The women heroes of the Afghanistan war

Two women veterans, an American and one from Afghanistan, who fought the Taliban are the special guests on this week’s American Legion Tango Alpha Lima podcast.  

Army veteran Rebekah Edmondson served 10 years and deployed to Afghanistan several times to support a program called the Cultural Support Team (CST). Edmondson is a member of American Legion Post 147 in Charleston, S.C.  

Mahnaz Akbari served 10 years in Afghan special forces as the Female Tactical Platoon (FTP) commander. She joined the FTP in 2011, completed more than 150 night raids with Afghan and U.S. soldiers, and was chosen as FTP commander in early 2014. After the fall of Kabul, she was among more than 40 FTPs who made it to the U.S. Now, she works for the PenFed Foundation to assist other FTPs to resettle here. 

The CST was designed to fill a gap in gaining intelligence from Afghan women and children encountered during special operations. Edmonson first deployed in 2012 to support the 75th Ranger Regiment on direct action night raids to capture or kill high-level Taliban commanders. It was during her first deployment that she was responsible for training FTPs to serve the same function in the Afghan Special Forces.  

Both women took circuitous routes before joining the military. Edmonson worked as a tattoo artist in Las Vegas while Akbari used to teach calligraphy. 

Akbari, an immigrant from Iran, ran into an issue when she first tried to join the military. “You’re too skinny,” she was told, “because this mission is too dangerous.” She didn’t give up and was accepted eventually and went through four weeks of training.  

They met in 2015 at a training base for FTPs at Camp Scorpion, right outside of the training center in Kabul. “When we first met, I was there for the purpose of growing the platoon at the time,” Edmonson said, noting there were only eight FTPs at the time. “The numbers ebbed and flowed over time. The hope was to bring more women into the unit to give the senior ones a break. They were deploying continuously. It just wasn’t sustainable.”   

(Guest co-host Amy Forsythe, a Marine Corps veteran and award-winning broadcast journalist, deployed three times to Afghanistan, visiting Camp Scorpion and doing stories on it.)  

Akbari went on 150 missions, mostly at night. “Bullets would end up flying and zipping past your head often,” Edmonson said. “That was still a very real threat even if they didn’t know exactly where you were at.” 

Once they reached the target area, the FTP unit would question and search the women, then try to persuade them to leave with their children and escort them out. 

“In Afghanistan, and Islamic countries, to do these kinds of missions it’s important to have females,” Akbari said, noting the female soldiers would be able to find SIM cards and other evidence on the women they were searching. “I always say it was impossible to do these without CSTs and FTPs because they are the person who gathers the evidence, the person who actually finds the target.”  

Edmonson now works with The American Legion and others to advocate for passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow other FTPs to achieve citizenship and rebuild their lives in the U.S. “If the Afghan Adjustment Act passes, it is a step in the right direction. The Legion has a lot of efforts toward advocating toward that.”  

To voice your support of the Afghanistan Adjustment Act, visit The American Legion’s Action Alert page.

Additionally, co-hosts Ashley Gutermuth and Forsythe discuss: 

• Whether the NFL will retire Pat Tillman’s jersey number.

• A new Netflix series featuring drunken special ops; call it “24” meets “The Hangover.”

• The Air Force’s review of cases of those who received less than honorable discharges related to mental illness.