Danielle Bayar: Part 2
During Danielle's second deployment to Afghanistan she deployed as a member of a Cultural Support Team. As a CST member, she was attached to Army Special Operations units and would work with Afghan women. She also discusses some of the challenges of being gay in the military.
Part 1 of Danielle's interview can be found here.
Interview conducted on March 15, 2015 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Danielle Bayar
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: So let’s move onto your second deployment to Afghanistan. You said it was in 2012, correct?
Danielle Bayar: Yes. That’s right.
RH: What was your mission while you were there?
DB: As a member of the Cultural Support Team, I was deployed with another female soldier, an officer, and our job was to link up with Special Operations teams and go on patrols with them. We would reach out to females in the Afghan population in order to gain atmospherics in order to gain a sense of what was going on in their communities, what their concerns were, what their challenges were, how they viewed the local authorities, the security situation in the area, that kind of thing. Basically, interact with Afghan women in a way that these all-male teams could not do. So that was our basic function, our mission.
RH: I know in the US there is this image of Afghan women as oppressed or somehow maybe second-class citizens. Did you find that to be true or how was your experience interacting with women in Afghanistan?
DB: Well, yes. I would say there’s a lot of truth to that unfortunately. That does not mean that Afghan women are not a very diverse group. We had some very impressive women indeed. We met a woman who was very much a leader in her community from what we could tell and I believe she had some real clout in her community. But by and large it would be difficult to overlook the challenges that these women have to overcome on a daily basis. I believe they really are treated as second-class citizens and there’s no getting around that. Their ability to travel, just to be outside of their homes unaccompanied by a male, in many ways is quite limited.
That’s just one example of the many challenges that they face. Women without husbands, who have lost their husbands, if they don’t remarry someone else in his family or someone else, a lot of times they are left without the means of providing for themselves. In many ways they’re still very much at the whims of men, at least in the parts of Afghanistan that I was in which were the more rural parts outside of Kabul or Ghazni or the big cities.
RH: Did you notice that you were able to get them to open up to you and to work with you?
DB: A lot of the women were very open and very inviting, especially when we had the opportunity to come to their homes and try to build that rapport. We would even dance with them sometimes and have fun with them and really try to establish that trust.
I’m sorry, what was your original question?
RH: I was just wondering about your relationship with women. Were they open to military members even if you were with the US? I actually didn’t work with any Iraqi women and nobody that I have ever spoken to has worked with women in Afghanistan so this is all extremely interesting, an aspect I haven’t covered yet.
DB: Sure. So on a typical patrol I would say they were welcoming. They would invite my partner and I – my female partner and I – they would identify us as female partly by the hair. We were encouraged in the CST program to grow our hair out so that Afghan women could see our hair buns and could identify us as women. I have short hair but I’m so tiny [laughs] that I’m sure there is no mistaking me for a man. If the environment was permissive enough we would patrol without kevlars – our helmets. We would keep them on us but we would wear a head scarf. We’d keep a head scarf on us so that we could change into it when we were in protected compounds so that people could identify us as women.
Once they identified us as women, they would invite us into their compound. Typically we would have chai with them. We would have tea with them. As CST members we were trained on how to have a conversation, get to know them, try to engage with them in ways that try kind of give us an idea of what was going on in that area and try to build that relationship with them. They would often be quite open with us and quite engaging. Of course we had a female interpreter too – typically an Afghan woman who had lived in the states. Sometimes they would be American citizens, sometimes not. They were always a very critical member of the team and I actually highly recommend, if you can, include interpreters in your oral history project. I think that would be extremely valuable. But yes, we had a female interpreter with us.
They would ask questions about us, try to get a sense of what our lives were like. We would try to relate to each other as best we could. Typically we would talk about our families. We would talk about whether we were married, whether we had a boyfriend, and as you know Rich I’m gay and I had a fiancée at that time who is my wife now. But of course I would not say any of that in Afghanistan so I would stretch it a little bit. So I would not be lying to the extent possible [laughs] but I would keep it there. We would talk about how many children we had, how many children we wanted to have, about going to school and what we ultimately wanted to do with our lives. Whether we wanted to age or whatever. We just tried to relate to each other as best as we could.
They were not always welcoming. They were not naïve. They knew that we were soldiers. They knew that we were there with an intent and sometimes they were hostile to us. They would not be very cooperative. Not to say rude but you could tell that they didn’t really want to talk to us and they wouldn’t engage in conversations. We experienced that too.
RH: Did you receive any resistance or blowback from any of the men?
DB: The Afghan men?
DB: I think for the most part Afghan men were OK with the idea of female soldiers interacting with the women in their family. I can’t remember an instance in which an Afghan man said, “Hey! Don’t talk to my wife,” or, “Hey! I don’t want you talking to my wife,” or my sister, or whatnot. If anything our presence was meant to reassure the men and I think in many cases that worked so not only did we go out on patrols but we made our presence known at whatever VSP we were at – Village Stability Platform, which are smaller FOBs. I remember the FOBs being small on our first deployment but they get even smaller when you get to the VSP level.
So we would make our presence known so that women would come to us if they wanted to talk or, more likely, they wanted to get medical attention. We had some training from the safety program on very basic first aid kind of care. Under the direction of a male medic typically, we would help provide care to females on those bases as a way of helping out but also, of course, as a way to gain knowledge of what was happening in that vicinity around us. I think every so often we would have a male family member who was hesitant to let their family member go to the VSP but I think the presence of myself and my partner made them feel that, “OK. This would be appropriate. I feel a little bit more comfortable about this.” I can’t remember a situation in which an Afghan male said anything inappropriate or rude, at least to our faces, about us being female soldiers.
RH: I know that you were in a rural area but were you in the same area in the first deployment as you were in the second deployment?
DB: No. On the second deployment my partner and I were in Uruzgan province for the first couple of weeks. We then moved to Helmand province and then finally we moved to Farah province. We were deployed to different areas of the country to coordinate different teams.
RH: Did you notice any change in Afghanistan from your first deployment to your second deployment?
DB: Yes. Absolutely. The first night I think that we were at Bagram we had a mortar attack. I think we had a mortar attack the second night. The first couple of weeks we just took a lot of indirect fire. For my first deployment we had a few incidents of indirect fire but not with the frequency which I experienced it on the second deployment. It was like that when we got out to our assignments. I remember thinking, “Well, the security situation seems to have really deteriorated.” I knew that to be the case intellectually. [laughs] Anyone following Afghanistanknows that the situation certainly had not improved since 2007. That was certainly a wakeup call.
RH: Did the attitude of the Afghans change at all between your first and second deployment?
DB: You know, it’s hard to say because I was deployed to different parts of the country but I would say during my second deployment I experienced more hostility. But I would not necessarily extrapolate from that a difference of opinion. I mean, I would like to go back and see and read some of the things people have seen and what their attitudes were versus now towards working with the United States. Again, I was in a different part of the country on the second deployment.
RH: Were there any significant events that happened on your second deployment to Afghanistan aside from those you already talked about?
DB: Significant events? Yes. There were a few very memorable moments on my second deployment. I’m not sure I care to go into any detail of them though.
RH: Is there anything else about your second deployment that’s significant that I left out that you’d like to talk about?
DB: Let me see. I will say that it was really an honor and a privilege to be a part of that program. Going for tryouts for the CST program was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was ten days and it definitely tested you physically and mentally and in every other way. I was very proud to have completed that and been selected for the program. It was really inspiring and humbling to be around so many young female soldiers who had volunteered for this program and who were just really motivated to serve and go downrange. Many of them were right out of West Point and their commissioning program. There were a lot of officers in the program who were relatively new to the Army and eager to go downrange and get that experience. That was quite a different environment than I had been in other units. That was quite an experience. I’m very proud to have been a part of that program and to have met those ladies and deployed with them.
I know that a number of women who got back from my deployment ended up going into the medical field. I noticed that trend. A lot them have gone into nursing programs or training to become physicians’ assistants or something like that because a lot of the work that we did was orientated toward treating patients for trauma or assisting Afghan women with basic first aid. That sort of thing. I think our experiences downrange probably shaped how a lot of us viewed what we would like to do with our life’s work. I myself have not got into the medical profession since then. I’m back at the State Department but I have often thought since then about making sure I do something meaningful.
There’s one experience that does come to mind that I can talk about when I say I’d like to do something meaningful. It relates previously to your question about Afghan women and their status in society. There was a young lady that was brought into a VSP where my CST partner and I were stationed. She was foaming at the mouth and they had brought her to us for medical assistance. We saw that she was either unconscious or barely conscious. Clearly she was in serious distress. We got some of the medics to come and assist her at the aid station. We did what we could for her and it looked like she had overdosed on some opium.
We spoke with her grandmother who was there through our interpreter and we got these bits and pieces of the story as we were trying to assist her. It looked like she had been married to an older man who abused her frightfully. It was probably a forced marriage. She decided that she couldn’t take it anymore and there was no way out for her. They don’t have divorces over there. They don’t have the right in some places to say who they can marry and who they don’t. So her only way out was trying to kill herself and that’s what she did.
But we got her stabilized, as I recall. I remember being at the gates of the VSP and speaking with her family, the medics and one of our team leaders. A bunch of us were trying to speak with the family to convince them to pay for a cab to get her to the nearest hospital so she could get proper medical treatment because she was not out of danger yet. We didn’t have the medical resources to deal with a drug overdose at our location. And the family didn’t want to pay for it. A cab ride wasn’t worth it to them. I think they had the resources but women are not worth all that much to some people in that part of the world. At least that’s how I remember it. It’s not a matter of whether they could spend the resources.
And so, a bunch of us soldiers, we collected our resources and I think we offered to pay for it or half of it. I can’t remember exactly how it turned out. I remember hearing later that that young lady had passed away either in transit to the hospital or perhaps not in transit at all because she never made it there. That definitely made an impression on me. She was a very beautiful young lady as well. But seeing what she thought she had to do to get out of a hopeless situation and how her family reacted to that. I know her grandmother was quite upset throughout this whole thing and I don’t necessarily think there was an issue that her family didn’t love her but it was a very interesting experience for me and of course a heartbreaking one. It is certainly something that inspires you to want to change the way the world is.
As a matter of fact a few weeks ago at the State Department I had the privilege of meeting a young lady, probably not much older than the young woman who passed away at the VSP, and she was the first Afghan woman to be a pilot in the Afghan military. She had come to the State Department in Washington to receive a Woman of Courage award and I made sure to get my photo with her. [laughs] She’s a Captain. I think she’s about twenty years old so it was quite impressive. It’s great to be at the State Department and be sometimes in a position to be promoting women’s rights.
RH: We’re going to go ahead and change gears a little bit and talk about coming home. In the reserves, do you go straight back into civilian life or do you have a little decompression period. How does that work?
DB: I have not had very good experiences with redeployment, I must say. I’ve heard horror stories about other people’s experiences so I know I don’t have it as bad as some people. In particular I do not suffer from PTSD and I know a lot soldiers do. I know some have had trouble getting the treatment that they need.
That being said though, when I returned home from my first Afghanistan deployment it was the height of the Iraq war and when we got to Fort Bragg it seemed as though people had overlooked us. They forgot we were coming or had not planned adequately for it and it was extremely disorganized. It took us weeks and weeks to out-process where, really, it could have all been done in a week. So imagine being home for the first time in a year and not being able to see your family for almost another month out of sheer disorganization. So that was frustrating for us.
My second deployment coming back from Uganda, that process actually went pretty smoothly because we were a smaller unit redeploying from a non-combat environment so it was a little bit easier for us.
Coming home from the CST program, it was mostly fine. It’s always a difficult process readjusting. By that time it was already almost 2013 so the Army had a lot of experience with trying to offer soldiers the resources that they need. But one of the things that they make you do, for example, is a post-deployment type assessment or something like that. You fill out a questionnaire and they ask you all these questions about your mental health and you get on the phone with a mental health provider with a list of questions, “Have you done this, have you done that? Have you seen a dead body? Have you been engaged in combat? Do you sleep at night?” And it just feels so impersonal. I can’t imagine anyone actually using those venues to actually seek help. Now I could be mistaken because I’ve never tried to use them myself.
When I first got back and I was trying to process a couple of things that I had been through, I considered trying to reach out and really talk to someone and get evaluated but it just felt like they were going through the motions. I felt like I would just fall into some system and I didn’t want to do that. I worked things out on my own and I’m perfectly OK today but I know the Army is struggling with how to help soldiers that do have serious mental health issues. I know the Army is trying to bring down the suicide rate but they might need to think about how to take a bit more of a personal approach and underscore to soldiers that they really are there to help and they really do care.
RH: I have a couple of spiritual questions. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
DB: Well, certainly deploying has taught me that you can never take tomorrow for granted. Someone who you say goodbye to before they head out on a mission or you head out on a mission, isn’t necessarily someone that you are going to see again. So you learn that mortality is a very real thing. I think it’s a healthy lesson to learn. I’m very grateful that I’ve had the experiences that I’ve had, such as they are. I think if anything it’s made me value what I do have back here in the States. It has definitely made me value things a lot more. I think it’s made me want to be the kind of person who can be counted on in a life or death situation and I’m not quite sure I’m there yet.
I got back from my Uganda deployment and I took an EMT course. I’m constantly looking for opportunities to improve myself so I can be someone that can perform in those kinds of situations because deployment has taught me that this happens. It happens here in the United States. You can be in a car crash. You could see someone else in a car crash. Someone might have to rely on you in those kinds of situations. I value the training that I’ve gotten and I hope I never have to use it but I think that it would really benefit everyone to get trained in certain things like CPR, basic trauma, that sort of thing, and to be able to use it if necessary.
But more than that, I think a lot of people walk around without appreciating how truly fragile life can be and they try to separate death and pretend that it’s not a part of life. I think that’s a very unhelpful need to have. If you try to talk about life and death to most people, they’ll say you’re being morbid when, in fact, you’re just being realistic. You’re just saying what’s true. I value my experiences, good and bad, for what they taught me about life. I think most people should be open to, not seeking those kinds of experiences, but coming to terms with them because at some point in our lives we’re all going to have to deal with those realities.
RH: Did the religious nature of the Afghanis or Ugandans affect you at all?
DB: It’s not the elements that really stand out to me of my experiences in either country. In terms of Uganda, I will say that they are very strong Christians and they have very strong beliefs. When they go to church it’s for up to five hours or something like that. It was quite different seeing that level of devotion. I’m not used to that. I’m rather secular and the part of the United States that I live in, I’d say, is pretty secular. It was interesting to see people who were so devout and how that influences their lives.
Of course Afghans, religion is a big part of their life as well. But I didn’t talk to Afghans about Islam very much. I guess it just didn’t really come up in conversation. We did try to be respectful of Ramadan and sometimes that was a challenge, especially for our interpreters. They would try to observe the holiday and we certainly supported that and their decision to do that but at the same time, they needed to be functional for missions. So if you’re going on a long, multi-day patrol and you’re not eating, you’re not drinking water even, that can be a challenge. So the mission always had to come first. So that was one way in which religion and military service sometimes were at odds. But for the most part I tried to be respectful of the religion and the culture of the country in which I was deployed.
RH: Did deploying affect you spiritually at all?
DB: Certainly you have to ask yourself some fundamental questions when you are deployed. Why am I here? Why did I volunteer to be here? What sort of life do I want to lead? If I die tomorrow what will I have accomplished in this country? In my life? Or even before you deploy you have to make a will or update your will, so you need to be thinking about, “What are the charities I want to support? Where do all my belongings go? Have I really built meaningful relationships?” You have to contemplate your own death to a certain degree during these deployments and missions.
In a way I sort of miss it because my day to day now doesn’t force me to deal with my own mortality in the same way that being a deployed soldier did. And when you are faced with your own mortality, you need to be constantly evaluating and reevaluating your priorities. And you also evaluate how you deal with people. Am I treating people with respect? Am I leaving the kind of legacy that I want to leave in this world? You ask yourself those questions a little bit more regularly when that day could be your last. Or, the person that you’re saying goodbye to, you might not see again. So I sometimes miss the perspective that I had being in a combat environment. So you can certainly describe that as a spiritual experience.
RH: Great. OK. We’re going to move away from the heavy stuff. What’s your happiest memory of the entire time you served? This could be anything.
DB: You know, there’s a photo of me during my first deployment I was out on a mission with my full battle gear – the kevlar, the flak jacket and whatever else – and I’m holding a little kitten. And I think I found this kitten crawling underneath our Humvee or something like that. I picked it up and I think it let me hold it for a good long while. I think I held it for the rest of the mission while I was pulling security. I think it was just a happy memory for me because it brought me back to myself, to the person I was outside of the uniform and the mission. And I just felt really balanced in that moment, like I can be me but I also do this job and be this version of me. And it was a kitten. [laughs]
So that’s a favorite story of mine from my days during that deployment.
RH: What is the best MRE?
DB: Oh man. You saved the hardest question for last. [RH laughs] OK. I’ll tell you the worst MRE, hands down. You know what I’m going to say, right?
DB: The Omelette. It’s terrible.
DB: What were they thinking?
RH: And it had one-thousand percent of your daily sodium in one omelette. [laughs]
DB: Terrible. God, I hope they don’t have that anymore. I will tell you that I’m partial to the ravioli. I actually think the vegetarian MREs are where it’s at.
RH: What is the best chow hall stateside and what was the best chow hall in Afghanistan?
DB: The best chow hall in Afghanistan – it was somewhere we went to eat that was run by the Italians. Need I say more?
RH: Oh, that’s pretty good.
DB: The best chow hall stateside – there is a large DFAC at Fort Bragg somewhere and for the life of me I cannot remember the name. I’m a reservist so I haven’t had the experience of dining at too many DFACs. I will say that at least one or two of the ones I’ve eaten at Fort Bragg were quite impressive.
RH: What’s the funniest story you have?
DB: So, I remember in 2006 a few of us were hanging out on the FOB and we had bought a DVD, on an Afghan market actually, of The L Word. For some reason Afghan vendors sell all these DVDs that are not necessarily legal to sell. [laughs] They’re kind of cheap. They made rip-offs. But they were selling The L Word without fully understanding what it was.
So me and this other gay soldier started an L Word marathon at one of the living areas. Soldiers were watching with us and coming by and I think they didn’t fully understand what the show was either. And I remember one of the female soldiers saying something to the effect of, “Wow! This show is actually not bad. When are they gonna get some guys up in here?” [RH laughs] I remember thinking, man. [laughs] I guess there were different levels of understanding about the show here in Afghanistan. That’s a whole other story, I guess. Obviously, most of the time I served it was under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and it was really nice being able to serve after the repeal as well, in 2011.
RH: Actually, we didn’t go too far into it but what is the big difference that you notice in the military before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and afterwards? How has it affected you? And only if you’re comfortable talking about it.
DB: Yes, sure. I would say the difference is really only in the fact that before I had to hide it so I wouldn’t get in trouble and now I don’t, which is to say that I don’t think the attitude of the soldiers has really changed very much. I think as long as I’ve been in the military since 2004, soldiers have always more or less indicated to me that number one, that they knew I was gay because I don’t make a lot of effort to hide it. I’m not sure I could hide it if I wanted to. But soldiers have always been fairly accepting, or at least respectful, since I’ve been in. I was concerned that, once it got repealed, some soldiers would be very open about it perhaps or up in people’s face about it and that there would be incidents of anti-LGBT violence after the repeal but I haven’t heard of anything. Soldiers are just as accepting now as then except the difference is I can talk to my company commander about my wife.
It actually took me several months to a year to get comfortable with idea of speaking openly about my girlfriend, my fiancé, my wife. It was a very slow coming out of the closet. I had to make sure it was safe. But yeah, it’s been a fairly positive experience. But I will say that being deployed to a combat zone prior to the repeal had its own challenges.
RH: How so?
DB: Not being able to talk about girlfriends, for example, in the same way that someone else can discuss their difficulties with their boyfriends at home, or something like that. We didn’t have the same outlets necessarily. So it’s nice now that we have these outlets and we can speak openly about our families and our relationships.
RH: Very interesting. Thank you for sharing that. If you could communicate something to young soldiers who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
DB: I would say never judge the soldier next to you because that could be the soldier that ends up saving your ass. Whether that’s in basic training or AIT or downrange, you never quite know what someone is capable of. And people will surprise you. Never write anyone off, always seek to help people through their challenges and don’t be afraid to seek assistance to meet your own challenges. I think that’s it.
RH: Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
DB: No, I don’t think so. I think we covered a lot of ground. I can’t think of anything. I guess I’d just say that I’m watching with great interest to see if any of the female candidates make it through Army Ranger school. I’m confident that one day soon one of them will, whether that’s this cohort or another one coming up. And I know there’s a lot of debate about women’s place in the military, particularly in combat zones and I’m not quite sure where I fall on that issue myself but I know that women are capable of doing things in combat zones and outside of them and I have great respect for the women that I served with in the CST program.
We’ll continue to see how that develops and I’m just happy that the military is moving forward on that issue, has moved forward on the gay and lesbian issue, and I also hope that the military will look at the transgender issue and I think they have started to do that now and evaluate how current service members can be fully integrated into the armed services. I have met at least one transgender service member during my time in the Army and she is an outstanding soldier who I would be so happy to serve with downrange and I’m confident that this is sort of the next step forward. The Army needs to find a way to allow these soldiers to serve like they have with lesbian and gay soldiers.
RH: The last question I have is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your entire time in the service?
DB: That’s a good question. Let’s see, what am I most proud of? I don’t think anything personally I’ve done merits great mention. I think what I’m most proud of is being part of the teams that I’ve been a part of. It’s been a very humbling experience and I’m very proud to have seen so many examples of soldiers really making great sacrifices in time and energy in their lives to serve this country. It’s really an honor to wear the uniform.
Some of the things I’ve done I hope have had a positive impact, at least in the small parts of the world that I was deployed to. For example, my CST partner and I helped establish a radio station somewhere that I hope had a positive impact in that part of Afghanistan. I helped different projects at different times. I helped with school refurbishments, with veterinary projects, mentored any number of soldiers, and I hope that some of the small actions I’ve taken have served as a model for other soldiers of what they can do and accomplish, especially young women in the service.
But nothing I’ve done could have been accomplished without the bigger Army team. I would say one day when I finally take off the uniform I’m just going to be proud to have made the sum of my accomplishments happen.
RH: Excellent! Alright, anything else?
DB: I think that’s it!
RH: Great. Thank you.