Believe it or not (and I didn’t at first), even flying combat missions in a place as central as my current location turns into Groundhog Day – we have a fairly common mission involving resupply of forward operating bases (FOBs) where the Herk is the biggest aircraft that can squeeze itself onto their short, narrow, often dirt runways. Every once in awhile we get lucky and do something a little bit different, traveling to an unusual airfield or an important person. In January, we got such an opportunity – not only was it unique, but also one that most crews will not experience throughout their entire deployment.
The Afghan Minister of Defense had just completed negotiations with the Pakistan government regarding training collaboration of the two countries’ armed forces and needed a lift out of western Pakistan. Initially, excitement set in: “I get to go to Pakistan!” Then the reality of the trip began to weigh on us. We rearranged our break bags, typically full of the necessities in case our fifty-year-old airplane breaks down in a remote location inside a war zone, to include civilian clothes, a survival must in a country loathe to admit any American military presence within its borders. I included my electronic device chargers, knowing that to get stuck in Pakistan might mean stuck for multiple days while my squadron coordinated foreign clearances required for another crew to come retrieve us. Of all the places to break down, I would have chosen the tiny fields in the middle of nowhere over the well-equipped field in this particular country.
In addition to the anxiety of simply traveling to a “friendly” (interpret as you will) country where angering local officials might be worse than simply acquiescing to their requests, no matter how deranged, loomed the pain of hauling a DV (distinguished visitor in normal language, though for what we do it’s more of a VIP). This always entails a lot of catering to whims, screening off-color conversations, and more wasted time and money than any of us care to admit (trust me). Tensions built as the mission drew near.
Our normal pre-flight briefings included a biography of the Afghan MoD, characterized as finicky, grumpy, and in general less than pleasant company. His attitude towards women is fairly typical of Afghans and Pakistanis alike; not hateful, but to put it tactfully, my aircraft commander excused the females on his crew (three of us at the time) from any interaction with him. At this piece of pre-mission coordination, I could feel my blood begin to boil. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a country that affords equal rights and opportunities to both genders, and my school and family supported every effort I made towards my own growth and happiness, regardless of stereotypical gender roles. I’m a military pilot, for crying out loud, attended a university that was more than 80% male, and have never felt oppressed, discouraged, or demeaned for being female. And yet, here I was, sacrificing four months of my own life, the comfort of my own home and my spirited puppy and the companionship of my family and friends, to fight for the freedom of a country full of people I’ve never met, so that a bigoted, close-minded man could dismiss me because of my genetic makeup. Rage practically seeped from my pores. But there was a job to be done, and all of us – 3 men and 3 women – walked to the plane to go do it.
As we crossed the border, all of us became acutely aware of the peculiar dangers of leaving a war zone and entering Pakistan. The Hindu Kush stretched to eternity, and then – green. A foreign color, it coated mountainsides and painted backyards, shocking our systems, finely attuned to various shades of brown and tan, but ignorant of anything else.
As we spoke to the controllers, with their thick accents and regional dialect, I began to long for the comfort of our combat-zone home, where the vast majority of radio voices are American and the rules of war give us permission to get the mission done and save our own skin if necessary. A damaged aircraft part could mean a night in Pakistan, which could turn into a week, a month, the rest of our lives . . . The main thing my overactive brain pondered on that flight was the likelihood that I would be sold as a sex slave into the Pakistani abyss, as opposed to returning to my home base, safe and sound. I decided on about 40-60.
Our first brush with becoming the newest additions to the Pakistani underworld came on final approach to the airfield. My aircraft commander was at the controls and I was running the radios, when a glace outside my window revealed what I am now certain was a pterodactyl . . . you might say they’re extinct; I say otherwise. It hovered like a monstrous black ghost in the direct line of our approach path, willing to sacrifice its life in the effort to disable our airplane and strand us in this godforsaken place. In light of the diplomatic fallout that can arise from such an event, I’ve since decided that the pterodactyl works for the Pakistani government.
Through some masterful pilotage by my aircraft commander (he actually didn’t do anything at all . . . the pterodactyl chickened out at the last second), we avoided the bird and landed safely on Pakistani soil. Slightly ahead of our projected land time, my crew and our four-person security team settled in for the inevitable wait on the one man driving this entire mission.
The extra ground time gave us a chance to file our flight plan and prepare for another international flight, a much more involved process than in-country flying. Upon handing our flight plan to some American liaisons (we were confined to the aircraft for the duration of our stop in Pakistani), they informed us that we were missing a very critical piece of information. This ordinarily would not have been a problem – international flight plans require very specific details and formatting, and mistakes can be remedied with a simple pencil stroke – but this particular piece of information was completely foreign to everyone on board our aircraft. We began asking questions of the Americans, who had no answers for us beyond that we were missing this block of information and must fill it in. Every potential avenue for communication was opened, contacting our squadron, the Air Force’s central planning agency, sifting through thousands of pages of aviation publications . . . and nothing. Without this block of mystery information (which my navigator and I had begun to think was something the Pakistanis made up just to watch us sweat), we would not be allowed to leave. Here it comes, I thought. We had tempted fate and won against her pterodactyl. Now she was back for her revenge. Goodbye freedom, hello sex slavery.
When no one within our realm of the world had any inkling of how to supply the missing information, my navigator and I turned to the Pakistani officials insisting that they could not file the flight plan without it. I deferred to my navigator, Jamie, a captain on her fourth deployment, and more knowledgeable than I in all things aviation. At 5’1” and a hundred pounds soaking wet, her tiny frame and soft voice are deceiving; when she knows how something in life is supposed to work, she will push until it works that way. Her opinions have a life of their own, and seem to flood from her half-Asian eyes with an hypnotic quality. I followed her onto the ramp to the nearest Pakistani official, who stood close to the airplane, holding a clipboard and frowning severely.
“Can you tell us where to find the information that goes in this block?” she asked, politely but firmly.
“It’s the PRR.” Curt, unhelpful.
I chimed in, “Yes, we just don’t know where to find that. Do you have some kind of a publication that talks about it?”
His cold eyes narrowed in my direction, and he uttered a sentence I failed to understand beneath his accent. I leaned closer. “Say that again?”
“Where is the captain of your aircraft?”
At those words I abruptly turned and marched back into the cockpit, leaving Jamie to point him in the direction of our aircraft commander. This man had no way of knowing whether Jamie, who holds the same rank as our aircraft commander, Chris, was the “captain” or not. He saw two females, and his small mind with its infinite knowledge of the world and how it should work decided that these two could not possibly be in charge here, that he should be speaking with the man who was certainly the authority, whose intelligence and wisdom far outstretched the meager brains of the two women in front of him, and who was far worthier of his time and attention. Hot, angry tears welled in my eyes as I clenched my fists and dug my fingernails into my palms, alone in the cockpit. I wondered why I had ever cared enough to volunteer to come here, what made me think these people would be worth it, they who look at me and label me an inferior creature without even knowing my name. Countless books and newspapers and magazines have articulated the ways of the world to me, but experiencing such a mentality firsthand seemed to reach down my throat and tear any altruistic ideal I held in my heart out through my mouth.
I grew up a little that day. Facing the very real fear of becoming a Pakistani sex slave has made me a stronger person . . . oh, yeah, and I learned that not everybody in the world thinks like an American. I’ll never tell you that everything we do in the United States is the best way. Despite my love of my country and my unparalleled gratitude at having been born there and raised to value freedom and work ethic and human rights, I recognize that, just as virtually everything else I love, she has her faults. That will never mean I’ll give up on her, or that I’ll become a disgruntled ex-pat whose primary pastime is complaining both about the life she had and the life she chose in an attempt at improvement . . . however, I have a realistic view of just how perfect a country built by humans could ever be. But that day in Pakistan reaffirmed my absolute humbleness at the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m a girl, and I can pursue whatever might be my deepest desires. Women in this part of the world cannot, and might not ever, utter those words. Whether America is perfect or not, it is, at least, better in this way.
So that I don’t leave my readers in suspense (did she make it out? is she writing this from within the disease-infested dankness of a central Asian brothel?), we managed to obtain the elusive but apparently paramount flight plan information, and after waiting on our charge for nearly three hours, we departed with him for our home station. That pterodactyl will just have to find some other unsuspecting prey to sabotage into a life in the underworld of Pakistan.