By Sgt. Ida IrbyApril 18, 2013
EL PASO, Texas (April 18, 2013) -- A female engagement team with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, will make history as the first female engagement team to deploy from Fort Bliss, Texas.
Female Soldiers volunteered in April and waited to be released from their units to begin 24 weeks of training with 4th Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
The female engagement team, or FET, is an all-female, 55-member team and growing. The daily training regimen helps them to be a functional community engagement team. Training includes Pashto language qualification, seven-mile rucksack marches, night weapons qualification, tactical combat casualty care, combatives training and other mission-essential courses to prepare the women who will be attached to infantry battalions.
The FET doesn't have a combat function, but if found in a hostile situation they are trained to react appropriately. Combat training includes basic patrolling and reacting to contact and improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, like infantrymen.
"You have to know what every infantryman knows -- how to react to contact, how to defend yourself and how to return fire," said Capt. Kelly Hasselman, FET commander with the battalion. "We are going out to relatively secure places, to speak to the local community. That is our primary mission."
Traditionally, the U.S. armed forces never sought to place women in overly hazardous situations; nevertheless, irregular warfare in Afghanistan has placed women in combat, regardless of the fact they do not currently serve in combat military occupational specialites. With the recent combat roles opening for female soldiers, FETs are currently receiving the training they need to imbed with infantry formations.
"All Soldiers can find themselves on the front line. Some of the biggest threats are IEDs," said Hasselman. "Women have proven over the years how they can operate on all levels, given the same training as men. It comes down to preparation. Any time Soldiers leave the [forward operating base] they can be targeted, not because of gender, but because of the uniform, location and mission."
The FET now trains daily with 1st BCT.
"We want women in this unit who want to be here, and I think that's exactly what we have," said 1st Lt. Loena E. Anderson, a FET team member with the battalion.
Spc. Jesyka Frazier, a supply specialist, is a single parent who is scheduled to deploy with the FET.
"No one else from my brigade volunteered to join this team," said Frasier. "My daughter is four years old, and she knows mommy is in the Army. She knows mommy will be gone for a long period of time, and I would rather tell her now than have her deal with the shock of me leaving next year."
Brig. Gen. Wayne W. Grigsby Jr., 1st AD and Fort Bliss deputy commanding general, shared words of encouragement with the FET after joining them for physical training, June 26, at East Fort Bliss.
"Women, our blood and treasure, are serving on the front lines right now," said Grigsby. "As a brigade commander, I remember having all Soldiers in the fight, not only males. My daughter is a staff sergeant in the Army, and I couldn't be more proud of her. When she deployed to Iraq, I told her to make sure she faces toward the door of the Humvee during her combat patrols - so that if she's shot at, [bullets] will hit her vest. That is a weird conversation for a father to have with his daughter."
Pfc. Ana G. Walker, a mechanic, had a different conversation with her 5- and 6-year-old children as she prepared to deploy with the FET.
"Although my children know that I will deploy, they don't understand what it means. They know that mommy and daddy are going to the battlefield, but they think it's a movie and we're superheroes," said Walker. "My military job doesn't support a mission like this, and this group gives me the opportunity to do something I wanted to do -- so I don't feel limited."
Walker addressed a few rumors and replied, saying, "I heard that it will be hard for us to physically meet the expected standards of infantrymen, and for that reason they push us a lot during training, but I can show them that I physically can do this."
Spc. Janae Gaston, having served in the Army for almost 20 months, mentioned that joining the FET is a good opportunity for women to see the other side of the military, a world that is unfamiliar territory for many female Soldiers.
According to Hasselman, direct communication between male U.S. troops and Afghan women would cause uproar in the Afghan community. Because of the cultural sensitivities in Afghanistan, males cannot directly communicate with 49 percent of the community. The FETs bridge that gap, because the program is geared toward family, community and advocacy of women and children. The Marine Corps was the first to use FETs in 2009.
"[Female Marines] started getting information from women that created a holistic picture of what was going on in the villages to increase the overall operational knowledge," said Hasselman.
The FET is seeking more female volunteers to join the new unit and train with the brigade to establish people-to-people contact with Afghan community members.