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Veteran graduate completes educational mission following leave of absence to evacuate female Afghan soldiers

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Rebekah Edmondson says it was her duty to support the members of a specially trained unit she worked alongside during her multiple deployments to Afghanistan.

In the fall of 2021, the United States formally withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. For U.S. Army veteran Rebekah Edmondson, this event had a personal impact. She had just begun her second year of the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and found it impossible to focus on her studies. Her thoughts were with the Afghan women who had served with her during several deployments to Afghanistan and now could be in serious danger.   

She decided to take a leave of absence from her graduate studies, and began working around the clock with fellow veterans from her former unit to evacuate their Afghan counterparts trapped in the country. 

“We were all talking to each other over Signal app, and then communicating back and forth with these women that we trained in Afghanistan, guiding them from their houses through Taliban checkpoints to various gates at the Kabul Airport based off the most current information we got from boots on the ground,” Edmondson said. 

She returned to complete her studies at USC in the fall of 2023, and will receive her MSW degree in May 2024. But pausing her graduate education to help these extraordinary Afghan women who risked their lives on behalf of the U.S. Army was a no brainer.

“It was my duty to support them because I recruited these women, put them through basic training and trained them to become soldiers in a U.S. partner special operations unit,” Edmondson said. “If the wrong people found out they belonged to this unit, there is no question they would be detained, tortured and likely killed.”

Witnessing courage

Between 2011 and 2016, Edmondson deployed to Afghanistan four times as a U.S. Army Sergeant supporting the 75th Ranger Regiment on direct action night raids to capture or kill high-level Taliban and ISIS commanders as part of a program created under the United States Army Special Operations Command. Her initial responsibilities included searching for and disarming the wives, sisters, daughters and mothers of Taliban fighters in order to protect the U.S. strike force. It was discovered that the Taliban were passing certain pieces of evidence, including documents, cellphones and other identifying information, through their female family members. Edmondson’s role expanded to gathering intelligence. 

It quickly became apparent that a great amount of critical information captured was being lost or misunderstood in translation. The Cultural Support Team (CST) was then created — a classified program to recruit women serving in the Afghan National Army or police force, already trained for combat, to work alongside the U.S. military. After an intense vetting process, these female soldiers, referred to as the Afghan Female Tactical Platoon (FTP), worked with CST in a hybrid Afghan/U.S. partner unit known as the Ktah Khas.

“In the beginning, we thought we would be lucky if we got a few daring Afghan women willing to do this type of work, but they actually came out in droves,” Edmondson said. “We were all shocked to find out they were far more courageous, capable and motivated than any of us could ever have expected.” 

During the ten years that CST and FTP programs existed, approximately 80 female Afghan soldiers were recruited and trained to help the U.S. Army, according to Edmondson. 

Working in pairs, American female soldiers in the CST trained the women of the FTP in all phases of operations, including planning and conducting missions, and collecting evidence. FTPs accompanied Edmondson and her fellow soldiers on live missions, searching women and children, and conducting tactical questioning to identify Taliban commanders.

Edmondson believes that having these female Afghan soldiers helped drive mission success. She found them to be highly invested in the efforts to eliminate extremism in their country. They spoke the language and understood the culture. For Edmondson, it made perfect sense to train and partner with them. 

FTPs kept their jobs secret from extended family and friends in an effort to conceal their identities and mitigate exposure, Edmonson explained, but they still knowingly put their safety, and that of their immediate family members, in jeopardy through their alliance with the U.S. Army. 

Although the women in the FTP are highly skilled and capable of fighting the Taliban, once the U.S. withdrew its forces they were left without resources, such as fuel and ammo, and were no longer getting paid.

“These women had targets on their backs after the war officially came to an end,” Edmonson said.

She stresses that family members of the women remain in great danger, either living in hiding or fleeing to neighboring countries. One of the challenges for the Afghan women who were rescued and granted asylum in the U.S. is knowing that their families are still suffering in their homeland.

Completing her educational mission

After leaving the Army in 2017, Edmondson worked for the PenFed Foundation, which assists the military community through grants and investments. Her experience and knowledge in this area became extremely beneficial following the relocation efforts for the female Afghan soldiers in 2021. Together with one of her fellow colleagues from the   CST, she helped manage a large fund created by private donors that provided critical assistance for these women resettling in the United States. 

Her social work education is now guiding her to develop and implement a social and psychological support system to help them heal from the layers of complex trauma they experienced. 

“These women are my colleagues,” Edmondson said. “We used to joke and laugh and have fun together in Afghanistan, and now they're here and their lives essentially have been decimated. I want to continue supporting them and my education is giving me tools to navigate how to do this.”

The required practicum placement for her MSW degree paired Edmondson with Give an Hour, a national organization that delivers culturally responsive, evidence-informed and interactive mental health support to individuals suffering from human-made trauma. Her work with Give an Hour provided the template for her to develop her own nonprofit model focused on using narrative therapy, or storytelling, as a means for healing. It synthesizes perfectly with her goal of delivering long-term peer supported and trauma-informed care, particularly for her former Afghan colleagues. 

Narrative therapy encourages individuals to talk and share their experiences with an interested audience. This is a big first step for Afghan women, whose culture deems it shameful to talk about emotions, Edmondson explained. Words do not even exist in their native language for them to describe the loss of their families, their country, their jobs and everything they loved and left behind. Edmondson hopes to further explore how narrative therapy may help other service members in the U.S., as military culture also does not easily support sharing one’s feelings. 

“For me, this is a real-life example of how critical social work is,” Edmondson said. “It is so much more than just one thing. It's advocacy, it's looking at mental health and so many other aspects of a person’s life.”

When Edmondson volunteered as one of the first female soldiers to join a special ops unit, part of a plan by the Obama Administration to introduce women into combat roles in all branches of the military, she had no idea of the path to which it would eventually lead. 

“That just sounded super exciting and adventurous to me,” Edmondson said. “I thought I'd be with the guys kicking down doors. But, then it introduced me to these extraordinary women that are going so far against cultural norms, and that's what I found to be so rewarding. Anything is possible.”

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