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

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.
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

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

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.

Bedell at the British base in Lashkar Gah.
Bedell at the British base in Lashkar Gah.
E.B. Boyd ’89

In Now Zad, where we are headed this morning, the Marines do more than chitchat. The program’s overall goal is to build influence, and Bedell’s predecessor realized that friendly talk alone would not do the trick. So the Marines tried to spark progress in areas women care about. They held health seminars to start tackling the abysmal rates of maternal and infant mortality. They worked with civil-affairs teams to identify communities that would be open to sending their girls to school. They handed out small grants to help women to start home-based businesses, such as sewing or raising chickens and selling the eggs.  

But Bedell emphasizes: “Our primary mission here is counterinsurgency, not empowering women.” One of the overall goals of the U.S.-NATO coalition is to facilitate the growth of Afghan institutions — and people’s faith in them. She uses the military’s acronym GIRoA, for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and adds: “Every­thing we do is meant to support that, because that’s how we are going to get out of here.” That means, among other things, that the Marines must help rebuild the civic infrastructure that has been shredded by decades of war.  

Though some parts of the country are well on their way, Helmand has festered. Languishing in the southwestern corner of the country, it’s one of Afghanistan’s most conservative provinces, with a strong Taliban presence, and it remains volatile. The first full-time FETs arrived in Helmand in the spring of 2010; Bedell’s team, the second full-time group, took over in September. A self-described “super-type A” — her college buddy Sarah Verrill ’07 says Bedell puts “110 percent into anything she commits to” — Bedell immediately began looking for ways to integrate the FETs’ work with broader initiatives. After all, there was only so much that pairs of junior Marines in their early to mid-20s could achieve operating on their own. “Female engagement needs to be more than I just send my lance corporal out and say, ‘You’ve got 50 percent of the population. Go!’” Bedell says.  

In 2009, four women were elected to the 15-member Helmand provincial council, filling seats reserved for female candidates. Bedell contacted them to see if they could work together. When they met, the councilors talked about the need to find jobs for educated women, like those they know in Lashkar Gah. But Bedell thought Helmand had bigger problems. Fewer than 4 percent of the province’s women are literate. One in five children die before the age of 5. Widows, of whom there are many, struggle to support themselves in communities that frown on women working outside the home.

At 9 a.m., the councilors arrive at the British base, ready to fly north to visit the center. The women are wrapped in long scarves that cover their heads and much of their bodies. What might seem constricting to a Westerner is a breath of fresh air for the councilors, who often hide under burkas in their hometowns. Not ­everyone is happy to see women in government. They have received numerous death threats, and they know that should the coalition pull out too soon, they will be among the first on the Taliban’s list of targets. Given all that, the women seem remarkably relaxed and chipper.

Bedell, meanwhile, is dressed in her desert camouflage. She has a Beretta M9 strapped to her thigh and an M4 rifle over her shoulder. During the day, she will keep her cap on when she is outside, per military regulations. Inside, she will go bareheaded, as will her FETs. The choice about whether to wear a headscarf is up to each Marine, and those I met eschewed it.  

The helicopter touches down at Now Zad shortly before lunch. We make the short drive from the landing zone to the Marine outpost by MRAP, a “mine-resistant ­ambush-protected” vehicle designed especially for the perils of Iraq and Afghanistan. It looks like a tank mated with a monster truck and doused in tan paint. The outpost and the adjacent compound belonging to the district governor sit on the edge of town. Single-story mud-brick houses stand alongside hard-packed roads. Here and there, a building has half its façade blown off.  

For several years, until the Marines arrived in force as part of the 2009 surge, Now Zad was a ghost town. The residents had fled, the Taliban had dug in, and the coalition had sent only enough troops to force a stalemate, not enough to take control. Marine patrols slowed to a crawl as minesweepers scanned for buried threats. Troops wore tourniquets wrapped loosely around each ankle — for easy access, just in case.  

Today, Now Zad’s residents are trickling back. A quiet calm hangs over the town. Some residents send their children to the Marine outpost during the day, to learn English from the troops, who are bored enough guarding the front gate that any diversion is welcome. As we stroll to the women’s center, some of the male Marines accompany us and roughhouse with kids in the streets.

When we arrive at the center, about two dozen burka-clad women are squatting outside. They file into the courtyard as the FETs grab rugs and lay them on the ground. Most don’t remove their coverings, perhaps because two men — journalists from an Afghan television station — are present. Two FETs are dispatched to keep out the curious children, but the bigger kids climb onto the walls and listen from their perches. The male Marines stand watch outside.

The center is slated to become a sewing cooperative. The idea had been tossed around by the district governor and the local Marine civil-affairs team before the FETs arrived. Women’s centers are places for women to gather in a society that bars them from public venues. The FETs brought this project to life, identifying a building to rent and organizing preliminary funding. In the long term, however, the goal is for the center to become self-sustaining by selling the goods it produces. If it can take root, the center will play a small part in improving the local economy. With the support of the local leadership and the provincial council, it could help to lure the people of Now Zad toward the government and away from the Taliban.

The sticking point, though, is that there is no one to actually run the center. The FETs in Now Zad have searched in vain for a local woman with enough education and work experience to manage a small enterprise. But virtually no local women meet those criteria: The education system was first disrupted by the Soviet invasion 30 years ago, and in the late 1990s, the Taliban locked girls out of schools and women out of the workplace.  

Bedell is hoping one of the councilors will propose a solution. “I don’t want to be a taxi service for them, arranging trips around the AO [area of operation],” she says. “I’ll facilitate, but they have to provide something and show they can support these women out here.”

At the center, the councilors make speeches in Pashto, one of the two principal languages of Afghanistan. One translator interprets for Bedell, another for the lead FET stationed in Now Zad. The councilors give a nod to Interna­tional Women’s Day, marked just a few days earlier. They urge the women to stand up for themselves. “When I first got married, my husband wouldn’t let me leave the house,” one councilor says. “Now he doesn’t even know where I am.” They talk about the need to convince the men to stop fighting. They promise to help the local women.

The women from Now Zad sit on the carpets and listen. When it’s their turn to speak, their questions are simple and have a common focus: I need work. They turn to the Marines, as if the Marines could toss out jobs the way they pass out candy to children in the street. Bedell stands on the sidelines. A response must come from the FET team in Now Zad. Bedell’s job is to train and mentor her team and then give them the leeway to execute as they see fit.

The event winds down, and the Marines and councilors retreat to the district governor’s compound to continue discussions. In a notable reversal of roles, Afghan policemen deliver trays of nuts and candy while the women sit on the carpet and try to figure out who could lead the center. Bedell participates in the conversation, but she spends much of the time thinking about what guidance she can give to the 23-year-old sergeant running the project.

 Bedell in the FET office at Camp Leatherneck, the Marines’ primary base in Helmand Province.
Bedell in the FET office at Camp Leatherneck, the Marines’ primary base in Helmand Province.
E.B. Boyd ’89

The opportunity to hone her leadership skills was part of what drew Bedell to the Marines — that, and the certainty of pushing herself as far as she could go. She did not come from a military family. Growing up outside Washington, D.C., Bedell attended an elite all-girls high school and rode horses competitively. Her mother was a corporate lawyer. Her father ran software companies and authored several business books, including one called The Millionaire in the Mirror: How to Find Your Passion and Make a Million — in part, his daughter says, to help his children understand how to excel in their careers.  

One day, at a Navy football game, Gene Bedell quipped that his daughter should head to Annapolis for college so he wouldn’t have to pay tuition. It was a joke, but the seed was planted. Bedell researched the services, and the Naval Academy eventually did recruit her, to play squash. But Bedell wasn’t ready to step into a uniform. She chose Princeton — a school that was not too big, and not too small, and close enough to the equestrian circuit that she could continue competing.

At Princeton, Bedell served on the Butler College council, the student advisory council in the politics department, and the Uni­versity discipline committee. All the while, the idea of joining the military continued percolating. “I didn’t want to get out of college and have a job where I was opening mail or answering phones,” she says. “I wanted something with real responsibility that was going to test me and make me grow.”  

In her sophomore year, Bedell read Making the Corps, a 1997 book that follows a platoon of new Marine recruits. Something clicked. “The discipline and the fact that they hold everyone to high standards,” she says, “you don’t find that in other places in society.” Plus, there was the esprit de corps. In the Marines, thought Bedell, it seemed to exist everywhere. Bedell headed to Officer Candidates School that summer.

A politics major with a minor in Near Eastern Studies, Bedell explored military themes in her junior papers and thesis, writing about topics such as U.S. strategy in Lebanon in the 1980s and the constitutionality of the U.S. policy that bars women from combat. The summer after graduation, Bedell was commissioned as a second lieutenant, one of 15 Princetonians who have become Marine officers since 2006, and the only woman. “It was easily the proudest moment of my life to date,” she says. “I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was part of something special. ... I now was in a position to really test myself and see if I was someone who could hang in that environment.”  

Disappointment, however, soon followed. Bedell was assigned to become a logistics officer. She thought her academic background and fluency in Arabic — she’d   spent a semester in Lebanon — would have made her a good fit for Intelligence, which seemed like it would be more interesting. But she buckled down to the work. In the fall of 2009, she deployed to Afghanistan for the first time.

When her battalion on that first tour needed an officer to oversee its part in the nascent FET program, Bedell jumped. In the spring of 2010, she spent three weeks in the recently cleared town of Marjah, working with an Army Special Forces team to help fill in information gaps. When she returned to Camp Pendleton that summer, she went back to her logistics duties, but soon ended up in the FET program again. The Marines needed someone to head up the program back in Afghanistan that fall. Though the position was designated for a more senior officer, Bedell, only a 1st lieutenant, applied. Her experience and enthusiasm won her the job.

Ask Bedell what she thinks the FET ­program has achieved, and she ticks off a list of accomplishments. Almost none of Helmand’s 17 districts were holding women’s shuras, or community meetings, before the FETs arrived. Now almost all of them do. Three new women’s centers are in the works, including the one in Now Zad. Women in several towns either are serving on their local councils or have expressed interest in doing so. And there is the FETs’ continuing work with health seminars, schools, and micro-grants.

It’s hard to fit the more abstract work onto a balance sheet. “The greatest success is rightfully in our primary mission of providing support to the commanders on the ground,” Bedell says. “We were able to provide information. We were able to disseminate information. We were able to help influence people. That’s ultimately what’s going to enable us to continue — providing useful support to the commander.”

Talk to those commanders, though, and you get mixed responses. Some grasp the value of the FET program. Others aren’t convinced. “The FETs help us understand the culture,” says Lt. Col. Donald Wright, the executive officer of the 1st Marine Regiment, responsible for some of the hottest areas in Helmand. He points to an example: A well had been built in a town — a typical project intended to win hearts and minds. But the well quickly was destroyed. The Marines were perplexed. The FETs consulted women in the community and pinpointed the problem: The well had been built in the wrong place. In rural areas, women often are confined to their family compounds except when running errands like fetching water. The women wanted the well farther away, so they’d have more time to visit as they walked to and fro.  

But when I ask a captain who has two FETs assigned to his company what he would do if the FET program were a stock, he answers without hesitating: “Sell.”  

“If I send the FETs out on a mission to meet these women from this town and to develop a relationship, how do you know when you’ve achieved a relationship?” says Capt. Mike Regner, the leader of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. Regner’s job is to keep the peace and train the local police in a dusty town called Nawa. Given a choice, Regner would replace the two FETs with two more infantrymen who can do the things the rest of his Marines do: stand guard, patrol the town, and hunt down insurgents.

Bedell understands that view. “As with anything in counterinsurgency, metrics are very challenging,” she says. “How do you measure influence? How do you measure that we’ve distributed information effectively? There’s definitely room for improvement. It’s a brand-new program. It will take a long time to get fully solidified.”

And so during her tour, Bedell started constructing a framework for capturing data and organizing it in a way that would help the Marines understand the impact the FETs are having. She also took it upon herself to draft a Women’s Affairs Strategy for the military in southwestern Afghani­stan. The document draws on Afghanistan’s own national action plan for women, as well as the State Department’s, and spells out goals for the Marines in areas like health and education. It also expressly assigns ground commanders to create campaigns to engage the women in their areas and explains how they can use the FETs to do that.

“We’ve made significant gains toward synchronizing efforts across the various actors in this area — the military, the British Provincial Reconstruction Team, and the State Department,” Bedell says. “We all are talking in a way we never were before. We’re sharing information and we’re coordinating efforts. And so this upper-level coordination that didn’t exist before gives the FETs something to tie into, so they’re not just individual teams operating on their own.”

Last year, the coalition mandated that other military services in the country set up similar programs to reach out to Afghan women. The Army, which controls the southern part of the country, including Kandahar, and the British, the Norwegians, and the Jordanians, already have initiated their own versions of the FETs.

Back in Now Zad, the discussions between the FETs and the Marines end in a deadlock. No one has proposed an appropriate leader for the women’s center. The councilors will leave with the question still unsettled. After a round of hugs and an exchange of gifts, we are back at the helicopter landing zone. It’s now after 9 p.m., and, predictably perhaps, the chopper is over an hour late.  

We are standing out in the open, in a wide valley a short drive from the Marine base. It’s pitch-black except for the occasional headlights off in the distance. There’s a Marine outpost on the hill above us, but I still feel exposed.

Less than a year ago, it probably would not have been safe to wait here. But Now Zad has been quiet for some time. And so, despite military regulations, Bedell’s translator keeps taking off her heavy flak jacket and helmet, and Bedell, when she looks up from reflecting on the day’s events, keeps telling her to put them back on.

The visit fell short of Bedell’s hopes. “Returning to Now Zad demonstrates a commitment,” she says of the councilors’ intentions. “But on the big points we wanted to follow up on, they didn’t have anything to deliver for us.”

Bedell’s deployment is winding down, and she considers what advice she’ll give to the captain who replaces her in a few weeks. The councilors will want to continue making trips to the districts. Bedell is not so sure that, without measurable results, it’s a good use of military resources.

But then she catches herself.  

“There is value in just having them go out there,” she says. “The women in the districts do not normally see representatives of the Afghan government, much less women representatives, much less any women who really make a living for themselves.

“It’s hard for me to remember that, because we” — meaning Westerners — “see it all the time. But there is value in that for the women of Now Zad.”

Bedell’s four-year commitment to the Marines will end in August. This spring, she was asked to stay on. It was an honor not every lieutenant gets. The Marines don’t need that many higher-level officers. But Bedell declined. She never intended to make a career out of the military, and she’s ready to move on. She will apply to law school, which she had always planned on doing. She also might earn a degree in international development — a more recent idea. “Being out here has spurred my interest in that work,” she says.

Assessing the progress she made, Bedell recalls a conversation in which the councilors were asked how long they thought it would take before Afghanistan was finally at peace. “They said we’ve made great strides and there’s been some progress, but this is not something that’s going to happen in a few years. It’s going to take 20 or 30 years,” Bedell says.  

Bedell sees her work with the FETs as a tiny drop in the bucket — “seven months is a pitiably short period of time,” she says — and one that easily could be reversed if Afghan forces aren’t able to maintain security after the coalition leaves. The knowledge is sobering. But still, “it was a unique opportunity to help Afghans in a way that I wouldn’t have had in most other jobs that would have been available to me in the Corps,” she says.