Rick Burns tends to a group of dairy goats on a farm near his hometown of Elk Hart, Iowa.(Photo: Christopher Gannon, The Des Moines Register)

Under Iowan Rick Burns' pay-it-forward-plan, the Afghan families would pass on the goats' offspring to another needy family, who will do the same.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Rick Burns didn't put the war behind him. 
The bravery of the Iraqi people and the hunger in the eyes of 
Afghans wouldn't let him.
"You get those folks in your head," the Elk Horn, Iowa, man said. "You can't leave them."
Burns is an unheralded sort of war veteran. He didn't fire guns or disarm bombs, but worked as an Army civil affairs officer to understand and help citizens caught up in the terror. When he came home after three tours, he had a plan to continue helping in a very Iowan way. He wants to give them farm goats.
Often maligned as feisty, bad-luck critters, the milk-producing goats are a celebrated animal in the signature program of his nonprofit organization, the Karadah Project International, which seeks to help those left in the wake of war.
It won't take boatloads of money, just goodwill and a pay-it-forward plan. Karadah will give two goats to each of 15 families in Khairabad, Afghanistan, who will collect their milk, make yogurt and pass on the goats' offspring to another needy family, who will do the same.
"We've spent 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our metric has always been money spent and projects completed, but not long-term outcomes," said Burns, 52. "As Americans, we feel like if we spend enough money, we can solve a problem. But the idea of every project should be sustainability."
The goat project, he says, "literally makes givers out of takers."
The living standards in Afghanistan are among the poorest in the world, according to U.S. government publications. International aid supports much of the economy in a nation torn by decades of war. As the U.S. winds down its military involvement by the end of 2014, there are worries about what will become of its economy and poor people.
"I have a hard time letting go of it. It has to do with families who bought into what we said we wanted for them," Burns said. "I never truly appreciated how destitute people can live until I was in Afghanistan. People got up every day fighting to raise their kids. These people in western Afghanistan have nothing. They live off the grid with no running water."
He knew he had to do something.
"It's a very small thing," he said. "Two goats."
Burns grew up in a rural area of Mississippi nor far from Memphis, Tenn., but was more inclined to higher education than farming. He attended Brigham Young University and embarked on a two-year Mormon mission to Denmark.
His new skills in the Danish language led to work as a linguist in the Utah National Guard and, in 1997, to Elk Horn to become the director of the Danish Immigrant Museum.
The Army Reservist got a call one night in January 2003 to begin a 15-month tour in Iraq. He left behind his wife, Connie, to raise their five children, the oldest then 15.
The lieutenant colonel ventured into some of the country's most dangerous areas, near Taji, north of Baghdad, to work with local civilians and governments.
"We had to figure out how to get people paid, get businesses back up, and work to get kids a place to go to school. I needed to have a relationship with folks," he said. "The last 10 years of my life became the most meaningful I have ever had."
He saw raw courage in the Iraqi people.
Working with the Karadah District Council on infrastructure issues in 2008, he met Yasmin Hadi Al-Hashimi, a civil engineer and widow in her 50s. Talking with her one morning before a meeting, she pulled a bullet out of her purse, wrapped in a note.
If she continued working on the council, the note read, she would be killed. She laughed and said she would never quit. Al-Hashimi still sits on the council today.
"That is heroism," Burns said. Yet it saddened him that friends were targeted for working with Americans, and he worked to secure visas for his often-threatened Iraqi interpreters after the war.
Amar Mahmud, 42, is one of them. It took Burns two years to get him a visa. Today he is a welder who lives in West Des Moines.
"Some people had a bad image of the U.S. Army, but he really gave it a good image by helping people," Mahmud said. "He did a lot for me, and I will never forget him."
When Burns was called to Afghanistan in 2010, he took the same spirit to a country with even deeper economic challenges.
Afghanistan has few roads, schools or medical clinics. The primitive communities are often run by regional warlords, Burns said.
But he met the same kind of brave people.
"Their desire to make their communities better astounded me, and it's the reason I felt compelled to do more," he said.
So after Burns returned to the U.S., he launched the Karadah Project in 2011. His nonprofit teamed up with Sister Cities International and Baghdad and Creighton University dentistry schools. He held a conference last March in Elk Horn to unite the many nonprofits doing similar work to help the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Burns isn't pushing one-time projects, such as drilling wells, but favors those that are sustainable "with an element of giving back," such as the goat project. The idea was borrowed from Heifer International, which has been donating farm animals to impoverished areas for 70 years.
Afghan friend Abdul Fattah Haidari of the Shindand Women's Social Foundation helped form the idea. The foundation agreed to buy and maintain a donated herd of goats there, and 15 families would be given two each, along with milk processing equipment and training.
Helping out proved costly to Haidari. He was killed in his office in late summer, Burns said.
The goat project still needs $4,000 toward its goal of $10,000 to get the animals to the families. Burns won't let it rest until it's done. He said he can't change everything, but he can do this small thing.
"I just start thinking about my friends that I worked with, those whom I have a slight understanding of what their lives are like," Burns said.
"I'm 52, and my kids are raised. I'm hoping when I get to the end of this life, someone will say there was value to it."