Long before Thursday's election in Afghanistan, they were busy telling people about the coming vote.

Between inspections of school and road construction in hot, dusty Kapisa Province, they asked the same questions: Do you know there's going to be an election? Do you know where your polling place is?

Air Force Lt. Col. W. Mark Heiser, Capt. Darrick Lee, and other members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team wanted Afghans to have a stake in the electoral process, to know they would be safe despite Taliban threats.

They even hired a local contractor to erect a billboard reminding people of the vote, said Heiser, commander of the team and a former Reading-area resident.

Then came the day the team had prepared for since it arrived early last month, said Lee, who lives with his wife and son at Fort Dix in Burlington County.

"Do you know what we did?" he asked. "Nothing."

The mission is to "coach, mentor, and monitor," said Heiser, a Pennsylvania State University graduate. "We checked polling sites, offered advice on how to have a legitimate election, but we were hands-off."

"We didn't go to any polling stations. We didn't go near any Afghanistan government buildings, and we didn't help provide transportation or security during the voting process," Lee said Thursday. Everything that did or didn't happen "was a result of action taken by the Afghan government."

Heiser and Lee, whose team is among many in the country, said they were encouraged to see 40 to 50 percent of the nation's 15 million registered voters defy Taliban intimidation and cast ballots for President Hamid Karzai or one of his challengers.

Partial preliminary results may be made public by Tuesday, with final official results announced early next month.

The "goal is to connect the Afghan people to their government and separate the people from the insurgents," said Heiser, 48, whose parents owned a gift shop in Schuylkill County, Pa.

"It's a 'crawl, walk, run' process. My personal opinion is that we are somewhere in between the crawl and walk stage. I think the voter turnout and how legitimate the Afghans view the process will be telling," he said.

Members of Heiser's team - which includes dozens of military and civilian members, including engineers - are facilitators. They determine the region's needs, offer project specifications, then hire locals to construct schools, clinics, and roads.

Breakthroughs occur when Afghans "solve their own problems," Heiser said. "Better for the Afghans to do it slowly with errors than for us to do it fast and perfect."

A few times each week, the reconstruction team leaves Bagram Air Field, or BAF, nestled between the Hindu Kush Mountains, to meet with local leaders and residents.

"Our mission is not to find bad guys and destroy them," said Lee, 38, the team's information officer, who served in the Marines before joining the Air Force in 2002. "That doesn't mean we're not concerned with security. The insurgents are very creative with IEDs."

The squad leader who heads up security for the team is Army Sgt. Rob Feiser, 37, a Pennsylvania state policeman from York.

Soldiers "do develop a sense," he said. "They can tell when things have changed, when attitudes have changed. . . . The local nationals are comfortable with our presence."

Kapisa is similar to Rhode Island in size and is home to the Shomali Plain, Heiser said. "No power, either ancient or modern - Alexander the Great to the Soviets - has ever achieved stable rule in Afghanistan without controlling the Shomali Plain," he said.

"The landscape reminds me of the mid- to late-'60s westerns featuring Clint Eastwood. . . . Our team moniker, High Plains Drifters, was derived from that connection."

During overnight trips to the Morales-Frazier Forward Operating Base, where the team sleeps in an open tent, "with the stars illuminating, you think you can reach out and touch the mountains," Heiser said. Standing outside in the cold, he called his wife by satellite phone late one night in March.

"She was sitting in Atlanta traffic, and I was wrapped in a sleeping bag, standing on a picnic table, thinking if I stretched I could touch the midpoint of the great Hindu Kush Mountains."

Contact with family, by phone or Internet, comes sporadically and always after the day's work is done. That work, from early morning until evening, is consuming.

Part of the job of recording the team's progress, in words and photos, belongs to Senior Airman Jason "Red" Troup, who assists Lee with articles for military publications.

"I write stories about the mission for the day, and they're sent up through the chain of command" before getting published, said Troup, 23, of Pittsburgh.

Troup also can be called on to help provide security by manning a .50-caliber turret machine gun.

"I think to myself, 'What did I get into?' " he said, laughing. "But I feel pretty safe at BAF. I've never fired a shot."

Still, families of the soldiers remain concerned. Airman First Class Willie Jackson, 20, of North Philadelphia, stays in touch with his parents and siblings via the Internet.

"They're worried but recognize I have a duty to the military," said Jackson, an administrative clerk for the team. "Time will tell whether we make progress on the mission in Afghanistan."

Progress - and memories - are found in unlikely encounters sometimes.

"One of our teammates was in full combat gear: three weapons with full combat loads, smoke grenades, complete body armor, dust scarf around his neck and face, dark protective glasses, standing guard. . . . All business," Heiser recalled.

"A 4- to 5-year-old Afghan girl in her bright green dress with sparkles, olive skin, fluffy chestnut hair - cute as could be, million-dollar smile - walks across the room unprompted, fists clenched, doing a beeline toward the soldier with 300 Afghan women watching. She reaches the soldier, looks up, extends her hand, and offers the soldier a piece of candy.

"No doubt in my mind I will leave here with many more" memories.

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.