Story and photo by Cpl. Katherine Keleher
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JACKSON, Afghanistan – Service women with Female Engagement Team 13, in Sangin District, Helmand province, laced up their boots, filled up their water sources and set out on patrol in support of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and the Afghan National Army, July 14.
The Marines and their Afghan counterparts set out on the nine hour patrol with two objectives: help rid Sangin of insurgents and build relationships with the local populace.
“We conducted a blocking position, which would catch all of the locals that were trying to get out of the coordinate search that was conducted by [Charlie Company, 1/5 and the ANA],” said Sgt. Juanita Towns, the FET 13 team leader, and a native of Richmond, Va.
“One-Five and the ANA’s mission was to disrupt the enemy of movement so they could try and catch some known Taliban fighters in the area. FET was to search local females and to do engagements with the women, to find out what was unusual in the area.”
The company-sized operation helped Towns and Lance Cpl. Jacqueline Veres, also with FET 13, and a native of Canton, Ga., make ties and talk to over 40 women and their children.
“We’re the voices for these women. They are over 50 percent of the population here in Afghanistan,” Towns explained. “We try to decide what’s going to benefit them without disrespecting their culture, as far as education for the little girls, giving them schools, or as far as putting a woman in a government position here.”
Throughout the day the two Marines patrolled through the mud, creeks and cornfields in over 100 degree temperatures. They went from home to home, talking to local women and asking what FET could do to improve their lives.
“We help the 1/5 and ANA guys by searching the women because they can’t touch or speak to the women,” Veres explained. “Every single person we talk to, we try to build a relationship with them. Then when we go back to them later, they usually remember us and they know we’re friendly and we’re not there to hurt them. Patrols like this are good for building trust with the locals.”
While Towns and Veres were with 1st Plt., their sisters-in-arms, Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Richeal, of Le Claire, Iowa, and Lance Cpl. Chandra Francisco, of Monroe, Wash., both with FET 15 in Sangin, patrolled with 3rd Plt., Alpha and Bravo Element, 1/5., and ANA soldiers. The two teams combined talked to more than 100 women and children throughout the day.
“The women in that area said they don’t see that many female Marines so they need to get more accustomed with us so they know we’re here to help them.” Francisco said. “I hope they come out to shuras we have…because they seemed very open and friendly to working with us. I think we could definitely build really good, long lasting relationships that FETs to come can build off of.”
Building trusting relationships with the locals of Sangin has proven to be particularly important for FET teams in Sangin. While other FET teams located throughout Helmand province are involved in projects such as building schools, teaching Afghan women how to generate income in ways such as sewing, and generally helping Afghan women get their voice out in the public, it is a different story for the teams in Sangin.
The current mission for coalition forces in Sangin is to secure the district center. Until the town is secure, progression and growth will be a slow and steady process, Veres explained.
With security still being the main mission for Marines within the Sangin area of operation, the FET team works closely with local women to gain their trust. Through the trust they gain, they obtain information about how many schools can be built in the area, or how they can best teach local women to make their own income.
Patrols such as the one FET, 1/5 and ANA soldiers recently did are just one way coalition forces are moving toward securing Sangin.
“[Coalition forces] found spliced limp cords, a pressure cooker with a battery pack inside, that can be used for [improvised explosive device] making materiel, and Charlie Company found a few IED’s that were detonated,” Towns said. “Finds like this save the lives of the Marines out there and the local nationals.
“The day was a success. They detained local national IED emplacers, found IED making material, detonated IED’s and FET got to interact with the local women. All of these things are part of the [counterinsurgency] mission.”
The four troops with FET are more than halfway through their deployment, and look forward to returning to their families in the United States this upcoming fall. Until then, they will continue helping coalition forces conduct counterinsurgency by reaching out to Afghanistan’s other population- the women.