War Poems Taliban poetry. An Afghan cooking show. The US military needs a better weapon. Up comes the perfect person for the job.
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War Poems

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War Poems

War Poems

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I was talking to a reporter who spent a dozen years covering the war in Afghanistan, for the BBC and then NPR, Quil Lawrence. He was there for the start of the war when Afghans welcomed the Americans coming in. The U.S. military started building roads and hospitals. Quil saw them cheering for that. And then as the years passed, Quil noticed that the story that Afghans told about the war and about the American presence there, it started to change.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: You'd travel all over Afghanistan, and you'd hear crazy stuff about things the Americans had done. There would be a minivan full of women and children going to an Afghan wedding party in the middle of some remote province, and it would hit a massive fertilizer bomb and it would kill all these women and children. And the Taliban, who had set that bomb, would absolutely succeed in convincing everyone that it was an American airstrike because the Americans hate your religion and they're here to take your women.

WARNER: Even that paved road that the Americans had built to win hearts and minds, the Taliban would tell people, you know, that was just built so they could occupy our country.


WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. This is a show about how the conversations we're having in the United States are being heard and translated in some other corner of the world. By 2010 - so this was nine years into the war - the U.S. was at its peak presence in Afghanistan, a hundred thousand troops.

LAWRENCE: And it was around this time you started to hear people in the military talking a little bit differently and saying things like, you can't kill your way out of Afghanistan. And I think it was an acknowledgement that they could win all of the battles and still somehow be losing the war.

WARNER: The generals started talking a lot about how to communicate better what they were trying to do in words that the Afghans would trust and believe.

LAWRENCE: So in 2010, they start training up some of their people in Afghan languages and culture. And they called this program Afghan Hands.

TIM KIRK: Next thing I knew, I'm learning the language of Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: Tim Kirk was one of the first graduates. And he's built like a football player, but he's sort of a history geek, too. He's got a Ph.D. in military history. And he was working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon - this is the highest command in the land - and he felt guilty.

KIRK: I said, sir, I've got to go...

LAWRENCE: He had to go where the war was.

KIRK: ...It's not right that I'm sitting here on Easy Street.

LAWRENCE: So he goes from a comfy desk in the Pentagon to eating stale bread with the Afghan army, embedded with them, learning Dari. That's one of the main languages in Afghanistan. And then he's assigned to an American base in Kabul called Camp Eggers.

KIRK: So I know all the little, you know (speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: (Speaking Dari).

KIRK: Yeah. Yeah.

LAWRENCE: He had, like, the hip-guy pleasantries, like (speaking Dari), which is like, how is your left lower lip?


LAWRENCE: What's up? And they're like, whoa. Wait a minute. An American, you know, someone in uniform who speaks Dari. This is hilarious. This is great. You've got to meet her.

KIRK: I was like, who? Who is this her?

LAWRENCE: You've got to meet the other American...

WARNER: The other American?

LAWRENCE: ...Who speaks Dari.

KIRK: And he goes, it's her, right there.

LAWRENCE: This Air Force captain named Felisa Hervey.

FELISA HERVEY: I was in a hurry, and I was carrying a whole bunch of stuff. And I'm heading to class, probably late.

LAWRENCE: Felisa grew up partly in nearby Kazakhstan, which is a majority-Muslim country. Her parents were missionaries. She's the kind of person who just always liked to do the hardest thing she could find. She applied, and she got accepted to the Air Force Academy. And then two years after that, she took some time off from the academy and went to Afghanistan, which everyone told her not to do. And the U.S. is already fighting a war against the Taliban there. But Felisa went there to teach English at an orphanage, and there, she learned Dari.

KIRK: You know, I greeted her in Dari just to kind of see, what are we talking about here? And I thought I knew, you know, good Dari, but she was unbelievable.

LAWRENCE: Her Dari is fabulous.

KIRK: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: She's 26...


LAWRENCE: ...Marathon runner. She's got long, brown hair. I'm sure she had it up in a bun.

KIRK: She was always climbing trees, climbing buildings.

LAWRENCE: She speaks, like, five languages.

KIRK: Big thoughts.

LAWRENCE: And Tim is thinking, I've got to get her on my team.

F. HERVEY: I wasn't thinking that this would develop into one of the most life-changing opportunities that had occurred in my life so far.

LAWRENCE: She's back in the Air Force. She's back in Afghanistan. And this is at a time when, instead of people saying you were crazy for going off and teaching at an orphanage, suddenly, her ability to speak Dari was in high demand by the top commander of the Afghan mission...


DAVID PETRAEUS: We have to recognize...

LAWRENCE: General David Petraeus.


PETRAEUS: ...That the Afghan people are the decisive terrain.

LAWRENCE: And he issues the Petraeus directive.


PETRAEUS: A nuanced appreciation of local situations is essential.

LAWRENCE: The Petraeus directive said things like, be a good guest, view our actions through the eyes of the Afghans.

KIRK: Stop on the side of the road. Take off your helmet. Take off your gloves. Take off your glasses.

LAWRENCE: This is a direct order from the commanding general...

KIRK: Right.

LAWRENCE: ...To take your sunglasses off.

KIRK: And interact with the locals.

LAWRENCE: And Petraeus' direct instruction was, quote...


PETRAEUS: This requires listening.

LAWRENCE: "Spend time. Listen. Consult..."


PETRAEUS: And it also requires...

LAWRENCE: "...And drink lots of tea."


PETRAEUS: Many cups of tea.

F. HERVEY: I remember being so excited when I read that when that came in. I said, look. Look at this paragraph. You know, this is...

WARNER: This is from an audio diary that Tim and Felisa recorded. This was years later, after they'd become friends and intellectual soulmates. They totally nerd out on the Petraeus directive...

KIRK: It's, like, paragraph F, right?

WARNER: ...Down to the paragraph.

F. HERVEY: Yes. F and G were both very good.

WARNER: Felisa actually carried this directive in her pocket like a talisman.

F. HERVEY: Folded it up and put it in the lower zipper pocket of my ABS-Gs, of my uniform and carried it around with me wherever I went.


WARNER: The promise of the Petraeus directive was this - the U.S. would have better success in Afghanistan if it took more time to talk to Afghans.

LAWRENCE: Early on in their work together, Tim and Felisa have this experience that puts those paragraphs to the test. They're both riding in a military convoy, and they're crossing a big intersection in Kabul. And their convoy ends up clipping a motorcycle.

F. HERVEY: You know, and kids involved. They went flying off the motorcycle. And even though it wasn't our fault, it was perceived as our fault.

KIRK: The size of that crowd was ominous.

LAWRENCE: This idea of traffic incidents might seem small, but it was something that the military rightly started to focus on with trying not to piss off so many people. I don't know when you were there if that...

WARNER: 2007.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, so they'd already blocked off the road by the U.S. Embassy.

WARNER: This huge concrete...

LAWRENCE: Yeah, some of the men with mercenaries who just treat you like dirt. And so you've already pissed off the whole city. And there were cases where an American convoy had hit people and killed people. And the scene of that kind of accident can quickly become an angry violent mob scene.

KIRK: People have died.

F. HERVEY: And it was one of those moments where you knew that many other people in the situation wouldn't have even gotten out of the car.

LAWRENCE: But Felisa and Tim have this language training. And they're here to communicate with Afghans, so they think, let's give this a try.

F. HERVEY: I opened up the doors, ran to help, spoke the language.

KIRK: (Speaking Dari).

F. HERVEY: Making sure that everybody's OK.

KIRK: You know, like be still; be still. Are you OK?

LAWRENCE: They jumped out and immediately apologized.

KIRK: And in Dari, there's no way to say I'm sorry. It is all forgive me.

LAWRENCE: Felisa's talking to the kids and speaking in Dari. And she and Tim - the way they describe it, this fellow's anger just dissipated.

KIRK: He just gets this huge smile on his face. And he just goes...

F. HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

KIRK: ...You're speaking Dari.

WARNER: This little moment on the road in Kabul - it wasn't on the front lines of the war or anything, but it did feel like proof of an important principle. Proof that if you talk to Afghans in the right way with the right words, you could stop making enemies, maybe even make some useful friends. That's something the U.S. struggles with not just in Afghanistan but lots of places the military's fighting. And Felisa and Tim would go on to test this principle again and again and again.


WARNER: I should tell you that we had several conversations with Felisa. The tape you're hearing is not from those interviews because the Felisa we spoke to, she sounds very different than the Felisa who headed off with the general's directive in her pocket. So to tell this story from the beginning means relying on old recordings.

F. HERVEY: And these details become important later.

WARNER: And the memories of those who worked with her.

KIRK: We'll talk some more about how that unfolded.

F. HERVEY: Absolutely...

KIRK: Yeah.

WARNER: ROUGH TRANSLATION back after this break.


WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION and our story from reporter Quil Lawrence. Just a warning - if you are listening with small kids, if offensive language is a concern for you, there is one curse word - just one - in this episode. So here's Quil.

LAWRENCE: The very first thing that Tim and Felisa were up against was time. They meet at Camp Eggers.

KIRK: And that's when I said OK, Felisa, here's what I'm putting together.

LAWRENCE: Tim invites her to join his team that he's putting together to engage with Afghans.

KIRK: And I need an operations officer. What do you say?

F. HERVEY: This was the opportunity that I've been hoping for.

KIRK: I said, all right, but that means you got to extend.

F. HERVEY: Felisa's tour is almost up, and...

KIRK: I had to work the levers, I mean...

LAWRENCE: Extending someone's tour over there is not nearly as simple as it sounds. It's not the way the military's set up to work. It's set up where you do your year or a little bit more over, and then you go home. And that is something that makes it very hard for the military to do relationships. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it's this thing where they sit down with a tribal elder and the guy says, forget what Captain Mike told you. I'm Captain John. And I'm going to give you guys what you need. Captain Mike sucked. I'm great.

And I've also talked to Iraqis and Afghans who, bless them, were trying to say, no, no, but before there was a man. He was the same uniform as you. His name is Mr. John from the Army. And he promised us that we would be able to graze our sheep near the base. Do you know Captain John?


LAWRENCE: There's this churn. So it's not easy. And it takes Tim until absolutely the last possible moment...

KIRK: She has a flight out at noon the next day.

LAWRENCE: ...Before he manages to get her extended.

F. HERVEY: It's such a huge hurdle (laughter).

KIRK: Right. Right. And I remember your birthday.


KIRK: We got, like, the final notification.

F. HERVEY: Right. I felt it was a gift.

KIRK: Yeah. Yeah. They not only approved a six-month extension. They approved three consecutive six-month extensions. You know, that was gold.

LAWRENCE: Tim and Felisa’s mission is to connect with businesspeople, activists, the local media, people outside the very narrow circle of politicians and warlords that the military ordinarily interacts with. They're not going to be in the trenches sort of on the tip of the spear fighting the bloodiest part of the war, but they might be able to start dialogues with ordinary Afghans.

AMAN NURISTANI: I do remember that first meeting, actually, the first few words Felisa said. She told us, (speaking Dari). I had heard a lot of Americans try to speak that way.

WARNER: This is Aman Nuristani (ph). He works for an Afghan NGO fighting corruption in Kabul.

Did you see it making a difference?

NURISTANI: What was different was the approach. You don't just have to speak the language. You have to speak the culture, telling Afghans that, listen; you know, there's not much difference between you and I; I'm here to help.

LAWRENCE: So Felisa just takes off.

F. HERVEY: And I was so excited because all of these ideas and contacts...

LAWRENCE: She already has all these contacts in Kabul from her time volunteering in the orphanage there.

F. HERVEY: ...To go and engage with those people and meet them.

WARNER: Tim and Felisa don't just go out into Kabul. They also invite Afghans to visit their office at their base.

KIRK: And I remember you were like, this place needs a Moroccan lamp, right? And I remember stringing that up over your desk.

F. HERVEY: And it did. It changed the entire room.

KIRK: It was very much an Afghan hospitality orientation. And you had tea, coffee.

F. HERVEY: Snacks.

KIRK: ...Snacks, raisins, dates, you Know, the whole nine.

LAWRENCE: One day, it's a cool afternoon in November, just after Thanksgiving. They're coming back from one of their meetings.

KIRK: Yup. So we're driving down right in front of the zoo on our way down to Ariana. And there was a bread shop, and there was a pizza place.

LAWRENCE: Felisa still has the general's directive in her pocket, the one that says, when possible, stop by the side of the road and engage with ordinary Afghans.

KIRK: You make the suggestion, hey, we should take this opportunity, you know, to engage with the Afghan people.

LAWRENCE: So he says, OK, well, we're going to stop, and we're going to buy bread.

KIRK: We placed a pizza order, walked down the street, talking with Afghans, handing out business cards and saying hello.

F. HERVEY: And we got out, I remember, in full body armor with our helmets. And only those of us got out who spoke Dari, so...

KIRK: Right.

LAWRENCE: This is happening in a very safe part of Kabul, right by the American University. He even brings along a public affairs photographer to document all of this. Like, this is us accomplishing our mission, engaging with the Afghan population.

KIRK: You know, you had had the old woman come up and hug you around the neck.

F. HERVEY: Yeah. And people were just shocked to see us walking around.

KIRK: And then we went back to work. And three days later...

F. HERVEY: Intrigue.

KIRK: Yeah, hue and cry. What was it they called?

F. HERVEY: Pizza incident.

KIRK: Yeah, the pizza incident.

LAWRENCE: Tim and Felisa are written up in what the military calls a 15-6 investigation. This is serious. This is, like, a step along the way to a court martial.

KIRK: I asked my boss, what exactly is the crime? And the answer was, you broke the seal.

LAWRENCE: So breaking the seal tells you how the military was thinking about their time in Afghanistan. They're sealed up in their four or five bases. And when they move between those bases, they're sealed up in their protective convoys. And anytime you get out, you have stepped out of that protective seal that is supposed to keep you safe in Afghanistan.

WARNER: We tried to get a copy of this 15-6 report. The military says it does not keep documents like this longer than five years. But we did talk to people in the military who were there. None wanted to talk on the record. They said that the technical reason that Tim and Felisa were written up was because they did not get permission to break the seal. It was a question of paperwork. But many pointed to a deeper reason that they were in trouble.

LAWRENCE: The command really didn't buy into what they were doing.

F. HERVEY: We were thinking about this whole sort of countercultural set of ideas.

LAWRENCE: And there's a huge divide within the military about this approach, about meeting Afghans where they lived, about drinking lots of cups of tea.

KIRK: I mean, I told you the tea-drinking cocksucker story, right?


KIRK: I didn't tell you that?

LAWRENCE: Tim tells a story about when he first got out of language school and met his boss at Camp Eggers.

KIRK: And he says, oh, so you're the Afghan hand, huh? You know what we call Afghan hands? And I said no, what's that? And he says, tea-drinking cocksuckers. And he says, I just want you to know that you're not going to come anywhere near talking to an Afghan. The guy who came before you sat at that desk at that computer and did my PowerPoint slides. And you're going to sit at that desk at that computer and do my PowerPoint slides.

LAWRENCE: This sort of just shows you the two minds at work here. And one of them is that, we're over in Afghanistan in a dangerous place; I'm over here for 12 months; I want to make sure all of my soldiers get home alive with two arms and two legs, and what if Tim makes a really poor choice and walks into what he thought was a meeting to drink tea and ends up kidnapped and on YouTube in an orange jumpsuit?


LAWRENCE: For Tim and Felisa, this investigation basically means they can't do their work anymore. People from their team are being pulled off to testify against them. And Felisa calls it near-complete mission stoppage.

F. HERVEY: We were able to ascertain that the hostility was not perceived or imagined. It was indeed real.

LAWRENCE: So Tim still has some connections in the Air Force back at the Pentagon. And he is able to call them and say, listen; I cannot work under this team; you've got to get me out of here. And they say, oh, well, General McMaster is right across the street. Would you like to go work for him?


LAWRENCE: H.R. McMaster is considered one of the smartest generals in the Army and later became national security adviser for President Trump. And at this time, McMaster's trying to build up a team to do pretty much just what Tim and Felisa are talking about. And Tim says, oh, yeah, I want to work for General McMaster. And they say, good, go for it.

F. HERVEY: They said start now. Start today.

KIRK: Start today.

WARNER: Tim and Felisa, they don't just win themselves a transfer from one Army command to another. They are transferred from one school of thought to another - to this new command under H.R. McMaster, who's a big believer in the whole talking and listening and drinking tea approach.

LAWRENCE: But before they can even kind of pack up their stuff, they get word from people inside their old command that they probably shouldn't even show their faces back there.

F. HERVEY: Right. And, I mean, there had already been drama. We knew, you know, the chief of staff was up in arms.

KIRK: We get a call from the Army captain who works in our office. And he says, hey, sir, if you're going to come back over here and trying to get your stuff, will you give me a heads up so I can not be here? Because I've been ordered to apprehend you - as if we had gone AWOL or something.


KIRK: Yeah.

F. HERVEY: There were very few friends left.

KIRK: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: Except all the Afghan guards they used to hang out and chat with.

F. HERVEY: Yeah.

KIRK: The Afghans, they whisk us through and make sure nothing happens.


KIRK: We waited till after midnight to go back.

LAWRENCE: They snuck into the Army base.

KIRK: Collected, like, pillows, sheets, clothes.

LAWRENCE: ...From the other Army base.

F. HERVEY: It felt like a good spy movie.

KIRK: It really did. Remember.

F. HERVEY: Yeah.

KIRK: We, like, wore hats and hoods.

F. HERVEY: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: Crept out like thieves in the night with their duffel bags.

F. HERVEY: Packed up a bag.

LAWRENCE: You know, that's how they made their great escape to go work with General McMaster.


LAWRENCE: Tim and Felisa are now working for H.R. McMaster. And they're going outside the wire almost every day and engaging with the population.

F. HERVEY: And just people who were so eager to talk to us - so astonished that we would show up at their doors. I mean, radio stations, TV stations - just never had the opportunity to have a relationship with anyone before.

LAWRENCE: I mean, Felisa is a hit. And she gets invited on to TV shows.


F. HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: Sort of like an Afghan "Iron Chef" show, except they call it the "Golden Chef," which sounds nicer anyway.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Dari).

NURISTANI: An American woman on Afghan TV - who is she?

WARNER: Aman says people were pretty stunned to see her. And so was his friend Rahim Wahidullah.

RAHIM WAHIDULLAH: You suddenly see this lovely lady participating in a cooking show.

LAWRENCE: And then there's actually this one Afghan TV producer...

NEMAT HAIDARI: My name is Nemat Haidari.

LAWRENCE: ...Who has got an idea that fits with her perfectly.


F. HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: He's trying to help people understand each other through food.


F. HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

HAIDARI: I want to change the mind of the people.

LAWRENCE: And he has been banging on the doors of the American military saying, why don't you guys send me someone who could do this TV show and help sort of...

HAIDARI: Share the experience.

LAWRENCE: And every time he does this, the military people are like, oh, well, I can't really do that, or I need to get permission. But then he asked Felisa and she says, oh, yeah, I'll do that.

F. HERVEY: (Laughter).

LAWRENCE: So Felisa ends up cooking, like, a family recipe, which is this tea cake.

HAIDARI: Farzana...

LAWRENCE: They call her Farzana.

HAIDARI: ...Make the dishes. She read this poem on the program.

LAWRENCE: She's doing this thing where you'd expect on a cooking show, and she's showing you how you measure this much, and then you put it in. Then you bake it. But the whole time, she's managing to, with great agility, slip in these little parables and Afghan sayings and things like that about corruption and good governance.


F. HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: But she's doing while she's cooking a tea cake. Like, at one point, she says, imagine if there's a little bit of poison in that dough, it will ruin the entire cake. And that's how corruption is, too. It's like poison.


F. HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

HAIDARI: Farzana for everyone is popular. You know, when she's walking in the street, buys something in the shop, everybody's, oh, Farzana, last night I saw you on our program on the TV, you know.

WARNER: One thing that made Felisa so good at these public appearances - besides her charisma and her ability to speak Dari - was her deep knowledge of Afghan poetry.


F. HERVEY: (Reading in Dari).

LAWRENCE: The thing about Afghans is that they really like poetry.


F. HERVEY: (Reading in Dari).

LAWRENCE: Felisa sent us this tape of her reading a 13th century Afghan poem about how all humanity is one big family.


F. HERVEY: (Reading in Dari).

I have never spoken the first words of those verses to an Afghan and not had them reply with the rest.


LAWRENCE: Afghans, they use poetry when they're talking all the time. All my friends will drop little bits of poetry.


F. HERVEY: Poetry here in Afghanistan is more powerful...

WARNER: And the Taliban are total masters of this, too. They know exactly how to push the buttons of Afghans, especially young Afghan men. And they do it with poetry.


F. HERVEY: If we can reference these poets and their poetry, our communication can be infinitely more persuasive, more effective, more influential. And I speak from experience because I've seen it countless, countless times.

LAWRENCE: What was really telling for me is that H.R. McMaster also felt that maybe she was someone who could as an individual affect the outcome of this war.

H R MCMASTER: OK. I hate to plunge right into it because I would love to shoot the brief.

LAWRENCE: To see McMaster, who is this huge bald guy, busting out of his suit - I mean, he won a famous tank battle in the Gulf War. He was giving absolutely no interviews while he's at the Trump White House. He was willing to talk to me just about Felisa.

MCMASTER: Her deep knowledge of culture and history of the region allowed her to make analogies to Persian literature and poetry and - which of course had a striking effect on most Afghans (laughter). It was a joke. And as I said, it would have the same effect as if a dog talked to us (laughter) in English.

F. HERVEY: They would reiterate over and over how they always got the Taliban's talking points within hours after an event but had to knock down our doors to get a response from us. And they said, this is not good for you (laughter). And we said, you're right.

MCMASTER: What Felisa was able to do is to counter enemy propaganda and then to help grow the legitimacy and effectiveness of our efforts there as we worked alongside Afghans to help secure their country.

LAWRENCE: McMaster - he's thinking of her as a weapon. He wants to set her up essentially to be...

MCMASTER: The spokesperson for the command.

LAWRENCE: Like, the spokesman for the entire American coalition military to communicate their vision to the Afghans. He's basically saying, we've got this young captain, and she could actually hold her own in a fight with the Taliban over how the U.S. is perceived in Afghanistan.

MCMASTER: It was on track. She was going to be the civil society adviser to commander of ISAF.

LAWRENCE: But Felisa's 18-month extension is almost up. McMaster's on his way back to the states now because his time is up.

WAHIDULLAH: I remember telling Tim, make sure what you have started continues.

WARNER: More ROUGH TRANSLATION right after this break.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. And where we left off, Felisa was all set to become the spokesperson to the Afghans for the military. But first, Tim says, she needed another extension from the Air Force.

KIRK: We were pushing.

WARNER: And General McMaster had to go home, so she has a new general in charge of her fate.

LAWRENCE: It comes back to the thing where you've got, like, you know, Captain Mike coming in, and he's promising everybody we're going to do this or that. And then the next year, Captain John comes, and he says, forget about everything Captain Mike said; I'm going to do this better.

KIRK: I went to see the Air Force commander, the two-star. I say, how many but sirs do I get here? Because but, sir, this is a huge opportunity we're missing.

LAWRENCE: Tim's appeals to the Air Force to let Felisa stay in Afghanistan were denied.

KIRK: The Air Force decided to send her to Florida instead.

LAWRENCE: To do...

KIRK: Public affairs.


KIRK: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: After two years, basically, the Air Force says, your time is up. You got to go home.

KIRK: Are you crazy?

WARNER: We reached out to the two-star star general, the former Air Force commander who decided to send her to Florida. His office took a while to get back to us, but finally they wrote an email. The general had, quote, "exercised his responsibility to manage expeditionary force readiness during that time."

KIRK: I went to her and said, you got to go home.

LAWRENCE: And that's actually when Tim and Felisa sat down to make this audio diary...

KIRK: And I will, again, talk more about that in our next recording.

F. HERVEY: Right.

LAWRENCE: ...To sort of make an oral history of what they had done.

KIRK: We'll go further with some cool stories and memories next.

LAWRENCE: And then Felisa's sent by the Air Force back to Florida. But she never gets to Florida. Her commission is up, and she submits her resignation.

WARNER: That was in 2012. A couple years later, they're both in the U.S. Felisa is getting her Ph.D. in Afghan women's poetry. She's also started an NGO aiming to foster partnerships with Americans and Afghans. Tim is also retired from the military after 21 years of service, but he is keeping tabs on what is going on inside Afghanistan. And what's really ramping up at this time - it's now 2014 - is something called insider attacks.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Eight American troops and a contractor have been shot and killed by an Afghan air...

LAWRENCE: An insider attack - or a green-on-blue - is when someone who's assumed to be an Afghan ally picks up a gun and kills an American, usually on a base.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: For the seventh time this year, Afghan troops have turned on American and NATO forces.

LAWRENCE: Some of these really are Taliban infiltrators. But others are really more spontaneous. Like, it's just a regular Afghan who is in the military and who's maybe been just soaking up a lot of disrespect by these American soldiers based in Afghanistan all these years.

So they're on thin ice when they get there.

KIRK: Very thin ice.

LAWRENCE: And then a lot of these insider attacks end up being the wrong word said - you know, not knowing the basics of etiquette and respect in the local language.

KIRK: That's right.

LAWRENCE: And so Tim is back home. And he's watching this, and he's seeing these American troops dying in these insider attacks. And he's thinking...

KIRK: Guys, stop. Stop. Stop. Understand that you're on that thin ice, OK? They already assume that you're a coward and a liar. So now how do you break that?

LAWRENCE: At the end of 2014, Tim goes back as a contractor. Every time America goes to war now, there is an equal if not bigger army of civilian contractors who go along with them. And he convinces the higher-ups to let him give a series of lectures to American troops on exactly the things he wants them to know.


KIRK: Today, we have very different sort of class. And you may be asking yourself, why are we talking about art and poetry? I mean, we're all warriors, right? We're security assistants, right?

LAWRENCE: So Tim is back in Afghanistan, but so much has changed from the Afghanistan that he left. Just, the Taliban have taken up so much more territory. And the American troop presence has shrunk down. And there's a sense at home that this war has just gone on way too long.


RON PAUL: Get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war.


ED RENDELL: Our troops are tired and worn out.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My son's over there now. I don't think we should even be there.

LAWRENCE: No one's talking about the Petraeus Directive. General Petraeus is gone. General McMaster is gone. All of these champions drinking tea with the Afghans are gone. Now Tim doesn't mind being the lone voice screaming in the wilderness, but he does think, maybe there's somebody who ought to be here screaming in the wilderness alongside with me. So when another contract opens up, he calls Felisa. He says, hey.

KIRK: If you're interested in this, it's in the old office, you know?

LAWRENCE: She said, oh, you know, I'm doing my dissertation. She's all but dissertation at this point...

KIRK: Wow.

LAWRENCE: ...On Afghan women's poetry. He says, come on over. You can finish your dissertation at night. You've got to do this. And Felisa misses the work. She misses Afghanistan, and so she says, OK.

WARNER: When Tim promised Felisa that this job was in the old office, he was not kidding. They're in exactly the same office where they started their work together under McMaster - same wall, same furniture. The one difference, and at first it just seems like a formality, is that the job is privatized. Before, she was wearing military fatigues, the uniform of the Air Force. Now she's in civilian clothes.


LAWRENCE: Almost right away, it becomes apparent that the people that they are interacting with on the military side don't get it, aren't interested, are not helping them at all - quite the opposite.

KIRK: We were both being harassed.

LAWRENCE: And this time, Tim isn't, you know, a colonel anymore. His status has kind of shrunk.

KIRK: The first time, I was a colonel.

LAWRENCE: And he just can't call up his boss at the Pentagon now and pull some levers.

KIRK: When you're a contractor, you're alone and unafraid. I mean, it's (snaps fingers) one thing and you're out, and your security clearance is gone, and you're done.

LAWRENCE: They don't want to give up. They still think that they're doing some good. And so Tim is sort of doing his best to sort of lower the stress level on his team. He gets them together every Friday night for, like, pizza and a movie.

KIRK: So we just finished the movie.

LAWRENCE: And they were watching the movie "Idiocracy."

KIRK: And as we're wrapping up, you know, picking up the pizza boxes and - one of the other team members walks in and says, hey, Tim, you need to go to the clinic. I guess they found Felisa on the ground, and she...

LAWRENCE: They'd found Felisa. And she's collapsed on the grounds of the base. And so Tim rushes over to the clinic.

KIRK: And when I saw her, I did not think it was her. Then I realized that her hair was totally covered with vomit and had stuck to her head and that she had defecated and was in this grand mal seizure. And...

LAWRENCE: The aid station there is saying, what kind of drugs was she on? What kind of drugs does she do? And he's saying...

KIRK: What the hell?

LAWRENCE: She's a missionary child. She never - doesn't drink, doesn't do any - that's impossible. They're saying, no, no, she's having - she's clearly having some sort of a drug overdose.

KIRK: Presumption was another junkie-type thing.

LAWRENCE: So they managed to get her up to Bagram Air Base, which is a quick chopper ride away.

KIRK: We get to Bagram, and we started the wait.

LAWRENCE: Because she's not in a uniform. She's wearing civilian clothes.

KIRK: Having sporadic grand mal seizures, and nothing's happening.

LAWRENCE: Felisa is not a priority here at this military hospital.

KIRK: I said, God damn it. That woman is an United States Air Force Academy graduate and a captain with a Bronze Star and two years' service in Afghanistan. There are diagnostic procedures that need to be performed.


KIRK: At about the three-hour point was when they put her into the CT scan. And exactly the four-hour point was when they diagnosed stroke.


LAWRENCE: There's no way we can explain why she had a stroke. No doctor would've predicted that this woman in perfect health would have had a blood clot that would shoot up to her brain. A couple years earlier, she is about to become the spokesperson for the entire American military to the country of Afghanistan, and now she's lying on a cot in this hospital at an air base in Afghanistan having grand mal seizures.


LAWRENCE: It just shows you how far everything that she and Tim are trying to do has fallen in importance to the whole American mission.

WARNER: Tim sent Quil an email later. I just want to read a little bit of it. It says, quote, "injuries are, in a sense, supposed to happen in a combat realm. You don't ever expect them. But when they happen, you just somehow know what to do without thinking about it. Plus, everyone is there to help." But in Felisa's case, he says, it was different. Quote, "this isn't a uniformed person, so there's no rush."


LAWRENCE: If she had still been in uniform, she would've been medevaced straight up to Bagram and then flown straight to Germany, where the U.S. military has this huge hospital that takes casualties straight from the war zone. But she's a civilian, so they can't make a special flight for her, and the next flight isn't until the next day.

KIRK: That's in 36 hours.

WARNER: Tim decides he's going to take things into his own hands. He can take her to a hospital in Dubai because there's a flight to Dubai leaving soon.

LAWRENCE: Well, Dubai's a super-modern place. Tim is thinking, let's go there and do that. And they land in Dubai in August.

KIRK: It's hotter than anything.

LAWRENCE: Felisa has been mostly out of consciousness.

KIRK: We load her up in the ambulance, and we get going. And I'm like, hey, man, turn on the AC 'cause she is burning up.

LAWRENCE: And the driver says, oh, we don't have air conditioning.

KIRK: A stroke patient.

LAWRENCE: So they drive an hour with no AC with someone who's just had a stroke. And he gets all the water bottles and IV bags and everything they can, and they keep dripping her with fluid and fanning her with a file folder to try and keep her temperature down. They get to the hospital in Dubai, and it's a pit. They're going to try and draw blood from her, and no one's wearing gloves.

KIRK: No masks, no gloves, no headpiece.

LAWRENCE: And he's thinking, I got to get Felisa out of here.


LAWRENCE: So Tim's on and off the phone with Felisa's family. And Felisa's dad figures out that there's a really good hospital just three hours away. But the hospital that she's in won't release her. They say they have to get paid first. And Tim is worried that if he tries to take her out - he knows corruption, and he's wondering, does this corruption extend to the local police? He's wondering if they're going to be arrested. So he's stuck.

WARNER: Tim is no longer military, but he's still in his heart an Afghan hand. And so he reaches out to his Afghan friends.

WAHIDULLAH: We introduced Tim to our friend in Dubai. And we said, don't ask any questions; whatever Tim needs, provide it.

LAWRENCE: Tim told me that he called up, and he asked for money, cars and guns, right?


KIRK: I need a Suburban, 20 grand and four rifles.

LAWRENCE: They bribe an ambulance driver and a nurse and a doctor to escort them out.

KIRK: And at midnight, we snuck out of that hospital, put her in that ambulance, and then me and the Afghans rode chase in the Suburban.

LAWRENCE: After all this ordeal, Tim and Felisa roll into the hospital in Abu Dhabi at the Cleveland Clinic. And in the middle of the night, they're greeted by just what you'd want to see - like, this whole team of doctors and nurses wearing clean, white lab coats. And immediately, it just seems like...

KIRK: She was safe. Finally, she was safe.


F. HERVEY: Muffin or later? Now or...

LAWRENCE: Muffin. Muffin.

F. HERVEY: All right.

LAWRENCE: And I'll have coffee, too.


LAWRENCE: She is now at home.

WARNER: Three years have passed, and Felisa is living with her sister Emily in a little house in Arizona decked out with Afghan carpets and lined with bookshelves. Quil and producer Jess Jiang went to visit her.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: What kind of muffins are they?

F. HERVEY: Cranberry. No.


F. HERVEY: Really?

E. HERVEY: Yeah, yeah.

LAWRENCE: Is cranberry a word that you get stuck on?

F. HERVEY: All the time.




Her condition is called aphasia, which is loss of speech without loss of intellect.

F. HERVEY: I love Afghanistan - simple; war, sad, but heart - tie.

LAWRENCE: Even just to say you know, a simple sentence, she'll write some stuff, and she'll get a couple of words out, and some of the words will be wrong.

F. HERVEY: So - a head, but it's trapped. I can't talk.


E. HERVEY: You've got it. It's just getting it out.

F. HERVEY: I know, but...

LAWRENCE: This is...

F. HERVEY: ...A long time, a long time.

LAWRENCE: She says that she can read English slowly and that reading Dari is very difficult for her. I asked her.

Do you feel the same, you're the same person?

F. HERVEY: Yeah. But books - books. Come on.

LAWRENCE: And then she took me to a room full of books of Persian poetry.

F. HERVEY: I love reading, but - but see; all poems. But I can't read.


WARNER: When people look back on that period of the war, the launch of Afghan Hands and the Petraeus directive about drinking tea, it's easy to just shrug your shoulders. Engaging didn't work. Counterinsurgency did not work. What Felisa and Tim would say is that we never really gave it a try, never had enough language experts, never had enough listening sessions. The Afghan Hands program is still going, by the way, but at a fraction of its numbers, and everyone agrees it's going to be winding down.

LAWRENCE: Tim says he wishes he'd never heard the word Afghanistan. I'm not sure he means that, but it's just more like he's not sure it was worth the price. And that's kind of the sentiment that you hear from Americans now about the war in Afghanistan. But Felisa does not seem to be haunted by these doubts. She's not only trying to relearn English. She's trying to relearn Dari, as well, and finish her dissertation.

F. HERVEY: OK. It's time.

LAWRENCE: She gets up, and she crosses the living room.

JIANG: What is it time for?

LAWRENCE: And she picks up two pieces of paper off a table.

F. HERVEY: Unex (ph)...

LAWRENCE: It's a new poem she wrote.

F. HERVEY: Unexpected.

LAWRENCE: ...About a mulberry tree in her own backyard.

F. HERVEY: Barren.

LAWRENCE: ...That got destroyed by fire.

F. HERVEY: Backyard.


F. HERVEY: Brick by brick, new life. Scoop. God left a gift, a taste of Afghanistan. (Foreign language spoken). May you be alive.


WARNER: Today's show was produced by Jess Jiang. Our editor is Marianne McCune. Many people listened to this piece and made it better. Thank you to Hanna Rosin, Elliot Ackerman, Habib Zahori, Jason Dempsey, John Dorrian, Kael Weston, Kendrick Robbins (ph), Alex Goldmark, Alison MacAdam, Laura Starecheski, Mufu Subedi (ph), Maria Abi-Habib, Mark Katkov, Sana Krasikov, Sarah Han (ph) and Shoaib Sharifi. Thanks also to Robin Ryczek and the Afghan National Institute of Music, and to Emily Hervey for her help in meeting her sister Felisa. The ROUGH TRANSLATION high table is Neal Carruth, Mathilde Piard and Anya Grundmann. Sarah Knight fact-checked this episode. Mastering by Andy Huether. If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It helps people find the show. Drop us your thoughts or even your story at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter - @Roughly. I'm Gregory Warner - back next week with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.


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