16 July 2011


I now officially belong in Afghanistan because I have finally experienced a key rite of passage. Yesterday I was admitted to the hospital with the Kabul Crud...but believe me, it's far less dramatic and interesting than it sounds.

My body woke itself up at 6am ejecting terrible gunk from all orifices, which wouldn't be a big deal if the bathroom was not located over the river and through the woods. Now granted that river and those woods are only about 100 meters from my doorstep (okay, 50 paces, because I just counted, and no, I never exaggerate). But in an emergency situation, that bathroom may as well be located on the moon. Yet another chance for the Army to serve me a slice of humble pie.

I spent most of yesterday trying to will myself out of the room and to the Troop Medical Clinic (TMC). The guys from my team delivered Gatorade and crackers to my door. And my very sweet husband kept calling to encourage me to get my rump out of bed. I finally managed to get myself to the TMC at about 5:30pm after much nudging from everyone who knows me. Of course sick call (the authorized time to admit to your illness) was over at 5pm, so the people at the TMC were rather puzzled as to why I had shown up, but nevermind them. I'm persistent. They helped me. I didn't really give them a choice.

Dehydration was the name of the game yesterday, and that's really no shocker considering what I'd been up to this past week (gym twice a day, climbing a mountain in the middle of the day in full gear, and several other stupid things, followed by about 6 hours of disgusting sickness). My resting heart rate was up about 40 beats per minute, but after three IV bags, some anti-nausea medication and some heavy duty pain reliever I was almost myself. Yes, now I am fine (but that's mostly because I slept 16 hours last night!)

But the point of this isn't to tell you about being sick, because like I said, it's a rite of passage, and I have now passed. Almost everyone who comes here goes through what I went through yesterday. The point is to demonstrate the bonds people quickly form in the warzone. The guys with whom I work have known me for about 2 weeks, but they were the first ones to show up at my door to make sure I was okay. They showed up at the clinic, too, with a lollipop, to make sure I wasn't lying when I told them I was fine. My interpreter sent me a text message this morning at 6:30am that said "Good morning ma'am, what is wrong with you? I need to hear your voice. I am sad." (Last night I sent her a note to tell her I would not be at work today and that she could stay home). The guys checked on me again today at about 12:30pm when they hadn't heard from me all day.

You don't ever need to worry about me out here. I'm in good hands. One of the things I love most about deploying is that in the absence of a traditional family, we all become each other's families. And never is that more apparent than in a time of need. I'm glad that "time of need" for me was only due to an evil stomach bug and not something more serious. But even after that stupid bug, I now have more confidence than ever that should I ever really need help here, there are plenty of people who would be there for me in an instant. And I wouldn't even need to ask.

The sign at the TMC check-in counter said "Soldiers don't fight because they hate what is in front of them, they fight because they love what is behind them."

And that is why I serve. Because I love what is behind me...and more specifically who is behind me.

13 July 2011

Living on the Edge

Every emotion I feel in Afghanistan is like looking at reality through a magnifying glass. People here tell me that's because this is my first deployment, and while they're right (it is my first deployment), I don't think that's quite it. I've traveled all kinds of places, but traveling for the experience is so much different than living in a place where my purpose in life is to make some type of difference, however small.

For today's unbelievable adventure, we went on my first humanitarian mission. The Afghan National Army provided a substantial security detail, three of our interpreters came along, and four American Airmen were there (myself included). Here on the left is me standing at the top of the mountain where we began our mission. Two of the guys on our team have informally adopted a family who lives at least 1,000 feet above the compound at which we work. The drive up there was, we'll use the word harrowing. We drove up the face of a mountain on a dirt path in pickup trucks with three horsepower engines that were full of people...and by full I mean each one had at least 8 people in it. Needless to say, we crawled up that mountain, but as you can see, the view alone was worth the effort, say nothing of what was to come.

We arrived and were swarmed by eager children who were literally spilling out of adobe houses all along the side of the mountain. They approached us like we were holding sticks of gold rather than bags of rice and small American peppermint candies that our families had sent from the States. The houses (which were probably as large as two rooms in a typical American house) had no running water and no electricity. The kids played blissfully in empty oil drums that had been converted into miniature swimming pools (don't think sanitation, think of it as a way to cool down in this brutal dry heat). Here on the left is an Afghan child who received this awesome toy truck from the young son of one of the guys on our team...photo worthy for sure.

I'm up in the air as to whether humanitarian missions in Afghanistan make a lasting difference in the lives of the people who receive our gifts of food, water, clothing and various other nice Western things. To be perfectly honest, I almost think that by providing such items to our Afghan hosts, we aren't really helping them overcome the situation, but rather lessening the burden of their everyday lives and encouraging them to depend on us as part of the solution to their austere living conditions. It's also worth mentioning that the NATO mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to end in 2014, and our American humanitarian missions here are a contribution we make to the NATO mission here by choice...not because someone at NATO told us to do it. Our team is one of very few who take the time to conduct these missions.

Now don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade today's experience for anything in the world, and I do think that person-to-person interaction is extremely valuable. I took my interpreter with me up the side of the mountain, and she and I met with about 20 local women who wanted to have us in for tea and lunch. This in a house with no running water and where the monthly income is probably somewhere around $50 a month for a family of 20. I would have loved to stay there to hear about their lives, but we ran out of time, so that is high on the list for our next visit. 

Today was another slice of humble pie for this American. It's difficult to complain about my living conditions on the base (with electricity...namely an overactive air conditioner...and running water just down the way) after seeing the way the Afghans we visited are living. And sure, while their living conditions are far from perfect, there is something very beautiful and reassuring about the simplicity of life in the mountains above Kabul. I don't envy their lifestyle, but I am eager to understand their challenges and to show them that future generations of Afghan women will (hopefully) have opportunities like those my interpreter and I are now enjoying.

Small steps. I will leave my mark here one Afghan woman at a time. Slowly. Lucky for me I have about six months left, and hopefully many more humanitarian adventures in my future.

More photos will be posted in the next 24 hours or so at http://www.flickr.com/photos/roblisameehan.

12 July 2011

Everybody Eats When They Come to my House

 Like so many of my favorite cultures, Afghan culture seems to me to revolve around food and beverages. Now granted there are some societal norms here that don't really mesh with those to which I have been accustomed in Europe...but I'm adjusting (slowly). I've learned to appreciate the art of drinking chai (tea). And by tea, I really mean hot water into which a few leaves of green tea have been tossed for approximately 20 seconds before being promptly removed. As long as you like drinking water (which I do), and you appreciate having a healthy digestive system (which is a new phenomenon for me, and one that chai is aiding immeasurably), you will adore Afghan chai. I estimate I drink at least three cups of tea per day with my Afghan counterparts (and despite what Greg Mortenson may argue, that does not appear to be helping me overcome the language, cultural and gender barriers in this society).

What I do love about the Afghans is that they are a very giving people...and I guess with the complicated Afghan history it's incredible that they are so giving. All of the people with whom I work are always asking what they can do to make me feel more welcome in their country because I am their "guest." Luckily for me, I love to run (despite the 6,000 feet of elevation here) because the Afghans all think they should feed me. Constantly.

At the top is the lunch one of the Colonels brought for me over the weekend. That is a kebab (which is fried meat of some sort...probably goat, but it's best not to ask...with a huge helping of curry and hot spices inside). Everything is eaten with your hands (good thing my hands are always clean...wait, no, that is impossible here). Though the water here scares me to death, the bread is absolutely terrific. Apparently all of the grime in the water adds a special flavor or something (again, things I don't think about). Whatever the case may be, this is NOT a good place to go on a low carb diet. That would be entirely too sad.

Above is the lovely Colonel who brought me (and my interpreter) lunch. He needed a picture with me - I'm not sure why, but there you have it. He's the Education Officer for the base where I work, and we have some amazing conversations about how to improve literacy among the Afghan National Army soldiers. Plus he's got to be the nicest person on the planet (which frankly helps compensate for some of the other dirtbags).

And of course no day would be complete without two lunches, so I had to eat a second time, this time in the Dining Facility (DFAC) for the ANA. The room is truly incredible - it must seat 400 people (and now that I know that the base where I work was formerly run by the Russians I have a much better appreciation for the design features). The industrial kitchen is run by a female head chef, who invited me for a traditional lunch. I ate noodle soup, more bread (dipped in yogurt), cucumbers, and fresh watermelon. Like the genius that I am (not), I wore the world's most beautiful (and hot) scarf to eat hot soup on a hot day and nearly had to be dragged out of that place on a stretcher. Like I said, still learning to adjust to my new surroundings. Apparently it didn't occur to me that wearing a heavy silk scarf in the summer was a bad idea. Of note, women are not allowed to eat in the DFAC at the same time as the men, so there I was, eating alone. Well, with a few other women (and a group of men who thought it was fairly spectacular to see some blonde girl in their DFAC).

So there you have it. The adventures here continue, one cup of chai and bowl of soup at a time.

10 July 2011

Man, I feel like a woman

Here’s a good secret for you…I think it’s a whole lot of fun to be a girl. Wait! That’s no secret, but let’s keep going with it anyway. I find that in my society there are lots of benefits to being a girl. For example, there are all kinds of gorgeous clothes to wear, secret potions to make me feel beautiful, and only on rare occasion do I schwack my head on the metaphorical glass ceiling.

Enter Afghanistan. This is surely not my society. Now don’t get me wrong, there are things about Afghan culture that I admire…the incredible family-focus and their stalwart desire to overcome adversity…but make no mistake about it, being in a developing country gives me a whole new appreciation for the individual freedoms we Americans tend to take for granted.

As a military officer, I operate in a man’s world.  It’s by choice. I’ve been commissioned for 10 years (I can’t believe that) and I’ve been playing Air Force for 14 years. Incredible to think about. In that time, I’d say that 99% of my interactions with the men with and for whom I work have been positive. Sure, there have been times when I was well aware of the fact that I have two X chromosomes, but I usually use those opportunities to prove to the boys that I can handle anything they can. Bottom line…in my world, the playing field is relatively level. Have I mentioned lately that I do not live in “my world” right now?

The Afghan National Army is by many accounts an inspiration. The brave soldiers who serve Afghanistan in the ANA did so for many years in defiance of the Taliban (or at least that is what I choose to believe). Our role in my unit is to mentor the ANA officers in an effort to continue to grow the capabilities of the ANA…we work “shohna ba shohna” (or “shoulder to shoulder”) with our Afghan counterparts. There are many ANA officers here who welcome the advice of their American mentors. Many of those male officers are, despite their cultural biases, willing to overlook the fact that I am distinctly female.

But if I told you only happy stories, you probably wouldn’t still be reading. So let’s be perfectly honest. During one of my meetings yesterday, I experienced what I will pretend is the absolute worst the Afghan National Army has to offer. I was meeting with the one star general, we’ll call him General Herat, and we were discussing personnel issues in his command. I advise on the manning document for the base on which I work, so we were discussing how many people he thinks he needs to perform various tasks. Easy stuff. Things were going well, so one of my bosses, a male Navy officer, changed the subject slightly.

There is a nasty rumor here that in order for women to get jobs on our base, they have to go to an “interview” that requires no speaking at all. Frankly, I believe it. The “interview” is at the home of one of the senior male officers. (Yes, corruption is universal, in case you were wondering). Well, one of the very brave Afghan women reported this “interview” process to the (male) Afghan Inspector General on the base, and my Navy boss broached the subject with General Herat yesterday.

And what was the General’s response? He was not surprised, and in fact his answer was that there are not enough good looking women working on his base and that he hoped the “interview” process would help recruit younger, more attractive women. Oh, and he said this in front of me and Julia, who I think is stunningly beautiful.  I was disgusted, and I let one bad experience absolutely wreck my afternoon. Epic fail on my part. This is not my military, nor is it my battle, but I sure did get a taste of what life might be like if I were an Afghan woman…and that alone gave me newfound pride in what we, the Coalition, are here to accomplish “shohna ba shohna.”

And what, do you guess, have I been doing the whole time I’ve been writing this blog on how disappointed I am with the way one Afghan general feels about women? I’ve created a little spa in the bathroom here…it’s facial day. Yes, I embrace the fact that I can kick ass all day with the boys, then go home and be as girly as possible. I just hope that someday Afghan women well get to experience a similar feeling of accomplishment. Excuse me while I go find my lipstick.