“It’s hard to be a girly girl, but I do OK,” said Eckenrod, speaking with The Press by telephone last weekend from Camp Eggers in Kabul. Serving as a finance officer as part of the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, NATO’s 38-nation effort to help the country establish effective self-government, Eckenrod trains members of the Afghan National Army in accounting skills such as audits and payroll budgets.
Life is different in the testosterone-rich atmosphere of the Army in the Middle East, but this situation is tolerable. She’s never been disrespected by fellow soldiers, and she doesn’t find the whistles and catcalls she gets from Afghan nationals offensive.
“The culture here just treats women differently,” she said, noting that locals are sometimes just as surprised as she at the mixing of Western and Middle Eastern cultures. “They’re in awe seeing a female wearing a uniform. They can actually see my eyes. Kids sort of trip over themselves trying to get next to me to take a picture with me.”
Eckenrod’s parents live in Antioch with one of her brothers. Another brother is now in China, while a sister serves overseas in the Air Force. Eckenrod first enlisted in the Army in 1999 “to improve my life and serve my country.” She left the Army in 2003, only to re-enlist when her then-husband joined in 2010. Hand-selected to join the NATO effort, she’s proud to be a part of a “huge mission” to help the country recover after years of war.
“There are amazing people working their hardest here every day,” she said, adding that the public does not have a complete understanding of the effort. “The media tends to sensationalize things instead of looking at the whole picture. Americans are not being educated about what’s going on. Society gets caught up in Facebook, and they don’t pay attention (to the bigger picture). I’m guilty of that, too, sometimes. But there are some really great stories of positive impact here.”
With their NATO partners, Americans are teaching Afghans to build, teach, manage contracts, fly airplanes and replace government practices and infrastructure left over from the Soviet Union’s occupation in the 1980s. The living conditions are the most surprising thing she’s encountered so far.
“There’s no running water, no electricity – it’s really sad,” said Eckenrod. “It’s 60 degrees in Afghanistan during the day right now, and much colder at night. Smoke from wood fires, the only way to heat homes, fouls the air and forces soldiers to do their cardio workouts indoors. “I expected it would be better than it is, but there’s nothing we can do” unless, as Eckenrod believes, Afghans embrace change and play an active role in making it come about.
Security concerns limit her exposure to local culture, but Eckenrod enjoys the weekly mini-bazaars that locals bring to the base and enjoys haggling with merchants whose wares might turn out to be gems worth thousands or worthless hunks of stone.
Since arriving in Kabul, Eckenrod has gotten more accustomed to her surroundings. Trained to avoid improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that can be disguised as taped-up packages or piles of rubbish, she discovered that vigilance is a challenge.
“When I first got here, everything I saw (looked like) an IED. There are taped packages and piles of trash everywhere.” The fact is, she said, “You can’t be trained right until you get here, and have all five senses taking it in at once.”
Eckenrod will return to her Ft. Riley, Kan. base in September, and is looking forward to many of the pleasures she took for granted before leaving, such as driving.
“I want to get in my car and drive, go where I want to go with the windows down and the radio up.” She notes that motoring in Afghanistan is considerably more difficult than in the United States. “A year ago I was the typical American who complains about potholes and when the lights take too long to change. Here there are no lines on the roads, no traffic lights, and no cops enforcing traffic laws. It’s literally insane. I will never complain about potholes or traffic lights again.”
In the meantime, she’ll work her mission as her unit’s motto suggests: “Shohna Ba Shohna” (“Shoulder to Shoulder”). She’ll also keep in mind her position as a role model, both as an American and a woman, for the Afghan people.
“They see us being strong leaders and they might be inspired,” she said. “When they see our success, I think they’re energized to do the same.”
Still, she harbors no illusion: Afghan women have a long way to go before real change arrives. “At least we can increase awareness that there’s another way things can be.”