A Civilian Perspective: Surviving in Afghanistan

Kathy and I met while serving on the Kapisa PRT. We were actually roommates before she was transferred to Kabul to finish her deployment. Kathy had so much wisdom to share and I was grateful for her advice and support. Read her civilian perspective in Afghanistan while serving for the Department of Agriculture.

This is Day 7 of 31 Deployment Stories. To start with Day 1 click here.


Kathy Gunderman

Rank during deployment:

Civilian GS-14 – equivalent to Lt. Col.

Current rank/current job if you have left the military:

Retired Federal Employee/Writer (blog)

Where did you deploy to?


What was you or your team’s mission?

Provide technical assistance to rehabilitate and stabilize the agricultural sector.

What was your job?

United State Department of Agriculture Agricultural Advisor: Liaison with French and U.S. military on agricultural stabilization projects. Work with local DAIL (Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock) to identify projects. Correlate past and present projects. Analyze accomplishments of projects and interactions with Afghan farmers. Participate in Female Empowerment Projects.

What did you do to help meet your team’s mission?

Developed pamphlet on sting worm. Evaluated soil on local pomegranate farm. Met with DAIL with Agricultural Development Team (ADT) to assess development of irrigation system on large, former Russian, experiment farm. Worked with DAIL and ADT to stabilize streambanks. Worked with local abused women’s shelter on a saffron project.

What cultural differences do you remember between Afghanistan and the United States?

The subservient role of women and the shortness of childhood in Afghanistan. Most of the farmers I met with were between 10-17 and I personally saw girls as young as 7 who were married. One 11-year old girl in the women’s shelter was visibly pregnant. Surprisingly, I was mostly accepted by Afghan men. As an American woman, and especially with white hair, I was an oddity and attracted a large crowd wherever we went.

Do you know why the Afghan men accepted you in a country that didn’t accept women?

I believe that the Afghan men see American women as a totally different sex. I think they accepted me because I was just myself and I let my expertise speak for itself. They wanted help and were willing to take it no matter who offered it.

What landscape differences do you remember between Afghanistan and the United States?

Very mountainous and beautiful, reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains, in Kapisa Province. In Kabul, very urban although economically depressed with many of the homes are on the mountainside built with debris and mud. There is no electricity or water and very little modern conveniences. Even many of the modern buildings are built with substandard (American Standards).

Were there any particular foods that you ate while in Afghanistan that was different from the United States?

Pilau Chips (Naan with meat and vegetables, and French Fries rolled up together). Goat and lamb.

What was the hardest thing you faced with the cultural difference in Afghanistan?

Getting to meet with women to help with agriculture. Very isolated by the men, even though the women do most of the agricultural work. It was very devastating to visit an abused women’s shelter and see most of the women are young girls, as young as 11. The director told me the day before two young sisters had come to escape abuse by their husbands. They were sent to Pakistan to a safe house. In the night, the family of the sisters went to their mother’s house and killed their mother and disemboweled their twelve-year-old sister. That was a hard day.

When you were able to meet with the women what did you discuss? Were there ways you were able to help them?

They were very interested in my life and if I was married and if I had children. The younger women wanted to know about my education. They highly regard education and this in one success of our being in Afghanistan – that we have so many girls in school there now. I believe especially for the young girls I and the other women in our PRT were an inspiration as to what women can be.

As a female, do you remember being treated differently because of your sex?

For the most part, I was accepted, but on occasion, I felt I was distasteful to some men who would not shake hands or speak to me.

What challenges did you face?

Lack of support from my agency. Not being able to get out of the wire (off base) as much as I would have liked.

How did not being able to go off base affect the work you were able to accomplish in Afghanistan?

It is almost impossible to carry out projects from behind the wire. You do not have the assets available back in the states like being able to pick up a telephone and call your contacts, or to drive to see them. Visits were strictly controlled and limited in time. Most of the accomplishments are affected in spurts and quick visits.

Did you feel like the work you did do made a difference?  

In some ways, no as far as projects went because there is no follow-up or long-term plans by the military or U.S. agencies to make sure accomplishments are evaluated and end result is documented. On the other hand, I believe that the one on one contacts we made with Afghans where we see they are not all terrorists and they see we are not all infidels, was a great accomplishment.

Is there anything your team did that you were really proud of?

I was really proud of the female empowerment projects where we provided bees and hives and chickens to women to help them earn money and have food for their families.

Did you have any regular frustrating situations or a frustrating situation you can share about?

Could not advertise any workshops or meetings because of security. Just had to go and hope you could find people to talk to and participate.

What is the one thing you remember most from your deployment?

The wonderful friends I made in the military, Afghans and US civilian personnel.

Is there a memory or story from your deployment you want to share?

The story of a woman I met with a malignant brain tumor.

The Woman with the Turquoise Eyes

As I make my way to meet a visitor at the front gate of forward operating base Morales Frazier in Kapisa Province, I notice an Afghan woman, dressed in black, sitting on the gravel and waiting with other villagers to see the French doctors on the base. Her eyes are closed and her face is etched with lines of pain as she adjusts her headscarf to shield herself from the scorching sun. On my way back I notice she is lying face down in the large, gray gravel, her face cradled in her hands. I ask my interpreter, Ibrahim, “Does she need help?”  Read more.

What question do you get when people find out you deployed?

What in the “?@#?” were you thinking?

Kathy Gunderman is a fiction and non-fiction writer who lives in Maine with her husband and numerous animals. She graduated from Berry College, GA, with a dual degree is Animal Science and Industrial Education and spent 35 years working in natural resources and environmental sciences in private industry, state and Federal governments.  At the age of 57, she volunteered to go to Afghanistan as a USDA agricultural adviser and spent 26 months in reconstruction and stabilization efforts as well as providing support for other agricultural personnel in the field. Her books can be found on Amazon under Kathleen Gunderman and her blog is whitehairedwidsom.com.

This is Day 7 of 31 Deployment Stories. To start with Day 1 click here. Yesterday I shared my first Spouse Spotlight: A Tale of Two Deployments. Tomorrow I will share 4 Deployment, 1 Story! Don’t miss a post! Sign up for my weekly email list here.

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