In October 2010, I was in Afghanistan and had the privilege of accompanying some Special Forces Soldiers on a mission. This was a simple and fairly low-threat mission, but I was still honored to go. At the time, I was the public affairs officer for a signal brigade. So the fact that I was asked to go on a Special Forces patrol was pretty rare. I just happened to meet some people and the opportunity fell into my lap. I was also fortunate to have a very supportive commander who let me, and a couple other female Soldiers, go since it would take us away from our unit for the day and be an additional risk that we would otherwise not encounter if we stayed on base.
The main goal, and the reason they needed some female Soldiers, was to engage the women of the local village near our base. The Special Forces troops had gathered some baby clothes and food to donate to them. But to give the items to the women, they needed to respect the cultural norms and have female Soldiers speak to the women. It would have been considered disrespectful for male Soldiers to approach the local women.
Our first part of the mission was to meet with some local men. They were going to escort us to different homes and locations. I was not privy to our exact route or plan. I was mainly just there to document the event as the photographer, and provide a female presence. I gathered photographs of the locals, the area and the exchange between the troops and the Afghan people.
At first, we started to follow this young man though some dense area. I can’t lie. It made me a bit nervous. I had been in the Army long enough to know about things going wrong: coming across bombs, hiding snipers and other things I did not want to encounter before my mid-deployment leave…or ever.
But, we walked on, heading to a mosque in the distance. I had to keep reminding myself that it was a low-threat trip and I was with Special Forces after all. Just do your work and do it well, I told myself.
The mission was ultimately successful. We gave out a number of humanitarian aid items, made some kids (and Soldiers) smile, and I think, spread some good will. I look at these pictures and am flooded with memories of the people, the town. Most of them seemed happy to see us, or at least very curious. A few little boys even thought it was a big deal to hold hands with one of the female Soldiers. The boys who were trailing behind the “couple” made kissy noises and giddy school-kid laughter. (You will see that those females with long hair were asked to wear it down, which we normally are not allowed to do in uniform. The mission leaders wanted it to be obvious there were lady Soldiers in the group though since it is hard to tell with all that gear on.)
While inside one of the homes, I noticed the floors were just dirt. The walls held one spiritual picture. And the ceiling seemed to have some colorful tiles on it. There was no furniture or curtains. Just a simple structure to provide shelter. It was here we gave out the bulk of items to the women who gathered. If I recall correctly, it was the home of a tribal leader.
This Special Forces mission may have been simple, but it had a profound effect on me. Throughout the day, I was struck by the austerity and simplicity of their lives. I don’t look at that in a degrading way at all. It is just different than what I have seen in America. It is seeing things like this on my deployments that has made me learn to appreciate what I have. To not complain as much. To really live in each moment. And, to thank God for what I have. The Afghan people smiled with their hearts that day. I felt those smiles, and they will forever be a part of me and my story.
To read the published article I wrote about this, and a few other missions, click here.