I helped Afghan women seek maternity care. I’m worried about what happens to these mothers and children.
Inside a clinic in eastern Afghanistan, a nine-month-old Afghan woman was shaking on an old metal bed when an Afghan midwife examined her. It was 2012, and the war in Afghanistan had already been going on for 11 years. The woman had just traveled from a remote village along the Pakistani border and was looking for a safe place to give birth to her third child. After repeated abortions, her family was determined to come to the Afghan government’s sponsored clinic in the district center, where they had heard news of better maternal outcomes.
Part of my job as head of the Cultural Support Team (CST) with special operations in the U.S. military was to inform families like theirs about the clinic. The midwives there could facilitate a safer delivery, which might not have happened otherwise, as when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s. The pregnant patient spent several days at the clinic, waiting for her birth and returning to her village after recovering from work.
When the Taliban entered Kabul and regained control of Afghanistan earlier this month, I was at a baseball game with my son. I frantically searched news reports while fans cheered and my child ate ice cream. I worried about the many Afghans I worked with, like the mother and her family that I had the honor of meeting. What happens to pregnant women and their children? What about the midwives, the clinic and the district? Or the Afghan police and soldiers I served with? At the same time, I felt helpless, unable to do anything at the moment and was guilty of being in a ball game with fans singing along to “God Bless America” while this other country I was interested in fell apart .
For 10 months in 2012, I was stationed near the Afghan-Pakistani border as a CST program set up when the military realized that after nearly a decade of war, it was a problem that not all male combat units were able to interact with Afghan female population. Our team did a number of things, but one of our goals was to make it safer for women to travel to and from the clinic. We also went from village to village and informed everyone about the clinic’s possibilities – such as how it could provide medicine, vaccinations, prenatal care and a safe place to give birth to their babies and get under the watchful eye of trained doctors.
Our CST was for the most part met with curiosity, as almost none of the locals had ever seen an American woman before. Only when rebels were nearby were the locals distant. As a tribal community, Pashtuns pride themselves on their commitment to Pashtunwali, a code of ethics and way of life defined by laws, culture and tradition where hospitality is deeply valued. When we met with midwives most weeks, we sat knee to knee on a red blanket covering the clinic’s cold tiles and discussing the stories of the pregnant patients over cups of chai.
Our CST’s relationship with the midwives was critical because they had daily interaction and access to the female population and knew what type of support the women needed from the government. Together we would talk about villages they and the women avoided, or which villagers never came to the clinic because they were too afraid of reprisals from nearby rebels, which helped us understand the threats the women in the district faced.
But now that the Taliban are controlling the country, I worry about these women and what will become of these clinics. While the Taliban say so they will respect the rights of women (within the framework of Islamic law), their history of violence combined with recent reports on women are forced into marriage with Taliban fighters and being attacked for trying to flee the country at the airport makes me doubt.
Like many citizens, the opinion of veterans about America’s involvement in Afghanistan varies. Many of my friends are saddened by our rapid withdrawal and the lack of planning to evacuate them in distress. Many of them have sent me messages about how gloomy and unreal the situation feels. Some feel completely powerless. Their worries reflect my own frustrations and heartache. Since Biden announced that the United States was withdrawing from Afghanistan, I have been busy helping our allies get out of the country. But when Kabul fell, I felt totally worn out. I have found myself cycling through the various stages of grief: disbelief that the Taliban rose so fast, anger at our country’s lack of coordinated efforts to save and help our Afghan allies, and depression over feeling I am too far away for actual power change.
But I choose not to let these feelings of hopelessness consume me. That night, after holding back tears at the baseball game, I returned home, sat down at my laptop, and got back to work. In recent weeks, I have partnered with an inspiring team of veterans and civilians to help our Afghan allies be evacuated. Together, we have filled out paperwork, applied for visas and coordinated efforts to get people to Kabul airport and flights out of the country. There have been days I have broken down and cried over the sheer chaos of it all, as after hearing the news of it 13 US service members and at least 90 Afghans were killed in a suicide bomb orchestrated by ISIS-K. Other times I have been inspired by the work. All I can do is hope that our efforts trickle down and reach those who need it most.
Jackie Munn is a West Point candidate and former Army Captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. After her service, Jackie became a nurse and writer.