13 September 2011

Two sides to every story

Today the insurgents started blowing things up in Kabul. They haven't really done that since I've been here, and I'll be the first to admit it was slightly unnerving. Kabul is not a very large city (though it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere), so I've been to all of the places where the attacks have been taking place. As I was reading the article in the New York Times, I could picture the events unfolding...the muzzles flashing, the sounds of rockets and screaming. Riding back to our base in a convoy through a city that's under attack is harrowing. And exhausting. And exhilarating. Today more than ever I was reminded that I do indeed live in a war zone.

On one side of the city, Afghans who hate Americans and other members of the Coalition were trying to blow up people, buildings, and anything else that got in their way. And it is absolutely not lost on me that on the other side of that same city, at the exact same moment, Julia was throwing me the birthday party she's been planning for the past month. It was a birthday party complete with a cake, singing, traditional Afghan dancing, and more presents than I could carry. I shared some incredible memories with 15 or so Afghan women this afternoon, and the timing was absolutely extraordinary.

While this party was going on, not one of us had any idea that the city was under attack. We were enjoying a traditional Afghan lunch of rice, eggplant, beans, and fresh bread, and we were talking about how much life has changed for Afghan women over the past 10 years. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, all women were required to wear blue burkas that covered their entire face and body, with a small screen in the front that provided limited visibility to the outside world. For many years, military women reported to work in the morning wearing a burka, signed the attendance register, and were immediately sent home. Their professional military skills atrophied, and they were completely isolated from the working world they once knew. Flash forward to now when they wear a small head scarf and can walk freely through the city...and into their workplaces.

We talked about the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and how so many of these Afghan women and their families fled to Pakistan during the Taliban regime in order to preserve some sense of normalcy in their lives. Today, 10 years and two days after the events that put Afghanistan on the American radar, I sat in Kabul in a room full of professional military women who welcomed me with open arms. In front of me, they are willing to speak their minds and tell their personal stories. Though we don't share a culture or even a language, we share a love of country and sense of duty, and that somehow transcends our many differences.

There are two sides to every story. It's easy to write off an entire culture as being evil, which is seems to me is what the insurgents have been doing to Americans (and Americans have been doing to all Afghans) for many years. But today was the perfect example of how it is individual people and their unique personalities and perspectives who define a culture. In my mind, Afghanistan will always be defined by the incredible women with whom I work. And the challenge I have with myself is that I can't allow the violence in this country to overshadow the amazing things that happen here every day.

12 September 2011

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

I didn't have this overwhelming urge to wave a flag on September 11th to feel like a patriot. Actions, particularly on a day like that day, speak louder than words, and I think the life choices I've made and that other Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have made are more than enough to demonstrate patriotism in the truest sense.

Ten years ago, I was working at the Office of Personnel Management in Washington D.C., living in Crystal City just across I-395 from the Pentagon, and beginning my second year of grad school at George Washington University. I had been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant for about four months, but wasn't scheduled to go onto active duty until I finished my Masters later that spring. 

It was a Tuesday morning, and I was moving as slowly as you can possibly imagine. I was suppose to be at work by 9am every day, but that day I didn't even manage to wake up until about 8:30am. I was in such a rush that I didn't watch the news, didn't look at the paper, and was entirely focused on getting to the Metro and getting to work. I got onto the Metro at about 9:15am for my 15 minute commute to work and was in my own little world, oblivious to what people were saying and doing around me. I was scrambling from the Farragut West Metro station south on 19th Street trying to make it to work before anyone realized just how late I was. 

My office was probably three nautical miles from the Pentagon, just on the other side of the Memorial Bridge and a few blocks from the White House. Just as I was approaching the front patio of OPM, there was a loud boom, I took about 25 more steps, pulled open the front door of the building and slid inside. It was sheer pandemonium. People were huddled in clusters all over the front lobby crying and wailing. It was like I walked into a horror movie. The World Trade Centers had been hit. The boom I heard was an airplane crashing into the Pentagon.

I knew that my father worked in the Pentagon, but I had no idea where in the building he worked or how to reach him. It took 20 minutes to get a line to ring through to my mother. Someone from work drove me home to my parents in Springfield...it took about 3 hours to get there instead of the usual 25 minutes. And for a few days, I sat in the basement of my parents' house, watching television, and wondering what bad thing would happen next. When I returned to Crystal City, the Pentagon was still smoldering. I watched the smoke billow from the balcony of my apartment. And the smell...there aren't words to describe the smell...

Yesterday we decided not to leave our base in Afghanistan. It just seemed...well...too scary. My team spent all day doing their own thing...some reminiscing, but most of us just trying to process how dramatically our lives have changed in the past 10 years.

Ten years ago there were no airplanes flying, no contrails across the azure skies. The calm was unnerving. Yesterday I went to bed around 10pm, following a day that was again calm...only to then hear a swarm of helicopters buzzing the tops of the buildings on our base. It went on for at least 10 minutes...maybe more...and rattled me to the bone. But unlike 10 years ago when I felt hopeless against the people who hated Americans enough to kill almost 3,000 people in one day, this year I felt safe.

Strange isn't it? That I would feel safer in Afghanistan on 9/11 that I ever felt at home on this day. Yesterday was special because I shared it silently with the few, the happy few, the band of brothers, who sometimes pretend to be a bunch of jerks...but on 9/11, they were my closest friends. And without even saying a word, we all just knew that everything would be okay.