Story and photos by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Leslie Shively
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Brig. Gen. Khatool Mohammadzai, director for women’s affairs in the Afghan National Army, recently met civilian and military leaders with the goal of improving women’s participation in the development and governance of Helmand province and ultimately her country, Afghanistan.
The group’s first stop was the U.K.-led Bastion Role III Hospital to see and comfort patients. Through an interpreter, Mohammadzai said she was impressed with the high level of service the patients received.
“I am very happy and very proud there are people here who are caring for them,” Mohammadzai said to the 30 or so hospital staff who gathered around her in an ante-room. She gave special recognition to those in leadership positions and in uniform calling them heroes.
Mohammadzai also commended the women. “You have all left your family behind. As you are a sister to somebody, a mother to a child, a wife to a husband and as a female you are here to take care of the patients and we appreciate your service. Having brave women like you here makes the entire world proud, especially me. Hopefully one day you will all wear the stars of a general.”
“They’re representing their culture, their history and it helps patients to see leadership,” said U.S. Army Maj. Kathy Spangler, 2nd In Command of the Intermediate Care Ward, commenting on the general’s and provincial officials’ visit.
“It’s espirit de corps – giving them a morale boost and making them feel better.”
Spangler, from Harrisonburg, Va., said Mohammadzai’s presence was especially empowering for Afghan women. “She has influence and an opportunity to show them where they can go; and that they do have a voice and can improve their country.”
“She was most impressed with the level of care that the Afghan civilians receive at the hospital, and clearly saw that there is no distinction between Afghans and coalition (members) in the care provided, said Marine Col. Yori Escalante, adding that, “all are treated as equals and receive the same amount of care.”
Escalante, assistant chief of staff for C9, Stability Operations for Regional Command Southwest, said Mohammadzai understood the sacrifices hospital staff and those in uniform at Camp Leatherneck are making, leaving their families to serve and protect both the U.S. and Afghanistan.
After the hospital visit, Mohammadzai and the two women representatives from the Helmand Provincial Council had lunch at the new Afghan Cultural Center on Camp Leatherneck. This was the first opportunity to bring together provincial council officials and a senior military official at the national level.
“It was also important that female members of the Provincial Council were able to attend,” said Escalante, who hails from Houston, Texas. “They were able to see the connection between coalition forces and the Governance of Helmand. The Provincial Council members had not met (Mohammadzai) before either, and were quite impressed with her and the depth of her knowledge.”
The luncheon was followed by a meeting with Marine Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas, director, Manpower Management Division.
“It really strikes a significant message when we have a general officer who is the senior (Afghan National Army) female officer come here as a role model,” said Marine Maj. Kerry Mengelkoch, who is the gender advisor with Regional Command Southwest’s C9 office. “The opportunity to have the senior female Marine general officer and the senior Afghan ANA general officer is something that is historic.”
Mengelkoch, from Albany, Ga., organized Mohammadzai’s and the council officials’ visit to Bastion and Camp Leatherneck. She explained that the meeting illustrated the value of women participating in governance, development, and in the armed forces of both the United States and Afghanistan.
Women’s participation in governance is a requirement for NATO-led operations according to Mengelkoch. Mandates state that women are to be a key component of peacekeeping and planning operations in order to ensure the perspectives of women and children are incorporated accordingly.
“GIRoA itself has particular mandates,” Mengelkoch said, adding that goals for provincial and district-level positions are aimed at a balanced approach to ensure that Afghanistan can be prosperous.
This was Mohammadzai’s first trip to Helmand according to Escalante, and her exposure to coalition forces at Regional Command Southwest was key to her understanding their presence in Afghanistan. He said she desires to return and potentially meet with Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk and the leadership of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, who are responsible for both Helmand and Nimroz Provinces.
“Clearly we will want to have her return to RC(SW), possibly get out into the battlespace, meet with ANA forces and see the progress that is occurring in the provinces as well as the issues that affect women,” Escalante said.
Mohammadzai’s visit brought to light common experiences of women doing their jobs well.
“Do a good job and the fact is you blend right in as part of the team,” Mengelkoch said. “It’s not about the numbers. It’s about the quality of women in leadership positions.”