"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"