Friday
Nov132009

A Women's Garden, Sown in Blood

Melissa Pritchard


 

“Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose. Nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest.”
—Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense (January 27, 2009)

 

In 2002, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) made up of combined American military, civilian and NATO forces were established in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Their objective: To rebuild infrastructure and to restore rule of governance to the Afghan people. Fighting terrorism would now be seen as the “hostile” half of the military’s tactical formula along with a new, peaceful initiation of sustainable projects in agriculture, education, medicine and engineering.

Established in 2005, Panjshir Province’s Team Lion is the smallest of these 25 operational PRTs. Based 120 miles northwest of Kabul, Forward Operating Base (FOB) Lion is home to 70 people, a combination of United States military personnel, federal civilians, civilian interpreters, Mujahideen guards, and facilities staff who together initiate and help to maintain dozens of successful projects in each of the Province’s seven districts. Women are particularly valued in this work since they can communicate and work with Afghan women in ways that men, because of cultural prohibitions, absolutely cannot.

Even so, only five of Team Lion's seventy members are American Air Force and Army women.

In January 2009, I flew to Afghanistan to meet them.

***

On a raw, gray afternoon, I ride from Bagram Airfield in a three-vehicle convoy toward FOB Lion. Velcroed into a black, internet-ordered flak jacket and helmet, strapped and buckled into the back seat of an armored Humvee, I am only minutes past a briefing on what to do in the event of a roadside bombing or Improvised Explosive Device (IED) incident. I stare out a mud-starred, bullet-proof porthole of glass as the tail gunner, standing spread-legged above me, continuously rotates his weapon. With icy condensation dripping onto my legs from the overhead wheeling of gears, I take in the dun, scabbed landscape; Afghan men gathered outside shops, wary, resigned, gaunt, wearing knee-length kurtas, shalwar pants, neck scarves and balauchi caps, the occasional, spectral figure of a woman floating by in her blue “shuttlecock” burqa. It suddenly feels like a probability, if not a near-certainty: being blown up or ambushed, turned into a minor war headline, my stiff, ill-fitting carapace of body armor (complete with metal shield insert, an additional $19) a mere joke.

Without incident, we arrive at the small gated base, and after being welcomed with hot tea and a traditional Panjshiri snack of dried mulberries, almonds and walnuts, my host, Lt. Colonel Mark Stratton, Commander of FOB Lion, genially informs me that what I will see over the next few days is not to be mistaken for the “real Afghanistan.”

“We are a showcase PRT,” he tells me, “a model Provincial Reconstruction Team effort.” Important credit, he adds, goes to the Provincial Governor, Hajji Bahlol, a Tajik Mujahideen warrior, under whose strong governance and protection PRT members, translators and guards go out on missions among the people unarmed, weapons and flak jackets stowed in the back of armored Land Cruisers, a tactical impossibility in any other PRT mission. Because of these unusually peaceful conditions, a record number of engineering, education, health and agriculture projects have been successfully launched and sustained. The ultimate goal is the independent self-governance of the people of Panjshir Province, and—as I will be frequently reminded during my stay by Lt. Colonel Stratton and other members of Team Lion—theirs is a strategy of respect and cooperative venture with the Afghan people, devoid of condescension or subtle arrogance.

***

Air Force Senior Airman Ashton Goodman half-hums, half-sings "The Ants Go Marching." She barely keeps her armored Land Cruiser from angling and sliding off the single lane road, an unpaved mountainous descent made more dangerous by heavy, wet snow falling fast and turning the road into a wandering thread with no guard rails. Choppy, ochre-red cliffs rise up on one side while on the other is a lethal, rocky plunge hundreds of feet down. Jaw clenched, humming to steady her nerves, Goodman worries about the second Land Cruiser, with its less experienced driver, sliding precariously on the icy snow behind her. What she doesn’t worry about are her own passengers: Major Trump, swathed in the new orange and red plaid headscarf she’d bought in the market the day before, or Ziya, the forty-ish Turkish translator who is getting on the other women’s nerves with her voluble, melodramatic assertion that she is about to die on a remote mountain in Afghanistan. Goodman is least worried about the Mujahideen guard, a lean, hawk-faced Tajik man in his fifties, veteran of the Russian and the Taliban wars, bitterly complaining, with Ziya colorfully translating, about being stuck on an impassable mountain road with a bunch of women foolish enough to risk everybody’s necks, including his.

Along the way, Goodman stops the Land Cruiser to help three older Afghan men attempting with bare, cold-reddened hands to dig the rusted grille of their low-slung sedan out of the rocky cliff side where it had lodged itself. As the men steer cautiously off, their car engulfed by a curtain of unrelenting snow, Goodman finishes her song before finding the main road and returning everyone safely back to FOB Lion in time to prepare for the afternoon’s next scheduled mission.

Back home in Indiana, Goodman, twenty-one years old, owns almost every Disney movie ever made. The Disney ethos is part of America’s collective moral landscape, full of bloodless morality fables told at roller coaster speed: a spun-sugar faith in freedom, the putting of unambiguous, evil-equals-ugly monsters in their place, cautionary tales set inside a morally right-side-up, benign universe festooned with irresistible singing and dancing. Life’s woes cut down to digestible size. This uniquely American optimism shapes consciousness even in a war zone: an Iraq War veteran, Goodman has a straightforward, idealistic moral code understandably troubled by the ironies and inconsistencies of the war she is fighting, and by the civilization she is bravely helping to reconstruct.

What was my initial impression of Sr. Airman Goodman upon first seeing her in full “battle rattle” at Bagram, as a group of us stood in muddy gravel beside the convoy vehicles, awaiting our briefing? Fully weaponized, blue eyed, fair-skinned, with honey brown hair clubbed into a ponytail and a round, open face begging to be called Midwestern, I saw her as a brash tomboy, a butch expert in weaponry, fearlessly driving tanks and armored Humvees, unflinching in her whip-smart, brusque, occasionally vulgar appraisals of other people. Frankly, she scared the middle-class, academic ivory-tower shit out of me, though eventually, I would discover that her brashness was largely a survival tactic, armor shielding a far more tender, philosophic side.

Sr. Airman Goodman is the third generation of women in her family to serve in the Air Force. Goodman’s grandmother had been a radio operator, while her mother served as an F-15 crew chief, in charge of her own jet. “The pilot flew it, but it was my mom’s plane," says Goodman, while relating her family history. Her father and grandfather also served in the Air Force. Because she was one inch under the height requirement for fighter pilots, Goodman, who always “knew in her heart” she would join the military, first served with ground troops in Iraq in 2007, where she was deployed with her now ex-husband. She tells me how, three months in, as a driver for line haul convoys, “one of our guys was killed by a mine, and I was the first to know. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, so I was just walking around with this knowledge. After people were informed, I became one of the comforters. Afterwards, it was really bad. We’d have to drive every day on the same road where it had happened, see the bomb hole, the trail of his blood. I went through a period of being really shaken up, stressed out, shaking, scared. Then I knew it was about fate, God, coincidence. When it was my time, it was my time. After that, I wasn’t scared.”

At FOB Lion, Goodman has a knack for tough banter with the men. She plays poker, jokes around, genuinely likes them. She says, “It’s a stereotype that women can’t do as much as men. With vehicle ops, maintenance and driving, I’ve proven to myself I can do anything. Working with tractor trailers, forklifts, convoy vehicles, land cruisers, I have so much more confidence. I’d love to drive an MRAP. The bigger the vehicle the better. I’m ashamed that at basic training, I was meek, scared. But after tech school and at my duty station, my confidence grew. Knowledge is power, power is confidence, and I learned that if you don’t have it, fake it."

Sr. Airman Goodman will be at FOB Lion for six more months. She intends to deploy two or three more times, and hopes to become a veterinarian, earning her degree in biology by 2012. Taking internet classes in psychology and math, she is three classes away from her associate’s degree.

In the meantime, she is surprised by how comparatively peaceful it is in Panjshir. After two months she's still not adjusted to not having to be on her guard as much or be as afraid of the people. “It’s unlikely any of them has a bomb strapped to his chest,” she says. Assigned to help with Team Lion’s Women’s Affairs, she’s increasingly interested in Afghan women, saying they are on the same path American women were once on, getting the right to vote and to equal work. She admires the strength of the women she’s met, and says when it’s just women in a room together, it’s girl talk like everywhere else: “One woman talked with us once, admitting how much she hated her husband, and how good it felt just to be able to say that. It infuriates me that women here are treated like second-class citizens. Human rights should come before your culture. I want to work with these women; I’d like to see them become more of a fixture in society. I’d like to see a woman with her own shop, a woman doctor. It will take generations, though. They need infrastructure, schools, clean water, clean places to slaughter animals rather than by the side of the road. I’d like to come back here twenty years from now and show my kids how we helped. Right now, we’re giving them the means to do it. We’re definitely not doing it for them. Here we’re fighting a different battle, not with weapons, but with words. I know for a fact what we’re doing here in Panjshir will be in a textbook some day. What we’re doing here is building a model province.”

***

It is Major Valerie Trump’s mission this morning: four military women, the translator and myself follow her, single-file, down a footpath to the old clinic at Abadar. We pass a cemetery where half a dozen flags of green cloth flutter from poles, martyrs’ graves, then head inside the tiny mud clinic, where the rooms are unheated and spartan. One of the whitewashed walls displays actual contraceptives–condoms, pills, IUD devices–taped to white poster board, each labeled in Dari. Major Trump says “Shalamat" with a pageant-perfect smile, greeting a pair of tired-looking male doctors in wilted medical coats. After we take leave of the two men, all of us crowd into a small room we are told is the “birthing room.” Major Trump introduces herself to the attending midwife, a slight, high-strung young woman wearing a white doctor’s coat and bright orange headscarf. She says that until recently she hitchhiked to this clinic and back from her home in Kapisi, a journey of five hours each direction. Now she has decided to move into the clinic so that she can be constantly available to the women from nearby villages who need her. Her family is upset with her for doing this, for putting her reputation as a young single woman at risk, so her equally unhappy brother is forced to stay with her as her protector. It is freezing at night–there is no firewood, no heat of any kind–so most nights she sits up, too cold to sleep. The birthing room has only a small, unlit propane stove. She draws aside a partition curtain, a piece of patterned sheeting on a thin rope, to show us the single birthing gurney, its black surface ripped in several places. The midwife picks up a simple tin device, a funnel, telling us it is the only piece of equipment the clinic has to monitor a baby’s heartbeat.



As we talk with her, she responds to a knock at the door, admitting three veiled women in blue burqas who file silently in and sit along a wooden window ledge. Within moments of sitting down, one woman, followed by the others, rolls her veil back from her face with a practiced, almost impatient gesture. All three are dark haired and brown-eyed. Two of the women might be in their thirties, and the youngest-looking bears scars along her cheeks of leishmaniasis, a common disfiguring skin disease caused by sand flies. All three have handsome, strong-featured faces, tempered and defined by hardship. The youngest, perhaps in her early twenties, has come to see the midwife because she desperately wants a second child and is unable to get pregnant. Related by marriage, the women live together in the same mud and straw compound with the rest of their families. Reserved, they answer questions first from the midwife, then from us. They are hesitant, less shy than extremely guarded. When we learn that the young woman who cannot get pregnant has a husband, presumably American, living in the United States, Major Trump drily observes that it might prove hard to conceive if the husband is half a world away. Ziya translates, and all of the women in the room laugh.

There's a second knock, and another woman makes her way into the room. The other three make room for her to sit beside them, and with a quick movement, she lifts the veil from her face. This woman looks older, exhausted, perhaps in her mid-forties. She tells the midwife she is nine months pregnant, has five other children, and has just walked a long distance by herself along icy paths and drifts of snow. Beneath the burqa, her floral patterned dress, made of thin, polyester-like material, falls to the tops of her black shoes. I am wearing military issue winter underwear, a heavy fleece jacket, insulated socks and boots, and I am still shivering in the unheated room.

Quietly, one of the soldiers relates a story she just heard about an Afghan woman without any female relatives who, when it came time for her to give birth, was locked in a room by her husband. The woman went through her labor alone, with no medication, food or water, delivering the baby herself. The majority of Afghan women still give birth at home, though most have women relatives and a midwife to assist them. When these four women are asked, they say, of course, they would prefer to give birth in a clinic with medical assistance. When I ask the midwife what she most needs, what equipment she would like if she could ask for anything, she speaks at increasingly passionate length about all that she wishes she had. Her frustration at the lack of basic necessities is very clear, as is her courage. She has no assistant, no equipment aside from her tin funnel and torn gurney. The problem with nonexistent supplies seems to have to do with numerous government protocols, logical in concept but maddening in practice, that have to be followed when requesting equipment and medicines.

As the women converse with us, I try not to stare at their dully gleaming blue burqas. They remind me, in shape at least, of nuns’ habits, so I wonder if I am unconsciously assigning vague spiritual attributes to these rural Tajik wives and mothers. Major Trump will tell me she has already tried and failed to buy a burqa, though she hasn’t given up. She wants to experience the world as these women see it: through the three inch-wide mesh grille covering their eyes, blocking peripheral vision. To feel the weight of yards and yards of fabric pulling down from an embroidered cap fitted tightly to the skull. Along the same lines, she suggests I might understand women soldiers more if I tried on her gear one day: the bulky, genderless khaki and green clothing, the heavy boots, the body armor, the sixty-plus pound weight of a backpack, and the weapons, an M4 Carbine, a PAK II, and for personal protection, an M9 Beretta pistol.Major Trump’s second husband is a retired Air Force B-52 pilot. While she is deployed in Afghanistan, he takes care of their daughter and volunteers at hospitals and in food lines at their home in Las Vegas, where she is stationed at Nellis AFB. She joined the Army out of high school. As a medic, she was stationed in Washington, DC, where she joined the Air Force Reserves and has been on active duty since 1995. In 2003, she worked in a Jordanian hospital supplying Special Forces, helping build a base there with “Aussies and Brits.”

In Panjshir only two months, Major Trump is “elated to be helping advance the lifestyle of these people, especially the women." She says, "I can’t even sleep sometimes, thinking of how to say things without sounding condescending or superior, how to ask for the things I need from, say, the Ministry of Public Health.” She pauses. “This isn’t what I went to school for,” then admits to both experiencing and noting a kind of loneliness on the base. “It’s such a small community. How do you deal with being sad? There are no psychologists or counselors, there is no one to turn to. You wrestle with down time, you have too much time to think. There is depression here, among the men, especially.”

Back home, Major Trump runs in marathons, but admits the basic training she recently went through to come here was a strain. Even though she is extremely fit, she thinks she may be getting too old for that level of exertion. More than the other women, Major Trump talks about the Afghan children. Perhaps because she is a mother herself, she speaks often about how much she likes seeing them when they come out to the road, giving thumbs-up gestures, waving to the passing convoy. She notices that some of the kids have red or blonde hair and blue eyes, and she’s seen Disney dresses on some of the little girls. “I constantly wave and smile, especially to the children,” she says. “They are the ones we want to influence the most–the next generation.”

As for her personal goals here, she wants to see that all the people have clean water and good nutrition. The PRT has established eighteen water purifiers, and set up a system of motorcycle “vaccinators,” delivering vaccinations to 15 different remote villages in the valley. Diagnoses here are all presumptive because there are no tests to back them up. All they can do is treat for symptoms and hope for the best.

One night, Major Trump invites me into her surprisingly warm, spacious room in the oversized trailer that serves as the main women’s quarters. Besides the ultra-clean, color-coded Martha Stewart rule of order, what I immediately notice is a large poster of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean as well as an over-sized decorator pillow also decorated with a photo-transfer image of the kohl-eyed swashbuckler. “My husband sent them to me," she comments, then directs me to a framed photograph of her ten-year-old daughter, LeeAnn, as well as examples of her daughter's artwork. Major Trump is tremendously sensitive to her position on the small base as the senior medical person. She keeps strict confidentiality about who is depressed, who is having a hard time, who is sick and with what. Keeping that confidentiality is its own burden. And yet here is a whimsical witness to Major Trump’s sleepless worries is a minor guardian angel, this androgynous pirate named Jack.

***

Air Force Technical Sergeant Dawn Allison-Hess, my official contact person, wastes no time volunteering a torrent of information and handing me a daily grid-schedule. Effusive and intelligent, she has a frequent, lilting giggle that sounds strangely incongruous within the context of war. On the first day, after our two-hour drive by convoy from Bagram to FOB Lion, she invites me into her room, across from Major Trump’s room and next door to the room I am to share with Major Garbett. I'm sneezing, feverish, fighting off a cold, so T-Sgt. Allison-Hess plunges into her enormous stash of boxed, flavored teas, Godiva and Dove chocolate bars, hot cocoa packets and other snacks to offer me a selection of herbal tea remedies. Her room, a cozy dishevelment, exudes a pleasantly portable domesticity. Beside her bed, a tall, sturdy shelf, haphazardly jammed with paperbacks, includes a profusion of novels with fat spines and glittering, lavishly lettered titles by her favorite author, Nora Roberts.

Half Irish, half Cherokee, T-Sgt. Allison-Hess keeps her long, straight chestnut brown hair bunned up, librarian-style. Thirty years old and on her second marriage, she's a rapid-fire talker with a garrulous disposition. As we talk, she opens a narrow metal wardrobe, and begins pulling out her considerable collection of hajibs, Muslim headscarves she and the other women soldiers are required to wear off base. I don’t have one, so she makes a gift of one of her favorites, a soft, fringed, tobacco-colored scarf. Her room is an almost girlish hodgepodge of books, snacks, and stuffed animal “pets,” including two plush monkeys and dozens of famed photos of her two dogs and pet turtle. “I’m just a nature girl,” she quips, showing off her collection of heart-shaped rocks from Panjshir, dozens of which cover her desk. “Everywhere I go, they find me," she says, then tells me she can remember where each rock came from. She designs jewelry, so she shows me her custom-designed wedding ring, then a box of pink sapphires she plans to make into a bracelet for a young cousin back home in Texas. She is an enthusiast, a tireless collector and sorter of the world’s objects, facts, and statistics. As she sits cross-legged on her bed, nestled in by cheerful, colored pillows and stuffed animals, I sit on a desk chair and ask about her family’s military history.

“My grandparents actually met at Pearl Harbor. When my grandfather got wounded, my grandmother was his nurse. My dad and his twin brothers all served in Vietnam. One of my cousins is in the Marine Corps, another is in the Army, serving in Kandahar.”

When I ask why she chose the military aside from family history, she describes her instant love, as a child, for the Air Force and Army bases in her hometown in Texas. “When I was 16 and saw my first F-117s, I knew I wanted to work with them," she says, then relates a slightly more chilling reason for her interest in the military: “During Desert Storm, when I was about 12 years old, I was watching TV one night, and saw a bomb go through a window and into this room where a man was smoking a cigarette. I watched as the man tried to escape from the bomb but didn’t, and remember thinking that is so cool, I want to do that when I grow up.”

T-Sgt. Dawn Allison-Hess has served in the military ten and a half years, chiefly as an intelligence analyst working with a fighter squadron in long-term strategic planning, then as an electronics and avionics instructor for students coming out of basic training. “I’ve completely surprised myself here, since I’m used to fighting wars at 20,000 feet up. I never imagined wearing a gun and a flak jacket, working side by side with the Army. And as part of a group of five women here, I have to say none of us is a Miss Priss like I’ve sometimes definitely seen when there’s, say, one woman among twenty-eight men, using her position to manipulate. I’m proud to say none of us does that here.”

With each of these female soldiers, there is a dramatic contrast between her private expressions of femininity and her trained battle mentality, her fierce loyalty to the concept and goal of winning this war. “The re-insurgence is a nightmare," says T-Sgt. Allison-Hess. "Are we going to win the war? I don’t know. We chose this lifestyle though, and when we die, we know we are dying for something. For hope. For these people. I have no doubt Panjshir will survive. The Tajiks are strong people, they take good care of what we give them, and all the Mujahideen leaders here, who fought under General Massoud, are trying to carry out his vision.”

Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” is a name evoked often in this valley where he once lived. A martyred, noble hero of the people of Afghanistan, his image is everywhere, and he is a towering, personally important figure to T-Sgt. Allison-Hess. Another of her heroes is Miriam Pansjhiri, Director of Women’s Affairs in Panjshir Province, a Tajik woman who spent years imprisoned for her political beliefs, held first by the Russians, then by the Taliban. “She supported Massoud’s people and the Mujahideen, and she’s a powerful woman in a place where women are undervalued,” says T-Sgt. Allison-Hess. “Standing by your beliefs with your actions is what makes you a great person, and she is someone who has power with presence.”

T-Sgt. Allison-Hess’ reverence for Massoud and her extensive knowledge of the valley’s recent military history becomes evident on the afternoon our group of women soldiers drives out to meet with Sadiqi, the director of the Panjshir Valley Massoud Foundation, at the site of a shrine to Massoud, still under construction. We are attending a signing ceremony where Lt. Col. Steve Lancaster, chief of Civil Affairs, will present Sadiqi with a check for $25,000, a micro-loan to be used at the director’s discretion.

Prior to this ceremony, Sadiqi, a middle-aged man in traditional Afghan men’s dress, invites us on a very rare tour of Massoud’s Map Room, hung with huge sepia wall maps seized from the Russians and successfully used by the general in his campaigns against them (and later against the Taliban). In another building, we are shown Massoud’s private office, untouched since his assassination on September 9, 2002. With the director and other members of the Foundation, we pose for photographs, flanking either side of a huge circle wreath of artificial greenery, scarlet and purple flowers, the by-now familiar image of Massoud’s lean, charismatic face at its center.

Afterwards, we return to the Map Room, where we sit in a circle of green plastic garden chairs and are served hot tea and a snack of golden raisins and nuts. When Sadiqi learns I am an American journalist, he excuses himself and returns with two English-translated biographies of Massoud, pressing them into my hands. "Please tell people about this great hero," he says. I assure him I will. Then the ceremony, the signing of formal loan papers, the presentation of the check along with a graceful speech by a beaming Lt. Col. Lancaster and an answering speech by the also-beaming Sadiqi, followed by more photos. After this practical gesture of enormous good will, we are taken by the director and the other men on a walking tour of the shrine, accompanied by an explanation of the architect’s plans for large, formal gardens, a library, a guest house, and of course the tomb itself, made of locally quarried marble and gold. For a moment, we stand looking down at Massoud’s famous “land map,” an area of cultivated land in a small valley that so resembles Afghanistan, even its provinces, that Massoud often used it to plan military maneuvers. When we step inside the unfinished shrine, I stand beside the simple tomb of white marble, listening to the director speak of Massoud’s passionate love of music and poetry, especially the Persian Sufi poets Hafiz, Saadi, Bedil, Sanayi Ghaznawi, and Jelaluddin Rumi, whose verses he died reciting.

On the day I leave Panjshir Valley, I give the two biographies to T-Sgt. Allison-Hess as a thank-you gift. Her detailed knowledge of his life in the context of Aghanistan’s military history makes her a more appreciative recipient of these books than I. An educator and self-taught historian, Allison-Hess is a collector of heroic lives, of noble actions inspired by high ideals.

Since everyone on the base gets up before sunrise, in the winter darkness, working long, public hours before retiring early, we end our interview with T-Sgt. Allison-Hess praising the people of Panjshir. “Afghans are an incredibly gracious, hardworking people. They will offer you everything they have, even if they have nothing. I like their conservatism, their traditional beliefs, the fact that their lives revolve around their faith. I’m not even surprised anymore that they are so much like us. But I would love for Miriam and the two female Provincial Council members to use their combined voice to speak up for all the women of Panjshir, to stand up at Provincial Council meetings with an actual list and say, ‘This is what the women want, what they need.’ I want all the young girls here to know the benefits of education, to be able to say, I want to be a doctor, or, I want to be a journalist. And I want to be able to tell the women’s stories here, to say I sought it out, I helped make it happen.”

***

Air Force Major Kimberly Garbett, an Information Operations officer in charge of media and publicity, arrived in January, becoming the newest member of FOB Lion’s PRT team. We are roommates, a sacrifice on her part, as privacy in the military is in short supply. Diminutive but physically strong, sloe-eyed with long, dark-blonde hair, Major Garbett bears an uncanny resemblance to Renée Zellweger. Even her voice is soft, similarly pitched. Although it is mid-January, she keeps a tiny Christmas tree on her cluttered desk, its winking, jewel-colored lights looping around the tree, across the desk and up an otherwise bare wall. On the military-issue desk sits a stack of books (on top: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam) and a care package she says she hasn’t had time to open yet. In the center of the wall facing her bed hangs a poster of a leather-clad blonde draped sinuously over a Harley against a black background, which she explains by saying she needed “wall art." She found it somewhere and just pinned it up. No special significance.

I have been given the bottom half of a metal bunk bed across the small room from Major Garbett. Above me, the unoccupied top bunk is heaped with her still-unpacked things. Since we are rooming together, I wrongly assume I’ll have plenty of opportunities to interview her. In fact, most of what I do learn about Major Garbett comes from the one or two nights we lay talking in our beds, the Walgreen’s holiday lights casting a weird glow over the Harley blonde. By then I have caught a cold, and am zonked on the Sudafed mercifully dispensed by Major Trump. Groggy, trying to pay attention, I lay in the dark and listen to Major Garbett’s low-pitched, hypnotic voice. Typically reserved and quiet, she never fails to say unusual, incredibly perceptive things when she does speak. She has a knack for seeing the obvious but overlooked detail in any situation, a writer’s gift for observation. Most nights, if she’s not too tired, she falls asleep reading historical romances set in England. She’s just finishing Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, and half-dozing, I wake to hear her mentioning that she taught at Portland State University in Corvallis for four years. What did you teach, I ask fuzzily, pondering T-Sgt. Allison-Hess' penchant for Nora Roberts and now Major Garbett’s escape into 19-century romance. As she tells me about her classes—"Aviation history, communication, leadership and national security studies"—I can't stop thinking about these women soldiers, trained for combat with sophisticated weaponry, spending their downtime reading serial and period romances.

Major Garbett, I will discover, has an unnerving but mostly helpful way of sidling up to me during missions to diplomatically murmur timely suggestions in my ear. At the health clinics, she whispers I might ask to interview the midwives. When we visit a Polish NGO-built girls’ high school painted a stomach-turning shade of King Alfred daffodil, she suggests, as we stand in an unheated, dark schoolroom facing a semi-circle of silent, diffident students in deep-cowled white hajibs, that I might ask the principal if I can ask the girls a few questions, perhaps take a photograph. At the same time as I am attending to Maj. Garbett’s dulcet suggestion, I watch as T-Sgt. Allison-Hess reaches inside one of the boxes of school supplies we’d been distributing to remove a Sunday Parade Magazine with a photo of Marilyn Monroe, half-naked, on its cover, crumpling it up before the Muslim girls can see what image their new pencils were wrapped in. The supplies--paper, pens, pencils, crayons, binders--are a donation from a church group somewhere in the US, and before we hauled the cardboard boxes into the school, they had been opened at the base and carefully gone through for any sign of Christian propaganda, as any attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity is technically punishable by beheading. Somehow, Marilyn escaped notice until now, when she is wadded up and crushed to innocuous invisibility among other discarded newspaper wrappings. The principal reluctantly agrees to my asking a few questions, though I may take no photos.

The girls, who look to be between thirteen and seventeen, are unsettlingly deferential, ducking their heads and covering their faces when spoken to, until Ziya introduces me as an American journalist who would like to know if the girls have any questions for her. A few are instantly eager and raise their hands. Are you married? No. Do you have children? Yes, two daughters. In a Muslim setting, my answers conflict blasphemously. Perhaps they’ll conclude I am a widow. To deflect other potentially embarrassing questions, I jump into talking about fiction writing, my books, my classes back home. I wish, I tell them, that I could hold a writing class for them. They ask me to stay, to teach them—how long will I be in Panjshir? I have to leave for Kabul, I tell them, the very next day.

Major Garbett routinely gets up in the cold, pre-dawn darkness and dresses for the gym. She works late, catching up, at the main office, so I am often asleep by the time she comes in and miss the opportunity to formally interview her. When I email a few questions from home, she answers that she has just been transferred to PRT Paktya, a high-threat area near the Pakistan border and will answer when she can. Her last email mentions that on “movie night” at FOB Gardez, they had just watched The Celestine Prophecy—had I ever seen it or read the book? The book, she said, had a huge impact on her when she read it years ago. She signs her emails, “Aloha, Kim.”

Growing up in Hawaii, Major Garbett spent her childhood watching jets take off from Hickham AFB. Her boyfriend of seven years—she’s reluctant, she says, to marry—is a commercial pilot. Raised by divorced parents, she has little interest in repeating her parents’ turbulent marital history. One night, she showed me an old photo of her four brothers, big, stocky. genial-looking men in matching Hawaiian shirts, with Kim, tiny, athletic and blonde, in their midst, and I can’t know then how that image will return to me later, during the ISAF aid drop, when Major Garbett, mobbed and overwhelmed, temporarily, alarmingly, disappears from my view.

***

Up until now, I've not seen much of Army Sergeant Amanda Cutler, twenty-four years old, five-two or five-three, with thick, short cropped brown hair, large hazel eyes, and an unusually brusque manner for one so young. Yet as we sit talking, a more vulnerable side of her emerges: She tells me she has been at FOB Lion for three months, and among her duties is working with Miriam Panjshiri and the other two women members of Panjshir’s Provincial Council, Mohamadi, a doctor and pharmacist, and Daqiq, a school principal. She meets with these women every two weeks or so to “help them focus on their goals” of progress for the women of Panjshir Province, assisting with money-earning projects while staying within the bounds of conservative Muslim life. Sgt. Cutler has held one shura in Basraq, during which the Afghan women requested clean drinking water and more sewing and chicken-raising projects like the successful one in Anaba Province: 150 families, two roosters and thirteen hens each, then three months of training. The women have also found they earn more money selling their eggs in Pansjhir than in further away Kabul. Because of Anaba’s success, additional chicken projects are planned in Khenj and Dara, and similar projects with cows are in development. Also planned for this spring in Basraq, is “a women’s garden,” which Sgt. Cutler says will be a "place where women can meet together, not have to wear their burqas, talk, exchange ideas, sell goods to one another.”

Sgt. Cutler is clearly committed to helping Afghan women achieve gains through profitable enterprises, but her immediate project is an ISAF-sponsored humanitarian aid drop to 150 Afghan women selected on the basis of greatest need. Supplies of goods and food have been donated by ISAF, and the burden of equitable distribution is in Sgt. Cutler’s hands. She talks about the details of the aid drop confidently, assuredly, and though she is not a demonstrative person, her eager anticipation of this project is evident.

Growing up in the small town of Santa Fe, Texas, near the Houston/Galveston area, Amanda Cutler joined the Army Reserves in 2003, partly for the opportunity of free college tuition. Her parents and one grandfather all served in the Air Force, her second grandfather in the Army, plus she has two uncles with over twenty years in the Marines as well as a cousin in the Armed Services. After finishing basic training, she was deployed to Najaf, Iraq, a hot zone, and for two years helped build schools and a USAID-funded orphanage for girls there. In December 2004, she went on leave, returned to college for two years, took a third year off, then went back into the Army. She is earning a degree in biochemistry, intending to go into forensics and eventually become an Army warrant officer in the Criminal Investigation Department.

She tells me her parents were divorced, and her stepfather was “not the nicest person.” There was deliberate understatement in those four words, followed by a moment’s wistfulness as she mentions winning a poetry contest in the fourth grade and wondering if after that, her creative gifts had been cut off somehow because of her stepfather. As she struggles to make a connection between having “shut off” her creative side while coping with a “difficult home situation,” I glimpse an almost unbearable vulnerability. When I ask about the difference between her deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, she instantly mentions the peacefulness. “It’s practically considered a vacation area here, the place upper command ask to see so they can come here and get away a bit—it’s so laid back.”

While visiting FOB Lion, I'm continually reminded that I am not seeing the “real" Afghanistan, but a model of peace for the other provinces to one day emulate. Sgt. Cutler’s favorite memories of her three months so far in Panjshir are the two separate invitations she received to have lunch at Miriam Panjshiri’s home. The first time, she was served tomatoes, eggs and ham, and the second time a far more lavish meal was served. She says, “The hospitality here is spectacular. You actually have to be careful not to compliment the people on something of theirs or they will absolutely give it to you. It’s part of their faith, their tradition.”

Several times, Sgt. Cutler describes herself as “stubborn and persistent,” and confesses she is mentally much stronger than she once thought. She returns again and again, passionately, even zealously, to the best part of her job, helping the women of Panjshir achieve self-sufficiency through home-based, sustainable projects. She wants to see more women’s projects developed, and she wants the few women who are in government to be able to speak out and be heard. She says, "Right now, they feel they are not heard or listened to. Afghan men see American military women as a third sex, and I want to help convince them that educating women will not harm their conservative way of life. Right now they believe it will.” Part of her job, she says, is to stay in the background as much as possible, to allow the Afghan people to gain credit for successful project developments, which can sometimes be difficult.

As we leave the common room and step out into the freezing mountain air, the silence, Sgt. Cutler mentions that growing up in Texas, she rode horses a lot. “This spring, there’s a plan to ride horses up in the Hindu Kush foothills. Some of the guys here are afraid of horses,” she laughs. “I can’t wait to show them how to ride.”

Suddenly, I understand, or think I do. That brusqueness, that near-humorless adherence to duty, protects the girl who stopped writing poetry after the fourth grade, who had a stepfather who wasn’t the nicest, and who, as a young woman, is more than anything else grateful for the confidence the Army placed in her, for the mental strength she has achieved, the same qualities that will be tested again the next day, when, in just two hours, all her weeks of detailed logistical planning will be swept away.

***

On a snow-covered school grounds, as twilight deepens quickly into a below-freezing winter’s night, the ISAF aid drop goes terribly wrong. Boxes of loose tea, sacks of flour, sets of bowls, prayer rugs, aprons, shawls, blankets, even gloves and mittens are all snatched, wrestled, torn from our hands by the very women they were intended to help equally. Assisting their mothers are dozens of children, wretchedly dressed, cold and shivering as they dive into the supplies, outwitting the American military women struggling with bare hands in the dark to tear open heavily taped boxes and plastic-wrapped bales of supplies.

My own attempts to fairly pass out gloves and shawls fail miserably. Children tear open bags around my feet with smaller, nimbler fingers than mine. One clever boy skips that step entirely, staggering off with an entire, unopened bundle in his thin arms. The women, shrouded in their burqas, form an eerie mass of butterfly-like iridescence in the frosty light of the quarter moon. They press hard against me, faces veiled, revealing only a faint glisten of dozens of eyes pleading with me, hands thrust out, begging. Pressed even harder into the wall behind me, I fight off panic, finding it difficult to breathe as a large bowl harmlessly grazes the side of my head.

In less than an hour, in the chaos, everything is taken. Even then, children still scuffle through a debris of tape and plastic and string at my feet, as their mothers move against the lapis sky in a nightmarish, churning sea of shrouded figures, their murmuring grown into a swelling cacophony of voices, all begging, demanding, weeping, enraged.

What happened? How had Sgt. Cutler’s plans, the ones she had so proudly discussed with me, gone wrong? All it took was a surprise winter storm, prompting a morning phone call to the sergeant from a brother of one of the women on the Provincial Council, saying the drop would have to be rescheduled because of the storm. Then a second phone call later in the afternoon, correcting that information: the women and children had walked in spite of the weather and have now been waiting seven or eight hours, crammed into the unheated foyer of a school, with no food or water. A frenzied rush at the base to get all the supplies loaded, a 15-minute drive to the school, then Sgt. Cutler’s slightly inflexible attempts to hold to her equitable distribution plan.

She stands in the school foyer, facing a mass of women in blue burqas, the poorest of the poor, calmly offering her apologies. Smiling, she launches into a speech prepared earlier, before the crisis. Ziya translates to the women huddled miserably with their children in the icy cement block of the room, trying to follow what she's telling them. Sgt. Cutler is saying that if the women proceed outside and stand in orderly lines, each will be given her fair portion of goods. All this dissolves the minute Sgt. Cutler and the other military women step outside and quickly take their assigned distribution places along the school’s portico. The women pour from the building in the sub-zero temperatures and pitch darkness, helping themselves, no one heeding the plans of these American women who arrived in their heated cars, wearing their warm clothes, eight hours later than promised.

As supplies quickly dwindle, the women fight one another for a precious box of tea, a warm pair of gloves, a stainless steel bowl to mix food in, a prayer rug. When everything is gone, the women and children melt out of the schoolyard gates into the night, some tottering under the weight of all they had managed to grab, others empty handed but most with something. Numbly, we pick up the boxes and tape and plastic until armed US military men and Afghan guards appear from out of the darkness, ordering us to leave quickly.

Later that night, Major Trump appears beside me at the sink in the women’s bathroom, wearing pajamas, holding her toothbrush and toothpaste, looking tired and upset. She confesses how terrified she had been, how horribly wrong it had all gone, how something like that should never, ever happen again. We had all seen Major Trump try harder than the rest of us to impose order for the sake of fairness. She had shouted, waved her arms around, tried valiantly, then been defeated, too. As the oldest, highest-ranking female officer, how harshly does she judge herself? Major Trump could not shrug this off. She says that next time they should turn aid supplies over to the women of the Provincial Council, let them decide who gets what. The whole point of military women personally distributing aid to impoverished Afghan women had been to put an American face on generosity. In this instance, the point had been dismally lost.

Unable to sleep on my last night at Forward Operating Base Lion, I keep imagining the mothers, the grandmothers, the daughters and sisters and widows, straggling home in the sub-zero night, up into the mountains, back to remote villages, to mud and straw homes heated by smoky fires of twigs and dung, in thin burqas the color of blue gas flame. I imagine their worn slippers darkened and wet with snow as they pick their way home, holding awkwardly onto bowls and rugs, boxes of tea, bulky white sacks of flour. Some of the children wear new mittens, too small, too big, or just one, its mate lost. Falling behind, trying to keep up, the weak, the old, the widows.

Still. I had spent days in spartan clinics and unheated schoolrooms with Afghan women and American women. I had observed the natural bond of gender, the strong will towards peace, the shared vision of a greener land, of clean water, of books and schoolrooms, of good medical care, of healthy children and strong families. I had seen Senior Airman Goodman, Major Trump, Technical Sergeant Allison-Hess, Major Garbett and Sergeant Cutler—unheralded members of a small Provincial Reconstruction Team in Panjshir Valley—draw on the privilege of education and training to willingly put their lives on the line so that other women might begin to emerge, with their families, from a long and terrible exile.

In Afghanistan, I witnessed the real bounty and breadth of a women’s garden, a garden still sown, still watered in blood but with hope as well. I have seen what good grows there, and in the end, the harvest may be more beautiful, more sustaining, for the high cost of its planting, for the countless sacrifices of the brave women who fought to see it take root and bloom.

In Memoriam

Air Force Senior Airman Ashton L.M. Goodman, 21, of Indianapolis, died May 26, 2009, near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device.

Killed in the same attack was Air Force Lt. Colonel Mark E. Stratton II, 39, Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team commander.