By Mr. Charles K Stadtlander (IMCOM)April 21, 2011
SCHWEINFURT, Germany-Though the divisive issue of women taking frontline combat roles is currently being volleyed back and forth in Washington, D.C.'s political discourse, the Army has recently begun assembling small teams of female Soldiers for a new strategy not yet attempted during the war in Afghanistan. Schweinfurt Soldiers gearing up for deployment later this year are leading the way with this new initiative.
When they go to Afghanistan later this year, the 172nd Infantry Brigade will bring an organized squad of several female engagement teams to augment the utility of the brigade's infantry task forces, an action among the first of its kind on this scale in the U.S. Army. The brigade's Schweinfurt-based elements-172nd Support Battalion, 9th Engineer Battalion and 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment-will provide most of the female personnel for the teams.
They will be led by FET officer-in-charge 1st Lt. Jennifer Montgomery, who recently transferred from Schweinfurt's 12th Chemical Co. to the brigade staff, and still resides here. She will command the collection of several four-woman teams, circulating among them as they are dispersed throughout the brigade's region of responsibility during the deployment.
"Their primary purpose is intelligence gathering from Afghan women," said Montgomery. "The women might tell the FET members 'our water is bad here, we have no sewage disposal, help us.' Or, they might say 'that guy over there, he's corrupt.'"
Female engagement teams, which the Marine Corps first experimented with in 2009, use assembled groups of four Soldiers, strictly women, to interact with Afghan civilians in ways that all-male units would not be able to. Religious tenets and cultural norms in Afghanistan can at times leave women there feeling apprehensive about speaking with any unknown males, especially armed Soldiers.
Command Sgt. Major Terry Burton of the 172nd Support Battalion is sending several Soldiers to join the FETs. "I'm leaning forward based on my own experience," he said. "I'm teaching them what they need to know."
Each of the four-woman teams will be assigned to an infantry task force as feminine liaisons to the Afghans. According to Montgomery, the war's communication effort so far has been hindered and forced to ignore half of the Afghan population, namely its women. The hope is that the presence of FETs will more effectively integrate coalition forces and accelerate stability in Afghanistan.
But the women's new role in the war will not be without their own personal obstacles. The Army units they will attach to will be made up almost completely of men, and the women may accordingly encounter macho attitudes, say both Montgomery and Burton.
"I'm getting them ready mentality-wise," Burton said. "It's going to be totally different for them in an all-male combat environment."
Montgomery agrees that the experience will be new for both herself and her Soldiers, but doesn't see the deployment of FETs as part of a greater political debate. "You're always working uphill as a female in the Army, this is no different," she said. "We'll just go over there and do great work, proving that we're a viable combat option."
Preparation for the deployment will require a significant amount of additional training. The Soldiers come from a variety of occupational specialties, including medics, cooks and mechanics. Their grasp of infantry skills like advanced marksmanship, combatives and patrol basics may not have been a primary focus prior to joining a female engagement team. But later this year in Afghanistan, they'll need to excel in these Soldier skills.
Montgomery, an enthusiast of the vigorous CrossFit brand exercise, is also taking personal responsibility for the Soldiers' physical fitness. "Where we're going is at over 7,000 feet of elevation. A lot of the patrols will be 'off the horse,' and we'll be on foot with the infantry guys day after day," she said. "You can't let yourself be a burden in an environment like that."
At a recent morning workout session, the Soldiers ran circuits of useful real-world exercises of Montgomery's design. They heaved medicine balls against the wall, leapt repeatedly onto thigh-high boxes, swung heavy kettlebell weights and dropped to the floor repeatedly in burpee pushup movements.
The women worked in pairs, and called out remaining reps and shouts of encouragement to one another. "Four more," said Pfc. Tori Howard to her partner, Pvt. Latoya Jackson, drawing tired breaths midway through their third circuit of box jumps.
"This work will pay off later when they're walking those mountains," said Montgomery. "When you go through the struggle and the suck together, you become a team."