The nights in Kabul are beautiful
Victoria A. Stattel
Lieutenant Commander, US Navy
Departed Kabul, Afghanistan AUG2010
2010 American Women Veterans “Welcome Home Essay Contest” winner
Deployments can be big, life changing experiences. AWV wants to know: What did you learn on your deployment? What did you take away from the experience? What did you learn about yourself or life in general? How are you different from when you left?
In truth, I would love to say that I walked away inspired and feeling positive about all we have accomplished and are in the process of achieving in Afghanistan. However, I find I have left theatre with and continue to have quite a heavy heart. I know my deep concern and melancholy stems from what I learned on the road to and in Kabul.
First of all, I learned that I am glad I didn’t join the Army! The sacrifices that our soldiers make over and over again on deployment after deployment are tremendous. Unfortunately, I also I feel that we do not only do the service members a great wrong, but also their families because of the sheer time away from home. The sacrifices made on a personal level are too immense for any Power Point slide can ever hope to capture.
I also learned that our soldiers are amazing people, especially our junior folks. I learned that they do a job on the ground to the best of their ability utilizing the training received, every time. If a war is not “won” then it is far from the fault of the tactical level, but rather issues in training and strategy from above.
I learned that I am deeply concerned about our policies. Though the best of intentions may be from where we start, I have come to realize our objectives are almost always lost in metrics and want for numbers.
I learned that my Afghan General would call me “Victoria” when everyone else was referred to by rank. This can be a blessing and a curse – and a lot of that has to do with you.
I learned that the women in Afghanistan have a harder life than I ever want to imagine having.
I learned that bananas in Afghanistan are superior in taste than those in the US – even though I would argue that they look far worse!
I learned that the amount of contractors along the road to Kabul would astound anyone who had eyes that cared to see them.
I learned that the nights in Kabul are beautiful. The wind will rustle through the trees drowning out the sounds of the city in the distance and create an inspiring peace.
I have learned the importance of a comprehensive, strategic plan.
I learned that on the road from Baghram to Kabul you will see enough girls to count on two hands and enough women to count on one.
I learned that on the road in Camp Eggers you will see enough enlisted women to count on two hands and enough female officers to count on one.
I have learned that it can be better.
I learned that language is not only a barrier between us and the host nation, but also between us and our coalition partners. A great asset is lost because of our lack of patience with our non-English speaking partners.
I left certain that there is hope and what unites us is greater than what divides us.
Some stereotypes are true – The Italians have the best looking uniforms, the Brits break for tea and the Americans are workaholics.
I have learned that it will take time, perhaps more time than we are willing to give. We have an obligation to be honest with ourselves and what, as a nation, we are willing to give. We need to determine this and then make our policy decisions from there.
I learned that when you travel with an Afghan General out of the country it takes a small act of God (or at least a signature from Karzai).
I learned that when you drive in Afghanistan as a woman people will stop and stare and some will even laugh because it seems so ridiculous. I believe there is great power in that.
I learned that to get anything done in Afghanistan you need to know somebody, but that took me back to NY, “I know a guy…”, which reminded me that perhaps Jim Henson was up to something in The Muppets Take Manhattan, “peoples is peoples”.
I learned Nation Building by any other name still smells like a long term project that perhaps the DoD is not the best at performing.
I learned that it is all far more complicated than we are willing to admit and that needs to change.
I have learned that the Queen’s palace, on the outskirts of Kabul, is one of the most amazing locations I have ever seen in all of my travels. It speaks of a lost Afghanistan where hope did not seem so far away.
I learned that you can get used to anything, even if that means wearing Kevlar and a weapon every day.
I learned that sitting in a bunker in the middle of the night because of a firefight is not a good time. And, even if you find yourself with a loaded weapon, in an up-armored SUV and stilling next to a “long-tab” Ranger, getting lost in Afghanistan has a fun factor of zero.
I learned that sometimes all you need to know you can read in someone’s eyes.
I learned that the State Department contractors will not teach lessons which explain how Afghan law stems from the Koran because it is not part of their contract.
I learned that three cups of chai is just one meeting.
I learned that General Badr lived in Afghanistan during the 70s when it was flourishing, stayed through the Soviets and now works with us. He is a man who truly cares about the future of his country, but he will not get a job because he is Tajik and General Ahmadzai is Uzbek.
I learned that you will never know how many you touch.
I learned that we ask the wrong questions. I have a fundamental issue asking “How do we get out of here as quickly as possible?” vice “Right or wrong, we are here, so how do we do this properly?” which to me reads, “How do we get educated Afghans to want to stay in Afghanistan?”
I learned that the Ministry of Interior is not a place you want to go to the bathroom, especially as a woman.
I have learned that not only can we be, but that in many cases we are, our worst enemy. As Americans we can sometimes be impatient and overbearing which doesn’t necessarily help us (and that is a euphonium).
About myself, I learned the ugly truth that I am absolutely human. I can only do so much, I can only understand so much and I will falter in ways that I never thought imaginable.
About myself, I learned the beautiful truth that I am absolutely human. I will be able to relate more that I thought possible; I will see the similarities in those I hardly know and will learn to love a people I cannot communicate with in words.
I learned that coming home can be lonelier than I ever imagined. And because of that, I now understand the importance of all we do for our returning service men and women. Though I have deployed before, for some reason being on the ground was fundamentally different. It is almost embarrassing how I did not realize this before, but I am thankful that I know it now.
In summary, I now understand why my Great Uncle, who served as an enlisted Army soldier in WWII, felt the need to call me and welcome me home. For better or worse, I currently live in a reality where tears come to my eyes every time I think of that moment and I can’t help but wonder how much longer that will last.
So, yes, I walk away from Kabul changed. I hope for the better. If nothing else, I am deeper and have most certainly been touched. Though I have volunteered abroad in third world countries, there was nothing quite like living in a war-torn city for all of those months. I believe that my soul is still mourning in some way.
For me, back here in DC, I have taken on a bit of a personal mission to challenge the policy makers I see in and around the Pentagon to make sure we are asking the right questions and do not forget that we have folks sacrificing every day. I believe decisions made in the field stem from Washington’s politics. I want to make sure that we get our part right back home so that all those on the ground, the Americans, our coalition partners and our Afghan friends and foes, have the best chance of making the current “Afghan situation” positive, somehow balancing out all of the pain in that country.