For nearly six months, our small group worked closely together toward the same mission. Leigh and I taught medical seminars at the hospital and in villages. We partnered with schools and teachers to bring school supplies to rural areas. We searched women during night raids, looking for weapons or intelligence items like cellphones, documents or memory sticks. We worked with the Afghan radio station, broadcasting stories about the police and development projects. We walked miles over mountains, carrying the same equipment as the men. We faced the same dangers as our male peers; our gender did not protect us from mortars, bombs or bullets. Afghans were curious that we wore head scarves and carried M4 rifles, not quite sure what to make of women wearing the uniforms they associated with men. Our Special Forces team cared only that we could carry our weight, keep up and help the mission.
On clear nights we would gather around a fire on Adirondack chairs that Leigh and I built from spare wood and talk about families back home or admire the silhouette of the Spin Ghar mountains. Some of the men smoked cigars, the aroma briefly covering up the stench that seemed to emanate ceaselessly from the outpost’s nearby burn pit. Every few weeks, thanks to care packages my mother sent from the States, we cooked pancakes for our Afghan and American peers. Everyone would gather at a table — infantry soldiers, Green Berets and Afghans — passing around plates of food.
This feeling of belonging and purpose did not last. After six months, that team was replaced by a fresh group of Green Berets led by another Army captain. This officer was also supportive of women working within the Special Forces community. Unfortunately for Leigh and me, not everyone on his team was as professional. Their sexism changed the experience of our tour. Not long after the second team arrived, Captain Abdul, the Afghan Special Forces leader, asked why Leigh and I had missed a meeting with the new guys and the police chief. He seemed confused, and perhaps insulted. We had spent months working together, and our absence was noticed. I told him that we hadn’t been invited. Eventually, the disrespect got more direct. A sergeant with the new Green Beret team broadcasted over the team’s radio frequency that Leigh and I had better have his laundry done before he got back from mission. My first reaction was an urge to find a pair of scissors, retrieve his laundry and cut it to pieces, but I knew better. Years later I learned that the team leaders had reprimanded him for his behavior. In hindsight, I wish they had told us about this at the time. It would have taken away some of the sting and signaled that we were valued as soldiers.
Over time, Leigh and I left the outpost less often. Even though we had more experience in the area than the new team, experience that could provide continuity and benefit the Green Berets’ mission, we were excluded and felt marginalized. Our engagements with hospitals and schools dwindled. Out of boredom and a desire to contribute, Leigh would drive vehicles for the team while I managed radios at the outpost. Occasionally, we would attend meetings with the district leadership, but nothing like we had done before.
Two months later, it was our turn to go home. As we waited for the helicopter, we watched as two Special Forces sergeants took sledgehammers to the wooden Adirondack chairs Leigh and I had made. Next they demolished the hut that had been our home. We were told they had orders to close the outpost, but their timing and their visible smiles signaled more than that. We were unworthy of goodbyes in their eyes. We departed alone as they eagerly rid themselves of the remnants we left behind.