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Gary Domian

NH NRCS Employee helping war-ravaged country to rebuild from the ground up

Editor's Note: Gary Domian is New Hampshire NRCS Assistant State Conservationist for Operations and has been serving in Afghanistan with U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Originially published in the Union Leader

THIS ISN'T THE first time Gary Domian has seen the suicide bombings, the starving children and the void in education that pervade war-torn Afghanistan. And it might not be his last.

Gary DomainDomian, a 58-year-old soil scientist from Durham working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has spent the past year creating civic projects and rebuilding the agricultural infrastructure in Farah, a province in western Afghanistan, and Kabul, the capital.

In 2004, after volunteering, he spent six months doing similar work in the southern Kandahar Province.

He has worked with local Afghan farmers who are adapting to new methods, but are restricted by a rigid social system in which many men are uncomfortable with women contributing anything outside their traditional roles.

Tragedy has struck for Domian at least twice while he has been in Afghanistan on this second tour that was to have ended in December, but was extended until the end of this month.

Tom Stefani, a 20-year-old agricultural adviser with whom Domian and other civilian workers had become friends, died after an explosion hit his convoy in October. The impact of the loss extended beyond the Americans. "The Afghans were absolutely heartbroken when we lost this guy," Domian said in a telephone interview from Kabul.

Domian's 89-year-old father died last April at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton.

Afghan village

This Afghan woman, shown with her family, is running a small-scale poultry operation. Participants are provided hens, a rooster and inoculated chicks as well as training. Eggs are sold, bartered and used for the family.

"My dad and I said ?goodbye' when I left," Domian said. "It's just something else you have to be prepared to deal with when you're here. Life is different here."

At the same time that services for his father were held in New Hampshire, Domian and his friends in Afghanistan held private services and readings.

Domian said he talks occasionally with his mother in Manchester, where he was born and raised with his sister and two brothers. He attended Bishop Bradley High School, now Trinity High School.

"Every night I go to bed and pray that he'll be safe the next day," said his mother, Gloria Domian, 88.

It was around the seventh grade, she said, that she noticed her son's interest in the environment. She remembers him observing the dirt outside their house and asking his father, Walter, "Can you see how different this soil is from that?"

"My husband used to come in shaking his head, saying, ?I don't know about that,'" Mrs. Domian said.

Colorful career

Domian graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1973 with a degree in soil and water sciences - not exactly a diploma that guarantees adventure. However, in his career at the Agriculture Department, his life has not been dull.

He has helped rebuild communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina left the city practically destroyed. In 1998 he volunteered to aid communities in the Dominican Republic after Hurricane George. He also has spent six years in Indonesia and worked in Taiwan and Thailand.

"I like the challenges," he said. "I'm 58 years old, and this makes me feel like I'm 18. It's that good."

The Agriculture Department has 32 advisers like Domian in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it anticipates 15 will be added this year. Each reconstruction team the advisers are assigned to contains between 50 and 100 people - half providing security and half working on projects.

Those who have worked with Domian say they weren't surprised when he volunteered to help rebuild Afghan communities.

"Gary is a very impressive fellow, but he doesn't try to be impressive. He is because of his knowledge," said Otto Gonzalez, 52, a team leader among the economists and specialists who work in the Foreign Agricultural Service. Gonzalez worked with Domian in the Dominican Republic and has flown to Afghanistan several times to work with the reconstruction teams there.

"This is in Gary's heart," said George Cleek, his supervisor in Durham: "to take what we do as an agency to those who don't have that access, and offer them that basic technical help to sustain themselves. This is his nature, his true calling."

Domian said he always wanted to be a forester. At UNH, he became a student trainee in soil science, in part because he enjoys the outdoors. "It is the one thing that I've been able to capitalize on in my entire career," he said.

Pride, excitement

Some of the projects in Farah involve teaching women how to keep bees and store honey, and educating high school students on the importance of irrigation by building greenhouses and growing crops. He has taught women raising poultry how to build chicken coops out of mud.

"It gets women working together and really does something for the community," Domian said. "In the backyard, these coops - all painted white, with chickens all running around in the yard - they're proud as heck to show you their coop."

Domian also told President Bush of his progress with those projects in a video conference in mid-March.

"I was proud as hell," he said. "It just makes me proud to be here."

When Domian told Cleek he was volunteering to go to Afghanistan for a second time, Cleek said he could not say no.

"If you were to listen to Gary, he's like a 24-year-old graduating from college and eager to start a new job. His eyes just light up, he glows, he has this unbelievable aura," Cleek said. "This is what he wants to do, and you can't say no.'"

Cleek, 44, described Domian's role in Durham as his "right-hand person" who advised him on countless decisions.

"Gary knows the who, what, where, when and why of New Hampshire and gave me the right advice to make the right decisions," he said. "Whether it's local partners, right staffing decisions, who to send to the right training, Gary has that in-depth knowledge that I didn't have."

As much as he has given to those he has worked with, Domian may not know the extent to which people thank him.

"It's a pleasure to get e-mail and communications from Gary to know that he's still safe and he's still alive," Cleek said. "It is a grave concern for me, and I ask him every time that we communicate to keep his head down and come back safe to New Hampshire, because that's really what we want."

He added, "Right now, I want Gary to come back in April. Right now."