10 September 2011

All we need is just a little patience

Today's story is more touching than anything I've read, heard, or experienced about Operation Enduring Freedom (the official name of the mission in Afghanistan) so far. It's a shame that the news picks up stories about the violence here and not about the tremendous (albeit small) personal victories.

There are 28 women in the Afghan National Army who work on or near the Afghan base where I work - that is a larger concentration than anywhere else in Afghanistan. Today I held a meeting and 23 of them attended. The other five work in another part of the city and couldn't get to the meeting (remember that women as a general rule do not drive here). I strategically wore civilian clothes today, and apparently I brought my good luck charm, because Julia and I blew this meeting right out of the water...much to our own surprise.

I know enough Dari to say "Hello, and good morning. My name is Lisa. I have lived in Afghanistan for two months." I started there, and Julia then helped me explain that I am a Major in the U.S. Air Force and I have been in the military for 10 years (which they all found baffling, since most of the women in the room were between 45 - 50 years old.) I told them about Rob, and that he lives in another part of Afghanistan, and that we would like to have a family some day (one of the ladies promptly prayed that I would have seven children, and that led to a great laugh). That's all basic scene-setting tradition here...we spend a significant portion of every meeting playing the "Hi. How are you?" "I am fine. How are you?" game.

Even though I live in Afghanistan and work on an Afghan base, I'm still fundamentally myself (i.e. American), so I dove right into the toughest part first. Military women on our base do not wear their uniforms. So...I wear civilian clothes at least once a week in hopes that the women here will then see me as more of a peer. Absolute success. Julia didn't even need to translate for me to tell this story...she did the whole thing on her own, and I couldn't have said it better myself:

"Thank you for coming to our meeting today. You are all women in the Afghan National Army, and you do not wear your uniforms. Lisa is also in the military. Once a week she wears civilian clothes because she wants to support you, even though that is very risky for her. It would be nice if you all wore your uniforms every Sunday to support her. You should begin next Sunday."

And YES! They agreed. Every single one of them...gladly. They are excited that every Sunday we will meet at 10am, have a "roll call" where we take attendance, and then have at least one hour of military skills training during which we are all wearing uniforms. I will teach the first week, but then I will work with a different woman each week to help teach a useful military skill. This is the first time in as long as anyone can remember that women on our base have worn uniforms to work, and we're using this great opportunity to built camaraderie among this very important group of trailblazers. In fact, the women were so excited that they asked me not to take their pictures today, but rather to bring my camera next Sunday so that I can take a picture of each one of them in their uniform to hang on the wall in the Women's Center.

Julia and I celebrated our huge victory with a lunch in the dining facility of the Afghan General Officer who runs the base (a known woman-hater). We told the General to expect to see women in uniforms every Sunday starting next week. As she started translating for me, one of the Afghan men at the table looked across at me and said in perfect English "You have a very smart interpreter."

Indeed I do. And every day she shows me that a little patience can deliver huge results in a place like Afghanistan...or really anywhere in the world.

07 September 2011

We're on the Road to Nowhere

Leading in combat is draining. At my job back home, I worried about whether I responded to an email quickly enough. Here I worry that one little mistake could be the first step down a very bad road for me and six other people. I got to talk to Rangerboy this week for the first time in about three months, and he (as usual) said it best...out here you aim for perfection. And though you'll never actually get there, it's the only feasible goal, and it gives you something on which to focus. In my case, it gives me something obsession-worthy. But at least here I can rationalize that little character flaw brilliantly...I'm obsessing over things that seem to matter. Whether we're safe on the roads here matters. (Whether I respond to an email within 59 minutes does not).

This week it all seemed to be unraveling before my very eyes. As far as my team goes, I couldn't be luckier. We have an identity (Catalina Wine Mixer), a reputation (hands-down the best team in our unit), and a personality (we take our jobs seriously and ourselves much less so). Therein might be part of the problem. We enjoy working together. We enjoy hanging out together. We enjoy going downtown to show the people of Kabul that we care about them and their well-being, though we all recognize that those missions are risky. Things were great, until one day they weren't.

It happened fast. A few little mistakes on the commute to work. Then a few bad decisions at work. Then a few more little mistakes during the next commute, followed by one big mistake and I absolutely lost my mind. There are standard procedures we follow when we run convoys, and each little piece is a critical link to the final product...which is a safe commute through the city. Unfortunately we're all human, so mistakes happen every now and again, but a string of mistakes made by people who know better made me blow my lid. Luckily that lid blowing was done in private and not in public. That right there is progress.

You'd think that addressing basic safety concerns would be easy. "Hey, jerk, when you did X, you put us all at risk. Knock your crap off." Yeah, it's not that easy, because in order to be effective here we must act as a team. I get that. And in order to be a team, we have to establish and maintain camaraderie and trust. Again, got it. Hypothetically that camaraderie and trust will cause each member to be safer because they genuinely care about the other people on the team. All of that made my job harder because I had to fix the broken without breaking the good stuff. 

Do I think it's better now? Maybe. We're safer. The solution I picked was the obvious one...I made the expectations very clear, and it was done in a way that was direct but non-threatening. In fact, I don't even think people realized it was happening, or that I had caused it, which made it even more perfect. I certainly don't need glory. Likewise, I don't need to take uncalculated risks.

There's a lesson here, and it was a good one...again related to Rangerboy's original advice to me...be yourself. I lead a team of guys. They are all the same age as me or older. They've all deployed at least twice before. But they're listening to me, even when I talk about combat tactics, and I'm being myself. And for the first time since I arrived in Afghanistan, I don't feel like a girl. I feel like a leader. 

I've been waiting for that moment, and it's actually better than I expected.

To meet Catalina Wine Mixer and share our adventures, visit us on Flickr at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roblisameehan/sets/72157627467870827/