In the ever-dangerous Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, an old woman living in a mud brick house rushed over to California Army National Guard Spc. Barbara Kizer.
Kizer was in the midst of an 11-month deployment as part of an Army cultural support team working in battle zones with U.S. special forces. She was packed with military gear and well armed with an M-4 carbine, a pistol, knife and hand grenade.
But the woman saw that Kizer had doffed her helmet and donned the hijab headscarf of Afghan women. Her fascination overcame her fear. She grabbed Kizer’s hand and kissed her, repeatedly, on the forehead.
“I love you, I’m so glad you’re here,” she said in Arabic, stroking Kizer’s hair and quickly sizing up the Rancho Cordova mother of two, who was on special assignment to connect with Afghan women and children. “You are a beautiful woman. You should have more children.”
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Kizer, 33, who finished her deployment in Afghanistan last year, is one of more than 2 million U.S. military personnel who’ve served in Afghanistan or the Iraq war. But she is just one of four California guard members who participated in a select Army program in which female soldiers serve as conduits to Afghan women – for whom speaking to men outside their family is regarded as a cultural sin.
The Army program, founded in 2009, came with both a military and a humanitarian objective. The aim has been to foster relationships with families, often in poor, remote villages in battle zones close to the Pakistani border. U.S. forces have worked to secure towns and build trust by helping Afghans connect with services from medical care to farming assistance.
For Kizer, the assignment – for which she applied and underwent training at Fort Bragg, N.C. – was filled with reward and peril. Female soldiers in the cultural support units have been credited with building relationships with Afghan women that have provided critical information on the stability of local communities, on military threats and on helping local citizens develop what Kizer described as “Afghan answers to Afghan problems.”
Yet, as Kizer was helping child burn victims get medical care or connecting with families working with international aid groups to plant winter wheat instead of opium, she was a soldier in a war zone. Working in two-woman teams, the Army cultural support units were assigned to special forces, including U.S. Army Rangers and Green Berets.
At least two women assigned to Army cultural support teams have been killed. Army Lt. Ashley White Stumpf, 24, of Alliance, Ohio – one of Kizer’s training partners at Fort Bragg – was killed by an improvised explosive device while assigned to a special-operations task force in October 2011. Last month, Capt. Jennifer Moreno, 25, an Army nurse and cultural support team member from San Diego, was killed along with three other soldiers during a night raid by Army Rangers on a Taliban compound. She was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in a battle zone.
The teams’ often valuable connections with Afghan women and families started with tense encounters as Kizer and fellow cultural support soldiers conducted searches and frisks to ensure that the grounds they were operating on were secure.
“You needed to have a delicate balance about you – where you could empathize with people and at the same time be prepared to pull the trigger, to say it brutally,” Kizer said.
While badly missing her own two children while serving overseas, Kizer came to see herself as providing “a human dynamic” – once poignantly so for a frightened and badly burned 5-year-old Afghan girl.
Kizer said the girl had suffered burns from her “heels to her earlobes” from a family cooking fire. A male military medic had treated the girl, but that made her grandfather deeply uncomfortable. The grandfather agreed to bring her back to see the female cultural support team. He brought her in a wheelbarrow. The girl was in pain and distress.
“She was so scared she was shaking,” Kizer said. Kizer and her partner gave the child two Beanie Babies – a duck and a bear – that the girl clutched tightly as they applied pain-relieving burn cream. With help from an interpreter, they comforted her. They made her laugh.
“I knew then that our effect on her was going to last the rest of her life,” Kizer said.
Tall and strong-shouldered, Kizer, who had previously served in the Army before enlisting in the National Guard, is a “fitness bug,” an avid kayaker, hiker and mixed-martial-arts fighter. In Afghanistan, she was ever the curiosity, drawing all manner of questions from the women and girls she encountered.
“Does she eat man vitamins?” one young woman asked as Kizer’s team visited one Afghan village.
“Yes,” Kizer replied. “Definitely I do.”
Behind the exchanges, Kizer said, the female soldiers were providing a “temperature gauge” on the state of Afghan communities in the war zone. They solicited information on local governance, health clinics or schools and on aid resources that both Afghan agencies and international organizations could offer to promote local opportunity and stability.
They interacted with children. They asked women in the villages what the men were thinking – often critical knowledge for U.S. troops operating in the region. And they tried to ease fears over the presence of helmet-wearing, flak-jacketed and heavily fortified U.S. troops who Kizer said could appear to the locals “as scary machines and robots.”
“Barbara and her fellow sisters were able to forge relationships with women that brought valuable information and help their communities prosper,” said Brandon Honig, a spokesman for the California Army National Guard. “Establishing those relationships, as an outside force coming in, helped the Afghans to see us in a different light.”
Kizer is now back home, working full-time with the state Guard’s Veterans Honors Program and providing support for funeral and graveside honors for California service members from all military branches. She is delightedly reunited with her 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
She also feels transformed by her experience, including memories of the children she encountered in Afghanistan, starting with the 5-year-old burn victim, whom she enticed from tearful fear to laughter.
“Seeing all those children every day, it changed me as a mother,” Kizer said. “It changed me as a person. I came back home with a bigger picture and a lot more empathy.”