RIVER FOREST – A taste for adventure and a belief that good can be done in tough places led young American diplomat Anne Smedinghoff to Afghanistan, where she reached out to Afghanis, especially children, in hopes they might charge headlong toward their dreams as she did.
The 25-year-old, just three years into a promising foreign service career, was doing just that – delivering textbooks to a school in southern Afghanistan – when she was killed April 6 in a Taliban bomb attack that also claimed the lives of four other Americans and an Afghan doctor.
Family and friends packed a suburban Chicago church Wednesday for her funeral, remembering her as a brave, selfless woman who wouldn’t let fear stop her from trying to make a difference in faraway places.
“Meeting Anne changed people’s lives,” Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy told mourners. “She inspired Afghanis young and old to pursue their dreams, to think critically about our modern world and in many cases to reconsider their perceptions of America.”
Mourners lit small candles and watched as pall bearers brought her flag draped coffin into the sanctuary of the church in River Forest, where Smedinghoff grew up.
Outside, along street after street throughout the village, neighbors and strangers touched by her story had tied white ribbons around trees and lampposts.
Speaking at the funeral, Smedinghoff’s father, Tom, marveled at her sense of adventure and admitted that he and his wife lived vicariously through her.
There was the time in college when she went skydiving and didn’t tell her parents. She biked 4,000 miles across the country for a cancer fundraiser. She took her parents to check out Angel Falls deep in the jungle in Venezuela, her first diplomatic positing.
“The foreign service really was a perfect fit for her,” her father said. “... It combined her love of foreign policy with her desire for adventure.”
Smedinghoff joined the foreign service right after graduating from Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in international studies and became a key organizer of the university’s annual Foreign Affairs Symposium in 2008. The event draws high-profile speakers from around the world.
After her assignment in Caracas, Venezuela, she volunteered for Afghanistan.
One of Smedinghoff’s favorite projects there was working with the Afghan women’s soccer team and helping it gain greater acceptance in the deeply conservative country. To ensure she could better interact with the Afghan players, Smedinghoff even practiced her own soccer skills on her days off.
She appeared on Afghan TV for a cultural discussion in which she talked of the similarities between Thanksgiving and Muslim holidays to show both societies shared a devotion to family gatherings and giving thanks.
About two weeks before her death she was chosen to assist with a visit to Afghanistan by Secretary of State John Kerry, reflecting the trust placed in the second-tour officer despite her few years of service.
Kerry stopped in Chicago on Monday to visit Smedinghoff’s parents and praised the young woman as having been “full of idealism and full of hopes.”
She was to finish her Afghanistan assignment in July. Already fluent in Spanish, she was gearing up to learn Arabic, first for a year in the U.S. and then in Cairo, before a two-year assignment in Algeria.
Smedinghoff volunteered for the toughest assignments because places like Paris and London, she once told her father, would be so boring.
“It never occurred to Anne that she might take the easy path. She was committed to pushing herself,” Kennedy said.
Also killed in the attack were three U.S. service members, a U.S. civilian Defense Department worker and an Afghan doctor. They were walking from a military base to a nearby school when two blasts went off, apparently from an explosives-packed car driven by a suicide bomber and then a roadside bomb.
Her death, Kennedy said, might cause some to wonder if the payoff from such work is worth the risks.
“I, for one, have absolutely no doubt Anne’s answer would be yes,” Kennedy said.