Story and photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel Wulz
NAD’ALI DISTRICT, Afghanistan – For years arguments have been made both for and against the participation of women in the military. To this day, the British Royal Marines remain a male-only service, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t serve alongside them.
Royal Air Force Sgt. Karen Swallow, a Military Stabilization Support Team operator, joined Royal Marines with J Company, 42 Commando, on a route clearance operation between Loy Mandeh Kalay in northern Nad’ Ali District and the Helmand provincial capital at Lashkar Gah, July 2-8.
“I believe the mission was a success,” said Swallow, a native of Burntwood, England. “I found the patrolling and being on the mission enjoyable and [challenging]. It was the first time I felt I had fully put into practice my MSST training and was fully utilized.”
Swallow volunteered to fill the position of J Company’s MSST operator. The MSST operator is responsible for paying Afghans for any property damage suffered during the removal of improvised explosive devices during operations. Participating in the mission also required her to gather information from Afghans while patrolling alongside the Marines during the seven-day operation.
“This was our first time working with Karen,” said Sgt. Maj. Andy Place, a Plymouth, England, native, and J Company’s sergeant major. “She fit in very well with the men and was delicate and diplomatic in dealing with the local Afghans.”
Although Swallow has been in the Royal Air Force for more than 25 years and has deployed to Bosnia, the Falklands, Kuwait, Iraq and Northern Ireland, the recent operation was her first opportunity to work outside the wire and patrol with troops.
Swallow volunteered to deploy as an MSST more than a year ago, primarily for experience on the ground. She had to complete four months of infantry skills and fitness training prior to being deployed, she said.
During her time with 42 Commando, Swallow faced challenges being the only female, but became accustomed to them and felt accepted by the group.
Throughout the operation Swallow patrolled more than 6 kilometers with 42 Commando, carrying all of her gear, including food and water.
“It wasn’t difficult being the only female,” said Swallow. “It was more difficult being petite. I had to work twice as hard negotiating ditches, ploughed fields and ladders.”
After the mission, Swallow returned to her usual place of duty, Mobile Operating Base Price. She is currently a part of several MSST projects in the ongoing effort to facilitate Afghan governance and security forces in Afghanistan.
“She transitioned very well into our team and had a can do attitude,” said Maj. Aaron Fisher, a Paisley, Scotland, native, and J Co.’s officer commanding. “She came out on short notice, but we were glad to have her because she was key to the success of our mission. She did extraordinarily well considering it was her first time out.”
Swallow said she would gladly volunteer for another operation with 42 Commando to make a difference in the security of Afghanistan.
Additional Photos can be viewed here