Opinion

The Afghanistan war, through the eyes of a soldier's wife

To most people, the Afghanistan war conjures images of Taliban fighters and poppy fields. But the image I recall is my toddler son blowing video-chat kisses from home to his daddy and a governor in Afghanistan.

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When you think of the war in Afghanistan, what images come to mind? Taliban fighters? Burqa-clad women? Poppy fields? Debating politicians? War protesters?

The most recent image that comes to my mind is my toddler son blowing kisses to the governor of Shah Wali Kot District.

That affectionate ending to a recent video chat with my husband, a US soldier deployed in Kandahar Province, may seem to be an ironically pleasant way to think about a long and painful war.

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But amid the US troop surge there, and with so much at stake, isn't it also odd to view the war only through the violence-soaked lens of the media?

It's said that Americans have never before been so disconnected from the soldiers who are fighting on their behalf. You can change that. Find a family with a loved one serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Listen to their stories. Learn how they see the war – and how they cope with kin in combat.

It's funny what I'm used to, eight months into my husband's year-long deployment.

Never knowing when he'll be able to call is something I've had to accept. I carry my cellphone 24/7, just in case that call comes.

Sometimes it comes when I'm in a meeting or walking up the stairs with my baby in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other – all while holding an umbrella to shield us from a downpour. I've learned to laugh at these scenarios. What else can I do?

What I haven't gotten used to, nor ever will, are the Army e-mails that notify family members of the latest combat injuries or fatalities. Those e-mails remind me just how real the war is – not that I need a reminder; this is my husband's sixth deployment.

Recently, at his company outpost in southern Afghanistan's Shah Wali Kot District, my husband and the other soldiers got access to Skype. Seeing his face again after many months rejuvenated my spirit and allowed my husband to see his 20-month-old son and vice versa.

After months of looking at photos and listening to his dad on speakerphone, my son clapped and waved as if to say, "Now I can see you; you are real."

The other morning, I received an early phone call from my husband. "Are you able to get to the computer?" he asked, urgently. He explained that the district governor of Shah Wali Kot wanted to thank me for sending over the school supplies that people donated through a school supply drive we launched in December.

I sat in front of the computer, with my squirmy son on my lap. On screen appeared my husband, the governor, and his interpreter, sitting in a row, all three smiling and waving at my little boy.

My husband's company recently helped to open a school in Shah Wali Kot. "If we can get people to donate supplies," he said last December, "the kids won't be standing on the street begging for candy from the soldiers."

After I collected what people generously donated, my father-in-law mailed the many boxes of supplies overseas, and today the children are in school. Other soldiers' family members also did the same.

"The district governor wants you to know," began the interpreter, "that because of those supplies, 200 children who are so very poor now have a school." He went on to explain, "Before your husband came here, the area was so dangerous. Now people are safer and happier."

He also joked about how much the governor and my husband talk to each other: "I just want to go to bed because it's late and they keep talking about how to make this place better." Smiling, he continued, "You know, they are good friends."

They looked at ease with each other; it was fascinating to see. At that moment, I was able to catch a glimpse of my husband's life in Afghanistan. It made me forget, just temporarily, how strenuous having a spouse away at war actually is. The long stretches of time between conversations, along with the worry, fear, and distance, take their toll.

While the deployment isn't over yet, and the unit has seen a lot of tragedy, these soldiers carry on each day and put one foot in front of the other.

In so doing, Shah Wali Kot is gradually building its governance, the area is getting safer, and the children are receiving an education.

I will never know all that my husband has witnessed overseas. But the image of the three of them on my computer screen is how I want to think of him there.

Meanwhile, the evening news often shows only the dark side of war. A roadside bomb or missile strike will always get more attention than quiet, yet far-reaching, acts of diplomacy and nation-building between US soldiers and Afghan civilians.

I witnessed the power of one such act of kindness on my computer screen that morning.

My son doesn't know about war yet. But one day he will study the Afghan war in school. When he does, I'll remind him of the morning he blew kisses to the district governor of Shah Wali Kot and his dad in uniform, next to him.

Georgie Hanlin is an elementary schoolteacher in San Francisco. Her husband is with the 2nd Infantry Division's Stryker Brigade.

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