ashton goodman
Goodman discussing education with Afghani women, May 2009
On my second day in Panjshir, headed back to FOB Lion after visiting a remote medical clinic in the district of Shutol, our two-vehicle convoy of military women and mujahideen guards was caught in a sudden blizzard. Navigating the dirt road, a slick, hairpin descent, with heavy snow falling and sticking faster than the windshield wipers could clear the glass, Goodman, jaw clenched, half-humming, half-singing a children's song, managed to keep the Land Cruiser from sliding off the road and plunging into a rocky ravine. Concerned about the less-experienced driver behind her ("He's got a wife and new baby at home"), she signaled that she was stopping, braked, then jumped out to help three elderly Afghan men standing beside a rust-eaten sedan, its grille nosed tight into an ochre cleft of the mountainside. Within minutes, Goodman freed the car. Politely thanking her, the men got back into their ancient vehicle and proceeded down the sinuous road, with Goodman, still humming, following behind.

On another day, we stopped for lunch at the only restaurant in Panjshir, a pale green, threadbare café on the riverside, serving typical Afghan fare—kebabs, pilau, and a kind of nan I had never seen—the pieces huge and snowshoe shaped. Goodman grinned as she tore into hers—"I love this stuff," she said. At the end of our meal, the rest of us handed over all of our extra nan, which she happily wrapped in her hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf the five U.S. military women wore as a sign of cultural respect whenever they left the base. Each of the women had a collection of colorful scarves bought in local markets; during my visit, I was given a fringed, amber-colored hijab, which I still have.

Outside the restaurant, Goodman leapfrogged across rocks into the middle of the broad, taupe-colored Panjshir River to pose, mugging and clowning, for pictures. Driving back to the base, she hooted with delight whenever we passed a scatter of scruffy red hens pecking listlessly along the roadside or huddled in a dirt yard. Crazy about birds, especially chickens, she also lavished an almost impish affection on shunned creatures like slugs, frogs, and mice. She unabashedly mothered dogs, birds, babies of all kinds, anything innocent and sweetly alive, and it wasn't hard to imagine what a wonderful mother she would be. When I asked about her boyfriend, she said his name was David, David Flint, and that he was in the army, fighting in Afghanistan. Like her, he was from Indianapolis, and she couldn't wait to get back home to "raise a whole bunch of chickens," since David liked them, too. She didn't want to say much more, reluctant, perhaps, to jinx her future happiness.

On the fourth day, after hiking down a snowy mountain trail to another tiny medical clinic, we sat, five military women, a translator, and I, on floor cushions in an unheated mud-and-straw room, drinking tea with two doctors and a midwife in a black burka, discussing how many babies had been born since the PRT's last visit. Afterward, as we trudged single-file back up to our vehicles, Goodman launched into a snowball fight. Everyone joined in, sniping snowballs at one another, until Goodman, cheeks burning pink, fell backward laughing, scissoring her arms and legs, making an angel, uneven and solitary against the flat expanse of snow.

Even when serious and quiet, Goodman blazed with uncommon energy. On the day before I left Panjshir to return to Bagram, she met me in the base's chilly community room, the last of the interviews for my magazine story. Minus weapons, with her golden brown hair pulled back into a shiny, clubbed ponytail, she looked startlingly young, precociously mature, self-effacing yet eager for the novelty of being interviewed. As she answered questions about her decision to join the military and admitted her hope of being a published writer one day, I watched her surface toughness drop away, saw that she was no different from my own daughters, from the young women who were my university students. Like them, she was eager to create a life that mattered. In that paneled room with its faux-leather black furniture, with an artificial Christmas tree, shorn of ornaments, keeping shadowy watch in one corner, a shy, sudden affection bloomed between us.

"'One of our guys was killed by a mine, and I was the first to know,' she told me"


Next Story