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.




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