Editor’s note: E.B. Boyd ’89, a freelance journalist in California, spent two weeks with Marine 1st Lt. Zoe Bedell ’07 in Afghanistan in March, shortly before Bedell’s second tour of duty in Afghanistan came to an end. Bedell has since returned to the United States and will leave the Marines in August.
It’s 1 a.m. on a chilly March night, and there’s still no word on the helicopter. 1st Lt. A. Zoe Bedell ’07 is sitting in a damp concrete building on a British base in the heart of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, a former Taliban stronghold that has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the war. With her braided chignon, she looks more like the competitive equestrian she used to be than the Marine officer she is now.
Bedell is in charge of the Marine Corps’ Female Engagement Teams, or FETs, a program created to enable the U.S. military to reach out to Afghan women (an assignment she soon will be wrapping up). In a few hours, six women, four of them members of Helmand’s provincial council, will arrive at the base, expecting to be flown north to Now Zad, at Bedell’s invitation, to meet constituents and help inaugurate a women’s center. But there’s been a snafu, and it seems that Bedell’s request for a helicopter never went through. Now Bedell is cooling her heels in a friend’s office, waiting to see what can be arranged.
After three years in the military, Bedell is accustomed to plans going awry. Just this evening, when we strode into the tent usually reserved for women visitors, it had been taken over by a dozen Afghan men, translators for a special forces unit, sprawling on the floor and boiling water for tea.
Alternative sleeping arrangements soon were found, but the search for a helicopter proves more difficult. Driving is out of the question: Though the distance between the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, where the women live, and Now Zad is only about 50 miles, the possibility of running into Taliban fighters is too great; if they did cross paths, the women likely would be executed. It’s not until 2 a.m. that word comes that another flight has been arranged, allowing Bedell to turn her thoughts to a more complicated question: When they get to the town of Now Zad in the morning, will the council members be able to help get the women’s center running — and, by extension, play their part in getting Afghanistan strong enough to stand on its own?
In her work with the provincial councilors, Bedell, as officer-in-charge of the FETs (the acronym is pronounced “fête,” like the French word for “party”), is kicking up a notch a program created in 2009 to enable units in the field to perform basic security functions, such as questioning and searching women.
Combat units that patrol towns and villages are barred to servicewomen. At the same time, even in the most progressive parts of Afghanistan, men and women maintain a distance. In many rural areas where the Marines operate, men are not supposed to speak to women to whom they are not related, much less come into physical contact with them. And in some regions, it’s unacceptable even to look at another man’s wife. One Marine told me of having to turn his back during a search, so that the Afghans could move their women from one room to another. “I kept waiting for someone to put a bullet through the back of my head,” he said.
At the beginning, the FET program in Afghanistan — modeled on the Lioness program, which tackled the same problem in Iraq — pulled women away from their regular units and sent them to help the men on patrol. But the other units, in which women worked as mechanics and radio technicians, for example, didn’t like being short-handed. Only 6 percent of Marines are women, so there weren’t many available to loan out.
Meanwhile, the Marines started noticing that sending women into the field had its advantages. As the military increasingly put its efforts into counterinsurgency operations, it needed better information about the communities in which it was operating as well as ways to communicate with local residents. With women on its teams, the military could reach the 50 percent of the population it could not approach before. Though Afghan women didn’t live out in public as the men did, they knew what was going on in their communities and could serve as effective conduits of information. Talking to Afghan men also became more fruitful: With female Marines around, one Marine said, “men’s tongues become a little looser.” Bedell says the FETs help to build receptivity toward the American presence. “One man told us, ‘Men are fighters, but we know your women are here to help,’” she says.
So a little more than a year ago, about four dozen women Marines became full-time FETs. They were trained in ways to conduct interviews and form connections with people from vastly different cultures, as well as in skills necessary for accompanying the combat units, like advanced weapons skills and combat lifesaving techniques. The FETs were dispatched in pairs to outposts throughout Helmand and told to support the local commanders’ missions by interacting with the local community.