Kansan who trained Afghan corrections workers agonizes over Taliban takeover

By: - August 29, 2021 4:00 am

Lori Reeves (left) poses with a group of Afghan women she trained for their work in correctional facilities in 2009. (Submitted)

LUCAS — Though it’s been 10 years since Lori Reeves left Afghanistan, she can still rattle off flight times from the Kabul airport to Dubai, from Dubai to Atlanta, and then the last two hours back home to Kansas.

Last week, that same Kabul airport was the site of a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghans. Saturday saw another 300 Americans evacuated while the Taliban made access to the airport even more difficult for Afghans seeking safety outside of the country. As the window of opportunity closes for evacuation, President Joe Biden said another attack on the airport was likely after the United States carried out an airstrike aimed at those responsible for the Thursday attack.

Lori Reeves runs the Lucas post office and raises chickens at home in Sylvan Grove. From 2006 to 2011, she worked as a senior warden adviser and trainer in Afghan prisons. (Submitted)

Reeves, who worked as a senior warden adviser and trainer in Afghan prisons from 2006 to 2011, is watching the nation fall to the Taliban with sadness and concern.

“I have a sense of remorse because of how much it meant to us to help these people, and this is how we leave them,” she said. “I felt like we were making such a difference. Now? What a shame. What a disaster.”

Reeves felt differently 15 years ago. Her 25-year career in corrections at El Dorado and Ellsworth correctional facilities led to a new adventure.

“I thought it would be exciting,” she said. “I wanted a challenge and was interested in how the world worked.”

Reeves, who now runs the Lucas post office and raises chickens at home in Sylvan Grove, found what she was looking for. While she warmly greets residents picking up mail, she doesn’t often get a chance to tell the story of her work in the Middle East.

She was based primarily in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh province. With a population of half a million, it’s Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city. From there, she traveled to nine prisons (in Badakhshan, Baghlan, Jawzjan, Kunduz, Samangan, Sar-e Pol, Faryab and Takhar provinces) to train men and women in the basics of corrections procedures. In a series of six- to eight-week classroom sessions, she taught communication skills, self-defense, firearms, and prisoner restraint, each with a single interpreter. When she traveled, she and her two American assistants wore body armor and were accompanied by six bodyguards and two interpreters.

Reeves was hired by private contractor PAE, a corporation that provides services to the U.S. State Department around the world. The company’s website continues to advertise positions, mostly medical services, as being open in Afghanistan despite the current crisis.

In her work, Reeves worked closely with the State Department, which provided needed materials, including uniforms and other corrections equipment, to the Afghan correctional workers she trained.

Reeves is grateful to the Kansas prison warden who alerted her to the opportunity in Afghanistan and allowed her a year’s leave of absence from her job in El Dorado if she were selected. But she didn’t know how challenging the road to Mazar-e Sharif would be.

Lori Reeves scores an Afghan woman’s target shooting during firearms training in 2009. (Submitted)

Her first posting was in Kosovo, where she was trained. On her first day of work in April 2004, she and 21 other Americans were wounded and three of her colleagues killed in an ambush while trapped outside the Kosovo prison. Their attacker, who was killed in the gun battle, was a Jordanian police officer working for the United Nations with possible ties to Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group.

Reeves came home to Kansas after her tour of duty in Kosovo to recover from her wounds and returned to work as a corrections professional. But in January 2006, colleagues she trained with in Kosovo called from Afghanistan, asking her to come back. She accepted their invitation.

“When I got there, I found that a lot of my work was networking with the local government, commanders, and correctional staff while overseeing the nine prisons assigned to me. It was imperative that women were treated respectfully and with dignity,” she said.

Reeves remembered a time when a Taliban commander visited the prison. Her team was invited to partake in the luncheon festivities. The Taliban commander and Reeves struck up a cordial conversation, as the commander spoke good English. Reeves asked him why the Taliban attacks prisons at night when during the day they are comfortable conversing and eating together.

The leader responded, “That’s what we do.”

A daily concern for Reeves was conditions in the mud prisons, where it wasn’t uncommon for more than a thousand inmates to occupy a facility with a capacity of 84. She described how women and children were relegated to riding in the trunks of vehicles while men and goats, pigs, and cows rode inside. Young girls were married off in deals between fathers, and women who had been raped were imprisoned while their rapists went free.

“Conditions for women in all aspects of life in Afghanistan are deplorable,” Reeves said.

Lori Reeves (second from left) helps deliver Christmas presents to Afghan children in 2009. (Submitted)

Reeves’s role as a senior warden adviser with two male correctional supervisors became a fascination for her Afghan colleagues.

“It was unheard of,” she said of being a woman in authority. “One winter, three Afghan correctional officers rode horses for three days in a blizzard just to see a woman corrections coordinator and attend training. I was embraced because we had a great team and program support. We treated the Afghan people with respect. We were guests in their country.”

With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan focused today on evacuating Americans and Afghans who worked with the U.S. during its 20-year engagement there, Reeves remembers a beautiful country where she did the best work of her life.

“I wake up every day and think of my time there and I think we did something right,” she said. “If I got a phone call today, and if I could go with the same group of people, I’d be packing my bags.”

She is troubled, however, by what she sees as a bungled departure from Afghanistan and a lack of empathy on the part of U.S. government officials and politicians for those their nation counted on and who now have no way out.

“Representatives and senators were scared for their lives in the Capitol eight months ago,” she said, referring to the Jan. 6 insurrection. “It was nothing like the brutality now in Afghanistan. I wish they would remember their fear then. Americans should be involved in making the world better, but if we are, the U.S. has an obligation to bring them back safely.”

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Lori Brack
Lori Brack

Lori Brack is the author of "A Case for the Dead Letter Detective" (2021) and "Museum Made of Breath" (2018). In 2010, her poetic script for "Farmer’s Dream," a work of performance art based in Kansas agricultural history and labor by Ernesto Pujol, was published as "A Fine Place to See the Sky." The script is a collaboration with her grandfather’s 1907-1918 Kansas farming journals. Brack worked in programs and publications for the Salina Art Center and as a college and community writing instructor. Most recently, she directed a foundation-funded artist development project in Salina. She moved to Lucas last fall where she lives two blocks from the Garden of Eden and 14 miles straight south of the geodetic center of the continent.