BY CATHY FREE, People
Arriving in Afghanistan in 2010, U.S. Army Maj. Glenn Battschinger, homesick for his two Eagle Scout sons, knew right away how to make a difference.
“There were hundreds of children who swarmed myself and the other soldiers coming and going from the base,” he tells PEOPLE. “The kids wanted attention and needed something to do.”
Battschinger pictured them in uniforms, tying knots and carving wood, just like his sons, Gregory, 17, and Cedric, 15, did back home in Mays Landing, New Jersey.
One week later, after receiving the go-ahead from leaders of three villages surrounding the Finley-Shields Army Operating Base, Battschinger gathered 40 Afghan boys in an orange orchard outside the base for Qasabah Troop No. 1’s first Boy Scout meeting.
After the kids were taught the Boy Scout pledge, Battschinger and several volunteers gave them each a 3-foot strand of parachute cord for knot-tying that doubled as a neckerchief.
“The boys were quick learners,” recalls Battschinger, 52, a civil affairs team commander who conducted the meetings every Saturday on his own time.
“It wasn’t long before they were learning about pioneering and first aid and building towers and bridge ropes,” he tells PEOPLE.
“These kids are no different, really, than scouts back in the States,” he says. “They’re eager to learn. All they needed was a little attention.”
Today, that troop of 40 scouts has grown to include dozens of troops in five eastern Afghanistan provinces, funded with a $100,000 grant secured by Battschinger from the Department of Defense and serving more than 10,000 boys and about 1,500 girls.
“Glenn is an amazing man with a vision to make this world a better place,” Donna Clementoni, a veterans advocate for New Jersey’s Guard and Reserve, tells PEOPLE.
“He has a big heart,” she says. “The scout program he initiated proves that concepts of scout law such as ‘trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and courteous’ have a universal message.”
Touched by the plight of Afghan children living in extreme poverty, Battschinger reached out to help in other ways as well.
When he was introduced to Bilal Sharif, a 7-year-old brick factory worker born with a club foot and a bladder exstrophy – a rare and painful condition where part of the urinary bladder is outside the body – he vowed to get the boy medical treatment.
After months of research, Battschinger found a U.S. surgeon, Dr. Moneer Hanna of Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New Jersey, to do multiple surgeries for free.
Then he lined up a host family, Laureen Dempsey and her husband William of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to care for Bilal while he recuperated.
“Bilal understands the huge undertaking it was for Glenn to bring him to America,” says Dempsey, 57, who has looked after Bilal for more than a year, since his first surgery in 2013.
“When they can, he and Glenn catch up together on Skype,” she tells PEOPLE. “Bilal always says that ‘Major B’ is his best friend.”
Battschinger is simply “the best hero I ever met in America or Afghanistan,” says Bilal, who believes that he is probably 9 (he grew up without knowing his birthday).
Now attending school in Scranton, he dreams of becoming a doctor someday and will likely be reunited with his parents and nine siblings in Afghanistan within a year after he recovers from a few additional surgeries.
“He’s a special boy,” Dempsey says. “He came to us with an open heart and easily trusted everyone who cared for him. I know he will someday do great things with his life.”
That is Battschinger’s hope for all of the Afghan children he helped.
Now reassigned to a new mission in the Horn of Africa, he says he hears often from teens he taught in Afghanistan who have gone on to become officers in the Afghan National Army or found jobs using the skills they learned as scouts.
“I have kids write to me every day with tales of how scouting has changed their lives,” he says, “and that’s extremely rewarding. I feel like I merely played a hand in introducing something good that would help develop leaders for tomorrow. I’m just so glad that it caught on.”