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Talking About Afghanistan

Navy's Jenniffer Jack relates her experiences overseas.

It's tough enough being a single mom. But when you're also a member of the Navy Reserves and you're called to active duty, you go.

That's just what Intelligence Specialist 1st Class Jenniffer Jack did. She was mobilized 11 days after 9/11 and, when she later went to Afghanistan for four months, she had to leave her son Sasha, then 17.

But he was well-cared-for by a family friend and also had the support of his school, Ad Fontes Academy, in Centreville. And on March 23, his mom spoke with the students there about her experiences overseas. She also presented the school with an American flag that had been flown in Afghanistan and carried on a military plane during a mission.

"I'm awfully proud of her," said Sasha, 18, and a senior at Ad Fontes. "She prepared me for [her deployment] because we're a military family. I knew she was in danger, but it wasn't as dangerous as being an actual combat troop."

ACTUALLY, Jack, now 43, joined the Army in 1977, working in intelligence. She learned Russian, got training and practice using it and was stationed in the U.S., Turkey, Germany and at the National Security Agency. She later left the Army after Sasha's birth, but decided to return when he was older.

"The Army wouldn't have me because I was a single parent," she said. "But the Navy said yes." So Jack resumed her military career and has distinguished herself in the intelligence field. From January 2003 until the end of May 2003, she served in Afghanistan, and she talked about her life there, recently, with some 90 Ad Fontes students in grades seven through 12.

She described some of the American aircraft used there, including the AV8B Harrier and said the airstrips were only about 50 feet away from where she lived. She also answered lots of questions from the students:

Q: "Did you pick Afghanistan?"

A: "I was mobilized through the Defense Intelligence Agency. I just happened to draw Afghanistan."

Q: "What's the worst thing that happened to you over there?"

A: "The first month I was there, we had rocket attacks every night. We were pretty much locked down and had to wear helmets and heavy flak jackets, called 'body armor,' all the time."

Q: "What was the best thing?"

A: "Getting on the plane and leaving. But, seriously, every time I got mail. It meant somebody cared."

Q: "What was your reaction when you first got there?"

A: "Not 'hooray, I'm finally here.' It was, 'First, let me find a safe place.'"

Q: "Did you carry a gun?"

A: "I worked in a classified facility. I was wearing a 9 mm Sig Sauer sidearm all the time — to the bathroom, the shower, the chow hall. When I went outside, I also carried an M-4, locked and loaded."

Q: "What was the coolest thing you did?"

A: "I can't tell you. It was really cool, but I can't tell you."

Q: "Did you ever shoot anyone?"

A: "No. There were Afghanis that would dress in leather aprons and lightweight-plastic face masks and look for land mines. They got paid the equivalent of $10 if they found one. They were brave, because these things were dangerous. While I was there, 30-40 civilians came into the hospital — a couple were kids — because they'd stepped on land mines and had something blown off."

Q: "HOW did your day go?"

A: "I got up at 0-dark early. There was no heat in the tent so, if it was 30 degrees outside, it was 30 degrees inside. I had a sleeping bag and a cot, and we always had hot water. Later on, at the 82nd compound, they never had hot water, but I had a real bed. And you never brought back food to your room because there were tons of mice.

"There was a Sunday church service. We had a nice chapel and chaplains of [various denominations]. There were about 20 chaplains in Afghanistan covering 20,000 people. We had hot meals twice a day and drank bottled water. About 6 or 7 p.m., I could go back to my tent and do whatever I wanted — like there was that much to do. We had a field hospital. A lot of downtown Kabul had been bombed; you could see the old radio tower."

Q: "What did you usually wear?" (Jack wore a desert-camouflage uniform to speak to the students).

A: "I was on a covert mission, so I always wore civilian clothes — blue jeans and a plaid shirt — so they didn't know who I was."

Q: "How did you travel while there?"

A: "You always go with two vehicles. And the Afghan people would crowd around the trucks and ask for money."

Q: "What impressed the people the most?"

A: "We brought a whole lot of clothes to an orphanage — but the thing that impressed them the most was my Polaroid camera. They'd say, 'Here, take my picture!' These people live in mud huts and, when I took a picture of one very old man and gave it to him, it was probably the greatest thing he'll ever own."

AS FOR the flag Jack presented to the school, it was flown at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, over the Air Force A-10 squadron at the Bagram Air Base and at the Bagram collection point. "It was a collection of humans," she explained. "This point was a jail, and many of the people in it were bad. The flag was flown there for nine days, 11 hours, in the face of the enemy."

Following in his mother's footsteps, her son Sasha plans on a military career, although in a different branch of the service. He's already been accepted into the Air Force Academy, but says his first choice is the Marine Corps, via the Naval Academy, to which he's also applied.

Meanwhile, his mother is now in the inactive reserves and working as a technical scheduler at Northrum Grumman TASC in Westfields. "I'm very happy and overjoyed to be home," said Jack. However, she added, "I expect I will be going to Iraq."