Retired Brig. Gen. Max H. Della Pia is four months removed and halfway around the world from Kandahar Airfield, but he vividly remembers one moment from his time in Afghanistan.
Della Pia said he was handing out school supplies to Afghan children on a humanitarian mission when a young girl kissed his hand.
“I almost lost it,” he said. “This is a little girl, and we are fighting an enemy that does not believe that she’s a person, really, that she’s entitled to an education, or that she’s anything more than someone’s property.”
Della Pia spoke on Sunday to about 90 people at the Schenectady County Public Library as part of an ongoing “One County, One Book” program there.
The program aims to educate the community about Afghanistan, as library patrons read “The Kite Runner,” a book written by Khaled Hosseini and set in the war-torn nation.
Della Pia was stationed in Kandahar from June 2007 to January. He served as the commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Group.
Previously a colonel, upon his retirement he was given a promotion to brigadier general in a ceremony earlier on Sunday.
Della Pia, 54, from Burnt Hills, served a combination of over 32 years in active and reserve duty for the Air Force and Air National Guard.
“If we ever want to step away from Afghanistan, our goal has to be to train, mentor [and] equip a capable national police and air force and army,” he said. “I think the things that are worth fighting for over there are hope and freedom.”
Della Pia was also the commander of the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton Air National Guard Base from 1999 to 2006.
Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jared Semerad, 23, served in Afghanistan as a flight medic from September 2007 to January.
He said he tended to and transported not just injured coalition forces but also their Taliban counterparts.
“It’s very difficult to actually stomach that, that you are taking care of someone that’s trying to take you out,” he said. “By doing that, it kind of helps build you as a person.”
Semerad and Della Pia spoke for about an hour before taking questions from the audience. One woman, Connie Frisbee Houde, of Albany, thanked Semerad for his service.
“My stepson was severely injured in Iraq, and if it weren’t for the medics that arrived safely, he wouldn’t have a life to live today,” she said.
After Semerad and Della Pia spoke about Afghanistan, other war veterans spoke about their own experiences in Iraq, World War II and Korea.
“It just set us up for a wonderful series of programming besides discussing the book, but to learn as much as we could about Afghanistan,” said reference librarian Karen Bradley, who is coordinating the “One County, One Book” program.
She said that she has learned a lot about Afghanistan in the last several months.
“We hear about it on the news every night, it’s in the paper every day, but they’re just innocent people,” Bradley added. “Their history of their country, it’s just been warfare for so many years.”
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