By Capt. Olivia Cobiskey, 205th Infantry Brigade April 15, 2013
ATTERBURY-MUSCATATUCK, Ind., -- In Afghanistan, women are the linchpin that has held the Afghan family and community together through three decades of turmoil, said trainers during a Female Engagement Team training at Atterbury-Muscatatuck, Ind., in April.
However, in most households, only a woman's close relative, a father, brother, or husband may see her face or speak to her, this puts male service members at a disadvantage when trying to discuss serious issues with the local population.
Female Engagement Teams are changing that by working as connectors for women to the outside.
FETs -- comprised of all female service members from different units and with various job skills -- train to gather information and communicate with the female population in Afghanistan.
FETs are so critical to the ongoing operations in Afghanistan mainly because of the local customs, beliefs, and traditions in regards to the roles of Afghan women in their society, said Col. John S. Prairie, commander of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, Fort Knox, Ky., First Army Division East.
"Unlike Iraq, where Iraqi women had many more social liberties and greater opportunities in education, work, and their government; most Afghan women are isolated from or forbidden to have contact with U.S. service members," Prairie said. "The FETs allow for this specific Afghan-U.S. social interaction to occur, because now we have an in-house capability that fits into the Afghan social fabric. I feel the U.S. Military FETs will remain to be a vital instrument allowing us to learn from this undisclosed component of the Afghan society...its women."
First Army Division East, mobilizes, trains, validates and deploys Reserve Component units to support overseas military operations. Trainer mentors work hard to ensure mobilization training is relevant, realistic and reflects the most current conditions Soldiers will face in theater.
To prepare them for the mission, female service members of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams Farah, Ghazni, and Uruzgan recently participated in a five-day Female Engagement Team training Course at Atterbury-Muscatatuck Training Center, Ind.
Although the training was Afghan-centric, it's applicable to missions in Somalia, Yemen, and Africa, said Clint Cooper, an instructor from the Training and Doctrine Command Culture Center at Fort Huachuca, Az., who taught the course.
Teams in the past have found women possess a significant influence over their husbands, brothers and children, Cooper said. By earning the trust of female Afghans, the PRTs can increase their chances of winning the trust of the local population.
Developing a working relationship within the female population also helps provide a more holistic understanding of the community's needs. The men, often driven by pride, will give the "official" version of things; however, by engaging the women the teams get the "unofficial," version or the truth, added Cooper.
"FETs were originally created to gather intelligence, but it's really given women a voice," said Cooper, who joined the U.S. Army in 1989 as a German linguist. He retrained as a Pashtu linguist in 2002.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jessica Nichols agreed the cultural and communication training would be helpful for a variety of missions. Nichols and her FET are preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
"It would be wonderful if everyone who deployed got this," said Nichols, a family nurse practitioner in Pensacola, Fla. "It gives us perspective on the overall mission, why we are there, and what we can do while ensuring we do it in a culturally sensitive way."
The training focused on cultural communication, history, geography and regional economics. FET members also took a basic Pashtu language class, combat life saving course, insider threat training, and PRT/Agricultural Development team (ADT) Integration course.
"Afghans, unlike Americans, are rarely concerned with a timeline," Cooper said. "A concerted effort needs to be made to clearly outline the intentions of the teams to alleviate any fears or concerns, and to work on developing that all important relationship of trust. (FET members may spend) Hours of talking about children, food, and the weather woven in with gallons of Afghan black tea before you can tackle more serious issues like birth control, security, and sanitation issues. This can be perceived as a huge waste of time to most Americans, but in fact, you are giving an Afghan time to evaluate you and figure out whether or not he wants to trust you and work with you."
For several, of the women it was a refresher course.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Whitnie Vigil, a logistics specialist who was part of a Marine FET in 2010, said she can't wait to get back on the ground.
"They would come from far away," said Vigil, from Mesa, Ariz. "Just seeing how grateful they were, how gracious they were, was humbling. They'd serve these large meals just to say thank you, when they didn't have very much themselves, they'd share. It definitely changed my view on everything that goes on over there."
Spc. Ashley Cialella, a civilian affairs specialist who worked with a female member of the Afghan parliament in 2011, agreed she couldn't wait to return.
"The training made me more curious about my province. I can't wait to get out on a mission or two," said Cialella, a Reservist with the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), N.J. "I look forward to getting to know them and them getting to know us."
Army Capt. Jennifer Leathers, a civil affairs officer with the 404th CA Bn (A), N.J., agreed the training was a good review.
"Although our unit is regionally aligned with Africa, we have to stay culturally and tactically competent at all times," said Leathers, who deployed to Iraq in 2009. "A lot of this is about shaping your own mission, getting out there, seeing what you can do, and making yourself useful."