- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2021

Stephanie Vazquez took on a job no man could ever do.

As part of a female engagement team in Afghanistan, the medically retired Army sergeant and mother of two was given a critical mission: to gather information from Afghan women, who were culturally barred from speaking directly with male soldiers but were routinely used as pawns by the enemy.

“We’d go in and we’d search, and we would tactically question the females and children because the men can’t do that,” Sgt. Vazquez, 41, recalled in an interview this week, moments after she was presented with a car for her service at an event hosted by the Washington area-based nonprofit Freedom Alliance.

“Usually what happens is when they see a combat unit entering into a village, they’ll put the women in the room where the cache of stuff is, and that way the [male] soldiers can’t go in that room,” she said.

Sgt. Vazquez proudly recounted her team’s successes in the war zone, but she acknowledged that the Afghan women often suffered serious repercussions.

“They didn’t know to lie to us. They would tell us everything,” Sgt. Vazquez said. “The sad part about it is, some of them would tell us things and we’d go back later and they would be beaten to a pulp. One lady, her husband dipped her hand in acid for telling us stuff. It could be brutal.”

It was a nontraditional road that led Sgt. Vazquez to the Afghanistan War, now the longest conflict in U.S. history. As a single parent, she signed up to be a soldier at the age of 26, making her several years older than many of her colleagues.

She said she quickly “fell in love” with the Army.

“After my divorce, I wanted to be able to stand on my own two feet and provide for my kids and not have to depend on anybody, and the military was it,” she said.

Like thousands of others, Sgt. Vazquez bears the scars of battle. On Nov. 17, 2011, she and her team were on an early-morning mission in a small Afghan village when they were ambushed by enemy fighters. Sgt. Vazquez suffered devastating injuries while trying to escape and ultimately had part of her lower leg amputated.

“I ruptured my Achilles tendon in three places, detached it from the heel bone, detached my shin muscle from the heel bone, and had a spinal cord injury we weren’t aware of at the time,” she said. “I had 18 surgeries to salvage my leg and couldn’t. So the best decision was to amputate.”

Sgt. Vazquez spoke with The Washington Times after she was honored by the Freedom Alliance, an organization that helps provide cars, homes, wheelchairs and other gifts to wounded veterans, along with scholarships to children of service members killed or disabled in the line of duty. The Freedom Alliance, in partnership with U.S. Bank, donated to Sgt. Vazquez a 2018 Dodge Journey.

The donation event was held just outside Nashville, Tennessee, the city Sgt. Vazquez now calls home.

Disrupted by COVID-19

The Freedom Alliance, which also organizes and hosts retreats for veterans, has been forced to shift much of its work to the virtual world during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization’s leaders say the past 12 months have been especially tough for America’s wounded veterans.

“The need is still there, and in some ways it’s growing. The emotional and spiritual injuries are really surfacing,” said Freedom Alliance President Tom Kilgannon.

The combination of the pandemic and the civil unrest across the nation over the past year has hit American heroes hard, he said.

“The anxiety increased, the stress increased because many of them said to us that they’d seen this before, they felt like they were back in a combat zone or a dangerous area,” Mr. Kilgannon said.

The group has resumed some in-person gatherings, including a veterans retreat in Costa Rica last month that Sgt. Vazquez attended. “It was very helpful,” she said.

Small-group conversations with fellow veterans are welcome alternatives to medications or other common treatments for physical and emotional wounds.

“A lot of us are stuck. We don’t know how to go on,” she said.

Still, Sgt. Vazquez said she was prepared to “step into the place of someone who didn’t want to go” and serve another tour in Afghanistan.

America’s military future in the country remains murky at best. President Biden hasn’t definitively said whether he will honor a looming withdrawal date laid out in a deal that President Trump struck with the Taliban last year. That agreement calls for the estimated 2,500 U.S. forces to leave the country by May 1 in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban, including a promise that the insurgent group will break all ties with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

The pact also called for direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. Those negotiations are underway but have not resulted in a countrywide cease-fire or produced a blueprint for a lasting power-sharing arrangement.

Military analysts say Mr. Biden faces a difficult decision with few good options. He said at a White House news conference last week that he does not envision troops remaining in the country next year, but the specifics of when and under what circumstances the U.S. will withdraw remain unclear.

Sgt. Vazquez expressed skepticism about the future of Afghanistan, particularly as it relates to equality and the treatment of women.

“They don’t know change. They don’t know change, and they don’t want it,” she said. “The people that are in power over there are not going to let it happen.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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