Camp Cafferetta, Helmand Province – Cpl. Christina Arana and Lance Cpl. Giada Witt check their weapons one last time, and leave the base behind. On the other side of the wire is … well, Afghanistan. The real country. It’s a long way from the relatively secure and well-supplied large bases – the places where most female soldiers and Marines are stationed. The two women are part of FET, or Female Engagement Team.
It’s a program started last year, when the U.S. Marine Corps realized it was only reaching half the population. The Marines mostly operate in the more rural, conservative areas in southern Afghanistan. There, men are not allowed to look at – let alone talk to – women. So the predominantly male Marine units were missing a chance to engage 50 percent of the Afghan people.
The military has found that while Afghan women may seem outwardly marginalized, they do have a good deal of influence within their homes – especially over young sons, who make up Afghanistan’s next generation. Also in rural areas, Afghan women often meet amongst themselves, and share information about the village. Afghan men don’t place the same restrictions on speaking to Western women. So the FET Marines first have to engage – and gain the trust of – the man of the house. Once he is comfortable with them, he’ll often invite them into his home to speak with his wife.
FET is designed to put trained female Marines into areas where the U.S. military is trying to win over the Afghan people. They get special training before being deployed. The women are taught the history of the Taliban, and some of the cultural awareness issues specific to different parts of the country. Some of these lessons are supplied by input from actual Afghan women from those areas.
Because they will be operating outside the wire, often on foot with Marine patrols, they also take an extended refresher course in combat training. This includes increasing their awareness of ambushes and sniper attacks, and learning more about convoy operatons. Witt says one of the exercises involves doing a lot of push-ups, jumping up into a full sprint and then stopping to fire. The training is designed to increase their ability to fire under pressure, something most female Marines don’t have as much experience with. FET grew out of the “Lioness” program in Iraq, where female Marines searched Iraqi women at checkpoints.
Women only make up about 6 percent of the Marine Corps. And FET teams are still staffed in an ad hoc way, thrown together with women who have other jobs and responsibilities. That means a FET team could spend a month or so establishing relationships within a particular village, and then be summoned back to their “home unit.” Some critics of this practice say, if the FET program is producing good results, it should be staffed full-time. And women should be allowed to spend longer periods of time training and deploying to their designated areas.