Former Afghan soldiers, now living in Blacksburg, to share their stories
September 8, 2023
Under a dark night sky, the scene was vivid.
It was a night raid in Afghanistan. Wearing night vision goggles, Mahnaz Akbari, an Afghan soldier and commander of the Female Tactical Platoon, saw a teenage girl and called out to her. The girl wasn’t allowed to go to school. It was clear that she rarely left her home.
“She understood by my voice that I am a female,” Akbari said. “It was the first time that she saw a woman in a uniform, with a helmet and night vision goggles. She saw me, and she understood that if I can, she can do the same.”
Still, because the girl lived in Afghanistan, she would not have those opportunities, Akbari said.
Akbari and several former members of the Afghan Female Tactical Platoon will visit Virginia Tech on Sept. 13 to share their experiences and advocate for permanent legal status in the United States.
They will speak at 6 p.m. in 1060 Torgersen Hall as part of a series sponsored by the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies at Virginia Tech. Participants also may watch the event online.
These women, including seven who have settled in Blacksburg, are among the more than 40 platoon members who are scattered across the United States. They once accompanied U.S special operations forces during raids in Afghanistan. They were tasked with talking with women and children about the location of Taliban targets.
In 2021, these same women were some of the thousands who fled the country for the United States when the Taliban seized Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
Now, with the help of numerous Blacksburg area community groups, these former soldiers are creating a new life.
They include Azizgul Ahmadi and Soraiya Nazari, who both will speak during the event. The women are learning English and raising their children and younger siblings.
Since early 2022, several have been taking English classes through the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs. Learning English is key to finding jobs and working toward a college education. In fact, two already have mastered English and are taking college courses. The Secular Society, a Blacksburg organization, funded scholarships for their English instruction.
“It’s too simple to say they resettled here,” said Scott Bailey, president of the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership, a nonprofit and significant supporter of the platoon members. “They are going to school, and all of them have spoken in front of congressmen and senators to plead for better support for Afghan veterans. They are a part of our society and are making a difference.”
Bailey is a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech.
“When you think about women in Afghanistan going against the culture and doing something so completely dangerous and taboo and the bravery and courage behind that, they were doing some really crazy, very physical things, like repelling out of helicopters,” said Rebekah Edmondson, a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed in Afghanistan. “These women have something so invaluable to offer to the community as they start to find their voice and literally learn the language and feel comfortable speaking publicly. It’s a new chapter.”
Akbari joined the Afghan National Army in 2011 and now works for the PenFed Foundation, a nonprofit that assists veterans.
“We have been through a lot of trauma,” she said. “We lost our country, family, and everything that we had.”
Many of the women have family members still living in Afghanistan. And fearing retribution from the Taliban, the platoon members cannot return to the country.
They came to the United States under a temporary parole program that was renewed in June for another two years. But they are rallying for passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bill that offers a path for permanent U.S. legal status for Afghans who evacuated the country when Kabul fell to the Taliban.
The resettlement services available to them in Blacksburg, from English classes to transportation and moving help, are part of a larger purpose. Edmondson, who lives in South Carolina and worked closely with the female tactical platoon in Afghanistan, is one of many advocates for them as they build new lives in America.
“We are trying to help them get over this hump so that they can be the leaders here that they were in Afghanistan,” Edmondson said.
- The Female Tactical Platoon: From Afghanistan to Blacksburg
- Wednesday, Sept. 13, 6 p.m.
- 1060 Torgersen Hall, Virginia Tech
- Attend in person or watch online. Register for the webinar.
- Event sponsors: Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies; College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; Department of History; Department of Political Science; and School of Public and International Affairs
Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone