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"