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Vermonter helps a lending hand

By Chelsea Copeland
On December 8, 2011

A Norwich student and U.S Marine planned for guest speaker Jonathan Hoffman's arrival on Nov. 30 to talk about his endeavors in Afghanistan.

Gunnery Sergeant Chris Bentley, a 31-year-old sophomore political science major from Tyler, Texas, has deployed six times, and knows the importance of building schools for the people of Afghanistan.

Bentley is an active duty marine on a commissioning program, Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, at Norwich and president of the Norwich University Council on International Affairs (NU-CIA).

Bentley, knowing the education systems in Afghanistan, brought Hoffman to Norwich to share his experiences, and educate those who aren't familiar with the education systems in Afghanistan.

Bentley said, "I want people to realize they can make a difference on their own, and that this is truly the only way to win a war over there now that we are drawing down."

Professor Dart Thalman, a professor of political science, told Bentley about Hoffman.

Bentley hopes that people will help support Hoffman's efforts and offer an opportunity to give Norwich a global reach.

Hoffman, raised in Northfield, is now an instructor at the Center for Technology in Essex Junction, Vt., a technical and vocational high school. He raises money for his organization, Direct Aid International (DAI), during the school year and spends his summers ensuring the money is used only for building schools.

According to its website, DAI is "dedicated to bringing a sense of normalcy to crisis situations," with discourse "on education and agriculture within the context of direct aid without regard to race, ethnicity, political or religious affiliation, or gender."

Hoffman's efforts have brought him to both Kosovo and Afghanistan, where his projects range from drilling wells for safe drinking water to building schools for little girls.

According to his website, Hoffman started in 1999 in war-torn Kosovo, where he worked as a volunteer in refugee camps and orphanages with Balkan Sunflowers, an international organization, which inspired him to "strike out on his own."

Hoffman got his start and returned three times with a list of accomplishments. Then in the summers of 2002-2004, Hoffman ventured to Afghanistan with a list of goals to accomplish.

According to his site, Hoffman's accomplishments in Afghanistan were "obtaining rights to build a well, building a three-room school house, building boys and girls latrines, construct a one room library and distributing items such as notebooks, pens, soccer balls and toothbrushes."

Sergeant Ryan Malanot, a 28-year-old from Washington Township, N.J., a member of the 173 Airborne, said, "Some of the people in Afghanistan mean well and are looking for our help and support; they don't want to hurt us."

Malanot has read about the efforts that Hoffman is giving and said, "It's a wonderful idea, maybe now they will realize that we are trying to help them."

Bentley is inspired by Hoffman's accomplishments overseas and thinks what he is doing is for a good cause. He believes that Hoffman is honest and "that is the only way to win the hearts and minds over there."

Specialist Jacob Pomer, a 22-year-old from Barre, Vt., who deployed with Vermont Army National Guard in 2009, said, "The children in Afghanistan are helpless, and need our help. The parents can't give them the education they need, but we can try."

Sergeant Adam Taylor, a 22-year-old from Sumner, Wa., said, "On my deployment, you see that those people have nothing for schools, and a very poor education system, they look to troops for help."

Pomer said, "What (Hoffman) is doing is for a great cause and I encourage people to participate or donate in the efforts to help build and give things to people that are less fortunate than us here in America."

Bentley believes that what Hoffman is doing is not only great, but with Norwich's military character, helping and supporting Hoffman "would be a fitting match."

Pomer said, "Although I am not a member of the Norwich community, I am a soldier and having been deployed, I want those non-military members who haven't seen the crisis there, to see it and understand why they need our help."

Malanot said, "Many Americans think that the people in Afghanistan people are all bad. They aren't, they need our help and a better education system."

Bentley said, "I don't want all of mine and my fellow service members' sacrifice to have been in vain, and by supporting causes like this one, I see hope for not only the people of Afghanistan, but for a chance to actually still ‘win' the war."

When Hoffman made his appearance at Norwich, he talked about what he had done in Kosovo and Afghanistan, what he was able to do for the people in those places and the items he was able to give to them.

Hoffman also brought what he planned to do in the future as far as building more schools and libraries overseas. He also informed people on how they can help him reach his goals.

"Grass roots of programs and organizations such as this one are the beauty of the American system and not all actions require government approval to get things done," said Bentley.

Bentley encourages people to participate or donate in organizations such as DIA and said, "If you believe in a cause or believe that something needs to happen, regarding any issue, you can make it happen yourself."

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