Editor’s note: This story was provided by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Whitney Hughes.
PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan — When U.S. Army Warrant Officer Caitlin Purinton lifted up the thin blue cloth of the burka, she would not have been surprised to see despair in the eyes of the woman underneath who spends most of her life hidden under the garment that conceals her from head to toe.
Instead, she ducked under the burka and saw the vibrant smile and heard the giggle of a vivacious young woman, who, like most Afghan women, is as curious about the American female soldiers as they are of her.
As a member of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Female Engagement Team, or FET, and a North Hero, Vt., native, Purinton has the rare opportunity to see beyond the shield of the burka that separates most American soldiers from Afghan women. The 10-woman FET was created to do just this; to allow female soldiers to act as ambassadors to the 50 percent of the population that is off limits to male soldiers, and build the personal relationships that are a cornerstone of the Afghan culture and a key to the success of counterinsurgency strategy.
“The FET mission to me is so critical that if I had to exchange blood for it, I would,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Sawyer Alberi, the medical operations noncommissioned officer in charge for the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, and an FET team leader from Eden, Vt.
“Women find strength in other women’s presence. The FET mission is nested very closely in the (counterinsurgency) mission, and unless you do it, you’re not doing the whole … mission,” said Alberi.
PIONEERS OF FET
Before coming to Afghanistan, the leadership of the 86th knew that most of the units who would go “outside the wire” and interact face-to-face with the Afghans would be in combat arms units, which are mostly male. These interactions, called “key leader engagements,” are the lifeline into the Afghan culture, and give the units providing security insight into the problems, concerns, and attitudes of the Afghans in the villages they are assigned.
In order to reach the women in their area of responsibility, they began developing the idea of using an FET, which they knew had proven successful in Iraq. However, they would be the first to implement the concept in Parwan, Bamyan and Panjshir provinces of eastern Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Capt. Cathy Cappetta, the officer in charge of the FET and a Middlebury resident, explained that, “We basically said let’s get in line with their culture. There was an entire half of the population that the male soldiers couldn’t interact with, and it is the part of the population that needs the most help.”
In order to ensure that the team was prepared for the delicate, yet essential mission, Cappetta helped facilitate and organize a 30-hour training course in Afghan history and culture, information collection, research methods and first aid, and had a refresher in military tactics for the female soldiers, who are all trained in various other military specialties.
“In an ideal world, FET training should be conducted state-side. I hope to see that FET pre-mobilization training become a reality sometime during my career, and offered to all soldiers, not just females,” said Cappetta, who is a state police trooper in civilian life.
During their nine months in Afghanistan the FET performed eight missions, which ranged from air assaults to medical assistance operations. Although all of the missions were critical to facilitating the brigade’s operations, both Cappetta and Alberi feel the largest success was their work with a local birthing clinic in the city of Charikar in Parwan province.
The team paid two visits to the clinic. The first was to assess the facility, which had never been seen by U.S. soldiers. The second visit was as much to deliver much-needed medical supplies in a gesture of goodwill, as it was to show the women at the clinic their sincerity about keeping their promises.
“I said, ‘We will come back’, and we did. To see people again and have them recognize you like, ‘Wow, you said you would come back and you did,’ is really huge. They really appreciated it,” said Alberi. “Once women get into a place and they figure out that it is OK that we’re there, it’s a whole lot easier for other people to enter the door, and I think that’s one thing that FET can be really good at,” said Alberi explaining that the FET can be facilitators for further development efforts.
Building this trust was not only extremely important for their relationship with the women at the clinic, but also to show the Afghan women in Parwan Province and throughout their area of operation the FET’s genuine dedication to help Afghan women.
“Our biggest victory as a team was establishing the foundation for Task Force Red Bulls (their successors who will take over responsibility in Parwan Province),” said Cappetta.
Establishing this reputation was essential, as word-of-mouth is the main form of communication in Afghanistan where there is little mass media such as radio or television.
Another barrier the FET had to work around were the cultural rules regarding women. For instance, in certain parts of the brigade’s area of responsibility, women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male escort, they must get permission from their husbands even to speak to the female soldiers, and they are not allowed to participate in the all-male “shuras” that are the foundation of local society. So, the soldiers had to seek out the female voice.
Cappetta said at a male shura she was called out to talk to a group of Afghan women who were grouped in a corner in the hall outside the shura room.
“She motioned for me to come over, and it was like it was a big secret,” said Cappetta. The women had to get permission from their husbands, who hovered outside while she met with them. Once she was able to actually get to talk one-on-one with the women, she was surprised by their inclination to get right down to business, especially when it came to family matters.
“They know that they won’t get many chances to talk to American females, so they get right to the point. They don’t think about themselves as much as they do their families. Their focus is how they can make their family or their village better,” she said.
UNDERNEATH THE BURKAS
Despite the obstacles, planning, and forethought it took to put themselves in situations where they could interact face-to-face with Afghan women, members of the Female Engagement Team found it was well worth the wait. Their membership in the team gave the soldiers unique opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise and opened doors for them both figuratively and literally.
“Being a female soldier, I got to experience their home life, which is a side that soldiers don’t normally get to interact in. We got to go into their kitchen and bedrooms; usually guests are only allowed in their living room. It was definitely a rewarding experience,” said Army Sgt. Melinda Crosby, an FET member from Rutland.
Like Purinton’s experience, most of the female soldiers expected the Afghan women to be downtrodden and defeated, but were surprised to find the shy smiles of women who epitomize survivors.
“There are strong people under those burkas. It’s a testament to the women of Afghanistan that they have managed to endure the Taliban rule here; that they have stayed, and have lived and have survived. There’s strength in that, there’s inspiration in that. We should all take a lesson from the women of Afghanistan,” said Alberi.