Mother’s Day in Afghanistan

Photo by Jodi Cobb

Photo by Jodi Cobb

For a man it is a dream to have a young teenage bride, a wife who is fresh like an apple, a girl whom he can play with, plan her dreams, her future, and her destiny as if she were a toy. But what is it like for the girl? The man who buys a young girl holds her future and destiny in his hands. She must do as he says. It is worse than slavery. – N, Afghan Women’s Writing Project 

One of the things I miss most in Afghanistan is being away from family on holidays, but some of my most memorable times there were on holidays. On Mother’s Day, 2010 I am at Bagram Air Base (BAF) waiting to go out on a mission to a battered woman’s shelter in Kohistan in Kapisa Province. There is a complication with the communication system between the MRAPS in the convoy so we are delayed about an hour. The team leader suggests we go grab some lunch while they fix the problem.

I go over and get in line at one of the dining halls to wait for the doors to open. I haven’t have any breakfast and I am really hungry, almost faint from low blood sugar. Low blood sugar levels can make you very irritable and I am getting more and more agitated as I listen to two large civilan men in line ahead of me. Every other word is the F-word, which I don’t like to hear. Normally I don’t say anything because sometimes obscenities are the way people deal with the stress of being in a war zone, but today it is getting on my nerves and after a particularly long string of “f—s”, I tap the man in front of me on his shoulder. He turns his beefy, tall frame around and looks at me with questioning eyes.

“It’s Mother’s Day,” I say, giving him a stern look.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says, ”I didn’t see you standing there.”

I just nod and go back to waiting. I am not only hungry but the sun is boiling hot and the heat is making me even more irritable. I hear some more “F” bombs behind me and I turn to see two young soldiers in conversation.

I say to one of them, “It’s Mother’s Day. Would your mother be proud to hear you talk that way in front of a woman?”

He looks a little stunned and says, “What did I say?”

I am scathing in my reply, then I just say “Oh, nevermind!” and I stomp off angrily.

When I get back to my convoy I am relating what happened to one of our guys. He looks at me, climbs inside a MRAP and comes back with a packet of grape jelly from an MRE. “Kathy, I think you need to eat this.”

After another 30 minutes our communications are fixed and we are ready to roll. We exit the base and start out on our long, bumpy ride to Kohistan. Along the way we pass by adobe homes that are right out of the Bible. I spot a man riding a camel in the distance and for an instant it is easy to imagine I am living 1000 years in the past, but a look around at the soldiers riding with me in a 1-million dollar armored vehicle dispel that fantasy.

We drive into Kohistan in the hot afternoon. Everything seems to be covered in a thin layer of red dust. We pass by men with pancaked-shaped hats called pakols and scarfs wrapped around their necks who stare at us curiously, a few with ill-concealed hate in their eyes. Children scamper along beside us laughing and asking for treats. We pull through the gate of the women’s compound that has a high wall surrounding it. After climbing down from the MRAP I stretch my cramped legs and look curiously about. I see a neat compound with a small vegetable garden and several buildings.

A regal looking woman wearing a turquoise blue salwar kameze and matching scarf wound round her head comes out to meet us. She introduces herself as Mrs. Kohistani, the center’s director. Except for our interpreter Dr. Najibullah, no men will be entering the shelter. She explains that many of the women have been abused and may be very shy about talking to strangers.

We make our way inside and I see some young girls and small children. I am thinking the mother’s must be in another room and I look around expecting Mrs. Kohistani to guide us to another area.

She is just standing there looking at us and it suddenly hits me. These young girls are the mothers. I am sick at heart as I look at these girls whose eyes are filled with fear, many holding infants in their arms and a few with a small child hiding in their skirts. The oldest one cannot be over 18. One 11-year old is visibly pregnant. We have brought some children’s books and we ask the mother’s if we may give them to the children. As we distribute them I take a moment with each mother to ask about her children. I show them pictures of my grandchildren. They are polite but there is a pervasive atmosphere of fear that I believe has nothing to do with our visit. The women cannot stay here forever and when they leave they know they at best will be beaten and they very likely will be disfigured or even killed.

As we leave the mothers we meet in Mrs. Kohistani’s office to talk about what we can do through our Female Enrichment Program to help the center. We talk about poultry and beekeeping projects that enable women to earn a living and to have food sources. As we finish our talk we linger over tea and Mrs. Kohistani relates to us that the day before two young sisters had come to the shelter to escape their abusive husbands. She had arranged for them to go into hiding in Pakistan. During the night, the families of the girl’s husband went to their mother’s home thinking the wives would be there. When they discovered they weren’t they killed their mother and disemboweled their 12 year-old sister. I am overwhelmed with emotion.

As we put our body armor back on in preparation to return to the base I am praying silently that these women will be able to find sanctuary that will remove them from the brutality to which they have been subjected. On the long journey the jocular banter we had exchanged over the radios on the journey there is missing. My earphones are silent as we all contemplate the horror we have seen today at the women’s shelter. As we near the base the soldier who gave me the grape jelly looked over at me and said, “Happy Mother’s Day, Miss Kathy”.

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

Ghosts of the Past

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The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins? – Edgar Allan Poe

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

One bright, sunny day I have the opportunity to go on a mission with the Kentucky Agricultural Development Team to the Shirizar Research Farm, a 1500-acre farm originally established in Kapisa province by the Russians during their occupation. The ADT is partnering with Al Bironi University (ABU) to establish fruit and vegetable plots, two reservoirs and a network of irrigation ditches to move water to the crops.  About forty assorted fruit and vegetable plots have been planted by local villagers and a recent ABU graduate serves as project manager.

The farm is mostly level and the soil is much better than any I have seen so far in Kapisa. As with all soil in Afghanistan, it lacks organic matter, but it is the richest soil I’ve seen here. A towering mountain creates a boundary on one side of the farm, resting like a tired giant, its gray face overlooking the farm.

We meet up with the Kapisa DAIL (Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock), his assistant and the farm manager. I have met the DAIL many times and have a cordial relationship with him. He always greets me with a big smile and a swinging handshake, which is the best greeting I can get as a woman. If I were a man I would be hugged and he would hold my hand as we walked to the field.  On one occasion he asks me to eat a meal at his house, anxious for me to meet his wife. I would have loved to accept this invitation, but I am not allowed to do this because of security concerns. I notice that today he and his assistant are strangely subdued.

We take a walking tour of the farm with three elders from the nearby village to get an idea of where the best location for the reservoirs should be. The three elderly men have wrinkled faces, looking more like hide than skin from years of working in the hot baking sun and the lines around their eyes are deeply etched. They have bad teeth, are bearded, and smell of stale sweat and tobacco. Each one has a different headgear; a pakul (a flat pancaked-shaped woolen hat), a turban and a kola cap (a small round hat). As they walk along, their gnarled hands clasped behind their backs, wisdom and strength resonate from them and I am filled with respect.

The farm manager shows us a large hole on one end of the field that can serve as one reservoir. The elder with the kola tells us the hole was made by a bomb the Russians dropped and he wonders if the Americans can drop another bomb at the other side of the field for the second pond. We tell him we can’t do that, but we will help provide equipment so they can dig the pond.

As we walk across the field I notice shards of pottery all over the field; you literally cannot take a step without stepping on artifacts. I pick up some of the shards and examine them. They are pieces with lips on the top so large that if you extrapolated their size to an actual pot, they would be at least one foot across the opening. Some of the pieces are charred on the bottom, indicating they were used over fires. One piece has a Greek design with an exquisitely flowing pattern. I later describe it to one of our interpreters, Dr. Najibullah, who has a doctorate in archaeology, and he tells me it is from the period of Alexander the Great. As I walk across the field I am stunned by the amount and the beauty of the shards. Some have beautiful patterns around the rims and one has a tiny flower baked onto the surface. The field is obviously an important archaeological site. I show a large shard with a design etched onto it to one of the elders.

“Oh, that is no good. It is two thousand years old,” he says dismissively. I cannot believe this significant treasure trove of artifacts hasn’t been studied.

I hold the artifact in my hand and say, “If this was in America, it would be in a museum.” He takes it from my hand and looks at it with more interest, then puts it in his pocket. Intrigued by the site, I ask if there was a village here at one time. He says a long time ago many people lived here.

When the Taliban took over the government in 1996, most of the artifacts in the Kabul Museum were destroyed, denying future generations of Afghans the opportunity to look proudly upon these reminders of their rich heritage.  The world reacted with horror when the Bamyan Buddhas were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, after the government declared they were idols. The two monumental 6th century statues of standing Buddha, the largest in the world, were carved into the side of a cliff in the beautiful Bamyan valley.  In one infamous day, 1500 years of history was lost, the serene gaze from the Buddhas faces obliterated by intolerant religious fanatics.  The larger Buddha was painted carmine red. One day Dr. Najibullah brought me a piece of stone with faded red paint on it. He had found it in the gravel used to line the roads of the FOB. With a deep sadness on his face he says, “This comes from the Buddha. “ He holds it reverently in his hand, and then offers it to me. I thank him but say he must keep it. Dr. Najibullah worked at the Kabul Museum and was responsible for the saving of a few precious artifacts, hiding them from the Taliban. He nods his head and gently places it in his pocket.

As we continue our walk across the field we are approaching a cemetery. Afghan cemeteries are dotted with stone or wooden markers, with some of the taller plinths having a green or red piece of cloth waving in the breeze. A few may have a fence around the grave, but most of them have no more than a flat stone to mark the final resting place of a loved one. Brightly colored plastic flowers adorn some of the graves. The nearer we get to the cemetery, the more I sense an invisible, but palpable presence. It is so strong I stop, unable to go any nearer. The only times I have felt this sensation is when I have been at sacred Native American sites. The only way I can describe this feeling is to say there are still people “at home.”

One of the elders points across the field and says, “There used to be an old cemetery over there, many, many years ago. He tells me that soldiers under the British occupation looted the old cemetery, taking jewelry, pots, tools and other funereal items. I am saddened by this desecration of the final resting places of long dead Afghans. As we head back to the other side of the field I can almost see and hear the hum of activity of the vanished people who lived here so many years ago. I see the shadows of women cooking over fire pits and I hear the hiss of water as it boils over onto the hot stones surrounding the fire. The echoes of children’s voices at play and the baaing of sheep float in the air and I feel like if I turn my head quickly I can catch a glimpse of those who lived, loved, laughed and suffered here. Someone asks me a question and the ghosts of the long dead slip back to their ethereal existence and I am once again walking with my little delegation on the modern-day Afghan field.

We stop for a moment as the elders talk about the irrigation system. Two ANPs (Afghan National Police) have followed us all over the field in their ill-fitting blue-gray uniforms, armed with rifles. They have a small post at the edge of the farm, which consists of a hole dug in the dirt and covered with a dark green tarpaulin. A large shaggy guard dog has a little tent set up for him and he is lying underneath it asleep. Something is “off” about the ANP’s behavior. We have our own security, but I think maybe they are just curious about us. I notice them looking at my chest and for a moment I think they are being rude, but then I see they are trying to read my ID badge. I turn around and slip it down the neck of my tunic. They follow me so closely that when I stop suddenly they bump into my back.

I love unusual rocks and as I walk along the field I begin to pick up stones with pretty colors and textures. I pick up one grayish stone with crisscross striations on it. The turbaned elder looks at it and points to the mountain and then to the stone. I understand the stone’s origin is from the mountain. Although we can’t speak each other’s language, we are communicating. He begins to bring me other rocks that catch his eye and soon both of my jacket pockets are sagging with the weight of the rocks.

We ease on up to a small rise overlooking the field and take some group pictures, each one with an ANP photo looking over the shoulders of the others. We sit on the pebbly red dirt in a semi-circle in the shadow of the mountain. As I gaze up at the high ridges I can see curious mountain goats peeping over the edge at us. As discussions ensue, I watch a herder guide his red-brown sheep to graze on the scant grass located at the base of the mountain. Being an animal scientist by degree I am interested in learning about the livestock of Afghanistan. I ask an elder what is the breed of the sheep. He says they are just local sheep, no particular breed.

“Do you want to see a sheep? We will get him to bring you a sheep!” he says excitedly. I tell him no, that we don’t have time, but thank him for the offer. I find the vast majority of Afghans eager to please, giving generously of their time and of themselves.

As we head on back to the MRAPs, our ubiquitous ANPs are following close behind me. I have had enough. If they are trying to intimidate me, it isn’t going to work. As I put my body armor back on, I turn around and look into their stony faces. I make a motion of sagging under the weight of the armor and touch my knees, a play grimace on my face. I touch my white hair as if to say, “I am old and creaky.” I smile at them. With their rifles slung over the shoulders they glance at one another and I see a hint of a smile lift the corners of their mouths. The oldest one points to his grey hair and indicates his knees hurt as well. I give them a farewell wave and climb into the MRAP.

About a month later, in an intelligence briefing, we learn the two ANPs were forcing the DAIL and his assistant to put their commander and four of his men on the payroll for the irrigation project. Corruption in the ANP is rampant. This explains why the DAIL and his assistant looked so glum the day of our mission. The feeling of something not quite right about the day suddenly makes sense. They wanted to intimidate the DAIL and to eavesdrop on the conversations involving the project. I print copies of the pictures I have with the ANPs in every shot and give them to the intelligence officer. The young farm manager risked the real possibility of brutal retaliation by telling the ADT of this attempt at racketeering.

I still think highly of the DAIL. He is an educated, kind man who has made a genuine attempt to improve agriculture in Kapisa province. He has an extension agent in each district in the province, working to make agricultural sustainable. It is too simplistic to call him corrupt. In Afghanistan you never know what a person has been promised or what he has been threatened with. I know the DAIL has five children, the youngest a five-year old son with a congenital heart defect that will likely prevent him from being six unless it is repaired. Members of the ADT are actively trying to coordinate with their churches to raise funds to bring the boy to the United States for the lifesaving surgery. Maybe the DAIL was promised money to get his son medical care. Maybe the lives of his family were threatened. I only know that his eyes on the last day I saw him were filled with despair. I saw many ghosts on our trip that day; the shadowy presence of the long dead, lingering in the shattered pieces of pottery and the very real ghosts of lost dreams and honor reflected in the eyes of men who want to do the right thing, but cannot in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear born of violence and greed.

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Copyright © 2015 Kathy Gunderman

A Day in the Life

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

War is as much a punishment to the punisher as it is to the sufferer. – Thomas Jefferson.

Excerpt from “Small Gifts from the Heart”

As I settle in to life at Morales Frazier it becomes like any other job. Get up, go to work, come home, have a little down time and repeat. Instead of commuting to work by bus or train as I did in Washington, DC, I can walk about one hundred yards to my office. Instead of a background of horns honking, the screeching of the brakes of a bus, the whirr of a train as it rushes into the station, I hear gunfire, rockets and the chatter of the French and American military as they go about their daily routine. And because you can get used to anything, it does become routine.

I start my day at 5:30 in the morning and I exercise to the sound of helicopters landing and taking off at the helipad. There is not a lot of equipment but enough to get a good aerobic workout. The smaller weights I need are missing, usually taken to use as doorstops and although I ask for more, they never come. In my younger days I competed in body building and weight lifting. I have really strong legs and I just love getting on the legs press after some guy has been straining and grunting and lift more weight than he did without effort. It’s the little things, you know. Once I saw a guy lifting weights incorrectly and offered advice on the correct way. Of course I got made fun of. Who was I, an old white haired lady telling this young, virile soldier how to lift weights? I took the higher ground when I saw him icing his shoulder in the dining hall later that morning. He at least had the decency to look sheepish.

Our dining hall or DFAC, is a small room with tables. We have Army cooks that don’t really cook much. They don’t have a real kitchen to prepare food so they heat up a lot of dinners that look like Schwann’s meals. We don’t have any fresh fruit or vegetables, although on one memorable occasion when a general visited we had a green salad. I just stood in front of it and lifted a trembling hand to my mouth as I whispered wonderingly, “A salad!” We have milk, soft drinks and water to drink. In the morning I have cereal and sometimes there are some stale pastries as an option. We do have good ice cream as dessert or for a snack.

When a RIP/TOA (Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority) is in place the departing unit tries to use up all the food allotted to them. Once when a supply truck burned up at Bagram at the same time as a RIP/TOA we had some interesting meals, like seven different kinds of chicken. Nothing else, just seven different kinds of chicken.

The French have a better DFAC, but is on the other side of the base and I am usually too wiped out after a 12-14 hour day to bother going. The few times I ate there I was not impressed with the food so it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Surprisingly there is a small pizza place on this tiny little base and it makes a nice change. We also have MREs (Meals Ready-To-Eat) that can be taken on long missions. I know they must have some heavy duty preservatives because they can last for years.

After breakfast I take my “bath” which consists of wetting a washcloth with bottled water and using camping shampoo. About every four days I trudge through the dust or mud, depending on the weather, and take a real shower. The showers and bathrooms on MF are coed so as I walk up the steps and open the door I go in with lowered eyes because they don’t always explain to newcomers the “coed” part. If I hear a shocked gasp I just keep my eyes lowered until a towel is draped over the appropriate places.

The showers are small cubicles with a tiny space on one side of a shower curtain to disrobe and hang up your clothes. As the water is trucked in and is in limited supply we only get two minutes of water use. I wet my hair and body, turn off the water, lather up, turn the water back on and rinse, all the while trying to not get water in my mouth as it is not potable. It can be done. Just. Then the trick is to try to dry off and get redressed in such a tiny space. While I am in the shower room I brush my teeth and admonish the guys for leaving hair in the sinks. I tell them “I don’t even get this close to my husband at home!” I’ve seen more men in boxer shorts since coming to MF than I have in my whole life. Like I say, you can get used to anything.

One particularly uncomfortable time in the shower was when I found myself in the stall next to our chaplain. He comes from Bagram once a month for a service. “Nice sermon, Chaplain,” I say over the wall. “Well, thank you,” he answers back. Awkward to say the least. After my shower I walk back to my tent in the dust or mud which necessitates washing my feet again when I get back to my room.

If I need to get up in the night to go to the bathroom there is a port-a-potty conveniently located in front of my tent. An Afghan business cleans all the port-a-potties every morning but by night they are disgusting. I cautiously open the door like someone checking for booby traps, which in a way is true. Toilet tissue lies in clumps around the facility and the floor is coated with urine. For goodness sakes, these men are trained marksmen. Are they trying to hit the floor? I sit gingerly on the plastic seats that are cracked trying not to pinch my butt. The Afghans use squat toilets and they don’t understand the concept of sitting on a toilet. They stand on the seats to do their business, therefore the cracks. There is a small sticker in each toilet with a person standing on the toilet with a red line through it, but apparently it doesn’t get the message across.

Privacy is at a minimum as the potty outside my tent also has a bench sitting right next to it. I usually walk to another one if I feel I need a buffer zone. Once, as I was leaving a stall, my boots slipped in the mud coating the linoleum floor of the latrine and I fell to the floor. The latrines are in B-huts sitting on blocks and when I fell the whole place shook and my fall echoed loudly in the confined space. I heard a “Holy shit!” come from another stall. I got up and quietly left the latrine and burst out laughing when I got outside. I know some poor guy is sitting in there with his pants down thinking we are in a rocket attack.

My office is in a concrete block building with plywood walled offices that don’t have an interior ceiling. I share my office with one other person from the military and we get along very well. Dust is usually everywhere so I dust first thing, then check email. I am trying to figure out what was done by the USDA rep before me but there doesn’t seem to be any records or contact information for local Afghan leaders. In the civilian world there is no passing of the baton and we just keep doing the same things over and over with no documentation, no follow-up and no accountability. With the military it is a little better but I come to realize that most of the projects the Civ/Mil (Civilian/Military) Provincial Reconstruction Teams are implementing do not have lasting value. I desperately try to look for projects that I feel can make a difference but I don’t kid myself that I am going to change the world here. The whole point of putting civilians in the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan was to stabilize the economy by creating jobs and sustainable agriculture. The reality is this is incredibly difficult if not impossible to do in an active war zone. It just increases the likelihood that civilians  will be wounded or killed. We will never win this or any war with how much money we throw at people and it certainly won’t be with how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the one-on-one interactions we have with Afghans where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists. I try to take a small measure of comfort in that.

After a day of trying to see a way clear to use my skills and expertise to help farmers in my province I make my way back to my tent where I have about two hours to myself, or as much by myself as you can be in a tent full of women. I put my earphones on and listen to music as I turn to my sketch pad for some relaxation. Soon I am lost in another world and as my pencil scratches across the paper my mind is distracted from the omnipresent noise that permeates our base. After an hour or so, I look down and see a beautiful picture that I can barely remember drawing. It is like a meditation and I did some of my best work in Afghanistan lying propped up in my bunk in that tent on MF.

At about 9:00 PM I brush my teeth, spitting in the trash can and rinsing with bottled water, followed by an Ambien so I can sleep. I wash off my feet again and crawl under the covers on my bunk. I screw in my earplugs that muffle but don’t exclude the noise and in the dark I lay and ponder my being 12,000 miles away from my family. As I say my prayers I hope they know how much I love them. I pray God will show me a way to be useful here; a way to bring some comfort to people who are living under the tyranny of 40 years of war. I pray that soon we all can go to sleep in peacefulness.

Copyright (C) 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

A Moment of Acceptance

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We must then build a proper relationship between the richest and the poorest countries based on our desire that they are able to fend for themselves with the investment that is necessary in their agriculture. – Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK

During my training in preparation to deploy to Afghanistan as an agricultural adviser I learned that Afghan women have a very different place in society than western women. I am told there are three sexes in Afghanistan – Afghan and western men, Afghan women and western women. I wonder if I will be accepted by Afghan farmers, either as an American or as a woman. I receive a lot of advice on how to dress and act, but I make the decision early on to rely mainly on just being myself and letting my agricultural expertise speak for itself. I have worked in agriculture, a male dominated arena, for over 30 years. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to prove I know what I am doing.

Soon after arriving at my post I go on a mission to the compound of the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL) in Kapisa Province with a group of American National Guardsmen to deliver agricultural seeds.  As I begin to mark off the variety and amount of seed, I notice the Afghan farmers unloading the truck are either politely ignoring me or casting quick sidelong glances at me. I know I look strange to them and I am not offended by their curiosity. The men show the signs of a lifetime of hard work. Although they look like they are in their 50’s and 60’s, most likely they are in their 30’s or 40’s. Life is hard here and people age quickly, with the average lifespan being 44. Their hands are calloused, many with injured nails that look more like the yellowed talons of some huge predatory bird. Their nut-brown faces are lined from long hours in the unrelenting Afghan sun, made more searing because of the high altitude.  Many are gap-toothed and their teeth are stained from tobacco use. To me their faces are made beautiful by the honesty of the hard work they must do to feed their families. I come from an agricultural background devoid of massive tractors and combines and I instantly feel a bond with these tillers of the soil. They are wearing dingy white salwar kameze, loose pants with a long tunic, many topped off with western-style sports jackets and vests.   They are wearing headscarves or intricately wound turbans. The smell of stale sweat wafts over me in the gentle breeze that is tickling the leaves of the acacia trees under which we are seeking some shade.

Some of the bags in the truck have split in transit and the seeds have spilled out onto the bed of the truck. The men rake up the seeds with their hands, careful to capture each precious seed. Some of the seeds are bright pick, having been treated with fungicide.

“What kind of seed are these?” they ask in amazement.

My interpreter, Najib, is not an agriculture person and he lifts his shoulders in a gesture that says, “Beat’s me.”  I lean over and say they are sorghum seeds. “Sorghum!” they say and nod their heads.  Having broken the ice, they start to bring me other seeds, holding them out for me to see, waiting shyly for my reply. I identify barley, oats and wheat. They are becoming friendlier and start making eye contact with me.  They bring me a handful of turnip seeds. Najib doesn’t know the Dari word for turnip, so I draw the men a picture of a turnip and they smile with pure delight.

As we get ready to leave, one of the turbaned farmers reaches into his pocket with his work-soiled and hardened hand, takes my hand and gently puts something onto my palm. I look down and see he has given me some dried mulberries and walnuts. I look up and smile, and he smiles back. Although the mix looks less than clean, I eat it with joy in my heart because he has offered me his food. He is letting me know with this offering that he accepts me.

It is a great day.

There and Back Again – Part II

Convoy

When you are in a combat situation, you mustn’t let your mind be polluted by emotions like fear and anger. Simply accept the situation and react, even if you are facing impossible odds. Keep your head clear and you will be one step ahead of your attackers. – Aaron B. Powell

My unit decides to break from our routine and head back to MF during the day. As we repeat the process of preparing our convoy to go back, the skies are sunny and I am almost giddy from the absorption of a few rays of warmth. Deep ravines and steep mountain roads don’t hold the same menace in the day as they did on that nightmare ride three nights ago. We have just about reached the summit of the mountain when we roll up on a firefight. It quickly becomes clear we should have stuck with our routine.

I can see French soldiers hunkered down behind dirt berms on the side of the road firing 50-caliber guns down into the ravine where insurgents are firing back. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire is a constant background noise as I listen to the chatter over the earphones. “Hold up! Hold up!” Our convoy comes to a stop and I can see the gunner’s legs tighten with tension as he rotates the turret rapidly back and forth, trying to see everything at once.  I have a strange sense of resignation although a frisson of fear is making my limbs tremble like a taut wire being strummed by the wind.

“Are you okay, Miss Kathy?” our driver asks.

“I am fine. Don’t worry about me.” I don’t want them to focus on anything but their jobs at this point in time.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Continuous, near at hand from the French and far away as the insurgents return fire from the valley. I know we are relatively safe from gunfire in the thickly armored MRAP. Again I am praying for our gunners. Then I hear over the earphones, “There are two guys on the mountain with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).” Okay, I think, if this is armor piercing, it can take us out. My heartbeat speeds up and the tension can be felt in the silence that permeates the radio. Finally, someone says, “It’s a French guy and an ANA (Afghan National Army).” You can feel the collective sigh of relief over the radio.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!  An F-16 roars through the canyon overriding the sound of gunfire. A French helicopter swoops over, dropping canisters that burst into red and green smoke upon impact to mark the location of the insurgents. Another helicopter fires rockets into the area. Clouds of grayish dust mingle with the colored smoke in a bizarre, surrealistic display of dancing plumes. The loud explosions of the rockets shake the ground, and I can feel the concussion under my feet. My civilian companion in the MRAP is excited. “That’s right. Light ‘em up!” he shouts.

Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! “They’re still coming!” I hear over the radio. I can’t believe anyone could be living after all this fire power has been thrown at them, but still the guns keep firing. After about 20 minutes we get the word to move on past the firefight. There is a huge IED hole in the road that wasn’t there a few nights ago. It is deep and wide, and I hope the sides don’t cave in as we inch around it and plunge us down into the ravine below. Finally, we are on solid road again and we head away from the firefight. We are close to MF and as we near the FOB I look over to my right. A French armored vehicle responding to the firefight has gone off the road and tumbled down a ravine. I see soldiers removing bodies from the wreck. They are covered with blood and their limbs are broken, some are obviously dead, and I wonder if these are men or women I know on the base.

We pull into MF, our nerves raw. I get out of the MRAP, my legs threatening to give way as I step down on the ground. We are parked next to the big 107mm guns. They are being fired in support of the troops engaged in the firefight, and the booms of their mortars as they discharge are deafening. Every time one goes off I flinch and cover my ears as the earth shakes underneath my feet.

We are told that the mess hall has stayed open for us and after I drop my gear off at my tent, I head on over. Up until now I have been relatively calm, considering the circumstances, but when I lift up a forkful of peas and carrots I notice they are falling off because my hand is shaking so badly.

I find that the day of a hostile action I have an afterglow of excitement fueled by adrenaline. It is all anyone can talk about, and each moment is relived again and again. The day after is marked by a massive headache from the release of adrenaline into my body, and I am sleepy and lethargic all day. This seems to be the norm for most of the people around me.

Before I came to Afghanistan, I spent many sleepless nights wondering how I would react in such a situation. I hoped I would behave honorably and not be a coward. Looking back, I feel like I equated myself well. I was scared, no doubt about that, but I didn’t give in to my fear. The sobering and enduring emotion for me is a deep sadness for the loss of young lives, friend and foe, for there is sadness at the core of every death.  Many of the Taliban are not hardline fanatics. They are day laborers hired for five dollars a day. They can feed their families for weeks on that. I can see no gain in the firefight I experienced, and this was just one of many taking place every day in Afghanistan. This is what war is. Taking this valley, that hill, only to lose it and gain it back again – bodies piling up along the way like cordwood. Families irrevocably shattered by loss and grief.

It doesn’t make any sense to me. No sense at all. But I am a civilian, not a soldier. The grim reality is that I am in a war zone and this is the gig I signed up for. I have to accept conflict as a part of my life or I need to go home. I still have hope that I can find a window of peace to help the Afghan agricultural sector and I can make some small contribution that will make a difference in a farmer’s life who is just trying to make a living in the midst of all this madness.

There and Back Again-Part I

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The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. – H.P. Lovecraft

Going to Bagram Air Base from Morales Frazier (lovingly nicknamed MF) in MRAPs is an hour and a half of sheer hell. We leave at 11:30 p.m. in the hope that the bad guys will be asleep and won’t shoot us or blow us up. There is always the grim knowledge that one fanatic nightowl is out there waiting to do just that. One particular mission is burned into my memory in nightmarish clarity. As we prepare to leave MF, soldiers are loading our gear on a trailer and scurrying around checking out the vehicles and equipment. You definitely don’t want to break down in Taliban country, and that includes the whole route we will travel on. It is raining and I huddle in my rain gear, miserable and cold. MF is either dusty or muddy. There is no in between. It sits in a valley at 6,000 feet and in winter it is frigid. I can see my breath curling in the air and the exhaust fumes of the idling MRAPs burns my nose. The commander comes down and gives us a briefing and we load up.

MRAPs are armored vehicles designed to minimize the damage humans sustain if we hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), but they are not designed for comfort. The seats are hard, with no padding that could catch fire in an explosion. Six people can fit in the back, not counting the gunner, who is standing between the front and back, half inside and half out, manning a 50-caliber automatic rifle in the turret. I am sitting next to him and it is my responsibility to feed ammunition belts to him if we come under fire. If we have a rollover, we all shout, “Roll over! Roll over! Roll over!” and brace our arms on the roof of the MRAP. It is also my responsibility as the closest person to the gunner to grab him (or her) by the legs and hold on for dear life to prevent ejection as we turn over.

There is not a lot of legroom in the MRAP and our legs are interlaced like a zipper. I strap myself into my harness and put on earphones, which fit underneath the flaps of my helmet. Everyone in the convoy, which is usually five or six vehicles, is connected by the communications system so we can hear all the conversations as we get ready to go. There is always an undercurrent of tension until we get the word to go – then there is nothing to do but go. The die is cast. We bump our way out the gate on the rutted dirt road in the drizzling rain.

The road to Bagram consists of a series of steep mountain switchbacks with hairpin curves. My MRAP is pulling a trailer loaded with luggage, and as I look out the back window I can see a rooster tail of mud flying over the bags as the trailer sways back and forth.  The night is pitch black and the rain is coming down harder, lashing against the windows like an angry demon. The navigator sits next to the driver and watches a monitor. The turret ratchets around with a screech as the gunner rotates it, scanning for anything that doesn’t look right. I am always tense on this trip and I try not to think about the French gunner who was shot in the forehead just underneath his helmet and killed on this same road today. There is a crack marksman out there somewhere, because this is the second French gunner to be killed this way in two weeks.

We work our way tortuously up the mountain–sharp right, grind on up, sharp left. I hear our driver shout, “I can’t see the road! I can’t see the road!” The navigator replies “Move a little over to the left!” I can see there is a ravine with a 200-foot drop to the right. Solid lines of rain are streaming down, reflected in the lights that are dimmed to keep a low profile as we move farther into enemy territory. The visual range for the driver is only a few feet.

“A little to the right. Too much! Go left! Go left!” The words echo through my earphones. My nerves are stretched taut and my muscles are hurting from being contracted in sustained fear. Finally, we reach the summit of the mountain and start down. I can hear the brakes engage as the driver balances braking and accelerating. Sharp left, go down, sharp right-back and forth on the switchbacks that surely must have been designed by a sadist. We hit a particularly big pothole and a box of 50-caliber ammunition bounces off a shelf and lands on my knees. It weighs at least 30 pounds, and I am in agony. For a few minutes all I can do is take shallow breaths and fight back tears of pain.

Over the earphones I hear that we are coming up on the place where the French soldier was killed. You can feel the tension in the silence that permeates the earphones. I am praying for our gunners, who are the most vulnerable. I hold my breath and my senses become hyperalert, expecting any minute to hear the crack of a high-powered rifle and see my gunner slump down in his harness. We round a curve and I can see the lights of Bagram in the distance. So close. So close.

The last MRAP passes by the kill zone and I breathe a sigh of relief. Although we are not out of danger, the lights of Bagram are steadily getting closer and beckoning us with their siren brightness. At last we reach the checkpoint and are cleared to go inside the fences topped with razor wire. The tension eases from my body, and I am physically and mentally shattered. I unstrap myself, hang up my earphones, climb out of the MRAP, turn around and back down, stretching to meet the ground with my boot from that last high step. The rain is coming down hard now, and I don’t know if I have ever been more tired. It has taken us two grueling hours in the rain to reach Bagram, and it is now 1:30 A.M.

I pull my mud-encrusted bag from the trailer and begin to make my way to the billeting office to arrange for a place to sleep. I dodge mud puddles and wade through water that is flowing across the roads. My bruised knees are aching, and each step is an exercise in sheer mind over matter. Rain is dripping off my helmet, running down my back and dripping off my nose. My hair is hanging in dank strands and feels like snakes crawling on my face. By the time I reach the billeting office my feet are soaked inside my boots and I am shivering with the cold.

I pull out my travel orders to show the billeting clerk. Rank definitely has its privileges in the military, and my civilian pay grade allows me to have the same accommodations as a lieutenant colonel. For me that means a bed in the VIP tent. This is a large tent with rows of bunks on each side and plywood walls and floors. Bare light bulbs strung from the ceiling cast dim light on the room. Each bunk has a single wardrobe to hang clothes in and store gear. My favorite bunk is just inside the door. It has a wall and so it is like a single room. Privacy is a luxury I don’t enjoy often, and this little space gives me a feeling of much needed isolation. It houses a big blower tube attached to a compressor that shoots heated air into the tent. It is loud, which is probably why it is in a space by itself, but the noise seems like a small price to pay for a few hours alone. Earplugs are a way of life anyway as the roaring of F-16 jets taking off day and night overrides any other extraneous noise.

The billeting clerks are civilian contractors and as I show her my orders, she writes up my bunk assignment.  I grab a plastic garbage bag filled with bedding from a closet next to the desk. She hands over my orders and says, “You’ll have to take this over to the mayor’s office and get him to stamp this.” She shows me is the location on a map, and it is quite a distance from where we are, with a lot of left turns, right turns–in the dark and in the rain. Then after I get the stamp, I will have to walk all the way back to the VIP tent–in the dark and in the rain.

“I’ll get that first thing in the morning. I am too tired to go over there tonight,” I tell her. I am drooping with exhaustion, weighted down by my 50 pounds of body armor.

“No, you have to get it tonight.” At this point it is the thin end of the wedge. Something in my rain soaked, flagging body snaps. I tap my finger on the counter emphatically and say, “I have just experienced hell on earth for two hours in an MRAP. A box of 50 cal. ammunition bounced off my knees. I am cold, wet and in pain and I’m just before lying down in this floor kicking and screaming. Now I am going to sleep somewhere tonight if it is out there on your front porch. I need a place to sleep, and I need it now!” The clerk looks into my demented, glazed eyes and backs away saying, “Let me check with someone.”

She goes behind some filing cabinets that separate the desk from office space in the back. I can hear her urgent whispers, and I expect MPs to swarm out at any second and put me in flex cuffs. At this point, I don’t care. At least I’ll get a nice cell to sleep in, and I bet I don’t have to get a stamp for that.

The clerk comes back and says, “That’s okay. You can get it in the morning.” I can tell she just wants to see the last of me. I thank her, pick up my pack and sling my bag of bedding over my back like Santa on his way across a rooftop. I plod in the rain to the VIP tent–right foot, left foot. Just keep going.

Finally I stagger up the steps, maneuver myself through the door trying to be as quiet as possible and (Joy!) my little space is vacant. I tiptoe in, put my bag and backpack down, pull out a sheet and a blanket and throw them on the bed. I roll up some of my clothes to make a pillow, pull off my sodden shoes and socks, strip down to my underwear and slip under the cold blanket. I screw in my earplugs and fall into the deep sleep that only the truly weary can appreciate.

I spend the next two days going out on missions with the Agricultural Development Team, National Guardsmen who have expertise in agriculture and engineering. At the end of the day I enjoy nesting in my little space. It is a haven to collapse into at night and for a few restless hours it is the place I call home until we start our long journey back to MF.

Young Farmer with Old Eyes

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The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. – Wendell Berry

Excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts from the Heart”

Young Farmer with Old Eyes

 Most of the farmers I deal with in Afghanistan are children. The first farmer I meet is twelve years old. We have completed a market walk in the town of Nijrab where tables of vegetables, fruits and pungent spices are for sale. In a market walk we talk to vendors and shoppers and gather information to see if people perceive they are better off than a year ago. We ask them what they feel they need to make their lives better; jobs and education are the two most frequent responses.

For this mission I have requested a stop at an agricultural field. Just outside of town the convoy stops at a wheat field alongside the road. I climb out of the MRAP as the SECFOR (Security Force) takes up strategic places around the field, their arms at ready in case of an attack. An ag person needs to feel soil like a junkie needs a fix. Soil is the drug of our choice. And don’t ever call soil “dirt” in front of a soil person. Dirt is soil out-of-place, not the stuff you grow things in. I eagerly scoop up a handful of soil. It is lacking organic material but looks pretty good. As I am mentally determining the sand-silt-clay ratio I notice a young boy coming out to the field. He comes up to my interpreter and me and holds out his hand. He looks to be about 12 and he is the farmer of this wheat field and he has come to see what we are doing. I ask him if I can ask him some questions about his field and he agrees.

Afghanistan is a country that largely depends on snow and rain runoff to water their crops. The steep grey mountains do not show an abundance of snow clinging to their sharp peaks or nestling in deep ravines.

“Are you concerned that you won’t have enough rain or snow to water your crops this year?” I ask.

He gravely looks at the mountains for a moment. “If this year isn’t good, then we hope next year will be better.” Now, every farmer I have ever talked to has said this. Farmers are eternal optimists in spite of drought, crop failure, high expenses and low profits.

“What do you use to fertilize your crops?” I ask, poking the soil around in my hand.

“We use animal and human feces.” I look down at the soil in my hand with a different viewpoint. What is that little brown clump next to my thumb?

I ask him a few more agronomy questions. He is as knowledgeable as any farmer I have ever talked to. I notice a small crowd of children have come out to the field, some are leading babies by the hand. They lift up rocks from a pile as they work on a stone wall around an orchard of newly planted fruit trees. I ask the farmer if I can look at the orchard and he leads me over. He says the children are building the wall to keep animals out. Even the babies are working on the wall, lifting up stones that look too heavy for their diminutive size. Irrigation channels have been dug around the perimeter of the orchard. I ask him what kind of trees he has planted.

“Peaches, apricot and apples.”

“When your fruit matures will you sell it in the market?” I ask.

“No, I have a big family. I grow food to feed my family.” I look down into his dark brown eyes and my heart breaks. At twelve, children in America are attending school and playing video games. He is so young but his eyes are world-weary from shouldering the responsibilities of an adult. I thank him for talking with me and I shake his hand. I also commend him for taking care of his family. He lifts a shoulder as if to say, “It is all in a day’s work.”

This encounter will become poignant to me in the future when I hear about a rogue group of Army infantrymen under the leadership of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. For weeks the men who refer to themselves as the “Kill Team” debate if they can kill a “Haji”, a disrespectful term for an Afghan man, without getting caught. In the winter of 2010 the Kill Team crosses the line from fantasy into grim reality.

On January 15 the platoon carries out a mission to a small rural village in the Maywand district in Kandahar province. Upon reaching the village, soldiers provide a perimeter the same way my security forces do for me when I am on a mission. But this day the perimeter is to provide a clear path for members of the Kill Team to carry out their plan to execute an innocent Afghan civilian. As the soldiers walk through the alleys of the village, they see no armed fighters nor find any evidence of enemy activity. Instead, they see an all too familiar sight in rural Afghanistan, farmers living without electricity or running water, bearded men with bad teeth in tattered traditional clothes, women clad in royal blue burkas and young children eager to talk to the Americans.

While the officers of the platoon talk to a village elder inside a compound, two soldiers break away from the unit and move to the far edge of the village. There, in a poppy field, they began looking for someone to kill. The soldiers see a young farmer, Gul Mudin, a smooth-faced boy of about 15 years old. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stand sentry. The young man is the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, they pick the young man for their first execution.

Mudin is wearing a little round cap called a kola and a Western-style green jacket. He holds nothing in his hand that can be used as a weapon. The expression on his face as he approaches them is welcoming. “He was not a threat,” one of the soldiers later confessed. The two men order him in Pashto to stop. The boy did as he was told. He stood still.

The soldiers knelt down behind a mud-brick wall and one tosses a grenade toward Mudin. As the grenade explodes, the soldiers open fire, shooting the boy repeatedly at close range with an M4 carbine and a machine gun. Mudin buckles and collapses face first onto the ground, his kola toppling off next to his bleeding head. A pool of blood runs from his wounds.

The gunfire alerts the other soldiers and they rush over. When they arrive at the scene they see the body of the young boy. The two soldiers are crouching by the wall, their eyes shining with excitement. When a staff sergeant asks them what happened, one of the soldiers says the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. “We had to shoot the guy,” he says.

The sergeant believes the boy might still be alive, and possibly a threat, so he orders a soldier to make sure the boy is dead. A soldier raises his rifle and fires twice more into Mudin’s body.

As the soldiers gather around Mudin, the atmosphere is charged with a manic excitement. A local village elder, who had been speaking to the soldiers that morning, is fetched to identify the body. The elder turns out to be the father of the slain boy. His grief and disbelief at the site of his son’s bullet riddled body was later recounted in an official Army report. “The father was very upset.”

In spite of the father’s grief, the soldiers are jubilant. The soldiers follow the routine Army procedure required after every battlefield death. Cutting off the dead boy’s clothes, they strip him naked to check for identifying tattoos or scars. Using a portable biometric scanner they scan his iris and fingerprints.

The Geneva Convention states, each Party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken … to protect [the killed] against … ill-treatment. The remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities … shall be respected”. In a direct violation of this protocol, the soldiers begin taking photographs of themselves with the body. One of the soldiers who killed the boy poses for the camera with Mudin’s bloody corpse, grabbing the boy’s head by the hair as if it is a trophy deer. The other soldier gets a similar photo.

Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the leader of the Kill Team is pleased. Gibbs later states he started “messing around with the kid,” moving his arms and mouth and “acting like the kid was talking.” Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic’s shears, he slices off the dead boy’s little finger and gives it to one of the soldiers. A trophy for killing his first Afghan.

According to fellow soldiers, the man carried the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” one of his friends would later report. “He was proud of his finger.”

The soldiers, embolden by their success, go on a killing spree over the next four months that claims the lives of at least three more innocent civilians. One is a cleric and one is deaf, and possibly mentally handicapped. A part of his skull was taken as a trophy. When another soldier blows the whistle on the team in the summer of 2010, a military investigation results in the charging of five members of the platoon with the murder of three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province and collecting their body parts as trophies. In addition, seven soldiers are charged with crimes such as hashish use, impeding an investigation, and attacking the whistleblower. Eleven men are ultimately convicted, receiving sentences ranging from 60 days to life.  Anyone who creates terror is a terrorist. When the men of the Kill Team crossed the line from talking about killing to the actual executions of innocent civilians, they lost their humanity. The moment they killed Mudin, they became the bad guys.

When I read about the depraved actions of the Kill Team the face of my twelve year-old farmer superimposes itself on Mudin’s face in my mind’s eye. I can see him coming out to the field to meet me with a smile on his face, his hand outstretched. It took courage to walk into that field ringed with soldiers armed with assault rifles. I now realize, this is not a boy, this is a man. I know he will have a hard life and I pray his fields will never be stained with his blood as Gul Mudin’s was.

The Woman With the Turquoise Eyes

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Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. – Mother Teresa

This is another excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts from the Heart”.

As I make my way to meet a visitor at the front gate of forward operating base Morales Frazier in Kapisa Province, I notice an Afghan woman, dressed in black, sitting on the gravel and waiting with other villagers to see the French doctors on the base. Her eyes are closed and her face is etched with lines of pain as she adjusts her headscarf to shield herself from the scorching sun. On my way back I notice she is lying face down in the large, gray gravel, her face cradled in her hands. I ask my interpreter, Ibrahim, “Does she need help?”

Several young men are sitting on a bench in the shade, and he asks them about her. They dismissively say she has a head injury and a headache, I reach down and touch her shoulder. Squinting from the bright sun, she looks up at me and I put my arms around her and help her to stand. I notice that she is very weak and feeble. I motion for the young men to move over so that she can sit on the bench and ask the guards at the gate if they have any water for the people waiting. “Is she going to be seen soon?” I inquire.

They inform me that there are a lot of serious injuries today, including some children that the Taliban pulled from their homes, breaking their arms and legs as a warning to the parents, threatening to return and kill them if there is any cooperation with the Americans. I look down at a little boy who looks to be about 5, standing there with his broken arm in a red bandana sling, staring at me with his big brown eyes full of fear – because I am an American. I still have nightmares about those eyes.

“Let me see what I can find out,” I tell Ibrahim. I race to find our American medic to see if there is anything he can do. He tells me, “I can’t treat her, but let me see if I can free someone up at the clinic.” The French doctor tells us she knows the woman.

“She has a terminal brain tumor that has spread to her lungs. She is dying.” Anguished, I tell her the woman is very sick and weak and needs immediate attention. She tells me she will send a medic down to get her. On my way out I notice a young girl with a broken leg that is held together by a rod and screws inserted into her leg.. I look around at the people waiting to be seen and I am overwhelmed at the misery and sickness before me.

I hurry back to the gate and sit down next to the woman. “They are coming for her,” I tell Ibrahim, and he translates that message to her. She has the most startling blue eyes I have ever seen – the color of palest turquoise – and when she hears they are coming for her they fill with tears.

“I have been coming every day for a week, but no one cares,” she whispers. She leans weakly against my arm, and I ask her if she wants to lay her head down in my lap while she waits. As I hold her in my arms, I stroke her back and feel the thinness of her body; her bones are knobs and sticks bumping under my hand. I hear the raspiness of each labored breath as she struggles to breathe with lungs ravaged by cancer’s insidious fingers. She raises her withered hand to lift the scarf off her head, revealing a tumor so large that it has burst through her scalp. An open wound reaches from the crown of her head down to her neck where the tumor has split the skin. I can smell the stench of infection, and although the site and smell of the festering red wound edged with yellow flesh makes my stomach clinch, I am moved with pity. I cannot imagine her pain.

She says something to Ibrahim that so overcomes him, he is unable to speak. As he fights back tears, stomping his foot on the ground, he is visibly shaken. He finally looks at me with stricken eyes and says she has told him, “Now, if I just had someone who could feed me.” My eyes fill with tears and I angrily say, “This isn’t right.” A man in the crowd silently hands me a box of cookies, and I open them for her. Crumbs spill from the sides of her mouth as she shoves them in with a hunger that cannot be assuaged by such a meager ration. I have seen hungry people but never anyone starving, and the sight wounds me like a hot knife plunged into my core.

When the medics come, Ibrahim gently lifts the sick woman into the vehicle. We walk to the clinic to help her out and get her inside. As I start to walk away she stops me with a touch on my arm and holds me with her amazing eyes. A look passes between us that transcends spoken language. Though we will never meet again a bond has formed, and neither will forget the other. She touches her hand to her mouth in a gesture of farewell, and I turn and walk away.

The next day I go back to the clinic and ask the doctor if there is any place like a hospice for the woman to go, offering to pay for her care. She tells me that there is no such place, adding that because she is a widow with no family, there is no one to care for her. The reality is that the needs of families in the poor village are so great that compassion for others is a luxury that cannot be afforded. The doctor tells me that the woman does not have long to live, as if this will make me feel better. At that point I begin to pray that death will soon bring her freedom from her pain.

There are thousands more like this woman suffering through hunger and pain in Afghanistan. While the idea of the terminally ill dying alone is abhorrent to most of us, this is a modern aberration. For most of mankind’s existence this has been the norm. Much of Afghanistan is living in another century where poverty and sickness make obtaining day-to-day subsistence a grueling task at best. This is their life and they accept it. It is all they know.

Many times in my two years in Afghanistan I wonder if any of us, military or civilian, are doing anything that matters. Then I think of this nameless woman and I know that any time or money we spend in Afghanistan that makes food, health care and education available is well spent. While America has struggled with our longest war in terms of loss of life and treasure, for me it is ultimately about humanity. I will never forget the woman with the turquoise eyes. I only knew her for an hour, but she changed my life forever.

And The Rockets Red Glare

Kathy

The truth is no one ever believes for a minute–no matter what danger you’re in–that you yourself are going to be killed. The bomb is always going to hit the other person. – Agatha Christie

Every Wednesday I am going to include an excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts From the Heart”. Hope you enjoy.

The first time I am in a rocket attack, it was about 8:00 PM. I am in my bunk at Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier absorbed in a murder mystery. The women soldiers in the tent are chatting, reading and getting ready for bed. The sound of outgoing mortar rounds has a deep, bass boom. After a while, I don’t even notice them any more. It is like an ambient sound machine that lulls me to sleep at night. This night I hear a high, whistling sound racing through the night sky above our tent. Although I have never heard it, I know instantly it is incoming. We all freeze, some with their mouths open, silenced in mid-sentence by the screaming of the rocket, waiting to see where it will land.

BOOM! It doesn’t hit our tent. Then, as one, chatter breaks out. A soldier asks me, “What’ll we do? What’ll we do?”

“Well, you’re the military. What do we do?” I reply.

The Captain gets on her phone and talks to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). They tell us to get in our body armor and go to the French bunker. Now the bunker is over on the other side of the base. I have already put on my old flannel pajamas and gone to bed. In our pre-deployment training they told us the biggest danger in a rocket attack, other than a direct hit, is getting hit by flying shrapnel. I elect to stay in my bunk. My only concession is to put aside the murder mystery and read the Bible. I think about putting on my armor, but I have already washed my feet, the last thing I do before getting in my bunk because the floor is dusty, and my armor is across the room. I decide to take my chances. The others head out to the bunker.

After a few minutes another rocket comes squealing over. BOOM!! This one lands outside the fence.I read the 23rd Psalm with renewed vigor. That little frisson of fear that comes with being in the line of fire is skipping across my nerves. I am alone in the tent and I feel very far from home. What I wouldn’t give to be in my cozy Maine home with my family right now.

The one good thing about the Taliban rockets is that they are mostly surplus that the Russians left behind when they withdrew from Afghanistan. They are old and often duds. Forty-five minutes after the initial rocket screamed over our tent the French return outgoing mortars and it is very likely the insurgents are already gone. They send off volley after volley of rockets which seem to say, “Our rockets are bigger than your rockets.” It is an emotional balm to help sooth our jangled nerves. Many of the soldiers are outside watching the rockets streak their yellow light towards the mountain towering over the base, cheering as each round blasts a hole in the bare, gray shale mountainside. It is like a Fourth of July celebration and makes everyone feel better.

As the deep bass “Whoof!” of the last outgoing rocket reverberates off into the distance, my tentmates troop excitedly back inside. We are all so glad that those two rockets didn’t have anyone’s name stamped on them. One Air Force nurse shares that when the first rocket came over; she was on the phone with her Dad, a Vietnam veteran. He could hear the whine of the rockets over the phone and had told her it was incoming. She now calls him back to let him know she is okay. Pent-up nervousness and adrenaline causes many of the women to laugh nervously. The Captain asks me if I am okay and I tell her I am fine. I have switched back to my murder mystery in an effort to release my fear. Murder mysteries always relax me.

“She’s not in the military and she is calmer than any of us!” she says to the others.

I just smile serenely, reinforcing this perception. What they don’t know is that I was probably more scared than any of them, but I am determined not to be seen as someone who panics at the first little rocket attack. I do have my pride.

When I transferred to the Embassy, I was in several rocket attacks. One time another civilian and I are having coffee outside the dining hall with two newly arrived civilians waiting to go to the field. We hear some booms in the distance. “Outgoing,” we knowingly say and go back to chatting, unconcerned. The newbies look nervously at each other. They’ll learn all too soon that you can get used to anything in Afghanistan. If awakened in the night by a rocket explosion, I turn my head to the side so I can hear better. If I don’t hear people screaming or a duck and cover siren, I go peacefully back to sleep. After all this is what I signed up for. I can’t afford to give in to fear and still be able to do my job.

It is only after I return to the peace and safety of home that the sound of fireworks and loud noises reduces me to a quivering mass of fear. The coping mechanisms I developed in Afghanistan don’t seem to work at home. Loud noises shouldn’t scare me anymore but the fear they bring is so much worse than anything I felt in Afghanistan. The horror of post traumatic stress is that normalcy has become the monster that lies in wait for me and it is a monster no amount of body armor can protect me from.

We Served Too

OEF

Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world when he could do something about it, but I am afraid he might just ask me the same question.

While I was in Afghanistan there were several American civilians killed in reconstruction and stabilization efforts. Some I knew, some I only knew of, but each death filled me with despair. It takes a special person to voluntarily leave everything they know and work in dangerous areas of the world. Some people go for financial reasons, some crave adventure, but the vast majority of aid workers go because they have a sincere desire to help people who are suffering. When you make the decision to go to work in danger zones you have to accept and make peace with the reality that you could die or be injured. But seeing such a person lose their life is heartbreaking.

In 2007, 29-year old USDA Forest Service employee, Tom Stefani, was killed when an armored vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb. Working in Ghazni Province, he was developing and implementing an agricultural plan that included a poultry rearing facility, a cold storage facility and a grape production improvement project. While visiting an orphanage in Ghazni he learned that the children did not have enough toys and no playground equipment. He immediately launched a plan to raise money from family and friends for a playground for the orphanage. When Tom was killed his family created a fund to make sure his dream came true. In 2010, that dream became a reality as a playground dedicated to his memory was erected at the Ghazni orphanage and he would have been thrilled to hear the children laughing as they played on the equipment.

A fact that is often overlooked is that our wars are fought not only with soldiers, but with a great number of civilian workers going out alongside them. Civilian workers include military contractors who perform a myriad of tasks supporting military operations; government agency workers representing the U.S., journalists and nongovernmental (NGO) workers performing all kinds of missions — many of them humanitarian.

Most people don’t realize that in 2007 there were actually more civilian contractors in Iraq than combat troops and that in 2009 contractor deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq. According to a 2013 report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR): “In September 2007, the United States had more than 170,000 combat personnel in Iraq as part of the counterinsurgency operation, with more than 171,000 contractors supporting the mission.” To date, 1569 U.S. contractors have died in Iraq and 65 have died as part of the war in Afghanistan.

The cost of war is high in blood and treasure and it can be deadly for civilians who choose to do their part to serve their country, to not only ensure freedom but also to try to make life better for the innocents who suffer the wraiths of war—disease, famine, poverty, displacement and terror.

When civilians serve in high threat security zones they are often not working with the same pre-deployment training or the same support during and after their deployments that military personnel receive. Yet they too get injured and killed. And even when they return home safely — mission completed — they and their families can still suffer considerable psychological strain in the months and even years to come. But there is no Veterans Health Administration for civilian workers to turn to for support. And sadly we as a society are still slow to recognize our hundreds of thousands of civilians who serve in high threat and danger zones.

While our military serviceman returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced disgraceful delays from the Veterans Health Administration to get their claims covered — civilian contractors who return from the battle space with similar injuries — including limbs blown off, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression also have difficulty in receiving the help they need to recover.

In terms of psychological well-being, a 2013 RAND study, “Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Zones” found evidence for PTSD in twenty-five percent of their sample, depression in eighteen percent, and alcohol misuse in over half the sample. And longer deployments and increased combat exposure was associated with higher rates of distress.

Serving in a combat zone, high threat or danger zone is just that — dangerous — and it’s time we recognized the hundreds of thousands of civilians who risk their lives for others.  A new organization, We Served Too (WS2), has been formed with the mission to raise awareness; conduct research; develop education materials; support resilience, health and well-being; and to create a web-based community, support network and information resource for those who are serving or have served in conflict and high threat security zones.

We will never win wars by how much money we spend or by how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the on-on-one interactions that we share, interactions that civilians are in a perfect position to initiate. It is in the exchanged smiles, the touch of a hand, the expression of compassion where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists that real success can be found. We who served too don’t need parades or medals, but we would like to know that someone remembers that we were also willing to lay down our lives for our country. We would like to be remembered for reaching out to those who are suffering around the world.

I used to pass by the flag pole at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and see the memorial marker stone for Tom Stefani and many times I would pick a rose and lay it there because I wanted Tom’s family and friends to know that in the war torn country he loved, he was remembered.