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Anna G. Larson, Published December 21 2013

'Heart of Gold:' NDSU professor uses lessons from motherhood during Afghan deployment

MOORHEAD - As Afghan children looked on, Cheryl Wachenheim blew up rubber gloves to resemble balloons.

The funny-looking balloons entertained the children and gave Wachenheim an opportunity to interact. The single mom of two, Army major and college professor missed her own kids during the 11-month deployment with the Minnesota National Guard, so she’d connect with the Afghan children as often as she could. She’d teach them phrases like “peace be with you,” the English equivalent of their Arabic phrase “as-salaamu’alaykum,” and hand them candy on her way back to the base.

“It was amazing. They had nothing, yet they were extraordinarily happy,” says Wachenheim, of Moorhead.

To those who know the 47-year-old North Dakota State University agribusiness and applied economics professor, it’s not surprising that she took time to make kids smile.

NDSU student Amy Monson’s seen Wachenheim’s nurturing nature in action. Monson was deployed with Wachenheim and says her mentor is caring and always willing to help.

“She has a heart of gold. When she found out I was a general agriculture major, she immediately started calling people to get the best advice on which classes I should take,” Monson says.

Wachenheim, who Monson describes as “quirky” and smart, also had a knack for connecting with the Afghan people, as she does with students and colleagues.

“She treated everyone the same. It didn’t matter,” Monson says.

For Wachenheim, it was second nature.

“Afghan people are different in circumstance, but they’re still people,” she says.

The difference in circumstance was apparent one morning when Wachenheim was running around the base for exercise. She noticed guards laughing and asked the head guard if she was doing something wrong. He told her the men were laughing because they couldn’t believe she could run. They were happy for her – most Afghan people in their late 40s aren’t healthy enough to run.

Wachenheim was also struck by the similarities between American women and Afghan women during her time in the country. Although her primary role was as the agricultural marketing specialist, she was also the officer in charge of the female engagement team and worked with the Afghan director of women’s affairs, Sadiqa, to help establish programs for women in the province.

When she’d meet up with Sadiqa and local women, she was surprised by their love of “bling” and gossip. She remembers the beautiful jewelry and makeup that hid beneath the burkas.

“We think of the burka as though they’re being downtrodden upon, but I think they accept it as part of their culture. They don’t let it diminish them to nothing,” Wachenheim says.

One time when she met with the women, her interpreter told her they weren’t talking business; they were gossiping instead. Most of the women aren’t literate and don’t have physical addresses to receive mail, so their only way to expand their knowledge is through their husbands, children and each other.

Although Wachenheim taught Sadiqa how to budget and improve her grant writing, she says her primary job was to “tell and show her I care, about her and the women of Zabul … I provided hope. She also provided hope to me that our efforts were making a difference.”

Aziz Jamalzai, who works with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, says Wachenheim’s positive attitude kept him uplifted as they worked together. She even inspired him to start a trader’s association in Zabul province that now has approximately 400 merchants.

“Why is she so popular in people’s minds? Because she showed very human behavior with her Afghan partners,” he says.

Wachenheim points to motherhood for providing the skills necessary to be an effective leader in the military and in academics.

“Whenever I struggle with my identity as I move between the worlds, I simply think of and apply the lessons I learned from motherhood,” she says.

Her kids – 10-year-old Ellie and 9-year-old Hunter – are her life, she says, adding that she’s an “old mom” since she was in her mid-30s when she had Ellie.

“I have absolutely nothing in common with them (the children), but we sit at the table and just laugh for hours,” she says. “They’re extraordinarily vibrant kids. There’s nothing we can’t laugh about.”

Wachenheim candidly says she’s a “great mother, but not a very good parent,” explaining that she often has too much empathy.

“If my child falls, I’m there to kiss his booboo. If you look at my children wrong, I’m going to stand up in your face. My children are everything to me,” she says. “But, to be a parent you can’t be their best friend. You need to be their parent.”

Family friend DeAnn Gisvold, an adopted aunt of sorts who watches the kids when Wachenheim’s deployed or at drill, argues that Wachenheim doesn’t give herself enough credit.

“She works very hard. She makes sure her kids have the best. She just all around has a big heart,” Gisvold says.

Although she’s happy to be home, Wachenheim’s grateful for her time in the Middle East because it put her life into perspective.

“Here, I get paid to talk to students. There, I get paid to fly around in helicopters, learn new stuff and camp,” she says. “How could you not be happy?”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525