Utahn won Afghani smiles

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 3 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Jill Stevens hugs Halima after the girl's successful eye surgery.

Jill Stevens Photo

Medic Jill Stevens stitched up a few injured soldiers here and there but spent much of her time in Afghanistan running humanitarian aid to the locals.

Stationed at Bagram Air Base, the 22-year-old Stevens often ventured via helicopter on missions to a remote village named Jegdalek. Children particularly caught her attention. She won them over making funny faces.

"Smiles and laughter," she said, "I kind of see it as a universal language."

After returning to camp one day, Stevens noticed in a photograph she had taken the crossed eyes of a 5-year-old girl. She went to work lining up a surgeon to correct the problem. With permission from the village elders, she took Halima to the base for a week and "treated her like a queen."

Stevens showed the girl Disney movies and fed her popcorn. She took her to a day spa for a hairdo, manicure and pedicure. She bought her a new pink dress and shoes for the trip back to Jegdalek.

"She was just beautiful," Stevens said.

Because of other duties, Stevens wasn't able to get back to the village for five months. And when she did, Halima was not among the children gathered to greet the soldiers. But then, like in the movies, the crowd parted and Stevens and the girl ran to each other and embraced. Stevens called it a "magical moment."

"I made a difference in her life, and she made a difference in mine," she said.

Though there were some raised eyebrows in the Stevens family when she joined the Utah National Guard right out of Davis High School, Stevens has their full support.

"I love challenges," she said. "How could I not do this? It's just another chance to serve my country."

A nursing student at Southern Utah University, Stevens' yearlong tour in Afghanistan with the 211th Aviation Group set her back in school. In fact, she had to start all over.

But "I don't regret going in the least because I got to see what we're actually doing over there," she said.

Stevens believes the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has made a difference, too. The country now has a democratic government and a president.

"It's like when you find something that works for you, you want to share it with other people. I think that's what we're doing in Afghanistan," she said.

The treatment of women, though, is something that bothers Stevens. She noticed on her humanitarian missions that they were pushed to the background. Men brought the children out while the wives were required to stay in their houses.

An avid runner with seven marathons under her belt, Stevens thought about those oppressed women during her training runs around the mine-filled perimeter of Bagram Air Base.

"It was probably a little foolish of me, but nothing was going to get in the way of my running," she said.

And she did it because, unlike Afghani women, she has the freedom to run.

On Dec. 12, 2004, Stevens joined more than 200 other soldiers and civilians (no Afghani women) in Afghanistan's first marathon at Firebase Ripley, a remote camp near Tirin Kot in central Uruzgan province.

The 26.2-mile race consisted of five laps around a bumpy 5.29-mile course, facing high altitude as well as the threat of attack. Stevens felt good for the first three laps but tightened on the fourth. The thought of those women kept her going.

"It was like an energizer," said Stevens, who ended up the top woman finisher with a time of 3 hours, 45 minutes. "I was kind of doing it for them because I know one day they'll be able to do something like this."

Jill Stevens

Rank: Specialist

Unit: 211th Aviation Group

Tour: April 2004-April 2005

Residence: Cedar City


E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

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