Story by Capt. Michael Barranti
The 12th Combat Aviation Brigade organized a female engagement team in January 2012, the team deployed in May and conducted their first official mission in June 2012. Late in June, 12th Combat Aviation Brigade’s female engagement team conducted their first mission in Samangan province, Afghanistan.
The mission was conducted in two parts. The first part took place June 19 and was an assessment of a woman’s center and an orphanage. The second part was a follow-up June 28 to deliver supplies and conduct further assessments at other sites.
Originally formed in January 2012, months of training and preparation finally came together as the six member team left the wire together for the first time, and culminated in a success that will leave a lasting impression on northern Afghanistan.
Their mission is simple; visit facilities dedicated to helping women and children, assess their needs and find solutions to help them. During their two missions, the team visited Samangan director of women’s affairs, an orphanage, an education center, a prison for women, a detention facility for teens and a women’s center in Hazrat-E-Sultan. The results were profound.
When 12th CAB developed their FET mission, the first aviation unit in the Army to do so, six women from different backgrounds and specialties volunteered for the special assignment. The volunteers had to meet certain requirements and undergo a selection process in order to join the team.
In charge of the team are two field artillery officers, 1st Lt. Heather Severt and 1st Lt. Imelda Rodriguez. Other members of the team include Sgt. Lindsey Fulton, a medic with 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation, Sgt. Raaya Lock and Spc. Mackenzie Almand, both UH-60 Avionics repairers, and Sgt. LaToya Congress, an air traffic controller.
“We come from different backgrounds, but we’re well rounded as a team,” said Fulton.
Despite their different backgrounds and the fact they had not worked together before, the women gelled quickly. Their initial training took them to Grafenwoehr, Germany, in a joint effort with 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s own female engagement team. They immediately came together as a group.
“The 173rd was really impressed with how well we worked together as a team,” said Rodriguez.
Each of the women on the team expressed the same sentiment.
“Everyone completes each other,” said Severt.
They are very comfortable with each other and relaxed when they’re not working and serious when they are.
“I consider us to be a family,” said Congress. “When we are down to business, we are down to business.”
The training itself was very involved. It was based on the experiences of previous teams. It consisted of classroom instruction, role-playing exercises and videos of what the women could expect to see and hear about when they started to interact with Afghans. The role-play was difficult because everyone’s watching you and you get nervous. The videos were very harsh, said Lock.
“But it was all to prepare us for what we would actually see.”
As the officer responsible for training the team, 1st Lt. Rodriguez did a lot of reading before-hand. What she didn’t expect is how similar the reading and the training would be to the actual experience.
“There were no surprises whatsoever,” she said.
The morning of June 19, the team went to an orphanage in Samangan province, where they met with the orphanage director. The director gave the team a tour of the facility, which was built with donations from India. The orphanage is equipped for 200 students to attend classes, though fewer children, all boys whose parents were killed in the war, stay there full time. The students learn math, religious studies and the Dari language. The staff would like to teach a wider selection of subjects, including English and some basic computer classes, while two teachers and some volunteers are available, more are needed.
The next stop for the team was the Hazrat-e-Sultan Women’s Center where the local director of women’s affairs, is the administrator of the facility. The team spoke with the director about women’s issues in Samangan and her efforts to bring social services to the province. The center provides education for more than 300 children in rural areas, although more teachers are needed. The Hazrat-e-Sultan facility provides medical care and educational opportunities for children on site, as well as legal advice for women in need.
Upon returning to Marmal, the team identified a source for many of the supplies needed for those facilities, and even though they made no promises and the women they were helping had no immediate expectations, ten days later the team returned to Samangan with supplies for the orphanage.
The second mission started early in the morning of June 28. The FET met with Samangan Provincial Gov. Khairullah Anosh. The team asked permission to visit a girl’s school and a detention facility for women. Anosh agreed, but first escorted them to an education center consisting of a high school for boys, a high school for girls and a technical school for both.
The students at the educational centers had many questions and were intensely curious. The team was impressed by how advanced some of the schools were. The technical school had computers and machines donated by Turkey, but need more teachers. Each classroom had at least a few girls who spoke English and wanted to talk to them. One girl had studied English for seven years. The school library had books in Dari and English. It was obvious to the team the students wanted to learn and succeed. They even met one girl who walked three hours each way to get to school.
The next stop was a detention facility for teens where three women were being held for having premarital relations. Two adult women guarded the teens and although the teens were careful about what they shared, they did say that they would rather be in a detention facility than to be at home. The FET members brought hygiene supplies and clothing to the detainees before they left. The final stop of the day was the Samangan orphanage where the FET delivered toys and school supplies for the orphans.
The FET members found much of their cultural sensitivity training was aimed at interactions in front of men. Many of the men they met were confused about how to interact with them, but once behind closed doors, the team bonded instantly with Afghan women.
“Women are women, regardless of culture,” said Severt.
The women talked about their families, about their hopes and about the outside world.
“The women were different. They were very curious. They asked questions, they giggled a lot, and they blushed a lot,” said Fulton. “16 years ago they didn’t have this problem. The women in their 30s remember what it was like before the Taliban. They all want to learn more about the world.”
Everyone who was a part of the mission agreed that the team’s professional presence was going to leave a positive impression in the area. Several of the women made new friends and hoped to see them again at a women’s shura at Camp Marmal.
“We may have other missions, or move on to other teams, but we’re going to remember this experience for life,” said Lock.
The training they received in Germany prepared them for what they would encounter in Afghanistan, but it was the team members themselves who made the mission a success.
“Everyone on this team just wants to help. They’re the most passionate soldiers I’ve ever seen,” said Fulton. “All the girls have big hearts.”