After Afghan Service, Soldier Says That If Called, She’d Go Again

As night fell on Bagram Air Base in Northeast Afghanistan, Pennsylvania Army National Guard Maj. Kathryn Brill, 55, was wrapping things up after a long, hard day. While walking back to the small cluster of plastic yellow tents that the soldiers called home, it happened in a flash: Insurgents hit a remote area of the base with a series of rockets.

Brill, a Jewish resident of Overbrook Park, knew that even though the rockets missed their intended target, her long, hard day of work had just turned into an even longer, probably harder night.

Everyone on the 32-acre base stirred to life. As described by Brill after a Sept. 18 talk at Congregation Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park, soldiers ran to their positions in watch towers, while others who had seen or heard something reported their findings to Brill and her unit. After analyzing the intelligence, the soldiers pinpointed the source of the rocket attack in a small village nearby.

"It's like putting together pieces to a puzzle," said Brill, a small, thin woman with short graying hair, who spent 12 months in Afghanistan. She returned to the United States in April of 2004.

The morning after the attack, American soldiers brought in the village warlord for questioning; Brill was assigned to the interrogation.

"I think they wanted to put him under more pressure to show that the Americans were not going be pushed around," said Brill, who knew that Afghan culture and the stream of Islam practiced there do not look favorably on women in positions of power. "We just wanted to take him out of his comfort zone."

But guilt or innocence is not so easily determined in that part of the world, according to Brill.

As it turned out, the warlord, who was expected to keep a tight rein on his village, had also been involved with the American effort to fight soldiers affiliated with the deposed Taliban regime.

"There's a very fine line between who's working with us and who's an insurgent," said Brill, who had to let the man in question go free. "People who work with us can be the same individuals who are doing things to undermine the American goals. Sometimes, the same people are playing different roles."

Brill told the congregants that Afghanistan had been devastated by the decade-long war with the Soviet Union, which ended in 1989, only to be ravaged yet again during the Taliban's oppressive rule. That regime, which was accused by the U.S. government of harboring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, lasted from 1996 until the American invasion in 2001.

The constant warfare killed off a good number of Afghans, so that today, "around 75 percent of the people are under age 30," said Brill. There are "at least two generations that have known only war. In the cities, there is just about nothing left; it looks like something out of the Bible."

During her tour of duty, Brill frequently met with Afghan warlords and village elders in an effort to rebuild the country.

At Beth T'fillah, she showed congregants pictures of her and other American soldiers eating with Afghans; Brill again underscored how rare, from a cultural viewpoint, such interactions between women and local leaders were.

"It's very difficult to identify friend or foe. They are very cordial and gracious on the surface, but I didn't feel very trusting of that," she recalled. "I felt my life was in danger sometimes."

'Prepared Me Well'
Brill added that in such exchanges, she was in no hurry to discuss her Jewish heritage.

"I was pretty careful not to say anything about religion," she said, "about theirs or mine."

"Judaism prepared me well for it," she continued. As Jews, "we're used to being undervalued, misrepresented. I've learned to handle those things."

As far as her living conditions were concerned, the officer was also forced to "handle" the less than luxurious conditions: She slept in a plastic tent with five other women.

"It flaps a lot in the wind," she said after the talk. "Frequently, there's leaks in it. Parts of it flood when it rains."

When the topic turned to overall troop morale and Brill's assessment of the American war effort, the soldier was optimistic.

"Overall, I think the morale is very high overseas," she said. "Most of us believe in what we are doing strongly. We can see the difference that we're making."

Since returning to her home in Overbrook Park, she has reclaimed her job as the chief of recreation at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Since her time in Afghanistan, she has been promoted to lieutenant colonel, and has transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve.

Unmarried with no children, Brill joked that she is wed to the military.

"We train very hard, as if we'll be there again," she said. "If we were called, I'd go again."



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