Eight years of military service and six combat missions later, she sat slumped in her seat on the last military charter flight out of Afghanistan on a hot July day. The dirt and grime from the country's filth still in her teeth and fingernails; it never came out.
It was in all the quiet moments that the images of soiled, desperate, lonely, hopeless Afghan children still haunted her; their souls pierced through pleading eyes that begged for help. She lost count of how many missions she endured but would never forgot the faces. Physically, somehow, she made it through all of it alive. Each mission was difficult and tiresome and she could never predict how it would turn out.
There was one mission that she would never be able to get out of her head. She received word that a military helicopter crashed into a local village outside of Kabul. No one knew yet if any American or Afghan was injured, how much damage had been done, or what reverberations this incident would bring upon the American Soldiers serving in nearby desolate areas.
Her counterpart in Afghanistan was a six foot, four inch Army Reservist, who she met just seven months prior on a training mission in Iraq; a gentle giant who often pacified her when her outrage soared because Soldiers were needlessly suffering through continual missions of war without an end. When he called, you listened, because he always had a solution that helped the world become a better place to be. He needed her to come to Afghanistan to help resolve this mess in the local village. He talked with the local Army unit and the local village elders but they could not agree on how much America would pay for the damage. The helicopter damaged a village garden filled with plants that provided food for the locals.
He wanted to escape the life he had in a small town in Mississippi and to do so, begged his unit to send him to Iraq to continue his service by contributing to both wars. After his tour in Iraq, he worked the system, waived the policy that prohibited back to back combat tours, and persuaded his way into a six month tour in Afghanistan. She too had started this military journey of multiple combat missions with wanting to serve her country and help Soldiers, but she was starting to realize the weight of integrity, honor, and justice in war … was taking its toll.
These missions were bigger than any one person. The weight of back and forth deployments to Africa, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan ingrained a sense of anonymity that made being in small town America unbearable. In each combat zone, organized chaos with a convoy of fellow protectors, heavy equipment, multiple weapons, and up-armored vehicles became comfortable. Being in the local Washington, D.C. supermarket with too many choices, too many sounds, and no one covering your six, was gut-wrenching.
She knew in Afghanistan, having a daily source of fresh food was hard to come by in the lands ridden by combat and continuous upheaval. Only a Soldier like her who had spent years going in and out of combat zones could understand how damaged plants shattered a village. She understood that it not only damaged any continued food source the villagers owned, but it diminished any hope Afghan families possessed that someday their country would overcome the mutilation numerous years of being invaded by foreigners caused. She knew that in order to provide safety for the military in the local area, the damage needed to be remedied and it needed to be done fast. Inaction could cause retaliation, or better yet, the locals’ reliance on the Taliban for that remedy. It was either American money or Taliban money because the locals had no money. It was her job to pay for these damages through the military’s legal process. She, unlike the local military on the ground, was given the authority to approve high dollar payments to Afghans.
She caught the next commercial flight to Kuwait. In Kuwait, to blend in as a civilian, she wore a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. The only other belongings she needed was her ever-ready ruck sack which contained all the items needed for a few unplanned, unpredictable weeks in the constant blowing dirt of Afghanistan. She had three sets of military uniforms because she never knew if one would get shredded or town in some incident that she could never predict. She had her bulletproof vest and her M9 with 16 rounds of ammunition locked in her weapon case. Getting to Kuwait was the easy part, after that, she knew that the insidious days ahead had no distinct outline or footprint. The mission was to ensure that when she left, the locals were happy until the next incident, and the false hope of peace was agreed upon for the safety of the Soldiers remaining in that local area.
She arrived at the local base in Kabul, the team was assembled, and the mission and plan was briefed. The convoy arrived at the local village, conferred with the local Army unit, grabbed their gear, and walked to the village to meet with the elders. She completed walks like this before, uncontrollable thoughts racing through her head, but no one would know. Her outer image was poised, stoic, prepared, and ready. She would never forget walking into the village, being the only women in sight, staring at four Afghan village elders who stared back at her. She knew most Afghans had never seen the exposed neck of a woman besides their wives. Those stares burned through her leaving a poignant feeling of strength but overwhelming vulnerability. In that initial stare, no one knew if these Afghan men were actually village elders or Taliban who infiltrated the village to meet the American soldiers in order to shed evil on those that dared to help local Afghans. She could not help the feeling that enveloped her body that those Afghan men could have overtaken her and did whatever they wanted to her, and no one would have known. The stare between the village elders and the American soldiers felt as if it lasted hours but, in reality, it lasted seconds. Then one Afghan elder stepped forward, putting his hand over his heart to greet the American soldiers inviting them into his village.
As she sat in the royal Afghan Shura room of the village, where Afghan women were only allowed to be present when acting as servants, she realized that this could be her last mission; this could be the last village she entered but never left. She sat there among American and Afghan men negotiating how much America should pay for the damage a helicopter crash caused in that local village. The enormity of the situation was outweighed by the reality that this was necessary, real, and practical for day to day operations in Afghanistan. This was bigger than any one person, but smaller than any vulnerability she had ever been subjected to.
A few months earlier, she submitted her resignation to the US Army with no other plan than to survive these last missions. She could not bring herself to complete another combat tour, and the military could not promise that she would not need to. She had done her part for society, served her nation, helped secure safety for the American people, possibly saved a few lives, and compensated too many Iraqis and Afghans for the damage war had cost them.
In her life after the military, she only looked forward to the small things in life: a warm shower in a bathroom that she did not have to share with dozens of other female Soldiers; not having to walk fifty feet in the middle of the night to use the latrine, fully dressed in uniform; watching the daily news in real time knowing that the breaking news in Afghanistan was nothing that involved her.
She wanted to be part of “normal” society for a while, because being part of those that strive for honor and integrity had made its mark and laid its scars and bruises on her body and in her mind. It was the unseen sacrifices, the unseen wounds, and the unseen trauma that rattled her core; the inexplicable complications of seeing parts of the world at its absolute worst in ways that no one could ever imagine.
Beyond the small things, she had no plan for the rest of her existence. She just knew that her sacrifices and combat accomplishes, that everyone said she would be proud about one day, should lead to a decent life, right?
As she sat there, slumped in her airplane seat returning to America with the weight of all the personal sacrifices she made for her country, all the physical dirt and grime that seemed to never come out, the sounds and visions that never seemed to be silent -- hoping the plane did not go down on this last plane ride out of a combat zone … after all she had been through, she should not be alive, the only feeling she could legitimize was, had she done enough?