By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (April 17, 2012) -- An American Soldier's simple actions in Afghanistan last year gained the attention of that nation's ambassador to the United States, who spoke April 13 with the Soldier one-on-one at the embassy in Washington, D.C.
Sgt. Stephen Hirt is an imagery analyst and part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. During his second deployment to Afghanistan, between 2010 and 2011, Hirt made the effort to gather a small amount of school supplies for Afghan children and to then distribute them.
While handing out supplies, he also stopped to pray with the local villagers. An American Soldier, Hirt is one of the estimated 10-20,000 practicing Muslims among U.S. service members.
"The commander knew that if at all possible I'd like to pray with the locals," Hirt said. "And we got there just by chance at prayer time when they were praying, and he asked, and they said it was fine, they were surprised that I was Muslim, I dropped my gear and handed the commander my weapon and prayed with the locals."
Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, the ambassador to the United States from Afghanistan, said the story interested him.
"I was interested to hear that, especially the experience that he had, he prayed with the Afghan community in the south, where he served," said Hakimi. "I've told him, we should communicate that somehow to Afghanistan. Some people, they don't know that within the U.S. Army, [are] people with different faiths, they serve there, without any discrimination, without any problem. These are things our people don't know. They will be more than happy to hear things like that."
Hirt and Ambassador Hakami met at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., April 13, for about an hour. Hirt also presented Hakami with a tactical knife inside a shadow box, as a gift.
Hirt said that when he asked if he might pray with the local men in the Afghan village, he suspected they might have been suspicious of his intentions at first.
"I think a lot of them doubted that I would know how to do it," he said. Hirt's been a practicing Muslim for eight years now. "I think they thought I was just trying to be polite, like having tea with them."
Hirt said he prayed alongside two other men, and that another "lent me his head scarf to place down so I could pray."
Later, Hirt said, he recognized that there in Afghanistan, even among strangers, and even with a language barrier, he shared something with the villagers that few others did.
"I could tell they felt like they had something in common with me, even though we don't speak the same language," he said.
More important, Hirt said, he suspects that his action might have helped disprove in part, the deceptions being spread by both America's and Afghanistan's enemies in the region.
"In that area I would suspect that it causes a lot of people to question the propaganda the Taliban is running about 'America's war against Islam,'" Hirt said.
Hakimi said the same, adding that by seeing Hirt pray with them, the Soldier had helped disprove, at least there, the myth of America and other outsiders coming to overtake Islam.
The ambassador said that there are opposition forces in Afghanistan that are intent on convincing villagers that outside forces, including ISAF, NATO forces, and the United States, are there to invade the country.
"That is not the case," Hakimi said. "[America] came there to help us get rid of terrorism. [America], with us, we have invested blood and treasure to get rid of terrorists, and to bring institutions based on democratic values. These are the things that you are doing. That is why we have paid a huge, huge price. That example [of Hirt praying], that will change not only people's minds, but it will counter the enemy's agenda."