I am lucky to know some pretty cool people doing some pretty awesome stuff. So I asked them to share what they’ve been up to. Today, meet my friend Jen. One day a few years ago she went from New York City to Afghanistan, to join the USO as a Duty Manager. She spent a year there, helping to manage operations of the USO’s center in Kandahar and supporting troops based at the airfield. Recently, she returned stateside to manage another USO center, this time at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma. We chatted over email about Jen’s experiences overseas and at home.
You went from NYC to Afghanistan in the blink of an eye. What kind of mental shift did that take?
Packing up and leaving everything behind to adjust to a new culture wasn’t new to me at that point. I did it when I left Europe to come to the U.S., and (in some ways) when I left small-town PA to move to NYC. Living with the military and being expected to follow different rules and adapting to the reality of heightened security measures required somewhat of a shift, but nothing too drastic. In a really weird way, it kind of felt like going home.
Once there, it was clear how much your experience being in Afghanistan meant to you. Could you talk more about that?
I grew up in a military family so the concept of “battle buddies” and “brothers in arms” was nothing new. However, I’d always been a civilian. It wasn’t until Afghanistan (where those types of differentiation are not as relevant) that I actually felt it though. Everyone is in the same boat and experiencing the same things–from stale bread in the cafeteria to hiding in bunkers during ground attacks. It brings everyone together in a way that I don’t believe can truly be replicated in the same way. It also comes with a responsibility though: doing all that you can do, when and where you can, for as many as you can, to make it easier on them. Despite all of that though, I WAS a civilian and it granted me a sort of “neutral” status; guys and gals were able to just be themselves, without ranks, without job responsibilities, without expectations. Thus, the friendships formed developed faster and deeper than normal. Leaving those people behind was the hardest part of leaving.
Now you’re working with the USO back in the states in Oklahoma. What was that culture shift like?
I guess it wasn’t so much Oklahoma as it was being back in the states. I don’t really have a lot of patience for people who complain incessantly about the little, petty things in life. It’s also difficult re-adapting to the materialism and various status symbols people lean on so heavily. In Afghanistan, it was all about your character and willingness to help your fellow man. It’s hard to have respect for those who value things over people and it’s a daily struggle to reserve judgment. It’s also a lot lonelier stateside than it was in Afghanistan. Over there, there was always someone who’d want to grab coffee or hang out – stateside, folks have 40″ screens in their bedrooms, wifi and cable in their houses, and the option to have food delivered to their door. Hence, it almost becomes a society of shut-ins who’d rather be connected to a virtual world than the one in front of them.
On the lighter side, shopping in Walmart has been…interesting. Fast food is overwhelming and Starbucks is still comfort in a cup for me.
Folks tend to think about the USO in terms of airport offices and goodwill tours. What impact have you seen the USO having both overseas and at home?
There’s so much more to the USO than those two aspects (though they’re important). For me, the real standout moments of impact have been the smaller moments: fresh-baked cupcakes and brownies, watching the birth of their child via Skype, grown men playing on a homemade slip and slide like children, getting to see everyone’s differences rising to the surface–it really is the little things, the things that remind them of home and make them feel a little more connected to family, home and country.
Now that we’ve talked all about awesome you, am I closer to convincing you to do an NYC visit??
I’m trying! If you can convince my waistline to not expand while I’m there and guarantee sunshine, I’ll try even harder!