Kandahar's Combat Knitters use yarn and needles as weapons of self-preservation

MAKING HER WAY: Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Almy, a physician in the Navy, formed the Combat Knitters at a NATO hospital.
MAKING HER WAY: Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Almy, a physician in the Navy, formed the Combat Knitters at a NATO hospital. (Courtesy Of Jennifer Almy Photo Illustration By Allison Ghaman/the Washington Post; Original Photos From Istockphoto)

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By Dan Zak
Thursday, March 10, 2011

In the highlands of Peru, sheep are shorn. Their fleece is milled, spun into yarn and exported to a Seattle distributor, which ships the yarn across the continent to a knitting shop on North Fayette Street in Alexandria, where it is purchased in 220-yard skeins by a Navy captain's wife and her fellow knitters of Northern Virginia, who box the skeins into care packages and mail them 10 time zones away to a NATO hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Attn: Combat Knitters.

The Combat Knitters tote their yarn and needles in nondescript pouches, sneaking a few stitches here and there, under their desks, between shifts, after saving or losing a patient, waiting for a rocket attack to end, watching F-16s taking off from the airfield. Wrists piston and needles click as the knitters watch a Friday-night movie projected on a barracks wall under the black sky of southern Afghanistan.

The bazaar on base doesn't sell yarn, so the Combat Knitters rely on the relay of middlemen between them and the sheep in Peru.

The Combat Knitters are women in their early 20s and mid-50s. They are Navy corpsmen, nurses and physicians. Some wear Combat Knitters patches on their uniforms: two knitting needles crossed like swords over an outline of Afghanistan colored in red, black and green. Some guard the base's high-security wing for injured Taliban fighters while clad in Kevlar, with an M16 and a ball of yarn in their laps.

Late last summer during pre-deployment training at Fort Dix, N.J., Capt. Michael McCarten noticed a physician knitting a green shawl during brief moments of respite - at the rifle range, and between grenade-throwing practice and vehicle egress training. This was Jennifer Almy, a 40-year-old lieutenant commander based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. She'd taken up knitting three years earlier to strengthen her left wrist after surgery.

"Do you belong to Ravelry?" McCarten asked Almy, referring to the online social networking site for knitters. She did, so he connected her to his wife, Kathleen Marra, a hairdresser who is part of the Ravelry group Knitting in Alexandria. The two women corresponded through the site. Female service members were asking Almy for knitting lessons, so Marra and the Alexandria knitters "adopted" Almy and her proteges, became de facto patrons and began to send wool bought at a discount from Fibre Space, a knitting shop in Old Town.

War is monochromatic. After wearing and staring at khaki all day, it was transporting to open a box and see a skein of pink or a ball of tangerine.

Almy marshaled her troops. They became the Combat Knitters: Yarn ladies at Kandahar Airfield's NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit, a 70,000-square-foot trauma center operated in concert with Canada and the Netherlands.

"It was something to keep me occupied during a deployment," Almy says. "Some people bring a library worth of books. Some people learn a language. I brought my knitting."

She taught at 2 a.m. if there was a lull in patient care, or on her days off on picnic tables outside the barracks. She always carried her stethoscope and her knitting pouch, which keeps out the ever-present dust. She gave one-on-one lessons because everyone was too busy to meet as a group, but for six months teacher and students worked on a joint project on their own time in their own space. They created dozens of 81/2-by-81/2-inch red, white or blue squares, and they kept in touch with their Alexandria counterparts via Ravelry's discussion boards.


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