I never had the honor of meeting Anne Smedinghoff, a Foreign Service colleague who was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. Even so, she has been on my mind all day.
As it was for Anne, Afghanistan was my second Foreign Service assignment. She was 25 years old; I was 27 when I served there. In 2006, perplexed by my enthusiasm at being assigned to Afghanistan, an older colleague told me that I was “too young to have a real sense of my own mortality.” Like Anne, however, I knew there were risks. And I knew death was one of them. I wasn’t too naive to think that it couldn’t happen to me. While I told all my friends and family, “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” I simply didn’t know if that was true.
All I knew for sure was that Afghanistan and its people would be part of my life’s narrative. There was no way to know how the chapter would end.
One of my last stops in the U.S. before heading to Afghanistan was to my 5-year college reunion. It was great to have a little fun before heading off to Afghanistan, but I’ll never forget the many strange farewells I got on the last day. My classmates all knew where I was going. While I hugged them with the same kind of see-you-soon enthusiasm that I’d have given if on the way back to a corporate job in New York, I soon noticed that my hugs were reciprocated tentatively, weighed down with their fears that this particular hug could be our last. They tried to be happy for me because they saw how excited I was, but each hug came with a pained smile that betrayed their real thought: “Girl, why are you doing this?”
The first few exchanges were just kind of awkward. After the 20th or so, I found myself alone in the bathroom crying, wondering if this was a sign I shouldn’t get on that plane to Kabul. Two days later, I was on that plane anyway. My Mom later told me that after dropping me off at the airport, my Dad went back to his car, sat in the parking lot, and cried. These fears got the best of all of us at times.
I’ve read a number of news pieces about Anne today. They all speak of her positivity, her sense of adventure, how much she wanted to make a difference. Although I never met her, in many ways I knew her all the same.
Anne’s spirit is one that is familiar to me. I see it daily in the colleagues with whom I work. That positivity that even the uninspiring grind of a slow-churning bureaucracy can’t snuff out. The sense of adventure that makes a day trip down to Zabul province sound wildly exciting, even with the accompanying motion sickness on the helo ride down, the back soreness that follows a day of walking around with a heavy flack jacket that wasn’t designed to fit around breasts, and the persistent dust that will never quite come out of your clothes and shoes afterwards.
Most of all, I recognize that yearning to do something in your life that will make a difference in someone else’s. You read the media stories, both positive and negative, about what our government is doing in Afghanistan and how it is impacting Afghan lives. Something in you says “Go see the truth with your own eyes” and it ultimately compels you to volunteer for a post in Afghanistan … or Iraq … or Pakistan … or Libya.
Anne was on a trip in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan when she was killed. While it’s true that U.S. diplomats in Kabul spend most of their hours behind the tightly guarded walls of the U.S. Embassy compound, several make a point to leave the compound every day. After all, we’re not there to sit behind walls, but to interact with Afghans. And, for us, those rare days when we get a trip to another province — a chance to see the real Afghanistan — are the very best.
I’m sure Anne was quite excited to head down to Zabul, to be delivering textbooks to local schoolchildren. To make a real connection to the people whose lives she believed she was working to improve. To see some evidence with her own eyes that our engagement in Afghanistan was worth the risks. To look for a signs that even though the American presence in Afghanistan has come with many costs for Afghans and Americans alike, on balance, the net impact of our efforts was positive.
I’m also sure that as Anne entered that convoy and headed down the road in Zabul, she did what we all did many a day in Afghanistan. She pushed out that nagging voice in the back of her head that said, “As cool as this experience is, it just might bring me to my doom” by saying, “This is worth the risks. I’m doing something that makes a difference.”
I read a post from a colleague on Facebook who felt compelled to explain this weekend’s outpouring of grief among Foreign Service Officers to our military colleagues. After all, they deal with exponentially more of these losses on a daily basis and carry on in stride. To me, however, this grief doesn’t need explaining.
Knowing that thousands of other people around the world lose a loved one on any given day never lessens the pain of losing your own.
Anne Smedinghoff was one of our own.
– Kim McClure