I departed Kabul to make the journey out to Herat province in western Afghanistan, my new home for perhaps the remainder of this year.
I had no aversions to the mission as Herat is more than 2,700 years old, situated in a fertile valley near the Hari River and has still-standing remains of the times of Alexander the Great. When already tasked with a deployment to Afghanistan, who wouldn’t want to capitalize on the ability to see such a historical place?
However, just like everywhere else in this country, there is a serious mission at hand and this is not a vacation by any stretch of the imagination.
After a brief stop in Mazar-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan, we traveled on a Canadian C-130 to Camp Arena, where I am augmenting the Regional Command-West Public Affairs office and serving as the only American public affairs specialist there.
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This is only a temporary assignment for me, and I’m only here in Herat to fill a gap between the departed Public Affairs Officer until the new one arrives around Christmas. I’m excited about any challenge that comes my way.
Today was my first full day in Herat and I came across a mother and child with whom my encounter will set the tone of my brief tour in Herat — I hope.
While walking the camp, I came across the mother and her son outside the camp’s medical clinic. The boy was small, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, but seemed to be bravely sitting among a group of Italian soldiers while his sister was being cared for by a medical professional inside.
As I passed by, I met eyes with the child and noticed he looked quite thirsty, so a French photographer friend and I went to get him some bottles of water from a nearby morale tent. Inside the tent, we also found a basket with assorted candy in it, so we grabbed a handful each and then returned to the medical clinic.
The boy and his mother were still there, though the group of Italians had since dispersed. My French friend, Staff Sgt. Romaine Beaulin-ette, and I sat beside the boy and Sgt. Beaulinette offered him the bottle of water.
The boy quickly took the water and drank a few big gulps. He then motioned toward his mother.
Knowing better than to approach his mother directly, I handed my bottle of water to him and motioned for him to give it to his mother. Though her face was covered by her blue burka, I received her notion of thanks by a slight nod of her head. The part of the burka around her mouth loosened a bit, but her face remained well covered.
We sat with the boy for a few minutes unable to communicate but watched in delight as he enjoyed a bottle of clean water. We also offered him the candy, which he gladly took. Though I can’t be certain to the assumption, he handed half of his candy to his mother and I assume he wanted his sister to have it later that day.
He seemed obliged to be the man of the house that moment, and if his generation can endure these struggles, perhaps there’s hope.
When Sgt. Beaulinette and I got up to leave, the boy and his mother also stood up. He gave us each a high five and then a 'thumbs-up! I crossed my arm over my chest, palm toward my chest, to show respect toward his mother. I did not look her directly in the eye. To my notion, she returned a head bow, this time deeper than her previous bow.
Something caught my eye and has stuck with me. Her burka was still a bit loose, and while she bowed, I caught a slight glimpse of her mouth. Possibly it was my imagination or perhaps it was a shadow cast by the midday sun, but I swear that under that burka there was a smile.
I don’t doubt that the women of Afghanistan smile and am not surprised by that notion at all. However, that was our smile — a small bit of joy that my friend and I generated for this mother and her child.
I’m not naive enough to believe this tour in Herat will be all positive and offer no downsides. But, when days go awry and people I care about suffer, that will be the smile I’ll remember. The smile under the burka will keep me going.
This is another in a series of Tech Sgt. Kevin Wallace’s columns that we will feature in Voices.
Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace is a U.S. Air Force photojournalist serving in Afghanistan. He was born in San Luis Obispo and attended Cuesta College.