Special to American Forces Press Service
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Dec. 29, 2009 - Throughout Afghanistan's Garmsir district, Marines and sailors of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, interact with key leaders and locals to learn the needs of local Afghan villagers.
However, there is one gap that is hard to bridge -- the interaction between Marines and Afghan women.
This is an issue that female Marines and sailors of the U.S. military engagement team worked to solve as they conducted patrols through the village of Tajik Khar Dec. 16 through 20.
With help from male Marines and members of the Afghan National Army, female Marines moved from compound to compound, hoping to speak to Afghan women to ascertain their medical and humanitarian assistance requirements.
"This is extremely important," said Marine 2nd Lt. Carly E. Towers, the officer in charge of the engagement team. "Our mission out here is to talk to and work with the locals to build cooperation and security."
Because of local culture, male Marines are not allowed to look at, let alone talk to, any Afghan women. Even Afghan soldiers are not supposed to talk to the women of any compound, so the female Marines' efforts not only benefit other Marines, but the local Afghan military, as well.
"It is good news for us," said Sgt. Shokorunnah, an Afghan soldier. "The female Marines came and talked to the women and found out their problems. I am very happy."
Before the all-female Marine team can enter a compound, they must first talk to the owner, generally a male who is not used to interacting with Marine females.
"The general perception has been ranging from positive to dumbfounded," said Towers, who hails from Modesto, Calif. "We've had a lot of success in the past few days."
The key to her unit's mission success is to establish a connection with the Afghan women, Towers said.
"We just try to sit down, talk to them, and get to know them a bit," said Towers, a Naval Academy graduate. "We ask them if they have any questions for us. We're trying to build rapport."
In deference to Afghan culture, Tower and her team members remove their helmets and don head scarves to cover their hair whenever they enter a compound.
Through their interactions, Towers said, the female Marines have encountered many Afghan females who claim to have never left their compounds for fear of firefights and homemade bombs.
"We hear a lot of things from the women that we wouldn't hear from the men, or that would be said in a different way," Towers said.
Towers' team has a female corpsman that can provide medical care to the Afghans if they so desire.
Relationships established through these interactions, Towers said, help to build bonds of trust between the Afghans and the Marines.
(Marine Lance Cpl. Dwight Henderson serves with 1st Marine Division's Regimental Combat Team 7 public affairs.)