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POV Regarding War

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Women in the Military: Defusing Tensions with Iraqi Women and Children, and More

written by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers
on May 03, 2010

The women and children were all in one room. The men are all in the other. The women and children they were just panic stricken 'cause, you know, we were supposed to search them. And finally Morgan and I took off our helmets. And once they saw we were females, they started trying to talk to us.
— Staff Sgt. Ranie Ruthig recalling her first Lioness mission in Iraq, 2004, from Lioness

When female Marines go into these local communities...both Afghan men and Afghan women feel much more comfortable talking to them than they do to their male counterparts.
— Marion Mansury of Hunt Alternatives Fund, as quoted in Army Times, April, 2010

When the Team Lioness missions began in Ramadi, Iraq, in late 2003, they represented an ad hoc response to a boots-on-the-ground reality. Lioness soldiers were needed to accompany all-male infantry units outside the wire to help defuse tensions with Iraqi women and children during house searches and at traffic control checkpoints. These women, all support soldiers from the 1st Engineer Battalion and trained as cooks, clerks, mechanics and engineers, never expected to be attached to infantry units and go out on patrols and night raids. Nor did they expect to find themselves in direct ground combat. But that is what happened to the five women profiled in our film, Lioness.

Fast forward seven years to 2010, and female Marines in Afghanistan are playing a role similar to the Lioness soldiers in Iraq, as part of what the Marines call Female Engagement Teams, or FETs. These units go out to remote villages with the mission to establish relationships with Afghan women by visiting them in their homes. The use of FETs represents an ongoing adaptation to cultural realities on the ground that began with the Lioness Team in Iraq in 2003.

Like the Lioness soldiers, the FET Marines all have "regular" support jobs as logisticians, intelligence officers, etc., and are assigned to FETs on a temporary basis. They also face some of the same issues that the Lioness soldiers did, including a lack of training. A recent report in the Small Wars Journal (co-authored by Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger, who co-founded and trained the first FET in February 2009) noted an "unwillingness to establish full-time FETs made up of volunteers who are given the resources and time to train as professionals should."

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing longer than World War II did, it is frustrating to many that as the headline of "the changing role of women in the military" folds into common knowledge, there still exists no formal office within the Department of Defense acting as a doctrinal clearinghouse to keep track of what women serving in FETs or as Lionesses are being asked to do. Reflecting on this lack of an institutionalized mechanism for documenting these women's actual duties, Capt. Lory Manning, USN (ret.) director of Women's Research and Education Institute's Women in the Military project, suggests that such an official clearinghouse would "push service leaders to update outdated policies on the utilization of military women to reflect their actual roles in the current wars."

Better documentation of what women are being asked to do in Iraq and Afghanistan would also go a long way to helping them access the care they need when they return home.

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