Social Sciences

Reading the Signals

After two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Army veteran Laura Swann ’19 brings a unique perspective to Reed.

By Juan Flores ’13 | May 25, 2018

Inside the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the atmosphere was tense. The deafening roar of the plane’s quadruple engines hummed over the anxious shouts of the soldiers. Pinched into their flight gear, they prodded at each other’s parachutes. The air was thick with adrenaline until the drill sergeant’s command cut through the noise. The soldiers snapped into a line and, one by one, began to leap out of the plane. Laura Swann ’19 contemplated her fear of heights and her fear of failure as she inched inexorably toward the open hatch, and...

Silence! Floating through a brilliant blue void over a field in Georgia, she felt a sense of solitude and rebirth before crashing to the ground with a violent and disorienting bang. Standing up, she first found herself, then her peers, then their destination. 

On her intellectual odyssey from naive Young Republican to political science major at Reed, the most important skills Laura has learned are how to land, how to reorient herself, and how to keep moving forward.

Laura grew up in a conservative household outside Denver, Colorado. Her father immigrated from Syria to get a fresh start in the U.S., and her mother was (and still is) an Objectivist, a subscriber to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of rational self-interest. Laura inherited her mother’s Objectivist philosophy and demonstrated in favor of the Iraq War with the Young Republicans.

When she turned 18, she promptly enlisted as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collector with the U.S. Army, motivated by a mixture of nationalistic pride and a genuine desire to help people with whom she identified. By the time she completed basic training, however, she realized something was wrong. She didn’t feel transformed by the Army, just crushed. “There was a lot of breaking down, but there wasn’t a lot of building back up,” she says. 

She spent 18 months studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, before shipping off to Goodfellow Air Force Base to complete her training. When she finally arrived in Afghanistan, she began to appreciate the depths of the Army’s ignorance about the people it purported to help. The U.S. had occupied Afghanistan for almost seven years, but her commanding officers couldn’t provide a simple breakdown of the nation’s tribal structure. Worse, her Arabic was practically useless; Afghans have their own rich linguistic tradition that doesn’t include the language.

When she landed at Kandahar Air Force Base (KAF) in 2009, Laura was greeted by a sprawling military establishment rife with contradictions. The base featured a boardwalk lined with restaurants and souvenir shops catering to KAF’s international population of soldiers and civilians. At the center of it all was a sewage treatment pool dubbed Lake Shitticaca.

Lacking a secure facility, Laura and her team were unable to collect any intelligence while their commanding officers played politics and jockeyed for promotions. Throngs of Afghan men crowded the base’s gates to check out female guards whenever her team drew guard duty; on one occasion, Laura was bitten by a monkey that was tossed over the fence at her in a bizarre gesture of either affection or hostility. 

As time marched forward, she grappled with isolation and despair. On New Year’s Eve, 2009, she found herself alone in a tent, depressed and on the precipice of suicide. She stayed up all night reading Deep Survival by Lorenzo Gonzalez from cover to cover. In the morning, she received word she would finally begin operations as a SIGINT analyst.

It wasn’t what she was trained to do, but she enjoyed the work. She pored over the digital detritus she found in captured cell phones, searching for actionable intelligence. Mostly what she found was Bollywood videos—vibrant and exuberant celebrations of life—occasionally interspersed with photos of bloodied corpses. Sometimes she found Taliban recruitment videos that spliced footage of the United States with scenes of the Soviet-Afghan War. She began to realize that in the eyes of many Afghans, she was just a member of another occupying force.

In her free time, she began to play Dungeons & Dragons with other soldiers. The dice, dialogue, and the invented worlds were a welcome distraction from the banality of military life. The monsters she faced weren’t always imaginary, however. Once, while trying to deliver her daily intelligence report, Laura was cornered by two army colleagues wielding a camel spider­— a giant arachnid of the order Solifugae with distinctive pointed pincers. They didn’t back off until she pulled out her knife.

Late in 2010, Laura’s five-year enlistment finally ended. She returned to the States,  loaded up her car, and drove to Portland. 

After tending bar for several years, she knew it was time to expand her horizons. “I wanted to go to Reed because when I visited, it seemed like everyone was really engaged and interested in the material for its own sake,” she says. “Also, I loved that everyone took a year of classics in Hum 110.”

When she arrived on campus, she felt like she had jumped into “the deep end.” At Orientation, she was surprised to be asked for her preferred pronouns. “I honestly thought it was a Tumblr joke,” she says, adding that since then she has come to believe that asking for pronouns is “pretty awesome.”

With time, Laura soon found her footing. With Prof. Ben Lazier [history 2007–], she studied Hannah Arendt, which transformed her analytical framework. As she gained confidence, she began to lend her perspective as a veteran to academic conferences about war, weapons technology, and torture. She started a blog, The Misanthrophile, where she writes about history, philosophy, and politics, and joined a student organization named the Thinkery, dedicated to critical and open discussion. “I really believe in the power of dialogue,” she says, citing how thankful she is to have had the opportunity to argue about and reform her former Objectivist ideology.

It has been a turbulent journey, but Laura is ready to take the next leap: writing her thesis. Nobody can say where she’ll land, but she isn’t worried. She knows she’ll find her way.

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