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NEWS | Sept. 19, 2012

Nebraska crops expert mentors Afghan farmers

By Army Sgt. Christopher Bonebrake Oregon National Guard

PAKTIA PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Army Sgt. Alex Peyton, an agricultural specialist from Gothenburg, Neb., bristles with weapons and gear as he sits quietly in a wooden chair, surveying the world outside the wire at Forward Operating Base Gardez here.

Pulling guard duty is not one of his regular tasks, but as a member of the Nebraska National Guard's agribusiness development team, the agricultural section for the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team, he must do his part to keep his fellow service members safe.

In high school, Peyton was more interested in becoming a veterinarian than a veteran.

"I've always loved animals, and I worked for a local veterinarian during high school and pursued animal science during my first couple years in college," he said.

Peyton credits his grandfather with first sparking his interest in serving in the military. "My dad would tell me stories about my grandfather when he served in the Big Red One during World War II," he said.

Peyton hasn’t looked back since joining the Nebraska National Guard in 2007.

"It was one of the best decisions I ever made," he said. "I serve because when I wear the uniform, it's an honor that is hard to explain. It gives me a great feeling when I put it on."

Peyton deployed to Iraq in 2010 as an intelligence analyst. While he was there, he heard about the agricultural development teams the National Guard was deploying to Afghanistan to help infrastructure development.

When he returned from Iraq, Peyton said, he was looking for summer work and started looking into agronomy -- the study of farming. He worked for a friend at his church taking soil samples and identifying pests, and found that he loved it.

"When I heard about this deployment, I thought it would be a great opportunity to get out in the field and do what I'm learning on the civilian side," he said. "I'm here to help the people of Afghanistan become better farmers, but at the same time learn about early farming practices."

No specific course is designed to train agricultural specialists in the Army.

Selection for being on an agribusiness development team is based upon experience in the civilian world, including education. Peyton was selected because of his work with animals and his current pursuit of a degree from University of Nebraska-Lincoln in agronomy.

He said he believes that his experiences in Afghanistan will make him a better student and potential employee when he returns next year.

On a typical mission, Peyton talks with Afghan farmers to assess how the team can better help them improve their crops. The team also conducts quality assurance and quality control missions, examining the farmers' produce to see if the training they have received has made an impact.

Army Sgt. 1st Class John Ruden, Peyton's first-line leader, describes him as very capable.

"He has a lot of potential for more leadership roles and responsibilities,"

Ruden said. "He loves to engage with the local populace and teach them about agriculture. When there's a chance to go out, he's always eager to do the mission.

"His work ethic is really good as well," Ruden added. "If I give him a task, he'll do it. He may ask me five different questions about how to do it, but that's because he wants to do it right, which is great."

Army Lt. Col. William Prusia, the team's officer in charge, described Peyton as a motivated and dedicated soldier who makes a significant contribution to the team.

"Sergeant Peyton is a very sharp and knowledgeable young man," Prusia said.

"He brings a unique skill set to the team that is invaluable. I don't know many guys in their 20s who have the knowledge and experience he has."

When he gets home, Peyton said, he plans to finish his degree in agronomy and stay in the National Guard until he reaches at least the rank of master sergeant.

"I continue to serve because I have so many friends who got out early and regret it," he said. "Overall, I'm really happy I joined and enjoy what I do here. I'd rather stay in than get out and look back with regret."