War Journal: A Year in Afghanistan
By Col. Ginger Wallace, USAF
As I reflect on the past year I spent in Afghanistan, I am so thankful for having both an incredible experience and a partner who supports me. I deployed as part of the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands (AFPAK Hands) program and worked with Afghans on the implementation of their peace and reintegration program. For me, it was a challenging but rewarding year. For my partner, Kathy, it was a year of uncertainty and worry. We both worked hard to consistently communicate and be there for one other, even though we were thousands of miles apart.
We’ve been through three deployments together, but this was my first year-long deployment. For Kathy, I imagine it must have seemed like a lot longer. As service members, our lives become very simple. While we’re deployed, we work, eat, go to the gym, and sleep. But our partners’ lives become much more complicated. They still have to take care of everything at home on their own and continue on with their lives without us around. I’ve tried to envision what it must be like to manage the stress of having a loved one deployed to a combat zone with the stress of also having to manage a household at the same time. For families like ours, that stress is compounded by the fact that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denies our partners the benefits and support structure other families enjoy. Our partners have no guarantee they will get officially notified should something happen to us, and we do not have the peace of mind knowing, with certainty, our partners will be taken care of should we not come home. In this post-DADT era, we have certainly made progress in recent years, but we all anxiously await the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA in June. Until DOMA has been overturned, our families will continue to be treated like second-class citizens even though they also sacrifice for our country in support of our service.
While Kathy was managing our household by herself during stressful times, I had some of the most incredible experiences of my career. I worked with talented Afghans and travelled all over Afghanistan. The highlight was a trip to Bamyan, a beautiful region that happens to be Afghanistan’s only province with a female governor. It was an honor to meet Governor Sarobi and get her perspective on Afghanistan’s peace program in her share of the country. The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) is about 2.5 years old and now exists in 33 of 34 provinces. The program is designed to expedite the end the conflict between insurgents and the government of Afghanistan through a process of political settlement. My focus was supporting the peaceful reintegration of former insurgents who renounce violence as they come back into their communities. For their acceptance of former insurgents back into the community, those provinces then receive. aid to help with their community development projects. Basically, the more the provinces help transition insurgents back into the community, the more support they receive from the program. Like any program, the APRP has challenges and issues, but Afghans are improving the implementation of the program in most parts of the country. While Bamyan has not historically been a violent province, Governor Sarobi’s approach to peace is impactful and impressive, and she is proof that women are making progress in Afghanistan too.
Another sign women are making progress in Afghanistan is in its sports programs. Not only are more girls attending school, they are also increasing their participation in sports. I also had the pleasure or working with the Afghan women’s national basketball team. Their facilities are very basic, but their enthusiasm for the game matches any team I’ve ever worked with back in the States. These are women that love to play so much that they risk their own security to travel to the Afghan Olympic complex to practice three times a week. Most of them are college aged and attend universities in Kabul. I challenged them to teach their younger sisters, nieces, and cousins how to play the game so that some day Afghan women can compete in international competitions. I’m confident it will happen with time.
As I drove through the streets of Kabul for the last time, I wondered where Afghanistan will be ten years from now. I wonder if there will be a political settlement. I wonder if the country will recover from more than three decades of conflict or if it will have slipped into civil war and become more divided than ever. I look at our own country’s history and I still have hope. Almost 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we too were a country divided. If it wasn’t fighting the bloodiest war our country has ever known, it was struggling through dark days preceding the civil rights movement. Progress takes times. As I look to our country, I think about families like mine. Today, the country seems to be more united than ever in support of our right to marry the person we love, but the struggle continues, much like it does in Afghanistan. I wonder where we will be ten years from now.