Capt. Tiffany Hendershot knew she had to help. As a licensed clinical social worker, she understood how trauma can affect a person’s well-being, and at that exact moment, no one needed her help more than the thousands of Afghans on dozens of flights set to land in Kuwait.
Although she did not have an official role at the beginning of Operation Allies Refuge – the Department of Defense’s mission to evacuate, process, and house at-risk Afghans – Hendershot clawed her way into the biggest evacuation operation since the end of the Vietnam War, at first by organizing supply donation drop-offs for the 5,000 evacuees who would be coming through.
A quick inventory told Hendershot the operation needed more supplies: baby bottles and formula, diapers, toothbrushes and washcloths and other items of comfort that evacuees who left Afghanistan with no more than a bag – and had spent days in Kabul waiting on flights – would need.
“When the first group started coming through, it was obvious that the children were hungry, dirty and uncomfortable. They had spent days in the same clothes,” Hendershot said. “They would spend hours in line [to get processed]. Some ended up just sitting on the ground.”
Hendershot organized and made calls to people she knew. Soon, truckloads of supplies arrived. Soldiers set up a supply area within the welcome tent where evacuees awaiting processing could get much-needed items of comfort, including blankets for children to sit and sleep on. As a mother, Hendershot also knew from experience that parents will put their children’s needs before their own. Instead of just having evacuees come to the supply station for what they needed, she brought the items to them.
“I can relate to them as a parent,” Hendershot said. “So, I started giving them wipes, and they asked me to help clean the kids’ faces as well because there were so many kids.”
Despite not sharing the same language, Hendershot identified with what evacuees were going through because some things – like parenting and how to care for those in need – can cross language and cultural barriers.
“For me, it’s social work and not social words,” she said. “I don’t need to speak their language to do social work, so I would just offer bottles and diapers and whatever else I thought they needed.”
Science also crosses cultural boundaries. For Hendershot, this is a salient point because regardless of culture, all children go through the same stages of development, and trauma can have the same long-term effects on them. For example, the limbic system is the first to develop in the human brain, and that system helps a person survive and is a reason babies cry when they have a physical need. When caretakers make babies feel safe and satisfy those needs, the frontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional and impulse control, begins to develop. Conversely, when those needs aren’t meet, the brain instead spends energy on ensuring survival.
For Hendershot, this was especially a concern for evacuated Afghan children, because some of them had seen some of the worst examples of humanity in the days preceding their arrival in Kuwait.
“When, as an Afghan or American child, you spend energy worrying that your parent might get killed or you might get killed, that’s trauma. The cortisol getting released is going to change your brain chemistry,” she said.
Fortunately, just as the science of trauma crosses boundaries, the science of softening those harsh experiences also has the same boundary-crossing abilities.
“The parents were so tired, and they just wanted to rest, but the kids had all this energy and were running around,” Hendershot said. “So, I got the kids together and treated it like summer camp.”
Part of the “summer camp” activities included Hendershot leading the youngsters in “Ring Around the Rosie,” “London Bridge,” and other children’s songs they will soon be introduced to in their new homes.
The goal, Hendershot said, was to give the children something positive to remember amidst all the chaos and change. For now, it appears she has done just that, as evidenced by one of her visits to the evacuees a few days later.
“It was so touching because as I walked in the door of the Gateway, the families saw me, their eyes just locked on me, and they smiled. I thought, ‘I made an impression. I made a difference.’”