Women in the Midst of War

by 1st Lt. Christina Prejean ’08

‘What are you doing, Christina?” I asked myself. Strapped into the netting seats of a C-130 Air Force cargo plane, I wore my 30-pound, bulletproof vest, helmet, gloves, earplugs and eye protection in case the enemy attacked. “What have you gotten yourself into? You’re 24 years old and about to enter a war zone in a country you’ve only seen on TV, where people are constantly killing Americans.”

The four-hour flight from Manas to Kabul felt like a lifetime. A lieutenant in the Air Force, I’d volunteered to spend six months in Afghanistan, and it was too late to turn back. My heart raced, full of fear and uncertainty. I began to doubt my decision. But I was determined not to show my emotions. I stayed calm and appeared confident and ready. As I walked out the back of the C-130, I felt the heat of the strong desert wind and saw tall, sandy mountains. “Afghanistan, I’m here to stay,” I thought as I grabbed my gear and walked toward the terminal at Kabul International Airport. I was on my way to Camp Eggers, an Army base in Kabul.

As we left the airport, the culture shock hit. Little kids ran around the streets barefoot with dirty faces. Bony dogs ate from a pile of trash on the side of the road. Herds of sheep followed their shepherd, houses seemed to consist of just mud and dirt and, most shocking of all, women covered their entire bodies with blue burqas.

The smell was horrific. When I asked the officer who greeted me why it smelled like rotten eggs, she said, “I forgot you’re not used to it yet. That’s just the smell of Afghanistan because there’s no sewage system here. You’ll get used to it soon.”

There are some things you never get used to. I’ve seen poverty before, traveling to and living in poor areas in Latin America. I spent a month in Guatemala with Emmaus Road building a community kitchen. I went to Mexico every year with Potter’s Clay. I studied in Ecuador for a semester. But Afghanistan is way beyond these countries. The people here are not only subject to abject poverty, but the government and culture severely control and limit their lives. Human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, justice, freedom of religion and freedom of speech don’t exist in Afghanistan. I’ve witnessed the aftermath of Taliban rule, which forced a radical version of Islam on the people, murdered women for going to school or not wearing a burqa, and stoned others for speaking their minds.

UNICEF has said that Afghanistan is the worst country in the world to be a child. I’ve seen little children digging through piles of trash on the side of the road searching for food alongside sheep, chickens and stray dogs, worried about what they and their family will eat. When we stop in the heavy Kabul traffic, children approach our vehicles, giving us a thumbs up, waving, and even knocking on our windows, begging for money. It breaks my heart.

During my first six months in Afghanistan, I worked as a mission commander, leading convoys transporting VIPs like Sec. Gates to meetings throughout Kabul. While en route and after arriving, we provided personal security for these visitors, charged with removing them from danger if anyone attacked and taking a bullet for them if necessary. My job required me to work outside the wire of our secure base several times a week, driving around the hazardous streets of Kabul. It’s quite a change from my previous assignment at Mt. Home Air Force Base in Idaho, where I served as the section commander of an F-15 aircraft maintenance squadron of more than 900 people.

Riding in the passenger seat — called the shooter — of our up-armored vehicle, I wore protective gear, including my helmet, shatterproof eye protection, bulletproof body armor, and fire-retardant uniform. With my loaded M-4 rifle next to me, I kept my eyes glued to the outer surroundings, scanning for any unusual behavior from the locals walking by. I was as vigilant and aware as possible. You know you’re in a war zone when you check to make sure you have your M-9 pistol and two fully loaded magazines — and not your keys — when you leave in the morning.

Traveling anywhere in Afghanistan requires intelligence briefings to learn about threat assessments and blocked routes. We plan each mission with step-by-step directions and follow them carefully. Every member of the team gets a copy of the briefing, so if something happens, we all know how to get to safety.

After my first six months, I agreed to stay on, extending my tour to a year. Since then, I’ve worked on protocol and organized meetings for VIPs on base. Every day I wear combat boots, dress in my airman battle uniform, and pin my hair up tight in a bun. Like most service members in Afghanistan, I work seven days a week, usually eight to 12 hours a day. Some days begin at 0500 and don’t end until 2300. It’s easy to forget which day of the week it is. Christmas and New Year’s felt just like any other day. The base is less than a mile in radius, and we can’t jump into a car and go to a movie theater, a mall or any other place. Talk about cabin fever. When I’m not at work, I’m either at the gym, the cafeteria, the tent where I live with other women or in the Internet office calling my family back home in San Diego.

I’ve observed the plight of women here, and it’s distressing. Women have to walk behind men, never in front of them, and can’t ride a bicycle or drive a car. When they sit behind their husbands or male relatives on a motoped, they have to face sideways so their legs stay together. Many aren’t allowed to leave home at all, based on the discretion of their father, brother, or husband and few travel. They can’t even see a movie in a theatre. Most of them are married and have children by the time they’re my age.

According to the CIA World Factbook, only 12.6 percent of women over the age of 15 can read and write compared to 43.1 percent of men. For a decade the Taliban denied woman an education, and they were shot or stoned and persecuted for going to school. Even today, Taliban sympathizers try to control women. Employers openly advertise they don’t hire women, people of other races or non-Muslims. When a boy is born, families rejoice; when it’s a girl, they mourn. Afghan society isn’t designed for women.

When I’m off base, women sometimes wave to me or stop to stare at me, and I realize they’ve probably never seen anyone like me before. In my convoy of 10 people, I’m the only woman, and I’m the one in charge. Maybe I give them a glimpse of a better future for women in Afghanistan.

I’ve seen a few hopeful signs. One is the Afghan Women’s Bazaar, which helps women who are poor, widowed or disabled make money by selling handmade products like rugs, purses, clothing and jewelry. It rotates from base to base and is one way the U.S. military is helping Afghanistan.

Interactions with Afghan women have a special place in my heart. While volunteering at the bazaar, I met its founders, Storai Jalal and Sweeda Kazemi. Their story brought tears to my eyes. When they were little girls, their families fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, and they moved to the United States as refugees. They went to school, grew up and became real estate brokers in Northern California. A year ago they left their families to return to their motherland, passionate about making a difference. They had only planned to stay a few months, but there’s so much to do.

With little money, they relied on each other and their desire to help the Afghan people. They’ve survived rocket attacks against bases where they’ve stayed, and they’ve put on burqas, covering themselves from head to toe. They balked initially at this but realized it was the only way to stay safe from harassment and beatings.

Sweeda and Storai began by going to a U.S. military base and saying, “We’re here, we speak Farsi, we’re businesswomen, and we want to help.” Their first undertaking was gaining more space for Afghan women to sell their goods in the local markets. Up to that time, women were squished into a single stall while the men had plenty of space to conduct business. In less than a year they’ve assisted 600 Afghan women living in poverty earn money through the market. Some are widows, some have disabilities, some have disabled husbands and some have 10 children or more. Ninety-five percent are illiterate. One young woman told me that her sister, 25, has five children because when she was 15, the Taliban came into her home and forced her to marry.

Storai and Sweeda found the women shy and timid, afraid to challenge anything. They encourage women to stand up for themselves and teach them about business development, marketing, advertising, how to convert Afghanis to dollars and euros, and basic English to communicate with troops when selling their goods.

“These women are highly talented,” Storai told me. “They have never been given the opportunity and don’t have the courage to stand on their own feet. We boost their self-esteem and build confidence. We believe in them.” Remarkably, Sweeda and Storai have created an organization without any funding, naming it “Aday,” which means “mother” in Pashto, one of the country’s main languages. They’ve opened bazaars for women on six military bases throughout Kabul and have established permanent stores on two American bases. All the proceeds benefit Afghan women.

Sweeda and Storai are brave, courageous women whom I greatly admire and want to help. I’ve been fortunate to work closely with them and watch how Afghan women look up to them and admire their strength. They, too, are sacrificing so much to be here.

Interacting with women who sell in the bazaar has been wonderful, and I’ve learned a lot about them. I marvel at their sense of innocence and strictly sheltered life. Greater openness for women will only start with the younger generation and allowing girls to be educated and discover what’s going on in the world.

I’ve seen some small steps in that direction. One unique experience was meeting Afghan’s first female pilots now in the United States learning how to fly helicopters. The U.S. military has pushed Afghanistan to include more women in their armed services, and these 22-year-old second lieutenants are some of the first to be trained as pilots. Few people in Afghanistan want to see these women succeed, so they face great difficulties.

When Gen. Schwartz visited Kabul, I took him to meet with Afghan Air Force personnel. Afterwards, U.S. instructors asked me to speak to these four women about my military experience. I was fortunate to spend a day and a night with them. We began by playing baseball on a barren, rocky field in a game that involved Afghan male soldiers. Then I joined the women in a separate room where I gave them an English lesson and we shared a meal of pizza.

That evening I delivered my presentation, explaining why I joined the Air Force. As a young woman officer, I’ve found it lonely at times. Officers make up only 20 percent of the Air Force, and of that, only 19 percent are women. In total, less than 5 percent of Air Force personnel are women officers. Often I’m the only woman in the room. Sometimes I don’t notice, but sometimes it’s intimidating. So I understand their concern when they tell me men on base yell at them when they drive because women aren’t supposed to drive. “Be bold and stand up for yourselves as leaders,” I said. “You’ll be leading people, and you need to have confidence — the people you lead need to see your confidence. You are pioneers, leading the way for others. You make your families proud. Someday I’ll see pictures of you in books and read about your accomplishments.”

While training in the United States, these women have access to computers and television, something many don’t enjoy at home. They tell me through Facebook that they miss Afghanistan, and I write back that I miss San Diego and ask them jokingly if they want to trade places.

After meeting them I think how different my life has been. I joined ROTC, interested in serving my country. At Westmont, I double majored in political science and Spanish. I’ve found it helps to speak foreign languages in Afghanistan because I work with NATO soldiers, including some from Spain and Italy. I spent a semester in Ecuador where I took Italian as well as Spanish. Through an Air Force program, I traveled to Florence, lived with a host family, learned about their culture, politics and religion, and worked on my Italian.

I’d always gone to secular schools before Westmont, and I liked being able to talk about God anytime I wanted. My religious studies classes were challenging; I’d read the Bible only for devotions and never for homework. Resources like chapel helped me to grow in my faith. Sadly, women in Afghanistan haven’t been allowed to study Islam like I studied Christianity.

One of the things I liked best about Westmont was the opportunity to serve the community. College students often just think about themselves, but that wasn’t true at Westmont. I’d like to have done more, but my obligations with Air Force ROTC kept me busy. Every Friday I drove to Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles for classes, leaving early in the morning and often not returning until after midnight.

As a young officer, I’ve had more responsibility than other college graduates I know. I’ve learned to confidently lead people up to twice my age and make quick and smart decisions under high stress. My experience in Afghanistan has helped me grow as an officer and a leader. Serving in a war zone is more exhausting and stressful, but it’s rewarding because I’m doing something for my country.

Unlike women in Afghanistan, I am fortunate to have lots of options for my future. I could stay in the military and try to make general. In Idaho, I went to night school on base from 6-10 p.m. and all day Saturday and Sunday and earned a master’s degree in public administration through the University of Oklahoma. If I left the Air Force, I’d be interested in working with government and military issues. International relations also interests me.

In the meantime, I focus on my work in Afghanistan. I knew driving around Kabul was dangerous, and I learned that staying on base can be deadly too. That’s where I was when loud warnings sounded one day. “Get out! Move, now!” two NATO soldiers yelled, telling us to take cover in a safe place. We headed to the building, most people frantic. Every 15 minutes, the screeching sirens pierced my ears. We waited there, and after several hours a different siren went off, announcing that all was clear. Then I received a call from a fellow soldier in the Australian Army, who said, “I’m sorry, mate. I heard they were all yours,” adding that an Afghan soldier had shot several Americans right here on our base.

It’s difficult to express how I felt at that moment. My body became numb. It seemed as if my heart was on fire, and I was filled with sadness for my comrades, killed unjustly just hours before. I felt anger and fear, wondering if the attacker was still alive and where he was.

On my way to the cafeteria later that day, I saw an officer frantically running in the opposite direction. “Follow me, there’s small-arms fire in the direction you’re heading,” he said. I followed, and we went to a safe building with dozens of others. None of us had a clue what was going on. Seconds later, the screeching sirens went off again. It brought back that horrible, terrifying feeling. An American soldier came by and said we couldn’t leave the building because an attacker with a loaded gun could be running loose inside the base. I peeked out a small window and saw NATO tanks driving around, securing the area. “Call your parents and tell them you’re OK,” someone suggested. “Otherwise, they’re going to turn on the TV and see what’s going on and worry to death about you.” I took her advice and made a short call home, waking up my family in the early hours of San Diego, telling them I was safe and not to worry.

“BOOM!” I opened my eyes. That night, asleep in my tent, I heard what sounded like the whistle at the end of a firework followed by a loud explosion. I got out of bed, and a British soldier turned the light on. About 10 of us peeked out to see if there was anything going on. It was a dark, windy night. We rushed to put our uniforms on, as we knew the tent wouldn’t protect us from an attack. Then, the same dreadful siren from earlier that day sounded. “ROCKET ATTACK.” Pause. “ROCKET ATTACK,” the loud, somber voice repeated over the loudspeakers. We ran to a secure building. I looked at my watch; it was a little after 3 a.m. Everyone wanted that long, frightening day to be over.

The next morning, on the way to a memorial ceremony, I saw all the NATO and partners’ flags at half mast, honoring the nine Americans killed the day before. Although sadness filled the air, it was comforting to see every flag at half mast. It reminded me we’re all in this together. One country’s loss affects us all. There were no dry eyes in the crowd. Everyone stood as nine caskets, each draped with the American flag, were carried to the planes. I saluted the caskets as they passed and quietly thanked each one for their service to our country. Eight were Air Force, one was civilian. Eight of those killed wore the same uniform I put on every day. One sister and eight brothers in arms. All were heroes. It was an extremely sad loss.

After the ceremony, I talked with an Air Force colleague who, wiping away tears, told me she had worked with several of those killed. They all had plans to go home, take vacations and be with their spouses, children and loved ones.

In February, I had called home, as I usually do, only to hear my mother’s serious, sad tone of voice telling me that my aunt, who had been battling breast cancer for several years, had passed away. Mourning her death here, alone and far from my family, was hard. I feel like I’m missing so much back home. My younger sister had her first baby, and every time she sends me pictures of my growing niece, whom I won’t meet until she’s nearly five months old, I remember how far away I am. It’s painful knowing I’m missing out on so much.

At Christmas, I was touched by students from my dad’s middle school math classes, who wrote me encouraging letters and cards that reminded me of my purpose here. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I stood in my office reading letters from so many sincere teens, motivating me with words such as: “We love you for serving our country,” and “One day I hope to be like you. I appreciate your duty and determination to make a difference in this very difficult world.”

That’s what keeps me going each day. I want this war to be over by the time they’re my age. And I want a better Afghanistan, where little girls can grow up free to go to college, get a job and wear whatever they want.

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