Commentary by Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
AFCENT Combat Camera Correspondent
FORWARD OPERATING BASE URGUN-E, Afghanistan (AFNS) — I have served in the military just shy of a decade. The military has taught me how to find my footing in a traditionally male environment. To that extent, I have rarely felt like an outsider simply because I am a woman. I never would have considered this to be a luxury — that is, not until I began deploying.
I am not a novice traveler. I have journeyed all over Europe and parts of Central America. I felt comfortable with the knowledge that each culture allowed slight differences between the genders. While I grew up around different races and cultures, I never gave much thought to what it took to live a relatively peaceful existence among all these differences.
Feminism in America has opened those doors and torn down all barriers for women well before my time. I have never truly grasped the meaning of overcoming those barriers. Afghanistan taught me just how much impact they would actually have on me.
I was unprepared for the segregation of men and women that I found in Afghanistan on my first deployment in 2006. In some places, you would see clusters of women cloaked in burqas or scarves moving in unison, or I would see a single woman sheltered by two or three men. In some places, I was convinced that the place was completely devoid of a female population. When I would go to recruiting centers or shuras, I was usually the only woman. The confusion or irritation my presence would cause never failed to baffle me.
I was always “one of the boys” growing up. I was a tomboy, to say the least. I didn’t discover makeup until my senior year in high school thanks to my older sister, and I preferred lacrosse to cheerleading. My dad taught me how to box, and I was raised on the principal that if my sister came home with a black eye, I better have one, too.
My childhood memories seemed so normal to me, but Afghanistan taught me the lesson of luxury in things I had taken as commonplace. I never would have thought that laughing with a man who was not my father, brother or husband is taboo. I never would have thought that going to a school filled with boys was not the norm. I became very aware then how much our worlds differed.
In many ways, I finally found my place among women when I went to Afghanistan. Afghan men immediately throw up a wall when a woman is around, and, many times, they will speak to a lower ranking man rather than me. It was very disturbing to me at first. Through interaction with the women, I felt accepted and dignified in a way that I just never felt among the Afghan men.
Whenever I would climb out of a Humvee, it would always cause a sensation because the crowd’s attention would hone in on my blonde hair peaking out from beneath my helmet. Even as I became the center of attention to curious little boys saying, “Mister, mister,” I immediately tuned in to the young girls who would sneak a look at me or the women who would openly stare.
The women’s eyes saw through the pretense of being a soldier and saw just see me as a girl. It became such an honor to see a woman or young girl smile at me. It was a shared smile of secret meaning. It seemed to say to me, “You’re one of us.” Once, when I visited an internally displaced persons camp, a woman allowed me to hold her baby. She threw back the front of her burqa and revealed a smile to me. Once the men came over, the veil immediately fell, and the magic of sharing that moment between women was broken.
Through my deployments here, I have seen how far things have come along. It seems that women are beginning to gain a more solid footing in the traditionally male environment every year.
It was on my latest assignment that I took my place in history by attending a women’s shura. It was the first all-female meeting in Paktika province since NATO forces liberated Afghanistan. The province, bordering Pakistan and a long-time Taliban stronghold, was cloaked in fear of retaliation if they took an active role in restoring their government and securing their freedoms. To that end, the coalition forces have made amazing progress in helping give the Afghans back their home.
Many provinces in Afghanistan have been able to hold women’s shuras already, but they are typically places in which there is less threat of Taliban retaliation. Here, the women know the risks yet are still willing to fight for their right to become active in daily affairs.
Because of the cultural sensitivities, a female engagement team was created to act as liaisons between the local women and influential female Afghan representatives. In order to get a glimpse of this special meeting, an all-female combat camera team was required.
On this deployment, my main role is as a correspondent. However, without a female photographer on hand, I was dual-hatted and assumed the role of photographer as well. Staff Sgt. Amanda Helton is a combat aerial videographer, and together we were able to provide a full compliment of imagery and print for this event’s coverage. Hopefully, we can give the outside world an inside look at the struggles the Afghans are slowly overcoming.
It seems amazing to me that this opportunity gave me the chance to live a first: being a part of an all-female Afghan shura hosted by an all-female military engagement team, covered by an all-female combat camera team.
Through the years, I have seen the impact our military is having on the people of Afghanistan. I have learned that I am not here to change their culture and Westernize it. Even though our mission is to teach Afghans how to overcome their struggles, I learned just how lucky I am to be an American. The freedoms I enjoy, and serve to protect, are luxuries that I never want to see taken from me, both as a person and a woman.