Rheanna Rutledge, visiting assistant professor of communication in the Department of Writing and Communication, started teaching here last semester, but before joining the NSU family, she spent a year deployed in Afghanistan. From 2011 to 2012, Rutledge traveled all over Afghanistan, primarily in places that had been strongholds for the Taliban, working as a lead social scientist assigned to the Special Forces.
“I would go out when the Special Forces were having some problems engaging with the locals, so I would go out with them and do on-the-ground research and engage the locals in a peaceful way and get them to open up and figure out ways that we can actually peacefully reduce conflict,” said Rutledge.
Rutledge embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, during which she experienced crippling fear, cultural breakthroughs and heartwarming moments. Fortunately for her students, she brings the many lessons she learned throughout her experiences into the classroom.
What made you decide to deploy?
“I had wanted to deploy for a long time. In 2004, I originally went into the military. I ended up getting out because I got ovarian cancer, so I left the military and came back after working for the military for several years and getting a doctorate. I came back in the role of a civilian in uniform, and I was able to deploy. I had always wanted to deploy to make that difference because it was just something that I had always felt almost obligated and meant to do. I was working for the government, and I was reading all of these fascinating things that were going on and watching all of this stuff, and I was sitting here behind a computer. I felt like I wanted to be on the ground actually making a difference, and I felt like I wasn’t making the difference I wanted to make being behind that computer. I wanted to actually be in the midst of it and to do what I knew I could do with my background. So I literally signed up, somebody told me about a program, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m in for it.’ I got a call a week later, and within a few months, I found myself in training and left for Afghanistan for a year.”
Do you feel like you did make that difference?
“It’s the biggest difference I think I’ve made in my entire life, up until now. Even though I thought that was the only time in my life that I could make an incredible change in people’s lives, I’m actually finding that now, being a parent, I’m able to do that for my son and make this difference as a mom. But, actually, with my students, I’m finding that I’m equally as engaged as I was in Afghanistan, and I would have never thought that was possible. But now I’m finding that I get that same type of energy coming from leading my students into forms of leadership and actually encouraging them in their fields. Who knew?”
What was being in Afghanistan like?
“The best way to describe Afghanistan as far as the environment itself was if you were to turn on a hair blow dryer on hot and on high — that’s what it feels like to be in Afghanistan. Put it on your face and just leave it there, and you can’t turn it off. There are sandstorms and things like that, so the sand is going everywhere, and it’s hot, and it’s humid, and you’re breathing it in. And so you finally get used to it, but that’s what it’s physically like. It’s over 100 degrees most of the year, and you have all the gear
on. Being a little over 100 pounds at the time myself, I had to carry over about 70 pounds of gear. You wore weapons, and you had all the gear, and it weighed so much.”
What was Afghanistan like culturally?
“Going out there talking to locals was interesting because you’d walk in initially not knowing them and you’d have to put on a smile, even though you were nervous and afraid because you never know what you’re going to find. But you have to go in open-minded and put aside your fears, and eventually after meeting the people and coming back a few different times, you find that you actually develop friendships, and they’re just the same as anybody else. I made a wrongful assumption that the male population wasn’t going to open up to me as much as the female population, but I was wrong in that. As it turns out, they considered me a third gender — that’s what they call it — where I was in uniform, and even though I was female, they didn’t consider me like they would their local females. The men were willing to open up to me, even though I had assumed that they wouldn’t do it the same as they would to the men. So we actually found that they didn’t find me as threatening as our men, and that was able to reduce some of the conflict and resolve some things. Culturally, there are differences, and they don’t treat women the same way. They’re respectful of the women, and I don’t think we always understand that. We have an American perspective of others that we put on them. This is a society that is very family-based. They care about their children, and they do care about their women. It’s just they have different social norms — some of it’s religion-based — and they’re trying to protect the women from outsiders. But being female, I was actually able to go in and engage with the women as well, while all of our men were not allowed to do that.”
Did your experience in Afghanistan impact your decision to go into instructing?
“Absolutely. It sure did. I had taught before going to Afghanistan at the university level at Florida State University and Seminole State College, and I had also done training for the government and things like that. But after going to Afghanistan, I wanted to share with people the education side of it and encourage them in that direction mostly because the girls and the women I came across couldn’t even get an education in Afghanistan. One group of girls I had met had been burnt with acid for trying to go to a school. This didn’t happen often, but there were parents who would dress their little girls up like little boys up until puberty so they could get some form of education. Then, suddenly puberty hits, and they have to take on the role of being in the house and not being really able to leave. But the fact that we have the opportunities over here for education to me is inspiring, and I wanted to share that, because people take education for granted.”
How does this influence your teaching?
“I think I’m able to understand multiple perspectives of things. In life, we always take on the perspective from where we come from. Once you understand that people are generally all the same across different cultures and different societies, we understand how to bring people together, and I feel like that’s something that I’ve been able to bring out in the classroom. I’m trying to help people find their voice in the classroom, and I feel like that stems from being there.”
What was the biggest lesson you learned or takeaway you gained from this experience?
“There are so many. One of them was an appreciation for some of the basic things that we have, for example running water, an actual toilet and edible food. In Afghanistan, we brought bottled water
because we can’t drink [the water there]. We dug a hole to use the bathroom. I now have an appreciation for some of the most basic essentials. I love the fact that I can go home and take a hot shower in clean water — and I can drink that water. In Afghanistan, the water system that runs through the village is where their sewer ends up going, and it’s where they bathe. Every need for water takes place in this exact same water system, and so there’s constantly illness. I also learned that people are capable of anything. It’s easy for us to judge in our own circumstance, but if we were born in a different place or put in a different circumstance, humanity is capable of all kinds of things — good or bad.”
What was your most memorable moment?
“One of them was when I brought a new group of soldiers into a village, and they were nervous coming in. It was their first time going out in Afghanistan, and they marched in with hard faces, and the villagers immediately got defensive. After coming back, I talked to them and explained what we needed to work on and gave them the tactics. We went back in with a more friendly approach, and the villagers opened up. I taught them, for example, ‘qalam,’ which is the word for a pen. I gave them all pens, and they passed them out to the kids, and the kids went crazy. They were like, ‘Qalam! Qalam!’ So we’d hand out these pens or just basic items, and the children flocked to these men, and once the children were accepted and welcomed in, all the villagers were willing to come out and start talking and engaging in a good way. Initially, the villagers felt threatened, and there were going to be some violent attacks, I guarantee you. So I feel like that was huge.”
What was the hardest part about your experience in Afghanistan?
“It was feelings of loneliness. Even though I was in the midst of constant company of people I considered friends and peers, I always missed my home, and I always missed the feelings of safety. You are never truly safe at any moment, so even when you’re asleep, you can’t have the satisfaction knowing that you’re asleep and safe and sound in your bed. I think that was one of the biggest struggles. It was the feeling of being away from your loved ones and what is known.”
Are you still involved in the military in any way?
“I’m focused on teaching, but I’m still involved when it comes to peace studies and trying to bring people into understanding the world, negotiation tactics and conflict resolution. I’m also still actually friends with the people I was deployed with and a number of people I just worked with from the government. They still contact me with questions or if they’re trying to figure out a solution to a problem they’re having; they still call and they still email. One of the colonels, for example, is now a general, and he has contacted me since then, asking for some different input, so I’m still very much involved, but just not in the same role. I have no intentions on deploying anytime soon, especially now that I have a 1-year-old at home.”