Less than a month from now, most of the approximately 600 soldiers with the Alabama Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment, will be back in the Heart of Dixie from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. While many of the battalion’s soldiers are veterans of previous tours to the Middle East or Central Asia, the majority are first-timers, like Pfc. Shapreme Kimble of Leeds.
The 20-year-old Kimble can’t wait to hug her 3-year-old son, savor the green of an Alabama spring or order a shrimp dinner with a Dr. Pepper at LongHorn Steakhouse. At the same time, she knows she will be doing all these things with a perspective shaped by nine months in a place where there were people who wanted to kill her, people whose living conditions were a pale imitation of what she knows at home, and women for whom joining the military was a giant step for their gender.
A graduate of St. Clair County High, Kimble has been in the Guard less than two years. For many her age, money for college is a big incentive for joining, but one of her major reasons was a desire to do something different. To say she got her wish would be an understatement.
Kimble was based in Camp Stone, a forward operating base near the city of Herat, about 100 miles west of the Iranian border. Mountains are in the distance, and various shades of brown tend to be the dominant colors in the surrounding environment, except when snow falls in the winter.
“We’re basically in the middle of nowhere,” Kimble said in a telephone interview a few weeks before she flew out of Afghanistan. “It looks nothing like Alabama.”
Camp Stone was home to 1/167th’s Foxtrot Company, and Kimble was one of the company’s two female soldiers. Some things she was not permitted to do, but one of Foxtrot’s top noncommissioned officers said she did her share of heavy lifting and earned the respect of her fellow soldiers over the course of the deployment.
“I believe she has matured quite a bit since we first formed this company in April 2012,” said Sgt. 1st Class Tim Atchenson of Hueytown, Foxtrot’s noncommissioned officer in charge of operations. “She has carved a niche in for herself with the guys.”
Starting in January, Kimble did a good bit of niche-carving behind the wheel of the heavy-duty vehicles that Foxtrot soldiers used to go on missions in their section of western Afghanistan. Her military occupational specialty, or MOS, is in transportation. Because of that, she was a driver on more than 20 missions, some lasting a day, some taking longer.
They were also varied. Sometimes the missions were transporting soldiers to training sites, or contractors to construction sites. Sometimes they involved moving commanders for in-and-out visits to military camps. Sometimes the Foxtrot soldiers’ missions combined not only transportation, but also providing protection for those they transported after delivery.
Atchenson said Kimble was the only female on those missions, but her fellow soldiers had “her back in everything. With the majority of the guys being infantry, that initially was a challenge for her being accepted,” he said. “But once she proved that she could do her job, she was taken in.”
In a very basic sense, every mission challenges soldiers to prove they can do what they have trained to do. In a war zone, they sometimes have to do that under fire. Kimble’s moment of proof – “my first and hopefully my last,” she said – came back in February. She was driving the lead vehicle, an all-terrain 28,000-pound MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) in a “logistical support” convoy heading through the town of Adraskan. The four-vehicle convoy had taken advisors and trainers to a camp where they had spent some time working with Afghan soldiers, and now it was taking them home.
Kimble had been through Adraskan before, and had never encountered any problem. Over time, when she was out and about, Kimble had become accustomed to kids throwing rocks at whatever vehicle she was driving and the banging sound the rocks would make upon impact.
On this afternoon in February, it suddenly seemed that a whole bunch of kids were throwing rocks at Kimble’s MRAP, but “a lot faster than they normally do it.” The banging was louder, too. In reality, of course, there were no rock-throwing kids, but some fighter – likely Taliban – shooting at her.
The incident is not unusual in Afghanistan. It did not turn into a set-piece battle. In fact, it lasted about five minutes. The shooting was one-sided, but no one in the convoy was hurt. Kimble’s vehicle had a gunner, and she had a weapon with her as well, but her job was not to stop and shoot back, just keep driving.
“During this altercation, they couldn’t get positive identification of the shooter and there were too many civilians around to risk shooting some of them,” Atchenson said. Because of those factors, and also because the hostile fire was harmlessly hitting the vehicles, Kimble and other drivers all kept going so not to put their human cargo in what Atchenson called “unnecessary danger.”
Because she did what she was supposed to do in the incident, Kimble has been recommended for the Combat Action Badge. According to the Army, the two-inch wide rectangular silver medal was created in 2005 and “provides special recognition to soldiers who personally engage the enemy, or are engaged by the enemy during combat operations.”
Kimble hopes to receive the award. It will mean something special to her. With time, she hopes it will mean something special to her son, LaDarius. Right now, he is not old enough to understand what she is doing and why she is gone. Kimble said that not being with her family – and especially not being with LaDarius – has probably been the hardest part of the deployment. For a while it was even harder because he was angry over her not being around.
“At first, I really couldn’t really deal with it,” Kimble said. “That kind of hurt my feelings.”
Over time, things got better. This was partly because she settled into her surroundings and a routine, partly because she kept in mind the thought that what she was doing she was doing for LaDarius, partly because her tour was just a temporary and not a permanent thing, and partly because of technology that enables mother and son to Skype, sometimes as many as four or five times or more on Saturdays and Sundays.
“He’s started to come around,” Kimble said. “We Skype, we talk, he texts me jibber-jabber.”
As Kimble heads home, she already knows that her son will be different. He’s learning new words, new routines, and no longer has the shoe size he had when she left. She will be different, too, because of where she’s been and what she’s done and her need to be constantly “ready for anything and everything.
“My biggest thing is probably going to be…stuff like driving,” she said. But she also figures that she may find her patience in short supply when friends and family let little things “that don’t even matter” become big obstacles. At the same time, given her exposure to the very basic conditions in which many Afghans live, she figures to be more grateful for what she has.
“You’re very appreciative of the things you have at home because a lot of these people…don’t have the amenities that we have at home,” she said. “It makes you appreciate things a lot more, and cherish things a lot more.”
Those “things” include not just physical possessions, but opportunities. During part of her deployment, one of Kimble’s assignments was to search Afghan women who came to work each day at Camp Stone. And sometime she did the same thing with women doing something still rare in today’s Afghanistan – wearing the uniform of their country’s national army. She and Foxtrot’s other female, Staff Sgt. Tonya Rogers, the company’s administrative noncommissioned officer, also helped mentor a group of Afghan female soldiers with the Afghan National Army’s 207th Corps and shared their experiences with them. In late January, Kimble was in the audience as a VIP for graduation ceremonies to mark the Afghans’ completion of 12 weeks of training.
Here is how scarce women are in the ranks of the Afghan army: according to a Pentagon report issued at the end of 2012, the Afghan army was scheduled to have 187,000 soldiers trained, equipped and fielded by December of this year. As of last December, that army had 379 females. The Alabama Army Guard alone has five times that number of women in its ranks, and one of them is a two-star general.
“It’s been way harder for them than it’s ever been for us,” Kimble said of her Afghan counterparts.
While Kimble was watching Afghan women take small steps toward becoming a significant and accepted presence in their country’s military, the Pentagon was announcing it will allow women to serve in frontline combat units.
“There are some females who don’t want to do things like that, but the ones that do, I think they should be able to do it,” Kimble said. Asked if she wanted to be part of the change, she laughingly answered in the negative.
“I’ve been doing it here for nine months,” she said. “I think I’ve got my training in. That’s all I want to do.”
With Kimble and her fellow 1/167th soldiers returning home, the Alabama Guard has fewer than 1,000 soldiers and airmen deployed. Meanwhile, about 200 Guard soldiers are doing final training before heading to Afghanistan.