17 August 2009

Female Marines tasked with reaching out to the Afghan female population

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Brigitte Ratzlaff, of Winter Haven, Fla., exchanging greetings and names with an Afghan boy while on patrol with Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 3rd Regiment of the 2nd MEB, 2nd MEF last week in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Julie Jacobson/AP Photo.

What you don't see in the photo above is that LCpl Ratzlaff is wearing a head scarf under her Kevlar. She's part of an all-female Marine unit tasked with reaching out to the Afghan female population. Afghan women are viewed as good intelligence sources, and more open to hearts-and-minds efforts such hygiene, education and an end to the violence.

“I’ve found you get great intel from the female population,” said Capt. Zachary Martin, who commands the Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, stationed in Now Zad. “The women don’t want their men out there conducting jihad and getting killed.”

Martin said units have frequently received tips from women about weapons caches or hidden bombs.

But just to find the women is a challenge. There were none in sight as [Capt. Jennifer Gregoire's Female Engagement Team] entered Khwaja Jamal, a village of mud brick homes with no electricity or government presence.

While heavily armed Marines fanned out, the four women started by trying to strike up conversations with the few old men and young children who ventured outdoors.

The several hundred villagers grow wheat and opium poppies in the crossfire between Marines and Taliban fighters who are in the woods less than a mile away.

“They look at us through binoculars. They’ll kill anybody who talks to the Americans,” said Abdul Gayom to explain why the villagers were so wary of meeting the patrol.

1st Lt. Victoria Sherwood was undaunted, talking to him through her Afghan translator. She gave him painkillers for his back, and small presents for the children timidly clustering around. Some of them begged to try on her sunglasses, and promptly made off with them.

Sherwood, from Woodbury, Conn., got Gayom to promise he might let her into his compound to meet his wife, who he said with a shrug is “so old, the Taliban probably won’t care.”

But there was a snag: The translator was male. Could he be in the wife’s presence? “No way,” said Gayom, then asked the Marines for more medicine and goods.

Deeper in the village, an elderly woman eventually appeared on a doorstep. Gusha Halam claimed she was 120 — so old she could do what she pleased. Her black head scarf left her wrinkled face uncovered and revealed some hair, dyed bright orange with henna.

“The Taliban took everything from us. Make them leave,” Halam said, before her sons and grandsons arrived, stopped the conversation and hustled her indoors.

Read the rest at Stars & Stripes.

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