Melissa Pritchard followed her restless heart to Afghanistan. What she discovered there was one young soldier who changed her life. A story of friendship, love, and war.
When I was 9, I ran away. I was soon discovered a few blocks from home by a supercilious, sneering neighbor boy nobody much liked named Eddie. He marched me back to my mother but not before the shock of that short freedom, the vastness of the world, and the mixed mercies of people caring about me had all made a deep impression.
Now I was running again, this time from my own life. On the fifth anniversary of my father's death, my mother had suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed; she died ten months later, in April 2008. I flew to Hawaii that autumn and scattered handful after handful of my parents' mingled dust into the Pacific Ocean they had loved.
Death, I discovered, uncorks sentimentality. I made myself throw out the pair of shoes my dad had been wearing the day he died (what was I going to do? bronze them? wear them?) though I kept a lock of my mother's dyed, champagne-colored hair. I had locks of my children's hair, too—two daughters now with homes of their own, lives of their own. I was a professor at a large university, a published novelist, a successful, self-sufficient woman. But waking up every morning to a large, empty house was a new, unexpected shriving. I felt as if my skeleton were gone, as if I had been filleted, deboned. I was standing, but barely. Wearing an exoskeleton of books, accomplishments, and titles, I fled to a children's poetry project in the brothels of Calcutta, then to an all-women's medical mission in Ecuador. After that, who knew? I was drawn to places of suffering that surpassed my own.
I didn't think about any of this rationally. This was not self-awareness. I was simply an old, old child orphaned by death, a mother with unneeded mothering skills, an ex-wife with decades of memories, not all of them bad. A woman bereft, floundering, ashamed of her weakness, fearful for her future, beginning with the next five minutes.
It was January 2009, and I had managed to keep my next destination and assignment, as an embedded journalist interviewing female soldiers, a secret from my daughters. With body armor purchased online, military-issue winter underwear, notebooks, tape recorder, vitamins, stale PowerBars, and a nagging conscience, I arrived at Bagram Airfield, 47 kilometers north of Kabul, and sent a quick e-mail from the media operations office, letting my children know I was now in Afghanistan, under the protection of the U.S. Air Force. I would, I promised, be safely home in two weeks.
Pritchard arrives in Afghanistan, and joins a convoy of armored Humvees heading through the Hindu Kush
Under leaden winter skies, nine air force and army soldiers, bulky with gear and weapons, waited on rain-darkened gravel near tan, mud-splashed Humvees to begin the drive north to their small forward operating base (FOB) in Panjshir Province. The youngest, Air Force Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman, 21, stood beside me in camouflage uniform with pistol, carbine, knife, heavy boots, and helmet, explaining that as a vehicles "op" (short for vehicle operator dispatcher), she maintained and drove Humvees, Land Cruisers, "whatever has wheels." She added that she couldn't wait to drive one of the newer Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected all-terrain vehicles, a paleolithic-looking monster built to survive roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and ambushes. A former supply truck driver on mine-infested roads in Iraq, Goodman was about two months into her new deployment in this relatively peaceful, "model" province.
Established in 2005 by combined American military, civilian, and NATO forces, the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), working closely with the Afghan people, was responsible for diverse humanitarian efforts, from medical clinics and vaccination programs to schools and engineering and agricultural projects. Although at the time its 70-member team was the smallest of the 26 PRT sites throughout Afghanistan, FOB Lion was considered a showcase. I was going there to write about the five female soldiers on that team.
My initial impression of the diminutive, blue-eyed, athletic Sr. Airman Goodman that bleak afternoon at Bagram was of a wholesome G.I. Jane action figure come to life. She'd missed her dream of becoming a fighter pilot, she later told me, by being one inch under air force height requirement.
Vaulting lightly into the driver's seat of an armored Humvee, Goodman, as she liked to be called, secured her helmet and eye shield, adjusted her radio, and gave a wisecrack rallying cry, "All right, let's kick anus!" as we pulled out of Bagram, a three-vehicle convoy heading to FOB Lion, about 120 kilometers north, in the Hindu Kush mountains. Goodman's acronym-laced patter over the radio, her belting out of lines from Bon Jovi's "Never Say Die" ("I love that song," she says. "It pretty much defines my view of life: Never quit, death is just a part of life, and brotherhood and camaraderie are paramount") distracted me from morbid musings on the odds of our being blown up by an IED, a stark possibility made plain in an earlier briefing. When I wasn't trying to see out of the grimy porthole window, I was admiring Goodman's expert handling of her armored Humvee. IEDs, buried beneath roads, and vehicle-borne IEDs, often suicide bombs, were the main cause of military casualties in Afghanistan, but Goodman's courage and calm skill gave an illusion of safety. My survival was in her young hands.
It seemed unlikely this soldier and I would find any personal connection. Mine was a comfortable, private life of travel, writing, and teaching, hers a life of service in a war zone, little privacy or comfort, a stringent, daily regimen of monotony and risk. We were generations apart. Yet in the five days I spent with Goodman, I found that beneath her veneer of military protocol and discipline, beneath her bravado, kill-talk, and cussing, she was surprisingly vulnerable, coltish. She was also ravenous for adventure. As we drove from one PRT mission to the next in this harsh, mountainous province, visiting medical clinics, a fledgling radio station, a girls' school, an international aid drop, I learned she was earning a degree in biology, planned to be a veterinarian, was an amateur photographer and an aspiring author, writing "little stories," she said, to relieve stress. She had just started Rosetta Stone Spanish lessons and confessed to missing bubble baths. She had a tattoo on her left forearm, Studium Nunquam Intereo—"spirit never dies."
Wondering how much of Goodman's tough-girl act was a coping mechanism, I asked about the difficulties of being a young woman and a wartime soldier. "Balancing my femininity within a male-dominated military has actually posed a problem," she told me. "I always feel that I have to prove myself. It's like I have two personas: my butch military side and my dorky, girlie side—it's a constant struggle."
I had no doubt Goodman would prove fearless in battle, and it was humbling to know she would give her life to protect mine, a stranger's. Yet civilian life presented its own battles; it was from these, as well as her own self-doubt, that I wanted to protect her.
"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"
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"
Later that night, after dinner, she sat close beside me in the chow hall, examining photographs on my digital camera, images from recent trips to India, Scotland, Italy, France, England. As she asked about the people and places in the pictures, she confessed her desire to travel the world, to see it all—and the frank hunger and hope on her thoughtful, unmarked face moved me.
"Ashton, you're so young. You have lots of time."
Handing the camera back to me, she said, "I want to go to Africa."
After I returned home, we kept in touch. When I asked to read some of her work, she e-mailed two of her "humble writings," signing off with an embarrassed "Eek, Ashton." Emotional honesty was the hardest thing to teach writing students; her stories were bold, unflinchingly truthful. "You have an absolute gift," I wrote back. "I'm excited to read your books," she answered.
It was April now, springtime, and Ashton e-mailed photographs—an Afghan mother holding her newborn daughter, a puppy the soldiers had adopted, a pale, downy cluster of baby chicks, and panoramic views of the richly green, lush Panjshir Valley. In our interview, she had talked about her time in Iraq as a driver for line haul convoys, routing supplies on IED-infested roads. "One of our guys was killed by a mine, and I was the first to know," she told me. "I wasn't supposed to tell anyone, so I was just walking around with this knowledge. After people were informed, I became one of the comforters. Afterward, it was really bad. We'd have to drive every day on the same road where it had happened, see the bomb hole, the trail of his blood. I went through a period of being really shaken up, stressed-out, shaking, scared. Then I knew it was about fate, God, coincidence. When it was my time, it was my time. After that I wasn't scared." The most surprising thing about the mission in Panjshir, she went on, was how peaceful it was. She didn't have to be as guarded or as afraid of the people: "It's unlikely any of them has a bomb strapped to his chest."
Assigned by her PRT commander to serve on women's affairs, Ashton had begun attending weekly meetings, or shuras, with local Afghan women. She told me that she was impressed by their intelligence and tenacity. "It infuriates me that women here are treated as second-class citizens. I'd like to see a woman with her own shop, a woman doctor. It will take generations, though. They need infrastructure, schools, clean water, clean places to slaughter animals rather than by the side of the road. I'd really like to come back here in 20 years and show my kids how we helped."
Early in May, she invited me to be a friend on Facebook, a form of communication I was new to, ambivalent about, but willing to try. She added me to her personal e-mail list along with her parents, her little brother, Levi, and her boyfriend, David. We all got to read and congratulate her on her first publication, "Panjshir PRT Medics Improve Medical Sanitation," an article on the U.S. Air Force Web site.
In a private e-mail, she described a brief trip home. "I did go on leave in March. It was a relief to get away, even though I love it here. The tension and stress were starting to get to me, and I was cranky and irritable. When I got back, I was my normal self again. The hardest part about being home was getting used to the complete freedom. I could wear what I wanted, shower without flip-flops, wear my hair down. I cried a lot, too. Home is a place for me to heal. It felt good to get it all out and have my mom hold me while I did. I'm still a momma's girl and always will be. Love, Ashton."
It was May 29, and I had worked all day on my article. I'd spent most of the afternoon revising, trying to capture Ashton's seemingly contradictory passion for Disney movies (her favorites were The Little Mermaid and The Lion King) and her tastes in music—techno, heavy metal, JPop (Japanese pop), and especially European power metal. "The lyrics are awesome because they always talk about being proud warriors like they're freaking ancient Celts fighting for the motherlands..."
"Sometimes we run away to be reclaimed, to be reassured that if we are not wholly understood, at least we are loved"
Tired but still thinking about Ashton—had I gotten her right?—I went into my kitchen, began to scroll idly through Facebook, skimming the bright chatter of friends, before stopping cold at what had to be a callous joke, a notice posted by the Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Centers: Sr. Airman Ashton Lynn Marie Goodman, 21, of Indpls., died May 26, 2009, while serving in Afghanistan. She was born June 14, 1987 at Beale Air Force Base, CA. Ashton was in the U.S. Air Force 43rd Airlift Wing serving as a driver for Panjshir (Afghanistan) Provincial Reconstruction Team. She was a... Abruptly, the notice stopped. Beside it was an official air force photograph, stamp-sized, of a barely recognizable Ashton, in dark blue dress uniform and peaked cap, looking like some nostalgic 1940s, studio-lit version of herself. Numb with shock, I clicked over to her page to prove it was a joke, a mistake, but found only grieving messages from family, friends, her boyfriend, David. Crying now, frantically clicking for details, facts, calling a military friend in Afghanistan, calling local friends, still fastened to the Internet, I located the Department of Defense casualty list and found the official air force announcement saying that she had died near Bagram Airfield of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device.
I returned to her Facebook page, staring blindly at accumulating condolences. There were details of the funeral. The burial. Donations could be made to the World Wildlife Fund. Her father wrote that he had flown to Dover Air Force Base and "brought his pumpkin home." I responded with a short, stumbling sympathy note. I read every anguished message from David, fighting somewhere in Afghanistan, unable to attend Ashton's ceremony at Bagram Airfield, where her body was formally loaded onto a transport plane home.
The moon is lonesome without you, but I look at it each night as it rises and see you staring back at me. I hope you are at peace. I miss you baby. Always fighting strong for your dreams, my little hummingbird. —David
My mother had always loved birds, especially hummingbirds. She had promised to send me a sign, once she had passed, that her spirit was still alive; hours after her death, a hummingbird hovered at my window, looking in at me for an unmistakably long time. I called to my sister to come see this tiny, iridescent creature shimmering in midair, gazing at us through the glass, its wings beating up to 80 times per second, backward and forward, in the symbol for infinity. The hummingbird returned the next day and again on the third morning as I sat in the garden praying to my mother for help, for comfort—it came, jeweled messenger, shaking the air inches from my face before darting away. I never saw it again.
Ashton was killed less than three weeks before her 22nd birthday. The birthday package David sent to Panjshir was returned, unopened. One of the first things he will do once he returns home to Indiana is find the tall pine tree Ashton lies buried beneath and share with his little hummingbird the gift he had chosen to delight her.
Sometimes we run away to be reclaimed, to be reassured that if we are not wholly understood, at least we are loved. When I came home, my daughters let it be known how worried they had been, shocked and even hurt that their mother would go somewhere, anywhere, without asking or even telling them. I had left home like an impetuous child, wanting to be found. Instead I had found Ashton and was opened to love beyond my familiar, given circle.
There are three photographs of Ashton I keep returning to. The first, taken days before her death, shows her sitting in a circle with Afghan women, wearing her favorite blue hijab, rainlike sparkles along the hem, her face turned to the camera, smiling serenely, as if telling the world she is glad to be fighting for justice with words now, not weapons. She looks like she does in most of her pictures—a bit indifferent to, or unsure of, her own prettiness. And it may have been the lighting, but in this photo, one of her last, she looks calm, radiant, ethereal.
Hardest to look at is the newswire image I had come across online: Ashton's remains in a flag-draped transfer case being lowered from a transport plane at Dover Air Force Base.
Finally, there is the photograph she chose for her Facebook home page: Ashton, balanced lightly on the edge of a cliff overlooking Panjshir Valley, arms raised high, lifted in a triumphant "Yes!" to life. Beneath the photo, this caption:
Don't forget to send me some love!!!! My address is Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman PRT Panjshir, APO AE 09354 I love getting cards and stuff in the mail. :):):):):)
Melissa Pritchard is the author of eight books, including Disappearing Ingenue and Late Bloomer (both Anchor), and a forthcoming story collection, The Odditorium. She teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
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