Wherever She Can Serve: Johnnie Crosses the Wire in Afghanistan
Before joining the Pentagon’s Human Terrain Team and assisting in the War on Terror, AnnaMaria Cardinalli (SFGI99) was an opera singer, classical guitarist, recording artist, and FBI analyst. Her path is typical for a Johnnie: no one interest or career could define her, so she went wherever her heart and mind drove her.
AnnaMaria earned her bachelor’s degree at St. Mary’s College of California and came home to Santa Fe to explore the Great Books at St. John’s College. She pursued doctoral studies in theology at the University of Notre Dame, focusing on the convergence of religious and liturgical traditions in medieval Spain among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
“I wanted to know why those cultures got along so well when they did and didn’t get along when they didn’t,” she said.
She joined the FBI because they were looking for people with advanced degrees in cultural and religious matters. She was attached to a UN special operations command in Iraq where she saw the military “at its absolute finest, doing its absolute best job of protecting innocent life.” It was then she knew that she had to put on the uniform, too.
In 2009, AnnaMaria was senior social scientist on her Human Terrain Team, assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Battalion in the Pashtun south of Afghanistan. The position sent her venturing “across the wire,” outside of military encampments, past the limits of Western military presence to learn about local practices and customs. “The work involved talking to people as sources through anthropological and intelligence perspectives. I knew from previous experience that this was something that could protect people. It could help avoid cultural missteps like we saw in the early phases of the Iraq War, where lack of understanding of local cultural norms caused violence where it didn’t need to take place.”
AnnaMaria encountered a populace that, in a practice conflating teachings of the Koran with local traditions, deemed women unclean and undesirable, resulting in a culturally influenced homosexuality unrelated to innate sexual attraction between men. She also saw intergenerational, culturally accepted pedophilia that she believes contributes to the cycle of violence in the region.
A report she wrote about both issues was leaked to Wikileaks and American media, effectively putting an end to her career options related to national security. Worse yet, when the leak happened, “those two findings were very, very confused,” said AnnaMaria. “The media focused on what they saw as the hypocrisy of Muslims engaging in homosexual behavior and failed to see the importance of the violence that was taking place with the boys.”
She felt so strongly about wanting to clarify her findings and bring attention to the plight of the abused boys that she wrote a book about it based on her journals from when she was in the Pashtun—Crossing the Wire: One Woman’s Journey into the Hidden Dangers of the Afghan War, proceeds from which benefit the Solaris Project (to combat human trafficking), and the Jam for Vets Project, which brings musical instruments and instruction to veterans in VA hospitals.
AnnaMaria is now living in Santa Fe again, performing her music, spending time with family, and waiting to see where life takes her next.