Ms. Norley is someone who has impressed me, and she will grab you as well.
Women to the front
Iraq? I was there-no shit. Was going there something I had dreamt of as a young girl? No it was not. But real things happen in real life. The reality of my life as a young, free, American woman came into focus the moment my country was attacked by terrorists on September 11,2001. It was at that moment I understood what people meant when describing finding one's own purpose in life. I felt it.
A new willingness to commit myself to a cause I believed in, led me to make the best decision of my life-joining the United States Army. Some who knew me questioned my decision and doubted my ability to survive in the armed services. One thing I've learned is it's too common, for people to make assumptions and form opinions about issues they know nothing about.
Well I was in Iraq and I know what I saw.
I served with the 1st Cavalry Division based out of Ft Hood, TX as a combat medic, my assigned responsibilities changed daily in accordance with the op tempo. Some days consisted of performing routine convoys, working sick call, providing medical care to wounded at various entrance gates of FOBS, sometimes working alongside Mortuary Affair teams in identifying bodies, but all too often to accompany combat patrols.
I was asked to join a civil affairs convoy and meet with local Iraqi women studying at the University of Baghdad Veterinary School. I immediately agreed not knowing just what the interaction would be, or the significance this chance meeting would ultimately have on my Several female Iraqi students had asked to speak freely with an American soldier of their gender. While a simple request, acting in response was a fairly tall order.
In order for this meeting to happen a willing, experienced female translator was essential, as well as perimeter security surrounding the University, the classroom, and also personal security providing safety for my presence once inside. I arrived in a classroom of 8 women (originally 20 had been in attendance, some left in fear of their own safety for purposely meeting with me) and felt like the Pope of Rome with the private security detail assigned me. Acting alone with solely my translator Layla (as she chose to be called while working alongside coalition forces), I stood before these women feeling blank. Aside from the classroom being so different from those I was familiar with, it seemed as if finding a starting point might be a bit tough-we were all nervous as hell!
So I un-slung my M-16 from my shoulder, removed my Kevlar, OTV, and without hesitation let down my hair from a fixed bun and smiled. Instantly, I was encompassed by smiles all around as the female students spoke to Layla asking for permission to be face-to-face with me. From there came a sort-of show and tell consisting of my hair being touched and analyzed, my hands examined, and a relay session of Q&A wrapped with more innocence and excitement than ever before. So much shock and awe felt for all there as we spoke freely with each other through the gift of Layla's translation. Remember the times way back when of being encouraged to follow your dreams, no matter how far-off they may have seemed? Well seeing was believing that day over the exchange of shared hopes and learning of experiences detailing the beauty of freedoms once unimagined. While I didn't exactly cite anything remotely comparable to the "I Have A Dream" speech, I encouraged them as best I could to not give up in their own pursuit of happiness and a better life. I offered them motivation and promises of an existence and conditions other than that of cruel oppression. Never once suggesting the deterrence from Islam, but expressing the significance in learning of rights experienced by women outside of Iraq. In parting, we were no longer strangers. We ended on shared tears, smiles, and commitments from us all to never give up on ourselves.
Years later, deep memories of that day remained along with the desire to learn if improvements had been made in the lives of those women I had once met with; those fellow females, my friends. On March 10, 2008, I attended International Women's Day hosted by our President at The White House. That day a handful of women from around the world were honored for a variety of accomplishments made despite the cultural practice of gender inequality. I recognized from the program provided that one of those to be honored was an Iraqi woman, and following the ceremony attended the reception in hopes of introducing myself as a former visitor who had met with Iraqi women. In the midst of those in attendance my eyes locked by chance with the Iraqi woman. With no exaggeration, time seemed to literally stop. Despite an unknown familiarity shared by us both and without any hesitation we approached one another.
At that moment, both eyes and mouths smiled as this women unveiled her appreciation for my visit several years back at the University of Baghdad. I couldn't believe this was really happening!! "I never forgot what you said", she spoke in perfect English. It was then we reached out to embrace in the midst of heavy tears. What are the chances of both our paths crossing again? Not to mention the likelihood of being in attendance at The White House unknowingly for the honor of a friend once surviving under agonizing conditions. I listened as this beautiful woman beamed with courage and happiness. She explained after having met, she was determined to better the life of herself and her family by researching the freedoms experienced by women from around the world and the influence they were able to have in their own community by doing so. From that she pushed herself through school and earned her degree as a PhD. Hearing this news all the while seeing into her eyes was the proof of success. It was real, and I felt it too.