15 December 2011

You don't have to go out, but you can't stay here

There's a lot of stuff people don't tell you about coming home from a war. And a very smart person told me that I'm probably having a harder time than most because I've gone and done this tremendously dangerous thing for the first time when I was 32 and pensive, vice being 19 and invincible, as are many service members when they experience war for the first time. I was well aware of the risks we were taking out there, some voluntarily and others purely by the nature of our mission. And I am now, more than ever, well aware of just how lucky I am to have made it back home.

But what I didn't expect was how difficult the transition would be. I drove down the Autobahn for the first time yesterday, in my non-armored Volvo. I was driving significantly faster than I should have, and I was on the constant lookout for some other car to pull directly in front of me and detonate, so somehow in my mind, being one of the fastest cars on the road made me safer. Yes, I do understand that in reality that's not the case. Today on my drive back, I saw two tan Humvees driving in a small convoy on the opposite side of the road, and I couldn't help but wonder whether they'd been to Afghanistan like I had. I thought about how I'd feel much safer in one of those than in my tank of a civilian automobile.

Knowing that being home alone for a few months isn't a good thing right now, I asked two of my dear friends if I could come visit them on the Mosel River yesterday, about two hours from where I currently live in Germany. And by far the most interesting sequence of events was a conversation in German between me and their eight year old son.

"Lisa," he asked. "What did you do in Afghanistan?"

I didn't really have an answer better than "I was a teacher, like your mother." But the truth of the matter is that now that I'm back, I wonder what I did in Afghanistan and what I have to show for it. Yes, I worked with people and I changed a handful of lives...for now. But by all accounts, without a Western influence, those lives will slowly re-adapt to their own cultural norms and I'll be another faded foreign memory.

It's hard to walk back into my former life, pretending like nothing has changed in the past eight months. I want to talk to everyone about what I did in Afghanistan and why I think it was important. I'm consumed by it, in fact. And given that my predisposition to getting lost in those thoughts is annoying to me, I can only imagine how others must feel to listen to me. I want to think about other things...normal things...but I'm not there yet. I want to be able to stand in a crowded room of people and not be scanning everyone's hands to make sure they're not concealing a weapon or a bomb, jittering at the thought of how I would respond. I want to stop brushing my hand across my right hip, not feeling my M9 sitting there, and wondering where it went.

I want to be normal again. And if the first few days are any indication, normal will take time and patience.

14 December 2011

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

As it turns out, this deployment ended in much the same fashion that it began...chaos, followed by a lull in activity, followed by more chaos, which ultimately delivered me back to Reichenbach-Steegen, Germany, the safest of any location in which I've been in the past 8 or so months.

I was bound and determined to be patient at one of the military's largest transient bases. And I did well. For about 72 hours. I laid in bed endlessly, watching movies, chatting with friends, making travel plans. But on Monday I absolutely cracked. Why on Earth should I hang out in Wrong-a-stan when I could be hanging out in my own house with a nice glass of wine surrounded by friends?

Both Rob and my friend Bryan offered to look up the military flight schedule, find me the name of an aircraft commander, and provide advice on how to find my way out of this transient situation. I picked up the phone at about 2am on Tuesday morning, calling blind to someone I'd never met, and somehow I convinced this extremely friendly pilot to take me home to Germany...at least 72 hours before the Air Force planned to let me do so.

It was gently snowing in Wrong-a-stan, and upon hearing that my chariot awaited, I dashed to my tent, heated to 90 degrees and brimming over with more than 40 girls, grabbed my bookbag and sleeping bag (the only pieces of luggage I brought back from Afghanistan), clipped on my pink reflective belt, and bolted to meet the crew. It took another at least three hours to negotiate all of the details, but by about 5:30am I was sitting somewhat comfortably on the back of a C-17, in complete awe that my master plan panned out, and listening to the de-icing machines clear the snow from the fuselage of the airplane.

There was something unbelievably special about this particular mission between Wrong-a-stan and Germany. This pilot was flying the remains of three American military members who had lost their lives fighting the war from which I was returning. Prior to my deployment, my job was to take care of these fallen heroes at Ramstein, where all of the American fallen transit en route to Dover Air Force Base so that my team can open their flag-draped transfer cases, re-ice the remains, re-seal the cases, and send them on their way.

What a sobering end of my incredible journey to spend almost nine hours gazing at these three flag-draped cases and truly appreciating just how lucky I am to be returning home to see my friends and family. Somewhere in the world, the friends and family of these three fallen heroes are in a state of shock and mourning, a huge contrast to  my own reunion emotions. It's a substantial flight between Wrong-a-stan and Germany, and about 30 minutes into the flight I managed to put down Water for Elephants, crawl into my sleeping bag and fade off to sleep.

I picked my sleeping location deliberately. The three flag-draped cases were tied down in a U-shape near the front of the aircraft, their heads all facing in the direction of home. I curled into my sleeping bag, nestled carefully inside of the U, my head facing toward home, surrounded by these great Americans, and imagining how they would have felt to be on the exciting journey home that I was then experiencing.

Those were, perhaps, my best eight hours of sleep since I began this journey more than eight months ago, and as I awoke, we were beginning our initial descent into Ramstein. As I stepped off of the airplane and onto the bus that led me to my first un-monitored step in a very long time, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of freedom...the same freedom those three fallen heroes had given their lives preserving.

I chose breakfast for dinner my first night home...buttermilk waffles and eggs scrambled with cream. And I drank a glass of champagne to celebrate not only my return from Afghanistan, but also to celebrate the lives of the 1,836 American service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. May their lives inspire the next generation of American men and women to chose service as a way of life, and to help share our good fortune with those who were born into less fortunate circumstances.

10 December 2011

Pushing Pause

I'm in the glorious Kyrgyz Republic right now, and as it appears, I will be here for quite a few more days than I expected. And at first that was infuriating. I am one plane ride away from Germany, there are airplanes that fly to Germany all of the time from here, and because of their (strange) local policies, I have to wait for a specific airplane, But okay, now I'm here. It's not Afghanistan. It's not dangerous. I've turned in all of my Army-issued gear (I am now at least 80 pounds lighter) and now my time is uniquely mine.

I have probably six books I'd like to read. I have a stack of movies I'm not opposed to watching. This is the land of milk and honey (there is free food all over the place...most of which is distinctly unhealthy). And I have plenty of reflecting to do on the past nine months and how it feels to transition from war to absolutely not war.

So maybe these six or so transition days showed up in my life for a reason. Maybe someone out there knew that I was going to have a hard time making that transition when I walked back into a life full of independence and unlimited choices.

My goal is to spend a few hours a day reflecting and writing. And a few more hours creating a memory book for myself where I weave the pictures I've taken while I've been away into the blog posts I've written. Then there's the concept of sleeping, restfully, for more than a few winks at a time.

And a free one-week vacation. Thank you, Uncle Sam. We're just going to pretend that you know best.

08 December 2011

I'm on my way home

It's strange to be inside of an 8 x 10 foot shipping container and to be sad that tonight might be the last time I fall asleep under these "stars." It's also strange to think that there will be so many things I miss about living here, about Afghanistan and about the people I've met here. I almost feel guilty for admitting that, since returning home is suppose to be the joyous part of the deployment.

But what people don't tell you is that returning home is the hard part. Even though I know that there are people at home who love and have missed me, it's still hard to walk away from a job that's this meaningful. It's hard to know that starting this weekend, Catalina Wine Mixer becomes Silver Bullet. It's hard to know that in a few days, someone else will be living in my Afghan Sanctuary. And it's really hard to know that I'm coming back to a job where the most dangerous aspect is, well, there really isn't one. At all. And after nine months of training for and preparing for the worst, it will be a hard transition to think that my real world problems will include the heat not working in our house (again) or my car battery that's currently dead. That seems to trivial compared to, say, the bomb that lit up downtown Kabul a few days ago.

This deployment started and ended in almost the same way...with no time to think about or reflect on what's going on around me. I had two full days to get myself ready to leave Germany and head to Louisiana for training. Today the Army gave me my letter that authorizes my departure from theater, and the Air Force told me that they can't get me home until January. There is absolutely no way I'm hanging out in this shipping container (in all of it's Afghan glory) for another three weeks, so tomorrow morning, I will take matters into my own hands.

At 6:30am I'll be sitting at the rotary terminal at our base awaiting a helicopter to take me to another Afghan base, to take me back to Wrong-a-stan to get me back to Germany. So what I need from all of you praying-type people is more travel luck than any one girl ever deserved.

I've had the absolute most incredible experience since I've been out here. I can't believe I was paid to do the incredible things and live the incredible experiences I've lived while I've been in Afghanistan. To think that tomorrow that will all be a memory is a bit overwhelming.

Think about me for the next 48 hours or so, please, and send me really good travel vibes. Though my adventure in Afghanistan is almost over, I think that there are some post-deployment changes that will be noteworthy enough to mention, so my intention is to keep writing. This has been my outlet while I've been in Kabul, and all of you have been the people who have kept me going. Knowing that there are some 70 people who read each of my entries has really made me appreciate the fact that people back home are interested in what we're doing out here and how we're doing it. And I hope that my experiences here have inspired others to seek out their passions as well.

Travel updates forthcoming. And home, after 239 days on the road, is just around the corner.

07 December 2011

Stuck in the Middle

Sometimes deployments are waiting games. We wait for the enemy to strike...and they do. Lately, in full force. Yesterday a suicide bomber killed at least 56 in downtown Kabul, though when Julia came to visit me one last time today, she said that the number appears to be closer to 300. No doubt that there were some really bad people in this country who do really terrible things to each other.

Other times deployments are just plain lonely. I'm stuck in the middle now. I'm no longer on the team which has so defined my deployment. Instead, I'm alone, waiting for the Army to officially release me to go home, which may happen in the next 24 hours or so...or it might not. I'm watching the guys prepare for missions, review the intelligence reports, and talk about their jobs, and already I feel a sense of longing to be a part of that mission again. It's strange to think that the most dangerous thing I've ever done was also the most rewarding, and I have no doubt these past five months will be the defining time of my military career.

Today it was time to say goodbye to the single most important person in my life in Afghanistan. Julia came to visit on Monday and cooked me the most delicious lunch, which we shared picnic-style on my floor. Today she came back for one final visit, and we spent the morning talking about our favorite memories and how much we've both changed over the past five months. She has even started to talk like me ("Seriously?" she asked me earlier). But more importantly, she's learning to think like a Western girl, and to demand the respect she so deserves. I could not be more proud.

I left a letter in her bag, because saying goodbye while she was here would have turned into an absolute tear-fest:

Dear Julia,

We both know that I am terrible at saying goodbye, so instead I will say thank you. Thank you for helping me appreciate Afghan culture. Thank you for inspiring the women (our sisters) at Headquarters X.Y. to help each other and to wear their uniforms. And thank you for teaching me that a smart, beautiful woman can have a huge impact in any country. You have certainly done that here, and it has been my pleasure to work with you. One of my friends gave me the best advice when I came here. He said "Be yourself." So I give the same advice to you...be yourself. Get your TOEFL certificate and come to the U.S. with your beautiful daughter. Anything is possible if you want it badly enough. I'll be cheering for you.

Much love,
Lisa

Julia and I agreed that before yesterday, it was sad to think that I would soon leave Afghanistan. Over the past few months, Kabul has become increasingly unsafe, particularly for women, so we now agree that now is the right time for me to leave, if ever such a time existed.

I have so many incredible memories from my time with Julia in Kabul. I can only hope that I've had half the impact on her life as she's had on mine.

05 December 2011

The End of the Catalina Wine Mixer

Yesterday was my last convoy. And it was the day that I had to say goodbye to people who have over the past five months literally changed my life...or at least my point of view.

Julia and I started at the Women's Center, where we met with MAJ Nadia to talk about our favorite memories and how proud we are of how much positive change we've seen in the women, who now look forward to wearing their uniforms and who now work together in little ways...finally! The women's meeting started, and though it was smaller than usual, it was full of people we have come to love and respect. We read the "sisters" letter to MAJ Nadia before the meeting, and she told us that hearing that letter made her feel like she was another world. She proudly read the letter to the letter to the women at the meeting, and even the illiterate women clutched the white envelope close to their hearts. Julia shed enough tears for a small army.

We ate lunch with the commander of the security unit on base, who has taken unbelievable care of me and Catalina during my time here. It was this commander, an Afghan Colonel, who volunteered his personal time and 10 of his soldiers to come protect us during our humanitarian missions. He invited me, Julia and John's former interpreter up for lunch which was spicy meat paddies of some sort with the most delicious bread I've ever tasted. We also reminisced about how much progress he's seen at our base over the past few months, and how he's enjoyed my team more than he enjoyed any other team with whom he's worked. Success, and the very best kind, since this incredible officer is a huge part of the reason this deployment (and our many adventures) has been so rewarding.

Julia and I then wandered across the hall to meet with the Education & Training Officer, another of the senior officers I advised. Afghans love certificates, so I presented another appreciation plaque with American and Afghan flags and a certificate. We sat together on the couch, talking about how pleased he's been to share these past few months, just as we are here, talking about similarities between officers in our militaries.

And to end this spectacular day, we visited the G1 officer. This senior officer is the reason I was officially sent to Afghanistan in the first place. He and I share a background in human resources, and I've spent the past five months explaining Western personnel policies to him, while he's shared his experiences in the many militaries of Afghanistan to me. We've shared incredible conversations, he has grown to respect working with women in ways I wish other male Afghan officers would emulate, and he said the most wonderful thing to me as I left. He said that he thinks of me not just as his advisor, but also as his daughter. He bought me te most interesting Afghan costume jewelry, and insisted I model it for him.

How do we measure success in Afghanistan? We measure it through hugs like this one, from a woman who wore her uniform yesterday for the first time ever. We measure it one person at a time. One heart. One mind. And we hope that those hearts and minds we've won will help turn the tide in Afghanistan. And in my time here, I hope that I've inspired a few Afghans (especially the women) to do just that...reach out and pay it forward by changing one point of view.

I'll miss the people in Afghanistan. I'll miss Catalina Wine Mixer. And I'll miss the beautiful traditions...the hand shake and three kisses, the chai, and my new found affection for the most simple things in life. This opportunity was incredible, and I can only hope that those with whom I have worked have learned half as much from me as I have from them.

01 December 2011

Please Come Home for Christmas

I consider myself fairly well grounded, well traveled, and relatively stable. Usually. The past few weeks, wow, I've been all over the place to the point that I'm now physically ill.

Loren and I have been sharing some interesting conversations about the transition from war to peace. Until now, quite honestly, I had never really considered it. I mean, every day here I run convoys in combat. The month of November was the first month in quite some time where the bad guys in Kabul didn't mount a spectacular attack on Coalition Forces. I'm now down to an undisclosed amount of days in Kabul, and it's undisclosed because no one (including me) knows when I'll be out of here. But it will be soon...relatively speaking. And the reality of my transition from war to not-war is really sinking in.

I haven't lived in the real world for more than eight months. For the past eight months, I have been focused on my physical safety in combat. I spent almost three months picking the brains of some really smart people as I was preparing, then five more months employing those tactics on the roads of Afghanistan. The last few weeks out here are notoriously dangerous...it's easy to lose focus, start daydreaming about home, and for something bad to happen. I've done my best to take every precaution so that I don't pose a risk to either myself or my team, and I have to believe that after all this time on the road, I can trust my instincts and I'll know when something just doesn't feel right...either with myself or the situation.

But the reality of the situation is that in the next few weeks, my life is going to be drastically different than it is right now, and I will be drastically different than the last time I lived in that house, in that town, and in that country. I'll be able to have a glass of wine by the fire, which is one of the winteresque memories that keeps me sane out here. The thing I fear is being alone.

For eight months, there was always someone physically next to me while I went through a huge spectrum of emotions. And when I get home, it will be just me for about six weeks, working through the freedoms that arise when the U.S. Army releases it's stranglehold on me. I'll still have people "next to me" as this all transpires, but my support system in Germany isn't at all comparable to the one I've had out here.

Just as there were so many firsts while I've been out here, there are now so many lasts...and most of them are liberating. When I get out of the truck later this week, that will be my last ride in a M-ATV. My last time wearing the world's most uncomfortable headset. My last bland meal in the Dining Facility. My last night living in a shipping container.

The thing I am not looking forward to, however, is the feeling of isolation that I think may come with a return back to home where there isn't the rush of daily life-and-death decisions. Where the camaraderie I've grown to love will be gone. And where watching women with endless amounts of potential find a way to start living dreams they never knew they had is no longer a daily event.

Yes, there are things I will actually miss about being at war. In time, my non-war life will again become normal. And for the next few weeks, I'll be riding the tidal wave of transitional emotions, and I'll be thankful for an outlet like this one. And I'll certainly be thankful that I'll be home for Christmas. And by home, I mean back on the Mosel River in Germany with some of my favorite people in the world.

29 November 2011

Starting to Say Goodbye

It's been a turbulent past few weeks around here. Perhaps that's the understatement of the deployment. First I was staying here until the end of June. Then I was staying here until the end of December. Now I'm staying here a handful more days and then I'm on my way back to Germany.

As you can imagine, this was less than palatable news for Julia, who now fondly refers to herself as my Afghan sister (which I love, by the way).  It's also been less than joyous news to share with the Afghans with whom I work here, and I haven't even started telling the women.

Julia and I agreed that I should do something personal for the women who have made this deployment so incredible, so together she and I wrote a letter of thanks (in Dari):


سلام و احترامات خود را خدمت تمام خانمهای قوماندانی تقدیم میدارم
خواهر های عزیزم مه بسیار خوش بودم که میتوانم یک سال باهم همکار باشیم
مگر از طرف فنکس گفته شود در یک هفته باید برم میخواستم بسیارکمک تان کنم
مگر از این که وقت کم دارم باید بورم. مگر از همه شما خواهش دارم که
متوجه یکی دیگر باشید مه از همه شما بسیار خوش هستم میخواهم به یاد
من هر یک شمبه لباس نظامی تان را در جان تان کنین. و تشکر از همه چیز
همرای خود تمام یاد های تان را میبرم مه همیش برای شما و فامیل تان
دعا میکنم که صحت مند باشین
   با احترام خواهر شما

           لیزا باربار

And here's what we said roughly translated into English:

Hello to all of the women who work at Headquarters XY (my sisters),
I would love to keep working with you and helping you, but unfortunately I do not have much time. I have been ordered to return to Germany very soon.
I am very proud of all of you. You are all doing a wonderful job. I have a request for all of you...please take care of each other and if you want to remember me, wear your uniform every Sunday even when I am gone.
Thanks for everything and I will take the great memories we shared together with me forever.
I will pray for your success and for your families.
Your sister,
Lisa

Each woman will receive an envelope with her name on it, and enclosed will be the letter and a picture of me in my American uniform wearing a head scarf, since that is how they all remember me. I will pass out the envelopes on Sunday when I see the women at our last meeting together.

The end crept up on me so fast, and I still have no idea how to process it all. But I'm sure in time I'll sort through it all, and what I've said to the women is so true...I will forever cherish my memories of the beautiful women of Afghanistan and of the Afghan National Army.

26 November 2011

Another Saturday Night

Perhaps you're wondering what a Saturday night is like in Afghanistan. I'm more than happy to oblige. And I'll get there. Stick with me.

We affectionately refer to Saturdays in Afghanistan as Afghan Mondays. As the weekend here is Thursday afternoon and Friday (the Muslim holy day), Saturday morning is usually when we see our Afghan counterparts for the first time that week. So already the days are all jumbled. We did that today...headed out to work and tried to have a few meetings, but our counterparts were all scattered elsewhere in the city today (unbeknownst to us, and impossible to predict as we cannot call ahead to schedule meetings since that might jeopardize our security). We ate a very unmemorable lunch (imagine previously frozen lunch meat, sliced cheese, tomatoes, and oops, someone forgot to bring the bread). And finally we were just sick of sitting around, so we left. There really aren't working hours here, so the fact that we left in the very early afternoon was no big deal. Work was done. We left.

We returned to our base and decided that since we had some extra time, we would wash our trucks. I know, lots of people wash cars on the weekends, so this really isn't much of a stretch. Except these trucks are gigantic. And they were caked with inches and inches of mud on the undercarriage, in the wheel wells, and plastered to the sides of the monstrous vehicles That ordeal took about an hour of power washing using non-potable water that kept splattering in our faces. Don't think about that. We didn't. Disgusting.

And even after all of that, it was hardly late afternoon. So I went to the gym for the second time today, because quite frankly I couldn't think of anything else to do. Then I took one of my guys who is celebrating his 40th birthday today "out" to "birthday dinner" which is to say that we sat in the same dining facility where we always sit, ate the same mediocre food, celebrated with dessert, and then about 30 minutes later went back to our own rooms.

Then I started getting creative. What do really crazy people do on a Saturday night in Afghanistan? They bleach their socks and washcloths in their trashcan. In their room. Yes, that's what cool people do. So I did that. And performed decoupage on the new city route map we need to put in our trucks...using contact paper and a straight knife. And printed a bunch of pictures I took of the young cops who work at the main gate at our Afghan base (Julia and I fondly refer to them as the DAWGS). And started writing Christmas cards. And listened to This American Life.

Every day in Afghanistan blends into the next one. Saturday is like Tuesday. Thursday is like Tuesday. Tuesday is like Tuesday. But the silver lining here is that although tonight was just another Saturday night in Afghanistan, I have less than a handful of such evenings left here before my return to spending Saturday nights in various European cities, nursing a glass of wine and enjoying great company. And that's a Saturday night experience I can't wait to relive.

23 November 2011

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

There is a fascinating sequence of events unfolding on the Afghan base at which I work, and the women who work there have no viable voice or advocate. I only have a few weeks left, but this is a battle worth fighting...and my argument below to the senior leaders at the Coalition's decision-making base is an interesting insight into the life and struggles of Afghan military woman.

------------

Ma'am,

I appreciated the opportunity to provide you with information about the 28 military women who work at Headquarters X. Y. earlier this month. They were thrilled to share their personal stories with me, and I'd like to provide you with an update on their well-being a few weeks later.

Approximately three months ago, the Coalition pushed hard to make significant changes in one unit's manning document, which happens to be the unit in which 9 of the 28 military women at HQ X.Y. are employed. During that reorganization, 37 Afghan National Army military members were demoted (based solely on lack of positions, and not based on merit), including 7 of the 9 women employed in the unit.

The impacted women, Del Jahn (former E-9), Sahibo (former E-9), Wahida (former E-8), Mina (former E-8), Shafika (former E-7), Nadia (former E-7), and Fahima (former E-6) have all been demoted to lower-level positions with neither notice nor justification. The command's Afghan personnel officer worked with his superiors at two higher echelons to resolve the matter, but was told that the women could search for vacant positions in other organizations elsewhere in the Afghan National Army (at various geographic locations) or accept the demotions and corresponding cut in pay.

My concern is that such a policy at a time when the Coalition and Afghan National Army are both focused on women's integration, these demotions send a very mixed message to the Afghan women brave enough to accept military jobs. This group of 28 women has worked together at HQ X.Y. since the command stood up six years ago. Some of them have worked in the military (and together) as many as 30 years. Of the 28 women, only five are currently married. The remaining 23 (and all of the recently demoted women) are sole providers for their families and are either war widows or their husbands have left them, in most cases taking their daughters, in accordance with Afghan law.

When I ask the women why they stay in jobs where they receive less than idea treatment, they tell me that the answer for them is simple...they consider each other family. The Coalition and the Afghan government have both invested significant resources in aiding the women at HQ X.Y. We anticipate opening a kindergarten for 20 children, particularly those of female employees, in mid-December (funded by the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Social Labor Affairs). We've built the Women's Center, a dedicated facility where women can meet for lunch, literacy and English classes, and for their regular Sunday morning meeting. They have taken many positive steps, and I've watched them grow and thrive over the past five months I've spent with them in Afghanistan.

Afghan women, particularly in the military, lack a viable advocate. In this case, I fear that their lack of a voice at higher-levels of military leadership will deter many of them (and their daughters) from future service. It will surely break the close female bonds they find so valuable on the base. I firmly believe in the role of a Combat Advisor, and I have provided the women, particularly the Women's Center Officer, MAJ Nadia, advice and counsel over the past three weeks without giving them the solution, but it is now evident that they are not able to resolve this matter without Coalition intervention. That is not for lack of trying. It's mostly out of fear for their jobs (even a lower-paying job is still a job) and their families.

I see this unfortunate incident as a great opportunity for the Coalition and Afghan National Army to work together to build confidence in the women at HQ X.Y. We have more military women working at this location than any other, and they eagerly await any expert advice that you and other senior advocates for women's issues in the Afghan National Army may be able to provide.

I look forward to discussing this matter with you at your convenience,

v/r

Lisa

19 November 2011

She Was an American Girl

With time and distance (and sleep) come perspective. And with the ongoing Loya Jirga come travel restrictions in the Kabul region...which I appreciate, since my team's safety is more important than anything we could do at work this week.  But knowing that I might have just a few more weeks in Afghanistan is an every day reminder that my primary mission here is to take care of Julia and her daughter, and to be the example of a thoughtful, intelligent woman that I think those two so truly deserve.

So today Julia and I did just that. I met her at the main gate of our base this morning, and whisked her away for a Girl's Day in true American girl fashion. We started with a few hours in the coffee shop, drinking lattes together and talking about boys and makeup (some girly traits are transparent across Eastern and Western cultures). We surfed through my Facebook account and she was fascinated by all of the places Rob and I have discovered together. Her dream is to walk on the beach with her daughter.

We headed off to lunch at the Dining Facility, and in our way in the door, she was warned (in Dari) by one of the employees that the food was terrible today, but that she might enjoy the Afghani Bar (full of traditional dishes she would recognize). Doesn't hurt that she is absolutely gorgeous, of course. We sat with one of the guys from my team and talked again about her hopes and dreams, while I think he just stared at her in absolute awe. Her cousin also works on the base, and he came and shared some stories of the five years he's worked as an interpreter for Coalition Forces across Afghanistan. No perfect meal would be complete without ice cream, so we indulged, then headed back to my room.

We took our shoes off and sat on my bed together for a while reading Oprah Magazine (the concept of talk shows is completely lost on her). Then Skype started ringing and it was John calling from Germany to say hello to Julia. She was blown away by the fact that we could see him and he could see us and we're all so many miles apart...when we were here, the three of us were inseparable. Just watching the look of amazement on her face was worth it to me. We gushed about that for a while.

Then she insisted that we needed to do a facial, and was again astounded at the amount of girly products I have amassed in my room. She picked through them carefully, and off we went to our "spa" (a semi-clean public bathroom) where I'm sure we made the funniest scene anyone could ever imagine...so funny, in fact, that I couldn't resist asking someone to take a picture.

As I walked her back out to the gate, she said "Ma'am, thank you for today. I will remember it always." And that is why we send Americans to Afghanistan. Because the personal difference we can make in the lives of individual Afghan citizens is something they will remember the rest of their lives. Drinking lattes and reading Oprah are regular (guilty) habits for me. But for a young Afghan mother who has been considered an adult since age 14, today was a day where she really experienced the American culture for which she so desperately longs. And the verdict is that she will fit in just fine.  

16 November 2011

That's One Way to Lose These Walking Blues

You know that supergirl act I've been pulling for the past, oh, 32 years? I think I just got over it. I've been an absolute wreck for the past few weeks, and quite frankly, I'm tired of pretending like everything is fine when it absolutely is not.

War is hell. And the reason it's such hell for me is that war, this war in particular, has been the first real evidence of my own mortality, and a time to parse truth from fiction. The appearance of my own good fortune until this point is not lost on me. I have a wonderful husband, the best friends I could ever dream of, a very comfortable life, a dependable job, and the amazing freedoms that come with American citizenship.

Or do I really have those things? And if I do have them, are they alone enough to look back and say that I feel a sense of satisfaction for what I have accomplished? Do they matter? I can't answer any of that, perhaps because pessimism leaks from my pores and chokes me mid-sentence. My pessimism always seems to be introspection on my own life and my own set of circumstances...don't be fooled - it's about me, not about anyone else. If I met someone else who appeared to me to be living under a four-leaf clover, I would be impressed. For me, the chronic perfectionist, it (whatever it is at the moment) just never seems to be good enough, and I hate that about myself sometimes. Being out here has been a wonderful experience because external circumstances have provided me with real reminders of all the things I can do. And even still, all it takes is one person who I trust to second-guess one of my decisions and I shatter like a mirror. There went my cape.

Maybe it happens because I have such unreasonably high standards for myself, but other people are sometimes afraid to tell me bad news because I think they fear my emotional sledgehammer. Valid fear. So instead, and especially when I'm out here, I find only the care-free news (rainbows and butterflies, anyone?) makes its way to Afghanistan in a timely manner.

One week ago I found out my little sister is pregnant. Thirty weeks pregnant, in fact, with twins, and under a complex set of circumstances. Again, see above. Any news that might be considered either bad or emotionally difficult is shielded from me. I don't have the emotional energy for secrets out here, or really anywhere, but especially not here. I found out by email, after directly asking the question (call it intuition) for several months with no response. Perhaps the more appalling thing was that everyone in my family (and extended family) knew...except for me. I was apparently too fragile. There might be some truth there.

So today's reflection is on versions of the truth. Out here, there aren't versions of truth. There's either a threat, or there isn't. You either fired your weapon, or you didn't. You are either alive, or you aren't. And there's something mesmerizing about the black and whiteness of it all.

Real life isn't black and white like our lives are at war, and in my mind I'm struggling to shed that monochromatic filter of the warzone to appreciate the vibrant experiences of everyday life.  For someone who appears on the outside to ooze with self confidence, I sure can manage to get under my own skin. And writing about it, well, that's my way of losing these walking blues.

15 November 2011

Not with a bang but a whimper

My work day started with a bang. Literally. A bang followed by a whir from the street about 800 meters from the Afghan building in which we work. It sounded like a cartoon version of the sound of a rubber band snapping, except this was a real bullet fired from a crew-served weapon mounted to a Coalition vehicle. A shot was fired, perhaps directly up in the air, but we had no idea of the trajectory at the time.

As the excitement unfolded, we were just unloading out of our trucks, had removed our protective vests and helmets, and were locking our vehicles to walk into our building. Within about a second of the discharge, one by one, members of my team hit the deck in various defensive positions, and I heard the rippling sound of six M-4 rifles being charged in anticipation of a need to return fire.

We crouched for protection behind our behemoth vehicles. We flipped on our optics. And we waited. Patiently, yet with bated breath. We silently wondered whether we were about to enter our first firefight and we rehearsed our responses in our minds.

The city of Kabul is preparing for the Loya Jirga, which begins tomorrow on the west side of town. Think of a Loya Jirga as a national leadership referendum of sorts on topics too politically sensitive or controversial for President Karzi to decide independently. He's called the tribal and political leaders of Afghanistan...more than 2,000 of them...to come to Kabul to provide their feedback on topics such as Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan, the Coalition presence in Afghanistan and a handful of other politically toxic subjects. The conference is scheduled to last at least four days, halting traffic and all other regularly scheduled affairs in Kabul. The Loya Jirga is not a regularly scheduled event, so the hype (and subsequent threats to the city) is a bit unnerving to Afghan citizens and the Coalition alike.

With that frame of reference, it's easier to imagine why we were all balancing on pins and needles. And yet again, today we all validated the need for significant training before we send anyone on outside-the-wire missions like the ones my team and I perform every day.

Today we heard our first gunshot. No one was injured. Everyone responded just at they should have. In retrospect, it was just another day in Afghanistan. Something weird happened. We dealt with it. We moved on. And we didn't let it ruin our day. And tomorrow we'll wake up and do it all again.

                                                                                     "This is the way the world ends
                                                                                      Not with a bang but a whimper."

                                                                                               -- T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men

14 November 2011

That'll be the Day

Rob is fascinated by my ability to make forever friends in what appears to most to be a blink of an eye. I don't know why that's possible, and I certainly don't question it, but he's right...in the amount of time it takes most people to watch Dancing with the Stars, I can make a lifelong friend. And I can still talk to that person every day half a lifetime later.

I have no idea how I met Loren. It must have been in the hallways of West Springfield High School when we were sophomores. I did not have my life together back then by any stretch. I was dating the wrong boy, wearing the wrong clothes and making all of the wrong choices. We probably bumped past each other a million times over the next few years, mostly in photography class (an addiction we shared), but it was really senior year that sealed the deal for us.

I was driving a yellow 1973 Volkswagen Beetle, and Loren drove the world's most hideous pickup truck...when he wasn't riding his BMW motorcycle (with a license plate that said "Lk Dad"...and of course his father had a similar bike with a plate "Lk Son"). Loren's dad had retired from some 20 years on submarines in the Navy (at that time, my father was still on active duty in the Navy). He lived about two and a half miles from me. We were inseparable. And the perfect foil for each other in ways that we couldn't have possibly imagined way back then.

We had this game where each morning one of us would post a quote or a picture or  note of some kind on the other person's locker. This went on for months on end, trading lines of poetry, Beatles lyrics, our favorite photographs by photographers we were studying, or just random drawings. I documented our adventures in a book of cartoons that I drew nearly every day for a year and gave to him the day he left for the Naval Academy. One day he and I will flip through that book over a bottle of wine and laugh ourselves silly.

We went to Homecoming together...with other people as our dates. And the picture to the left is one of only two pictures of us ever taken. There was never really a need for photographic evidence since we spent nearly every waking moment together.  We've never dated. I think we've hugged less than a handful of times in our lives, which if you know me is quite an anomaly. But we've laid on the floor of my parent's basement talking for hours, and hours, and hours on end, a few inches apart, never even realizing just how close we were because we were so enraptured by the conversation. We were seventeen. We still get lost in conversation with each other at age thirty two.

Loren's the one who started my running addiction. He bet me that I wouldn't be able to finish a season with the long distance track team...knowing full well, I'm sure, that making that bet with me would be the thing that made me want to do it more. I still heard him correcting my running form when I hit the treadmill earlier this evening.

We've served together in the military for more than ten years...he in the Navy flying helicopters and me flying desks in the Air Force. I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that this is not the career path either of us had imagined for ourselves. I had dreamed of being a professional photographer, and we always thought he'd be on submarines like his father. Yet somehow, it's working. In some ways it's working better than we ever could have imagined.

Loren has spent most of the past five or so months coaching me through a deployment that is by all accounts well beyond my tactical expertise. We've talked leadership strategies in combat. We've discussed the salient points of mission planning and route reconnaissance. We've talked about the impact deployments have on us and those we love most. But mostly we've talked about how being in combat fundamentally changed our views on everything we knew as truth, and somehow it's made us closer than ever. It's good to have a best friend out here. In fact, I'd argue that without a solid foundation of friends and family, a deployment like this is absolutely insurmountable.

He's a father now. His son, Elliot Jackson, was born (appropriately enough) on the Marine Corps' birthday. He's quite a brave little man to appear in the world a solid six weeks before he was due, and all signs indicate that he will fight his way to a healthy weight so that he can come home soon to his mom and dad.

Loren likes to joke that he made a person, and it's true. He did. And that little boy's father is the best friend I've ever had. But in so many ways, Loren also helped make me...and perhaps I did the same for him. He wrote me a letter on real paper last week and here's my favorite line:

"I am amazed (shocked?) at how parallel we are in so many ways. It is a relief to have a similar mind to share."

Yes, indeed.

13 November 2011

The Things We Carry

“War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

                                                                    -- Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried

One of my goals for my last few months in Afghanistan is to read a book a week, and so far I've managed to keep up. As soon as I learned that I was deploying on short notice, I grabbed my copy of The Things They Carried and tucked it into the bottom of my rucksack. I didn't make time to reread it until recently, but as soon as I did, I realized that Tim O'Brien's account of what our soldiers carried and felt as they waded through the muck Vietnam is every bit as applicable to those of us who fight our nation's battles today in a different war with another invisible enemy.

The things we carry for our country are just as meaningful and in some cases nearly as old as the items our brothers in arms carried some 40 years ago. The things we carry to keep ourselves both safe and sane remain almost identical.

On our bodies, we wear flame-retardant uniforms affectionately called multicams, designed to keep us safe and somewhat comfortable and specifically patterned for the terrain in Afghanistan. Total weight: about 5 pounds. On our heads we wear the U.S. Army Advanced Combat Helmet, designed to help prevent traumatic brain injury caused by impact. Total weight: 3.3 pounds. Snugly draped across our bodies we wear the Improved Outer Tactical Vest, which features Kevlar and four ballistic plates to protect our internal organs from critical injury. Total weight (for my extra-small, with a full combat load of ammunition): 35 pounds.


Slung securely over the shoulder of our shooting hand or held at the low ready as seen to the right is our M-4 carbine rifle, the standard military rifle for somewhat close combat situations with an effective range of 600 meters. Total weight with magazine: 8 pounds. And pinned either to our waistband or our dominant leg is our M-9 pistol, a personal protection weapon designed for use in very close combat with an effective range of closer to 50 meters. Total weight with magazine: 2.5 pounds.

On a combat mission, I carry 55 pounds of additional gear, evenly distributed across my body, which multiplies my body weight by over a third. That's the stuff that keeps me physically safe, and just like Tim O'Brien's soldiers in Vietnam, I choose to carry other things that remind me of the people who matter most.

Around my neck hang all of my important documents...my military ID card, cash in Afghani, Euro, and Dollars, and my favorite picture of me and Rob in Thailand the day we were married. My dog tags also hang around my neck, strung on a metal chain, and wrapped in a bright pink silencer in case there was ever a doubt that I am a girl. From that same chain hang three other things...the dog tag of one of my closest friends, a medal of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, sent by my mother, and a little gold angel, given to me on the last day of Combat Skills Training by one of my mentors there as a reminder of how far I've come.

I carry my M-9 in a holster attached to my hip, which John gave me before he left Afghanistan, as it only made sense to borrow a piece of self-protection equipment from my favorite cop. Clipped to the inside of my left pocket is a knife, sent by Loren just a few days ago, which he carried across thousands of miles as he flew combat missions in Afghanistan. On my left ring finger is a beautiful silver ring with a carat and a half oval amethyst stone, a birthday present from one of the brave female interpreters at work and a beautiful Afghan substitute for the diamond ring I choose to leave at home during this deployment. Inside my vest is the American flag Colonel Wight, my mentor and second father, gave me in the airport the day I left Baltimore Washington International Airport to begin this incredible journey.

What I haven't yet decided is what I'll do with these special items when I return from Afghanistan at the end of the year. But regardless of what I decide, I know that the things I've carried have made me feel safer in a place where the feeling of safety is at times unbearably evasive.

“What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end...”

                                                                --- Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried

12 November 2011

It Don't Come Easy

There's no doubt in my mind that I am a different person now than I was when I left Germany for Combat Skills Training in Louisiana back in early April. But there's also no doubt in my mind that I've never been more of myself than I am right here in this moment.

My job in Afghanistan demands my full attention for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I lead a team outside the protected gates of Coalition installations almost every day. Lately, it has become increasingly obvious to me that my focus is elsewhere, which is both unsafe and to me unacceptable. So today I pulled Julia aside at the end of the day and admitted to her that I need to focus my attention on my life outside of Afghanistan...and for that reason, I am choosing to return to Germany sometime around the end of the year rather than spend my next seven and a half months here.

As I expected, my admission was instantly met with a flood of tears, both mine and hers. The sweetest part was that she immediatley hugged me and said "ma'am, you cannot cry" (which had the opposite effect), followed shortly thereafter by tears of her own. I taught her a new English word...hypocrite...and we smiled, knowing how lucky we are to share this moment. As our trucks were pulling out of the Afghan base, she sent me a text that said "I canot leave with out you I love you so much." You get the idea.

I can only hope that one day I will find another job as gratifying as the one I have here in Afghanistan. But for right now, I know that the risks of being here in my unfocused state far outweigh any fear of regretting the opportunities I passed up by returning home on my original timeline.

I don't know what shook me, but something has. I don't know if it was the war stories shared by the Army Captain, the scream of fighters departing on combat sorties to Afghan cities, or the vehicle borne improvised explosive device that killed 13 people from my base a few weeks past. Something gave me the gut feeling that no matter what I do out here, I won't ever feel safe. And no matter how much I contribute out here, even to incredible, promising women like Julia, it won't ever be enough to leave the long lasting cultural impact that I so crave.

Julia and I had a touching discussion through our tears this afternoon about how possible it really is for an American woman to impact women in Afghanistan. My cultural sensitivity is not lost on the Afghans with whom I work, and our mutual respect is inspiring. Our Sunday women's meetings are the highlight of my week, but without me, those meetings will not exist, because despite their positive impact on all attendees, they are not a priority to the women here. Interactions and shared stories between the 28 extraordinary military women who work on that Afghan base are rewarding in ways nothing else could be, but without me to facilitate, those interactions will also fade.

Afghan women aren't like American women. They don't have mentors. They are islands. They don't have aspirations for each other. They have aspirations for themselves, and maybe for their daughters. And no matter how long I stay, whether it's six months or a year, I cannot expect to instill my values into these women. That's not reasonable, nor is it my job. My job is to do what I can to inspire them to live up to their full potential, and at the end of the day, I have to trust that they will do what's right for themselves, their daughters, and their country.

And I expect myself to do the same. This is a rewarding experience like nothing I've ever known or even dreamed. But at the end of the day, I have to make the choice that's right for me and my future. Right now my life outside of the warzone deserves more attention than I am able to provide, and once I leave Afghanistan, it's that life that will carry me happily through the rest of my days.

Julia understands. She knows how I value her advice more than anything else in Afghanistan. And her advice today was to follow my heart. And in about seven weeks, it looks like I will follow my heart right back home to Germany.

11 November 2011

An American Soldier

The first thing my boss, an Army Colonel, said to me today on Veteran's Day was "why'd it take you so long to get back?" On Monday I flew about 50 miles away to another base to attend to a few work-related items, and I was stranded there until this morning (Friday) because the weather would not cooperate to allow me to fly back to Kabul.

During those four unscheduled days away, I found myself with plenty of time to reflect on Operation Enduring Freedom, what it means to serve in Afghanistan, and what keeps me proudly serving in the Air Force both during peace and during war. For those four days, I experienced what we in the military metaphorically refer to as the "pointy end of the spear." I heard fighter aircraft launching at all hours of the day and night, off to fly combat sorties where I assure you they were not dropping lollipops and love notes on Afghanistan. I guess it never occurred to me that the Coalition contribution to this operation involved anything remotely violent, since my days engaged in the same war are filled with gratifying, personal conversations where I have the incredible opportunity to put a face to the future hope of Afghanistan. Even though we've been surrounded by violence in Kabul recently, I shutter to think how personally responsible I would feel should a family member of one of the Afghans with whom I work have an unexpected date with that pointy Coalition spear.

There was a group of six of us who were stuck together at this other base, and we represented all four services...Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. We celebrated the Marine Corps birthday together yesterday. We spent 12 hours a day for three days in a row sitting in an aircraft terminal, passing time talking about our experiences in our various branches of the military. Two of the six are in the reserve component of their respective services, and both were involuntarily sent to Afghanistan, arriving here with incredibly positive attitudes in light of challenging circumstances. This really is everyone's war.

It took a few days, but slowly one of the six, an Army Captain, formerly on active duty and now in the reserves, recounted his experiences in Iraq during the surge there in 2006 and 2007. He told us the stories of three of his Soldiers from his company who lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom there, and the horrible nightmares he still suffers as a result of those painful losses. As he shared his memories, we could feel the wife of one of his Soldiers smack her palm across his cheek, holding him personally responsible for the improvised explosive device that detonated under their Bradley Fighting Vehicle and burned him to death.

The Army Captain is my age...32...and he has war stories that would rival those of generations past who bravely fought in the trenches of World War I, on the beaches in World War II, on the forgotten soil of Korea and in the jungles of Vietnam. He understands what it's like to be on the pointy end of an engagement. He can hear gunshots when he sleeps, and he is then awoken, haunted by the gruesome memory of feeling one of his Soldiers take his last breath and die in his arms.

That violence is not the war I'm fighting here, and until this past week, that was nothing like the war I imagined anyone was fighting in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Private Ryan's war was not my war. I should say that is not my war, and quite frankly, a war full of firefights drenched in the smell of death is not why I've chosen to dedicate a third of my lifetime so far in service to my country.

On Veteran's Day I am proud of people like the Army Captain, and so many generations of brave Americans before him, whose personalities seem to me to be perfectly suited to physically fight for what our country asked them to do. And I'm honest enough to say that there's another set of brave American warriors who entered those same warzones, and whose mission was to fight in other ways...to cultivate democracy and well-being for populations in need. This deployment has been a poignant reminder that the pointy end of the spear is far less effective when we undervalue of the dull human-based end of the spear. Blinded by the passion of battle, it's all too easy to forget that in order to maximize our effectiveness in developing nations like Afghanistan, we need both amazing warriors like the Army Captain and non-tactical people like me whose primary mission is to foster good relations.

We all serve for different reasons, and that diversity is part of the strength of the American armed forces. Perhaps like many others, my reasons for serving have changed over time. But at the end of the day, I go to sleep knowing that while my chosen profession can be dangerous and at times daunting, it is also rewarding in ways no other profession could ever be. And that is why I serve on Veteran's Day and will continue to serve for many Veteran's Days to come. Because being a part of this is infinitely more rewarding to me than being a part of anything else.


                                                                                 "This is the happy Warrior; this is He
                                                                                  That every Man in arms should wish to be."
                                                                                     
                                                                                     -- William Wordsworth "The Happy Warrior"

03 November 2011

Break on Through

"In the name of Allah, my topic today is Women's Rights..."
                                                    -- Julia (the bravest woman in Afghanistan)

Julia is approaching the end of her first semester at the Kardan Institute of Higher Learning, the best English-language school in Kabul. Yesterday was her third day of exams. Her assignment: give a 10 minute oral presentation in English on a topic of her choice to her 30 classmates. She wanted to practice her presentation with me, and I tried in vane to disguise my look of astonishment at her selected topic (which I did not influence in any way!)

I spend five days a week with this incredible woman, and by now I've figured out how to read her non-verbal cues. I know when our conversation is about to get serious. First, she'll walk toward my office, peeping cautiously through the door. Then she'll place her two hands in a V on the corner of my desk, lean forward toward me just a tiny little bit and with her head tilted ever so slightly she'll ask "Ma'am, do you have time to talk?"

It's impossible to resist - I don't even try. And I know things are really getting serious when she then spins around, pushes the door closed, and pulls a chair up next to me. Then I watch her let her scarf slide down her beautiful brown hair until it's resting gently on the back of her neck. The whole process takes maybe three minutes, and it's captivating simple, yet incredibly complex. For the next 90 minutes, she looked directly into my eyes and told me why she thinks women have so few rights in her country.

"Ma'am, the biggest problem here is that women are shy."

Julia and I are alike in ways that Eastern and Western girls rarely are - we're spunky, unafraid to speak our minds, and we embrace challenges...particularly those that deter others. Her worldview is unexpectedly profound given her life's circumstances. Despite the many challenges she's faced, she understands that the the cultural notion of shyness is a fundamental barrier to women's rights in Afghanistan. That shyness manifests itself here as subservience. From the day they are born, Afghan women tend to be reminded of the many things they can't do (true or not) based solely on their gender. As she explains it, Afghan girls learn subservience the way children pick up their native language...they've constantly exposed to it, and then one day, they naturally adopt the role. The notion of "shy" in this case is really Afghan girls internalizing the can'ts, don'ts and won'ts and training themselves to live up to those low expectations without rocking the boat...all while never questioning (male) authority.

"We need to stop being shy. And it doesn't mean we fight with someone. We will fight by improving ourselves by good education."

That one stopped me dead in my tracks. When Julia returned to her family after her divorce (at age 17), she had to convince her father that the only way she could guarantee a better future for her daughter is if he would allow her to get an education. She'd been taken out of school at age 14 to be engaged. It's almost impossible to say no to Julia...she's charmingly persistent, remarkably composed, and absolutely gorgeous. She worked on her father for a few weeks until he finally relented. When I asked her whether she thought other Afghan girls could be equally fearless, she couldn't answer definitively. I'm sure they can, but I'm much less sure whether they are willing.

We didn't have time to get to the part of the conversation where Julia offered solutions to the lack of women's rights in Afghanistan, but I'm sure she has then, in due time we'll get there.

As she left for the afternoon, heading to Kardan to give her presentation, I asked her to call me when she was done to tell me how it went.

My phone didn't ring until this morning, and on the other end of the line was Julia, bubbling over with enthusiasm.

"Ma'am," she started, as she always does. "Good morning! How are you? How's your husband?"


"He's well. I got to see him and talk to him for two hours last night on the computer. It was perfect. How's your daughter?"

"She's good. She misses you." And of course, I miss her daughter terribly as well. I got to meet her a few weeks ago, and we spent 6 hours together blowing bubbles, playing soccer, and figuring out how to communicate when we don't have a language in common. It comes as no surprise that her daughter is stunning in every possible way.

"Julia, you have to tell me about your exam. How did it go?"


"Ma'am, I forgot to call you last night. It was good. It was so good."

I was glowing, I'm sure of it. And really, I don't think she has any idea just how good it was. Or how brave she is. And that makes me love and respect her even more. She's going to break through for sure, and I can only hope that she inspires other Afghan women to do the same.

01 November 2011

We'll Meet Again

Today I pulled my weapon out of the holster for the first time. There was a loud bang in a big public space and next thing I knew, I had pushed Julia behind me, drawn my M9, pointed it at the floor and was carefully assessing the commotion about 50 feet in front of me. I knew the sound I'd heard wasn't a gunshot, but a deafening BANG followed by the sheer pandemonium of about 300 Afghans scrambling around trying to figure out what just happened when I was the only American in the room kept me on my toes.

I guess I always thought I'd be terrified when one of my weapons went from accessory to self-protection device, but it wasn't like that at all. Today the Army's 10-week training plan in the armpit of Louisiana paid huge dividends. My body and my brain know how to respond in a dangerous situation without even a second of hesitation. My adrenaline, on the other hand, is still in the early stages of maturation. I was a little more jittery than I would like to admit for the rest of the day.

As it turned out, I pulled my weapon (aimed at the floor and never flipped to fire) on a gigantic tray full of 20-odd metal soup bowls crashing onto a concrete floor, amidst significant yelling (in Dari) in a cafeteria full of about 300 men and maybe 15 women. Given the events of the past week in Kabul, I have zero regrets. I did the right thing. I thought someone might be trying to hurt me (and Julia) and I was mentally and physically prepared to respond if necessary.

A response wasn't necessary today, and thank God for that. I was significantly rattled, I'd already gone running this morning (standard stress relief), it was about 4pm in Afghanistan (best Stateside mentors still sleeping)...and my instinct to seek a human connection comes as a surprise to absolutely no one.

Writing off the entire country of Afghanistan is all too easy this week, but if I did that, I could never forgive myself. So to counter that temptation, I walked to my favorite shop, run by an Afghan man might be 28 years old, just to say hello and remind myself (again) that the East and West have humanity in common.

We sat down together over a cup of tea for at least 45 minutes, and lingering over tea somehow made him feel comfortable enough to share his life story with me. He's been working 7 days a week since he was 8 years old. His family, like so many others, left Afghanistan for 15 years during the Taliban rule. He supports his parents and two younger siblings by selling handicrafts created by widowed women in downtown Kabul. For every $10 in merchandise he sells, he takes home 50 cents. It was the most heartfelt conversation I've had yet - he is just so human. He wanted me to understand what it feels like to be poor in Afghanistan with little hope for his own future, and I wanted to listen.

He sees himself in the children who desperately sell trinkets along the Kabul streets to pay for food for their families...that was him, many years ago...and those memories flooded his eyes with tears as the words tumbled from his mouth in amazingly eloquent English. It was touching, and the perfect peaceful contradiction to the afternoon's chaotic events.

On days like today, it's easy to remember why I'm here, and why my mission here is so important to me that I am willing to put my comfortable American reality on hold for another eight months for people I don't yet know and for a culture I'm just beginning to understand. People talk to me. People trust me. And through my conversations with people, I will leave a mark that to me is worth every dicey cafeteria lunch, every menacing drive down the streets of Kabul, and every remarkable opportunity to share tea and a great conversation with another human being.

I've never been in more danger than I am right now, nor have I ever felt more alive. And in this moment, I cannot imagine my life any other way.

31 October 2011

World on Fire

I know that I'm American. There's never a doubt in my mind, nor are there a lack of reminders while I'm out here proudly wearing an American flag on my right shoulder everywhere I go. And even though many days out here feel like Groundhog Day, sometimes the sacrifices we make to support Afghanistan make perfect sense...other days, the sacrifices the insurgents force us to make for our countries feel overwhelming.

I've been working on a blog about the trip I led to the orphanage 10 days ago...the orphanage that is probably 100 meters from where the vehicle-borne IED killed way too many innocent people this past Saturday. I led 13 people (my own team and people from three other teams) to the other side of Kabul where we delivered shoes, blankets, clothes and medical supplies to the 200-odd children who call that place home.

Orphanages here aren't like the ones we know in the States...here they are more like boarding schools. Afghanistan's violent history has created an entire culture of female war widows, whose dead husbands have left behind 6 or 7 children, no money, no home and no viable future. A majority of the Afghan population has no savings, no bank account and no concept of insurance of any type...so places like the orphanage we visited become a form of social insurance for Afghan families (particularly women) in need.

We hyped the kids up on Pixi Stix, Fun Dip and Dum Dums, played a quick game of soccer, drank some tea with the principal of all Kabul-area public orphanages, scooted right out of their home, donned our protective gear and re-entered the city streets. Almost fearlessly, which in retrospect seems insane...but out here, we can't live our lives in the rearview mirror.

It's a strange collection of things that keeps me human out here. Finding similarities that transcend Eastern and Western cultures is certainly one of them. Last week, during our visit to the orphanage, it was easy to bridge the gap between the East and West...we humans have so much in common.

Today, on the first day we've been officially authorized to interact with the world following Saturday's attack, that gap seems insurmountable. I'm trying hard to remind myself of the hundreds of thousands of genuinely good people who live in Afghanistan and of the great dreams they have for their children's future. These parents want to see their country succeed. Independently. But incredibly terrible, wildly dangerous people also live here...and they're lurking, awaiting targets of opportunity, and seeking to do harm to those of us here to help the Afghans rebuild their country.

In a few more days there will be a memorial for the many people from my base who lost their lives this past weekend. And I can only hope that when I stand in the main square to pay my respects, I can imagine the faces of the beautiful children at the orphanage and I can focus on the hopes and dreams of the Afghan parents...and not focus on the very evil people who hope to continue to force the Coalition to make the ultimate, untimely sacrifice.

30 October 2011

Another Day in Paradise

Today is a tough day in Kabul. I'm fine. My team is fine. Others from the base where I am stationed were not so lucky. The attack happened almost directly across the street from the orphanage where we've done two humanitarian aid drops, including one about 10 days ago. Now, I understand this whole matter of fate, and I get that when my number comes up, it's time. A vehicle full of 1,500 pounds of explosives will quickly change a bright sunny day into one we will not soon forget. And it did exactly that yesterday.

But out here it's all too easy to forget that we're at war. I spend my days with a beautiful, brave young Afghan woman talking about problems that could occur anywhere in the world...women's equality, human resources concerns, training agendas, and complicated families. The ride to and from work is harrowing at best. Once we arrive, we walk around with two loaded weapons and pretend, to some avail, for just a few hours to be human.

We're all in some kind of stupor today. The command has turned off our phone and internet services on base, awaiting notification of the families of those we lost yesterday. It's an isolating feeling unlike anything I've experienced since I've been here.

Right now I'm sitting on the Afghan base where I work, using the USB internet stick that one of our interpreters helped me buy a few weeks ago. Sadly that USB stick also doesn't work on the base. I want to hear a familiar voice or see a familiar face. The voice or face of someone who is not in Afghanistan. But right now, that's just not possible.

And I guess it's only fair. Across many oceans, there are more than a dozen families who are receiving the ultimate bad news. And in the grand scheme of things, knowing at least that everyone I love is safe is worth the feeling of isolation out here for a few more days.

11 October 2011

I Feel Numb

I am officially in a funk. It's Groundhog Day. Wake up. Brush my teeth. Eat one Fig Newton. Go for a run. Come back to my room. Put on a PT jacket (to hide the fact that I'm sweating, which is prohibited in the DFAC). Grab a weapon. Hustle to the DFAC. Get breakfast to go. Return to my room. Walk to the shower. Eat breakfast while I'm getting ready for work. Walk to the trucks.

Convoy through Kabul. Arrive at work. Drink tea and have meetings. Convoy back to our base. Waste an hour or two wondering when it's time to eat dinner. Eat dinner. Shower. Talk to Rob. Watch one 42-minute TV show. Go to sleep.

Wake up. Repeat. Again. And again. And again. The weather doesn't really change. The meetings don't really change. And the feeling of lack of progress doesn't really change. The only thing that changes is that I tend to watch a different TV show most nights (Parenthood, Grey's Anatomy, The Good Wife and Glee are the current favorites).

It's easy to catch a case of complacency under these circumstances, and complacency is the most lethal disease any of us can contract out here. I'm fighting it. Or trying. But that's harder than it sounds.

Driving to work feels a lot like playing a video game, especially lately. It's easy to imagine that we're safely buckled into an amusement park ride and that nothing can hurt us because, well, nothing has for a very long time. And when things keep going right, it's equally easy not to worry about how we'd respond if things went wrong. I'm about to become wildly unpopular because I'm about to simulate things going wrong...twice a week...at unexpected places and times.

The Army calls this simulated combat phenomenon "Battle Drills." It's a perfect concept...pretend you're reacting to an emergency before you are actually in an emergency. Watch how people respond so that we know how people may act in an actual scenario.

Here's the part that will blow your mind. Out here it's easy to forget we're in a combat zone...we hear the same intelligence reports every day, listen to the same warnings, wake up in the same city, roll along the same roads...and we just have to think that everything will be okay. And we do that because that's the only way to make it through the days...and weeks...and months. And because if we actually thought every day about all of the threats out here, we'd probably never get out of bed.

So starting tomorrow, I'm shaking things up...again. Sure, that's going to be scary for all of us (even me). But in the end, when my job is to get myself and my entire team back to our families safely, it's important to wish for the best and to prepare for anything.

30 September 2011

Better When We're Together

I don't fake happiness. It's just not something I'm capable of doing. And I also can't fake the fact that I have very mixed emotions about staying in Afghanistan for a year.

Tough news arrived in my inbox this past week, and yes, I asked for it. Yet, somehow when things fell right into place just as I had imagined them, I just froze. I thought of all of the things I couldn't do for the next nine months instead of embracing the things that are only possible because I am here.

And then Julia came to my base to spend the morning with me. We were planning to go out to the Kabul Military Training Center to tour the women's Officer Commissioning School site, and to take a look at the (very limited) facilities available to train Afghan military women. But as often happens here, our mission was cancelled at the last minute. So there we were, wondering what to do with our unexpected free time.

We went shopping in the little stores on base, and she confirmed what we already knew...Afghan treasures here are about 50% more expensive than identical treasures downtown. I brought her to my little oasis of a room and let her pick through the mounds of candy people have sent me to distribute to Afghan children. She filled her purse. And she just sat there, on my bed, looking at me, and told me how much she loves having me here. That was all it took to remind me of why I'm staying, and why I volunteered to extend in the first place.

She and I make an incredible team. This past week we met with about half a dozen Afghan men, all of whom appeared to listen to what we were saying, and in Afghanistan, that's a huge victory for a woman. Julia loves walking around with me because being able to talk for me, an American woman who isn't constrained by the cultural norms of Afghanistan, is empowering for her. Through me, she gets to see what it's like to be a woman whose opinions are heard and respected...and she won't get to experience that freedom in her own country for at least another generation.

It's been lonely out here lately, and it's an emotion that seems to come and go in waves. I know that there are so many people out there thinking about me and the other Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who serve our country from some of the far ends of the Earth. I understand the lukewarm worldwide support for Operation Enduring Freedom...especially now that we're on our tenth year out here.

But one of the things that's most important to me is that people back home understand the amazing (however small) strides the Afghans are making with and without the help of the Coalition. Just having us here empowers Afghans like Julia to passionately pursue their dreams for Afghanistan's future, and in the end, our mission here is all about helping the Afghans create a better (and safer) Afghanistan.

Julia and I are better when we're together...there's no doubt in my mind. And if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that both of our lives will be changed forever by the end of my 358 days in Afghanistan. And that right there makes the thought of staying here much easier.

21 September 2011

You Were Only Waiting for this Moment to Arrive

I am the anomoly in Afghanistan. I'm 32 and don't yet have children, which absolutely baffles basically every single person with whom I speak. But what they don't realize is that I do have people in my life right now who give me what I imagine is a hint of the satisfaction that comes with watching a daughter find her own way in the world. And right now a huge part of that satisfaction comes from watching Julia.

You already know her basic story...married at 16 into an arranged marriage that lasted less than a year but produced a beautiful daughter who is now five. Julia's life now revolves around her daughter and around making choices that will one day lead the two of them out of Afghanistan and to a place where there are more opportunities for women. Julia is the sole provider for her parents, sister and daughter and is the most genuine person I've probably ever met. What I love most about her is that she just "gets it"...and because she has that way about her, I seem to be willing to do just about anything to help her, which I imagine is both a strength and a weakness.

My first project when I arrived in Afghanistan was to assess Julia's English language skills and to brainstorm ways to improve her speaking, reading and writing. Right now she is our least experienced interpreter, and I had a feeling that because she is also the only woman, no one had ever really given her a chance. She has both the heart and the aptitude to be good at whatever she can imagine. Together we found the most widely recognized English language course in Kabul (which doubles as a TOEFL prepratory school) and started dreaming. The tuition is extremely high by Afhgan standards...about $850 for the one year course, which includes two hours of instruction five days a week. I had a feeling that there were more than a few people in my life who would be willing to sponsor this incredible woman as she pursued her education.

Twenty people, primarily my girlfriends all over the world, pledged $50 each to help buy Julia her first-ever laptop computer and to pay for a year of her tuition at the Kardan Institute of Higher Learning. She started English classes earlier this week...and already it's making a huge difference in her confidence alone. Today she explained to me that she needed to approach a conversation with one of the male interpreters with "full confidence." The thought of an Afghan woman approaching anything in this country with confidence is baffling...and to hear Julia say that was extraordinary.

One of the most incredible things about the developing world is that it takes so little (by American standards) to make such a significant impact. By now it should come as no surprise that I love finding ways to make a small difference in the world...and I truly believe that the best way to do that is to find ways to bridge the barriers between people and cultures. Julia now has about 20 new friends in the United States who are cheering her on, plus more than 40 fellow students at the English school who are her newest Afghan peers.

Time will tell how long the Air Force will allow me to stay in Afghanistan. Whether it's three more months or nine, I know now for absolute sure that one absolutely amazing young woman here will never forget me or my friends who reached out to help her. And that right there is why I am willing to do what I do in the United States Air Force. Sure, life in Afghanistan for an American woman can be scary bordering on terrifying, and I often spend my days scratching my head in absolute bewilderment...but in the end, the positive far outweighs the negative.

I met Julia. Our relationship has reminded me of why I've dedicated 10 years of my life to service. She gives me a perspective on the lives of women in developing countries that I could not otherwise experience. And working with her makes me prouder than ever to be an American woman who choses to wear a military uniform.

19 September 2011

Mothers be Good to Your Daughters

There are days that I will remember in Afghanistan...and then there are days I will never forget. Yesterday falls distinctly into the category of extraordinary days that will be forever be etched into my memory.

Progress here comes slowly, and responding to very slow progress has taken more patience than I could have ever imagined. But what I failed to take into account was just how magnificent progress feels when I've fought for every inch, side-by-side with the brave Afghan women who serve in their nation's military.

Every Sunday morning we have a women's meeting at the base where I work. The goal is to have this meeting at 9am each week, have many of the women in their uniforms, and to conduct military training together (since the Afghan National Army does not offer any training for women). Yesterday there were 23 women who attended the meeting, including three who wore their military uniforms for the first time in over a year. I invited two American women from another base here to talk about what the Afghan Ministry of Defense is doing to improve working conditions for women across the Afghan National Army.

The most inspiring was the story of Master Gunnery Sergeant Connie (pictured on the right), who has dedicated 25 years of her life to the United States Marine Corps, and is among the 5% of women who proudly serve as American Marines. She told the Afghan women the story of her first deployment to Hondoras...she was the only female on the deployment and her Commanding Officer first refused to take her out with the guys. He was directed to bring her along, only to tell her that although he was directed to take her to Hondoras, no one directed him to bring her back home. That happened in the U.S. military, not long ago in the grand scheme of things, and the Afghan women could clearly relate. It went without saying that things like that happen here every day.

We talked about the value of wearing a uniform and being proud of what we have chosen to do with our lives, regardless of the personal risks. We talked about how serving our countries is an honor that most women will never experience.

Yesterday I finally cracked the code on reaching Afghan military women...it's through their daughters. All of the women who work here are married, and every last one of them has at least one daughter. We talked about how it's our job to blaze the trail for the women who will come after us. I thought of amazing women like my grandmother, now 91, in whose lifetimes the lives and rights of American women were radically improved. She earned a Masters from Temple University in the 40s, watched her husband head to England to fight in World War II, raised four boys and my mother, send a son to war in Vietnam, taught at the School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs, and yet served as the perfect military spouse at a time when social customs in the U.S. military were highly revered. I often wonder if women here could ever have such incredible opportunities, given the culture and the complicated history.

Afghan women will do anything for their families, and they certainly have that in common with every Western woman I know. And in this case, I hope that mothers in Afghanistan will inspire their daughters to break through the barriers their culture has constructed. No, I don't think that will happen before the Coalition transitions out of Afghanistan in 2014, but days like yesterday make me believe that anything is possible.