KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - A year-long deployment in Afghanistan hasn’t slowed former National Guard Bureau marathon champion Capt. Varinka Barbini Ensminger at all. In fact, the 32-year old from the Kentucky Army Guard is living life at a faster tempo than ever.
As the medical services officer in the Kandahar Agri-business Development Team, Ensminger worked at a frenetic pace throughout her deployment. On a daily basis, she interacted with Afghan officials as one of the Army’s primary liaisons to three districts in southern Afghanistan while simultaneously maintaining her national-level running ability. During the last few months, she also became the coach for 28 runners some 8,000 miles away training for the 2013 Boston Marathon.
National Guard Agri-business Development Teams promote sustainable agricultural practices in Afghanistan and allow Guard members to use their civilian-acquired skills. In her civilian occupation, Ensminger is a policewoman with her hometown Lexington, Ky., Metro Police Department and she has a bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from Marshall University.
"I made every effort to get the most out of the deployment," said Ensminger, whose deployment concluded in late December. "I built a lot of local relationships and friendships. I hope I had a positive impact on the people I met and improved their quality of life."
Ensminger was the lone female U.S. Army liaison to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock in the districts of Panjwai, Dand and Daman during her deployment. During her first few weeks in Afghanistan, she said she wore a scarf and head covering to meetings, but as time passed, she was able to gauge what was acceptable and began wearing her usual Army uniform without adaptation.
"Despite my small stature, I have pretty good confidence stemming from my backgrounds in sports, law enforcement and the military," Ensminger said. "I was always escorted by guys, so I began to think if I was dressed like everyone else, gender wouldn’t matter and I would just be another one of the guys.
"If I could carry my own weight, gender would factor out of the equation. I believe I received the same amount of respect as the men I was with. I never had any problems."
Ensminger’s duties as an agri-business and economic development liaison varied as much as a track and field decathlon. Among her myriad responsibilities, she was heavily involved in the districts’ veterinary programs, acquiring agricultural equipment, vocational training, children’s literacy, and the mentoring and training of key women in the community.
When her daily duties were over, Ensminger, who was the National Guard Bureau women’s marathon champion from 2007-2009, maintained her indefatigable training schedule. Working primarily at Forward Operating Base Pasab, she was able to run about 30-45 miles per week, mostly on treadmills.
Ensminger even managed to participate in a few races at the rural FOB, despite the fact she was usually doubling as the race’s director. She was the outright winner of the FOB’s Army 10-mile shadow run, easily outdistancing all of the male entrants with the time of 64 minutes, 48 seconds on the rocky, uneven course around Pasab. She was also the outright winner of the Pasab half-marathon and a recent 5-kilometer race on the FOB.
But her proudest running moment during her deployment came in April when she gutted out the full Boston Marathon distance by herself in 90 degree temperatures while generating $1,500 in contributions for the Team Hoyt Foundation. Team Hoyt is the father-son team of Dick Hoyt, 72, and Rick Hoyt, 50, who compete in a variety of athletic endeavors together. In running races like the Boston Marathon, Dick pushes Rick, who has cerebral palsy, in a specialized wheelchair. Dick is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts Air National Guard.
"The money raised will go toward buying specialized equipment and voice-operated wheelchairs for other athletes," said Ensminger, who met the Hoyts at a race expo in 2007 while competing for the National Guard’s elite team.
Despite being more than 8,000 miles away, Ensminger’s link to Team Hoyt became even stronger when she was named one of the coaches for Team Hoyt runners set to participate in the 2013 Boston Marathon. While in Afghanistan, she began coaching 28 athletes online as they began their final four month of training in advance of the race set for April 15. Like Ensminger, all 28 will generate contributions for the Team Hoyt Foundation.
"It will be an amazing experience to see ‘my’ runners finish at the Boston Marathon," Ensminger said.
Ensminger doesn’t plan to spend much time on the sidelines once she finally makes it home to Lexington. She’s decided upon a truly 'Goofy' way to test her post-deployment fitness before she begins training for the 2013 National Guard Marathon Trials in early May in Lincoln, Neb.
"I’m entered in Disney World’s Goofy Challenge January 14-15 on Florida," she said. "It a half-marathon on Saturday and a full marathon on Sunday. I’ll try to get a good time in the half marathon. The full marathon will just be for fun."