Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Women in Afghanistan

As we look forward toward our pending transition out of Afghanistan, I continue to revise our list of lessons learned and things we would encourage our replacements to do differently. We had several challenges during our nine months here. We moved our 80-member team from Bagram to austere conditions in the province, transitioned through three different higher Task Forces (the current one being French), and have been limited in our ability to move around the area due to continued threats. With all these challenges on our plate, some things had to get pushed to the side and one that did, much to my regret, was our focus on women’s affairs.

Women are still viewed as property in Afghanistan, second class—maybe even third or fourth—behind the men, boys and, sometimes, even animals. They work in the fields, wash clothes in the rivers or streams and carry water from centralized wells. They share their home with their husbands’ other wives—up to four wives is an accepted practice here—and many were never taught to read or write. It is an eye-opening experience after growing up in the United States with all the freedoms we experience there.

It is interesting to visit various projects and villages in the province. The men and young boys come to greet us, asking for pens and often wanting to show off their English-speaking skills. The women never approach and the young girls hang back, watching the boys and everything that is happening. Even when they realize there are women in the group, the girls still hang back and run away if we attempt to approach.

That said, last week, a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) scheduled a mission for us to visit sites where she has funded literacy programs for women. It was so thrilling to see 20 women sitting around their teacher, so proud of themselves for knowing how to write their names! At each site, the women circled around us, talking about how challenging it had been to not know how to read and how much they are enjoying this opportunity. In addition to teaching literacy skills, the program will also teach women technical skills such as carpet weaving or tailoring, another opportunity the women look forward to.

This visit helped me to realize that, although our team was limited in the programs we were able to implement for women, good things are still happening for them throughout Afghanistan. It also emphasized the great work being done by other organizations in the area. As security improves, more programs will be able to transition to these knowledgeable civilians and the military can transition out of Afghanistan, a true measure of success for what we have done over here.


For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The first of the goodbyes

Today, we said the first of our goodbyes. The good news? This means our tour is coming to an end. The bad news? This means our tour is coming to an end.

When this whole thing started last year, someone told me that, at the end of the tour, I would have made some friends for life. This man was so right, and the point hit home tonight as I said goodbye to 14 men who spent the last eight months of their lives protecting mine.

Our team was put together with a hodge-podge of active duty, reserve, National Guard and individual Ready Reserve soldiers and airmen. Some were with us as volunteers and for some it was their turn to deploy. Others had left the Army years before but had received the dreaded letter in the mail calling them back to active service. Yes, you read that right. We do not have a draft but, for most of us, even when we leave active duty, we still have a commitment to the military.

Fifteen of the men assigned to our team were civilians, who were working jobs and living their lives when a letter showed up in their mailbox a year ago telling them they were needed back in uniform. They could have torn it up and pretended it never arrived, but these men answered the call and left their families to spend a year in Afghanistan. They came from various walks of life—policemen, construction workers, businessmen, general laborers and a postal worker.

These men worked for our team as gunners, drivers and dismounts. They cleared buildings before I entered, then stood guard at the door, often for hours in the hot sun, while meetings were conducted. They drove our team through firefights and watched their buddies get injured in an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion. They smiled at the Afghan people, even as they stayed on full alert for the feared suicide bombers. And, thank God, they are all going home with all their fingers and toes to their families.

So, tonight, we all said our goodbyes, the first of many we will have over the next month as we prepare to leave. As I wiped the tears off my face, I thanked each of them for their support and dedication to our mission. If our paths ever cross again, I will be proud to serve with each of them, anywhere, anytime.


For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.