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'Panjshir Penguins'' Making Afghanistan a Better Place

Provincial Reconstruction Team Panjshir

Air Force 2nd Lt. Jason Smith, Provincial Reconstruction Team Panjshir Public Affairs officer, dons a Pittsburgh Penguin jersey after climbing a large hill near Forward Operating Base Lion in the Panjshir Province of Afghanistan. Smith, a Pittsburgh native and Penguin fan, will be deployed to Afghanistan for almost a year where he will work to security, governance and reconstruction efforts. (Photo by U.S. Army Capt. Benjamin Fitting, PRT Panjshir executive officer)

PANJSHIR PROVINCE, Afghanistan--03.15.2010 While workers in the Steel City concentrate their efforts on building the new Consol Energy Center, two Pittsburgh natives and die-hard Penguin fans, are working to build a better Afghanistan.

In the northeastern Afghanistan province of Panjshir, U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Jason Smith, deployed from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and Airman 1st Class Joshua Lavrinc, deployed from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., put in long days as members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Panjshir.

PRTs are joint military and civilian teams that implement projects to improve security, governance and reconstruction efforts. PRT Panjshir has about 100 people including service members, numerous civilians and an Afghan Mujahedeen guard element.

"We basically exercise counterinsurgency operations," said Lavrinc. PRT Panjshir food services specialist. "We help the people who want help in building a stronger Afghanistan without extremism, rather than fight the extremists. That doesn't mean we're not ready to be the "Enforcer" on the ice if we need to be though."

Lavrinc, who's known to some as "Chef Rambo," is the lead cook for Forward Operating Base Lion. He works with an Afghan contractor to prepare all of the meals for the PRT seven days a week. He has quickly earned respect around the FOB for putting together meals that include dishes like lobster spaghetti and crab legs.

"I'm working on making a Primanti sandwich," said Lavrinc, referring to the famous Pittsburgh Primanti Bros. restaurant. "It's more than just cooking for me. I can see the positive effect I have on the morale of the people, and I can put my own passion into the work."

When Smith isn't enjoying the food Lavrinc prepares, he works as the public affairs officer for the FOB. He said his job is to tell the story of the PRT to the local populace, government officials in Afghanistan and America, and the American people. Both he and Lavrinc agree that Penguin victories motivate them through the long days at the FOB. They are looking for a strong run in this year's playoffs.

"During the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, I was getting ready to be gone from home for a long time, and my wife wanted to get me something really special for my birthday," said Smith. "I kept telling her that all I wanted was a Penguin Stanley Cup. As is turns out, my birthday is June 12 the same day the Pens won Game 7. If they can pull that off again this year, it will be more than ironic."

Like many NHL fans, Lavrinc's favorite player is Evgeni Malkin. However, Lavrinc's favorite piece of Penguin memorabilia is a little more unique.

"I wish I had it here," Lavrinc said smiling. "I have a giant Bud Light, foam Penguin hat. It's a sweet hat. I don't even know how old it is, but I got it at one of the games."

Smith's best hockey memory, other than seeing Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby play together, involved attending the All-Star Game in Atlanta and meeting some of the NHL players.

"I was a guest of the VERSUS Network at the 2008 All-Star Game in Atlanta," said Smith. "I was packing my Pens jersey and my Air Force jersey to try to get signed by Crosby. I remember seeing him get injured just before the All-Star break, and I was wondering if I would miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet him. Sid didn't' make it to the All-Star Game, but I did get to meet Sergei Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin."

While meeting the superstars, Smith said he got the chance to use some of the language skills he picked up while serving in the military.

"I had just returned from working with a Ukrainian army captain in Kosovo for four months, - and my wife is Bulgarian - so I know just enough Russian to introduce myself, order a beer and curse someone out," Smith said laughing. "I introduced myself in Russian to 'Gonch.' He smiled and started speaking in Russian to me. The only other thing I could remember to say in Russian was that 'I don't speak Russian.' He laughed and talked to me in English. Malkin seemed a little shy, but they were both real polite and friendly.

"It was the most exciting and incredible non-family experience I've ever had," said Smith about his All-Star Game trip. "Every player I met with was classy and personable. At the risk of offending my Penguin team, the three players who I most enjoyed talking to were Vincent Lecavalier, Rick Nash and Joe Thornton.

"Thornton just seemed like a guy you might have in the locker room on your local C-League team," Smith continued. "We talked about my experience in Kosovo, and he just talked to me like I was one of his buddies. I believe he was genuine, and I'll cheer for him every time he's not playing against the Penguins."

Lavrinc said he is concentrating on making his little area of Afghanistan a better place, but he will definitely take time to plan a special meal if the Penguins are able to reach the Cup Finals.

"I keep up with the scores and news through NHL.com and the Armed Forces Network, when they show hockey," said Lavrinc. "I'll gladly get up in the middle of the night to cook something special for the Stanley Cup games though."

Although neither wanted to talk about it, Smith and Lavrinc did acknowledge that there are at least two Detroit Red Wing fans at the FOB. They all hope to see a rematch and will let their respective teams do the battling on the ice.

All of the military members of PRT Panjshir are scheduled to stay in Afghanistan for almost a year.

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