Geographer Vicky Wilkinson looks forward to the ISAF bazaar each week. Working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kabul, Afghanistan, she rarely leaves her compound at Afghanistan Engineer District North. On these excursions, she gets to shop, see friends and meet some local people.
One of her local buddies is Arash, a boy about seven years old, who likes to pretend that he’s her bodyguard. Arash accompanies her on the half-mile walk from ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) back to her compound, all the while trying to sell her something so he can buy books for school and help support his family.
On this particular day, Vicky notices the bitter cold. Kabul has been experiencing its worst winter in 15 years, and it just snowed the day before. As sweet little Arash walks and talks, she sees that he’s only wearing a lightweight jacket, no gloves, no socks, old barely usable sneakers and a tattered stocking cap. He must be freezing out here all day, she thinks, as he pitches his Dari translation books. At the end of their walk, Vicky gives him some money and takes nothing in return. She tells him to keep his merchandise and try to sell it to someone else.
Raelene Hampton, chairperson of Operation Warmth, delivers donations to an orphanage.
Vicky is still thinking about cute little Arash the next day when her co-worker Jeanie Gaudette brings up Operation Warmth. A small group of their civilian and military colleagues started this local initiative in November 2011 when winter weather first arrived. Raelene Hampton, chairperson for the volunteer group, told Vicky that Operation Warmth started as a way to collect clothing donations for orphanages during the holidays. Since 22 orphans have died from the cold in recent weeks, the effort continues. They made their first deliveries at the Tahya-e-Maskan Orphanage in Kabul on January 14.
Jeanie suggests using the FundRazr app on Facebook to help raise money for Operation Warmth. A huge Facebook fan, Vicky immediately embraces the idea, and they both start their campaigns that evening. Vicky also includes that she’ll personally match all the donations made on her page. In no time, complete strangers as well as friends and family respond to these appeals. Vicky places her first order of children’s coats, blankets, mittens and hand warmer packs on February 20.
This campaign is just Vicky’s latest effort to work for the greater good, to make a difference in life. She also volunteered to help put tarps on homes ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
These plucky moves don’t remotely reflect her sheltered upbringing in Oklahoma City. Living with a strict father, who would ground her if she got grades less than Bs, Vicky never ventured far; she never even dated. After high school, she met her husband when she started working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Tinker Air Force Base. A year later, she went from living with her parents to living with her husband.
So after her 19-year relationship unraveled in 2005, she found herself alone for the first time. No matter how long she worked or how packed her social calendar was, she always had to come home and be alone in her new “single person” condo. Career-wise, she had worked up the ranks of the USACE from being a temp assistant to a geographer, but she yearned for a bigger purpose.
After returning from the Katrina relief program, she ran into a colleague at USACE in Tulsa who had just redeployed from Afghanistan. He encouraged her to put her name in for the assignment.
When she first got to Kabul, Vicky experienced her own sense of shock and awe. "What have I gotten myself into?" she often said to herself. “We're definitely not in Tulsa anymore.” But she soon acclimated to her surroundings and made new friends. “I've never met a stranger,” she says of her outgoing personality. “Being pulled away from my friends and family and planted on a compound where I don't know a single person doesn't really bother me. All of us here on the compound work and live so closely together that we all form a special bond to one another that feels almost like family.”
Since she's a civilian, Vicky gets to change out of her army uniform into her own clothes at 5:00 p.m. each day. She also puts on her hair extensions, Prada shoes and Brighton accessories. A longtime Brightonista, she wears her Deco Lace earrings most of the time and shops at the Brighton Collectibles at the Woodland Hills Mall when she’s in Tulsa.
Now on her third and final deployment, she’ll return to her “normal” job as a GIS specialist in Tulsa in July. She’ll also be studying for a college degree online at Penn State so she can advance in her career. This next phase of her life includes a beautiful new home. “It’s my ‘reward’ to myself for giving up five years of my life on deployments to Afghanistan,” she says. “It's a new beginning for me with no bad memories in it because it's not a ‘this-is-all-you-can-afford-as-a-result-of-divorce’ condo.”
Actually, she’s no longer alone. Vicky met her “soul mate,” who works for the U.S Embassy in Kabul, as he was leaving a meeting on her compound in 2008. He then approached her twice more before she agreed to have coffee with him. “Thank God he was persistent,” she says. “Just being with him fills my heart with joy.” Since he also returns to the U.S. this year, they’re making plans for a new life together.
Whatever her future holds, she hopes her little bodyguard Arash will stay as cute and kind as he is today. Until she leaves, she’ll continue to buy his wares so he can work towards a better life. “Arash is such a sweet, good-natured boy,” she says. “I like to believe he’ll be a good boy when I'm not around.” And also that he’ll stay warm.