Today marks the graduation of 29 members of the Afghan National Army's (ANA) Officer Candidate School. What makes this class of Army officers who signed up to protect their country unique?
They are all women.
The 29 new officers are young women from across the country who have spent the last six months training to become finance and logistics specialists, the first group of female officers to serve in the ANA. They will join the 300 or so women serving now in the Army, and they will be the first among them to have finished a formal officer training program.
These pioneering women accept great risk by serving their nation. Some hail from provinces which now see a heavy Taliban presence, including Ghazni in the east; their families would face serious threats if their work was found out. Others had to win over opponents within their family who believed that the Army was no place for their sisters and daughters, who were far better off at home.
But these aspiring Army officers felt determined to see their commitment through and to do their part to build a safer, more secure Afghanistan. They have flourished in a training course that included Dari and English classes as well as physical training and leadership. Spending an afternoon with these young women is a reminder of what is possible in a country whose next generation remains determined to create a brighter, more secure future.
"We see other women in different countries serving their nation," said an officer candidate from the western province of Herat. "We simply want to be like them and help make a better Afghanistan."
The experience also changed the American military officers who trained them. Capt Janis Lullen of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan called her decision to accept the assignment "one of the the best career decisions I have ever made."
As she wrote in her recent blog, ""I am filled up with pride for these 29 extraordinary ladies. They conquered their fears in the face of adversity and embraced their destiny serving their country." (http://ntm-a.com/blog/categories/army/1405-my-experiences-advising-the-first-female-officer-candidates-in-afghanistan?lang=)
Recruitment of the next class, which begins in November, is already underway. One of the new graduates says her dream is to train the next round of female officer candidates so that they can see they are not alone -- and that with hard work and commitment they can do anything they put their mind to.
"I am optimistic for the future," she said during an interview in the last month of her training. "I believe when the men see us working, they will see that we can contribute and that we can serve our country. It is not just for men."