For the past year, S.C. National Guard Maj. Dwight Bradham Jr. of Aiken taught farmers how to improve their knowledge bases and find new markets – an experience he'll never forget in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
Bradham and other members of his team arrived in Columbia Saturday, where he was greeted joyously by his wife Heather and young daughters, Emma, 10, and Isabella, 2.
He joined the National Guard at 17 and a few years later began what is now 27 years active duty. His first deployment took him to Iraq as a member of the Signal Office of the 114th Signal Company out of Kansas. The unit was attached to the 122nd Engineer Battalion Charlie Company in Graniteville.
When Bradham learned about an agribusiness mission being formed in South Carolina in 2011, he couldn't pass it up. His father, Dwight Sr., and mother Ruth had been involved with farming before moving to Aiken in 1977, and their son had helped them as a young boy.
“I thought I would like the opportunity to serve,” said Bradham, the team leader. “What we were looking at doing was supporting the people of Afghanistan and helping them improve their skills and their market linkage.”
His team, which included security forces, was the first from South Carolina. A second team that left in January got substantial attention, because Michael Haley, the husband of Gov. Nikki Haley, is a member of that deployment. Bradham's team was the size of a detachment element. The guardsmen had been intrigued from the start when they realized the latitude in the province is virtually the same as South Carolina's.
“The crop development was similar – cotton, corn, small amounts of tobacco and other vegetables,” Bradham said. “I also tasted some of the sweetest melons I've had in my life.”
The devastating turmoil in Afghanistan goes far beyond the past decade. The country was overrun by Soviet-led Afghan forces in the last 1970s. Previously, farmers had links to other markets, among them Pakistan, Iran, other area in the Middle East and parts of China. For 30 years, Bradham said, the focus was not on growing markets. The farmers then and those of a new generation lost their knowledge and skill sets.
He found his experience of the past year enormously rewarding in that province. His team developed two training centers, and many guardsmen served essentially as extension agents. Through their efforts, they developed a link to the Kandahar Province. The Helmand farmers could sell their crops there for a higher price and provide economic stability for their families, especially for their sons without means of supporting themselves.
Ironically, Bradham learned before the deployment that the top military leadership in Afghanistan was skeptical of the need for the agribusiness unit's unique talents.
“By the end of the year,” he said, “the senior general was saying, 'You guys have done a tremendous job. I want three more just like you.'”
Of course, the deployments nearly a decade apart required sacrifice on the part of Bradham and his family. Heather gave birth to Emma just four days before he left for Iraq. Isabelle was four months old when he deployed a second time.
“It's really good coming back and seeing them,” Bradham said Sunday. “Since I got home yesterday, I haven't let them out of my sight.”