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Afghan-American woman first to receive valor award

June 23, 2011

By Combined Joint Task Force-1

PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan, June 23, 2011 -- For her bravery and composure during a hostile engagement with enemy forces, Shakilla Zikeria, an Afghan-American interpreter from Sacramento, Calif., working for Paktya Provincial Reconstruction Team, was the first female in the history of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan to receive the Military Essential Personnel Award for Valor at Forward Operating Base Gardez, June 17, 2011.

“I have the highest respect for Shakilla, personally as well as professionally, and she is more than deserving of this award,” said Shane Shrader, the MEP site manager.

Though assigned to the PRT, Zikeria travelled to the Dand Patan District to assist U.S. Army Spc. Felicia Hemphill of the 168th Infantry Battalion, Task Force Lethal, Bravo Company, from Emerson, Iowa, by serving as an interpreter for a women’s shura at the local district center, April 23.

According to Hemphill, insurgents attacked their convoy before they were able to reach the district center for the shura. Zikeria, a mother of three and grandmother of two, responded quickly and assisted the gunner by handing up more ammunition when requested.

“They told me ahead of time that there was a possibility we would get attacked, and not to panic,” said Zikeria. “They told me everything I needed to do if we were attacked, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Hemphill also said Zikeria helped Bravo Company communicate with the local Afghan border police unit they were partnered with for the mission.

“One of the ABP trucks was blown up, so I had her assist us in communicating with the ABP so we could get them into our trucks and out of the kill zone,” said Hemphill.

“During a lull in the fire fight, Shakilla assisted us in communicating again because the ABP had ran their truck off of the road and my truck was trying to help pull them out,” said Hemphill. “She was translating for me, and then we began to take fire again for about a minute.”

After returning to the safety of the U.S. military base in Dand Patan, Zikeria and members of Bravo Company went back out the next day to attend the women’s shura that had been rescheduled due to the hostile engagement.

“We were not able to make our meeting at the district center that day, but then she went out again with me the next day to finish our mission,” said Hemphill. “She went above and beyond what we expect our interpreters to do, and she did an excellent job of being there when we needed her, even in the presence of imminent danger.”

Hemphill said during the meeting, Zikeria used her knowledge of Afghan culture to connect with women and gather information about insurgent operations in the area.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Hemphill. “I know she was scared; so was I. But even though she was, she still helped us when most would freeze up. The infantry life is not for everyone, and she did an outstanding job holding her own through everything we asked her to do.”

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