Current Issue

June 1, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 14


Women to women

In Afghanistan, Zoe Bedell ’07 led female Marines in a new role

By E.B. Boyd ’89 (story and photos)
Published in the June 1, 2011, issue

After touring the women’s center in Now Zad, Zoe Bedell ’07, third from left, other female Marines, and members of the Helmand provincial council talk about what’s needed to get the center running.
E.B. Boyd ’89
After touring the women’s center in Now Zad, Zoe Bedell ’07, third from left, other female Marines, and members of the Helmand provincial council talk about what’s needed to get the center running.

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?  

Bedell welcomes visitors at the new women’s center.
E.B. Boyd ’89
Bedell welcomes visitors at the new women’s center.

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.

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8 Responses to Women to women

Jim LaRegina Says:

2011-06-01 11:30:22

It unnerves me to see the cover of the Princeton Alumni Weekly refer to "winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan." Maybe if America dropped food instead of bombs. Maybe if America visited to build schools instead of to occupy. I realize it is about Lt. Bedell, but using that Bush-era "winning hearts and minds" line is a poor choice of words.

W.S. Gerald Skey '64 Says:

2011-06-02 09:40:14

I was particularly interested in the article about Zoe Bedell arriving, as it did, shortly before Memorial Day. It seems ironic that while we have no national day of observance for bankers, lawyers or hedge-fund managers, we do honor, and rightly so, those who have given their lives in the service of our country, and yet the military, as a profession, receives no respect on our college compuses. ROTC units are more tolerated than appreciated. There are too many examples of those indignities not limited to Princeton but focused within the Northeast and among the so-called elite colleges and universities. When I graduated from Princeton in 1964, I knew that I would be drafted, as Vietnam was becoming a hot topic. Instead of being drafted, I joined the Marine Corps and from the first day, my experiences in the Corps became life-changing. To the Zoe Bedells of this country, my most sincere thanks -- like thousands of others, you will never be a "former" Marine regardless of where life takes you. To those who take some measure of comfort in criticizing the military, including members of our own administration, I would urge you all to stop and think about our national values we hold dear and why we have, for centuries, relied on our military. The men and women in our military live their lives on the edge -- never knowing whether their next breath will be their last. This is a simple truth that exists in all combat areas. I have lived it, as has Zoe Bedell. And yet, and not withstanding the constant knowledge of those dangers, these men and women carry out their duties and more often than not, in ways that would amaze the public. Although the military's most obvious mission involves armed conflict, the humanitarian efforts are more than significant and are more than worthy of our applause and admiration.

Capt. Shaun T. Vacher Says:

2011-06-13 09:46:00

Lt. Bedell came through my office. I am the Marine Officer Selection Officer for New Jersey. I select and mentor college students to become Marine officers upon graduation. On May 31 I commissioned Joseph Bennett and Stephen Low at Princeton. They have now joined Zoe as lieutenants in the Marine Corps and will go on to lead our nation's young warriors. Princeton is full of young people who possess the high mental, physical, and moral caliber we are looking for. There are a few Princeton grads every year that commission into the Marines and do it for nothing more than to answer the call to serve. If you want to serve just like Lt. Bedell, contact my office at 732-249-3897 or e-mail me at Semper Fidelis!

Lou DiPaolo '50 Says:

2011-06-13 09:48:04

The article on Lt. Bedell is exciting and informative. Here is a young Princetonian putting her effort where it will help our country and continue the fine tradition of "Princeton in the Nation's Service." Too bad Jim LaRegina (above) just doesn't get it. Ooh-Rah for Zoe Bedell. Lou DiPaolo '50 USMC WWII Iwo Jima

Karl Brehmer *80 *85 Says:

2011-06-16 16:36:26

At least the comments started with the sane words of Jim LaRegina. The militarist propaganda of the other three responders - to say nothing of the underlying message of the article itself - is scary. Do you people really think there is such a thing as "serving the nation" (as opposed to serving the publicly subsidized private tyrannies, aka corporations, that own the nation) - and that the military is doing this? Please read Marine Gen. Smedley Butler's "War is a Racket" and any of the political writings of Noam Chomsky - to name just two voices of reason. The United States will fail in Afghanistan, just as its Soviet and British predecessors did.

Anna Muzzy '92 Says:

2011-06-20 09:09:56

Normally I wouldn't post a reply on the Internet because these types of topics too often become a flame war, but I hope that a Princeton alumni discussion board can refrain from going that direction. Ever the optimist! This particular article touched me more than almost anything I've read in the PAW in 20 years. I wanted to go back in time to be graduating from ROTC with the whole adventures of the world in front of me, fresh, once again. I understand that some posters have passionate feelings that the U.S. military is not the route to help places like Afghanistan; others feel differently. For what it is worth, this is my perspective as a Princeton Army ROTC graduate who served 12 years, including a peacekeeping deployment. I don't attempt to change anyone's opinion. I just hope readers will think about broader social implications and historical perspectives, rather than regurgitating trite blurbs from the left or the right, and perhaps read deeper into both this amazing article and all the great work being reported in The New York Times. 1) While not about Afghanistan, the Nicholas Kristof editorial in the June 16 N.Y. Times is 100 percent spot-on about the military. For 20 years, I too have said the U.S. military is the best-functioning social welfare program in the U.S., the best bang for the taxpayers' buck on health, education, social and economic mobility, and interracial understanding. For example, I would not have gone to Princeton without the Army. Because of Army training that involved dropping from a rope 20 feet above a pond, I learned to swim, now my favorite sport. I had never run a mile, gone camping, or done a pushup, let alone ever heard of rappelling, before I joined the Army. I became fairly good at lock-picking, Cyrillic, and ordering beer in at least 10 languages, courtesy of the Army. I was politely homophobic until I joined the Army and realized how many of my peers were gay or lesbian and stuck as second-class citizens who nevertheless felt the same call to service and faced the same risks! I did. Serving in the military broadens and changes millions of young people for the better, which is, I believe, the military's greatest collective achievement of the post-Korean War era. Whether or not you think a particular overseas action is correct -- and many, many people in the military do not agree with all the choices politicians have made in the last decade -- the positive impact of this service on millions of Americans is tremendously valuable. Please weigh that when assessing the value of any particular military service, or service in general. 2) Ten years ago I deployed as part of a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, the most rewarding job I will ever have. I can only extrapolate that many of those currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan feel the same. It's an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to service. So is the Peace Corps, Mercy Corps, the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders ... the opportunities, like the worldwide need, are endless and work best when the pieces fit together. For example, I occasionally worked with members of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Mercy Corps needs roads. They can't build them, but guess who can? Peacekeeping gives one the opportunity to interact with people whose needs -- for security, food, water, roads, electricity -- exceed our sheltered American experiences. I had never seen a goiter until I was a peacekeeper. Or naked Roma children begging by the roads. Or garbage piled in public spaces, making those 1970s interstates of my youth seem pristine. Or, frankly, goats not in the prize pens at the State Fair. In my experience, the Army helped people at all levels, ranging from direct employment and infusions into the economy by local-purchasing of eggs, bread, coffee, etc., to the more abstract things like offering an example of good governance not in the experience of local nationals. Specifically, after working for the U.S. Army, my interpreter decided to refuse to pay bribes to his own government's bureaucrats for services that were their job: renewal of a driver's license and his property taxes. He arrived at work one day incredibly proud that when a bureaucrat refused to serve him because he wouldn't pay the extra juice, he'd refused to leave the window and rallied everyone behind him to refuse to pay bribes as well. They made the man do his job honestly. That is what the U.S. Army did for that one man, and all those people in line. I'm not naive that it's a kumbaya world out there and poof, the U.S. military shows up and movie credits roll. All my years of target practice were shooting at human silhouettes. That's what the Army, and the Marines, do. And they have to do it well. But they do so much more, much of it very valuable for and valued by the local populations. If you've ever traveled to Japan, South Korea, or Germany, as the Army happily took me several times, you see what can happen when the Army and peacekeeping get it right. Sorry, but dropping food on those nations in their time of need would have been insufficient. They needed boots on the ground, protecting them from very real external threats while they built stable civil democracies, just like Afghanistan does. Whether and how we can get it right in Afghanistan and Iraq is another matter. But the military can and does get it right time and again, both at home for Americans and overseas for the world. And if we don't, let me tell you, it's not the Army's fault. Look closer to home -- a couple hours on Amtrak south of Princeton. Sorry this is so long, but even seven years out of the Army, the passion never really fades!

Richard C. Kreutzberg '59 Says:

2011-09-21 13:33:30

The article in an indirect way serves to remind many of us that our foreign policy these days is governed more by Periclesian hubris and questionable theories of "American exceptionalism" than by actual national security needs or realizable nation-building objectives. It in fact revolves for the most part around the notion that we should try to force-fit our concepts of republican (by the people) government in places where it does not fit, never can fit and cannot ever work. The results in the Middle East and elsewhere confirm the futility of these efforts in spite of the tremendous costs we have suffered in blood and treasure. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, several of our founding fathers praised the British constitutional system as "the best system of government ever devised." But then went on to make it clear that the British system would not suit us here in America because our traditions, values, classes and sentiments are so entirely different not only from those of Britain but also from those of any other nation that had ever existed. It is too bad the architects of our foreign policy are so ignorant of the wisdom of our founding fathers in this respect.

Montana Zach Says:

2013-01-24 17:18:22

I saw Capt. Bedell today on Rachel Maddow. What a great patriot, officer and American! She had the bravery, intellect and mindset that embodies what a good Marine should be! Hoo-ah! She is taking on the traditional powers that be with the outdated notions that women shouldn't be in combat. I have read enough to know that women are already in harm's way with essential support roles. So kudos to this brave woman taking on the conservative power base that would like to keep roles locked in the 1950s, despite the fact that we are six decades removed from these outdated gender roles! Reminds me of Al Pacino from "Scent of a Woman": "I want to take a flame thrower to this place!" Ironically, the word I have to type in to post about this transformative female is "male." Go figure!
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CURRENT ISSUE: June 1, 2011
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Video/slide show: Reaching Afghan women
See and hear about 1st Lt. Zoe Bedell '07's experiences in reaching out to women as part of the war effort in Afghanistan.