FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan — The news reports were bleak; an invasion was imminent. President Saddam Hussein had addressed the Iraqi people, warning them that U.S.-led forces would soon attack.
For Lidya Admounabdfany, 11, who lived in Baghdad, war meant the twin towers burning in New York. Less than two years earlier, she watched in horror as they fell. She remembered her stomach tightening when she thought about the children whose parents wouldn’t come home. Admounabdfany, who is Catholic, prayed for the families of those killed.
The images of 9/11 haunted her as she and her family prepared for war in spring 2003. Her father had died a few years earlier, and she worried for the safety of her mother and younger sister.
On the evening of March 20, 2003, as she and her family sat down to dinner, they heard the bombing and watched the city catch fire.
Her family fled to the basement where they huddled with their neighbors in the darkness. She clung to her mother and sister, praying until the attack was over.
Surrounded by uncertainty and chaos, Admounabdfany remembered feeling calm, but somehow she knew her life would never be the same.
It seemed war was destined to shape the life of Admounabdfany, who was born in 1991 during the first Gulf War. Soon, the one that raged outside her home would set her on a course to American citizenship, and return her to the area as a U.S. soldier, in a position to repay the kindnesses she had seen from U.S. troops.
Not long after coalition forces rolled into Baghdad in 2003, Admounabdfany’s mother, who spoke English, met an American who worked as a security adviser for the U.S. Department of Defense. The couple fell in love and were married in 2005. The new family moved to Jordan and then Egypt while they waited for visas to the U.S.
When they settled in Oklahoma City in 2006, the teenaged Admounabdfany was nervous about her new home. Insurgents were killing Americans in Iraq and she feared that Oklahomans would blame her. Her stepfather tried to reassure her.
Instead of judgment, she found kindness and curiosity.
“They were amazing,” Admounabdfany said. “In Iraq, I felt like a stranger.” Oklahoma, she said, felt like home.
“I could live in the freedom, I could have the human rights. I could have freedom of speech. I could say anything without fear. I had the women’s rights I always dreamed of,” she said.
As a child, she wanted to be a soldier but abandoned her ambition in Saddam’s Iraq. In America, that desire stirred again.
Admounabdfany joined the Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in high school and her success made her determined to join the Army. When she graduated, her stepfather, a former soldier, took her to the recruiter.
She was 17 and her mother was reluctant to sign the paperwork, fearing her daughter would be sent to Iraq.
But Iraq was where Admounabdfany wanted to go. She remembered the actions of American soldiers and wanted to do the same for others. She was also determined to help the women and children. By going to Iraq, she figured, she could serve both of her countries.
By the time she finished her training, the war in Iraq was winding down, and when her deployment orders came, she found herself headed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
Admounabdfany, now 20, serves in the 52nd Translator/Interpreter Company, 5th Battalion, 353rd Infantry Regiment. She recently returned to Fort Polk, La., from Kandahar province, where she worked in the Zhari Women’s Center and on a Female Engagement Team out of Forward Operating Base Pasab.
She learned Dari, but was sent to the south, where Pashto is spoken. Though she quickly adapted to conversational Pashto, she usually worked with a translator for clarity.
Her work on the FET team regularly took her on combat missions and into the homes of Afghans to work with women, the silent, nearly unseen half of the population. When she saw fear in their eyes, she was reminded of her youth in Iraq.
“Sometimes, when I talk to the women, I just see myself,” she said before leaving Kandahar. She worries that women’s needs continued to go unmet in Afghanistan.
“If you only engage with the males, you risk 50 percent of perspective and understanding.”
While she was troubled by the poverty many Afghans endure, she believed her work mattered.
“I feel that we are making a big difference. Just the fact that women can travel miles and miles to the women’s center to get help from us, that’s a big step. Before they could not even do that.”
Her co-workers in Afghanistan couldn’t speak about her without noting her empathy for the locals.
“She has a special compassion, a special place in her heart for the Afghan women,” her friend and colleague Sgt. Melissa Stewart said.
They also spoke of her work ethic.
“She puts 100 percent into anything the Army asks her to do,” Stewart said.
Admounabdfany, who was married in early 2011, completes her service in December. She plans to finish her degree in chemistry and return to the Army as a commissioned officer.
She is unequivocal in her support for the U.S. intervention in Iraq and remains hopeful for their fledgling democracy.
“Our mission there was achieved. We have a sovereign, independent country that can govern and secure itself,” she said. “We shed a lot of blood, but it has not been in vain.”