By Senior Airman Rachel Hammes, 55th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 27, 2017
Students at the Zabuli Education Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, hold the school supplies they received in part due to the efforts of Staff Sgt. Jason Strong, a data operator on the E-4B at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, in September 2016. The school, founded by Razia Jan in 2008, provides K-12 and college education for Afghani women, who rarely have access to education in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Jason Strong, second from right, attends the first LGBTQ+ event in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility while deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in June 2013. Directly to the left of him is John Phommavongsa, a contractor who would eventually help Strong facilitate the transfer of a year’s worth of school supplies for 500 girls to the Zabuli Education Center, a girls’ school just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, in September 2016.
In 2011, Jason Strong walked into an Air Force recruiter’s office and fell in love.
“I joined the Air Force at a very chaotic time in my life,” said Strong, now a staff sergeant and a data operator on the E-4B at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. “I had been in foster care for my senior year of high school, which was the only year I went to public school. Prior to that I had gone to a school run by this private community. It wasn’t state accredited, it had its own curriculum. For biology, half the pages on human anatomy were ripped out. I was playing a ton of catch up, and I realized that really quickly.”
The private community was the Society of St. Pius the Tenth, an offshoot of Catholicism that split from the mainstream Catholic church in 1970 over the changes made to the church during Vatican II.
“Then I enrolled in Kansas State University, and as time progressed, things were even crazier back at home,” he said.
Strong is one of 12 children, and he felt pulled in multiple directions as his younger siblings cycled into foster care.
“I realized that I had spent the first 17 years of my life fighting not to be something, and that left me with a vacancy of, ‘What am I? Who am I?’” he said. “I only knew myself in comparison to what I was not, and that left me with nothing. I convinced myself I needed a structured environment, to expose myself to as many things as possible, and to get as much information as I could in a way that would allow me to be financially stable.”
This led Strong to the military. As he entered the recruiter’s office that day, he saw a sign hanging on the wall with the Air Force core values printed on it.
“This is so corny, but I fell in love with what it said and I thought, ‘I want to be around people like that,’” Strong said. “That was why I chose the Air Force. It’s given me a structured environment, and I just got my bachelor’s degree. I now have an inside perspective on the military, I’ve deployed three times. I understand so much more about the world and society than I did five years ago when I was this floundering child.”
On his most recent deployment to Afghanistan in 2015, Strong managed to make a lasting mark on the country in a way few in the military manage to do.
“I was online one day after a flight and I think it was on CNN’s front page – talking about a woman’s efforts in Kabul to start the first girl’s school,” he said. “I clicked on the link and read her story, and I saw the link to her fundraising campaign.”
That woman was Razia Jan, and her school was the Zabuli Education Center in Kabul, Afghanistan. Originally a K-12 school, it has since expanded into a college. Strong donated, and was excited to see the campaign surpass their original fundraising goal before the deadline.
Strong felt his childhood shared a lot of the experiences that kids in Afghanistan had in regards to fundamentalist religions.
“That kind of environment can impact future achievement and future self-worth,” he said. “I’m a huge proponent of gender equality, because I had sisters that are dramatically impacted by fundamentalist Christian religion, which restricts them and has stopped them from reaching their goals or setting their goals. So to see someone as brave as Razia Jan over there, winning over an entire village of men to get them to support their daughters going to high school and now college, is everything I want to be able to do in my life.”
Strong recognized that he had duties to fulfill in the Air Force that took precedence over helping organizations like Jan’s achieve success, but he still wanted to help. He contributed enough to the fund raiser to receive a private viewing of the documentary filmmaker Beth Murphy was making on the school.
In late July 2016, Murphy reached out to Strong, asking if he had any contacts in the Army Post Office or with an APO address. An individual in the United States had donated a year’s worth of school supplies for 500 girls to the Zabuli Education Center, but the school was unable to afford transport of the donation to Kabul.
“She wanted to know if I had any contacts who could help facilitate the transport of a year’s worth of school supplies for 500 girls,” he said. “I randomly did, in Kabul – his name is John Phommavongsa. I met him on my first deployment to Kandahar. He worked for a commander who was super on board with this. The commander was able to make everything happen. It was so much easier to coordinate than I had initially expected, and everything went through perfectly.”
Strong worked with Phommavongsa and U.S. Air Force Col. William Maxwell, deputy commander of the multinational force at Hamid Karzai International Airport through August 2016, and by September the supplies had been delivered to the school.
“Staff Sgt. Strong's coordination with the force protection team ensured a safe and efficient transfer of the donation to the school leadership from the HKIA,” Maxwell said. “I believe that all people should find ways to become involved in projects like this one. The military especially has an opportunity to be a part of it here – and it is also a benefit for the people of Afghanistan to see our military personnel as people too, and to understand that our coalition personnel are working toward the benefit and the success of the people of Afghanistan.”
The success of Afghanistan could likely depend on the future of schools like Zabuli, Maxwell said.
“This is one of the simplest things we can do and it can have a lifelong impression on the children that benefit from it,” Maxwell said. “The impressions of the children of Afghanistan will have a lasting impact on their continued thoughts about the coalition of nations here providing for the future of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”
Strong feels supporting girls schools in areas like Afghanistan is important because those schools often face difficulty by virtue of simply existing. Unlike the United States, most girls in Afghanistan don’t make it all the way through school, or their families are unable to afford the tuition.
“This school is different, because a few girls have even been able to stay past getting married,” Strong said. “They usually get married very, very young, too. They were able to teach not only girls the value and potential of pursuing education, but also potential suitors and their families the value of allowing their wives to be in school. It’s sad that it has to be allowed, and it isn’t a fundamental right.”
Girls’ schools in Afghanistan face centuries of resistance to the education of women.
"It is heartbreaking to see the way these terrorists treat...women," said Jan in a 2012 interview with CNN. "In their eyes, a women is an object that they can control. They are scared that when these girls get an education, they will become aware of their rights as women and as a human being. The day we opened the school, (on) the other side of town, they threw hand grenades in a girls' school, and 100 girls were killed."
Strong said a motivator for the help he provided was also an attempt to show the bravery and competence of women like Jan, and combat the sexism he sees in western culture.
Beth Murphy, director of What Tomorrow Brings, said she was moved by Strong's desire to become involved with Zabuli.
"I think he really believes in the power of education," she said. "The reality is girls’ education is about as close as we come to having a golden key that can unlock and solve issues of poverty, security and global health. I think it’s so beautiful that someone who was stationed in Afghanistan for the U.S. military kept a picture of Razia and her students on his refrigerator and found inspiration in their story. Sgt. Strong is a very brave man and he sees bravery, too, in the Afghan girls who go to school every day in the face of so many obstacles."
Strong sees his actions as part of a larger effort to make the world better.
“I used to think one person could change the world, but I don’t anymore,” he said. “I think that we all, collectively, help make the world a better place. Being a man doesn’t mean you have to degrade women. If Razia Jan can build a school for girls in Afghanistan, maybe we can talk about women in a better way. Maybe we can treat our female co-workers with the same amount of respect we treat our male co-workers.”
As a result of Strong’s contribution to the fundraiser for Zabuli, he gets a private viewing of the documentary, “What Tomorrow Brings.” He has opted to locate the viewing at the 557th Weather Wing auditorium on March 2 at 6 p.m. Any individual with base access is encouraged to attend. Strong and Beth Murphy, the director, will be in attendance. For more information, please call 294-3663.