By Staff Sgt. Whitney Hughes
Task Force Wolverine Public Affairs
PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan (11/8/10) -- When 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 behind 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 American female Soldiers as the female Soldiers are about them.
As a member of the Vermont National Guard's 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Female Engagement Team or FET, Purinton has the rare opportunity to see beyond the shield of the burka that separates most Soldiers from Afghan women.
The 10-woman FET was created to allow female Soldiers to act as ambassadors to the 50 percent of the population that is off limits to male Soldiers. The FET allows the Soldiers to build 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 Sgt. 1st Class Sawyer Alberi, the medical operations noncommissioned officer in charge of the 86th IBCT, and an FET team leader. "Women find strength in other women's presence. The FET mission is nested very closely in the COIN mission, and unless you do it, you're not doing the whole COIN mission."
Pioneers of FET
Before coming to Afghanistan, 86th IBCT leadership knew 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 lifelines into 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 had proven successful in Iraq. However, they would be the first to implement the concept in Parwan, Bamyan and Panjshir provinces of eastern Afghanistan.
Capt. Cathy Cappetta, the officer in charge of the FET explained: "We basically said let's get in line with their culture. There was an entire half of the population the male Soldiers couldn't interact with, and it is the part of the population that needs the most help."
To ensure the team was prepared for the delicate, yet essential mission, Cappetta helped 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 FET pre-mobilization training become a reality sometime during my career and offered to all Soldiers, not just females," said Cappetta.
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 the brigade's operations, both Cappetta and Alberi felt the biggest success was their work with a local birthing clinic in Charikar, Parwan Province.
The team paid two visits to the clinic. The first was to assess the facility, which had never been seen by American 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."
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 responsibility 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 in the Bamyan, Parwan and Panjshir provinces, women are not allowed to leave their homes without a male escort.
They must receive permission from their husbands even to speak with the female Soldiers, and they are not allowed to participate in the all-male shuras that are the foundation of local society.
Cappetta recalled a mission at a male shura where 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 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.
Beneath 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, the Soldiers found their effort worth the wait. Membership in the FET gave the Soldiers unique opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise and opened doors for them figuratively and literally and they hope for the Afghan women as well.
"Being a female Soldier, I got to experience their home life, which is a side 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 rooms. It was definitely a rewarding experience," said FET member Sgt. Melinda Crosby.
Like Purinton's experience, most of the female soldiers expected the Afghan women to be downtrodden and defeated, but were pleasantly 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," said Alberi. "There's strength in that; there's inspiration in that. We should all take a lesson from the women of Afghanistan."