Story and photo by Cpl. Katherine Keleher
FORWARD OPERATING BASE JACKSON, Afghanistan – More than 6,500 miles from the Pacific Northwest, the arid heat of southern Afghanistan is almost the complete opposite of the damp, cool weather of Monroe, Wash.
One young woman who grew up in Monroe, Lance Cpl. Chandra Francisco, left the comforts of her hometown in 2009 to serve her country, and is now deployed as part of the Marine Corps’ Female Engagement Team in Sangin District, Helmand province.
Francisco, a supply administration Marine by trade, graduated from Monroe High School in 2007. After working full-time immediately after high school, she decided she needed a change.
“I needed to get out and start my life,” said Francisco, 22. “I needed money for school so I decided to join the military. I looked around at other branches and I just felt like the Marine Corps was more for me.”
Drawn to the challenge of being one of the few and the proud, Francisco swore into the Corps for four years of what she thought would consist of accounting for and ordering supplies for her fellow Marines.
She thought wrong.
“Last fall my unit, [II Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group], placed me on FET and at first I really had no idea what I was getting into,” said. “Once I started training I loved it. This is by far one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
After four months of training at her home station at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Francisco and the rest of her engagement team deployed to Afghanistan in late spring. There the women were split into teams of two. Francisco and Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Richeal, were assigned to support 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, in Sangin District.
The concept of the all-women engagement teams originated in 2010 as a way for coalition forces to show their respect to the cultural norms of Afghanistan.
As a FET member, Francisco works to build relationships with Afghan locals, especially women and children. These segments of Afghan society would otherwise be unreachable due to local and religious customs which frown upon unmarried male and female contact.
Afghan children are also typically present at these all-women meetings. The female Marines usually ask what they or their battalion can do to help improve the quality of life for local youths. In the past FET teams have helped arrange projects such as building schools, bringing in medical care and providing access to clean water.
The children are also frequently a common ground to begin relationships between the FET and the local women, said Francsico.
This common ground proves especially easy for Francisco, who has a sincere passion for the children she comes across.
“[Francisco is] really good with the children,” said Richeal, a Le Claire, Iowa, native. “None of these women or children are educated and there is a language barrier a lot of the time which makes it really hard to understand each other. But Francisco’s patience is really good with them. She goes out of her way to make everyone comfortable.”
To help ease tensions during her meetings, Francisco carries things such as candy and toys while on patrol.
“Whenever there is an awkward situation and tensions are rising, [Francisco] says ‘When in doubt, bubble out,’ and she pulls out these bubbles to play with,” Richeal said. “The kids go crazy, it makes them happy and eases the situation.”
Bringing smiles to the children’s faces is a natural instinct, said Francisco.
“You can’t help but to love on these kids, they’re going through so much more than a child should have to,” she said. “I’m just grateful my sister, Kaylen, doesn’t have to deal with this type of stuff. The poverty, lack of education, lack of hygiene and food- it’s so sad. You only want the best for the people who are closest to you and I would never want a child to have to go through a lifestyle like this.”
Francisco and her fellow FET Marines help local women learn trades they can use to make money and help locate teachers for local schools.
“I’ve never been so grateful for the people in my life and the things I have until I came out here,” Francisco explained. “I think a lot of people take for granted what they have. Give them a month out here, and they’ll see how good they have it.”
Additional photos here.