Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, nearly 350 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, technology, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support.
This week’s Tillman Tuesday features former U.S. Air Force Captain Felisa Hervey (pen name Farzana Marie), who had no exposure to the military while she was growing up overseas in Chile and Kazakhstan. Felisa’s heart led her to the Air Force Academy and in turn serving others both as a civilian and service member, deploying to Afghanistan for two consecutive years after extending her tour three times. Hervey served six years active duty and will graduate in December 2015 from University of Arizona with a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Literature.
What was your experience like growing up in California, Chile and Kazakhstan?
“I was born in California and then my family moved to Chile when I was two because my dad accepted a call to be a pastor in a bilingual church. We were in Chile for nine years and that’s also where my four younger siblings were born. When I was 11, we moved back to California for two years and then to Kazakhstan for three years as my parents were invited to be part of a team doing humanitarian work and working with local Christian churches. Our move there was shortly after the Soviet Union broke up and the region was experiencing greater freedom of religion than before. I was 16 when we went back to Pasadena, California to finish up high school.”
How did you make the decision to go to the Air Force Academy after high school?
“That decision was a bit of a surprise to all of us. I was looking for something challenging and unique and one of my advisors at school suggested I consider the Air Force Academy. I was intrigued by a model that focused on integrity and service before self, but it seemed like a long shot to get in because I didn’t have some of the same experiences young people growing up in the States might have, like playing on varsity sports teams. I joined the cross-country team in high school to help prepare for the academy in case I got in, which I actually did! When I visited, I was amazed by the place and people and felt like that’s where I needed to be. I had the sense of clarity I had been praying for, and went ahead and bought my boots, only afterwards writing to my parents in Kazakhstan to let them know I had done so and asking their thoughts. My mom wrote back and told me she had a feeling I would choose this path…she seemed to have known even before I did!”
9/11 happened while you were a freshman at the U.S. Air Force Academy. What was your initial thought and reaction in response to those events?
“When 9/11 happened, I remember having this longing to go there and understand what was happening on the ground, perhaps even do something to help. I also wanted to be better equipped in case I went to Afghanistan down the road in a military capacity. Along with two other classmates, I disenrolled from the Academy and moved to Kabul. For three weeks we worked with The Mobility Project, delivering wheelchairs and prosthetics, and then transitioned to working in Afghanistan’s public orphanages. We were there for a total of nine months, and my job was mostly teaching English and exercise to the girls.”
Given the risks at stake with 9/11 still very fresh in the minds of others, what made you decide to volunteer as a civilian in Afghanistan, knowing the potential danger?
“Plenty of people said don’t go. We certainly thought about the danger, but it was something I felt very strongly that I was supposed to do. I wasn’t sure I would go back to the Air Force Academy, but I hoped this would be a way to serve and get involved. I really found I loved it there: I loved the language and the people, especially the family I stayed with and the kids I got to work with. In the end, I decided to go back to the Air Force Academy to finish my education and serve as an officer, hoping to one day put the unique and life-changing experience in Afghanistan to good use.”
What did you learn about the culture and yourself throughout the three years you served in Afghanistan from 2003-04 and 2010-12?
“Over the course of the 12 years I’ve been involved in Afghanistan one of the biggest things that has connected me to Afghanistan is how Afghan culture honors poetry. Persian literature, especially, has a vast and deep tradition and poetry both in Dari (the Afghan dialect of Persian) and Pashto provides the spice to everyday language. There are certain things that only poetry can express, and as an aspiring poet I felt really inspired by this aspect of life in Afghanistan. Like other forms of art and music, poetry is an avenue for connecting on a heart-level, both listening to what people are grieving or angry or happy about, and having a way to share those deepest human experiences. Now, Persian Literature and contemporary women’s poetry are the focus of my studies and my dissertation.”
What do you say to those naysayers who thought you were crazy to go to Afghanistan in the civilian capacity?
“I would say that most of us humans are trying to figure out what we’re each here on this earth to do. And for me, this is an important part of it. Afghanistan is also important to the American people because pf the many young women who have served there, those who have given their lives or lost their loved ones there. To me, there’s nothing more important in response to this sacrifice than to honor it by making sure it is not wasted. The futures of Afghanistan and the U.S. are intertwined, and I believe it’s not just up to governments but up to us as citizens to take action and be involved in a positive way. The U.S. and international effort there has made plenty of mistakes and missed many opportunities but has also done a great deal of good. Afghanistan is a very different place than it was in the late 90’s—steadily improving access to education, healthcare, and communications technology, for instance, is improving millions of lives. It takes a long time to heal from decades of war, and there is still a long way to go and many challenges ahead. But I don’t think Americans get the chance to hear the words “thank you” very often, and they need to. The time I’ve spent there has taught me that most Afghan people are very grateful the Americans are there and they’re also afraid of what may happen when we leave.”
How many languages do you speak and how long did it take you to learn all of them?
“I grew up with Spanish and English so I’m fluent in both of those. While in Kazakhstan I learned some of both Russian and Kazakh, but I really focused on Kazakh in the three years I lived there. These days, the language I speak the best is Persian (Dari), next to Spanish and English. I also learned Arabic for a couple of years while at the academy and can understand a decent amount and use it in basic ways.”
You plan on graduating this December with a PhD in Middle Eastern Literature from University of Arizona. What do you intend to do with your degree?
“I really hope to do something related to Afghanistan and am applying for jobs there where I can teach, work on women’s rights issues, or be involved in literary activities and growing the publication industry. I want to continue writing and translating poetry, and hope to find work conducive to that. I’ve also been involved in creative writing workshops for veterans and hope to make that part of my future work as well.”
Tell us about Civil Vision International (CVI) and some of the other projects you’re currently involved with.
“Our vision is to connect, inform and inspire citizens worldwide, and we do that through the arts, dialogue, and a consistent positive presence on social media platforms that helps expose people to grassroots perspectives and ideas. During these last couple years we have been specifically focused on Afghanistan, building relationships between people there and in the U.S., and building a hopeful sense about the future relations of our countries. A core part of that happens through creative content like videos, books, and articles. For example, in 2013, I published a book called ‘Hearts for Sale! A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan’ that was a reflection on my team’s experiences serving there in the military and the ways we could be much wiser and more effective through listening and building relationships.
Our most recent initiative is called the International Women’s Poetry Exchange, a reading tour that coincided with the release of a book I edited and translated called, ‘Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan’ (Holy Cow! Press, 2015). We just finished up a Kickstarter campaign to bring Afghan poet, activist, and elected official Somaya Ramesh to the U.S.!. We’re just finishing up a book tour together that has taken us from the Tucson Festival of Books and events at the University of Arizona up the West coast, ending up in Seattle and Portland this past weekend. We’ve been reading these powerful women’s poems from Afghanistan and sharing with people about what’s going on there. It’s been such a profound and thrilling experience!”
Describe how being selected as a Tillman Scholar has impacted your life.
“The Tillman Scholarship has made it possible for me to follow my heart and pursue building Civil Vision International while studying, without figuring out how to pay for all of the school expenses myself. I didn’t want to wait until I was done with school to pursue this dream and the scholarship has granted me the freedom to invest in the nonprofit work on a consistent basis. Pat is a huge inspiration and the Tillman community has been such a source of support and inspiration as well. The Tillman Scholar program has been a real foundation for what I’ve been able to do in research, creativity, and service over the past few years.”