

Instead, Jon plans to become a paramedic right away, and later, when he can devote the time to it, he wants to become a trauma nurse.

"The stuff I've seen, most people only read about in books," wrote Jon in an e-mail to the Press. "I've seen people with their heads blown off, jaws missing, scalps hanging on, and whole bodies burned to a crisp. Most people wouldn't want to see this stuff, but I can deal with it well."

Jon is proud of the work he's doing in Afghanistan, and while he wouldn't want to do it over, he doesn't regret it either. "This is an experience that no one would ever want to go through, but I'm proud of going through it nonetheless," he said. "I've heard from some that this will make the rest of life seem like a cakewalk."

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