MIGHTY 25: Army veteran Rebekah Edmonson fights for Afghan women after war
Rebekah Edmonson was one of the first 13 female soldiers chosen to be a part of the cultural support program during the war in Afghanistan. Today, she continues the fight for Afghan women.
But enlisting in the Army wasn’t always her plan.
“I certainly did not want to have anything to do with the military growing up. My dad was in the Air Force and I'd see him get up and run five days a week. I thought that that was terrible,” she laughed. “I went in a very different direction. I dropped out of high school, started tattooing as a teenager and I moved around to several different states before I was even 21. I was living in Las Vegas by then, and I was going nowhere very fast. I think I just had kind of a wake-up call at some point that I needed to get my stuff together.”
Thinking maybe her dad had something with the discipline the military offered, as one last act of rebellion, she chose to become a soldier instead of an airman. When she was 24, Edmonson graduated from basic training. Around this time, the ban was being lifted on women in combat roles.
“I think I felt challenged, wanting to kind of prove myself and prove women had skin in the game just like men,” she shared.
In 2009, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan briefed the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Central Command about increasing U.S. female service member support to Special Operations Forces.
“They ended up selecting only 13 out of several hundred of us to go on this particular rotation and we went on the direct action side of the house. We were doing night ops and having to really learn new skill sets like rappelling out of helicopters,” Edmonson explained.
Attached to the 75th Ranger Regiment, known as the Army’s lethal, agile and flexible force, she was in her element.
“I'd have to interview these women and children in an environment where they were very scared. It’s the middle of the night and somebody creeps up on your house and yells over a loudspeaker to get out of your home,” she said. “Suddenly they’re surrounded by 100 plus gun-toting guys who have their weapon drawn. It was a challenge to leave emotions out of it, especially when they were crying and terrified.”
Balancing all of that with searching the women and children for weapons or information was a challenge. If one of the men was killed during the mission, she was the one taking a photo and asking the women to identify them.
“You have to remember most of these areas were rural and many had never even seen a camera before,” she added.
From 2010 to 2017, she deployed to Afghanistan four times. “The CST program was supposed to be really a one-and-done but I sort of became obsessed with developing this program,” she admitted.
Towards the end, Edmonson and her colleagues began teaching the Afghan women the same skills they were taught. Advise and assist was the methodology used. “I felt like we were making a difference but I started to see the writing on the wall and knew we were going to pull out,” Edmonson added.
She hung up her uniform in 2017 and began pursuing her next chapter. Lost at first, she sought help from the VA and was able to receive counseling to work through her struggles. Knowing anything she did after service would have to be purposeful, Edmonson began a graduate study program for social work at the University of Southern California.
When American forces finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, Sisters of Service was born. Founded by the women of the CST program, they were able to get over 40 Afghan women who supported the war efforts to the United States. They continually work on resettlement and empowering these women to build new lives through mentorship and support programming.
“These Afghan women who’d sacrificed so much for us weren’t eligible for the same benefits as an interpreter through the special immigrant visas. There was a glitch because they weren’t paid directly by the United States for the work they did,” Edmonson explained.” No, they aren’t U.S. veterans but they served with us. There’s no distinction in my mind.
She was also part of the team of advocates on Capitol Hill pushing for the passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act and continues to fight to get these women out.
“We had Afghan women rappelling out of helicopters at night under night vision, while bullets were flying past and 80 pounds soaking wet carrying the same load as a guy. I don't know that I would have if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes and had that lived experience,” Edmonson shared. “I try to encourage people that whatever you think you can't do, you're wrong. These women are a shining example of that. The fact that we have some of them now here in the United States only makes us so much better.”
You can learn more about Sisters of Service by clicking here.