A documentary by Jill Vickers and Jody Bergedick

Once in Afghanistan is a beautiful 70 minute color film by Peace Corps Volunteers about their service in smallpox prevention in Afghanistan.

Seventeen Volunteers tell stories about their work giving smallpox vacinations all over the country in 1969.

The stories in Once in Afghanistan give a complete picture of the Peace Corps Volunteer experience from training through two years of service and into coming back.

When I was among the responsive audience watching the showing in Amherst, Massachusetts in April 2009, we laughed at the Volunteers adjustments to Afghan culture, we empathized with their successes and failutes and we were moved by their feelings about their impact.

I think Once in Afghanistan is the best reflective film about being a Peace Corps Volunteer I have ever seen. By reflective I mean where volunteers remember their service.

Until I saw Once in Afghanistan in 2009, I called Jimi Sir - which I saw in 2004 - the best. Now I am calling Jimi Sir the best active film about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. By active I mean showing a volunteer in service.

Once in Afghanistan is set in 1969 and was debuted in the winter of 2008-2009. Jimi Sir is set in 1984 and was debuted in 2004.

Jill Vickers told me how Once in Afghanistan got made: “When my mentor in video production at the community access studio, Jody Bergedick, learned that I was still in touch with the women I served with in Afghanistan, she challenged me to interview them at the upcoming reunion. I did so and got enough footage that we together we able to make a 7 minute movie to send out on DVD to group members. It was then that they began to give me money to meet the budget for a full-length film seeing for themselves what Jody and I had in mind. When the first check arrived for $4000 from one of them, we were launched.”

Once in Afghanistan is available on DVD for $20 plus $3 shipping through Dirt Road Documentaries [www.dirtroaddocumentaries.com] and all profits support projects rebuilding Afghanistan.

The DVD cover says, “It was 1969 and the World Health Organization had made eradication of smallpox its top priority. Young women trained by the Peace Corps joined teams of male vaccinators in Afghanistan to meet the challenge - go with them to the villages vaccunating each family, house by house, staying wherever the village could accomodate them.”

Viewer comments on the cover -

They were part of something unique in human history, the eradication of a disease - Peace Corps training director Kristina Engstrom

Enchanting work that elicits universal feelings - RPCV Afghanistan Steve Nadler

Sublime sensitivity - Afghan American Trina Shabaz

Brings all people on this planet together - Bill Steiner

Reviews and comments -

Jill Vickers has sent me some of the great reviews and viewer comments Once in Afghanistan has received:


Jill, Kris,

I received the CD today and many thanks.

A most remarkable presentation — really a professional work expressing understanding, empathy, surprise, awe, frustration intermixed with a good selection of stills, music, etc.  I found it absorbing but I will try this out on some others who have never been to Afghanistan–my recollections were revived of the hospitality and generosity of the people, the quite incredible fruit and vegetable markets and the frightening beauty of the country.  Tonight, I was with one of the principal international health professors at Hopkins and I told him about it.  He is anxious to obtain a copy and this I will send to him.  You may hear further from them as Hopkins is pioneering a three year Peace Corps–Masters program which is turning out to be very attractive to many students.  Melding a government and private university educational setting is a challenge but the early results are very positive, so he tells me.

Congratulations to a group for having maintained your ties.

I assume that all or most know of the group know of the sequel to the groundwork they laid in Afghanistan as after my first visit, we ousted the WHO senior advisor, brought in a former Indian army Colonel (and genuine hero from the medical service), obtained new Afghan leadership and they executed one of the most rapidly effective of all the national smallpox eradication programs.  Peace Corps staff participated in the early phase of this dramatic success and played a role, I suspect, in paving the way for the ultimately successful program.

Best regards,


He co-authored The Red Book, all about smallpox eradication efforts worldwide and has a new book out this spring on smallpox.

I had my own ESL teacher moment at the reception; the unexpected opportunity to listen to the stories of the two Afghan men there, both grad students in the program where Bob and I taught.  The older one related his life as a schoolboy under the Russian occupation, fleeing Afghanistan on foot with his family, struggling to get an education in Pakistan, returning to Afghanistan to work, while leaving his family behind in Quetta.  When the two were asked how they met, the younger began, “When I was five years old….”  Turned out they met right before leaving for the U.S., but he wanted to tell his story.  And it was a good one - Kabul shopkeeper’s son, dodging rockets while Kabul was under  siege from the rival tribal war-lords, heralding the arrival of the Taliban and witnessing the disintegration of their promise, very close to his extended family, in conflict with his father who wanted him to take over the shop rather than continue his education.  He didn’t tell his family he had won a scholarship and was going to the U.S. until the day before he left.  So I was brought back to being the sympathetic listener to the stories the boys I taught told me 40 years ago.  A very good thing for me.

My neighbor sent me the following email - worth sharing.   Keep me in the loop, too.  Linda

Dear Linda, Thank you so much for alerting me to this event in advance; it was an amazing view of a place and time, a mission, and the individual adventurous women I felt I met. I bought the video.
Keep me in the loop! Jeanne

Hello Jill-

I didn’t linger after the movie on Sunday, but I wanted to say how awesome the film is!  It was very inspirational!

It was so neat to see how many different paths the women have taken in their lives and what a tribute to the Afghan people.

Thank you for all your work!

Best- Suzanne Young

“This past weekend, our Kentucky Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group met for our annual winter gathering and watched the DVD.  I really don’t have the words to describe it.  It is a window into a country and culture that few Americans have experienced.  The women were interviewed nearly 40 years after their experience in Afghanistan, yet their recollections are crisp and absolutely relevant to today.”


Local film offers new take on Afghanistan

Submitted by Addison Independent on October 8, 2008 - 9:21pm


BRIDPORT — Jill Vickers’ recollections of Afghanistan had been of a proud, resourceful population working hard to get by in a foreboding yet majestic setting.

But Vickers’ vivid memories, culled from a stint as a Peace Corps worker in Afghanistan from 1969-1971, had become clouded this decade — not as much from the passage of time as by TV footage of bombings and some media portrayals of Afghans as terrorists.

“Afghanistan is a place where terrorists live and thrive? This was not our experience,” Vickers said of her and her colleagues’ recollections of Afghanistan, where they had scoured the countryside inoculating people in small towns against smallpox.

The Bridport resident and her 16 fellow Peace Corps associates are now sharing memories of their experiences in a new documentary film titled “Once in Afghanistan.” The recently completed 70-minute film was produced by Vickers and Jody Bergedick, the youth program coordinator for Middlebury Community Television (MCTV).

Set for its premier at Castleton State College’s Casella Theater on Thursday, Oct. 16, at 3:30 and 7 p.m., “Once in Afghanistan” features heartfelt and poignant interviews with the 17 Peace Corps volunteers who are now spread throughout the country.

The film, which Vickers expects to air on MCTV at a later date and will be available on DVD, includes still photos of the vaccinators and 1960s-era footage of Afghanistan supplied by Middlebury resident Foster McEdward.

Vickers unwittingly planted the seeds for “Once in Afghanistan” in 2004, during a reunion with her former Peace Corps colleagues. Wanting a keepsake of the gathering, Vickers interviewed the women. She brought the footage back to Addison County and eventually into the MCTV studios. There, with Bergedick’s help, she condensed the material into a seven-minute segment.

Bergedick was immediately struck by the quality of the commentary offered by the interviewees.

“All of them are extraordinary people,” she said. “They are interesting, articulate and have a very deep bond with each other that I had not seen before.”

Bergedick encouraged Vickers to turn the seven-minute segment into something bigger. Vickers sent it to her associates, and the response was emphatic.

“When people in the group saw this seven-minute teaser, they gave the money to make this movie,” Vickers said.

Thus began a more-than-two-year effort to make “Once in Afghanistan,” a labor of love for a group of women whose experiences have kept them in touch for four decades.

It’s a bond that began in 1968, when they began training for their Peace Corps mission: Working with the World Health Organization (WHO) in its global effort to eradicate smallpox from the planet. The women joined teams of male vaccinators and fanned out across the rugged country, inoculating as many people as they could against the deadly disease.

Vickers’ team was primarily responsible for reaching the women and girls, as Afghanistan’s traditional Muslim culture discouraged contact between them and men outside the family. The American women worked house by house, negotiating steep, almost impenetrable terrain to reach ordinary Afghans who quite often had to be vigorously persuaded to receive the life saving shots.

“There was superstition, and they had their own way of doing things,” Vickers recalled of the people she met. “It was a sales job; we had to do a lot of talking.”

Thankfully, most of the Afghans relented and agreed to roll up their sleeves for vaccinations.

Vickers recalled a lot of give-and-take exchanges that helped the vaccinators and their patients learn a lot about each other.

“We showed them how much we admired their culture, their values, their strong families and their ability to survive among such difficult circumstances,” Vickers said.

Among the difficulties the Afghan citizens faced were a harsh climate and immense poverty. Though they had little to give, the common people in the small towns opened up their homes to the foreign visitors.

“I was struck by how hospitable people with so little can be to a stranger,” Vickers said.

The group vaccinated thousands of Afghans during their time in-country, leaving in 1971. The WHO declared smallpox eradicated in 1980, giving Vickers and her colleagues satisfaction that their efforts paid some big humanitarian dividends.

But it was also in 1980 that Afghanistan entered a dark chapter of its history from which it has yet to emerge. First came the Soviet invasion and with it, several years of bloodshed. After the Soviet-installed government was toppled came years of oppressive rule by the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime. Most recently, Afghanistan has been called a central front in the war on terror, spurring U.S. military actions there. United States forces have seen a ramping up of violence against troops in recent months.

Vickers said she was also struck with how Afghanistan became a chief target of military operations after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She noted those who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks were primarily Saudis.

“Somehow, we needed to counter this notion that a Saudi fundamentalist is the same as an Afghani tribesman,” Vickers said of one of the rationales for creating the documentary.

“Politics, and weapons in a few hands can take out all the goodwill that was created,” she added of the impact on prior goodwill missions to Afghanistan.

Members of Vickers’ group shared those and other sentiments during a series of filming sessions in Concord, N.H.; Williams, Ariz.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Bridport, Vt.; and at the MCTV studios in Middlebury. The women contributed around 90 photos from their Afghanistan collections, which are woven in with McEdward’s footage of 16-millimeter street scenes shot in Kabul during the 1960s. McEdward, an aviator, was in Afghanistan at the time taking high-altitude footage of the nation for oil and water resources purposes.

Vickers and Bergedick completed the film last week, with the help of Katherine Wheatley, a local videographer and independent video producer.

All profits from the film will support rebuilding projects in Afghanistan. For more information about the film and how to obtain a copy, log on to www.dirtroaddocumentaries.com.

The filmmakers are pleased with the final product, which they said sends a message that transcends conflict, humanitarianism and the Middle East.

“Despite were you go and live… at the end of the day, you can look at each other and recognize each other as human beings,” Bergedick said. “That’s the essence of the movie.”


By David Moats Rutland Herald, Vermont Staff - Published: October 8, 2008

Forty years ago they were a group of young women traveling into the mountains of Afghanistan, into villages where people had never seen a Westerner before, or a car. They were bringing small pox vaccine, and their job was to vaccinate everyone — infants, old people, women, men. From their sheltered lives in the United States, they thrust themselves into one of the poorest, most primitive places on earth, and they had a job to do. Decades later the United Nations declared small pox had been eradicated around the world.

I knew about those vaccinators. I, too, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan. The vaccinators had a reputation as among the most daring of all the volunteers in the country because of the danger and difficulty of their job. That they were women made it all the more dangerous and difficult.

At the time I lived with another volunteer in Khanabad, a town in the far north. We taught English in the local school, and our paths seldom crossed with the paths of the vaccinators. So one day when a vaccinator came through our town, we were happy to give her dinner and a place to stay for the night. It was always a treat to have a visitor. Her name was Jill Vickers, and she told me she was from upstate New York. I never saw her again.

Forty years later Jill Vickers lives in Bridport, Vt., and she has made a film for which she tracked down a dozen or so former vaccinators and interviewed them about their experiences. Afghanistan changed each of them. It was another world — “Bethlehem 2000 years ago,” one of them said, — where people were living at a subsistence level. The vaccinators came back to America, and most had a hard time conveying to friends and family the fullness of their experience. Jill Vickers has given them another chance to tell their stories, artfully weaving the individual stories of each woman into a larger story encompassing the pathos, humor and hardship they experienced in Afghanistan.

The interviews are spliced with film footage of Afghanistan from 1965, plus numerous affecting photos of Afghan people and places, including photos of the vaccinators when they were young. In this way the film becomes the story of these women’s lives as they look back on their 24-year-old selves.

They are not shy about talking of the difficulties they faced. The vaccinators are identified in the film only by their first names, and a woman named Lizette described the time she encountered an Afghan woman who was dying of bone tuberculosis. The woman knew she was dying, but she insisted that her children be vaccinated so they could have the best possible lives. Forty years later, the emotion was still present for Lizette. “She was just a wonderful woman,” she said. And she remembered thinking, “The world doesn’t owe me a damn thing.”

The Peace Corps used female vaccinators so they would have access to the Afghan women, and so the volunteers got a rare glimpse at the lives of women who for the most part were hidden away behind mud walls. They found that some of the women were treated with love and respect. Others took them aside to show them their bruises.

A vaccinator named Linda — Linda Berryhill of Shrewsbury — recalled that Uzbek and Turkmen women were saucy and that nomad women were tough and a little scary. She remembered a tiny young girl setting down the two buckets she had been carrying on a yoke over her shoulders and leading her by the hand to see her mother, who was dying. “There was nothing I could do,” Linda said.

The women experienced dire illness and the unwanted attention of men, plus the ordinary hardships of traveling in a remote place far from home. But there were rewarding moments that have stayed with them all these years.

Linda recalled the time a “magnificent” village woman took her aside by the hand, gave her tea and sat with her, establishing a “human connection” that was beyond words. “Those magic moments you can’t program,” Linda said. “They’re a gift that life gives you. When they happen, savor them.”

The women encountered the unrivaled generosity of the Afghan people. “They give you everything,” a vaccinator named Pat said. So they learned not to eat everything offered; if they did, someone else would probably have to do without.

The history of Afghanistan since the 1960s has bestowed upon the Afghan people hardship far more extreme that anything encountered by the Peace Corps vaccinators. A vaccinator named Rita was asked at the end of the film to sum up Afghanistan in one word. She searched for the word. Then she said, “Tragic.” She paused, feeling the full sadness of the nation’s history. “That’s one word,” she said.

The film describes the different paths followed by the women when they came home. It wasn’t always an easy adjustment. But they had helped eradicate small pox. They extended some lives, even if it was into a tragic future. They gave themselves, and perhaps some of the Afghans whose paths they crossed, some of those magic moments.

The film, titled “Once in Afghanistan,” will be screened at 3:30 and 7 p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Casella Theater at Castleton State College.

David Moats is editorial page editor of the Herald.

By John Coyne, PeaceCorpsWorldwide

I watched a documentary yesterday entitled Once in Afghanistan that was produced by Jill Vickers, a PCV in 1968 in Afghanistan . The documentary was done by Jill’s company Dirt Road Documentaries, and it is about 17 women who survive 3-months of Training (36 started) on an Indian reservation in Arizona and then went to Afghanistan to vaccinate women against small pox. The film is basically a series of quick interviews of these women. They recall themselves as young kids fresh out of college and off on this new adventure, the Peace Corps.

It is a wonderful case history; it is long conversation; it is a reflection of another time and place, and it is a look at how these women—now in their sixties–had their lives shaped and changed by having once upon a time been Peace Corps Volunteers.

For those of us who made similar journeys there is not a lot new in what the women say, but there is a lot of nodding in agreement at their comments about their PCV lives, and a lot of whispered, “me too” when we hear what they went through as Volunteers.

None of them think that they did anything special. They just did at the time something very different. They didn’t get married right after college, as so many other women did. They didn’t have children and a family and settle down like many generations had done before them. No, they went into the Peace Corps, which was still brand new and exciting and difficult and no one knew really what it was all about. They were pioneers. But still today, they are very humble about what they achieved, and what they endured to save women and children in remote and isolated villages half way around the world. This was a difficult Peace Corps assignment, but you don’t hear that in their voices.

The documentary is 70 minutes long. It is like watching PBS all afternoon. But that’s okay. The women have a lot of good things to say that Americans should hear today.

Once in Afghanistan is a wonderful and effective Peace Corps training film. It is a wonderful film for high school and college students, for women’s groups, for anyone who is thinking about the Peace Corps. It is a film Michelle and Barack might want to show their daughters, and their daughters’ friends.

I am not sure if this documentary is for sale, but if you are interested in it, for yourself, school, or women’s group, I would suggest you contact Jill Vickers.

The address of Dirt Road Documentaries is:

4409 Town Line Road
Bridport, Vt 05734

You can also reach Jill at: jvickers@gmavt.net

Tell her, ‘Coyne sent me.’