Young Readers to hear from soldier on changing perspectives

imgres-1Trent Reedy remembers Sept. 11 as the day the world stopped turning.

Then a young education major and soldier in Iowa, Reedy said he sped home to stand by and await any orders that may have come through on that incredibly horrific day.

In January 2004, while working at the mall, Reedy got a phone call with a code word that signaled official information was about to follow. He was going to be deployed to Afghanistan.

Reedy said that his year-and-a-half tour was an ordeal filled with life-changing experiences, along with a promise he made to a young girl named Zulaikha to tell her story, which he later turned into Words in the Dust — Week Eight’s CLSC Young Readers selection.

At 4:15 p.m. today in the Garden Room of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall, young readers will be joined by Brian Castner, the Week Eight prose writer-in-residence for the Writers’ Center and author of the 2013 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection The Long Walk.

In addition to discussing Words in the Dust, the young readers will also have the opportunity to talk with Castner about his life as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, serving in Iraq and working with its citizens.

Words in the Dust follows the story of Zulaikha, a young girl growing up in Afghanistan. Zulaikha is kind and caring — a dreamer.

She dreams of peace, a better relationship with her stepmother, going to school and having her cleft lip corrected. From secretly learning to read, undergoing a life-changing surgery and enduring a series of difficult tragedies, Zulaikha’s story is one of perseverance and love in a time of war.

Before his deployment, Reedy had never gone as far as Canada. He said he harbored feelings about his deployment that eventually, “thankfully,” changed.

“There was a lot of fear and worry that I would never come home, and there was anger,” he said. “I had a lot of really terrible ideas in the early part of my deployment that I am deeply ashamed of now. I was angry about 9/11, and I was angry about having to leave my home. I naïvely blamed all of the Afghans — and probably all Muslims — because there was a lot I still had to learn. I was expecting when I arrived in Afghanistan to meet an entire culture of warriors that had no other interest besides killing me, and what I met was incredibly nice people who would wave, smile and talk to us. I owe my life to Afghans many times. Very rarely in my life have I experienced such a profound and complete change as I did with my attitudes about the war, Afghans and Muslims.”

Reedy said he realized his own ignorances. Because he was working daily with Afghani children, he eventually changed his attitude.

“I kept seeing these kids who were just normal kids but were deprived of a lot of opportunities through no fault of their own and no fault of their family, and I couldn’t keep the anger up,” Reedy said. “I’d see these little kids, and I had to admit to myself that they were really more a victim of al-Qaida and the Taliban than I would ever be. Eventually, I really began to take our reconstruction mission to heart. I wish I could have done more.”

Reedy and his fellow soldiers weren’t ordered to undertake the mission he said most inspired him, but it was something “you just had to” do. After meeting a young girl with a cleft lip named Zulaikha — the inspiration for his main character — Reedy and the other soldiers literally passed around the hat to help Zulaikha be transported to the main base for a corrective surgery. Reedy said the surgery did much for Zulaikha, but he believes he was transformed just as much as she was.

“When she came back to us I couldn’t believe it,” Reedy said. “It was an amazing transformation, and I will never forget her. When she was leaving our base for the last time she couldn’t hear or understand English but I promised that I would do everything I could do to tell her story. She has completely changed my life.”

Though Reedy said he has not been able to get in touch with Zulaikha since his return, some proceeds from Words in the Dust go to the organization Women for Afghan Women, a charity dedicated to securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls.

Reedy said that when it came to writing Words in the Dust, he had two goals.

“I did not want to write something that portrays the Afghans in some unfair or terrible way,” he said. “And … I did not want to write propaganda for the U.S. military. I didn’t want to write a story where the U.S. Army comes and saves the day. I was trying to write what I thought would be the truth about my deployment.”

Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, said he thinks today’s Young Readers program will be a good conversation about perspectives and storytelling. Readers have to keep in mind, Ewalt said, “who our storyteller [is] and what are the limits to what that writer is able to share.

“What I appreciated, and I hope can be a part of the conversation, is you can read this soldier’s struggle to capture this girl’s story, respect her culture and I think even share his own struggle as a soldier stepping outside of his own assumptions and struggles with his own mission,” Ewalt said.

Given that young readers today do not know a time without the nation being at war or soldiers deployed, Reedy said it was important to give them a sense of what has been going on in the world.

“Young people have had to offer enormous sacrifice,” Reedy said. “They have lost so much time with their parents, brothers or their other loved ones due to deployments and I believe this generation deserves an explanation why. They deserve to know what this war has been about, what it actually was and what our soldiers were doing. They need to understand the cost and they need to know that their sacrifice has not been in vain. That what the soldiers have been doing in Afghanistan is important and is worth it and is helping really great people rebuild their country and reclaim their lives.”