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.