Despite early cultural mistakes, female soldiers find ways to relate to Afghan women

Tacoma News TribuneApril 25, 2012 

SHINKAI DISTRICT, AFGHANISTAN — When Pfc. Renee Buschman was first assigned to reach out to Afghan women to learn about their lives, she fell flat.

Buschman wrote a flyer saying she and another female soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord wanted to meet women and talk in the rural villages surrounding their base here in southern Afghanistan.

It touched a nerve. The messages offended the villagers they wanted to win over. The flyers convinced the locals that the Americans wanted to change the habits and customs of women in the rural, religious province of Zabul.

Buschman and her leaders learned from their mistake. They reached a compromise with elders and have organized more than a dozen missions for the female soldiers to talk with Afghan women and children.

They’re learning about the half of the Afghan population that is nearly invisible to male soldiers. Like mothers the world over, Buschman found women in this country most want healthy children and help getting medicine.

“When they realize you’re a female, they open up and talk to you about all their girly problems,” said Buschman, 22, originally from Lufkin, Texas.

Her assignment represents the Army’s latest effort to leverage its ranks of female soldiers on the battlefield in a Muslim country where men do not interact openly with women. As with the war in Iraq, it’s easy for insurgents to turn culturally offensive interactions with women into propaganda against U.S. forces.

The initiative revolves around “female engagement teams.” All Army battalions are expected to have them in Afghanistan this year even as the war shifts its focus to the drawdown of Western forces.

The teams are out in the field learning what local women want from their own government.

“Women are more than 50 percent of the population, and that’s a big part of the population not to consider during all of this reconstruction and transition,” said Sgt. 1st Class Laurie Eggleston, 34, of University Place.

She is one of the noncommissioned officers who manage the female engagement teams for Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Eggleston’s time in the Army dates back to the military’s first push to have female soldiers take on special assignments in the Iraq war. She was a “lioness” in 2004, accompanying patrols and handling the searches of Iraqi women.

On one patrol, a team of U.S. soldiers burst into an Iraqi home about 5 a.m. The mother and children of the house wailed in a chaotic scene. Then they recognized that Eggleston was a woman, too.

The Iraqi mother walked to Eggleston and looped her arm through the soldier’s. They watched the men search the house together. Eggleston knew she calmed the Iraqi woman in a potentially traumatizing moment.

“That’s something that’s universal, that caring – that I’m here to make sure our men don’t get out of line,” Eggleston said.

The new effort in Afghanistan is different from what Eggleston experienced as a lioness. This time, female soldiers are asked to pay more attention to social issues than security.

For example, Buschman learned the women in Shinkai District want iron supplements and birth control. She’s working through the Afghan government to see if a female nurse in Shinkai can distribute those items to local women.

Buschman also passes out educational materials and talks about ways to improve hygiene in a place where water is scarce.

Still, she and other soldiers keep their eyes peeled for intelligence. A female engagement team in the 3rd Brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment gathered information that led to the seizure of a weapons cache in Kandahar Province.

Buschman, who belongs to the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, has a strong desire to gather information that could save a child’s life. Since she arrived in Afghanistan, she has learned about at least two children who suffered serious injuries in Shinkai District after stumbling upon insurgent weapons.

Eggleston’s partner in leading this Stryker Brigade’s female engagement teams is Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Wages, 36, of Yelm. Together, they helped organize a women’s shura, or meeting, in Zabul’s largest city – Qalat.

It was fairly successful with women asking for help reopening schools that were shut by Taliban threats. That’s a priority for Zabul’s provincial governor and for the district governors who work for him.

The female teams are trying to reverse the perception that insurgents have the power to hurt people who send their daughters to schools.

“Women are afraid of the Taliban. They don’t know who it is, but they know of this element ... and they’re fearful of it,” Eggleston said. Buschman has hopes of organizing a similar shura in Shinkai District. Her company commander, Capt. Joe Mickley, isn’t sure the idea would be accepted in these rural areas.

He and his male soldiers stand watch outside compounds when Buschman talks to Afghan women. It’s too sensitive for the men to follow her.

“We don’t go to the elder and ask for a woman’s shura. That wouldn’t go over here,” Mickley said.

That strict gender dynamic is one reason why working on women’s issues in rural areas like Zabul is both challenging and intriguing to soldiers and the American civilians who support them.

The News Tribune followed 3rd Brigade soldiers on patrols and convoys for a month. In that time, reporters saw a total of two adult women in public, both covered in teal burqas. Some girls under the age of 12 would join boys in checking out American soldiers when they visited villages.

But most teenage girls retreated to their homes when they saw foreign men approach.

“You read a lot of books (about Afghan women’s rights), but the books are based on Kabul,” said Michelle Keeton, an analyst for the 3rd Brigade’s civilian Human Terrain Team in Qalat.

But the capital city of 3 million people is a far cry from the villages of the south.

“It’s much more severe here, the separation between men and women,” she said.

Buschman volunteered for her assignment on the female engagement team as soon as she learned about it. At the time, she was considering asking to join a Special Forces cultural support team because she liked the idea of interacting with locals in a war zone on social issues.

The 3rd Brigade gave her a couple weeks of cultural training in October before the soldiers deployed from their base south of Tacoma in December. She brings photos of her own family when she goes on missions to build connections with Afghan women and children.

One young woman was surprised to learn that Buschman was traveling without a husband, and was not even married.

“It’s culture shock to them,” she said. “They want to know because we’re so different from them.”

She has most enjoyed talking with children. On her first successful mission, she saw a 5-year-old boy who would not join other children in crowding around the Americans and asking for toys.

“You don’t play?” she asked him.

“I work for my dad,” he said.

Buschman gave the child one of her better toys. He promptly passed it to another boy.

“Why’d you give your toy away?” she asked.

“His dad is dead. He doesn’t get anything,” the boy said.

Buschman was taken aback by the child’s generosity.

“They’re very giving. They’re very poor,” she said. “It makes us feel like we shouldn’t take for granted the things we do.”

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