Female Marines reach out to women in Afghanistan
Full-time "female engagement teams" are accompanying all-male foot patrols in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan to win over the Afghan women who are culturally off-limits to American men.
The New York Times
ABDUL GHAYAS, Afghanistan — Two female Marines trudged along with an infantry patrol in the 102-degree heat, soaked through their camouflage uniforms under 60 pounds of gear. But only when they reached Abdul Ghayas, a village in the Taliban heartland, on a recent afternoon did their hard work begin.
For two hours inside a mud-walled compound, the Marines, Cpl. Diana Amaya, 23, and Cpl. Lisa Gardner, 28, set aside their rifles and body armor and tried to connect with four nervous Afghan women wearing veils.
Over cups of tea, the Americans made small talk through a military interpreter or in beginner's Pashtu. Then they encouraged the Afghans, who by now had shyly uncovered their faces, to sew handicrafts to be sold at a local bazaar.
A couple strong women
"We just need a couple of strong women," Amaya said, in hopes of enlisting them to bring a measure of local commerce to the perilous world outside their door.
Amaya's words could also describe her own daunting mission, part of a program intended to help improve the prospects for the United States in Afghanistan — and perhaps to redefine gender roles in combat.
Three months ago, Amaya was one of 40 female Marines training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in an experiment: sending full-time "female engagement teams" to accompany all-male foot patrols in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan to win over the Afghan women who are culturally off-limits to American men.
Enthusiasm reigned. "We know we can make a difference," Capt. Emily Naslund, 27, the team's executive officer, said then.
Weeks into a seven-month deployment that has sent them in twos and threes to 16 outposts across Helmand, including Marjah and other spots where fighting continues, the women have encountered resistance: some from Afghan women and some from male Marines and U.S. commanders skeptical about the teams' purpose.
The women are taking it in stride. "If it were easy, it wouldn't be interesting," Naslund said.
No one disagrees that the teams have potential and that female Marines are needed, especially at medical clinics, as part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency campaign. As his officers say, you can't swing the population to your side if you talk to only half of it.
But interviews and foot patrols with Marines during two recent weeks in Helmand show that the teams, which have gained access to some of the most isolated women in the world, remain a work in progress.
One trip in early May to offer medical care to Afghan women in the village of Lakari showed the program's promise, problems and dangers. The trip was delayed because of reports that the Taliban had put a bomb in the intended clinic building; although nothing was found, the Marines moved to another place.
Gardner, a helicopter mechanic who was working with the Marines from Pendleton but had not trained with them, found herself as the lone woman dealing with five ailing Afghan women. There was no female interpreter or medical officer — there are chronic shortages of both — and the Afghans refused to leave their compound or let the male interpreter and medical officer come to them. Gardner devised a solution.
"Some of these women would rather die than be touched by a male," she said. "So, we'll diagnose by proxy."
By the end of the day, an Afghan woman was trusting enough to hand her baby to Gardner to take to the medical officer, who diagnosed digestive problems from a diet of sheep and goat milk.
She took the women's vital signs herself. Then she had an older Afghan woman come outside with her to describe the women's symptoms, chiefly headaches and stomachaches, to the male interpreter. He translated for the American male medical officer. (The American men were partly obscured from the older woman by a mud wall to respect her modesty.) Eventually medication — the painkiller ibuprofen — was handed over to the older woman to distribute.
Sgt. Gabriel Faiivae, 25, the patrol leader, who had kept watch outside the clinic, acknowledged that the logistics had to be fixed. "But as far as building trust, it was really good," he said.
Villagers are often stunned, if not disbelieving, to see women underneath the body armor. Inside compounds, the female Marines say they have been poked in intimate places by Afghan women who want to make sure they are really women.
Team leaders said some male Marine commanders have been reluctant to send the women on patrols, fearing either for their safety or that they will get in the way.
Women, who make up only 6 percent of the Marine Corps, are officially barred from combat branches like the infantry. In a bureaucratic side step commonly used in Iraq for women needed for jobs such as bomb disposal or intelligence, the female engagement teams are added to the all-male infantry patrols.
The women, who carry the same weapons and receive the same combat training as the men, cannot leave the bases unless men escort them. Lt. Natalie Kronschnabel, one of the team leaders, said she had to push a Marine captain to let her team go on a five-hour patrol.
"It wasn't that hard, it was only four or five clicks," said Kronschnabel, 26, using slang for kilometers. "And they kept asking, 'Are you doing OK? Are you breathing hard?' "
Like the other women, Kronschnabel, a high-school athlete, had to meet rigorous physical requirements in the Marines.
Male Marines, who consider themselves the most aggressive fighters in the armed services, have been won over by the female engagement teams, referred to as fets.
"I was skeptical 100 percent," said Sgt. Jeremy Latimer, 24, a platoon leader in Company F of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, who is based at Patrol Base Amir, an outpost in central Helmand. "I didn't like taking anybody who wasn't infantry. Basically, I was worried about getting shot at with fet Marines."
He changed his mind after he took two of the women into a village elder's home to smooth the way for a male medical officer to treat the Afghan's wife and daughters — again, from the other side of a wall. Latimer said the favor was important, because the elder had become an informant about the Taliban.
Since then, Latimer said, Afghans have been more receptive when his patrols included the female Marines, who hand out stuffed animals to children. When male Marines try that, he said, "It's just a bunch of guys with rockets and machine guns trying to hand out a bear to a kid, and he starts to cry."
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
(The Associated Press) Fuel rules get support A Consumer Federation of America survey conducted in April found that a large majority of Americans R...
Post a comment