Published: May 29, 2010
ABDUL GHAYAS, Afghanistan — Two young 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 this speck of 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 multiple cups of tea, the Americans made small talk through a military interpreter or in their own beginner’s Pashtu. Then they encouraged the Afghans, who by now had shyly uncovered their faces, to sew handicrafts that could be sold at a local bazaar.
“We just need a couple of strong women,” Corporal Amaya said, in hopes of enlisting them to bring a measure of local commerce to the perilous world outside their door.
Corporal 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 also, perhaps, to redefine gender roles in combat.
Three months ago, Corporal Amaya was one of 40 female Marines training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in an edgy 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 in an interview.
Now, just weeks into a seven-month deployment that has sent them in twos and threes to 16 outposts across Helmand, including Marja and other spots where fighting continues, the women have met with inevitable hurdles — not only posed by Afghan women but also by some male Marines and American commanders skeptical about the teams’ purpose.
The women are taking it in stride. “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be interesting,” Captain Naslund said.
No one disagrees that the teams have potential and that female Marines are desperately needed, especially at medical clinics, as part of Gen. Stanley A. 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 had 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. Then the struggles started in earnest.
Corporal Gardner, a helicopter mechanic who was working with the female 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. Corporal Gardner devised a cumbersome solution. “Some of these women would rather die than be touched by a male,” she said. “So we’ll diagnose by proxy.”
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 them 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.
By the end of the day, an Afghan woman was trusting enough to hand her baby to Corporal Gardner to take to the medical officer, who diagnosed digestive problems from a diet of sheep and goat milk.
Sgt. Gabriel Faiivae, 25, the patrol leader, who had kept watch outside the clinic, and whose ears were still ringing from a homemade bomb that had blown the doors off his armored truck the day before, acknowledged that the labyrinthine logistics had to be fixed. “But as far as building trust, it was really good,” he said.
Other trips over the two weeks were get-to-know-you sessions that showed the chasm between two cultures.
“Do you ever fast?” one Afghan woman asked Captain Naslund in the northern Helmand village of Soorkano, apparently speaking of the custom during the Muslim festival of Ramadan.
“Sometimes, when I think I’m getting fat,” Captain Naslund replied, to a curious look. “American men like skinny girls.”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.
One morning in the village of Mamor, as Corporal Amaya and Corporal Gardner asked an Afghan woman if she would be willing to teach in a new school, other women and children — who said they had never seen non-Pashtun women — repeatedly asked two American women, a photographer and a reporter, to lift their shirts and pant legs so they could see what was underneath.
Other cultural gaps exist among the Marines themselves. Along with their male counterparts, the female Marines live on rugged bases, often without showers, bathe with bottled water or baby wipes, use makeshift latrines and sleep in hot tents or outside in the dirt.
But team leaders say that 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 like 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 the 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 Lieutenant Kronschnabel, 26, using slang for kilometers. “And they kept asking, ‘Are you doing O.K.? Are you breathing hard?’ ”
Like the other women, Lieutenant Kronschnabel, a high school athlete in soccer, softball and gymnastics, had to meet rigorous physical requirements in the Marines. When she got back that day, she said the captain told her, “ ‘O.K., we’ll start getting your girls scheduled for more patrols.’ ”
Other 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 Second Battalion, Second 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. I didn’t want to leave them behind.”
But he changed his mind after he took two of the women into a village elder’s home so they could smooth the way for a male medical officer to treat the Afghan’s ailing wife and daughters — again, from the other side of a wall. Sergeant Latimer said the favor was important, because the elder had become an informant about the Taliban. The sergeant said he could hear through the wall that the female Marines and the elder’s wife and daughters, who turned out to be only moderately ill, got along.
“It was a normal, girls-just-hanging-out type of conversation, giggling and everything,” he said.
Since then, Sergeant Latimer said, Afghans have been more receptive when his patrols included the female Marines, who hand out stuffed animals to village 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.”
But what do all the visits and talk add up to? Master Sgt. Julia Watson, who helped create an earlier version of the female engagement teams in Iraq and has been working in Helmand, said that the women had to move beyond handing out teddy bears and medicine and use what they learn from Afghan women to develop plans for income-generating projects, schools and clinics. “You have to have an end state,” she said.
Capt. Jason C. Brezler, a commander who has worked with the female Marines in the village of Now Zad, agreed. “To leverage a relationship, you have to have something of value to the Afghans,” he said. “And it has to be more than just, ‘I’m a girl.’ ”