“They are humans like us,” Maurice said of the Afghans. “And friendship means a lot to them.”
Maurice, who stands a little over five feet tall and favors shiny pink lip gloss, is one of the lowest-ranking and lowest-paid soldiers at this base in Wardak province, south of Kabul. Her life is a glimpse into the American-Afghan partnership at the bottom rungs of the U.S. military, where even the simplest acts of kindness do not easily translate across a wide linguistic and cultural divide.
Before joining the Army, Maurice earned a college degree and spent seven years working for a real estate company in Southern California. The housing market and her two-year marriage collapsed at about the same time.
She sold beauty products to salons for a few years before joining the Army last year. “Everyone was shocked,” she said. “To go from the beauty business to the Army is a pretty big jump.”
Her father, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era, tried to talk her out of enlisting. He worried that Maurice, who is petite with fine black hair and delicate, doll-like features, wouldn’t be able to compete physically with younger, tougher soldiers.
She trained as a truck driver, hoping that she would get out on the road in Afghanistan and possibly see some combat. Instead, she was assigned to a headquarters job monitoring radios on the outpost. Desperate to see Afghanistan, she volunteered to serve on a Female Engagement Team, a four-woman unit that patrols alongside male combat troops and tries to win over rural Afghan women. “I begged and pleaded for two months for that job,” she said.
Because her team is used only once or twice a month, Maurice spends most of her days working in the outpost’s kitchen, a steamy, gray metal trailer that smells of dirt, diesel exhaust and reheated cafeteria fare.
“What’s for lunch?” she chirped recently as she arrived for work.
“Food,” replied Spec. Tavon Terry, the cook.
She shot him a mock angry look.
“The same food we eat every day,” he clarified.
The hours in the kitchen are long, and the work, heating up tubs of food delivered to the base in clear plastic bags, can be stultifying. “I want to be out there,” Maurice said, gesturing to the snow-capped mountains and dun-colored valleys beyond the base’s cement walls and razor wire. She hopes that her engagement team will be used more as the weather warms.
Life is much harsher for the Afghan kitchen workers, who earn about $200 a month and are able to visit home only a handful of times a year. In September, a few months before Maurice arrived in Sayed Abad, a suicide attacker blew up a truck bomb at the outpost’s main gate, leveling the kitchen workers’ living quarters. Several quit their jobs.