Piedra Vista teacher, Army vet reflects on nonprofit work in Iraq, Afghanistan

Rick Burns says investment in Afghan women will pay off some day

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The Karadah Project International works with displaced women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • The nonprofit organization was founded by Rick Burns in 2010.
  • Burns retired from the U.S. Army in 2014 as a lieutenant colonel after serving three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

FARMINGTON — On the wall of Rick Burns' world history and government classroom at Piedra Vista High School hangs a photograph that serves to remind the retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel that pursuing an education isn't always as easy elsewhere in the world as it is in America.

The photograph, taken earlier this year, features a group of kindergarten students in a town in western Afghanistan. The children, backpacks slung over their shoulders, are pictured standing forlornly outside the gates of their school, which was closed in the wake of the Taliban takeover of the country after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The school was opened four years ago by a nonprofit organization founded by Burns called the Karadah Project International, which works with displaced women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Burns was deployed three times during his Army career. He said the photo was taken and sent to him by an Afghan woman who runs the school.

"A week and a half ago, we reopened it," Burns said of the school. "Of course, we're having to work it a little bit differently because of the Taliban, make it a little bit more low key. It's being run by people on the ground there who exhibit the kind of courage I never had to exhibit (in the Army)."

Students stand outside their kindergarten in a city in western Afghanistan earlier this year after the school operated by the nonprofit Karada Project International was closed because of the Taliban takeover. The photo hangs in the classroom of the organization's founder, Piedra Vista High School teacher Rick Burns.

Burns worked in civil affairs during his career in the service, which lasted from 1986 to 2014. He said it was his job to take as many civilian issues off his commanders' desk as possible to allow his superiors to concentrate on military matters.

It was the kind of work that allowed Burns to interact and build relationships with the people in Iraq, where he served two tours, and Afghanistan, where he did one tour, who were responsible for local governance and schools. When he retired in 2014, Burns knew he couldn't simply forget about those people and those places.

"I felt like our work wasn't going to be done when we started pulling people out of Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

Rick Burns, now a Piedra Vista High School teacher, visits an Iraqi school while serving one of his U.S. Army deployments in 2003.

Burns already had founded the Karadah Project in 2010 to develop sustainable projects in both those countries. He returned to his native Iowa when he retired and launched a second career as a school teacher, but much of his attention and effort has continued to be directed toward the people his nonprofit organization seeks to help in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to the kindergarten it operates in western Afghanistan, the Karadah Project also has initiated programs designed to provide job training and work for displaced women in those two countries, as well as providing goats and chickens to villagers. The key to the organization's work, Burns said, is that it concentrates on approaches that are sustainable, rather than simply providing one-time assistance.

The goat and chicken give-away programs are examples of that. Villagers are taught to care for the animals and harvest the food they produce, providing their families with milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt and meat, as well as income from the surplus products they can sell or trade, according to the Karadah Project website.

Burns is an even bigger believer in the program that provides job training to women.

Residents of an Afghan displacement camp hold up bars of soap they received during a COVID-19 awareness training program operated by the Karadah Project International at the outset of the pandemic in 2020 in Afghanistan.

"It's indisputable that if you give women economic opportunities, the whole family will benefit, more than in any other way," he said. "It's proven that they are better stewards of money."

The kindergarten in the city in western Afghanistan — Burns declined to name its location or the woman who runs it, for fear of Taliban reprisals — was started in 2016 and serves 100 to 200 girls and boys a year. The Karadah Project partnered with Sesame Street Afghanistan to provide the students with school materials, and the program was a big success until the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover this summer led to its temporary closure.

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Burns said the school's director, and various other folks in Afghanistan who have served as associates of the Karadah Project, including a young doctor, continue to put their lives at risk with the work they are doing.

"It's amazing to see the courage of these young women and this young doctor who continue to work no matter what the circumstances are," he said.

He said it is the workers who remain on the ground, in harm's way, in Afghanistan and Iraq who deserve the many accolades that come the Karadah Project's way. Burns tries to make sure people understand that when he speaks with such media outlets as The New York Times, The Washington Post and NBC News, as he did earlier this week.

Rick Burns strolls the grounds at Fort Bragg, N.C., prior to leaving for Iraq in 2008.

"People pat me on the back, and I appreciate that," Burns said. "But they really don't understand what true heroism is."

Burns has worked hard to get many of those endangered folks out of Afghanistan, but he said that task is a daunting one. He said the Special Immigrant Visa program started by Congress to bring translators who worked with American service members in Iraq and Afghanistan already had a backlog of approximately 18,000 applicants before the Taliban takeover, and now the situation is much worse.

"We've added a mountain of visa applications since then," he said.

Burns encouraged anyone who supports the work of his organization to reach out to members of Congress and ask them to make a priority of getting those applications processed, rather than letting applicants languish for years in displacement camps or be apprehended by the Taliban.

"These are people who fought in the same foxholes as us, people who worked with nonprofits," he said. "We need to welcome them. We need to make sure they're not sitting out in the desert for long periods of time. We need to resettle them quickly."

The Karadah Project also welcomes monetary donations through its website at karadahproject.com. The organization has never had much money, he said, but the funding it does receive is used carefully. He said he has absolute faith in the people in Iraq and Afghanistan who operate on the organization's behalf, and he believes their efforts will yield positive results despite the return of the Taliban.

Goats are distributed to rural women in Afghanistan in 2014 by the Karadah Project International.

"We have a 20-year investment in the empowerment of women (in Afghanistan)," he said. "Afghanistan has never seen the widespread education of women that has happened in the last 20 years. That investment has got to pay some dividends down the road."

Burns, who relocated with his wife to Farmington this fall to rejoin much of the rest of his family, avoided most criticism of how the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was conducted, other than to say, "There were some really bad policy decisions by some very uninformed people that brought the U.S. to this point. But we have to deal with the situation as it is."

He said he believes it's possible to go on helping women and children in Afghanistan despite the Taliban takeover, as the courage and commitment of the people who work with the Karadah Project demonstrate.

An Afghan woman weaves a rug during a marketable skills training program class operated by the nonprofit Karadah Project International.

"I have faith in them, and I believe in them and I have hope, modified by the realism of things, that we will be able to come out with better days in Afghanistan," he said.

He acknowledged that Veterans Day this year may resonate more powerfully for him because of the chaos in Afghanistan. But he refuses to give into despair.

"I'm proud of what we did and deeply concerned about the future of both Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "They're both unstable and in need of attention. A lot of us are trying to make sure we don't forget about that. I was one of those who bought into what we were selling there."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.