Joe Killian is a high school senior who has already enrolled in the National Guard to earn money for college when he and his classmates watch in horror on 9/11 as reports roll in of multiple attacks on American soil. Killian's first reaction is that he needs to call in to see if he's being called up for duty.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Baheer is a younger teen boy living in Kabul, Afghanistan, with his family. They regularly cover their windows and keep the volume incredibly low when risking simply watching a movie together, for fear that their Talib neighbor will report them to the Taliban, which for years has banned television, music and many forms of art.
Baheer's family learns about the events of 9/11 through a VHS recording smuggled to them wrapped up in a rug. The family soon moves to Farah in western Afghanistan, fearing America's revenge may primarily target Kabul, the capital.
It's in Farah where the two young men later meet as one is deployed on a reconstruction mission (not exactly the terrorist-fighting effort he had imagined) and the other is trying to go to school while helping his family make ends meet. They learn of their mutual hatred of Taliban tactics and develop an unlikely friendship as they navigate wartime.
The story of Baheer and Joe, as told in the young adult novel Enduring Freedom, is very close to the real life experiences of Jawad Arash, an Afghan man who teaches English there, and Trent Reedy, now an author based near Cheney.
"Enduring Freedom is as close as any reader is going to get to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan that 9/11 triggered," Reedy tells the Inlander. "Most of these things happened, for good or for worse. There are funny things, horrific things, and I'm particularly grateful that we were able to get the Afghan perspective from Jawad, which is something we don't get in a lot of books."
20 YEARS LATERIt doesn't escape either author that the timing of their retelling of Operation Enduring Freedom's early years aligns with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this year, or that President Joe Biden has announced the U.S. will fully pull out its remaining troops in Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
One of the first things Arash mentions when asked for his thoughts on the withdrawal is a bombing that happened May 8 at an Afghan school for young girls. It's estimated that as many as 90 people were killed, many of them young girls who were caught in secondary bombs set off after an initial suicide bomb.
ABOUT TRENT REEDYTrent Reedy is an author based near Cheney, Washington. He grew up in Iowa and served in the Iowa Army National Guard. After college, he was deployed to Afghanistan for a reconstruction tour, which gave him many life experiences he would later turn to for inspiration as he started writing novels for teens and young adults. His first book Words in the Dust was published in 2011 and features the story of a young Afghan girl. He’s written several books since, including Enduring Freedom, which he co-authored with first-time author Jawad Arash and was released in May 2021.
When the U.S. first arrived in Afghanistan, the Taliban had not allowed girls to go to school for years, and attacks were frequent. (The Taliban has denied involvement in the May 8 attack). That's changed over the past two decades, with much wider acceptance of girls' education. Still, terrorist threats linger as kids simply try to go to school.
"These are the things we are going through," Arash says. "The decision [to pull out] has made lots of confusion among people because [the U.S.] partial presence and support was quite important to the Afghan people."
Reedy says one of the goals of their book is to show the many American families who've lost loved ones to the war that their efforts were not in vain. The reconstruction efforts, particularly to support education, are a key part of preventing history from repeating in that region.
"It's kind of like doing heart surgery, I think. ... If [the surgeon's] not gonna finish the surgery, it'd be far better if he never started at all," Reedy says. "So I am worried about my friends in Afghanistan."
The uncertainty in the region and the continued attacks are also reasons why Arash does not show his face even when the two authors have spoken to American schoolchildren via Zoom presentations about their book. He has a young child and fears revealing where he lives.
EDUCATIONOne of the biggest developments throughout the book is the evolution of the perspectives of each young man, particularly Joe, who has hateful thoughts about Afghans at the start of his tour.
"I'm very conscious of being a veteran of war who writes war stories for children that don't want to make it sound like a video game or fun and games or some quest for honor," Reedy says. "I had terrible ideas about Afghanistan."
Indeed, the description of Joe's deployment focuses a lot on the many mundane tasks the soldiers are asked to do: stand guard atop the wall of their compound for hours in the hot sun, stir a bucket of poop until it dries out to prevent diseases while they wait for a sewage system to be installed, unload trucks of supplies that will keep them doing the other tasks until another assignment arrives.
But through the nervousness of the action scenes, and despite the wariness with which Joe first speaks with Baheer, the authors show how both young men ultimately learn they're more similar than they thought.
"There are still plenty in America today who still harbor these terrible ideas about Afghanistan," Reedy says.
Reedy worried at first about including some of the stereotypes and negative outlooks that he himself held, but they represented a truth that both men found important to highlight, and Arash says misconceptions exist on both sides. It was important, they felt, to highlight the two young men overcoming that distrust to form a friendship.
"The people who need to hear it most are those who have the same thoughts," Reedy says. "They're more likely to be convinced by 'I was in your exact same position.' I think that has a lot more potential for education."
Ensuring access to a formal education is also a major priority throughout the book, as Baheer works to finish school and pushes his family to allow his sister to attend.
As the real-life bombing just last month indicates, simply going to school can still be dangerous for girls, as Afghanistan continues to root out those who would repress education and discourage people from learning more about the world.
"If there's any hope of Afghanistan offering to its children a better life, anything like peace, it's going to come through people like Jawad Arash who are dedicated to education, to free thought," Reedy says of his co-author.
It's up to civilians and soldiers alike to keep the mission of the last 20 years alive and fight those who would suppress knowledge, Reedy says.
"Forget politics, and whatever your religion, it's about forces that want to control how you think, what you say, how you communicate — that want to control how you live your life," Reedy says. "Against the people who want to be able to sing or want to be able to express a point of view, who want to be able to question, or talk or laugh together."
He knows it might sound melodramatic, but so long as there's a threat against those freedoms, "this mission never ends."
Reedy and Arash make sure to thank educators, librarians and all those who work to empower education despite the risks that may exist in their political environment or in their country.
"They are actually the front-runners for changing the world," Arash says. "And I also want to make sure I never forget to thank all the servicemen and women of the United States who served in Afghanistan. I really thank specifically those who didn't get the chance to go back to their families and lost their lives saving ours." ♦
Enduring Freedom is out now and can be found locally at Auntie's Bookstore and Wishing Tree Books.