NEW YORK CITY - Former Army Sgt. Rebekah Edmondson and Afghan Army Capt. Mahnaz Akbari will climb to the top of the One World Trade Center for the Tunnel To Towers Foundation’s 2023 Tower Climb.
Scaling the 2,226 steps is daunting, but it pales in comparison to the mountains they used to traverse together in Afghanistan.
"It’s pretty surreal," Edmondson said.
It’s not by choice that Rebekah and Mahnaz are reunited in the U.S. When the Americans pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021, Kabul collapsed, and Mahnaz faced torture and death at the hands of the Taliban.
While she is lucky to have been evacuated, both women felt grief in greeting each other.
Afghan women gained freedom during the two decades Americans fought there, and female soldiers like Rebekah and Mahnaz accomplished what had never been done before.
Mahnaz, was a commander in the Female Tactical Platoon, an elite group of Afghan women who gathered intel and fought alongside the Navy Seals and Army Rangers.
It’s how she met Rebekah, who voluntarily deployed to the war to work with special operations units — long before women were allowed to serve in combat.
"They were going on night raids, they were repelling out of helicopters, they were being shot," Edmondson said. "It was pretty wild, but again, if I hadn’t been there to see it, I don’t know if I would have believed it."
Men far outnumbered women in both armies and while female soldiers risked their lives, they were still forced to prove themselves to their male counterparts.
Rebekah and Mahnaz say they gleaned encouragement from one another.
To Mahnaz, Rebekah represented the liberation of democracy.
To Rebekah, Mahnaz’s emancipation exemplified exactly why she was serving.
And together, both women showed other Afghan women what could be.
Mahnaz remembers when a young girl approached her:
But that progress came to a screeching halt when the U.S. pulled out. Mahnaz a respected commander, was now trying to start her life over, alone in a new country, leaving behind other Afghan female soldiers, who are still trying to escape and remaining in extreme danger.
It’s why she and Rebekah are working with PenFed’s Afghan Rescue and Resettlement Program, helping refugees who served alongside U.S. Forces.
Both women called to service after the September 11th attack, they are climbing the World Trade Center steps to keep the memory of why they fought and who they fought for, alive.
"Twenty years of investment doesn’t just go away because it’s no longer on the front page, or it’s no longer being aired on the news," Edmonson said. "And it’s something that all of us veterans will live with for the rest of our lives. So, I think if people really want to support our military and say thank you for our service, it’s important that they realize how important it is that we stand by our Afghan allies."