Air Force major uses unique abilities to serve local villagers

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. David Flaherty
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Maj. John Loftis has a Pashto name -- Esan. People are always asking him what it means.

Deployed to Forward Operating Base Smart - a small military compound located in the heart of the Southern Afghan city of Qalat - the Air Force public information officer leaves quite an impression with the Afghan community he lives and works in, even if that community happens to be in the middle of a war zone.

While on foot patrol, Major Loftis is bombarded by swarms of Afghan children. Laughing and smiling, they follow him for blocks. He's made friends with every Afghan on base. Whether they're a guard or a local contractor, they're all on a first name basis with him.

To say the least, Major Loftis is quite popular with the locals.

So how has the Air Force public information officer three months into his deployment connected so well, so quickly with the average Afghan?

To find out, just ask any of the locals he's befriended. But don't expect to understand them - the majority does not speak English.

Major Loftis has gained so much public praise because he's fluent in Pashto - Southern Afghanistan's most common language.

In a war where gaining public support is vital to combating the insurgency, Major Loftis' ability to engage with the Afghans in their own language and earn their trust is a valuable weapon in the counterinsurgency fight.

"When the Afghan people see that an American is speaking Pashto, they're more inclined to open up to him, and that's the reason why he's so successful," said Mohammad Ashraf Nasari, the governor of Zabul province, Afghanistan. "He can go among the local population and get their impression of U.S. forces. He can do this better than any other soldier because he speaks their language and knows their culture."

Assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team whose mission is to bring development, governance and security to Afghanistan, Major Loftis has the unique opportunity to communicate daily with his Afghan neighbors.

While PRT units rarely venture outside the compound walls without a translator, Loftis' ability to speak directly to Afghans allows him to quickly form a rapport with the locals that immediately breaks down cultural barriers.

He learned this first-hand while on foot patrol through the city streets of Qalat. As motorists were stopped for the foot patrol to pass, drivers started to become incensed at the delay. When Major Loftis noticed their frustration, he approached the drivers and said in perfect Pashto, "Please excuse the delay. We have to do this for security and we appreciate your patience."

"The look on their face immediately changed," said Major Loftis. "They went from a stone cold stare to a huge smile, so it really smoothes things over when you do something as simple as speak to them."

A native of Murray, Ky., Major Loftis is fairly new to the Afghan language. He learned Pashto in 2007 after being selected to become a Regional Affairs Strategist, a unique, secondary career field that's development program includes formal cultural education and training. In the RAS program, Major Loftis attended one year of South Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School and one year of Pashto language studies at the Defense Language Institute, both in Monterey, Calif.

Within a year he was speaking like an Afghan.

"I was happy when I learned he could speak Pashto because I knew I could come to him with a problem," said Nazar Mohommad, a base gardener, through a translator. "I know him now, and I look to him as a friend."

Even though he admits he sometimes has trouble understanding some Afghans because of their fast paced vernacular, that hasn't swayed him in his ongoing attempt to make new friends.

"During Eid ul-Fitr [the Islam holiday], I went around to all the guard towers to speak with some of the Afghan guards. If you think about it, they were sitting all by themselves for hours on this major, Islam holiday," said Major Loftis. "I figured that if I were someplace by myself on Christmas, I would want somebody to come around and share the moment with me."

In the ongoing pursuit of building strong relationships, Major Loftis may be the Romanian Battle Group in Zabul's secret weapon. His abilty to speak to the locals in their own language instantly breaks down cultural barriers and builds trust.

His major focus is to communicate that the coalition forces are here for Afghanistan's long-term stability. And he communicates that idea better than any translator.

And Major Loftis' Arabic name? It means "The Quality of Being Generous."