Sunday, February 28, 2010

A woman of courage

Today I had the unique opportunity to interview a very dynamic woman; her name is Shafiqa and not only is she a colonel in the Afghan National Police, she’s been nominated by Secretary Hilary Clinton as one of 10 International Women of Courage. Colonel Shafiqa joined the police almost 28 years ago, when she was a young girl hoping to serve her country, and has seen destruction and devastation brought by the civil war and the rise of the Taliban that I can only imagine. During the eight years the Taliban was in charge, she was forced to stay at home but she quickly returned to service and advanced through the ranks despite the many cultural obstacles in her way … and in a few days time she’ll not only celebrate her first wedding anniversary, but also her promotion to general.

Although during our interview, Colonel Shafiqa said she wasn’t scared to wear her uniform to and from work, there are many policewomen who are; they leave their homes in a burqa and change at work. This isn’t the result of paranoia – in September 2008, two Taliban assassins shot and killed a senior policewoman, Malalai Kakar, who served as the head of the department responsible for investigating crimes against women.

A few weeks ago I attended a police women’s conference in Kabul where I spoke with several policewomen; a few mentioned that security was a big concern and one of the main reasons women are so reluctant to join the police force. One woman, an 18-year police veteran, told me that if the Taliban kills 100 men, it’s nothing, but to kill one female is a significant accomplishment. That is the fear and power these insurgents have over the Afghan women, yet there are a brave few who risk everything to make a better life for themselves and for their people.

Despite the inherent risks involved with police work, Colonel Shafiqa is listening to the fears and wishes and is doing everything she can to make the ANP a safer place for women to serve, including offering reduced hours and having a choice over assignment location. Unlike their male counterparts, female trainees will be allowed to go home at night to be with their families, while existing female police members will only work during the day to mitigate risks associated with nighttime duty.

It is my hope that Colonel Shafiqa’s goal of seeing women commanding large units and serving at high-level ministry positions, happens in her lifetime. With her serving as an example for the women of Afghanistan, I have no doubt it will.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

I just don't get it ...

Yesterday, my first day back to Camp Eggers from my trip down south, started off with a bang. Literally. After spending most of the previous day sitting in airports, first in Kandahar with my fingers crossed hoping I would get on the plane to Kabul, and then at Kabul International Airport, hoping for a ride to Camp Eggers, I was glad to have finally made it back “home” so to speak. Back to my room, my co-workers and my desk. Leaving one rocket attack behind, I was welcomed home in the morning with an explosion that shook the windows and rattled the room.

It’s a little disconcerting to know how easily you can become accustomed to this type of incident … at first I lay there wondering if it was just a loud truck, perhaps from the ongoing construction or some sort of improvised explosive device. I lay there in the dark, half-asleep until I heard people excitedly talking in the hallway. Then came the sounds of gun fire and I knew it definitely wasn’t construction. I knew an accountability check would happen, to make sure everyone was safe and accounted for, so I kept my phone nearby as I got ready for work.

It turns out that several insurgents, using suicide vests and a car bomb, attacked hotels in central Kabul, killing 17 people and wounding more than 30 others. Why people do these types of things to other people is beyond me. Even if they completely disagree with U.S. and other foreign forces in their country, there has to be a better way to resolve issues than to destroy your capital city and kill innocent people.

What do they possibly hope to accomplish? Do they think the world will simply pack up and leave? All these insurgents are doing is slowing the inevitable progress and development of their country, and why they want to keep their people and their country from growing into their own secure and thriving nation escapes me completely. Hopefully, in time, the training and support the world is providing will take root and the Afghans will refuse to tolerate this type of behavior. Until then it is up to us all to keep trying and them to take advantage of the help that is here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

You gotta fight for your right ...

It’s funny to think how a majority of American youth, at some point, go to great lengths to avoid school work, putting off homework, skipping school (sorry mom!), not studying for tests, all but scoffing at education. I’m not exempt from this – yes I skipped class and procrastinated on papers, even when I was paying for my college education. Easy access to education is something we, as American’s, take for granted. And now that I’m in Afghanistan I see the struggle the people face not just for the basics – food, shelter, clothing etc., but for their future.

Some people may discount Afghans, saying they are illiterate, uneducated, don’t know how about the world around them and it’s true. They are illiterate, uneducated and don’t know all the opportunities that exist out there for them. But they are SO hungry to learn. I’ve talked to a police woman who joined before she had reached the minimum legal age just to continue her education, and I am currently working on a story about the various literacy programs being offered to the population through Afghan National Security Forces basic training. These literacy programs are so popular that the students are bringing their families to class, parents are teaching what they learned to their children at home and often there is a waiting list to get into classes. The organizations that run the literacy programs are so overwhelmed with the demand that they are trying to recruit more teachers to fill the demand.

Yes it’s going to take work and dedication … nothing worth having is easy and they haven’t been fortunate enough to have had years of natural progress and development. They aren’t all uneducated or illiterate; the older generation, those born and raised before Russian occupation and subsequent civil war and rise of the Taliban, are the ones currently teaching the younger how to read and write. The youth of Afghanistan, those who are supposed to be leading the country into the future, don’t know how to hold a pencil, write their names or read a newspaper. And when you’re trying to survive decades of war, education isn’t a top priority. Fortunately for Afghans, this wasn’t always the case; there are plenty of educated Afghans, those who left the country during the wars but came back once the U.S. and NATO forces arrived, the ones who were going to school when the conflicts began and those who are doing their damndest to educate themselves now. Most everyone I’ve talked to say that the Afghan people have an intense desire for knowledge; my own experience has proved similar; they want to know, they ask questions and they are immensely curious.

I see American children shunning education in favor of hanging out at the mall, playing video games and hanging out with friends and I wonder how they would feel if getting an education suddenly became a challenge. We take our education, and our easy access to learning opportunities, for granted. It makes me wonder what it would be like to have to literally fight for an education, to know that by going to school could mean real physical danger – to have acid thrown in my face as I walk to school, to have people blow a school up rather than let me go or to have it forbidden completely. Or what it’s like to know all of that was possible, yet going anyway.

I think that, more than anything says something about the Afghan people. It says volumes about their determination, resiliency and their desire to learn and become better, as individuals and as a nation. And I think with that going for them, literally nothing can hold them back. It’s only a matter of time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's the little things ...

It’s amazing how something as simple as a care package can turn an office full of adults into a bunch of little kids. For the past two days, our office has received a large number of care packages from support organizations in the states, and all of them have been ransacked with savage glee.

It was like Christmas morning, combat style. Gerber’s and knives came out to cut through the tape and hands were everywhere as we dug through the boxes to see what goodies had been sent. Some things were awesome; pistachios, toiletries, tissues, power bars and fruit snacks, while others were inexplicably bizarre … a four pound can of tuna fish for example. I’m really not sure where that one came from and it has been the source of much joking in the office.

But overall, the generosity, money and time that people put into these care packages still amazes me; it’s so nice to know that people still care and think about the military over here. I’ve been collecting things from each care package we get to make other care packages for our Public Affairs mentoring teams who are serving at remote forward operating bases. Those folks are the ones who living pretty bare bones, often without some of the creature comforts we have here, so it’s nice to be able to share the care package goodies.

So thank you to all my family and friends, and the support organizations, who have kept the care packages coming regularly – it is MUCH appreciated and definitely put to good use … although I think we’re good on tuna fish for quite some time.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Seeing stars ...

Ok, I have to admit it … sometimes my job is SO cool. While I don’t love it all the time (I’ll be the first to admit I have my days!) I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in the Air Force. No other job lets you get outside the office and meet so many people from all different career fields and walks of life. I’ve gotten to meet music stars, First Lady Laura Bush, military leadership from every branch, and most importantly, I’ve gotten to see the bigger picture Air Force – learning how other career fields train, work and get the mission done. For someone who loves to talk, it’s the perfect job.

Yesterday was one of those days where nothing went as planned; bad weather delayed the arrival of two general’s, one who was going to take a tour of the Kabul Military Training Center, where the Afghan National Army and Army Air Corp train. I was scheduled to document the visit but it wasn’t until the advanced security team, including me, was already there, that we learned the visit had been cancelled. Making the best of it, I snapped away, pictures of trainees, the British soldiers I was riding with having a snowball fight, having tea with the Afghan’s and more Afghans. They absolutely LOVE to have their photo taken.

The second visitor of the day, Gen. Ann Dunwoody, was someone whom I really wanted to meet, so I was disappointed to know she had been delayed due to all the snow, rain and sleet we’d gotten the last two days. Then late in the day, our chief came to my desk and said she would be here tonight so the photo shoot was still on. For those who don’t know, General Dunwoody was the first women to reach four-star status, out of ANY branch of the military, and she is currently, the only female to hold that rank. It wasn’t until 1970 that the U.S. military had its first female one star – Brig. Gen. Anna Mae Hays, chief of the Army Nurse Corps. Now there are 57 active-duty female general officers in the U.S. armed forces, five of whom are lieutenant generals or vice admirals, the Navy's three-star rank. When the nomination announcement was made, General Dunwoody said, “While I may be the first, I know I won’t be the last.” I can’t imagine all that she has seen and done in her 33 years of service … and all that she has seen change. And General Dunwoody just so happened to have graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland … just a hop, skip and a jump from where I graduated at the State University of New York at Albany. Needless to say, I was excited to meet her.

As I snapped pictures of General Dunwoody and Lt. Gen. Caldwell, I casually let it slip that I was a SUNY graduate too … actually I was so eager to talk to her, I think I blurted it out as thrust my hand in her face. I think they could both tell I was excited, so General Caldwell offered to take my picture with her. As I stood next to her in front of the United States flag, I couldn’t help but think how crazy it was … there was a three-star general, the commander of NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan, taking MY picture with the military’s only female four-star general. Wow. I really love this job.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

It's a girl thing ....

During the short time I’ve been here, my co-workers and I have visited many of the Afghan National Security Forces training centers including the Kabul Military Training Center where the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Army Air Corps train, the Central Training Center where the Afghan National Police basic training course is taught, the ANA commando training center at Camp Morehead, and the ANP Academy where the officer’s course is taught. At first, every training facility we visited, it was just men learning how to handle and shoot weapons, perform search and arrest and counter-ambush techniques, first aid, conduct security check-point procedures and applying the Afghanistan constitution.

Then one day we went to the Central Training Center to cover the Afghan National Police (ANP) basic training course. We watched a group of trainees in their 7th week learn riot and crowd control tactics, and took a tour of some of the buildings. It was in the dining facility where I saw a woman sitting in the corner by herself. I was interviewing some of the male trainees, and when I asked the interpreter if she was ANP, he said yes and indicated we could go talk to her. Her name was Hafra and she was gracious and welcoming, explaining that she had joined the ANP because no one else in her family was earning money and that she was working so her children didn’t have to. After we left her, I asked the interpreter if the men treated her as an equal, if they were welcoming and accepting; she was sitting by herself, while all around her men laughed and joked over their lunches. He looked at me and with a little shrug and a smile. Hmmm, guess that one was open for my own interpretation then.

At the police academy, I interviewed another female, a cadet about to complete a three year officer training course. Unlike Hafra, who had attended enlisted training, Mawolda and two other female students mixed freely with male trainees at the academy. The academy commander, Lt. Gen. Sayed Mohammad, changed the academy curriculum to include females and males learning and training side by side. Mawolda had the blessing and permission of her family to join the academy; her brothers encouraged her and were happy when she decided to enter the school. When I interviewed her about her experiences, she told me she had a message for the women of Afghanistan, that sitting in the house was useless, and that she saw positive changes in her country, but it needed more women to step forward.

And most recently, I attended a recruiting conference for police women in Kabul. Afghan President Karzai had mandated that 5,000 women be added to the police force, and the conference served as a forum for recruiting and training in order to meet that objective. There I met Zainab, a 21-year old policewoman from Takhar province, who joined the police two years ago over the objections of her father and family. Although her father ultimately came to support Zainab’s decision, other members of her family didn’t, and to this day she has no contact with them.

I couldn’t help but think about how courageous these women were … and how lonely their days must be. For American women, a lack of family support or approval doesn’t prevent her from serving her country and now, for women, military service is commonplace, accepted and encouraged. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. I’m sure some of the earliest women in the U.S. military – Esther Blake, Opha Johnson and Loretta Walsh, all felt a mix of feelings; doubt, anxiety, pride, courage and hope that they made the right choice. There were an estimated 350,000 American women who served in some fashion during World War II and more than 230,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Currently there are an estimated 950 women serving in the Afghan National Police and just over 1,000 in the Afghan National Army.

I can only hope that the Afghan women who have been courageous enough to serve – whether in the police forces or army – know the brave and wonderful thing they are doing not only for the women who will follow them, but for their country. I am honored to have met them.