Soldiers bridge cultural gap: Female interaction critical to deploying units' success
March 11, 2010
FORT JACKSON, SC -- When an operation requires Soldiers to go outside the wire, there are some things they need to ensure mission success -weapons, a translator, and in many cases, a female engagement team member.
First Lt. Michelle Roberts, military intelligence officer for Fort Jackson's 157th Infantry Brigade, is ensuring units she helps mobilize to Afghanistan are equipped with Soldiers who understand the culture and customs of the local national women, who now make up half the country's population and are often the best promoters of peace in the region.
Roberts recently returned from Camp Atterbury, Ind., where she and fellow 157th Soldiers trained members of the Vermont National Guard for their current deployment to Afghanistan. She taught about 75 female U.S. Soldiers how to interact with Afghan women.
As an active member of the S.C. National Guard, Roberts deployed to Kabul in May 2007 with the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team. The BCT was in command of the Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, which included military units from 13 countries and was responsible for training the Afghan army and national police.
Roberts said that when the task force conducted civil military assistance missions or humanitarian assistance missions, her male counterparts were reluctant to deal with Afghan women, who would sometimes mob them for much needed medical, hygiene and school supplies.
Like Afghan men, local national women had to be searched at drop-off points and before entering buildings, but for religious and cultural reasons, male Soldiers were not permitted to touch them. Female Soldiers, on the other hand, were not so limited.
"As a female Soldier, I could engage (Afghan women), search them, and pat them down if necessary," Roberts said.
So Roberts and other female task force members formed a FET to keep order among the local women and their children.
The FET also implemented a women's mentoring program to train female soldiers of the Afghan National Army basic soldiering skills, such as how to fire a weapon and provide security, including searching other women so that those soldiers could eventually take over providing security for their own people.
"The goal was to take our faces out of the picture as much as possible, so that the Afghans saw Afghans helping themselves," she said.
Their first task was to teach the female soldiers how to wear their uniforms, she said.
"They had been issued uniforms from their logistics supply, but they didn't want to wear them to work because they got harassed on the street," Roberts said. "They were wearing their usual Afghan clothes, scarves, everything."
She and the other FET members set up a changing room so the Afghan soldiers could wear their normal clothes to work, change into their uniforms and change back before leaving.
The FET taught the Afghan soldiers how to fire M-16s by using simulators. They employed the help of task force military police to teach the soldiers proper search procedures and how to interact with their own local populous, Roberts said.
Throughout the training, Roberts said she was able to realize the many educational needs and concerns of the local women outside of the military arena.
She and the FET joined forces with the Afghan Army Logistics Command's Cultural and Religious Affairs Office to find instructors and compile supplies to open a women's education and training center.
"Before I started the program I sat the ladies down and asked them, 'What do you want to learn' What do you want me to cover with you''" Roberts said. "The first thing they said was they wanted to learn how to drive. I didn't even know how to tackle that issue."
So Roberts prepared instructional classes for those subjects she could address.
"For a lot of these women, this was their first educational experience," Roberts said. "They had never stepped into a school setting before. A lot of them couldn't even write their names before they came to the class."
First, she set up a class to help the women learn to read and write Dari, one of Afghanistan's official languages.
Roberts said by the time she left Afghanistan in 2008, all the women could sign their names on the poster she kept on the wall in her office at the center.
For those women who were already proficient in their own language, Roberts arranged for lessons in English.
The FET members taught them how to use computer programs, as well.
"A lot of the women would have a computer sitting on their desks as a paper weight because they didn't know how to use them," she said. "They were plugging them in for the first time. Some of them had never learned to write, and now they were using computers."
Roberts recalled that the Afghan men in the area were not very receptive at first to the idea of the women's programs she and her team members had initiated.
"(The men) realized I was setting up computer classes and teaching the women to read and write in Dari," she said. "The women would take what they learned in the classroom back to their offices and teach the men these skills. The men were seeing firsthand the benefits of educating women."