Hindu Kush Mountains
I tend to be interested in disabusing myself of any stereotypes I have. If I have a stereotype, I like to go straight toward it, because it’s usually all wrong. And I had a stereotype about American women in the military, because I didn’t know anybody. And I just had this sort of — and I’m basically, I suppose if you pressed me to it, I’m a pacifist. So, I’m going into the most extreme climate for me, war, and soldiering, and I had my flack jacket and my helmet. I had to buy all my own equipment, and sign all these forms that said ‘If you die, it’s not our fault. And I went in, and I think standing the first day at Bagram Airfield, I arrived, and within a few hours I was standing with a group of soldiers being briefed before we got in the convoys and went up to the Hindu Kush mountains, to the Provincial Reconstruction Team base, Team Lion.
And I was standing there surrounded by all these soldiers, and the young girl next to me, Ashton Goodman, had just been talking about how she loved to shoot things, and she wanted to drive an MRAP, and I thought oh my God, she’s my stereotype. She’s exactly what terrifies me, oh my God, she’s everything I’m afraid of. And she’s right next to me. And they’re all talking about that they saw a terrorist earlier in the day, if you throw the bomb, this is what we do, and I thought “How did I get what — this maybe wasn’t so smart of me to do this.” And I didn’t tell my children I was going. I wrote to them from Bagram media office and sent them an email, and said “Oh, by the way I am in India.” They knew that, and I said “I’m in Afghanistan now, and I’ll be back in two weeks. I’m fine. I’m under the protection of the US Air Force. Don’t worry.” They were so mad at me that I had done this.
But anyway, so the person — that soldier standing next to me, Ashton, turned out to be one of my favorite people. She became like a daughter to me. We became great friends, and then a few months later she was killed by an IED, a roadside IED, and I wrote about her. It broke my heart, it really did. But I learned — we went up there, it was January, it was freezing. And the Hindu Kush mountain is so beautiful, but so stark. And we drove every day into villages, into medical clinics. I met with Afghan women from small villages, sat with them, had tea with them. I was able to interview them through a translator, and I kind of fell in love with them too. I fall in love with the people.
I just love losing myself in other people’s lives and stories. And there was a moment I was in a classroom of young women, all in white hijabs in the freezing cold classroom.1 Nothing was heated anywhere we went, and everything was so poor. And we were bringing school supplies and handing them out. And then I was able to ask them the questions, and they were very shy at first, and then they warmed up to me. And I started talking about writing and writing stories. And I said it would be so wonderful if I could stay a day or two and we would write stories together. And they said “Can you stay? Can you stay and teach us?”2 And honestly I wanted to. I had a moment where I saw myself living there and be a schoolteacher. And then I realized “No Melissa, you have to go home. You have your own children you need to return to. And you’d probably — knowing — you might be killed here.” I mean it really is a pretty harsh environment, a cruel environment.