Lt. Lauren Luckey overcomes obstacles to visit a girls school in the Afghan village of Nari, but the mission brings risks as well as rewards. Mark Schapiro talks by Skype with journalist Mimi Wells on assignment for CIR in Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

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TRANSCRIPT:

Mark Schapiro: So it’s nice to see you again, Mimi. You’ve gone out as well with Luckey, who is with the female engagement team. How is that unfolding?

Mimi Wells: I went on a patrol of the village of Nari, right across the river from (Forward Operating Base) Bostick. We ­– again, as I said, we go with 16 guys and four trucks. We drove out in a convoy of four cars. We drove out – and your mind, you’re thinking, “Shouldn’t we be walking? It’s so close,” but you need the trucks because they provide support fire if you come under attack.

We got to the village, and she proceeded to have a meeting that was all men, and she was trying to convince these local leaders to let her get a project going for the widows.

Lt. Lauren Luckey: Not just I give them money, but a sustainable job so they can provide for their families for years to come.

Wells: And that’s actually one of challenges Lt. Luckey faces: There’s no female for her to work with. She’s always working with men. And in Afghanistan, you’re valued by two things: one, your gender; two, your age.

Luckey: I’m talking about providing them with a sustainable job.

Wells: We went through an intense several hours of negotiating for us to get security to go to the girls school. The Afghan national police commander was extremely concerned. He wanted us to ride in his trucks with his people. And Lt. Luckey went out of the room, and she was liaisoning with her security, and her security said, “Absolutely not,” and she turned to me and she said, you know, “Basically, it’s better if we walk on foot and then if something happens, we’re just going to storm into a house and take it over.”

It’s raining, this cold road. We approached the village, and the worst part is you have to cross this bridge, and on the bridge, there is absolutely no cover. We’re not covered by the trucks.

So we get to this girls school, and, you know, with the helmet and the hair – they wear their hair pulled back so tightly – they have the glasses, and these women are all carrying M4 rifles. They look intimidating; they look fierce.

The engagement we did that day was pretty limited. Luckey ended up handing out pens and backpacks, and she was sort of ferried about from classroom to classroom without any real meaningful dialogue with the girls.

Luckey: Can you tell them to share, Sahar?

Wells: We did go into one room, though, where the girls were learning English, and one of the girls got up and she read a couple words on the chalkboard.

Afghan girl: This is an apple.

Wells: And Lt. Luckey was so impressed, she brought that up several times to me.  

Luckey: They’re learning English. Like, I know five words of Pashtu, and you’re learning English? And can speak to me in English? It was amazing.

Wells: And then at the end, the principal said, “Look, these backpacks and pens are fine and well, but what we really need is someone to come here and fix the well.”

Translator: The water, the main thing to focus on – they need a well, to get some help with the well. …

The most important thing is the water that you can focus on.

Wells: Meanwhile, while this is going on, she’s getting radioed that we need to hurry up and get out of there.

Luckey: So we’ve got to hurry up. There’s a bad guy outside the gate.

Wells: Because there was a huge crowd amassing now outside the school doors, and they had identified one Taliban, and then about 10 minutes later, they identified two, and by the last count, there were four.  

Beyond our own safety, which Luckey always takes in her mind and deals with every day, is the safety of the girls. Those girls that talked to us stayed there in that village.

Luckey: I’m here to help them. So I really have to weigh the risk to the benefit. And I have to protect their culture, too. That’s why we go so slow. Is what I’m doing, is it really helping them? Or am I hurting them? And that’s really what I have to live with every day.

Mimi Wells

Mimi Wells is a multimedia journalist based out of New York. In May 2011, she graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She then studied Pashtu on a scholarship from the South Asia Language Institute. In September 2011, Mimi traveled to eastern Afghanistan with the support of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Her writing and photography have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, CNN.com and The New York Times.

Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.