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The Orlando Sentinel
KABUL, Afghanistan - The Afghan soldiers rested in their cool, dark barracks at an old Soviet base.
When the American soldiers walked in, they jumped up from their bunk beds and floor cushions, shaking hands warmly all around.
But when they got to the American lieutenant, the Afghans simply stared open-mouthed:
In a U.S. Army uniform.
With a cross on her chest.
The interpreter tried to explain, but the Afghans seemed at a loss until Lt. Rebekah Montgomery told them, "I'm like a mullah" - an Islamic religious leader.
At that the Afghan soldiers smiled and nodded. But their glances to one another showed that the idea of a female mullah army officer was about as realistic as a flying cow.
The encounter was novel for the Afghans, but it's the stuff of everyday life here for Montgomery, 31, of St. Augustine, Fla. She's the only woman among the three Army chaplains assigned to minister to the 4,000 or so American troops of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, who are here to train the Afghan National Army.
In a conservative Muslim nation where most women still cover their faces in public and are absent from the military and much of public life - let alone religious leadership - Montgomery is an oddity practically beyond the comprehension of many of the Afghans she meets.
Whether soldiers or civilians, on Army bases or city streets, her presence guarantees a large crowd of curious Afghans who aren't shy about staring.
"It bothered me a little at first," said Montgomery, who arrived in Afghanistan for her yearlong tour last summer. "But after a while I realized it was just curiosity, so I don't let it get to me.
"I mean, here I am, a woman in pants and a uniform and my face uncovered, and I think it just blows their minds."
If it's tough to explain her role to Afghans, it's not much easier to explain how she ended up here. The daughter of an Air Force veteran who served in Korea, Montgomery grew up in Washington, D.C., attended college in Minnesota and seminary in Manhattan.
She never considered a career in the military until after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when she had finished a stint as a chaplain at a Miami hospital and was working as a counselor.
"I just realized I didn't have enough to do, and I started calling recruiters," she said.
In February, she married another Army lieutenant. There was no time for a honeymoon before they began training for the deployment to Afghanistan.
A finance officer, he's stationed at another base in Afghanistan a few miles from hers at Camp Phoenix outside Kabul.
Montgomery spends about half her time traveling to see soldiers who are spread out across a country the size of Texas, but she and her husband still cross paths when business brings him to Camp Phoenix.
"We have a lot of lunches together - a lot of coffee dates," she said.
At Camp Phoenix, she preaches in a chapel where there are gilt-framed paintings of Jesus hanging over rifle racks with the instructions: "Loosen sling - Rotate pistol grip on tube."
When she's not traveling, she's teaching karate to soldiers at the Camp Phoenix gym. She earned her black belt five years ago.
It all might seem a little odd for a woman who had never considered a military career and who is ordained in the Unitarian Universalist faith - which she describes as "pacifist, activist and very supportive of social justice." Nonetheless, here she is ministering to soldiers in a Muslim nation.
But Montgomery has settled on what she said is the only explanation that makes sense.
"It's like God said,
This is where I want you,' and I said,OK.'"
One disappointment has been her limited opportunity to interact with Afghan women.
She and other female soldiers from Camp Phoenix were able to attend the wedding of a woman in a nearby village. But as with other encounters, the language barrier made it difficult for the women to understand one another.
All the interpreters are men, "and when men enter the room, the Afghan women just shut down," she said. "I'd rather try to mangle a conversation myself, because once a male enters the picture, it just changes the whole dynamic."
Still, she wonders about the things she hasn't been able to ask Afghan women, who seem intrigued that she drives Humvees and wears an officer's insignia.
"I guess I just want to understand their lives and how they see their roles," she said. "I just want to know if they can even see themselves in my shoes."
Though it has been challenging to live in a society where she's considered an oddity, it has been much less difficult ministering to and counseling the Americans here - most of whom are men.
They don't hesitate to confide in her.
"I've had more guys come up to me and say, `My wife told me this the other day - can you tell me what she means?' I think they appreciate having a woman's perspective," she said.
Chaplains are the only American soldiers not permitted to carry weapons. And so each is assigned an "assistant" who helps set up makeshift chapels and perhaps arrange the music for a service. But the assistant is essentially a bodyguard.
It's sort of like being a deacon with an assault rifle.
Montgomery's assistant is 40-year-old Staff Sgt. Richard Allee of St. Petersburg, Fla.
Seldom more than a step or two from Montgomery when she's in public, Allee's two ever-present features are a smile and a loaded M-4 rifle with seven extra magazines belted to the front of his bulletproof vest.
"She does draw a crowd wherever she goes," said Allee, the son and grandson of preachers. And sometimes Afghan men read more than she would like into Montgomery's presence.
On a long convoy to Herat recently, a crowd of Afghan soldiers surrounded Montgomery to have their photos taken with her.
"Where is your husband?" one asked.
"He's in Kabul," she said.
"Oh," the soldier said in a suggestive tone, "so he is in Kabul, and you are in Herat?"
Another soldier asked her to put her arm around his shoulder for their photo, but she declined.
"I just know how that sort of thing is seen in the culture here, and you have to avoid that," she said later.
But she has learned to ignore the stares and gapes.
On a street in Herat recently, a young man stopped her and asked in English, "Who are you, please?"
She explained, and asked him how he had learned English.
"I am trying to learn, but not very good," he told her.
She told him his English was fine, but he asked her, "How can I learn better?"
"You should find someone to teach," she said. "Teaching is the best way to learn."
As a crowd gathered, Allee, at Montgomery's side, edged in a little closer.
He was still smiling, but he had his hands on his rifle and kept glancing to make sure no one was behind him.
The crowd got bigger. Two young men on a motorcycle stopped to stare. Men leaned out of second-floor windows to see. And those on the sidewalk gaped or glared as they walked by.
Montgomery didn't seem to notice.
(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.