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"
Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs


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