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'Drop By Drop': How Poetry Helped The U.S. Military In Afghanistan


For the past 17 years in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has been struggling to talk to the Afghan people in a way that wins their support and their trust. NPR's Quil Lawrence has this story. It's about a young Air Force captain who could actually do that and what happened to her when she tried.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: So you know the cooking show "Iron Chef"? Afghan television had its own version back in 2011. And the producers were thrilled when an Air Force captain named Felisa Hervey came on the show to bake a teacake.


FELISA HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: Afghans watching couldn't believe an American in uniform could speak their language so well. And they knew she wasn't just talking about cooking.


HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: "This dough," she says, "if just one drop of poison were in it, the whole thing is ruined. That's like corruption."


HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: Felisa Hervey had been to Afghanistan before. She had learned Dari, one of the main languages, by working in an orphanage in Kabul for a year. Then she came back as an Air Force officer.


HERVEY: I wasn't thinking that this would develop into one of the most life-changing opportunities that had occurred in my life so far.

LAWRENCE: After 10 years of war, the commanding general David Petraeus had just issued a directive saying, quote, "the Afghan people are the decisive terrain." Hundreds of U.S. officers got trained in Afghan language and culture like Air Force Colonel Tim Kirk. Here he is reading the directive.

TIM KIRK: (Reading) Stop on the side of the road, take off your helmet, take off your glasses because the enemy's objective is to separate you from the people.

LAWRENCE: Kirk met Felisa Hervey in Kabul, and they bonded over the Petraeus directive. Hervey printed out a copy.


HERVEY: And carried it around with me wherever I went.

LAWRENCE: Hervey knew that many Afghans were eager to hear the American side of things.


HERVEY: They would reiterate over and over how they always got the Taliban's talking points within hours after an event...

KIRK: Right. Right.

HERVEY: ...But had to knock down our doors...

KIRK: Right.

HERVEY: ...To get a response from us. And they said, this is not good for you (laughter).

KIRK: Right.

HERVEY: And we said, you're right.

LAWRENCE: For reasons that will become clear later, the best recording we have of Hervey is from an audio diary she and Kirk made. The first thing they tried was to stop their convoy right outside base....


HERVEY: And only those of us got out who spoke Dari. So...

KIRK: Right.

LAWRENCE: ...And walk down the street and meet the shopkeepers.


HERVEY: People were just shocked to see us walking around.

LAWRENCE: But when they got back inside the base, their commander shocked them by formally charging them with endangering the convoy. Kirk and Hervey had fallen into a schism within the U.S. military. Their direct commander was not buying in on the talking-to-the-Afghans thing. His focus was on protecting his troops. In the end, they faced no serious consequences. But it pushed Kirk and Hervey to go work for a different general in Kabul, one who was excited about their skills - General H.R. McMaster.

H R MCMASTER: What Felisa was able to do is to just buy her engagement with Afghans counter enemy propaganda and disinformation.

LAWRENCE: McMaster saw Felisa Hervey as a weapon, someone who could win battles in the propaganda war.

MCMASTER: She really understood the Afghan people and connected with them in a way that was uncanny.

LAWRENCE: McMaster set her loose meeting every day with Afghans the military didn't usually talk to. That's when she went on that cooking show.

AMAN NURISTANI: An American woman on Afghan TV - who is she?

LAWRENCE: Aman Nuristani is an Afghan activist who had met plenty of Americans, none like Hervey.

NURISTANI: What was different was the approach. You don't just have to speak the language. You have to speak the culture.

LAWRENCE: General McMaster planned to make Hervey the spokesperson for the entire U.S. military. Hervey was willing to extend her tour, and Tim Kirk went to the Air Force for permission.

KIRK: We were pushing.

LAWRENCE: But troop numbers were starting to draw down. So was the momentum behind engaging with the Afghan people.

KIRK: But, sir, this is a huge opportunity we're missing.

LAWRENCE: The Air Force denied her request to extend. Hervey's commission was over, and she left to do a Ph.D. in Afghan poetry. Kirk also retired after 21 years in the Air Force. And the story could have ended there. Instead, it took kind of a shocking turn.


HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: Two years later, Kirk and Hervey went back as civilian contractors. Their job was to teach troops in Kabul how to talk with Afghans.


HERVEY: I have never spoken the first words of those verses to an Afghan and not had them reply with the rest.

LAWRENCE: Felisa Hervey was even teaching a course on Afghan poetry. This is a scratchy tape from that seminar.


HERVEY: If we can reference these poets and their poetry, our communication can be infinitely more persuasive. And I speak from experience because I've seen it.

LAWRENCE: But just days after that tape was made, Tim Kirk got a knock on the door.

KIRK: Hey, Tim, you need to go to the clinic. I guess they found Felisa on the ground.

LAWRENCE: And when he ran over, he hardly recognized her. She was having seizures. The medics assumed it was some sort of drug overdose.

KIRK: I said [expletive]. That woman is a United States Air Force Academy graduate and a captain with a bronze star and two years' service in Afghanistan. There are diagnostic procedures that need to be performed.

LAWRENCE: She'd had a stroke. It makes no sense. She was under a lot of stress in a war zone but in perfect health, and there's no way to explain it really. It's hard to ignore, though, how far Felisa Hervey and the ideas she championed had fallen in importance. A couple years earlier, she was about to become the spokesperson for the entire American military operation in Afghanistan, and now she's having seizures on a cot, struggling to get basic care in a military hospital. That was about three years ago.

HERVEY: I love Afghanistan - simple. War sad, but heart tie.

LAWRENCE: Her condition is called aphasia, loss of speech without loss of intellect.

HERVEY: Head but trapped.


HERVEY: I can't talk.

LAWRENCE: She's home in Arizona and doing lots of speech therapy. Hervey says she's boiling with frustration.

This is...

HERVEY: A long time. A long time.

LAWRENCE: But she's determined to regain her language, English, but Afghan Dari, too.

HERVEY: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: She's got an Afghan proverb to describe how she'll do it.

HERVEY: A river is made drop by drop.

LAWRENCE: Drop by drop. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.


KING: That story came to us from NPR's Rough Translation podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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