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A Few Good Women

Though officially barred from combat, women are increasingly fighting—and dying—alongside men in Afghanistan and Iraq

By Elisabeth Bumiller in Marja, Afghanistan

The United States military's official policy is clear: Women aren't allowed in direct combat.

Its unofficial policy is a lot less clear. Since the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the roles of women in the military, who make up 15 percent of the total force, have been changing: Women have patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, and driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads.

In these wars with no front lines, the potential for battle is everywhere, and many of the 25,000 female troops now stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq are fighting—and dying—alongside men. Last April, for example, 40 women volunteered for the Marines' first full-time "female engagement teams" (FET). Using a loophole in Pentagon policy, the four- and five-member female teams were "attached," as opposed to formally assigned, to male units in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, which was a Taliban stronghold at the time.

These female Marines were critical to carrying out a counterinsurgency job no male Marine can do: winning over rural Afghan women, who for religious and cultural reasons can't interact with male troops. Afghan women exert a lot of influence in their communities, so gaining their goodwill can go a long way toward making Afghan villagers less suspicious of U.S. troops.

But in a place like Afghanistan, even drinking tea with women, helping to open schools and clinics, and gathering intelligence, puts the female Marines in the line of fire—shooting back during ambushes, dodging homemade bombs, and living on bases attacked by mortars.

"You still get that same feeling, like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm getting shot at,'" says Lance Corporal Stephanie Robertson, 20, of her time in Marja. But after a while, "you know what to do," she says. "It's like muscle memory."

The role of women in the military has evolved since they served as nurses in the Civil War and in support units in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of women are engaging the enemy like never before.

The idea for the female engagement teams grew out of the "Lioness" program in Iraq, which used volunteer female Marines to search Iraqi women for weapons at checkpoints and spawned similar programs in Afghanistan. But the women from Camp Pendleton in California who deployed to Afghanistan last April, and the new crop that has since replaced them, are the first full-time teams trained explicitly for such missions, a milestone that may pave the way for new Pentagon rules down the road.

The women's training included a combat refresher course to prepare for snipers and ambushes, and a lesson on the do's and don'ts of talking to Afghan villagers: Do break the ice by playing with the children. Don't let your interpreter hijack the conversation. Also important, their instructor said: "If you have a ponytail, let it go out the back of your helmet so people can see you're a woman."

Though some male officers have questioned their effectiveness, the female Marines have proved vital in building rapport with not only Afghan women but men too. "You put a lady in front of them, they'll start blabbing," says Captain Brandon Turner, commander of one of the male units in Marja.

Ultimate Proving Ground

None of the 40 FET women were killed or seriously injured, but many lost good friends. Corporal Anica Coate, 22, saw a fellow Marine die after he was shot in the mouth by an insurgent sniper. At his memorial, Coate said she would not volunteer again for the female engagement teams. "It's not the living conditions, it's not the mission, it's this," she said, gesturing toward a memorial display of boots, rifles, and dog tags belonging to dead Marines.

Stress, rough conditions, and patrols in 100-plus-degree heat also took a toll, causing almost all the women, like their male counterparts, to lose up to 20 pounds. After being away from home for so long, many also saw their marriages end or boyfriends leave them.

For Captain Emily Naslund, 27, the women's commander, such frustrations have been worth it. A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and a state-champion runner in high school, Naslund is the kind of alpha female who seeks out the Marine Corps as the ultimate proving ground. She called her small piece in the war "the highlight of my life."

Though men still constitute the vast majority of the nearly 6,000 military deaths since 2001, 137 women have also died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and 747 have been wounded. Last July, Major General Richard Mills, the commander of the 20,000 Marines in Helmand, ordered the female Marines back from their outposts to determine whether they were following Pentagon rules on women in combat. After a three-week review, Marine commanders clarified a few things: The teams could not go on foot patrols primarily intended to hunt the enemy, and they weren't allowed more than "temporary stays"—later defined as 45 days—at the combat bases.

To Naslund, such obstacles are absurd in a war with no front lines.

"The current policy on women in combat is outdated and does not apply to the type of war we are fighting," she wrote in an e-mail to her parents and friends. Since then, she has grudgingly accepted that the Marine Corps, known as the most testosterone-fueled military branch, is a long way from allowing women in the infantry, and that she'll abide by the guidelines.

Naslund says she understands why Coate, who saw a fellow Marine killed, wouldn't repeat the FET mission. But Naslund believes if her team's efforts help Afghan women in even small ways, it was worthwhile. "And if that means that someday women don't have to wear a burqa, great. If it means that they're getting beat up and they've got someplace to go to tell somebody, great."

In the end, Naslund says, "they're going to remember what we did."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, April 18, 2011)