How to Build a Town

97 flights

19 days

13,000 Afghani guests

These seem like numbers pulled from a baffling middle school math problem where students have to figure out what information is relevant and what should be ignored. But really, they are all pieces of a puzzle that when combined create the blueprint for creating a town from scratch.

Take a reservist military base in the rural Midwest and bring in an interagency team that includes Department of Defense (active and reserves), Department of State (+USAID and Peace Corps staffers on detail), Department of Homeland Security (USCIS, ICE, Coast Guard), FBI, IRC, IOM, Red Cross, Team Rubicon, and a host of contracting companies and their employees.

Take those 13,000 guests and divide them into a north and south neighborhood, both with a military mayor whose team will get to know individuals and families. Have those mayors create neighborhood crews that will spend their days guaranteeing that the guests have their needs met, that everyone is safe and taken care of. Have those teams ensure that guests make it to their medical appointments, the mass vaccination clinic, their resettlement interviews, their clothing distribution opportunities, as well as have access to insulin, diapers, baby formula, and the ubiquitously desired tea. Have those neighborhoods filled not only with young soldiers in uniform but also children kicking soccer balls, flying kites, creating swings with bedsheets, and sidewalk art with chalk.

Take those 13,000 guests and billet them in barracks of roughly sixty people per building. Families, ever resourceful, will build out soft walls with eyehooks, wire, and sheets. They will create individual family spaces, pushing twin sized beds together to create larger beds, or moving the bedframes entirely to lay out mattresses on the floor in large, common familial sleeping spaces. They’ll line their shoes up at the edge of their area, maintaining the cultural standards of their left behind homes. They’ll designate one floor of bathrooms for men and the other floor for women and children. They’ll organize cleaning and lifestyle norms across families.

Take those 13,000 guests and assign them DFACs where they can get halal breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. Make food readily available to offset the food insecurity that many of the guests have experienced. Experiment and evolve both recipes and logistics for feeding large families, those with mobility issues, and respecting cultural norms for gender separation. 

Factor in that 13,000 guests means new American babies are born nearly every day. It means birthdays and engagements and even new pregnancies. It means scrapes and bruises and more serious physical and mental medical health concerns. It also means arguments and frustrations. It means processing trauma, both individual and collective. It means integrating religious, cultural, and geographic diversity into a single population.

97 flights.

That’s how, in less than three weeks, you build the largest town in Monroe County, Wisconsin.

That’s how you change the lives of 13,000 Afghan refugees and hundreds of American support staff. 

That’s humanity at its best.

Patriotism as a Verb

Patriotism in America is often loud. And bombastic. There is a certain kind of patriotism that is demonstrated by having a giant flag flying from the back of your pickup truck. By equating a Christian god and country in all things “American.” By loudly proclaiming your fandom of a political leader or party.

This has never been my form of patriotism.

My patriotism is quieter. More personal. My patriotism sees the difficult history of our country but also a future path for all Americans. My patriotism is demonstrated in the work I’ve done over the last decade behalf of our diplomats and their families, people who serve our country overseas, working to create a more just and democratic world. And in the work I did the decade before that as a middle school English teacher, fostering the next generation of civic leaders and decision makers. And in the two years I spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural China, creating individual connections on a grassroots level.

My patriotism is not a display, but an action.

I’ve never discounted my patriotism, but I also don’t use it as a defining character trait. It’s just not something I spent a lot of time considering. Not until I moved to a military base in rural Midwest America that is.

Settling in for three months of service alongside Department of Defense and Homeland Security colleagues, I found a patriotism that I hadn’t recognized in myself before.

In the earliest days of Operation Allies Welcome, as I watched Afghan guests step off of buses into our reception center, having endured days of difficult travel, proceeded by herculean efforts to even make it onto evacuation aircraft, the desire to help these people who had been our allies for twenty years was overwhelming. The feeling of debt to the Afghans who worked at Embassy Kabul in support of our diplomatic mission, to those who served as interpreters for our troops, to those who provided protection to our American colleagues across Afghanistan, and to those who supported our forward operating bases as cafeteria workers, cleaners, and drivers, sat heavily on my heart. Some of these newly arrived guests were fluent in English, earned higher degrees from a variety of western institutions, and lead NGOs, held political office, and headed international schools. Others had little to no formal education, were preliterate in their own language, and had minimal travel experience within Afghanistan, let alone internationally. For many, loading onto a military transport plane was the first time they had ever taken a flight.

As days went by and Operation Allies Welcome evolved from the crisis of standing up a small town nearly overnight and the literal welcoming of guests to Fort McCoy to a more steady state of supporting the needs of the refugees as they work through the resettlement process, the feeling of being called to this work didn’t diminish. Some afternoons I sat alongside Afghan women leaders who wanted to talk about how many days it had been since the Taliban had allowed young girls to go to school and about how they could get access to the internet needed to continue their work in support of vulnerable Afghans at home. Other days I participated in conversations with groups of college-aged young women who were getting ready to continue their educations as universities across the United States. We talked about what college in the U.S. is like, but also about their obligations to support their fellow young women. Most of these young ladies opted to not wear headscarves, but some still did. We talked about choice and how in the United States, both of those options are valid and highly personal. I told them about how I too was raised in an extremely conservative and controlling religion and how I cried the first time I went in public in a tank top, not because it wasn’t what I wanted, but because decades of having someone else dictate how I presented my body to the world was hard to just push aside. We had open and vulnerable conversations about what it means to be a woman, to have choices, to give consent, to dream big dreams and to support each other in those ambitions.

Week turned to months. Weekend after weekend passed without a day off. And yet, I had no desire to be anywhere else. Fort McCoy was the best way I knew how to show appreciation to these people who were decades-long allies of the United States. But it was also how I knew to show gratitude to my fellow Department of State colleagues- all those who had served at mission. They had personal connections to the people, the culture, and the country and by supporting OAW, I supported them.

I own exactly one piece of clothing with an American flag on it (a jacket, that I overpaid immensely for at the Fort McCoy PX, but would have paid double that because I was freezing one afternoon!).  I don’t play Lee Greenwood on loop on Independence Day. And I am always willing to have a frank conversation about where our country can and should do better. Patriotism isn’t about stars and stripes on your shirt. It isn’t about how loudly you can proclaim your loyalty to a leader who has created a cult of personality. It’s welcoming new refugees into your community and into your kids’ school. It’s learning about your neighbors and their culture and traditions. It’s about making tomorrow better than today.

Patriotism may grammatically be a noun.

But in practice, it’s a verb.

Breaking Point

The chirp of a dying smoke detector.

That was my emotional breaking point.

Not the day I thought I had thoroughly screwed up a local staff employee’s job out of Embassy Kabul. Not the day I sat with a young woman as she told me she thought she was pregnant while the father of her baby was back in Afghanistan and had not been heard from in weeks. Not when we faced the possibility of measles or drug resistant tuberculosis within our guest population. And not when I sat with guests as they told their stories of escape and survival to a variety of press outlets.

None of these secondary traumas on a military base broke me the way a dying smoke detector in Pentagon City did.

After ninety days at Fort McCoy, working long, stressful hours, carrying the weight of 13,000 refugees and their stories, I arrived back in my DC-area apartment, tired to the bone and harboring the tell-tale signs of a head cold. Wanting nothing more than to eat the chicken and macaroni lovingly put in my fridge by a friend earlier in the day, I walked into my home, dropped by two oversized duffle bags and prepared to flop down on the new couch that had been delivered in my absence. I am not sure my rear had even hit the couch cushion before the undeniable chirp of the alarm squealed in my ear.  

As I looked around the apartment, searching for the source of the godforsaken chirp, my eyes landed on the flat plastic disk sitting flush with the ceiling of my living room. Normally, my super high ceilings are a bonus to my small apartment, but when it comes to needing to do maintenance, they quickly become an issue. Tired and wanting nothing more than cheesy carbs (after all, my body was accustomed to fried cheese curds on a regular basis), I dug through the entryway closet to get my stepladder, teetered on the top step and attempted to pull the detector off the ceiling.

Again.

And again.

With no luck.

It would rotate slightly, but with no leverage and balancing on a wobbly ladder in socks, progress eluded me. Worried that breaking it would set off the alarm to the entire building, I hopped down and called the front desk, not wanting to be the reason eighteen floors of people had to evacuate their homes on a cold Saturday evening.

Of course, on a weekend night, there are no maintenance folks on the premise. The lovely concierge promised me that whatever I did would not set off the alarms for the entire building and offhandedly mentioned that whatever I broke could be fixed on Monday.

I took this as the green light to do whatever I needed to do to get the chirping to stop.

Whatever I needed to do.

Back up the stepladder I went, this time with a screwdriver and a hammer in hand. Leveraging the disk off the ceiling a few centimeters, I was able to slide my fingers under it and pull hard enough to get it to come off, only to discovered it was connected by a bunch of red and black wires. Remembering the less than subtle message from the front desk, I used my screwdriver to loosen all the wires and with a bit of a yank, the entire apparatus fell off the ceiling and into my hands. (The hammer turned out to be unneeded, but you never know…)

Standing there, finally in silence, my eyes darting between the plastic pieces in my hand and the wires dangling from my ceiling, I couldn’t help but feel a comradery with the smoke detector. It was just doing its job (and to be fair, doing it well) and I broke it. I didn’t want to tear it off the ceiling- I would have gladly run to CVS for a battery if that would have done the trick, but in a moment of crisis, we each did the best we could.

On Monday, the very kind maintenance man came to my apartment and asked no questions about the many plastic pieces on my kitchen counter. He just competently reconnected the wires and reinstalled the disk on the ceiling, leaving with a wave and a smile as I was in my den on a work call.

While the smoke detector was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, it was also a metaphor for my time in Wisconsin. (What English teacher wouldn’t love both an overused idiom AND a metaphor only relatable to about a dozen readers in a single essay?) But, in many ways, that was Fort McCoy for me. I gave everything to that mission for ninety days, came home a little broken, needing a battery recharge, but fixable.

Changed

Ninety days.

It can be a lifetime.

It can be a moment.

It can be both of these at the same time.

And it can change everything.

In late-August, I got a phone call from the Department of State, asking if I’d be willing to go to a yet-to-be-determined military base in support of our evacuation of Afghan citizens out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. I said yes, thinking it would be an interesting professional opportunity and a good way to use the crisis management and community building skills I’ve fostered over my years of CLO-ing to support my Department colleagues and the allies who served our mission overseas for the last twenty years. I thought I would pop in, do some good work for a few weeks, and then go home and continue living/working the COVID-era life I had been for the last year.

I was wrong.

Those ninety days forever changed my world.

I am changed by the unforgettable images of our allies getting off planes in rural Wisconsin without shoes, with bruises and burns from fighting their way passed the Taliban and into the Kabul airport, with just the clothes on their backs, bags left behind as people were prioritized over packages.

I am changed by my daily conversations with our Afghan guests, many of whom directly supported our country over the last two decades. These allies fed, protected, and interpreted for our armed forces and then were forced to flee because their service to us put them and their families in danger. I will forever carry their fear and doubt as they look to rebuild lives in a foreign land, a place where they are uncertain of the welcome they will receive, where they don’t speak the language, don’t understand the unwritten rules of day-to-day life, and will be forced to rely on the goodness of others to put together new, and hopefully brighter, futures. Balancing that anxiety and apprehension, I will also carry with me the joy and gratitude of mothers when I told them that not only were their young daughters allowed to go to school, but that attendance was compulsory- that their girls would go to the same math classes, the same English classes, the same PE and music classes as their brothers. Conversations where I explained that America’s public school system would provide an equal education to all of their children, building pathways for both boys and girls to higher education and to skills training, opportunities that would essentially hand the keys of success to this next generation were highlights of my time on base.

I am changed by the stories shared with me over drinks at the base bar. Listening to DoD colleagues tell their stories of their time in Afghanistan, of the redemptive nature of this mission, of how they see Operation Allies Welcome as chance to repay the debts that they personally and the U.S. government as a whole accrued over the last two decades on the ground in Afghanistan. I watched a military colleague reunite with his interpreter and open his home as a place of refuge. I listened to an officer, with shining eyes, talk about how seeing the Afghan kids playing soccer on a military base is healing and creates a way forward for him, as well as for those young people who will be our next teachers and doctors and lawmakers.

I am changed by the strength of dedicated and educated women from Kabul who coalesced into a cohort that met weekly to talk about the needs of the refugees, but also how they could continue their work for underrepresented and vulnerable Afghan populations. I was honored to listen as strong Afghan women pushed visiting U.S. Congresswomen on points of feminism, education, and support for their initiatives, asking them to hold firm against the Taliban. Rather than wanting to talk about the dining facilities and recreational opportunities, the things the Congresswomen came ready to explore, these government, NGO, and educational leaders wanted to be clear that while their gratitude for the American evacuation is immense, they are Afghani and will return as soon as it is safe for the to do so. They will go back. They will rebuild. They will not give up on the country they love.

I am changed by my interagency team members. I learned to trust and rely on my Department of Defense colleagues. I am awed by their ability to quickly leverage resources in a time of crisis and by the deep care and concern they showed on a daily basis for our guests. I also learned to push back when I had a different point of view as those colleagues, or when I had a concern for an individual/group that I felt needed prioritized over base leadership’s set plan. I learned to identify rank on a uniform, but also that a uniform doesn’t mean unchecked authority and that my position, while not worn on my chest, carried a weight of its own. I learned that Red Cross can and will make things happen when they see a need, but also that they are temporary and we have to say goodbye sooner than either side would like. And I learned that DHS is a far-reaching agency that capably took over as lead federal agency and that the Coast Guard brings an impressive skillset to the table.

I am changed by the colleagues who quickly crossed the line into lifelong friends. Together, we celebrated the ups and downs of our personal and professional lives. One passed the Foreign Service oral exam and one received an invitation to the next Foreign Service training course- both huge accomplishments that I was honored to be able to celebrate with them. One found out his wife was expecting their third child. One needed a wedding dress, so five of us loaded into an SUV and headed to Chicago to buy something pretty and white and lacey. (We also threw axes, drank expensive champagne, toured a distillery, shut down two different bars on Halloween eve, ate Argentinian empanadas, legit Japanese ramen, Mexican food truck offerings and cold pizza delivered to the Airbnb at 5AM. And then did cultural penance for the extravaganza of Halloween eve with a visit to a prestigious art museum.) We may have stepped away from our lives for ninety days, but the world kept moving us forward.

I am changed by evenings sitting in a hotel lobby, each of us searching for a way to take our minds off of the powerful but emotionally exhausting work of the day. I’m changed by the conversations over microwave dinners off plastic plates we all bought at Wal-Mart, dressed in leggings and fuzzy sweaters, drinking a variety of increasingly stronger beverages from hotel-provided paper cups. I’m a better person because of long chats on the couch with someone who started as a stranger and ended up more than that. I see the world differently because of hours of sitting on the lobby floor, having my hair braided and unbraided by a colleague as she talked about her dramatic evacuation from her Peace Corps site in the very earliest days of the global COVID lockdown.

I am changed by ninety days of grueling hours, only three days of which I did not work. (See Chicago shenanigans above for two of those days.)

I am changed by the stories of our Afghan guests.

I am changed by the relationships with my State Department and interagency colleagues.

And I am changed by the choices in my own life.

I am changed.

Let’s Talk About This Offline: Unpacking Banned Books

  1. Untitled Episode
  2. Unpacking Season One!
  3. Unpacking Marriage, Moving and the Foreign Service
  4. The Backpack Part 2: Cairo, Egypt
  5. Unpacking Special Education Abroad with Shelley Hawkes