Female Engagement Team Marines bridge gap between Western, Afghan culture

By Sgt. Jesse Stence

CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan
Sgt. Meredith Burns has fielded numerous questions about females in combat since she deployed to Afghanistan as 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment’s Female Engagement team leader nearly six months ago.

The FET is a favorite target of media looking to document females on the front lines, but the real story is sometimes lost, Burns said.

The FET Marines aren’t meant to be interchangeable with infantry regulars; rather, they complement the coalition counterinsurgency strategy by reaching out to Afghan communities in a culturally sensitive way. They help amplify the voice of Afghan women.

When asked what civilian job is like being a FET Marine, Burns smiled thoughtfully, pondering the question.

Like a community organizer? A negotiator, a fund-raiser?

There are so many aspects of this job; it’s not just one thing, Burns finally said. There is no one civilian job I could compare it too.

Burns, a native of West Pittston, Pa., considered parallels to the FET in her Marine Corps career. She began as a motor transport mechanic and eventually worked her way into an administrative position, logging maintenance hours for her department. Now, as a reservist, she works in civil affairs, but took this job as a special assignment.

Nothing in her military career compares to her role with the FET, Burns said. Both civil affairs and the FET involve helping the community with infrastructural developments in an effort to improve security and stability, but the daily activity of the jobs differs, she explained.

Perhaps Burns and the FET Marines could best be described as communicators and diplomats. As she recounted her team’s work over past six months, a single theme often recurred: the FET standing in the gap between two distinctly different cultures, searching for common ground.

Islam, from what we’ve heard from our linguist and people around, requires that men and women are equal, so we bring that up, said Burns, citing the example of female education. If you’re sending your boys to school, you should be sending your girls.

During Burns’ tour, she has witnessed gradual improvements to the lives of men and women in Nawa District, the area in Helmand province that 2/3 covers. The area has become safer and more independent. Local bazaars are abuzz with activity as Afghan National Security forces conduct more patrols under less Marine supervision. Nawa has been heralded by politicians, pundits and military officials as proof that counterinsurgency operations can work.

Burns points to several examples of how her team has helped Nawa improve. They’ve convinced locals to start girls’ schools. They’ve talked women into starting their own poultry businesses and provided sewing equipment to communities so the women can sell clothes to increase their families’ incomes. They’ve been able to engage local women in dialogue about assistance available from the government, helping to establish better relationships between women and their representatives.

But according to Burns, it’s a gradual process. Day after day, the FET Marines head to the villages with cargo pockets full of moisturizing cream, shampoo – anything the Afghan woman may appreciate. One relationship at a time, they help dissolve suspicion and connect the government to the people, she said.

In a way the media has it right; the FET does stand on the front line. But in a counterinsurgency environment, the front line isn’t always where the bullets fly. It’s often where the minds meet.

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