'The women … really are my heroes'
May 28, 2013
KABUL, Afghanistan (May 22, 2013) -- The building was surrounded by a high wall, a steel gate blocked the entrance; it looked like the other buildings in this Kabul neighborhood. But it was behind this gate with its armed guards, which drew the small convoy of armored vehicles and the group of U.S. Army Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen.
It was a safe house and those who operate it are protecting a very special group of people.
"They want to protect women who don't have anyone else to protect them. They want to give women a better life," said U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Kristine Nicholls, sustainment planner, 311th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, 1st Theater Sustainment Command. "If we can do something that gives people hope … then why not?"
The shelter is run by a group called 'Women for Afghan Women.' Many of the women they help are victims of abuse, who fled with their children. In some cases it is just the children the group helps; their mothers are dead or in prison. If the group did not provide a shelter to the children, the children would join their mothers in prison or worse.
"Today's children are our future," said the shelter's manager. "We have to take care of them."
Out of fear for their safety, the staff asked that no pictures of them be distributed inside Afghanistan. For this reason, the staff will be identified only by their job title.
The group also offers a variety of other services for the women and their children; from legal services, education and vocational training to family counseling.
Because of this work, there have been reports that the group and its members have received death threats and harassing phone calls.
'Women for Afghan Women' was founded in April of 2001; Nicholls and many of the 11 other service members only arrived in Afghanistan in the last few months. When they heard about 'Women for Afghan Women,' they decided to help.
"The culture is so different that women are challenged on a whole [different] level," said 1st Lt. Emory Erickson, secretary to the general staff, forward, 1st TSC. "Just to have the right to drive a car, to be outside by themselves, to attend a school, to have a profession … even to be able to [be] allowed to just read and write, those are the basic things they are struggling for. Then you talk about having a center, a shelter for women trying to escape from abuse from their husbands, possibly in a situation where they are considered to be property. "
Before he joined the Army, Erickson, a native of Boulder, Colo., worked as a social worker for six years. He worked with many victims of abuse and felt that he had to help in some way. So Erickson and the others reached out to contacts back home and arranged for desperately needed hygiene supplies for the women and clothes and toys for the children to be sent.
It was these supplies the service members delivered to the shelter.
"This … donation is very important [and] economical for our office," said the shelter manager. "The women and the children that are in our shelter are in need, they are suffering [from] violence."
The service members also delivered the message that people outside of Afghanistan care about the women's situation and wanted to help.
"They know that there are people [who have an] interest in them," said the shelter manager, "that's very important for them."
The visit left an impression on the service members who were there.
"It was very, very humbling," said Nicholls, a native of San Rafael, Calif. "If I can go and spend … time delivering things that people need that we in the United States take for granted, being able to have hygiene items … to have food … to have blankets, to show that people aren't forgotten."
While the service members were only able to deliver as many containers of hygiene products, quilts, children's clothes and toys that they could place inside their armored vehicles; the staff at the shelter was grateful.
"When you hand something to someone who needs that thing and they are so happy to receive it," said U.S. Navy Reserve Lt. Jana Staron, logistics officer, United States Forces-Afghanistan, "They feel like we are helping them."
For most of the visit, the women and their children were in a separate part of the shelter away from the service members. This was done for a variety of reasons; to protect the identities of the women and the fact that some of the service members were male. In Afghan culture a woman cannot be around a male who is not related to them if a male family member is not present.
The service members and the staff spent some time talking over tea and pound cake, trying to see how they can help the shelter's residents in the future.
One thing the staff asked for was help in trying to get medical attention for two of their 'clients'; one women had been diagnosed with hepatitis, the other had been attacked and had been injured by a knife wound to the throat. The staff explained that the victim could not speak, so they do not know who injured her. The staff had tried to seek help from local doctors, but there was little they could do. The service members made no promises, but they said they would see what they could do.
Cpl. Erynne Gonzalez, budget analyst, 311th ESC, 1st TSC, sat in on the meeting.
"Hearing [the] stories on how they get threatened, the women who get abused because they try to stand up to their husbands … they try to fight for their rights," said Gonzalez, a native of Long Beach, Calif. "It gives me … hope that there are women who actually stepped up to take in the [abused] women."
As the meeting ended one of the staff members stood outside and thanked the service members for the donations and for not forgetting about them.
"The women we met … who are doing this work … really are my heroes," said Erickson. "To do it in the kind of environment like this, where they are receiving threats, death threats on the phone, in the mail, in person … is just incredibly courageous and brave."
The service members said later that the efforts of this small group of women who were trying to help their fellow Afghans gave them hope for the nation's future. They also said that they intended to help the shelter as much as they could.
[Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series titled 'Afghan notebook: Scenes from down range,' which chronicles the community outreach efforts of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command in Kabul, Afghanistan.]
(The 1st Theater Sustainment Command provides command and control of Army deployment and sustainment operations conducted in support of joint and multinational operations across the range of military operations. With its headquarters at Fort Bragg, the 1st TSC provides and manages sustainment operations at bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt and Afghanistan. For more information go to: http://www.bragg.army.mil/1stTSC/Pages/default.aspx, or visit us on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/1stTheaterSustainmentCommand )