LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Arizona --
Within a dusty room, a simple conversation took place
among four officers stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, which would
not only change their lives, but the lives of oppressed women struggling to
survive in a Taliban-ravaged province.
In 2011, Capt. Joseph Stenger III, 62nd Fighter Squadron
F-35 instructor pilot, deployed to Afghanistan as a fighter pilot. Within his
assigned squadron, Stenger and three other officers, Capt. Ryan Bodenheimer,
Thunderbirds pilot, Maj. Joshua Carroll, intelligence reservist, and Capt. John
Hudgins, 335th Fighter Squadron F-15E instructor pilot at Seymour-Johnson Air
Force Base, North Carolina, came together to find a way to help the people of
the province rather than just engaging the Taliban.
“We all knew we wanted to make a difference,” Stenger
said. “We wanted to make an impact that would last longer than our tour in that
country. We engaged the locals and listened to their concerns and how we could
help. We met a young student who was working with a group of widows in Parwan Province
making handmade scarfs. Each of these women had husbands who were killed by the
Taliban and were struggling to support their families. We knew then that these
were the people we wanted to help.”
Hudgins had received a photograph from his sister showing
her and her friends all wearing scarves. The idea of selling the women’s
handmade scarfs to a wider market creating a successful business for these
women was the way they saw they could help.
“That was my ah-ha moment," said Hudgins.
In a part of the world, where women fill a role of cook
and mother, and who have lost almost everything, these men stepped forward and helped
the women break a barrier that had been in place for thousands of years by helping
them create a business for themselves.
“The women we work with are absolutely pushing the
acceptable limit of behavior in their communities,” Stenger said.
“They are challenging the status quo every single day and
with that comes risks. There are risks from insurgent groups operating in that
country and even risks from their own countrymen who want to maintain that
conservative decorum. These women are tenacious, gritty and hard-working and
have proven every day for the last four years that they will not be intimidated
by anyone who wants to keep them enslaved by an outdated social paradigm, and I
couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Stenger serves as a co-founder, an operations officer for
the online business, and coordinates all the shipments out of Afghanstan. He
has been there since the beginning and has seen what these women endure just to
be able to live and support their children.
“When I look at my personal contributions, it pales in
comparison to the sacrifices they are making every single day,” Stenger said.
“These women fight not just for their families but for their entire country,
for the rights of a generation of women to come. These women now are laying the
foundation for the betterment of generations of women in Afghanistan. Knowing
we at Flying Scarves play a small role in that gives us a great sense of
fulfillment and purpose.”
The impact of that simple conversation four years ago has
spread into meaning and purpose not just for the women in Afghanistan but for
women in Kenya, India and Haiti as well. These women have created stability,
economic freedom and have begun a radicalization of women’s rights in provinces
that are as archaic as the sand blowing in the streets.
Flying Scarfs to date has earned more than $200,000 for
the widows of Parwan Province, but more than money, these women have earned
independence and a freedom to pursue their dreams. They have given hope to
their children to make the world better than the one they grew up in. With the
money these women make, their children can attend school and avoid potential
What was once just a small goal of providing employment
for the Afghan widows has now turned into a worldwide mission to find and aid
other individuals in similar situations.
It is a nonprofit organization with all proceeds going to
the women of underdeveloped countries, and it is the Airmen’s hope to spread the
vision throughout the world providing women the opportunities to succeed.
“When you combine something you’re passionate about with
service, you can change the world,” Stenger said.